community · Costa Rica · DIY · education · el cheapo · family fun · gardening · Homeschool · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 590: Down on the Farm

Finca Blanco Y Negro, Turrialba, Costa Rica

Ed. note: this is a continuation of yesterday’s post. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and do so now.

We pulled into the driveway of Finca Blanco Y Negro (Black and White Farm) and were greeted by two women and a very enthusiastic child. E seized the opportunity for a new friend immediately: within minutes, she and this little boy were chatting—she in English, he in Spanish, neither understanding the other—as they explored the farm. The rest of us introduced ourselves and met Maria and Paola, the sisters who own the farm (the little boy, E, is Maria’s son.) It was decided that we’d tour the farm and then eat lunch, rather than the other way around.

Over and over, I was struck by how much research and thought went into running this farm. Blanco Y Negro isn’t a high-budget operation; in fact, part of their vision is to make organic vegetables accessible to more people than just rich people and hippies, and to develop new techniques that other small farms can use to grow organic produce. So when they were planning their mushroom-growing operation and saw the cost of all the “required” equipment, they set out to learn the reasons behind all the expensive recommendations. Then they found cheaper solutions that work just as well. Instead of a completely dark grow room, they put thick black garbage bags over the mushroom containers; in place of an expensive sterilizer, they boil the hay for three hours in a huge boiler to eliminate all microorganisms before using it as a growth medium. They built the mushroom greenhouse on the slope of the hill so that they can easily hose down the floor to keep it clean.

The kids received their first challenge in the mushroom house: who could find and pick the largest mushroom? They all scampered off, looking at every row of hanging bags to find the winning fungus. In the end, I think R might have found the biggest one. Not that it really mattered: all the mushrooms, big and small, were taken to the kitchen to become part of our lunch.

Have you ever heard a flock of ninety chickens? Just hens, mind you, no roosters at all? They are loud. As we stepped into their yard, the chickens crowded around the gate, saying “bawk?” as if to ask what we wanted. The kids got to pet a chicken, and we saw where the chickens turn kitchen scraps into high-quality fertilizer. Then we proceeded with our mission: to collect eggs for lunch. Mr. December and the kids eagerly headed into the henhouse to swipe the eggs. The chickens appeared unperturbed.

In the next pasture over, some black-bellied sheep were eager to munch on the long grasses we held for them. Then we went to see the composting shed—far more interesting than you’d think. In addition to a classic compost pile, they also have various barrels full of fermenting liquids which they use to deter insects from around the vegetable beds and to add beneficial microorganisms to the soil. Paola cracked open one barrel for us to see the bubbles forming on top of the liquid. It smelled like olives.

We explored the vegetable garden and learned about pest control without any pesticides, synthetic or natural. The results spoke for themselves: I’ve never before seen a head of lettuce with absolutely no holes or ragged edges on its leaves. The kids had a chance to plant some celery, beetroot, and arugula, which they did with more enthusiasm than I expected; N even came up with a way to streamline the planting process, by having one person place the seedlings in the correct positions while two others did the actual planting. E and her new friend worked with N and planted several rows of veggies in short order. Meanwhile, K indignantly stated that similar plants should be put together instead of mixing them up; she went to the opposite end of the row and diligently planted some celery.

The adults stood around and chatted. When Maria learned that we were homeschoolers, she got really excited: she’s also homeschooling her son, but it’s a pretty new concept in Costa Rica and she gets lots of pushback from… well, pretty much everyone. So we talked about our homeschooling experience and the homeschool community in general.

Poor R—she was sitting inside the farmhouse by this time, because all kinds of things on the farm were triggering her allergies (it hadn’t even occurred to me to bring her allergy meds with us.) Not to worry, though—Maria offered to find some of the allergy meds she had for her son so I could give R a dose. Wonder of wonders—it was the exact same prescription medicine R takes. I gratefully took the bottle and spoon and went to offer R some relief.

Finally, it was lunchtime! My kids were obnoxiously picky (we might need to have another talk about trying foods that are offered when you’re a guest somewhere) but Mr. December and I thoroughly enjoyed the tomato soup with local cheese and mushrooms, hard boiled eggs (they don’t get any fresher than that,) spring mix salad with beets (which I’m not usually a fan of, but it was delicious,) homemade bread with roasted garlic, and grilled vegetables. The kids deserted the table pretty quickly because Maria’s son called them over to see his kittens; all four of my kids were smitten and spent the rest of the time cuddling the kittens—even R, who declared that any allergic reaction she had would be worth it. Even dessert, which was homemade ice cream with berries on top, only held them for a few minutes before they went back to kitten wrangling.

