Bullish on Bear River


A great place to wait out the winter

Spring is in the air, if not on the ground quite yet, and we’re readying for yet another season of activity.  This time, our focus will be on our home, which we believe is celebrating its 200th birthday this year.  I say “we believe” because the dates of the home’s construction and additions are anecdotal.  But, based on information that lifelong Bear Riverites have shared with us, we think the main Cape Cod portion of our house was built in 1815 with an addition and early Victorian trim added in 1850.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA In honour of its 200th birthday, and frankly, because it desperately needs it, the house is getting a top-to-bottom makeover.  We’ll actually be moving out for 5 months, so that the renovation can proceed unimpeded. We’re fortunate that many of the big ticket items were taken care of by the previous owner.  These included reinforcing and shoring up floor timbers in the basement, modernizing the electrical and plumbing, insulating and replacing crumbling lath and plaster walls.  Most of our efforts will focus on the exterior and interior cosmetics with a new kitchen, bathroom, and deck thrown in. Nevertheless, the project will be a big budget undertaking, and many have questioned our wisdom in investing so much in an area where the housing market has stagnated in recent years.

village-web.jpgDo you really want to put your money in Bear River?!


Here’s why.

  1. Location, location, location.  Are you laughing?  We’re serious.  Situated just about midway between Digby’s supermarkets, seafood (Yuki’s Oishi Sushi!), and selection of services and Annapolis Royal’s impressive cultural offerings (Measha Brueggergosman at the King’s Theatre – WOW!, International award-winning Historic Gardens, and the impressive Saturday Farmers’ Market), Bear River is just 15-20 minutes away from either center.  We have our doctor in Digby, our dentist in Annapolis Royal, our accountant in Digby, our veterinarian in Annapolis Royal.  Our choices aren’t limited by proximity.
  2. houseA positive trajectory.  While the slow decline of some rural Nova Scotian communities as been well documented, we have seen tremendous forward strides in the Bear River area in the past five years, most notably in Digby.  On a recent trip into the Digby Canadian Tire, Gordon salivated over some high-end, new model stand mixers and other kitchen appliances.  He recalled that in 2010, he couldn’t even find a bag-less upright vacuum cleaner in Digby, technology that was already 20 years old at the time.  There are plenty of them to choose from now, along with a respectable selection of contemporary homewares. The demand is there now as is the purchasing power – good signs for the local economy.  Moving from 1990 to 2015 in five years is pretty impressive.
  3. DSC_0898Younger people.  While the scarcity of high wage work and the closing of small rural schools has driven many young adults who want to start families toward larger population centers, Bear River still attracts 20 and 30-somethings.  We’re not exactly sure what their reasons are, but our guesses would include:
  • A reputation for welcoming artists, dreamers, and free spirits.
  • Jaw-droppingly affordable and beautiful real-estate.
  • The option to send your kids to either Digby or Annapolis schools.
  • The freedom to pursue homesteading or entrepreneurial visions without a lot of restriction.
  • Other young people doing the same thing.

We understand that home sales in Bear River picked up this past year.  While skeptics point out that these sales were mostly lower priced bargain properties, we are encouraged that many of them went to younger people with intentions of starting families and businesses.  Our immediate neighbourhood is about to welcome its first newborn in over a decade!  Yay!

DSC_0760Bear River has its detractors.  But, we’ve listened to the objections and have never really seen the evidence ourselves.  References to rough characters or counter-culture types are comically outdated.  The terms themselves invoke the 60’s.  We also don’t think Bear River has more than its share of outspoken individuals, although ours may be a little better at getting attention at times.

References to it being so far from everything also leave us scratching our heads, especially when it comes from someone in a neighbouring rural community. “What is everything to you?” we wonder, “and what do you mean by far?”  We used to spend more time waiting for a bus in Vancouver than it now takes us to drive anywhere we need to go on a daily basis.

