Monday, April 30, 2012

Foraging: Scout Camp Wild Strawberries & Pie

Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did. – William Allen Butler

This is what I'll find in about 2 months. Photo: queteris, Flickr ccl
Henry, my Bouvier, and I were visiting in the country recently and decided to take a walk up to the lake. I suppose to be correct I should say “I decided” because he didn’t really have much choice in the destination. But he’s always glad to tag along.

This plaque used to be mounted above the fireplace.
Usually we walk up one particular side of the river to a small beach at the foot of the lake. This day I opted for the other side. I hadn’t been up there since Simon, my other Bouv, was alive.

There used to be an old Boy Scout camp located in a clearing almost directly across the lake from the beach. Some time in the past several years it was razed to the ground. All that’s left there now is bronze dedication plaque mounted on a stone with the date 1935.

It’s kind of sad. I have some strong memories of my 1960s childhood linked to that place. At one time it had a 8’ diving structure that many of the children of the village used in the heat of summer. We were only allowed on the property when the camp wasn’t being used by the Scouts. I remember being pushed off that on more than one occasion. 

The blossoms, open now.
I was short for my age (still am…), and since my mother was the local schoolteacher I was fair game for anyone to vent their frustration with her, against me. Any one else out there a teacher’s child? You know exactly what I mean.

I do have a fond memory or two, linked directly to Scouts. Fishing season always started on the local river April 1, so every March 31 our village Scout troop used to have a sleep-over at the camp. April 1 was our Fishing Derby. Brrr….

The building was split log construction with wooden shuttered windows and huge doors in the front that opened up probably at least 1/3 of the front facade. You stepped into an open space with a huge stone fireplace nearly on the far wall. Behind it was a small kitchen. It was exactly typical of what you would expect for a 1935 camp.

On the sleep-over night our troop – and a few brave fathers – would bring sleeping bags and pillows and settle in. I still remember the crackle and smell of the burning logs in that huge fireplace on those frosty nights. Once the fire was well underway we would eat hot dogs for dinner and well burnt marshmallows for dessert.

Small but wonderful. Photo: Murky1, Flickr ccl
Fishing the next day for me was rather anti-climactic. I seldom caught anything except the telephone lines. I just didn’t have the touch.

Well, the building and fireplace are gone, and all that remains is the plaque on the stone in the clearing. But one thing is usually substituted for another. Nothing stays the same, no matter how much we wish it would.

In this case exactly where the building stood I found a carpet of two culinary plants – wood violets and wild strawberries. I wrote about the violets yesterday. Today it’s the strawberries. I was amazed to see them in bloom so early.

Wild strawberry blossoms are a fantastic discovery, especially if there’s a patch. If you can find a place that will actually give you bang for your picking buck the site is well worth remembering. They won’t be ready for about 6 weeks, but if you spot them now you’ll know where to return.

This pie is about as old-fashioned as you can get.
Wild strawberries are relatives of the cultivated berries so prized every early summer. The difference is that they’re no bigger than the end of your little finger, if you’re lucky. That makes for tedious picking. 

But what they lack in size is more than made up for in taste. Wild strawberries are sweeter and, to my taste, more delicious than their larger cousins. They are usually found only in enough number to make for a pleasant hiking snack. 

So if you find a large patch like I did, remember it well. Also remember you’ll be in competition with the birds and animals for their sweet treasure.

Wild strawberries can be used measure for measure in any recipe that calls for cultivated strawberries. My only caution would be to watch the amount of sugar you use. As I said before, they are definitely sweeter than the cultivated berries. 

Here’s a recipe for you to try with either wild strawberries or store-purchased. This recipe is the same vintage as the old Scout Camp, about 1940.

Butter crust. It has to be pre-baked "blind" so make
sure you prick the bottom and sides well.
Old Fashioned Strawberry Cream Pie*
Time: 1-1/2 hours, includes making crust  |  Chill: at least 3 hours
9” flaky pastry pie shell, pre-baked and cooled
1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups whole milk
2 lg egg yolks
1 tbsp chilled butter
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup whipping cream, whipped
2 cups wild strawberries, washed and hulled*

Make the pie crust and let cool completely before filling.

Place the flour, sugar and salt in a heavy bottomed saucepan and mix well. Slowly whisk in 1 cup of the milk, making sue to keep the mixture smooth. Then add the remaining milk and whisk well.

