I’ve lived on Gabriola Island for almost twenty years and never had a conversation with Ed. I’ve seen him around at the local food fair selling his garlic and said hello in passing when he was visiting our mutual friends, Thomas and Elizabeth. Thomas mentioned that Ed stopped by weekly and was one of their favourite pop-ins (I, of course, am another). I think he’s the only man here sporting a walrus mustache so he’s a bit hard to miss.
He sent me an email recently asking if I’d come to his place to do a chicken consultation. He wants to get chickens so was looking for some advice. We set up a time and I headed to his place a few days later. I’m glad he described his property because I couldn’t find a number sign at the road. I parked amid his truck and what look like project cars, or maybe derelict vehicles that haven’t made it to the haulers yet. I headed over to what I assumed was his house – the door was ajar so I headed into a space that filled the ground floor with what appeared to be a pottery studio. I gave a call, no answer. I headed over to another building – this one was open as well. It had a kitchen so maybe this was the house. Again I called and no answer.
I figured if I wandered around for long enough he might appear. I toured through fenced gardens, saw a few deer, crossed a bridge flanked by a grove of bamboo, called again and still no Ed. I went home and emailed him. Turns out he was napping and didn’t wake up till long after I was gone.
We set a time for the following weekend. Again, I wandered around a bit and Ed popped out of the building with the kitchen. It turns out I was right to be confused. The main building with the studio on the ground floor is where he lives, up on the second floor. The second building is an old trailer that was the first home to the now defunct health food store and café, Harvest Thyme. He told me he’ll be transitioning between them. He’s got macular degeneration, a condition that affects his vision so he’s looking for a one level, less cluttered home. The big bonus in my eyes is the trailer has a bathroom and his house doesn’t. For the first twenty years he lived there he used an outhouse.
He showed me his latest acquisition, which he bought on a whim and found himself somewhat unprepared: Coturnix Quail. They were housed in a pen on the porch, but Ed quickly found that raccoons could reach in through the mesh and killed his only male. Fortunately, he had just hatched out some chicks in his incubator and was hoping to bolster his remaining flock of three females.
We toured around the property and I found what I though was the perfect location for his future chickens. I’m all about minimizing the work load and using what you’ve already got. There’s a large fenced garden and I thought he could make a long run using three sides of his existing fence, which would only require fencing on the remaining side to make a large rectangular pen. The coop could be situated at one end and the chickens could be let out to forage in the beds over the winter.
I was invited to do a consultation, but once there I asked if I could interview him for my blog. He was amenable, but I don’t think he’s used to being peppered with questions.
Ed was born in small town Manitoba and moved as a child with his family to Vancouver. His dream as a kid was to live on an island. Ed came here 35 years ago, first as a renter, then buying property in what he referred to as the golden age when land was cheap: $20,000 for five acres. At first he lived in a trailer, then built the studio with living accommodation above.
He worked as a welder until he retired, twelve years ago, at 65. For years he was employed in the shipyards in North Vancouver; twenty of them commuting from here to the mainland. Ed worked for 6-12 months, then was laid off for 4-12 months in the days when you could collect unemployment insurance and not have to seek other work. He traded welding jobs with locals who helped with clearing his property and laying a concrete pad for the pottery studio.
In the 1970s he took up pottery. His friends had a loosely structured rental studio in an old warehouse where he taught himself. Like many artistic endeavours it was more of a hobby than an occupation. The costs involved in buying the equipment and utility bills are high and a lot of folks don’t appreciate the work that goes into handcrafted objects.
As the land was cleared of its alder trees Ed erected fences and built raised beds. It all started with one 4’x12’ bed twenty years ago and then expanded to four, and then more. He traded welding work for the excavator service and ended up with enough firewood for the year. The property lends itself to gardening: full sunshine, high water table and deep soil.
I tried growing fig trees, which sadly died. This is Ed’s twelve year old fig that dwarves most people’s – the more he prunes it the more it grows.
He’s got three ex-wives and three kids and it didn’t surprise me to learn he’s lived alone for the last thirteen years. That’s not to imply there’s anything lacking about him, just that the whole place has got the feel of a person who has put their own stamp on things. Sure, there are the cars and piles of construction materials that will come in handy one day, but there are also large fenced garden beds with their neat rows, an immaculately stacked wood shed and organized tools.
The one thing I knew about Ed, prior to meeting him, was that he grew garlic. Every year he harvests 2000 heads of various kinds of garlic, rotating the areas where they are grown every four years to avoid disease organisms in the soil.
I asked how he managed all that work. It turns out he has assistance: he trades produce from his garden in exchange for labour from his neighbours. Ed’s managed to connect with folks that live on smaller properties with water issues interested in gardening on one of his plots. They get produce and he has help with the weeding, growing and watering. He mentioned the names of three women helpers, all of whom I commute with on the ferry. When I told him I was familiar with his volunteers he replied that they forewarned him I would be punctual. True, I am always on time, but I didn’t realize that was a trait I was well known for.
My first conversation with Ed took place in mid-August. I put my notes on the shelf and got busy with my own projects. I picked up with him again two months later. Ed’s garden still looks great. He’s planted fall rye, a cover crop, that builds mass and prevents nutrient loss in the soil over the winter months. There are still rows of kale, beets and chard and hanging from the fence, beans and cucumbers. He’s packing up the garden for the season and harvests what’s left, giving him a much needed break.
His venture with the quails hasn’t really panned out: a couple more losses to raccoons, then a pecking injury and some escaped from their enclosure. Ed’s not about to give up on them so easily. He’s built a predator proof enclosure and is hoping that at least one of the chicks is a male so he can hatch some fertilized eggs over the winter.
I was pleased to hear that he’s taken up my suggestion for where to locate his chicken coop and pen. New neighbours will be moving in across the road and have already agreed to use their skidsteer to level the berm in the garden enclosure so Ed can get started on a installing a run and building housing. I’m looking forward to seeing how his plans unfold and visiting him again when he’s got some chickens to show off. When that happens I’ll update this post to include his new flock.
All photos Bitchin’ Chickens