learning

Transitioning to High School (Part 2 of 2)

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In my last post I described the rocky start we’ve been having as my daughter transitions to a “real” high school. It was her idea, and it is part of the larger goals she has set for herself, but her anxiety has been worse than expected. She’d had a good week previously, and I thought we were over the worst of it, but then this past week her anxiety resurfaced. It was terribly discouraging and she was beginning to doubt that she could get through this. I was worried for her: worried that if she quit she would never forgive herself, that she would lose confidence, and that it would take years for her to try again. I knew in my heart that she was ready for this step, I just had to figure out where the anxiety was coming from. So I thought about what had transpired over the last couple of weeks.

The week before had been great, but it was also rather unique. It marked the start of a new semester, a week where the school comes together for team-building exercises and lectures on basic skills (e.g., inquiry, logic, rhetoric); there are no formal classes. Each day began with a morning ritual that included a drumming circle (which she enjoyed) followed by a series of games and exercises that she found easy and fun. Importantly, the week had a predictable routine and required little from her in terms of knowing where to be next or what she should be doing because the whole school participated in the exercises together. The rules and expectations were new to everyone and clearly laid out to the group for each activity. And although she came home pleasantly exhausted, she made it through each 4-hour half-day without any trouble.

The following week, classes began. She had Mondays off, and on Tuesday she left after the first class, but she seemed mostly okay, just a bit confused (see below) and tired. On Wednesday she asked me to come get her after the first class, and she broke down as soon as she got in the car. She was terribly upset, and she refused to go back the next day. The next night she told me she didn’t want to go Friday either. I’m afraid I tried pushing her (gah! I know better than that – it never works!!) as my own feelings of worry and anxiety overcame me, which of course was the wrong move (pro tip: increasing anxiety in someone who is already anxious does NOT help!). She broke down and started saying maybe she had made a mistake, maybe she was not ready for this. That got me really worried so (after I apologized) I went to bed and thought long and hard about the situation. By the next morning my thoughts began to settle on a coherent explanation for what was going on.

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I know from years of dealing with my son (who has more severe autism than his sister) that one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety is through routine and predictability.  When faced with a new situation, we engage in a process our therapist calls “front-loading”. We let our son know exactly what he can expect, which helps ease the transition to the new activity or environment. I realized that my daughter was not getting any front-loading. It’s tricky because the things you explain in the front-loading process are usually so “obvious” to neurotypical people that it can be difficult to even identify them. I thought about her first week, and how front-loading might have helped.

Her first class on Tuesday was Math. She came home not even knowing if she had been in the right classroom (and was too embarrassed to ask). She told me later she felt “stupid” because she was certain that she was far behind everybody else, which she based on the fact that everybody else seemed to “know what they were doing”. She felt utterly lost, but nobody knew it because she is so good at hiding her feelings in front of strangers (a typical trait of Aspie girls).

The next day was science class, which she was so looking forward to, but which turned out to be a review of lab safety procedures followed by a pantomime exercise which she didn’t understand. To make it so much worse, she became convinced that she had embarrassed herself in front of everybody. After that was lunch, which she had been excited about because she and her new friend were going to walk to the nearby convenience store. But she got so worked up about “making a fool of herself in class” (which I am quite certain she did not do) that she was “too terrified” to enjoy the outing (interpretation: she was a wreck thinking about how she had embarrassed herself in front of everyone).

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After lunch was teacher-supported study block, but when one of the kids told her that it was a time to work on projects, she got anxious because she didn’t have a project, and the idea of sitting through an hour of not-knowing-what-to-do was just too much for her. By then she had reached the breaking point and needed to come home.

In reviewing all this (most of which I didn’t know until she told me Thursday night) I could see the perfect storm that led to her anxiety overload. My suspicions were confirmed when I met with the math teacher the next morning. I learned that because math class involves kids at different grade levels and abilities, each child works on their own curriculum. The teacher goes around to the kids helping them with their workbooks and sometimes gives talks about new concepts if a group of them are working on that. I can see why my daughter was confused about whether she was in the right place, because she was expecting a teacher standing up in front of the class lecturing. Also, the teacher had given her a workbook but she didn’t understand what to do with it, and she felt too “stupid” to ask.

No wonder she felt so lost, confused, and insecure. Had all of this been explained to her ahead of time she would have known what to expect and what to do, and that would have greatly eased her anxiety. For the science class, if she had known ahead of time she could have thought about the pantomime, I could have helped her understand what the purpose was (they were supposed to act out what not to do in the lab; it was supposed to be funny), she could have rehearsed her bit, or practiced how to politely decline.

I began to mentally berate myself: how could I forget how important it is for my kids to be front-loaded? It’s the curse of her being so high-functioning, and so capable of masking her true feelings when out socially. But I was now certain that the key to reducing her anxiety was for her to know what to expect ahead of time to a much greater level of detail than was being provided up to this point. She had to feel competent and capable, and that meant knowing what to expect and knowing how to prepare for it.

The plan I came up with was to work with her at home before each class in order to ensure she was prepared for the day. And we would also review the materials after each class so she understood what was required of her. 

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To pitch the idea to her, I framed it in the context of University (which she is excited about attending one day). I explained how at University (particularly in the early years of huge class sizes) you don’t really go to class to learn the material. You go to class to get the material. Then you take home your notes and handouts and you review it (i.e., you study the material). If you have questions, you book an appointment with the professor. And the really successful kids find out what the next lecture will be about, and they study the subject beforehand. So I suggested to her that we create those same habits at home. It would help ease her anxiety, and as a bonus it would help her develop good study habits.

When I told her my idea, she responded positively. Although the night before she had told me she didn’t want to go to school, she agreed to come that day for French class while I met with her math teacher to begin our new plan.

She had a great time! None of the kids have had much French (the school has been doing German as their second language for the last few years) and so she is not behind at all. The format was simple: the class reviewed words and phrases together, repeated them following an audio prompt, and they got a list of all the words and definitions. She told me that she was glad she’d gone to school, that she really liked the class, and she was invited to a get-together by her new friend and another girl! The class has a pretty straightforward format, she was able to follow along without any trouble, and she is not feeling anxious about going to the next French class on Monday (yay!). We are going to review her homework tomorrow (making flash cards using the words they learned that day – she is excited about illustrating her cards!), so that she comes prepared and confident.