The "cream."
Place the pot on the stove and bring to a boil. Let it cook, whisking constantly until the mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Make sure none of the cream sticks to the bottom of the pan and scorches. If it does…start over. The cream will taste burnt.

Once the cream is thickened, remove from the heat. In a small bowl whisk 1/2 cup of the cream into the eggs to temper them. then our them back into the cream. Place back on the heat and cook for about 2 minutes.

Remove from the heat, stir in the butter and vanilla and let cool for 5 minutes. (This is an alternate direction: For a lighter pie, whip the heavy cream while the filling is cooling on the counter. Once the filling is cooled, fold in the whipped cream and proceed as directed below.) The usual way is to top the pie with whipped cream, but it's your choice if it's IN it or ON it.

Since it's April I had to use grocery store berries.
It was still great.
Pour half the filling into the prepared pastry shell. Arrange the 2 cups of berries evenly over the surface. Then cover with the remaining cream and let cool.  Then cover with the whipped cream if using the traditional method.

Let cool in the refrigerator until set, about 3 hours and then serve.

If desired, serve with more whipped cream, sweetened with a little sugar and flavoured with vanilla.

* This is also the basic recipe for banana cream and peach cream pie. Just substitute the same amount of those fruit for the strawberries. If using large berries, chop into small pieces and toss with 2 tsp fine sugar.

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Foraging: Blue Marsh Violets

Many herbes in the spring time there are commonly dispersed throughout the woods, good for broths and sallets, as violets, purslins, sorrell, etc. – Captain John Smith, 1612

The result of my foraging.
I was wandering recently in the village where I grew up looking at what was growing – kind of checking out nature’s supermarket for signs of what to expect as the season rolls out.

I have already partaken of the tender new dandelion greens, which were delicious. Spring is the time when all the new young growth begins to show. It’s also the time when everything isn’t so grown in that things are difficult to see. It’s the perfect time to take mental notes on what is growing where.

The wild pear are close to full bloom; dock is already up a good six inches; cattails are emerging; and a myriad of other edibles are making their presence known. I can tell when the wild pears are beginning to show without even looking. I’m allergic to the pollen...

One of these edible spring flowers is the blue marsh violet, botanically called Viola cucullata. It is the largest flowered wild violet we have in the far eastern provinces of Canada, but not the only violet. The region is home to 15 different species. If you count Newfoundland and Labrador the number increases to 27. 

Most are a delicate blue, but we have smaller varieties with beautiful quarter-to-half inch blooms that can be white, or on occasion yellow. I have probably seen only three different kinds, but the species distinctions are probably quite subtle and I really didn’t know what I was looking at.

The most common variety – the larger blue – are quite beautiful but lack any discernible scent. When growing thickly “en masse,” they look like little bits of fallen spring sky scattered around on the ground. It’s quite a sight.

Violets grow from a ground-level rosette of leaves, each flower being borne at the end of an individual stem. These stems are so thin the blooms easily dance in the wind. It was quite breezy the day I came across a large patch, so it was a little difficult to actually get a still shot with my camera where they were growing.

The stalks themselves are anywhere from 3 to 6 inches tall. They prefer a somewhat wet environment, but aren’t averse to showing up in clearings where the ground doesn’t get too dry during the day. That’s where I found them.

Violets are edible
Violets are easily incorporated into foods, both the flowers as well as the leaves. Violet leaves are spade-shaped and sometimes have a darker green variegated margin. Violets really don’t look like anything else so it’s hard to be confused as to what they are, and all are edible. So next to no worries.

Ready to be dried.
The young leaves are high in Vitamin C and are a good addition to a salad. Their taste is not offensive at all, a little peppery (as all young greens), and difficult to describe. The flowers can also be added to salads where they really make a statement with their clear blue colour.

One of the most common uses for violets are candied as decoration on cakes or other baked goods. Candied flowers are very easy to make. Simply gently paint each bloom with beaten egg white and then sprinkle liberally with icing sugar. 

I had never tasted a violet blossom before, so thought it was time. Popping one in my mouth wasn’t actually the experience I had hoped. They really don’t have any “flower” taste to speak of, and are a bit of a disappointment. I guess I was expecting a bit more “oomph,” perhaps like lavender. They were a bit peppery, like the leaves. Oh well...