Beauty after a snowfallWe’ve also heard residents of nearby communities refer to Bear River as too snowy, too cold, too hot, too buggy.  Now this is just flailing.  Those labels can be applied to any community around here at any given time, although we’ll admit that in summer, Bear River is reliably warmer than the Fundy coast.  At our place, air conditioning in the peak of summer has become a necessity.  A coastal cottage would be a nice luxury.  Guess what? Those are affordable, too!



Of course, if you are a happy city dweller, all these points are moot.  But, for those seeking a more rural experience who do not require locally available high-wage work (e-commuters, entrepreneurs, and young farmers – we’re talking to you!) or for those skilled in the trades or healthcare, we can’t imagine living anywhere else in Nova Scotia.

We’re bullish on Bear River. Wish us luck on the reno!

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From the Ashes of Disaster

There's asparagus in there!

There’s asparagus in there!

Grow the roses of success!

Does anyone remember that song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? This lyric comes to mind frequently here at Sledding Hill. We certainly have had our share of disasters, inexperienced farmers that we were when we first got here. And we continue to have them, inexperienced farmers that we still are.

A Virginia Ctenucha Moth isn't really a pest and the black currant it is on is still with us!  Unfortunately, the gooseberries and exotic raspberries did not fare so well.

A Virginia Ctenucha Moth isn’t really a pest and the black currant it is on is still with us! Unfortunately, the gooseberries and exotic raspberries did not fare so well.

So where are the bloody roses?! Well, one has blossomed this year. Back when we first arrived in Bear River with the energy of 10 men and the ignorance of 20 (2010), we scurried all over our property planting things like 45 fruit and nut trees, 50 berry bushes, 50 asparagus plants, 200 lavender plants, hundreds of seed potatoes, and a full market garden. Before the season was out, the market garden was a total loss to pests. By the following spring, 90% of the fruit trees and lavender plants had drowned in our sodden soil, many berries bit the dust, and the asparagus was lost in a forest of weeds. We marked out the location of the asparagus patch in the hopes our first year’s energy would return the following season and we’d clear out the weeds. Alas, that never happened.



This year (2014), we decided to write off the asparagus patch and “bush-hog” (mow) the whole thing. A couple weeks later and BAM! Roses! Or more accurately, asparagus! It grew so much faster than the weeds that a good mowing was all that was needed to find it again. All 50 plants are still there and are good sized now! People who grow asparagus for a living would probably roll their eyes to read this.  The sad part is, MY FAMILY actually grew asparagus for a living for awhile and I was still ignorant of how to deal with this weed situation.  It’s no wonder that when our first food products got a little media attention back in 2011, rumours circulated through the Valley that we were big-city lawyers, just playing at farming (lawyer being the most undeserving and un-farmerly profession that people could imagine). Well, we aren’t lawyers as our bank accounts will sadly attest.  But, an experienced farmer could be excused for thinking we were, based on our competence level at farming.

lavender planting - take 3.  We may actually be getting the hang of this.  These plants sailed through our coldest winter yet and look great.

lavender planting – take 3. We may actually be getting the hang of this. These plants sailed through our coldest winter yet and look great.

No, we are just two crazy men who were dissatisfied with our lives in the city and decided to take a risk and try something completely different.  Have we been humbled? Well, I don’t think we were really arrogant to begin with. Okay, maybe a little. But, we have certainly become keenly aware of our limitations as well as our strengths.  For example, we’ve discovered that next to getting media attention, crashing and burning is a core competency for us!

But, despite the agricultural setbacks, we’re still here for some reason, and deserving or not, we are having grilled asparagus for dinner! More ashes to roses stories to follow… stay tuned.

And since I’ve planted that earworm, here’s the song – enjoy!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GND10sWq0n0

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Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!


Winter is our time to recharge

This week is turning into a week of surprises. Take this blog post, for example.


I can’t believe it has been nearly a year since our last one. Well, actually, I can. Our activity level throughout the year, here, mimics the rise and fall of the tide on the Bear River and the annual rise and fall of the population on the Annapolis Basin. Starting in April, the activity begins, and it swells to a crescendo in August. Things begin to taper in October with a last burst of activity around the holidays. Then, we rest. It is the nature of running a seasonal business in an area that has a significant number of seasonal residents. Winter is our time to unwind, take stock, dream, recharge, and blog.