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For science, I’ve emailed her teacher to find out what subject will be covered next class. She and I will review the topic at home so that she has a basic understanding of the context when she arrives at class. This will help her feel less anxious and insecure. After class, she and I will review the material that was covered, research anything she doesn’t understand, and prepare for the next class.

As for Math, I brought home her workbook and explained what I’d learned at my meeting with her teacher. I could see how relieved she was when I explained the format of the class, and she was rather excited by the fact that she had her own workbook. She has the choice to work on it at home with me, or go to class and work on it there. Right now she wants to work at home, which is fine. We will go through it together until she feels more confident, and then she can attend math class at school. If she wants help with something, she can go to a math class or to the teacher-supported study block.

We are both feeling optimistic about this plan. This week she will attend for French and Science and work on her math at home. It’s only one (2-hour) class a day, four days a week, but after her big setback this past week it’s important to proceed slowly. I’m feeling confident that this new plan will go a long way to easing her anxiety levels. I promise I will keep you posted (thanks for all the lovely messages of support!), but for now both her and I are feeling very hopeful!

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Categories: autism, Education, learning, Miss Em | 4 Comments

Transitioning to High School (Part 1 of 2)

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In my last post I explained that my daughter, Miss Em, has begun attending a “real” school. We found a lovely little private school that seemed the perfect fit for her, and a great place to move forward with her social and academic development. Unfortunately, neither her nor I anticipated just what a huge change this would be for her, and it ended up triggering her anxiety to levels we haven’t seen in a long time.

Our whole family was excited about her first day, and so was she. But only a couple hours into it she begged me to come pick her up. She was having a huge anxiety attack and was terrified of having a meltdown in front of all these strangers.

The next morning I met with the teacher support person who helps students both academically and with their social/emotional needs. Although Em took to her immediately and her presence was comforting, Em continued to suffer from anxiety. It was hard for her to put into words what the problem was, so it was hard for the rest of us (me and her teachers) to figure out how best to support her. I was blown away by the concern and desire to help that was expressed by the staff: I could not have asked for a kinder, more supportive environment for her.

For her part, Em remained positive and determined. She knew that the first little while would be tough, and she knew that eventually she would get to know the other students and teachers. She looked forward to feeling part of a family, as she had at her previous program. Still, she was struggling to make it through one class per day.

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Last week was the start of the new semester, and they begin with a week of team-building and group exercises. She had a great week, and I honestly thought the worst was behind us. She even made friends with a girl who loves to draw. I really thought that was the final turning point, and from there on in, we would have smooth sailing. The following week (this past week) the new coursework began, and we were both feeling positive about it.

So it was with dismay that I found myself once again responding to a text message asking me to come and take her home. As soon as she got into the car she burst into tears, saying how hard this was, how she was beginning to doubt herself, etc. My heart ached for my daughter, and I recalled with sadness all the struggles she has faced in her short life.

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I lay awake for a long time that night, thinking about the problem and what we could do to help her. I recalled the words she had said to me in anguish: how she felt so lost, how she felt she must be much less intelligent than these other kids, how she dreaded going to sleep at night because it would bring another day that much closer. Even though my own life was currently worry free, my heart was suffering for her.

But then early the next morning, as I was slowly waking up, I had a lightbulb moment. I felt I had finally figured out what the problems were and – most importantly – I came up with a solution.

Continued next post…

 

 

 

Categories: autism, Education, learning, Miss Em | 2 Comments

Big Changes for my Big Girl

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A couple of weeks ago my 14-year old daughter, Miss Em (who has Asperger’s Syndrome), started attending school for the very first time since preschool.

For the past two years she has been attending a local learning centre for kids with autism and related challenges, as part of her overall homeschooling program. This provided a safe environment in which she could practice her social skills, improve her focus and attention skills, and build enough stamina to get through a full day of activities. And she did very well. As of last fall she was attending 4 days per week. She was excelling academically and socially but…she was starting to get bored. She wanted to dive deeper into her school subjects, engage with a mentor, and she was also starting to look ahead to her goals beyond school: University is definitely in her plans. She also wanted to expand her social horizons beyond the small group at the learning centre, and see how she fared in a more neurotypical crowd.

For all these reasons, she decided to give high school a try. I knew that a regular public school would be too much for her: way too many kids, not enough personal interaction with mentors, and I knew from hearing other families’ tales of woe that our local public schools fail pretty miserably when it comes to supporting special needs kids. Not to mention the social environment in a large high school can be positively toxic, especially for a child who struggles with social interactions.

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Alternatively, we have several elite private schools here, and although I was sure that the hefty tuition fees we’d be paying would net us some serious special ed support, their academic schedules are very intensive and the kids are carrying the weight of some very big expectations placed on their shoulders by the adults around them. I didn’t think my daughter would do well in such a high pressure environment.

Fortunately, there was one little private school I’d discovered a few years ago that happens to be within a 5 minute drive of our house. I had thought back then that if she ever wanted to go to school, this might be a good place to start. We toured the school just before the Christmas holidays and fell in love. It’s a small building, and there are only about 30 students in the whole school (grades 9 – 12). There are 4 teachers, and classes are either split in two (Grade 9/10 and Grade 11/12) or done with the whole school. So you can imagine that the teachers develop close relationships with the students, and the students with each other. I’ve found through my experiences with homeschooling that bullying is far less likely to take place in small groups with lots of adults around, and in multi-age groups.  

We received a warm and enthusiastic welcome, and they were happy to consider accepting my daughter on a part-time basis. As a bonus, our homeschool program is paying the tuition fees! She was due to start right after the Christmas holidays, and there was a great deal of excitement in our family as that time approached. The plan was for her to attend 4 days/week for half-days at first, moving to full days in a week or two. They were just finishing up the first semester, so this would be perfect timing.