We loved our time at the farm. By the end, I felt like we were visiting with friends. I was pleased when Maria shyly asked for my contact information—we exchanged numbers and I extended an invitation for them to visit us in Toronto. I hope they take us up on it.

DIY · gardening · what's cookin'

Day 506: On the Counter

Under normal circumstances, if you see weird equipment or supplies lying around the house, they’re for whatever harebrained scheme I’m working on this week. Mr. December is the type to clean up after himself every day, so anything that’s been left out is almost certainly not his.

Except for this time.

I’ve been sick, you know, so I haven’t been keeping tabs on when and where people leave the house; I guess that’s why I was very surprised to walk into the kitchen and see this:

Image description: a giant (two-foot high) white pail with a handle, a lid, and a clear plastic device sticking out of the top. The whole thing is sitting on the kitchen counter.

I was baffled. But the plot thickened: I noticed that the enormous tub of plums we’d picked was gone, and only a small bowlful remained. It seemed reasonable to assume that the plums were now in the bucket.

And then, a Nyquil-fogged memory came to me:

“Honey?” Mr. December appeared in the doorway, holding the car key, K peering at me from behind him. “Where’s that place where we bought the malic acid for chemistry class?”

“The home brewery store?” I croaked. “Same plaza as the trampoline place.”

Oh. Of course.

I don’t know whether he’s trying to make wine, brandy, or beer. I haven’t seen what’s inside the bucket, but I’ve been warned that three pounds of sugar will go missing from my pantry tomorrow.

I don’t care about the three pounds of sugar (little yeasties have to eat something to make alcohol, right?) What I do care about is how long it’ll take for this concoction to be drinkable. And does it have to take up all that valuable counter space?

family fun · gardening · what's cookin'

Day 501: Bumper Crop!

Five months ago, we were sure we’d have to cut down the fruit trees in the front yard. It had been well over five years since we’d had any fruit from any of them, and we decided we should just do away with them and start over.

Tonight I picked a giant bowl of yellow plums. I suspect there’s probably five times as many still on the tree. The branches are still heavy with fruit (a feature, not a bug, when you’re short) and highest branches are tantalizing us with red plums (it’s a grafted five-in-one tree) that are slowly ripening.

The plums are excellent—juicy, sweet, locally and organically grown (of course.) I think we’ll make plum crumble for dessert tomorrow. And the next day. And maybe a breakfast plum crumble for the weekend. Oh, and plum brandy, plum jam… we’ll keep going til I’m plum out of ideas.

Apathy · family fun · gardening · water you paddling?

Day 464: Bowl of Cherries

It must be summer.

This morning I saw a post on our neighbourhood FaceBook page about a lemonade stand happening today. It was just around the corner from us, so we went armed with loonies and toonies. It was even better than advertised: they had home-baked oatmeal-butterscotch cookies. I left the house with $20 and came back with $5. Money well spent, I tell you. Besides, lemonade stands are a great way to meet the neighbours.

I was feeling kind of “meh” today. No particular reason, just so. But I knew that I’d feel more energized if I went out and did something, and it was too hot to do anything that didn’t involve cold water, so I suggested an evening trip to the beach. Everyone but E said, “meh” and turned back to their devices, so I had a lovely couple of hours with E, kayaking and swimming in Lake Ontario.

When we got home I grabbed a container and went outside to the cherry tree. This tree has given us almost no fruit for the past six years; this year, for reasons unknown, it’s full of cherries. E helped me deliver a small container of them to our across-the-street neighbour, who’s been all alone since his wife died three years ago.

And now I’m sitting on our back porch. The warm breeze is playing with my hair and the sky is darkening. Just inside the door there are dozens of things for me to do, problems to solve, children to glue to their beds so they actually go to sleep… but out here there’s nothing but warmth and contentment, and a bowl of cherries.

Image Description: Cherries in a plastic container.
community · crafty · Darn Tootin' · Fibro Flares · gardening · Homeschool

Day 396: Worth it.

Today was one of those full days that ends with a feeling of great satisfaction. Unfortunately, the fullness of the day has also left me with a feeling of significant pain; still, I feel like I made the right choices.