Bees taking advantage of the thaw to do some house cleaning

Our first surprise this week was a welcome mid-winter thaw. After an unusually cold start to the winter with many days not climbing above -15C (5F), warm rain and above-freezing temperatures have temporarily washed away all the snow. It’s been an opportunity to see how our bees and plants have fared during the uncommon chill. Happily, the bees are thriving. They even came out of their hives to do some house cleaning. Some of our tender plants also seem to have survived just fine under their blankets of snow. All very encouraging.


No mistaking the goose egg for a chicken egg

We got a second surprise yesterday when cleaning out our poultry house. Buried in a pile of wood shavings in the corner of the “goose wing”, we discovered our first goose egg! We weren’t expecting eggs from the geese until February, so this was a pleasant surprise. Our new Australorp hens all started laying this week, too.  So, maybe there is something in the air. An early spring perhaps?

The biggest surprise came this morning, however. We looked out the kitchen window and saw our geese, Gwendolyn and Evelina in protracted amorous congress! Gwendolyn, apparently, is a gander! This is a welcome surprise indeed. Exactly one month ago, we lost what we thought was our only gander (Oscar) to coyotes. We had abandoned the idea of having free goslings in the spring. Hope is restored!


Bet you can’t guess which of these two is female.

You may be wondering how we could be mistaken about the gender of our geese. Unlike chickens, male and female geese do not differ significantly in appearance, at least not to a human. Determining their gender (called vent sexing) is an undignified, hands-on activity, unpleasant for all concerned, that produces one of two results: male or inconclusive. Unless you’re an expert goose handler, it is pretty hard to be definite that you have a female on your hands. Our geese were vent sexed when we got them. We knew we had one immature male and two “inconclusives”. We chose to assume these two were female and over the months completely forgot that one or both might, indeed, be male… until today.

Now the question is whether or not to rename Gwendolyn something more traditionally male. Maybe Wendel? Or maybe we’ll just leave it. It doesn’t really matter what humans think.

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Perfectly Clear

What were we getting into?

The week we purchased Sledding Hill, we had occasion to attend a cocktail party.  One of the guests… I’ll call him Dr. Caution…. heard we were buying a rural property that we planned to farm and questioned our wisdom in doing so.  Do you understand how much work that is? Do you know what kind of equipment you’ll need to buy?  He found our answers lacking and seemed determined to make us realize that we were making a colossal mistake.  The thing is, we KNEW we didn’t know what lay ahead.  It was going to be an adventure for us and we were okay with that.  We’re still a little perplexed why it mattered so much to a stranger whether we knew what we were doing.  Perhaps he just didn’t want to see us fail.

Most of the first 240 lavender plants we planted drowned the following spring due to poor drainage. We learned to plant in raised, sandy beds as a result.

Well, here we are starting our 4th year at Sledding Hill, and we’re happy to report that we don’t regret a thing – except maybe for not doing this 20 years ago! Not that there haven’t been mistakes and failures… there have been A LOT! But, none have been so catastrophic as to end our determination. Life at Sledding Hill continues to be an adventure. Nevertheless, if we were able to go back in time and talk to ourselves at that very cocktail party, I think we might find ourselves teaming up with Dr. Caution just a littl bit. The amount of work, particularly regarding the reclaiming of land for agricultural purposes, has far exceeded our initial estimation, largely due to challenging aspects of our property itself. Refer to my posts “On the Rocks” and “Water, Water Everywhere” for a sense of some of these challenges. Another challenge is simply keeping the land clear.

Bear River aerial photo. Not much cleared land anymore.

Back in Bear River’s shipbuilding heyday, both sides of the river were occupied by productive homesteads, engaged in a variety of agricultural endeavors. While a number of the old homes that ran those homesteads still stand (ours, for example), the land associated with most of them has been allowed to return to its wild state. For those seeking a retreat from urban congestion, owning a property surrounded by acres of bush undoubtedly has some appeal. But, for those seeking a modern homesteading experience, it means a daunting amount of work, plus a substantial financial investment.