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However, it turns out that neither my daughter nor myself anticipated what a huge change this would be for her. It’s not just dealing with the social situation – being a stranger in a crowd of unfamiliar faces, worrying about every word she says in case she embarrasses herself, etc…

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But I didn’t stop to think about all the things she wouldn’t know by virtue of having never gone to school. Little things like transitioning between classes, how to distinguish handouts from assignments or homework. How to organize materials from different classes, what to do during class (take notes? Just sit and listen?), what to do on a break (stay in the classroom? Go outside?), etc. We had a steep learning curve ahead of us.

 

To be continued…

Categories: Education, learning, Miss Em | 1 Comment

Free Motion Quilting

A few years ago after I learned to knit and discovered that I was, in fact, somewhat creative I became interested in quilting. I loved the look of quilts and the creativity involved in putting them together. I grabbed a couple of books from the library and got rather excited looking at all the patterns. Then I read about how one actually quilts and decided that hour upon hour of hand-sewing was not something I was interested in doing.

More recently, when I began planning in earnest for our new home, I thought about how moving to a bigger house often means having to fill that extra space with Stuff, and I wrote a post about how I didn’t want to get sucked into buying things that had no meaning or would fall apart after a while. I imagined crafting the things that would fill my new home and that brought my thoughts back to quilting. The kids would have their own rooms and I thought how wonderful it would be to have a lovely hand-made quilt for each of them, not to mention one for the grownups’ bed. So I decided to look into it again.

At the library I found a book about something called machine quilting and I got very excited. You could do this on a sewing machine? Way cool. The book was brief but it got me Googling. I found the Missouri Star Quilt Company, which has great video tutorials on its site. And then I found my epiphany, my golden muse, the inspiration that moved me to action: The Free Motion Quilt Project. This blog was started by a young quilter named Leah Day, a petite soft-spoken gal from North Carolina with an adorable American accent. Frustrated by the lack of options out there for free motion quilting (FMQ) she set out to create one new pattern each day for a year. From there her website grew to include all sorts of wonderful articles and videos to guide one through machine quilting. I was hooked!

But I didn’t have a sewing machine.

Thanks to Leah’s website I had a good idea what to look for in a machine for FMQ. I’d been scouring Craigslist and UsedEverywhere but none of the machines offered had what I was looking for. Plus I knew I really needed to try these machines out before buying and that would be very difficult if I was trucking around all over town, dragging the kids with me, sitting in someone else’s home begging for fabric scraps!

I was getting impatient with just watching all Leah’s great videos: I was ready to get started! Luckily, over the last couple of months my consulting business suddenly got very busy and I was able to bring in a nice chunk of extra money for our family. I decided to treat myself and buy a new machine. I could certainly think of many uses for it besides quilting, like mending clothes, making cloth napkins and placemats and other things for the home. We don’t have a sewing machine store here in town so last week, when I had to head to the Big City for an appointment, I dropped by their main sewing store.

I “test drove” a few machines, using quilted samples the store had available. I didn’t tell the salesgirl that this was the first time I had ever FMQ’d before! I ended up falling in love with a model that was, of course, much more expensive than what I had planned to spend. But it was on sale and came with a quilter’s kit (FMQ foot, table extension, etc.) and had a nice large harp space for quilting. Not to mention a great work light (I had the sobering middle-aged lady experience of realizing that my eyes aren’t what they used to be). Mostly I just found sewing on this machine to be smooth and easy and it didn’t scare me! So I took the plunge and purchased my first sewing machine: a Pfaff Ambition 1.0.

I couldn’t wait to get started on it, and thankfully I had saved an old bed sheet that had a big hole in it, so I had plenty of fabric to play with. I also had a sewing kit I’d picked up from a friend’s yard sale years ago full of notions and scissors and thread. After reading the manual carefully and learning how to thread the machine and wind a bobbin, I was all set. I did a few runs of straight stitching before getting impatient and switching to the FMQ foot. I folded a swath of fabric four times over, sewed around the edges to form a rectangle, and then began to practice FMQ as per Leah’s instructions.

Not only was it as easy as she made it look (which confirms to me that I made a good choice in machines) but it was also just as fun as it looked, too! I am hooked. I had so much fun practising different designs. Here are a couple of my test swatches (I apologize for the photos being hard to see clearly: I only had this fabric and white thread, not a great combination for contrast):

My first attempt. Learning the basic motion of the Stippling design, the most common FMQ pattern.

Moving up to more varied Stippling shapes.

Then I tried some other beginner designs from Leah’s website.

My first attempts at Flowing Glass, Sea Oats, Rainforest Leaf, and Trailing Spirals. Too much fun!

After several samples I was itching to make something “real”. Next chance I got I headed to the local FabricLand store and got myself a membership (my mother has had her membership since I was a wee child so it felt good to join) and came home with some “fat quarters” and a “charm pack”. I decided to use the fat quarters to make placemats that I would just FMQ without any piecing. The truth is, I don’t even own an iron let alone a rotary cutter, cutting board, or quilter’s ruler. It was rather slapdash, but turns out you don’t need much perfection to make a simple placemat. I was really pleased with how they came out (the colours of the plaid are much bolder in reality; not sure if you can see the stippling well either).

Double sided placemat with Stipple quilting.

I’m planning on making some more placemats. Until I get an iron and some proper cutting tools that’s all I can do, but it will allow me to practice my FMQ while still producing something useful. There is an exception, however: I’m getting this quilting set from appleturnover‘s Etsy Store. The owner of the shop is a friend of mine from back in our mum-and-baby-group days. She asked me to be a tester for her quilting kit: the pieces are already cut and I will be quilting along with videos she shot on her lovely antique hand-crank machine. I’ll still need to get an iron, but the cutting tools can hold off for a while longer.

Stay tuned for more quilting projects!

Categories: Homemaking, learning | 1 Comment

The Joy of Riding

Hubby and I are several months into our weekly riding lessons now, and it has been everything I hoped it would be and more. Those of you who aren’t into horses or riding will have to indulge me with this post. Bringing riding into our lives has been a big deal around here.