I can barely believe how much E has been practicing her flute. Anytime nobody else is in the library (which is also our music room,) she’s in there with her music on the stand and her flute at her lips. Her work really shows: she’s sounding better and better every day. Now I just have to teach her about eighth notes.

When I finally got my hands on the three older kids—which is getting to be later and later each day as Mr. December gets carried away with whatever he’s teaching them—I sat them down and assigned them some substantial writing, which they immediately started brainstorming for. Later we had art class, where we once again tried to make pottery in the style of Ancient Greece.

Last week I taught the kids the coil method for making a pot. This week I took a slab-building approach, using balloons as our moulds. It wasn’t particularly successful, and only N’s pot was still standing by the end of the hour. Mine looked beautiful, but I tried to smooth “just one more lump” and… POP. With the balloon gone, my whole pot collapsed in on itself.

Around 5:00 we all went to the park. I was there on a mission: the apricot trees in the community orchard are already in bloom, but tonight’s snow and freezing temperatures threatened to kill all the blossoms and any fruit they might bear this summer. An email went out this morning asking for volunteers to bring tarps, plastic bags, and tie-downs and help cover the trees. That’s why we found ourselves in the park, tying multiple tarps together and then raising them over the trees—like a giant chuppah—before tying them down. The best part was that, once again, my kids were doing useful work to benefit the community they live in. There’s no substitute for that experience.

After dinner we started watching Animal Farm (the 1954 animated film, not the 1999 live-action one.) The kids were riveted. Our next step will be a read-aloud of the book, as part of our literature studies.

And then it was bedtime. I could hardly believe that it was 8:30 already. Where did the day go? Oh, yeah… we did stuff today. Lots and lots of stuff.

I definitely overdid it today. And yet I did it knowingly; sometimes I need to feel normal and functional (especially if I’m not) more than I need to be pain-free. Besides, these past six (or seven?) weeks have taught me that resting won’t guarantee me a pain-free day anyhow, so I might as well do at least some of the things I enjoy.

Now… if anyone needs me, I’ll be in my bed with a heating pad and my banana popsicles for the next day or two.

Image description: three tarps are spread out on the ground, tied together with twist ties and zip ties. A child is squatting near the far corner of the tarp, tying it to a pole. Grass in background.
community · family fun · Fibro Flares · gardening

Day 160: Beachy Keen

I used to say the only thing that would get me out of bed at 6 in the morning was a flight to Barbados. Now I’ll have to add that the prospect of kayaking and swimming at the beach is a pretty compelling incentive too. This morning we were up at 6:00, out at 6:30, and at the beach at 7:00. By the time the rest of the city started showing up, around 9:45, we were headed home.

E tried solo kayaking for the first time this morning. She did pretty well considering that she’s a 5-year-old paddling a boat made for adults, with an oar that is longer than she is tall. She was very proud of her new achievement, announcing to everyone she passed that “This is my first time paddling my own kayak!”

In the meantime, I got to head out by myself for 25 minutes while Mr. December played in the water and on the sand with the girls. Wait, did I say he played? Nope. He took a nap on the sand and the girls buried him in it. I’m not complaining, by the way — in my opinion, anytime you can rest while your kids think you’re actually playing their game, that’s a parenting win.

I didn’t check email until we got home from the beach, when I discovered an e-mail reminder that we’re supposed to be providing baked goods for the Homeless Outreach Van tomorrow. I had forgotten and for some reason it wasn’t in my Google Calendar. I checked the recipes, made a list, and then biked to the store with E on the tandem trailer behind me.

Incidentally, that tandem trailer is a fabulous invention. It’s great on hills — all I have to do is say, “E, I need you!” and she responds by pedalling and yelling, “E POWER!!!” (Does that make it an E-bike?)

R and N are coming home today after being with my in-laws all week. I’m starting to feel like they barely live here anymore, and that’s not a good feeling. I can’t wait to hug them. Mr. December went to pick them up and I busied myself with some manual labour: I cut down an entire patch of hydrangeas (I’ve cut them down before and they keep coming back) and then moved the wood pile that was behind them in order to clear a space for this year’s sukkah. I’m always looking to improve it, and so this year we’re building the sukkah using the wall of our house and the fence. I’m hoping this keeps the whole thing from falling over as it has in the past.

Now that I think about it, today involved a lot of exercise. Kayaking, biking to the store, and transferring an entire wood pile… pretty much my entire day has involved physical exertion. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much?