Imagine clearing all of this by hand?

We were lucky that at least a portion of our land (10 out of 45 acres) was kept clear. The former owner had not actively farmed the land himself, but had kept the fields cleared. He told us that he appreciated the work that past generations had put into clearing the land and wanted to preserve that. When one considers that those pioneers had no power tools, nor heavy equipment to help them, the magnitude of their accomplishments is truly humbling. We’re grateful to our property’s former owner for honouring that, even though he had no use for the cleared land himself.

Clearing land is a big job, even with big equipment

Since owning the property, we’ve learned that the work doesn’t stop once the land is cleared. On the contrary, the brush needs to be kept cut. Frequent, short cutting encourages the growth of grasses and clovers, while discouraging woodland colonizers. The edges of the fields are the challenging “front lines”. Thorny, scratchy branches of hawthorn and other understory plants on the forest edge tend to bully timid groundskeepers into mowing an ever shrinking area; meanwhile dropping their seeds in the uncut grass beneath their branches. Even with regular mowing, a field can easily lose 5ft. off its perimeter every year, if the edges aren’t kept at bay.

Cleared brush makes for some serious bonfires

Clearing land that has already grown in is another matter entirely, as the larger shrubs and trees need to be uprooted, not merely cut down. It took a large backhoe with a very experienced operator almost 3 full days just to clear an acre of land on our property that contained no mature trees, just hawthorn and saplings. Imagine if all you had were axes, shovels and oxen.

The value of cleared land is something we have truly come to appreciate since moving here. While we are thrilled to have wild land as part of our property, we are even more thrilled to have the blank canvas of 10 cleared acres on which to paint our future.

Dr. Caution was right that we had no idea of the amount of work we were facing three years ago. But, we think he underestimated our resolve and how badly we needed this lifestyle change. Knowing what we know now, would we do it again? Absolutely! That’s perfectly clear.

Painting our future

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On the Rocks

Are those rocks on your front lawn on purpose?

I mentioned in a previous post, Water, Water Everywhere that our farm, Sledding Hill, is both blessed and cursed with an abundance of water.  Well, similarly, we are cursed and… well, maybe just cursed with an abundance of rocks.  Rocks of many and various geological origins annually arise from the depths of the earth into our topsoil in prodigious quantities.  Big rocks, little rocks, rocks that climb on… rocks… are heaved forth every winter by the frost.

Broke another tiller blade, eh?

The Bear River area is somewhat infamous for this mineral abundance. Our tractor dealer up the valley in Middleton, frequently greets us with “how’s life down on the rocks?”  We’ve also heard the answer “rocks” given to a question about the most common crops grown in our area.

We suspect that back when the Western Land Grants were being offered to encourage settlement in the Prairies, farmers in this part of Nova Scotia likely signed up in droves.  We imagine the conversations went something like this.

Oxen were indispensable rock management solutions

Government: If you move to Saskatchewan, you can have 1000 acres of flat, rock-free, fertile soil and more sunshine than anywhere else in Canada. Of course, we need to mention that it’s minus 40 in the winter and the black flies in summer can be the size of pterodactyls.

Farmer: You had me at rock-free. Where do I sign?

Government: Right here.

Farmer: Done. (pause) What’s a pterodactyl?

There’s a rock wall under there.

Flash forward 142 years, and here we are, novice homesteaders trying to revive agriculture in a region that previous generations abandoned for land that was easier to cultivate.  And we find ourselves, much like earlier generations did, pondering the best way to turn this curse to our advantage, or at least into less of a curse.

Idea 1: Rock walls.  We’ve been using them in the landscape to define borders.  While earlier occupants of Sledding Hill probably didn’t have much use or time for ornamental landscaping, they certainly had a use for walls, and we do find the remnants of old stone walls occasionally while clearing new areas.

Rustic stone bench

Idea 2: Ground stabilization.  Since we have dug our irrigation ponds, we have found that it doesn’t take nature very long to start filling them back in.  Cattails intrude, rot, and gradually shrink the pond.  Heavy rains erode banks.  We’ve taken to laying landscape fabric on some of the more vulnerable banks and covering them with rocks to prevent erosion and vex unwanted vegetation.

