The Coop

I’ve been a tardy blogger recently as my time has been taken up with attempting to decipher the mysteries of internet marketing, work, a vacation (yay!) and tending to my garden. I’m going to stray from my usual topic of late, self-publishing, to focus on something that just plain makes me happy: my garden.

For years, in our small, city garden, we had serious issues with racoons having a pool party in the pond, taking a bite out of each tomato and generally trashing the place. Enough was enough, so my man built an enclosure for the vegetable patch. It’s basically a pergola covered in  chicken wire and it works like a charm! It’s also a handy place to keep our parrot safe and secure when the whole family is outside.

The plot is only about 7′ x 9′, but thanks to square-foot gardening, I can pack it all in and keep the critters out.

My boys chose the seeds this year – sunflowers, cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkins, cucumbers, lettuce, green beans and carrots. I chose the seedlings – tomatoes, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and eggplant. (Actually, that was purchased by accident. Not sure anymore what I thought it was.)

Part of the reason we can fit so much into such a small space is that the vines like the pumpkin, cucumbers, cantaloup and watermelons can climb on the chicken wire. Mind you, it’s my first time growing pumpkins, so we’ll see what happens!

The accidental eggplant.

Finally! A sunflower that the squirrels can’t destroy and scatter around the garden to mock me. In case you’re thinking that looks like a painting behind the sunflower, you’re right. It’s from the set of a play I wrote and directed a few years back…

Simplicity is…

…the ultimate sophistication.
– Leonardo DaVinci

For a brief, beautiful period, I had a clutter-free, well-organized home. I had quick routines that kept it that way. Mind you, it didn’t get that way overnight. After years of frustration with my man for having been brought up in an era that still believed in women’s work (at least he knows enough not to call it that), a friend recommended a website to me. is part blog, part to-do list and part support group for hoarders. I am not a hoarder, but all the same, the clutter was getting to be a bit much. Seriously, when we first moved in, the couch stood on its end in the corner for more than a month before we unpacked enough boxes to set it on its feet.

The whole idea behind the Flylady approach is to systematically chip away at the mess instead of burning yourself out trying to do it all in a weekend. The main tenets are that you can do anything for 15 minutes, never take out more than you can put away in an hour and keep your kitchen sink cleared out and shining. Oh, and no whining allowed, particularly about other family members who weren’t helping. (Okay, that one was tough.) There are also pages of detailed instructions, schedules, tips and tools for sale.

Following the system and heeding the advice of the daily emails, I developed routines for decluttering, cleaning, tidying, cooking, shopping, paying bills – name something domestic and I was all over it. I was quite the chatelaine for about a year.

So, what happened?

A combination of changing work circumstances, the arrival of our son and diminishing time turned my clean, shiny house back into a lived-in home. It’s been worse, but it could be better.

The difference now, is that I’m not the only one beating back the mess. My man has been chipping in at mealtimes without being asked, and our son is now old enough to be responsible for his own stuff. But true teamwork doesn’t happen overnight, either. So, it’s time I just jumped in and got started – the boys will follow eventually.

First step? Run a vinegar-dampened cloth around the bathroom every morning. I used to do this daily and it’s almost magical how 2 minutes in the morning adds up to never having to actually scrub the bathroom with toxic chemicals.

So, this isn’t my most glamourous post, but this blog is about achieving SimpliCity. Nobody said it was going to be glamourous.

Flylady is still around. The website seems easier to navigate than when I was a subscriber and she really has a good system if you’re looking for a big change.

I’m always open to home organization and simple living tips. Drop me a note with your suggestions.

My Life with a DIYer

My man has a few specialties that have been and/or are likely to be documented in this blog. Cryptic wiring ranks among them.

Weird ScienceThe other day, my boy asked politely for a movie and I set about it only to find that my man had left the computer connected to the big screen. Now, I know how to get the TV to switch from the computer to the Blueray player and did so expertly and efficiently. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it is most definitely weird science.

But here’s the thing… What I really do is look around, get my hands in there and follow cords to see where they’re connected. Then I reconnect them where it makes sense to do so. My man will expound about the obvious ease of his wiring, but it’s intimidating nonetheless. And if he isn’t cryptic from top to bottom in every project he takes on, from wiring to masonry to figuring out the international manufacturing industry, then I just don’t know who he is.

When we first bought our house in 1999, I was on my way out the door one morning. In the excitement of being a new homeowner, my man had enthusiastically taken on the persona of in-house electrician. (Google had not yet been invented, but the library had all kinds of books on wiring.) I had a hand on the door knob and my lips ready for a meet-you-back-here-at-the-end-of-the-day kiss when there was a literal 8-inch arc of electricity from a switch plate beside my head to the plyers in my man’s hand. Yowza.

I went to work with my fingers crossed. Happily, my man wasn’t well-done when I returned home, the house was still standing, and all the lights worked.

About a year later, I inquired about a mysterious switch in the kitchen that didn’t seem to be connected to anything. Its strategic location was begging for a toaster and a coffee maker. My man rose to the challenge and proudly called me into the dark kitchen for a demonstration.

He flipped the light switch.