There’s something about riding that is like meditation. I suppose there are many hobbies or pursuits that leave one with this feeling, but for me nothing comes close to it like riding. No matter how bad your day, no matter how sour your mood, getting up on a horse results in your mind clearing of everything. For one blissful hour I am focussed on my body and my equine partner, working together, with constant back-and-forth communication. It is really an honour to engage in such a conversation with another creature, one who is so strong and powerful and yet willingly submits to carrying me on his back.

My lesson horse is named Boomer and he’s a Quarter Horse. My trainer is working on getting her official Equine Canada certification and Boomer is the horse she is using, so she is schooling him in dressage and jumping. I’m so impressed with him – he looks lovely under saddle whether he is doing a cowboy-ish lope, flying changes in a lovely dressage frame, or hopping over jumps with controlled enthusiasm. I have to confess, Quarter Horses have never been my favourite breed. I’ve always thought of them as the workhorses they are, not as elegant and light movers. But our trainer’s two lesson horses have really won me over. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with her skills in horsemanship – she understands horses on a level few people do, and her skill is reflected in her horses. Her little “cow pony” is turning into a lovely little dressage horse (he recently won Training Level Champion at a local dressage show!), and since Dressage is my favourite equestrian pursuit I am very pleased to have a well-schooled horse on which to practice.

Meanwhile my husband has discovered the magical, meditative powers of riding. He seems to really enjoy the relationship he’s developing with his horse, Partner. My husband is not known for being effusive, so seeing his face light up as he excitedly talks about his lesson is truly amazing. I couldn’t be more thrilled that he is enjoying it so much. Riding with him is a real treat.

My husband on his very first trail ride.

I can’t believe I survived for 10 years without riding in my life. Now that it’s back I am so very grateful. Horses will be in my life from now on, I’m certain!

This was an exciting day: our trainer came to our property and we set out on a trail ride from our own driveway.

Categories: country scenes, critters, learning, lifestyle | Leave a comment

House Planning

Winter months are a great time for indoor activities like crafting, reading, garden planning, and other endeavours that can take place from a comfortable chair. Besides doing a fair amount of knitting and crocheting myself this season, I also embarked on another hobby/task: planning our future house. When we bought this property, the plan from the start was to build a house within 5 years. Our small mobile home is serving us well at the moment, but it is old and is likely not going to last too much longer. Moisture problems top the list of issues, and we have a noticeable mouse population sharing our home (despite having a cat). If things continue to go according to plan on the financial front (we should know by summer) we’re hoping by the end of this year to start the initial work (engineering, soil testing, hiring the architect, etc). But even though we are still a ways from breaking ground, I’ve already learned a lot. In today’s post I’m going to share some of this process with you.

 

Step #1: Know Your Land.

When we were first looking at land, many resources I consulted said the same thing: if you are planning to build try to live on the property for at least a year, if not longer, before breaking ground on your new home. One of the great features of this property was the mobile home. Old enough (and ugly enough!) that we would happily get rid of it when the time came, but sturdy enough to house us until such time as we were ready to build. Having spent almost two years here I can appreciate how valuable that advice is. I know our land pretty well now. I know where the rarer species grow, where water likes to accumulate, where it flows during the wet season, and where it dries out first. I know where the frost accumulates, where the wind blows from in winter. I know the path of the sun year-round, what obstacles cast significant shadows on growing areas, what animals visit our property at night, where the birds like to hang out, etc. This is all very helpful information when it comes to the next step.

Step #2: Choose Your Building Site.

 

In our case, there wasn’t a huge choice of locations despite having 4 acres. Our property is long and narrow and there is a residential power line cutting diagonally across the top third of the property with a right-of-way underneath that precludes any permanent buildings. To build below that line would mean a very long walk from the curb on garbage day. Unless we wanted 2 acres of land between us and the street we’d have to build in a gully between hills and that is a bad site for any house – frost collects there, as does water. We also didn’t want to build on the same spot as our current house so that we could remain living comfortably for however long it takes to build. Moving the house and its connections to another spot on the property would be expensive.

In some ways, having limits can be good. There was really only one logical place to build and fortunately it is not where our mobile home is located. The site we’ve chosen is in the northwest corner of the property, on the highest point and furthest away from roads and neighbours (shown in the photo above). There are some lovely views from there, and its southern exposure will allow us to incorporate passive solar heating into the home design. The north side of the site is part of a large forested area, which will be great for insulating against cold winter winds that blow from the small mountains and hills to the north of us. Unfortunately, the entire west side of the property is lined with a tall forest of Douglas Fir trees so we lose the sun early in the day. However, having consulted my bible of solar home design – The Solar House by Dan Chiras – it is just sufficient to be suitable for the job (more on solar design later).

The site is the top portion of the area we had cleared two years ago when we first moved here, but we didn’t clear all the way to the north property line. There is a large Western Redcedar tree there surrounded by a few smaller ones and I did not want to have to remove them if possible. They provide a dense shield against wind (and block the view from the hiking trail that goes past that northern border) plus we don’t have too many cedars in our neighbourhood (it was logged about a century ago and replanted with Douglas Firs). So that limited how far we could extend the house northwards. Westwards we are right up against the property line, so the minimum clearance sets that limit. Eastwards it’s pretty wide open, but the further east we go the more exposed we are to the street (it ends about halfway along our northern border) and the neighbours’ homes. Southwards we are limited by the powerline right-of-way. But there was one other limiting factor.

This high point on the property was dug into when the original owners placed the mobile home, and then cut into some more when a small detached garage was added (see photo above). Thus there is a chunk of land cut out of the southeast corner of the house site. Originally I assumed this meant we’d have to build an L-shaped house and most of my plans were based on that design. Due to the limitations described above I wasn’t getting anywhere with floor plans (I should point out here that we are adamantly opposed to having more than one storey of living space, for reasons too lengthy to get into just now).

And then one day it hit me that if we built out over the cut-out section we could free ourselves up enormously in terms of size and layout. Essentially we’d build out over the current garage, whose roof is practically level with the top of the hill, and it would become a walk-out half-basement. It would house what it currently houses: tools, three freezers full of meat, and Husband’s drum kit among other garage-type items. And virtually none of it would be buried, allowing sufficient light inside that it doesn’t feel like a dungeon. Why it took me months of pacing around at the top of that hill to figure this out I don’t know. But it’s just one reason why I’m glad I have so much time to work on this planning thing!

