The (terrible, horrible, no good, very bad) renovation

When last I posted (two years ago!) I was, simply put, in a state.  The farm, my happy place, had seemingly turned on me.  The renovation was stalled, the pipes had burst leaving a mess and an extra expense of a new bathroom, and the Workhorse was beside himself.  Our contractor, who had begun to seem a little fishy, was starting to smell like a decomposing whale.  The lies, once convincing, started to pile up.  I wanted to trust him – he seemed like a nice guy, and if I believed his stories, he’d had all kinds of personal problems.  The Workhorse wanted him gone.  I stalled.

Then the City shut us down.  The building permits, we had been repeatedly assured, were just waiting to be picked up the next time the contractor was in the vicinity of the permit office.  Turns out no permits had ever been applied for.  This was a very hard pill to swallow since I had tried to convince the contractor to let me handle the permit process but he had insisted that he could do it better, faster and easier.  It also turns out we had hired a pathological liar.  I’ve never encountered anyone like him before and I hope never to again.

The City was not amused.  All work was halted.  We fired the contractor and begged and grovelled to the City inspectors who didn’t want to believe we had been duped. We started to hear from trades, whose work we’d paid for only to find out they’d never been paid by the contractor.  That was one of the worst parts. Everyone felt awful about it, except the lying contractor, presumably.  A new (wonderful) contractor was hired and the City let us know we’d need a $20k septic system before work could continue.   The good times rolled on.

Everyone who wades into the waters of home improvement has one really bad renovation, I think.  This was ours.  Work didn’t really start again until April.  It cost a trillion dollars, more or less, took 13 months, not 60 days and probably took two years off the Workhorse’s life in stress.

In the meantime, I fell out of love with the farm.  Besides the stress and hemmorhaging of cash, the place looked like crap.   Grass had been ruined, there were piles of wood and fill around the farm and it looked like hell.  It was all a mess and I certainly didn’t feel like writing about it.  We didn’t get the farm cleaned up and pretty again until this past summer.

At the end of the day, our addition was everything we wanted and more.  It’s beautiful and it has changed the way we live at the farm.  We put in a basement gym and the big family room is the best place to spend time together.  We have a big mudroom with lots of storage.  And the addition also made space for a smaller sitting room where the old living room was.



Here’s what it looks like now



It took the better part of two years, but we recovered from the betrayal of the bad contractor, we came up for air financially and we cleaned up the grounds.  Somewhere along the way I fell back in love with the farm.  Some things are meant to survive being tested.


Drive by

Since I last posted more than two months ago it seems we’ve barely paused here at the farm.  With two years under my belt here, I now understand that the times of the year that keep us busiest in the city happen to coincide with the months in which the garden is most demanding.  As a result, when we’ve been at Northbrook over the last two months, which is less than I’d like it to be, we’ve been cleaning up the garden, planting garlic, mulching, composting and of course, gathering up the leaves.  Each autumn now I am truly grateful for the Cyclone Rake and it’s marriage-saving powers.

Not to be outdone by the grounds, the house has been requiring more than a little attention as our renovation is underway.

The idea, which came from the previous owner, was to tear down the summer kitchen – an uninsulated room attached to the house now used for storage and raccoon housing.  In it’s place will go a family room featuring comfortable seating and a fireplace.  It will also house electronics so that the current small living room can be a quiet place to sit and read.

Here’s what the summer kitchen looked like in the beginning.  I don’t have any indoor shots handy, but imagine a crappy shed-like room full of paint cans and racoon poo and you’ll get the idea.

summer kitchen july 2013

The reno began about a month ago.renovation 1renovation 2

Coming up each weekend is making the changes dramatic.renovation 3

Like any renovation worth its salt, it’s taking much longer than anticipated and will naturally lead to heart-palpitation worthy cost escalations.  It’s not our first rodeo, renovation wise, though so I know we’ll survive it all.  I’ve also discovered there’s a lot to be said for not living full-time where you’re renovating.

The rest of the last few months have been eaten up by city weekends, bike races and travels.  We held the second annual Northbrook Olympics.  image

The weather didn’t cooperate but I didn’t overcook the turkey this year, and I made this

delicious cake.pumpkin cake

Since we had to take it inside, we had a great game of charades.