Idea 3: Foundations and platforms.  While the early settlers used the massive stones here for house foundations, the largest heaved into place by teams of oxen, we use them for more ornamental purposes.

Idea 4: Pure decorative landscaping.  This use we brought with us from the West.

Huge granite slabs cap the stone foundation of our house

In a previous life designing urban residential landscapes, I used to take clients to a rock yard, where we would select boulders much like those plaguing Bear River.  The client would pay as much as $0.40/lb. for 3-6 ton boulders, plus $1500 to have them delivered and sensitively placed in their landscape.  In some cases, streets needed to be blocked to have boulders craned over homes into backyards.  Think permits, insurance, etc.  The cost could get quite ridiculous.   Here, people push them over cliffs or bury them to create a smooth lawn surface.

Cheers! (cranberry lavender cocktail)

Our decision to start placing boulders on our front lawn and re-cast these nuisances as features has prompted a head shake or two from a few neighbours.  But, once our plantings begin to mature and more of our hardscaping is completed, we think our intent will be clearer.  Maybe it will start a trend.

We’re learning to love being on the rocks.  It’s just another unique aspect of life here at Sledding Hill.  We’re coining the new saying.  “When life gives you rocks, you’re probably in Bear River.”


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Jeepers Creepers

Beauty after a snowfall

As someone who grew up with comparatively subtle weather cycles, the degree to which having four distinct seasons directs and enriches life here continues to be a source of fascination for me.

I’ve mentioned before that winter is my favourite season in Bear River because of its beauty, the slowed pace, the visibility of wildlife, and the cozy comforts of our overachieving wood furnace, especially when a Nor’easter is giving our old house a serious workout.  This past winter was a bit of a letdown in that regard… not that I’m complaining.  A mild winter is easy on our heating budget, our perennial crops, and our new landscape additions.  But, it does have us looking to spring with perhaps higher expectations this year for that ‘shock and awe’ seasonal impact.

Spring began and ended in May of 2010

That’s a pretty big burden to place on a season that many people here think of as the transition from Mud season to Bug season.  To be honest, our last two springs here haven’t quite delivered that feeling of exhilaration and renewal you might expect after snowy winters.  They were on the cold and windy side with multiple freeze-thaw cycles that were very hard on plants. And instead of refreshing spring showers, we had some landscape scouring North-Atlantic gales. The first trees to venture into bloom/bud around our property under those hostile conditions were those with brick red flowers and bronze new foliage.  Tennis clap for the red team – much better than gray twigs — and probably stunning if their green-leafed neighbours hadn’t missed their cue. But brick red alone just didn’t convey that refreshing spring vibe.  Bulbs, too, were slow to emerge.  Instead of the gradual, well-orchestrated progression from crocus in February to tulips in May, everything waited until May to come up in a storm and frost ravaged cacophony.  And by then, we were already well into Bug season.

Starting salad greens in the greenhouse helps combat a slow spring arrival.

But so far, this year looks very different.  With the pond ice already gone, we see cattails and bulrushes sending up new growth.  A stroll around the ponds yesterday revealed beefy bullfrog pollywogs, giant diving beetles, dragonfly nymphs, and goldfish all coming out of their winter torpors and sunning themselves at the surface.  Green as well as bronze new growth is just beginning to appear on the trees around our property and the earlier season bulbs are making their appearance on cue.  So far, there has been minimal mud or bugs.  And as I type this, I just heard the thunder of what appears to be a respectable, yet mild-mannered spring shower, sans flying debris and ice needles!

Of course, spring isn’t officially here yet.  That will happen when the Spring Peepers announce its arrival.  For those in the West, Spring Peepers are tiny tree frogs – less than an inch long – that have very big voices.  As soon as the ice retreats from pond edges, even when it is still quite cold, these little frogs re-animate (some partially freeze over winter) and head from woods and thickets to marshes and ponds where they begin calling for mates.  It starts as just one or two in the evening but, over a week or two, grows to hundreds and hundreds of voices.  To live in proximity to a Peeper breeding area as we do, is a real treat.  The sound is LOUD and wonderfully hypnotic.  Last year, the Peepers didn’t make their entrance until mid-April.  But the way things are looking this year, we may be hearing from them this week.  We can’t wait!  Here’s an audio link of what the sound is like.