After drying. the colour is pretty much preserved.
But the colour cannot be denied, and needs to be celebrated. So I picked probably about 4 cups, including the stems, and trundled home. I had my eye on using that colour. (Always remember to only forage in unpolluted areas…)

Violet flowers and leaves are completely edible when raw, but I wanted to try something a bit different, so needed to dry them.

How to dry violets
When I arrived home I removed the stems from the blossoms, checked for insect visitors, and put them on a baking sheet lined with tin foil. 45-50 minutes in a 250° F oven was all it took to dry them out. So now I have about 3/4 cup of beautiful blue, dried violets.

What am I going to do with them you may ask? Well they don’t have a strong odour, but that colour… They could be crushed and sprinkled on foods to great effect. But I’m going to try and extract that blue into a liqueur. 

Unlike rose or lavender liqueur, the taste won’t be “violet” because they don’t really have any inherent scent. As I said earlier, they were kind of peppery. So I’m going to play up the slight flavours I did recognize with other botanicals. I’m hoping in the near future to have a delicately blue coloured peppery liqueur.

It should be quite an interesting liqueur to pull out  to serve friends. The full recipe will be posted in about a week when the liqueur is finished.

Make sure you come back.

This is the liqueur just 5 minutes after combining. It still has to infuse for
one week. I have great optimism for the result.
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Friday, April 27, 2012

Patio Recipe: Three Bean Salad

Beans are neither fruit nor musical. – Nancy Cartwright

Delicious, crispy and colourful.
It’s definitely not patio weather today in Nova Scotia. It’s pouring rain outside. So one can only dream of the warm sunny weather that we (hopefully) soon have. And one must be prepared. What better way than to start collection recipes for your outdoor fĂȘtes? This one’s a keeper – and I’m not even a big fan of this type of salad. 

Use fresh green beans. Photo: zoyachubby, Flickr ccl
Bean salad is a common backyard or picnic dish that – oddly enough – is composed mainly of various beans. It is almost always served in a sweet vinegar marinade. What the particular beans used are—or the number (three, four, five…)—is up to the cook.

The trick with a bean salad is to make it colourful, and fresh. If you want to go to the trouble, you can pick and shell beans. Just remember any fresh veggies should be blanched before adding. It helps the vinaigrette to be absorbed.

Personally I would opt for canned chickpeas and kidney beans. It’s just so much easier and faster. But don’t use canned green beans – blanch fresh ones. You won’t be happy with the result. Yuck… If using dried chickpeas they would have to be soaked and boiled, of course.

In case you don’t know, blanching is boiling vegetables in salted water for a few minutes. It partially cooks them but they are still crisp. It also helps them retain their fresh-picked colour. Vegetables are routinely blanched before being frozen. Keep that in the back of your mind to preserve from this coming harvest season.

Chickpeas, otherwise known as garbanzos. Photo: Mink, Flickr ccl
Pretty much any bean, or other legume, can be used in this type of salad. The decision is mostly based on how much eye-appeal you want in the end result. 

Most bean salads call for chickpeas (garbanzos), kidney beans and fresh green beans. That way you have white, red and green (the Italian flag, although I don’t think there’s supposed to be any correlation). In my recipe I also added orange in the form of carrots. Radishes, green onions, yellow beans are all potential contenders for inclusion.

I have read that bean salad has been a common picnic staple since the 1800s (on Wikipedia) but I can’t find any independent verification. Since picnicking became popular during the Victorian Age I have no real reason to dispute it.

Bean salad gained popularity on this side of the big pond in the 1950s-60s with the great desire for backyard barbecues. That was when dad cooked the meat and mom did pretty much everything else…

Bean salad is an excellent dish to serve if you have vegetarian friends. The beans are full of dietary fibre, protein, and contain several essential vitamins and minerals. So except for the sugar it’s not a bad thing to serve. It can serve as the main dish for those so inclined.

Three bean salad also seems to go a long way. The amounts in the recipe would easily serve eight folks as a side dish and I could imagine going even further.

This is a fairly big bowl. I would imagine this would servre eight easily.
Three Bean Salad
Prep: 15 min  |  Marinate: 2-24 hours  |  Serves 8-12
19oz (540 ml) can chick peas
19 oz can (540 ml) can red kidney beans
3/4 lb green beans
1 medium carrot, julienned
1 rib celery, diced
1 small onion, sliced and chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup honey
1/2 to 1 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
salt to taste (see recipe)

Rinse the chick peas and kidney beans under water until the water runs clear. Place in a bowl that will hold all the assembled ingredients.

