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Rawganique Homestead In 2011

Over the years, many people have written and kept in touch with us. They've told us that in some real way, they are living the off-the-grid dream vicariously through us, by reading about our struggles and triumphs. It's hard work. On days when things appeared insurmountable or hopeless, it's their emails that have kept us going instead of giving up.

Thanks to all those who have shared their stories and dreams of off-the-grid homesteading with us. We've thought of going back into society many times for all the comforts of modern life. And yet we've always reaffirmed our commitment and love for this particular piece of land that has fed us and given us so much joy. It's a wonder to behold all the many fruit trees whose trunks are thicker than our hands can wrap around, when you know that these very same trees were mere twigs when you put them into the ground a few years back. It's a joy to see the arbors and the balconies covered in green foliage, flowers, kiwis, and grapes, knowing that in the very same spot was nothing but bare gravelly, hardly arable land. At the end of the day, we feel fortunate to live this beautiful simple meditative life.

It's funny that off-the-grid homesteading seems like such a rarefied thing nowadays, since 200 years ago, there wasn't any other kind of homesteading but off-the-grid homesteading.

Weather-wise, 2011 is out of the ordinary. I'm writing this toward the end of July 2011 and summer hasn't truly arrived. Normally by this time of year in our little island on the Strait of Georgia (West Coast), the sun is strong, the heat wave is on, and the drought which would have started in June will continue until September.

Instead, it had just rained non-stop for 3 days a few days ago. The temperature is cooler than normal, with some nights feeling like fall. The rest of the continent, however, is roasting in a heat wave of unprecedented magnitude.

Despite this freak weather, it is a great year for our garden, which celebrates its 11th year this year. The trees and bushes have really come into their own. We feel a great shift in the whole homestead. Things are finally thriving; it's all we can do to contain growth. Our many ponds have become wildlife havens, with plants and fish and wildlife well established in a harmonious environment where balance holds a peaceful hand.

The soil in the garden has come a long way in 11 years. From gravel and hard rocks to deep black soil — the result of years of piling up hay on the gravel. Now we find that most anything will grow happily; in the early years, it was a real struggle: no water, no soil, too much sun. Patience has rewarded us with a rich, lush, and productive garden. What happy campers we are this year.

Of note: In September, 2001, Phillip Vannini, a professor in the School of Communication & Culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, stopped by with one of his students. He is doing research for a documentary and book on sustainable off-the-grid living and traveling around the country interviewing over 100 (or was it 200?) folks who live off-the-grid. And since we live completely off the grid and grow our own foods year-round, Phillip asked to interview us and videotape our homestead. It was a pleasure meeting Phillip, who is articulate and still very young. Two of the questions he asked stayed with me as I write this.

What do we do for drinking water?

We pump water up from one of our big ponds in the valley, but recently we've switched to pumping from a 24-foot-deep well that gives us plenty of cold, ultra clear and clean water fit for drinking. That said, we don't drink much water, if at all, because we eat so much fruits and vegetables, which are 75 - 85% water to begin with. We only drink water when we are thirsty. We also distill water, which we normally use for drinking, even though our well water is delicious and perfectly potable.

People think of off the grid living and especially island living as slow living, but it appears that our lives as well as those of many other off the gridders appear to be busy all the time. How come the contradiction?

Slow living for us is a state of mind. When we lived in the city, we lived a pretty stationary life, in front of the computer, say, but our minds were running rampant. Our lives felt busy even though we didn't really have much to show for at the end of the day. We always longed for a moment of quiet, to think, to hear ourselves think, but noise was everywhere. We felt like we were drowning. We may not be doing much physically, but our lives were hectic, fast and furious.

On our homestead, it's just the opposite. We are constantly running around taking care of this or that (animals, trees, vegetables, building stuff) and yet our mind is quiet, calm, and clear. The silence of nature, which is not true silence, thanks to all the animals and plant life that sing to us, is reflective silence. Our minds are usually absorbed in something or other that time slows to a halt, and everything feels slow, a life lived at our own pace. There is no rush, no noise from the outside to disturb our quiet. We get lots done and at the end of the day, when we lay down to rest, we're good and tired, happy for a rest before another exciting day begins.