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Falling Forward

Long time, no blog! 

One of our lavender products, which later won an award.

2011 was a surprisingly eventful year for us at Sledding Hill.  It began with the commercial launch of our lavender condiments and a whirlwind of production, sales, and marketing activities that swept us up.  This continued through the farmers’ market season where we maintained a presence at a minimum of 2 markets every week, while putting well over 20,000km on our car, making sales calls, training and monitoring production, and buying equipment and supplies.  We even participated in a trade mission to Barbados hosted by provincial and federal agencies; and although this might sound like a vacation, believe me, it wasn’t.  The walking pneumonia I returned home with in June was a testament to the crazy pace.  Needless to say, blogging dropped off our priority list.

Gord (not Martin) painting the roof trim of the lower roof peak. Notice his lack of falling... show off!

Throughout the summer, we often commented to each other that we felt we were on a runaway treadmill and longed for the Fall (Autumn) when we hoped the pace would slow. 

Well, the Fall came, and the pace did slow, but not in the way we would have hoped.

October was a cruel month, punctuated with news and events that were alternately devastating and exhilarating.  One week we would literally be facing the end of the business, the next we were on top of the world. This rollercoaster pattern continued to repeat until October 27, 2011 when it derailed with a resounding crash.

Morphine, good.

While I was painting the highest point of our roof trim (Gord had done 90% of the trim already), the inadequately-secured platform/ladder configuration of our own inferior design, collapsed.  The foot of the ladder I was standing on lost its purchase and kicked out away from the house.  I rode it to the ground, 20 ft. below and landed flat, face-down on top of it.  I remember thinking, “huh?” and “oh —-!”  followed by a skeleton-rattling BAM!

Miraculously, I not only survived, but was able to walk, with assistance, to the paramedics’ gurney, calmly thanking people who had come to help, assuring them I was going to be fine, and casually accepting the paramedics’ offer of morphine after I got a glimpse of one misshapen forearm.

Knife and fork food for someone with two broken arms. Seriously?

Two days and one surgery later, I was home with BOTH arms in casts.  Diagnosis: two broken arms above the wrist and lots of deep painful bruising. Prognosis: full recovery with no lasting effects. 

So. Very. Lucky.   Breaking both arms is inconvenient to say the least, but it could have been much, much worse.

It’s been 2 and 1/2 months since the accident. The casts are off, the bones are set, the pins holding them together have been removed, and I’m typing this — well on the way to realizing that prognosis.  Our business hasn’t stopped, nor has the rollercoaster of achievements and failures.  But, the realization that Life at Sledding Hill could have taken a much more permanent turn for the worse last October has us counting our blessings and keeping everything in perspective as we fall forward into 2012.

Our resolutions for 2012? Be grateful, stay off of ladders, and turn a profit. 

Happy New Year!

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Suddenly, It’s Spring

It has been some time since our last post.  It seems that launching our lavender products to the universe started a series of events in motion, and we’ve been scrambling to keep up with all of them.

This is the beginning of the travel season.  Visitors and seasonal residents are starting to arrive in Nova Scotia, and many of our retail customers are extending their hours and stocking their shelves.  So, orders have been coming in, testing our production procedures and ability to meet demand.  A lot of unexpected press has helped fuel some of the demand.  All good stuff…  but challenging nevertheless.

Gord with our first commercial orders, packed and ready to deliver.

We’re also prepping fields for 800 new lavender plants.  We need to amend our soil with lime and grit for drainage.  We’ve been sourcing that and lining up equipment.

Our greenhouse is in full swing now and needs daily attention.  Regular farmers’ markets start up this month, so we are gearing up for those. We’re also preparing for a trade mission to the Caribbean next month.  Throw in income taxes, car repairs, yard work, home repairs, and computer failures and you’ll understand why we haven’t been able to blog lately.