Stem the green beans and cut into thirds or quarters. Peel and cut the carrot into matchsticks about 2” long. Rinse both well and blanch in boiling water for 3-5 minutes. Rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process and add to the bowl.

Add the celery, onion and garlic to the bowl and toss well to combine.

In a small bowl combine the vinegar, honey, cayenne and black pepper. Pour over the vegetables and toss. Do not add salt at this time. (Sometimes the kidney beans and chickpeas are already salty.)

Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or for a whole day.

Just before serving, taste for salt and add if desired.


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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Foraging in your Garden: Primroses (Primula)

Their smiles / Wan as primroses gathered at midnight / By chilly-fingered Spring. – John Keats

Photo: anneke1998, Flickr ccl
Pretty soon (if not already in your part of the world) the Primroses will be making their springtime appearance outside. These bright little bits of cheer have already made their indoor appearance, because they can be purchased widely at grocery stores most months of the year.

Primula vulgaris is a species of primula native to western and southern Europe , northwest Africa, and southwest Asia. Its common name is primrose, and is sometimes called English Primrose to distinguish it from the many different species in the family Primulaceae.

These are very common primroses in grocery store flower shops.
Photo: Tara yeats, Flickr ccl
Why the name? 
"Primrose" is from the medieval Latin prima rosa, meaning "first rose". In its native habitat it can cover vast areas of open woods and shaded hedgerows. The wild primrose was a necessary addition to any Victorian cottage garden. 

About the plant
Primula  is a herbaceous perennial plant, meaning it dies back to ground level every year. It is low growing (about 4-12” tall) with all the leaves being at ground level. Flower spikes emerge from this point. The flowers are around 1-2” wide. Primula v. is hardy to USDA Zone 3-9.

Primula flowers in early spring, making it one of the earliest spring flowers in your garden. If you have any outside you should have seen the leaves above the ground at least a month ago. I did in mine. They’re nearly trouble free if placed in a good spot.

Photo: pirate_renee, Flickr ccl
Where to purchase
Many garden centres stock not only vulgaris but also several other cultivars. As I said above, you can also purchase primroses in local grocery chain flower shops almost any time of the year. 

They brighten the dreary winter months for certain. If you keep a grocery store-purchased plant alive it can be set outside in spring without any problems. That way you can enjoy the flowers year after year. They don’t cost much – a few dollars per plant.

Many hybrids are also available in a wide range of colours from white, red, light and hot pink, purple, blue, yellow, orange, two-tone, variegated, etc. Many of these also have larger flowers and a longer blooming season than primula vulgaris. 

In the Kitchen
Primula actually have many interesting culinary uses.

Both the flowers and leaves are edible, the flavour being described as slightly “tangy.” The flowers can be candied for edible decorations by coating with egg white wash and confectioners sugar. They can also be used as the flavour carrier in primrose syrup, a simple 3-ingredient recipe (flowers, sugar and water).

The leaves can be added to other greens to enhance a salad. I have also seen a recipe that uses the flowers to infuse a cream for tartlets. (recipe HERE). In the directions each tartlet has a flower for decoration. I would suggest putting it on AFTER the top has been browned, not before. Maybe even one you have candied...

Eating primroses is also supposed to help you see fairies. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Photo: Satrina0, Flickr ccl

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Foraging Recipe: Poached Trout with Dandelion Salad

Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after. – Henry David Thoreau

The finished product, with a significant "detour" into my backyard.
It’s good to eat fish at least once every week. It’s full of Omega-3 fatty acids that our bodies need. Don’t worry about what you read about risks associated with eating fish. Regardless of the contaminants that may be present in some types of fish numerous studies have shown that the benefits far outweigh the risk.

The Omega-3 fatty acids provide many heart health benefits including reducing the risk heart attack, stroke and heart disease. Omega-3s also help prevent arterial clogging, which can be fatal.

The consumption of trout reduces bad cholesterol (LDL) as well as blood pressure. Trout also protects the body against circulatory problems like thrombosis and gout.

So I bought a rainbow trout filet. Fairly cheap too, at $5.30 for 350 g. I’ll have to keep that cost in mind. It’s far cheaper than salmon… If you’re lucky enough to know where you can catch your own the fish will be free! Trout fishing season is currently happening in Nova Scotia.