One thing Phillip mentioned that his other interviewees have said in common is the silence in off the grid living. Without noise pollution, life is very different. The first thing we notice whenever we go into the city (which we try to do as seldom as possible) is the noise level. It's deafening!

Phillip and his student got a taste of our tree-ripened figs, grapes, plums, and nectarines and said that one of the sensory experiences of off the grid living is not just the quiet break from all the noise, but also the taste experience of fresh ripe fruits and vegetables from the garden. We're so used to the taste of homegrown foods that we have quite forgotten the excitement of our first harvest. It was incredible, and continues to be incredible.

Plus, the huge amount of fruits and greens we harvest year-round ends up saving us a pretty penny. Have you seen the prices on organic peaches, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, figs, and nectariens lately? It's crazy. Plus, with our many greenhouses, we get a long extended harvest, often a month or two before seasonal fruits are available in the stores. And we eat stuff from the garden that you just can't buy in the stores, like fresh mulberries, which have the highest anti-oxidant values of any plant. Fresh mulberries don't travel and degrade quickly, so the only way to get them fresh is to have a tree. Freshly harvested watercress is also amazing: crisp, crunchy, and juicy, a far cry from what you can get in the stores.

Phillip also asked about our opinion on the cost of off the grid living and the cost of growing your own foods, if it's all worth it, or only for the select few and the monied at that. Well, when we started, we had hardly a penny to speak of. It doesn't cost that much to set up a simple homestead off the grid, like ours. What it takes is determination and patience.

Buying produce may be cheaper than growing our own foods (what with all the time we spend on growing our foods), but if you factor in all the real costs of government subsidies to agribusiness, the transportation costs to get the produce from the growers to the wholesalers to the stores, and your transportation costs of getting to the stores to buy your foods. And the fact that the foods you buy in the stores are days, if not weeks, old, well, for us it's all worth it. The food is freshly picked before being consumed, it's organic, and it tastes awesome! Freshly picked foods are more nutritious for the simple facts that produce loses their vitamins and enzymes the longer they are exposed to oxygen and light. In that regard, nothing beats harvesting and right away consuming.

Phillip also pointed out that we're lucky to live on the cliff with great views yet not have to cut trees to have such a view. He said that our house looks organic, like it's a plant rising out of the ground. Much of it is covered in all manner of climbers, bushes, and trees. It was very sweet of him to say that about our humble abode.

It's great to have stimulating conversations with real humans from time to time. We envy Phillip and his student the many interesting conversations ahead. We wish we could tag along and learn the why's and how's from other homesteaders. Every story is compelling and different.

How truly independent are we? Well, while we still buy organic oranges and bananas because we like to eat them, if there is a lockdown on our island tomorrow, we can easily survive on our land indefinitely, albeit without oranges and bananas (at least not in quantity as we do grow hardy bananas and citrus trees in our greenhouses).

Here's the run-down of this year's highlights, told in photos and accompanied by brief words.

Our forest trees down in the valley are getting big! We have a photo from 2004 that shows almost a clear-cut down there. Quite amazing.

Despite the colder than normal temperature this year, the sun managed to peek out from time to time, and those were the times we were on the beach or at the lake to soak in some much-needed warmth.

We are getting kiwis for the first time this year, and lots of them!

Our many ponds are a haven of grace and beauty at the end of a workday. We can just sit and meditate for hours by the banks.

This is the year of the fig. So much fruit after many years of off-and-on growing habit.

Red mulberries used to be our favorite fruit. They still are, but we've really come to appreciate the special sweetness of white mulberries, which turn a lavender color when really ripe (and really good!). They bear such a crop. We have quite a few mulberry trees, and they all bear abundantly starting in June all the way through to fall.

The raspberries have gone nuts on us. There's so much harvest, every single day. And they are so good, especially the yellow ones, which when really ripe turn a pinkish color. This is a typical lunch of raspberries in the garden.

Lots of strawberries everywhere.

Our big pond sports wild watercress, which we harvest. We also pull some up to grow in shallow water in the greenhouse through the fall and winter. Excellent zing and full of healthy nutrients.

Throughout the day of working in the garden, we sneak a little break here and there on the front porch to soak in the sun and to chat and munch on garden goodies.