Looking ahead, we’ll be tethered to the city over the next few weeks as the Girl turns nine, among other things.

girl at olympics

There are the holidays to prepare for and, as the renovation progresses door knobs, rugs and light fixtures to sort out.  It’s hard to believe, but I’m actually looking forward to winter coming – not so much for the weather, but for the hunkering down period.  Northbrook is perfect for many things, but passing a cold winter weekend is one of it’s best. Until the next drive by visit long enough for a blog post…



There’s a deeply ingrained ritual here at Northbrook farm.  On weekends, or other vacation-y times, somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 the children are invited to watch television.  This frees up the parents for Northbrook cocktail hour.  Most often this happens on the side deck where we can both look out at the back garden and keep an eye on whatever is on the barbecue.


At that time of day the light is lovely, from spring to fall.  There’s a pinky golden warmth illuminating our drab grey barn, and the back fields somehow look as though they are resting in the sunshine.  Not infrequently in these moments, the Workhorse will turn to me and ask, “how’s your farm?”, to which I always reply, “it’s perfect.”

Northbrook has been very good to us this summer.  The garden has been generous and bountiful.


  • Last night we made our fourth batch of pickles (6lbs per batch).  I’m happy to report that I was able to keep up with the cucumbers with enough dill, onions and garlic this year.
  • The determinate tomatoes are offering up beautiful specimens, and although I was supposed to use them for salsa, I’m doubtful that any will be left when salsa making happens.  The indeterminate tomatoes are making stunning and delicious, improbably large offerings to the salad plate.
  • There are bushels of potatoes.
  • We’ve got hot and sweet peppers.
  • The freezer is full of green beans (probably my favourite crop for low input-high output).
  • The leeks, carrots and parsnips are still in the beds.
  • The beets only flourished in one of the locations I planted them but they were beautiful.
  • I did manage to grow peas this year, but harvested them too late – delicious still, but maybe a victim of being a weekend gardener only.
  • I got much better at succession planting the herbs, so we’ve had a constant supply of cilantro, basil, parsley and dill.
  • The garlic was not only delicious, but also lovely to look at in the garden, which made up for the small onions again this year.
  • We’ve managed to avoid powdery mildew on the summer squash and have enjoyed patty pans as well as zucchini.  bounty3aug2013
  • I’m optimistic about the asparagus, which seems to be filling in even though I broke the cardinal rule and moved it last fall.
  • I wasn’t as good at keeping lettuce going in the garden as I was the herbs, which is just ridiculous considering how easy it is to  grow, but there is a bed with tiny seedlings of lettuce, arugula, spinach and kale, which I hope to add to the September and October plates.  bounty2aug13
  • After months of waiting and almost pulling it out, the broccoli is finally flowering.
  • Of course the pumpkins, winter squash and melons stubbornly refuse to grown, but at least the sunflowers have done my bidding this year, making for a great backdrop to my garden bench.
  • The apple tree is struggling under the weight of all the apples.  I’m predicting lots of apple crisps, apple sauces, apple muffins….

One of my favourite things about the garden this year is how noisy it is.  I planted more borage this year because it’s beautiful and happens to like living at Northbrook.  It’s a great companion plant and the edible blue flowers dress up of a plate of sliced vegetables like no one’s business.  I didn’t realize how popular it would be with the bees.  The garden is so full of bees and other insects that it’s bordering on the excessive.  The cilantro I let go to flower is probably the second favourite insect spot, followed by the mullein weed that snuck in but which I couldn’t bring myself to pull out since the bugs seem to like it.  The giant sunflowers are just about to open, which might bring some relief to the borage.


We’ve also found toads and frogs, which is a good sign of a happy garden.  There is no evidence of the toads living in the homes we made for them…yet.

Of course the farm wasn’t entirely perfect this summer.  We battled with our two-year neglect of the water system and got the dreaded unsafe water test result.  This meant weeks of bottled water, lots of calls and trips to the city health board, and getting the local water company on board.  The good news is that we now have not only clean and safe water, but also a handle on the system.

There were multiple power outages.  One caused us to lose all the food in our fridge and freezer, the other was responsible for cancelling the Boy’s birthday party.

There was lots of work to do around the farm.  Weeding, clearing, planting, painting, schlepping, cleaning and so much more.  Despite it all, Northbrook gives us much more than it takes.  Beyond all of the vegetables, we’ve enjoyed all kinds of nature.  We’ve had two sets of babies this summer on the front porch – sparrows and robins.  A pair of bluebirds flew around us all of July.  Our many hummingbirds love to come by at all hours.  The corn in the front field has given us privacy and quiet, and the flowers have bloomed all over the farm giving us colour and beauty.  The hollyhocks grew to more than 8 feet tall and were stunning.

Mostly though, Northbrook gives me peace, room to breathe, and a place to be centered.  Perfection to me, indeed.


I’m stealing the last few moments of an early start to the day.  The WorkHorse was commuting to the city this morning and pointed out this when he got up.