Trout can be prepared many ways: fried, baked and poached to name just three. I chose poached. It’s a quick way to prepare it and doesn’t allow the fish to dry out.

So next up was what to accompany it. Once again, many choices. I chose a salad. We don’t eat nearly enough salad. That, and I had the remainder of a head of romaine lettuce in the refrigerator… or so I thought.

These are the kind of dandelions I used. They grow absolutely
everywhere. Photo: randihausken, Flickr ccl
Never panic in the kitchen
So I get home and go for the romaine. No romaine. And no time to go to the grocery. The trout was already poaching.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation do not panic. There’s always something you can substitute. I had picked up green onions and radishes for the rest of the salad. The radishes still had their greens attached.

I had never tasted radish leaves before. Now I know why. After a nibble I realized they just wouldn’t do. It’s not that they were bad, but they're very sharp. I could see using them as an additional green in a salad but not the main one.

So now I was in a bind. I had nothing else acceptably green “in the house.” What about outside? Outside also has the benefit of being free.

A quick look at the edge of our property showed bright, young, tender dandelions. I had dandelion greens last year with fish but it was later in the season. They still were fantastic and I remember young dandelion was supposed to be even more choice.

That remembrance was correct. So I carried on with my recipe and had dinner (part of it free) on the table in no time flat. I made a blackberry vinaigrette from vinegar posted on this blog a week or two ago.

Never discount what you may be able to find in your yard to eat. Just be sure of what you’re picking, and that it’s not polluted (pr peed on), and you’re good to go.

This is what I made (all recipes). To feed more than 2 you should probably buy more trout. Everyone will want more.

Adding celery and onion to the simmering water adds
additional flavour. This is half of the trout filet.
Poached Trout with Lemon Butter Sauce
Prep: 5 min  |  Cook: 10 min  | Serves 2-4
1 filet Rainbow Trout, 350 g
1 rib celery, sliced
1 small onion, cut in two
8 black pepper corns

Lemon Butter Sauce
1/2 cup butter, melted
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp tarragon, dried
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
1 tsp cornstarch, mixed with a little water

Cut the trout into serving sized pieces. Your choice. 

Place enough water in a wide sauté pan to cover the fish when it is added. Add the celery, onion, pepper and salt and bring to a boil. Simmer for 3 minutes.

Add the trout and let it simmer for 7 minutes or until cooked through. 

If  your sauce breaks don't sweat it. Mine was broken
before this photo was taken. It came back together.
While the trout is simmering prepare the sauce. Melt the butter and add the lemon juice and black pepper. Whisk well. Add the cornstarch and whisk again.

At this point the sauce may very well “break” meaning the fat separates. Don’t worry. Let the butter sauce cool down and whisk once it’s cooled a little. It will come back together. If it gets too thick, heat it up a little.

Server on top of the trout.

Dandelion Salad with Blackberry Vinaigrette
dandelion leaves, cleaned, washed and patted dry
green onions, sliced
radishes, sliced
1/3 blackberry vinegar (just 1/3 of whatever quantity you want your end result to be)
2/3 olive oil
salt and pepper

Combine the dressing ingredients in a jar and shake vigorously.

If the leaves are too large to be manageable, tear them up. Place the dandelion, green onions and radishes in a bowl. Pour the vinaigrette on top and toss well.


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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Info: Hiring a Good Contractor

Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. – Nelson Mandela

Photo: haavoc, Flickr ccl
The following information is (extremely) abridged from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Association. Go to their website for full information. It’s a necessity for you to read it as it will protect you from heartache, disappointment and potential financial loss. It will help you through the process of finding a good contractor, entering into a contract and what to expect.

The original, full article, with links, can be seen at It is a very necessary read if you plan to contract tradespeople, either now or in the future.

Photo: iamthechad, Flickr ccl
Who Do You Hire?
The contractor you choose needs the necessary skills (both technical and interpersonal), tools and experience to complete the job to good trade practices. That means they perform to the standard present in whatever their trade may be. Look for contractors that have experience in similar projects. 

For larger projects you can hire a contractor to oversee the whole job as many projects require specialized trades. That means they may include obtaining all necessary permits, hiring sub-contractors and the supervision of the work.

Choosing a Contractor
Start searching reliable sources. They may include family or friends. Other sources may be local homebuilder associations, supply stores and possibly municipal building departments. Many contractors also have their own web sites so you can check them out before contacting them.