This year the blueberries are huge and abundant. The bushes last a long time and stay productive for up to 25 years. All we did when we started our bed was dump in 4 huge trash bags of cedar sawdust we got from a friend (we made sure it was from untreated cedar).

Cactus pears grow on a small cactus plant which is very hardy. They don't taste that great, but it adds to the variety of our harvest.

Homegrown apricots are NOTHING like store-bought apricots, which I never liked. Our apricots are huge (almost the size of a peach), aromatic, sweet, and chewy (as opposed to peaches, which are juicy). They are amazing.

Grapes are easy to grow from cuttings. In February, we always root some cuttings from the pruning by putting them in moist compost. By summer, many of the cuttings have rooted. We then transplant them into pots for planting out the following year. Who can have too many grapes? We have them winding up all our posts, porches, and walls.

Salad greens are a staple of our diet. The are so easy to grow as they self-seed readily. We also save seeds in late summer, which we sprinkle everywhere in the garden in the fall. By mid winter (if mild) or early spring, we have greens growing everywhere. We are never without greens, as they are an important part of our daily food supply. In summer, the trick is to put a shade cloth over them and water frequently.

Apples are a staple at our homestead. Along with pears and frozen berries, our many heritage apples tie us over the winter until berries ripen in early summer.

When we moved to our homestead, the first thing we did was plant as many nut trees of all varieties that we could think of. Almonds are the first to bear, after only two years in the ground. The other nut trees, like walnuts, heart nuts, hickories, pecans take significantly longer to bear. For those of you who have not seen almonds in the raw, here is a photo of the almond "fruits" in the summer. The green, peach-like fruit easily part when ripe to reveal the "almonds" inside.

Pears take a while to bear too. Our harvest is still small.

Peaches are gorgeous, fragrant, and tasty. Picked ripe from the tree, peaches are a homestead favorite.

Plums bear so abundantly that sometimes the tree splits in two. We have to keep close watch on the tree and provide solid staking when needed. If the tree splits or a big branch breaks, you can put them back together by bandaging the two parts together with plastic film or smooth twines. The severed parts will heal nicely if the wound is fresh. Scar tissue will form over the next few weeks, and all is well.

It's water lily again. We just love them.

We have so many favorite fruits, but yellow cherries (with pink blush) take the cake. Wow, they are so huge, juicy, and sweet. We've been harvesting for a month, every single day, and finally the season is coming to an end. Until next year...

Thanks to our many ponds, we propagate lots of duckweed, which becomes free food for ducks and chickens. They just love it. We put some into the chicken drinking water, and they pick them all out. Very nutritious and easily propagated food. The ducks just slurp them up until every last one is gone.

Garter snakes are harmless and cute. Want to know what they are up to? Read my article on garter snakes and slugs. It's amazing: garter snakes, small though they are, can swallow a whole big black slug, and I have photos to prove it. Garter snakes can swim well (I didn't really know that), and we often find them in the pond looking for tasty stuff to eat. When not looking for food, they sun on or between rocks as well as snooze under cover of logs or cardboard. See photos of a garter snake swallowing a black slug here.

Sometime in the spring, we hear a cacophony of frogs serenading. The sound is amazingly loud and powerful on a quiet night. No one knows where they came from and where they go after they've done their mating, but boy, there seem to be a million of them. The results of all this mating are the countless tadpoles we find in the ponds. Here are two tadpoles that are almost ready to become a frog (see the hind legs?). They still swim at this stage, but any minute now, they'll discard their tadpole skin and become a real frog!

Huckleberries are everywhere in our garden, because we keep it wild for the most part. I harvest lots everyday to give to the chickens, who go crazy at the sight of them. They just love huckleberries to bits.

We have a huge 10-foot tall honeysuckle bush (one plant) in the garden. It's amazingly live and fragrant. Seen here against the blue cloudy sky of (this) summer.

A well established pond would have a good balance of submerged water plants, floating plants, deep water plants, and marginals. Our fish just love this pond.

Cat on a hot cedar tub. Our 5-year old kitty cat doing yoga on a cedar hot tub lid (because it's warm!) against the sunset.