It is mid February, and I am sitting by the wood stove reflecting on the changes here at the farm since our decision to implement permaculture principles a couple of years ago. At first I thought that would mostly involve the garden and how we grow things – sustainably and organically. So no chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. That seemed evident enough. But today I am counting all the other ways we are altering our lifestyle. We are trying to become more resilient in our energy sources, insulation, water capture, use and storage, use of waste by reusing and composting, and being more responsible for the production of our food. I really like to be able to grow and preserve much of the food we need through the winter, and have learned to grow herbs and medicinals and recognize them in the wild. This is a huge journey into self-sufficiency, but oh so rewarding.
We also have a number of ferments going, from sauerkraut to yogurt to kombucha to kefir, as well as many fruit wines from previous years. Apple cider vinegar and red wine vinegar sit in their jars with their ‘mothers’ busy turning alcohol to acetic acid. Ferments have long been ways to preserve food and enhance their beneficial bacteria which also aid in our digestion. We are even making our own mozzarella by a pretty simple process of using milk cultured by rennet.
In the winter, food consumes much of my thoughts. So it is fun to use canned and dried foods from the pantry, and frozen foods from summer to create the daily meals. The fruit crisp in the oven has canned apples, and frozen rhubarb, raspberries and rhubarb from our orchard rows in the big garden. A loaf of bread has just emerged brown and crispy from the pan, a product of wheat freshly ground this morning. Frozen deer meat, cold storage potatoes and carrots, dried and frozen greens, and some of the last onions and garlic from the bottom drawer in the kitchen will combine with a jar of tomatoes and a handful of dried herbs to create a tasty stew for supper.
Composting can be kind of addictive, and I am finding that our compost heap near the barn has not lost its steam even in the winter. Now that we have chickens and rabbits, it is a perfect way to get a good compost pile going when we clean out their pens. We also compost a lot of horse manure in the summer after the paddocks are cleaned out. All that straw and manure seems to be in the right proportions of greens and browns (nitrogen and carbon) to get it going. Any kitchen scraps that the chickens and rabbits don’t want all go into the compost. In the summer all the garden prunings and grass clippings go in too. Create No Waste – a permaculture principle. Amazingly, our compost has hit 70 degrees C in the middle of February. Our little 6 year old Kian keeps track with a long probe compost thermometer for his ‘science experiment’. He is quite excited about it. A few days ago I found a cat-sized hole dug in the side of the compost heap. It seems the barn cats had found the warm compost and decided to burrow in there. Which brings me to another Permaculture principle – Stacking Functions. This means to make any element in the system have more than one function. So I found an old 5 gallon bucket and dug it into the side of the compost, lined it with a couple of feed sacks, and now the cats have a happy nest on a cold night.
Reading and studying the seed and herb catalogues is a winter activity for all gardeners, plus perusing books and magazines for inspiration. Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden is the most popular permaculture book in North America. I highly recommend it, having read it cover to cover a couple of times. Winter is the time for gardeners to plan, to study, take a couple of courses, and get a head start on the coming season. This is also the time to learn from last summer’s successes and failures and plan accordingly. It is a real gift to gardeners in this challenging northern climate, that every year we get to start afresh!