I’m a sucker for a sunrise, so I started my day at 5:00.

At the moment it’s very quiet in the house because last night the kids got up to this:


Grandpa decided the Boy should have a place of his own, so for his birthday he received this brand new tent.  The kids camped out there overnight, where they remain this morning.  We were expecting someone to cave and come in the house at some point, but unless they’ve been dragged off by coyotes in the night they are enjoying a sleep-in as I type.  It’s hard to believe anyone could sleep in between the sunrise, the birds and the I may have to check on them soon just to make sure that coyote thing didn’t happen.  They did look pretty cozy when I said goodnight….DSC_0020

It’s been so long between posts because life has been very, very full.  We’ve been going at a dead run since early May and the time that I’ve had at Northbrook has been dedicated to gardening and just enjoying it.

This week the kids and I spent a good few days up here, and will return for longer after a quick trip to the city.  We were all set for the Boy’s 10th birthday pool party this weekend.  Then, a wild storm blew through on Friday and knocked out our power out until noon on Saturday.  Since no electricity also means no plumbing, we were forced to cancel.  The boy took it as well as can be expected, but a disappointing blow all the same.  We did our best to salvage the weekend.  Here’s the boy enjoying a cake made and decorated by his sister.


A lot of the weekend was dedicated to the garden as well.  The WorkHorse has been helping a lot in the battle against the bindweed.  The battle continues and I’m still not sure we’ll be the victors.

Bindweed aside, the garden is also very, very full.  We’ve had early cucumbers, zucchini, pattypan squash, potatoes, peppers, green beans, beets, peas, basil, and cilantro.  993355_10151794682412354_649121073_n

Here’s what I foraged for dinner the other night.

Potato salad from Ian Knauer’s The Farm – I put three or four different colour potatoes in plus basil and cilantro from the garden.


Mixed beets with goat cheese and basil.


Beet greens with potent, fresh from the ground garlic.

DSC_0006 Last night’s project was blanching and freezing this pile of goodness,


and today’s project is cleaning and preparing the garlic and onion harvests so I can cure them in the sun for a few weeks.1012868_10151794664637354_839228043_n

That’s the update from Northbrook.  Here’s hoping good things are growing, eaten and celebrated where you are too.

Delinquent again

A Tuesday morning when the WorkHorse is home and transporting children to school and I have a rare hour to get a few things done.

I’m shocked at the way life has conspired to keep us away from the farm over the last two months.  Here’s what we’ve been up to.

Black belt

My 9 year old black belt.


The girl is a published author.

tough kids

Tough kids after their first triathlon.DSC_0100


The Tough Mudder of those tough kids.

There’s more.  The WorkHorse has been traveling for his job like crazy.  The kids are busy at school and I’ve been finishing up the sale of my business.  In the midst of all of this activity, we’ve managed to get the garden put in.


Isn’t it pretty?  Of course there isn’t enough room – there never will be.  It’s nice having things come up at the start of the season like the chives and garlic.  I put in horrid marigolds (blech) which I hope will repel nasty bugs and which, I’ll admit, do provide a nice pop of colour.  I stuck  a few little flowers here and there, both in the beds and in pots, as well as in my new log planter that the WorkHorse foraged for me.

DSC_0028 (2)

Well hello there, handsome.  May I introduce you to one of the pumpkin plants that is going to make many pumpkins this year and not have any trouble with bindweed?  That’s right.


One of the cherry bushes.  I think it’ll be a few years before anything really exciting happens here.

DSC_0030 (2)

Crappy shed bed, take 2.  I planted some salvia, the hollyhocks are back and very happy, a few sunflowers actually germinated this year, and if you look closely, a brand new shiny toad house just waiting for a lucky toad to come along and claim it.  Bat houses have also gone up – we love all manner of things the rest of the world finds creepy.DSC_0031 (2)

Bwah ha ha – my cunning plan of netting the corn foiled the hungry birds this year and it has sprouted.  (Now I wait for it to grow so the raccoons can eat it, like they do to my strawberries.)

I was actually smug about the garden for about 1 week.  After it all went in and started to germinate I enjoyed a brief period of self congratulation, although I knew it was just a matter of time before issues arose.  It’s started.  The cucumbers and peppers are looking very sickly indeed and they’ve barely begun.  I may (and this pains me) have to supplement with nursery-bought plants.  Makes me feel like a fraud, but at least I’ll be a fraud with lots of pickles in a few months.

The next few weeks promise to be equally as hectic,with some much anticipated farm time scheduled for July and August.  I can’t wait.