But, just the other day, one of life’s miracles stopped us cold for a moment.  Our neighbor’s hen hatched three of our hens’ eggs.

Here’s the background.  Our neighbor has a number of bantam (miniature) hens that have a tendency to go broody.  Broodiness is a hormonal change in a hen that makes her switch from egg laying mode to hatching something mode.  She will stop laying and obsessively sit on a nest – even if there are no eggs in it.  Some hens can starve to death waiting for something to hatch.  Rather than trying to snap her hen out of it, our neighbor decided to let it hatch out some chicks, but she didn’t want any more bantam chickens.  As none of our full-sized hens have shown signs of broodiness, we gave her 3 of their eggs.  Her little hen adopted the strange oversized eggs immediately.

Peeps 1 and 2 just starting to explore while peep 3 hatches

20 days later and voila! Out popped 3 little, mottled peeps.  Clearly these were not the hen’s offspring, but she fell madly in love with them just the same.  It is so remarkable to see how, within 24 hours, these peeps are out exploring and able to feed themselves, but race back to hide under Momma at her first cluck of warning.

Chicken eggs are fascinating.  They’re little animal seeds.  They stay viable for quite some time at room temperature after they are laid, just waiting for the right conditions to occur before they start developing.  When the peeps hatch, they don’t need food or water for 24-48 hours.  They just live on the remaining yolk in their bodies. This allows the mother to continue on the nest, incubating un-hatched siblings.  Once the babies start to explore though, momma has to get up to keep tabs on them and the broodiness spell is broken.

It’s so beautiful to see nature flawlessly at work.  Moments like these put everything back in perspective.

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The Wild Life

Bernard or one of his ladies visits us daily

Adjusting to life in rural Nova Scotia has been full of surprises, particularly when it has involved interacting with the local wildlife. During our time in Vancouver, our exposure to wild creatures was limited to just a few species, unless we went out of our way to drive to the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. At home, waking up to the sound of Crows, Pigeons, Starlings, or Seagulls was all we could expect to experience. As far as mammals were concerned, the only creatures around were the occasional Raccoon or Squirrel appearing on our deck, or smelling “eau de skunk” whenever one would trundle through the night on the lawn in front of the condo.

One would expect a bit more wildlife in a rural location but the contrast is proving to be remarkable. Yes, we are still visited by crows, starlings, pigeons and the odd seagull or two, but now we count many more unusual birds as regular visitors. Since moving to Bear River, we see Ring Necked Pheasants in our yard each day. They have become such a common sight in the neighbourhood that we now watch for ‘Bernard’ or ‘Bernadette’ to stop in and scour the lawn below the bird feeders or simply to cross our fields.

Red Bellied Woodpecker feeds as the Evening Grosbeak keeps watch

The list of regular visitors to the old apple tree is growing longer each year. During the winter of 2009/10 we were visited by just the usual fare: Black Capped Chickadees, Dark Eyed Juncos, Blue Jays, White Breasted Nuthatches, and American Goldfinches. This past winter has added quite a few more birds to the list. We now routinely see Evening Grosbeaks, Common Grackles, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, along with a stunning pair of Northern Cardinals and a less common Red Bellied Woodpecker.

Last spring and summer brought an even wider variety of animals to the yard, especially since we put in the ponds. In spite of the excavation, we were serenaded by Spring Peepers, and several other species of frog. The water also attracted more than a few odd visits. One morning we awoke to the splashes of a full grown Cormorant hunting for some of the goldfish in the lower pond. Since then we have seen Belted Kingfishers, several kinds of Swallow, a Wood Duck, a Hooded Merganser, a Green Heron and even a porcupine at the water.

Some of the potatoes we managed to grow

Not all of our wildlife experiences have been as pleasurable or benign as our interactions with the birds. Creatures both great and small are always looking for ways to take advantage of what we are doing here. While a Yellow Warbler sang sweetly in our apple tree last summer, a pair of Painted Turtles moved into the upper pond, and discovered the water lily that I had just planted there. One lily pad after another drifted away, as the reptiles had their snack. All this took place while our potato field was being silently ravaged by Colorado Potato Beetle. I tried to get ahead of them by manually picking off the critters but eventually gave up the battle. Surprisingly we still managed to scratch a few potatoes out of the ground, but far fewer than we had hoped for!