And nothing happened. Then I heard a click in the darkness as he pressed down the toaster button. The circuit was complete and we were bathed in the light from the ceiling fixture. For thirty seconds. Until the toast was done.

I asked, but, no, we couldn’t keep it that way because it was a fire hazard. Fair enough.

Despite appearances, that guy knows what he’s doing.

Life with a self-taught DIYer is part Zen, part Fonzie and part hold-your-breath. It almost always works and so far nothing has exploded, so I figure it’s a good system. I find it helps to mutter.

April is the cruellest month, but March was most perilous

Update on the seedlings we planted over a month ago…

In March, we installed a new pot hanger in the kitchen underneath the sky lights. The hanger has a shelf that is perfect for plant flats. Unfortunately, the hooks my man used to anchor it to the ceiling didn’t have the stamina for the combined weight of pots, pans and plants, and the whole shebang came crashing down in the middle of the night.

Time-release booby traps are my man’s specialty.

Miraculously, no one was smote and the seeds were undisturbed, except for losing some soil. So far we have tomatoes, cucumber, foxglove, green beans, morning glories, sunflowers and a couple of other things that I can’t quite recall. We’ve lost a few plants to damping off and there is an odd mould growing on the soil surface, despite the fan we set up to prevent this. Part of the problem with lofting plants is that if they’re not at eye level, it’s easy to assume they’re doing just fine. My kingdom for a cold frame that I don’t have to climb a ladder to get to. I have read about sterilizing the soil ahead of time by baking it in the oven, but really. I work. Who has time for that?

We’re now firmly in the cruellest month. The sun is warm on the cheeks if the wind and rain bugger off long enough. The first flowers are in bloom, but snow, freezing rain and frost are still distinct possibilities. Last Saturday was absolutely glorious – and, I had to work. Sunday, my day off, it rained. All week long? Beautiful. This weekend? Cold and rainy. April is the cruellest month, but I’ll take it over March any time.

Coming soon:
The day The Enchilada developed a split personality…

Spring Solstice Sacrifice

I’ve been wanting to start seeds for a couple of weeks now. It’s time. But, every year I have certain trepidations about creating life only to destroy it. Every year, I go through this exercise. I plant seeds, following instructions to the letter, only to watch the baby plants wither and die a few weeks later. Aside from the waste of time and money (two massive peeves for me), I am just not in the Shiva headspace. That, and I’m finding myself dancing around notions of the future, aging and death with my three year old, who just wants answers. A mass extinction of his plants would be less than ideal.

I’m not new to starting seeds indoors. I’ve been doing that home-gardening tango of hope, regret and failure for 10 years now: I’ve had trouble with damping off, over watering, under watering, temperature control, expired seeds and just plain hard-to-start seeds. Neither am I new to spring in Toronto, when the most squirrelly people tend to get even more squirrelly. And they ALL love me. There are a million diversions throughout springtime in Toronto to keep the most well-meaning from tending to their plants, and then there’s the bizarro shit I encounter when all I want to do is go home. I don’t know, maybe the Shiva vibe would actually help me combat that out-an-out weirdness.

Each year, I learn from the previous year’s horticultural mistakes and vow not to let life’s random acts of WTF was that? distract me from my leafy little lambs only to encounter some other issue that spells fatality for my plants. Just like we need to breathe, plants need to grow, right?

Sure they do, but I suspect they would really like it if I would stop trying to help.

Last year’s mass herbicide was the perfect storm of baking in an oven of a greenhouse and utter neglect.

My man had built a new garden shed that included a top-shelf cold frame with lovely, old, paned windows on hinges in the place of doors and a clear plastic roof. Attractive and useful, just like its designer. Also, much like the designer, utterly maddening to navigate. About this time last year, a few weeks after quitting my stupidly stressful job, I was still feeling chewed up and spit out, and nursing an injured back. I decided to ignore my usual misgivings and plant seeds to boost my spirits. When it came time to move the trays outside into the cold frame, a major problem presented itself the first time I attempted to water my tender seedlings.

Here’s how it went down:

In order to reach the trays, I climbed onto a rickety stool. The lovely old windows are hinged at the top, so they swing up and open, which means you have to hold it open to get at anything on the shelf. With one hand holding on for dear life and the other one hefting a 5-gallon watering can, that left my head to prop the window open. In this pose, I then had to twist and stretch with a 5-gallon weight at the end of my arm to reach the trays.

My whole house is full of design treasures like this. Hmm. I wonder why my back hurts.

So, this week, trying not to think of last year’s poor seedlings that died of thirst scant feet from the their own little Eden, I climbed on the stool to take stock of supplies, then drove with my son to the garden centre. All we really needed was No-Damp, a fungicide that keeps seedlings from “damping off” – succumbing to an invisible killer fungi. At Home Depot, we were told they no longer carried the product and had nothing to replace it. At Plant World, I got a little more information – they don’t make it anymore. I panicked. To the sales associate who delivered the death knell, I said, “I better not plant then, because they will die.” Then I remembered my son, pulled back on the melodrama and thanked the very helpful associate.

