Our farm restoration
We thought it was time to let you know a little about how Howling Hound Farms came to be!
When we first landed in Windsor ON, we had had the typical wandering lifestyle of an academic at the start of their career, being forced to move every 2-4 yrs as we reached the next stage on our career path. Our first goal upon arrival was to find a rural property where we could quite literally “put down roots” so we spent a year exploring the countryside until we found a property large enough to have some space but small enough to fit into our budget. The place we finally settled on was a renovated 160-yr old farmhouse on a 10-acre property that had been leased to a local farmer for extensive agriculture. Our first task was to establish a vegetable garden in a former horse pasture, digging into the rough clay soil with a shovel and turning it all by hand while trying to incorporate organic matter into the largely sterile soil. Now, 17 years later, the soil is much more organically active and every shovel full is now full of earthworms and crumbles nicely under our touch. Each year we add more compost and chicken bedding into the soil and are happy to see how active it has become.
The other initial goal we had upon settling in was to restore the land to something close to native status. Our area has less than 3% native tree cover and while we appreciate all the hard work our local farmers do to keep us all fed, we also wanted to add to the natural spaces left. With this goal in mind, we investigated opportunities to restore our property closer to its native state. We discovered we are officially on the edge of the Canard River watershed so there were funding opportunities to help us restore our property. We were able to partner with the Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA) and the Ducks Unlimited to aid a restoration effort for our property to establish forest and prairie zones.
For the forest section, ERCA decided they wanted to dig a small, shallow pond as a wetland and then to establish “pit and mound” restoration for the rest of it. The principle behind “pit and mound” is that when a tree falls, it lifts up a large root ball (the mound) behind which is a hole that used to contain the roots (the pit). This ends up having a mix of wet and dry zones throughout the forest, allowing a mix of vegetation types. When we first came home after the excavation was done, we were a little taken aback as our once flat field looked like a moonscape with hard clay mounds and holes throughout; we felt like we had ruined a perfectly good farming field for nothing! The image on the right is from Google Earth where they managed to capture the polka dot look.
Over the years, though, we have been delighted with the progress. In the first year ERCA worked hard to plant native tree seeds and we also planted additional trees every chance we got. When ERCA had extra trees, they would drop off 100 seedlings and we would work hard to get them in. Each year we continue to buy 100 seedlings from their reforestation program, and we now have many trees well over 15 ft high throughout our forest section. We have quite a diversity of plant species now, including some rarer ones like buttonbush which really thrives in our wetter areas. Unfortunately, we do still battle invaders such as teasel and phragmites, that are brought in by birds but every year we see new native species.
For the prairie section, ERCA left this section flat and focused plantings on native prairie plants and grasses like little and big bluestem, prairie dock, compass plants and asters. Each year our diversity increases and we are now rewarded every summer and fall with a beautiful display of native flowers and grasses, including many things like native red cedar that the birds have planted for us. This section is especially gratifying in the fall as the asters and golden rod really take off and give us a great display of colour. It was people visiting and expressing interest in our beautiful plants that prompted us to collect seeds (in sustainable amounts) so that we could share seeds with others and propagate some of the amazing plants for ourselves and others!
When we first moved onto our property we had no idea what we were doing and often joke we should write a book about “stupid things city folks do upon moving to the country”. Now that we have been here a while, we have fully embraced the country lifestyle and love walking the property and seeing how much it has changed. It is truly now our oasis. While it has constant challenges we have learned an incredible amount while living with nature and are still learning every day. We are trying to balance natural restoration with becoming a working hobby farm and while we do not have even close to all the answers, we are trying our best.
Since moving in, we have kept track of our animal diversity as well (we are both biologists by profession after all). When we first moved in, we would see mostly invasive birds (sparrows and starlings) but now 15 years later we are astounded by the level of biodiversity we have. The wetter areas fill with mating frogs and toads, including chorus frogs, leopard frogs and bullfrogs; the shallow pond is full of dragonfly and damselfly larvae which develop into stunning adults. We have let the milkweeds come up and have a healthy population of endangered monarch butterflies each year. We regularly see snakes patrolling the property as well as burrowing crayfish, and have documented over 75 species of birds on our property alone. While we do get nervous of predators, given the birds that we want to earn a living from, we prefer to live in harmony with the mammals as well and love to listen to the coyotes on a spring evening and often catch images of raccoons, least weasels and opossums on our trail camera.