Hector lost his life in defence of the flock

Later in the year, as winter neared, a herd of white tail deer took to grazing our newly planted orchard. There is nothing sadder looking than deer pruned fruit trees. Shortly before Christmas, a Red Fox tried to make off with our chickens. Hector, one of our roosters, gave his life in defense of the flock, though the fox was unable to carry him off. We also have been told to be on the lookout for Coyotes, Mink and possibly Black Bear, though we have yet to spot any of them.

A Virginia Ctenucha Moth visiting our Black Currants

There have certainly been ups and downs in our experiences with Nova Scotian wildlife, but all in all, we are thankful that we are able to interact with these creatures each day. Bald Eagles and several species of Hawk or falcon are frequently sighted overhead, (much to the alarm of our flock of chickens). Between watching Ruby Throated Hummingbirds squabbling over finders rights to our flowers, or doing our best to get a step ahead of the local deer population, our lives are enriched in the process The list is only bound to grow.

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Water, Water Everywhere

Our well with house in the background doubles as a great cocktail table

On our property, we are both blessed and cursed with an abundance of water.  It literally seeps up out of the ground year round in various places all over our hill.  This carries a couple advantages from a rural living perspective. 

First of all, our well only needs to be about 6 ft. deep and is positioned high enough up our hill that its bottom is actually higher than the roof of our house.  This means we have good water pressure even if the power goes out and our water supply never runs low even though we share the well with another household. 

Just dig a hole and it fills with water!

Next, it means irrigation of gardens is a fairly easy problem to solve.  In our case, we simply had to dig two big holes in the ground and they became irrigation ponds in no time.  It turns out that just at the base of our hill is a clay deposit.  So, it was just a matter of hiring a large excavator for a couple days to clear two 8 foot deep depressions  in the clay.  A few days and one heavy rainstorm later they were full to overflowing.  Oops – had to call back the excavator to add extra culverts for drainage.  Not only do these ponds provide a convenient source of irrigation for our greenhouse and yard, they are a handy resevoir for firefighters in the event of a home or brush fire.  They also provide wonderful habitat for a variety of wildlife just outside our windows.  It’s our own private wetland.

Within a couple months after digging, plants and wildlife started colonizing.

We are very lucky.  One thing we didn’t know when we purchased the property is that just on the other side of our road – just 100 metres closer to the river – there is NO water near the surface.  Properties there need drilled wells 30 ft. or more and still experience water shortages.  It seems curious to us that we can have so much surface water on a hillside while houses closer to the river have to dig so deep.  The water must take a dive under rock just as it reaches our house.  We remarkably also have a relatively dry basement.

A creek on a neighboring property has changed course onto ours.

Of course, this blessing can also be a curse, particularly when it comes to planting the hillside.  The springs are migratory.  Frost heave and settling causes them to relocate on a regular basis.  This means an area that is well drained and ideal for planting one year, might be a bog the next.  For plants like lavender that can’t stand wet feet, this isn’t an acceptable situation.  In addition, heavy rains, on top of snow, on top of ground with a high water table can cause spontaneous creeks to form and existing creeks to change course, washing out prepared fields.

Right now, we’re comfortable planting our lavender in a couple of spots.  But, it’s pretty clear that in the future, we will need to lay drainage tile strategically in the hill to manage the flow of all this water regardless where it comes from or in what quantities.  Another project for the list!

liquid gold

Still, we are very grateful.  Having an abundance of fresh, clean, safe water direct from the ground without any treatment necessary is a luxury on this planet.  I am reminded of this every time I taste tap water that I get in city restaurants and it has a flavour.  Also, both Gord and I have lived in places where human pressure on limited fresh water supply has resulted in water rationing,  boil water advisories, or water that routinely has a noticeable color in the tub.  We are very fortunate to live on our seeping hill.

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