We planted all of our seeds and had a lovely time doing it. We made a hell of a mess and the mess remains because we had trains that needed playing with after we were done with the seeds. My son checks every couple of hours for progress and is disappointed every time even though I’ve explained it takes at least a week for anything to happen. I am doubt-ridden about the viability of our efforts, but I have decided to be more creator than destroyer. I have a back-up plan.

Traditional Ways

I am attracted to the old way of doing things. This fascination can make me come across as very house-wifey, but I promise you I’m not. I just think it`s important to know how to do these things because you never know, right?

That said, I know how to make a decent chicken broth from scratch, but that doesn’t mean I do it on a regular basis. I also know how to alter clothing, but I hate doing do it. I’d much rather build a whole new outfit from scratch. I know how to knit by hand, but my machine is so much faster. The way I see it is that if you know the hard way to do things, then you’ll have more appreciation for the easy way. And it’s always good to have options.

Old techniques are a bit of a hobby for me – I don’t seriously think we’ll ever be completely off the grid, but every little bit helps. Awhile back, I picked up a book about preserving food without freezing. I was already familiar with a large portion of the book: canning and dehydration. However, I don’t have a root cellar (yet) and I’d never tried to ferment anything. The book had a recipe for fermented lettuce that promised to be a lovely garnish for salads and soups. I happened to have a massive crop of lettuce. So away I went, picking, cleaning and chopping piles of lettuce. Then I salted and packed it into two litre-sized mason jars. Within a week, it had reduced to about half the volume of each jar. Within another week, a white scummy layer had formed. A year later, I finally threw them out without ever having tried it.

My experiments don’t always work. But you have to keep trying because the successes make up for the failures. Like this one:

Beef Jerky

Medium-sized roast, sliced 1/8” thick and 1” wide (or use several marinating steaks), fat trimmed off
½ cup red wine
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
3 tbsp. Montreal steak spice
3 cloves garlic, minced

Slice the meat across the grain into strips 1/8” thick and 1” wide. Make sure to trim off all the fat so the jerky keeps longer. Mix together the red wine, Worcestershire sauce, steak spice and garlic. Pour over beef slices and marinate in the fridge up to 3 days, stirring occasionally. Arrange strips in a single layer on dehydrator trays and dehydrate for 8-12 hours. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.

Flashback: The Enchilada

Circa Summer 2008:

It was my turn to drive to baseball. I had just picked up my teammates Rob and Shaun and was turning onto Dundas. The two of them were having a whale of time making fun of the car. At one point, a truck pulled out of a parking space on our right and made a U-turn in front of us, blocking traffic in the process. Rob was indignant about the manoeuvre, then realized the guy was staring at us.

Rob said, “What is he looking at?”

I waved and smiled at the truck driver as he passed by. To Rob, I said, “The car, Rob. He’s looking at the car.”

The car was a 1991 black convertible Lebaron. It was dented, the finish on the hood and trunk were gone, like someone had poured acid on it, and the hubcaps had, one by one, run for freedom the previous summer. The convertible roof, having rotted at the seams, was now entirely composed of duct tape. And it had recently been given a make-over: the tape, black and white, was woven in a very large houndstooth pattern.

Yeah, that guy was definitely staring at the car.

Rob and Shaun dissolved into laughter that lasted until we hit the highway. As I accelerated to merge, Shaun leaned forward from the back seat to get a closer look at the dash.

“Whoah,” he said, “You are pulling down some serious RPMs.”

That car was the most fun I’ve ever had driving. I miss the Enchilada.

The Century Home

I live in a century home in Toronto. The size and value are in keeping with Toronto’s expression of proportion. I’m proud of our home and the blood, sweat and tears we have put into it, but I do have an 18-foot mural of the wilderness painted on the side of our neighbour’s garage that faces our garden. It reminds me where I go on vacation.

Last night, my man shoved a real estate magazine under my nose, jabbing a finger at a listing near the bottom of the page. A century farm house on 5.5 acres perched right atop the edge of a worth-it commute to work for not much more than what our current house is worth. Most unexpected.

I think he’s been reading my blog, though he’d never admit it.

Today, my right brain breathlessly coaxed my left brain to crunch mortgage numbers in the background as I went about my not-undemanding job. It’s doable, but comes with challenges, as does everything in life that’s worth anything.

But of course, there’s another question that inevitably comes out of any bottom line that we can afford: what’s wrong with it? I may just call the real estate agent tomorrow and ask.

Behind the Screen Door

Last summer, in the middle of a backyard renovation, my man found a door. Just when we thought we had all the doors we needed, there it was, hiding between pine panelling inside and truly ugly siding outside. It’s a partial screen door stuffed with insulation and sporting a broken window. It’s also locked.

Our three-year-old was over the moon. “The wall is in the way,” he said after going inside to inspect the kitchen. “Daddy needs to move the wall.” When I explained to him that the door wouldn’t open, he wanted to try every key in the house to unlock it.

But, locked or not, it’s ugly and extremely creepy in a portal-to-hell sort of way. It has to go. I’m still not sure what we’re going to do with it, but I have a few ideas. I’ll keep you posted.