Step #3: The Layout.

The truth is that we are going to need an architect to design the floor plan and layout of the house. I have zero training in this area and I can’t seem to break outside the box. Literally. I’m using graph paper to work on design plans and I seem to be stuck in this rectangular, stick-to-the-lines thinking that suggests we need a 3000 sq. foot house in order to fulfill our requirements. That is more than double the size I’m interested in. So mostly, drawing floor plans has been an exercise in thinking about the spaces and coming up with a few good ideas here and there. There is no way I could do this in earnest.

 

Thankfully, there are some great resources out there and my current bible of home design is from Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House empire. Specifically, her book Creating the Not So Big House has been an excellent source of ideas, as well as providing me with the language to convey to our future architect what we’re looking for. Finding a book like this which encapsulates your own desires for house design can really help with the whole process. I’m pretty sure that an architect will be able to come up with far more efficient uses of space, and far better workflow patterns, than I’ve been able to come up with during my forays into cubist floor-planning.

Another important consideration is that we wish to incorporate passive solar design principles into our home. This means orienting the long side of the house to the south, placing most of the windows there, and incorporating thermal mass into areas of the home to retain and release heat when the sun goes down. Without going into too much detail about passive solar design right now, it does place some limitations on layout. But now that I know we’re not limited to an L-shaped site it’s not really an issue anymore.

Step #4: The Materials.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been reading my blog for a while to learn that I want to build our home from natural materials, locally sourced wherever possible. The choices boil down to cordwood, rammed earth, cob, and straw bale. While rammed earth construction has been done here (music legend David Crosby has a rammed earth home on nearby Salt Spring Island that was featured in an episode of David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things) and it is beautiful, it’s not really my style. Cordwood is problematic in climates with high moisture like ours, and while I think it looks pretty I don’t want a whole house made out of it. I’d had it in my head for some time that cob would be our best choice because I thought strawbale wasn’t suited to our damp climate. I’ve since learned that this may not be the case. And I’m concerned about the fact that cob is a relatively poor insulator. So right now I’m leaning toward strawbale.

We will, however, be using timber-framing for the skeleton of the house. The strawbales (or whatever we choose) will be infill rather than supporting walls. Timber frame simply looks incredibly beautiful, there are several very skilled companies locally that do timber-framing, and the lumber can be sourced right here on the Island (and some of it probably from our own property).

 

Step #5: The Idea Book.

I started this as a Word document some time ago. Any thoughts or observations I have go here. It could be anything from noting that I spend a great deal of time during the day in the kitchen, to wish-lists requesting, for example, a covered outdoor area for hanging laundry when it is raining. I’ve put a huge amount of thought into all the details and recording them in one place makes for a handy reference.

My tip would be to spend a day thinking about where you go in your home at various times of day, what areas are used the most, and which are not used much at all. What items do you have lying around that need a home of their own – plastic shopping bins for groceries before they get taken back out to the car, recycling, mail that needs to be sorted, clothes going to goodwill, etc. Think about what you like about your current home, or what wish you had – for example, when you are taking a shower do you love that there is a window there? Do you wish the shower were wider? And of course there is my favorite topic: how easy is this to clean? I’m amazed at how many design features I see in magazines and websites that look beautiful but I know from experience would be magnets for dust and cobwebs, or be a pain to vaccuum around.

I also wanted to share a great website I found called Houzz.com. Here are hundreds of thousands of images of room design, including exteriors, that you can browse through and add to your own personal Ideabook. My one complaint with the site is that most of these homes are quite ostentatious, much too over-the-top for my liking. I’m looking for something simpler and more humbler than most of the homes shown here, but there are so many great ideas that I continue to build up Ideabooks for various rooms in my future home. The best part will be sharing these books with our future architect, who can then get a very good idea of our taste and style without having to conduct extensive interviews with people lacking the language to describe what they like (that would be me: “Um, I like kind of a rustic look but not messy-looking, sort of traditional but not uppity, something between country and west coast luxury home…but small”…???).

So that’s where I am now. Building up my Ideabooks, having fun with graph paper, and making notes of things that will be important when it comes time to sit down with an architect. Of course there is much that needs to take place in-between, but there’s nothing I like more than immersing myself in some project that leads to the fulfillment of a Dream. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if the dream ever comes true; I enjoy the process that much.

 

Categories: being green, building things, learning, outdoor projects, the dream | 4 Comments

Our first year of raising meat birds: what we’ve learned

Today I picked up our last batch of chickens from the processor: twenty-four yummy whole chickens have been added to our freezer stash. In looking back on this, our first summer of raising meat birds (or any kind of bird, for that matter), we’ve learned a few things about what we like and don’t like, and gained ideas about what to try next year.

We raised Cornish Rock Giants, which are basically the same type of bird used in mass-production factory farms. Ours actually got to see the outdoors, however. In fact they lived outdoors and enjoyed fresh air, sunshine, tasty grass and bugs. But the truth is they are, as many backyard chicken types will tell you, freaks of nature. They have been intensively bred for maximum meat production in minimum time. We got them as tiny, day-old chicks and by 8 weeks they were ready for harvest. This is good in terms of cost: a shorter duration to harvest means spending less money on feed. But I don’t think it’s very good for the chickens.

As many other people have reported, we noticed that our chickens didn’t seem to want to move around much. I’d often see them take a few clumsy steps as they attempted to balance their rapidly-growing bodies on legs whose bones couldn’t possibly keep up with those demands, only to drop to the ground as if they had just run a marathon. This most recent batch of birds went 9 weeks (because I didn’t make an appointment early enough) and by that time I noticed that some of them appeared to be having difficulty walking and one hen had what looked like a broken wing and perhaps a broken leg, too (she could not walk at all). She was perky and had less then 24 hrs to live so I just brought some feed to her and some water and told her it would all be over soon. I don’t like having injured birds: it may not affect the meat quality but that’s not the kind of farming I want to do. I couldn’t  help but think of the scene in the movie Food Inc. when the chickens were collected for processing and many of them could not walk. I want no part of that kind of “farming”.