(I’m taking bets: will I have a fibro flare as a result of my early morning and all the exertion? It’s anybody’s guess — come back tomorrow to find out!)

community · gardening

Day 130: Socks are Contagious

Remember how my chairs are wearing socks? The sock-wearing still hasn’t spread to my children, but it looks like the plum tree got jealous. Folks, may I present to you… Plums in Socks (but no fox.)

I got the idea from our day at the orchard, where they put stockingettes on the fruit to protect them from insects and animals. I really should have done it a month ago but, as they say, the second best time is now. The plums are almost ripe and I’d hate to lose them — it’s a very small crop that’s made it this far.

I’m not sure exactly what happened to our plums. One year we had such a bumper crop that we took baskets of plums around to our neighbours and used leftover plums to make plum brandy; the next year there were no plums whatsoever. Actually, there were, but they disappeared overnight — literally. This was before we had a security camera, so I don’t know whether animals descended on our tree or if some person came along and picked the tree clean. All I know is that we were eagerly anticipating another bountiful harvest, and then we woke up to an empty tree. It was sad.

At the orchard we simply tied the stockingettes onto the fruit. Here at home I’ve tied them around the branch as well. I’m hoping that even if a plum gets knocked off its stem by an animal, it will stay attached to the tree and the animal will give up. Hey, a girl can hope, can’t she?

community · education · family fun · gardening · Kids · waxing philosophical

Day 127: Orchard Schooling

It began with a Facebook post: “Does anybody have any leftover white latex paint?”

I did, of course. When we were building the house we tried what seemed like hundreds of different whites before settling on Chantilly Lace. For the last two years their sample-sized pots have been lined up like soldiers awaiting deployment. I couldn’t throw them out — surely they’d come in handy one day, I thought.

“One day” was today.

The Facebook post was from the woman who runs the stewardship group at our local community orchard. Throughout the year a group of volunteers takes care of the fruit trees — feeding, mulching, watering, and doing anything else they can to ensure a successful harvest. The white paint would be diluted and painted onto the trees’ trunks to protect them from insects, animals, and the sun. I immediately offered them my paint and then volunteered my children (and myself) to do the painting.

K has had a lot of difficult, unproductive days in the last week. It’s not that she’s unmotivated; on the contrary, the fact that she can’t get herself to sit down and do her work is very upsetting to her. I’m not sure what’s wrong or how to fix it in the short term. In the long term, I think some executive function coaching might be in order.

This morning, though, K was at her best. She mowed the lawn before breakfast. When we arrived at the orchard she sprang into action, first mixing the paint with water, then moving from one fruit tree to the next to coat their trunks with white paint. She worked without a break for an hour and a half. In that time I heard no complaints or yelling. She asked questions about what we were doing and why, and really listened to the answers. In short, she was a model volunteer.

R and E painted a tree each, and then a pet tortoise arrived at the park with its owner (a friend of the stewardship coordinator) in tow. I didn’t get much more work out of them after that, but they spent an hour learning about tortoises.

Our time in the orchard reinforced so many of my beliefs about homeschooling. The biggest one is that school focuses on such a narrow band of disciplines and skills that K doesn’t get to exercise her strengths very often. This morning she had to observe the trees closely (to see if there was any seeping sap or other indicators of disease); communicate problems and questions; listen attentively; and do a thorough job of the task she was assigned. Moreover, the work she was doing had a clear purpose and utility, and it was appreciated by other people.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? Purposeful, real work with others in the community can turn a frustrated, sometimes combative kid into a cooperative and industrious one. School doesn’t allow enough time for that sort of thing (heck, they don’t even trust the kids to retrieve their own coats.) Homeschooling, on the other hand, is chock full of opportunities for children to discover their strengths and use them to become valued members of the community.

education · family fun · gardening · Independence · Kids

Day 71: Garden schooling

I’m getting accustomed to the possibility that my kids might not be going back to school in September, possibly because schools won’t be open, but more likely because schools will open with so many restrictions that they’ll be a waste of time at best and damaging to children at worst. And so we’ve started researching how we might accomplish homeschooling our four children (with four distinct learning profiles) without going mad.

Math is pretty much already solved: we’ve found that we like the Kumon workbooks. They’re clear, simple, and the kids can mostly work through them independently, which is essential for us. Of course we check in on them many times in a work period, and take time to explain things, but we can’t (and don’t) sit beside them and teach them one on one for an hour. They are making good progress so far, so we went and bought all of the grade 5 and 6 books (N’s self-stated goal is to finish grade 6 math by the end of August) as well as all the grade 4 books for R.