I’d also heard that the mortality rate for these birds is high. We did lose 7 of our first batch of 20 chicks, all within the first week of life. I suspect it was a management and inexperience issue because we didn’t lose a single chick in our second batch. However, one of that second batch did die at around 7 weeks, apparently from a heart attack which is common for this breed. This sort of thing kind of makes you ponder the meaning of the word “healthy” – yes our birds were disease-free, but how healthy is an animal that can barely walk?

Another thing we noticed is that raising these birds the usual way (with a chicken tractor) is still really messy, despite the fact that they are outdoors. They eat huge amounts of food and thus generate great quantities of excrement. Despite having their tractor moved every 24 hours, within that time they would manage to coat the ground with waste, which then got all over their feathers on the underside. And my tractor was big compared to the recommended size for that many birds. They didn’t seem crowded in terms of space, but the tractor should probably have been moved twice a day towards the end to keep up with the poop – by that time all of them had wet, dirty undersides. But moving the tractor is a bit of a chore – I could tweak the design a bit to make it easier, but I keep thinking there has got to be a better way. Finally, because of the copious amounts of waste, the area around the tractor smelled pretty bad, and you could smell it wafting on the air all around the farm depending on which way the wind was blowing. Not pleasant.

Overall, we were left feeling like the chicken tractor was really just a step up from confinement operations. When I first looked into raising meat birds I asked people (on BackyardChickens.com, which is THE place to learn about such things) why meat birds weren’t raised like layers – able to strut around a farmyard at their leisure during the day. Some people said there was no point because the things are so poorly designed for mobility that they don’t really bother ranging, even if given the space to do so. We would like to at least give it a try ourselves, as others had a better experience.

The bigger issue is predation. When the birds are small they are perfect prey for raptors, and we have several species of such hunting birds in our neighbourhood. How to keep them safe from overhead ambush is one issue we still have to think about. Normally chicks would be raised with adult hens and roosters, the latter serving as guards for the flock, warning others of approaching marauders and herding the women and children into the brush. Not only do the meat birds not have any experienced chickens around to protect them, but it’s doubtful to me how well they would respond to an alarm scenario anyway. They have had most of the “chicken” bred out of them, perhaps to make them more amenable to a life of confinement. I wouldn’t be surprised if they all just stood around staring stupidly at any rooster trying to warn them of impending predatory doom.

So one of my projects this winter will be to come up with a new management scheme for next year’s meat birds. I’d also like to try a few heritage meat breeds to see if we can find something a little less freakish. Growing them longer will mean increased feed costs, but perhaps that can be mitigated somewhat by allowing them greater access to forage. The chicks themselves are about twice the price of the commercial breeds, too. I don’t mind paying more for good chicken, however, so we’ll just have to do the experiment and see. Most people will tell you that the taste of the commercial breeds makes all the freakishness worth it, and perhaps we’ll find that to be the case (though we still believe there is much room for improvement). This is one of the things I’m really enjoying about our “back to the land” experience: you can read all you want but really you need to go out there and just do it yourself. That’s the only way to determine what works best for you, and as a bonus you learn a lot in the meantime.

Categories: critters, know your food, learning, outdoor projects, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Spring is here!

Thanks to a recent bought of spring weather, my trailmaking project is coming along nicely. I’ve added several more trails to the one that was already present when we moved here last year (and now that one will stay accessible even when the stinging nettles are full grown). It’s exciting to be able to access areas of the woods that I haven’t been able to observe easily before. I’m noticing which areas are particularly sunny and open, and which are cooler and more damp. I can’t help but feel that we have the foundations of a bountiful food forest in here, with lots of diversity in both microclimate and soil type.

As a reward for my hard work, I take the dog for daily walks through the trail network. Once or twice I’ve brought along a small colinear hoe to sweep away any stinging nettles growing on the paths (these innocuous-looking small shoots will, I’ve now learned from experience, grow to about 5 feet tall by summer). As we go along, I’m looking out for species of plants that I haven’t yet identified.

One small tree had me puzzled for a while. It caught my attention a couple of weeks ago when I noticed it was already budding leaves when all the other plants had buds shut up tight. Soon small sprays of flowers could be seen. It looks so pretty – a sign of all the delights of spring to come. I took a sample branch and spent quite some time thumbing through my Trees in Canada book trying to identify it, to no avail.

Finally I decided to check my other reference, Plants of Coastal BC. I then learned why I was having so much trouble – my little tree was not, in fact, a Tree but a Shrub. And it’s an Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), a classic herald of spring in our coastal climate (see photo above).

I’m really enjoying the process of getting to know the flora and fauna of our place. It brings a sense of familiarity. This spring I’ve been watching the Vanilla Leaf come up, and remembering how astonished I was to see them for the first time shortly after moving here last year. They seemed so strange at first, these tall, thin green stalks rising up out of the ground, with nothing but a fan-shaped green tip. They came up in great swaths, looking almost alien in appearance. Now when I see the new crop coming up I remember how it felt to “meet” them last year.

Over the last few days I’ve been noticing Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum) appearing, and today I saw one in flower. The Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa) is coming up, though no flowers just yet. And today I discovered Menzies’ Red-Mouthed Mnium (Mnium spinulosum), a type of moss that is relatively easy to identify because of the red rings around the tip of the sporophyte. My daily walks through our woodland trails will allow me to watch the changes unfolding on a much smaller scale than I was able to last year. It’s a new show every week!

 

Categories: country scenes, learning, outdoor projects, permaculture | 5 Comments

Permaculture Site Plan: 1st Draft

I’ve been very busy these past few weeks: on any given sunny day, and on several slightly rainy ones, I could be found outside with my 100 ft tape measure, a stake and a mallet, and a sheaf of paper (sometimes wrapped in a clear plastic bag). I was using triangulation to create an accurate map of our property and the major features on it: driveway, house, shed, etc. It took me a few days to get all the measurements, and parts were tricky. In order to use triangulation to locate a specific object in space you must start with two known points that, together with the object, form a triangle. Our property is large and does not contain many two-point features, so often I had to work my way out to a desired object, by locating two trees I could use, or even by planting stakes in the ground.

The result of all this hard work (and a bit of fun with a compass and square-ruler that took me back to grade-school geometry class) was this:

This shows the complete North boundary (North is Up), and the east and west boundaries. The southern boundary is not shown, as it lies way down the page. What you see is approximately half the true length of our property. The Northern boundary lies some distance from our street, which runs west to east, ending at a dead end about halfway along the length of our northern boundary. East from there one enters the forest through a hiking trail. So while it looks as though the house is practically on the street edge, in fact we have a fair amount of yard that extends northwards past the true property boundary to the street.

The dotted lines show the Right of Way (ROW) for the local utility company. A pair of residential power lines runs through this corridor (the poles are not on our property) and there are restrictions on building within this area.

Our driveway begins in the northeast corner and wraps around the house so that the area marked by solid lines including the house, garage, and shed is all gravel save for the tear-drop shaped garden area in front of the deck. This area, enclosed by the solid lines, is flat, having been dug into a hillside. Thus the shaded area behind the garage and part of the house, which is a steep grade of earth that rises abruptly to the high point on our property – the northwest corner. Standing at the northwest corner of the garage the earth rises about 8 feet almost straight up, but quickly comes down as one walks southwards, so that at the site of the shed the land is only a couple of feet higher than the grade around the buildings.

The roadway that extends downwards from the main living area is, as of right now, dirt and rather loosely defined. It wanders southwards until, within the ROW it turns to the west and leads out of the property through a gate, and into the forest next door.

Using this map I was able to play with siting our future cob house. I cut out a square whose dimensions corresponded to 33 x 60 ‘ (2000 sq ft) and moved it around to see where it would fit. I wanted the parking area to be north of the house so that the southern views were not marred by cars, which also renders the south yard area quite unusable. I wanted to avoid doing any more grading and earth moving if possible (I hate the fact that they dug into the hillside in the first place: it looks like a wound on the earth having that great wall of earth rising up behind the buildings). And we could not have the building anywhere within the ROW. Since there is a neighbour to the east with a house close to the property boundary we wanted to avoid building along the east side. I eventually settled on a site for the future house, though mostly for the purposes of moving forward with the design process: I’m not certain this is where it will end up, but it gave us a starting place.

It then took some time and many false starts to finally come up with a plan for how to divide up the property into the various Zones of permaculture.

This map is almost the entire property; it should actually extend a bit further down but I decided not to be accurate there for the sake of having a manageable paper size. The living area shows the future house (largest black rectangle). Zone 1 is outlined in pink and will contain the kitchen garden, patio and other outdoor living areas. Zone 2 is outlined in yellow and will include more kitchen garden plants, including some dwarf fruit trees and berries, a greenhouse, chicken coop, greywater ponds, rainwater harvesting barrels and cisterns.

Zone 3 will contain most of our polyculture guilds: fruit and nut trees around which guilds are built. These will form our Food Forest. It also contains a spot for drying out logs and milled lumber (brown area on west side). Finally, this Zone contains our water harvesting system, which I’ll now describe in detail.

When it rains, a small stream forms that runs into our property through the West Gate. This is water that comes out of the forest and collects along the power line roadway (which forms a natural ditch that directs water onto our site). A substantial amount of water flows through here during the wet season and we wish to capture and store it and use it to our advantage. So the dark blue line starting at the West gate shows my idea for digging a proper ditch that would then have to run under the road (a simple culvert would do) to get to our Zone 3. This ditch would feed into a system of swales – ditches that run on contour, on the downward side of which are mounds of earth (berms) that are planted with polyculture guilds. The swales capture the water, spread it out over a long stretch, where it slowly sinks into the berms and irrigates the plantings on the berms. Each swale has an overflow area that feeds into the swale below. I’ve only drawn two swales here but probably we have room for 3 or more (this area slopes rather steeply to where I’ve drawn the larger pond). The final swale feeds into the pond. Right now this area is a seasonal “giant puddle” that is overgrown with salmonberry bushes. We’d like to dig it deeper and turn it into a true pond, create a wetland garden around it, and figure out how to make it less permeable so it holds the water year-round. This area will then be home to some geese and ducks, who will do double-duty providing eggs and meat as well as patrolling the food forest for slugs. There will be an overflow for the large pond – a gravel-filled trench, that will lead eastwards under the roadway (culvert) to a smaller, secondary pond. This is currently another seasonal “large puddle” where salmonberries abound. We may try to fix it so it is still wet when the pigs are here, providing them with a place to cool off. But the main source of water for the pigs will be a rainwater harvesting system on the distillery building.

The “roundabout”-looking thing in Zone 3 is a large bigleaf maple tree that sits atop a hill, near the centre. We plan to extend the dirt road and make it go around the tree. From this point southwards the property is all woodland. The brown dotted lines are current trails through the forest. The future Distillery building will go east of the maple tree; an area will be cleared to the south of the building to allow solar access, and within that part of Zone 3 will be more fruit and nut guilds with which my husband hopes to create some interesting spirits.

The light green areas are Zone 4, which can be divided into 3 sections. The first lies along the east side of the driveway and is currently full of trees and shrubs. We’re going to leave this as is for now, as it provides a nice privacy screen to the neighbour’s house. South of that area is a roughly 1/4 acre pasture which will house our pigs each spring/summer. We’re hoping there is enough land in there for them to graze without completely digging up the place, but if necessary we can divide it up into 2 or 3 sections and rotate them through it. The third section of Zone 4 is north of the house. This will be a reserve grazing area for the pigs should the other pasture not be sufficient in size to prevent them overgrazing it.

The grey lines show where we plan to install permanent fencing. The entire area from the house to at least the southern edge of Zone 3 will be perimeter fenced so that deer and elk cannot get into the food forests (I’ve shown it extending around the entire southern half of our property, but am no longer sure if we need to do that). However, I wanted to include in our plans a way for the local elk herd to continue visiting our property. It has been such a wonderful and meaningful experience to wake up to the sight of these gorgeous animals grazing so close to our house, and I wanted to include them in our design plan. So you’ll note that, in the northern section of Zone 4, the permanent fencing ends about halfway along the northern boundary as you approach from east to west. This is so we can leave it open when not in use by the pigs. The elk have been accessing the property through the northwest corner (which is forested) and grazing along the western strip of pasture, then leaving through the West Gate. So by leaving that part unfenced we retain their access. The bit of permanent fencing can easily be closed off by running a short length of temporary fencing (dotted grey lines) for when the pigs need to use it. Removing the temporary fence will open up that part to the elk when the pigs are not using it. Thus, the area in red denotes Zone 5: the wild, untouched zone.