The other core subject we dare not ignore is Language Arts. If you couldn’t tell from Day 61: People of the Book Room (house tour!) (our library), we read a lot. Separately, together, quietly, out loud, over tea, in the garden, on the subway. We read. I’m more concerned with the writing aspect — I’m not impressed with the quality of my children’s writing — so I’m working on finding a curriculum that they can work their way through mostly independently, the way they do with math.

All of those issues really don’t apply to E yet. Besides, her school is doing a really great job of online schooling, which surprises me because Montessori is a particularly hands-on style of education. Today E took her one-on-one zoom math tutorial out on the back porch; she learned how to write the numerals 1 through 9.

The rest of our morning was what I always imagined homeschooling to be. Mr. December and I biked out early this morning to get some seedlings (note to self: don’t go to the garden centre after a weekend of beautiful summery weather. They’ll have almost none of what you want.) Then he went back to his work and I mobilized my child labour force again.

First, I had them measure and mark one-foot increments in the garden bed, which was great for reviewing the 12-times tables (“so we have to put the stakes in at 12, 24, 36, and 48…”). Then we used sticks to create a grid of one-foot squares, at which point I asked N to count the rows and the columns and calculate the area of our veggie garden. He answered; I had R and E verify it by counting all the squares. VoilĂ  — measuring length, width, and area!

We then sat on the porch and planned where to put everything. This involved reading the little instruction cards from each plant to determine the correct spacing and positioning in terms of sunlight needs. Then they had to figure out how many plants they could put into a square foot and calculated how many squares we needed to allot to each type of vegetable.

N and R took turns reading the cards and writing the vegetable names down on our diagram, spelling words like kohlrabi, thyme, lavender, and canteloupe in the process.

Then they worked together as a team, checking the diagram and planting the correct type and number of seedlings. I didn’t participate, just answered questions and gently guided them.

So our homeschool morning was a great success, in my view. Everyone participated without coercion (by which I mean revoking privileges or bribing), everyone enjoyed themselves, and they connected what they’re learning at their desks to what we do in our everyday lives. Oh, and our family vegetable garden got planted. I love child labour!

family fun · gardening · Independence · Kids

Day 70: Family Time

Day 70? Really? It feels like we’ve been in lockdown forever, and like it’s been just a couple of weeks. Time is weird.

This weekend has been an exercise in family time. The weather was good, both Mr. December and I were free to be with the kids all day, and we had a great time.

Yesterday we went to my parents’ place for a swim and a picnic. They live on a ravine, so it was like being in the woods. The kids used the swing set and hammock while we lay on a picnic blanket under the trees and spoke to my parents, who were sitting ten feet away.

Today we mobilized our child labour force to help us prepare the soil for our vegetable garden. Many hands make light work, it’s true, but many of our hands drifted away and had to be brought back. There’s clearly room for improvement when it comes to work ethic, although to be fair R went back inside because her allergies were bad; she did her part for the family by cleaning up the kitchen. K, on the other hand, had to be called back several times to finish mowing the lawn, then again to put the lawnmower away.

After the gardening, we finally cracked open the package of hair chalk that I bought at Dollarama months ago. We all took turns colouring each other’s hair, and everyone ganged up on Mr. December — his beard was too tempting a canvas to pass up.

K and I both lamented the fact that the chalk really doesn’t show on our dark hair, which gave me an idea that I hope I’ll have the guts to do one day: when my hair is more grey then brown, I’m going to start dyeing it bright, fun hues instead of trying to recreate my natural colour. Who’s with me? Is the world ready for awesome old ladies with colourful hair?

The rest of the afternoon was pretty relaxed and fun. I made pita from scratch (incidentally, anybody who actually knows how to shape it properly and get it thin enough, please teach me.) We ate in the backyard and the kids played until bedtime — the kind of play where they’re barefoot and playing with nothing but sticks, logs, a single tree swing, and their imaginations. I love when they do that.

R has been asking me all day to play a game with her. Tonight was our chance, in the magical forty-five minutes between E’s bedtime and R’s own. I trounced her at Chinese Checkers and Hey! That’s My Fish before tucking R into bed. Two kids down, two to go… and then I can go to sleep, at which I am a champion.