This leaves the bottom 2 acres below Zone 3 to design. I scribbled some notes in there, but have since changed my mind. In wandering through the woodland this winter I’ve fallen in love with it again and am increasingly distressed at the thought of disturbing it much further. I’m hoping that the area already set aside for Zone 3 will provide enough fruit and nut trees to keep my husband happy. Then I could leave the rest as is, though I have some ideas to experiment with what is called “ecosystem to plants” design, basically starting with the current woodland as a template and adding or replacing certain other plants to increase ecosystem health, restore at-risk native species, or just experiment with new polyculture blends. I’ll talk more of this in a future post about my upcoming farm project, which involves this area. For now, I’m hoping to leave this area “as is” and see what we can do with it while preserving its unique beauty.

Well, if you’ve followed me thus far I hope I’ve kept you interested. The process of permaculture design is fascinating to me and I’ve really enjoyed the process so far.

Categories: gardening, know your food, learning, permaculture, water works, working the land | 2 Comments

Lessons from our first winter

Winter has arrived here on Vancouver Island. Even Vancouver got a dusting of snow, but around our place – which is about 300 feet above sea level – we got a nice big dump of snow. It’s rather unusual for this part of the country to get snow so early, and the temperatures have also been unseasonally cold. We’d been thinking about this for a while, how we would prepare and cope with winter in the country, but it all happened upon us rather unexpectedly and we’ve had a few hiccups already.

It all started rather blissfully. On Friday evening I went to bed with a dusting of snow already on the ground and we woke to a winter wonderland. the photo at the top is the view from our deck, which is pretty much the same view from our bedroom window. That morning I drank my usual cup of tea, but this time I was perched on the dresser staring out the window at the magic around us…I couldn’t get enough of how amazing it all looked, and counted my blessings for the umpteenth time since moving here.

But the blissful moment was interrupted by discovering that the pigs had escaped and were getting into the garbage cans. Husband and I put on our snow gear. After I dug it all out of storage and dusted off the cobwebs, that is. A mouse had built a cozy little nest in one of Daughter’s snow boots; note to self – don’t store boots in the garage! It was actually a very enjoyable task to go out and repair the electric fence around the pig paddock. Since they were due to leave us the next day we took the whole thing apart and rigged up a much smaller paddock that linked to the “livestock chute” Husband had fabricated from various materials (that’s it sinking under the snow in the foreground of the above photo). Then the kids got themselves bundled up and we searched the property for a suitable hill. It was very cool being able to toboggan on our own property! The dog was having a blast running around in the snow. Later we went inside and I made a yummy homemade soup and all was right with the winter world.

Things started going wrong the next day. As you may recall, the pigs were supposed to be long gone before this kind of weather hit and we couldn’t get another appointment until this past Sunday. That morning the processing guy called to say the livestock hauler couldn’t get his trailer to the processor’s facility so everybody was rescheduled for the following weekend. I’ve been worried about the pigs as they only have a 3-sided shelter and I honestly don’t know if they can handle this sort of cold. Some of the books say you should build a winter shelter for them, others say they are hardy and will handle a bit of cold (and this from a guy who lived in Virginia where the temps went down to minus 28 C!). So far they don’t show any signs of distress, but at this point there’s not much to do except keep them fed and watered and hope that next weekend’s appointment goes as planned. Meanwhile it’s about – 10 C here; thank goodness they have each other to snuggle up against.

Our big concern when thinking about the approaching winter was losing power. We were told by the neighbours that it’s a given, and we did experience several power outages in the summer though they all resolved themselves within minutes. The issue was heat since our propane-powered central heating (forced air) system relies on electricity to run the fan. We’d talked about getting a wood stove or a gas stove hooked up to our propane tank, but this place is so small and already crowded I just don’t know where we’d put it. Husband argued that, for the same price, we could get a kick-ass generator that would not only give us power for heat in case of an outage, but power for the stove and our computers, etc. Kind of hard to argue with that logic. Well yesterday in the midst of this cold-spell the heater breaks down. We still have power, but no heat (the fan motor has died). Hopefully tomorrow we’ll get someone out to fix it, but in the meantime it’s rather chilly in here! We’ve all got extra wool blankets on the beds, I’m bundled up and drinking hot tea, but this is not something I’ll want to go through regularly. I guess we’ll be shopping for generators this week (when everybody else is, too; oh the joys of being a procrastinator!).

On the water front, we assumed the pump house and well head were already weather-proofed as it’s not like nobody was living here before us. However it appears that the only thing keeping the pump from freezing was a light bulb in the pump house, which blew out back in the summer and never got replaced. So today we lost our water. Husband put a space heater in the pump house, which appeared to fix the problem for a while, but then later on we lost our water again. So looks like we’ll be calling a guy in tomorrow for that, too!

Of course all this happens while I’m out of town for two days with Daughter, and Husband is home with Son, both of whom are sick with colds. In true Kid Fashion, Son recovered almost immediately and has been bouncing off the walls while Husband has had to tend to an electric fence malfunction (the pigs rooted up the power line – that’s what happens when you move the paddock in deep snow and forget where the line is buried!), the pump issue, take apart the heater, and try to cook for himself and Son…On the way home from the ferry terminal I get a pleading text message asking us to bring pizza and lots of water. We have water for drinking and cooking now, but not for flushing the toilet – now who’s crazy for stocking up on family cloth, huh??

Amidst all the craziness I have to laugh and love it all. A bunch of suburbanites spending their first real winter out in the country – lots to learn! But we will learn and figure it out, and in the meantime it’s hard to complain with all that frozen beauty out there.

Categories: country scenes, critters, learning, lifestyle, outdoor projects, water works | Leave a comment

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