Contact and meet with a few you feel can do the work and listen to their suggestions and advice on how they would do the work. Some may even give you a rough estimate on the costs associated with your project before a finalized costing.

Ask a lot of questions, some of which are:
• How long have you been in business?
• What work are you licensed to do?
• Have you done similar work before?
• Will you use your own crew for the work or will you subcontract ?
• How and when do you clean up?
• What work schedule will you follow?
• What kind of warranty do you offer and what does it cover?
• Do you carry workers’ compensation and liability insurance?
• Will you provide a written contract?
• Will you take out all required permits (e.g., building, plumbing, electrical)?
These questions won’t offend a reputable contractor. If they do not know the answers, or seem evasive or vague, it is definitely time to look for a different potential contractor.

It is important to meet before the job to ensure you get along with the contractor. Sometimes things get misunderstood or misinterpreted and tensions can arise. Feeling comfortable with your contractor will help you through these times.

Quality contractors have good references. They should be able to quickly supply the names of at least three previous clients. Don’t accept them at face value. Call them and find out about all of their experience with the contractor and the finished work.

Good contractors will also prove that they have appropriate insurance, such as workers’ compensation and third-party liability insurance.

Checking their status with the Better Business Bureau is a bit of a craps shoot. Small problems may be submitted for arbitration through the BBB, but large complaints often go directly to court. Just because a business has a A+ does not mean there have not been difficulties with their work in the past. They just may not have been dealt with through the BBB.

Photo: Tim in Sydney, Flickr ccl
Getting Estimates
There is no rule for how many you should get. Some people prefer to have several full written estimates before choosing a contractor. Others feel good enough about one to make the decision. The most important thing is that you feel knowledgeable enough to make an informed decision. The usual amount, though, is three – complete with any detailed drawings of work to be done if applicable.

Even a small job should have a full set of written specifications about the products and deliverables to be part of the project.

Large or small, it is wise to meet with the contractor to go over their proposal so you can ask questions to clarify what they have submitted. Also make sure they supply a construction schedule, complete with start and finish dates.

Look for a fair price, not a cheap price. Factor in any differences such as reputation, offering of advice and the likelihood of standing behind their work. Choose the contractor you feel will give you the best overall value for your money.

Get Everything in Writing
Do not be tempted by a contractor who doesn’t want a written contract and offers a discount if you pay cash. This should sound loud alarm bells to you.

Asking for cash may mean they are uninsured or unlicensed. Also any payments have no tracking mechanism. They could also not get the required permits and warranties could be invalid. They also could do the work quickly and cheaply. Without proper insurance you could also be liable for any damage or accidents that may happen.

Paying cash also leaves you with little or no legal recourse either. It could make it almost impossible to prove the contractor was even there. The list of problems – of all sorts – you may encounter by not having a clear contract are endless.

Photo: iamthechad, Flickr ccl
Get a Written, Detailed Contract
You must have a written contract with your contractor for your own protection, no matter what the job. A place to find a simple contract is located on the web site where this information was gathered. For more complex jobs you may want to build in a cancellation clause. This outlines the parameters of cancelling the contract. There may be a financial penalty for using this safety net.

Completion Certificate
You may be asked to sign a certificate of completion when the job is finished. Do not sign anything until you have properly and thoroughly inspected the job. 

Note any shortcomings in writing and arrange a time and date for the contractor to come back to finish the work. This also should be in writing. Professionals will also honour any warranty they have stated and will come back to rectify problems during that period.

Working with your Contractor
In spite of a clear, detailed contract, disputes can arise for any number of reasons. Good communication can go a long way in settling any disagreements. As a first step, you should sit down together to discuss the problem calmly and seek a solution that you both can live with comfortably.

Try to be reasonable. Don’t overreact if something is not proceeding as you hoped. For example, bad weather and backordered components can delay the job which is not the contractor’s fault. As a last resort, if you were wise, use your cancellation clause.

If you think that some of the work is not up to local building standards, report it in writing to the appropriate inspection department, with a copy to your contractor. If the work doesn’t meet building code requirements, the contractor should have to correct it at his or her expense.

Also, you can report poor workmanship and unsatisfactory business practices to the government department that granted the contractor a business licence, where applicable.

Photo: zenhikers, Flickr ccl
Consumer Protection Laws
There are laws protecting consumers. Provincial and territorial consumer affairs or consumer relations departments usually administer consumer protection laws. Sometimes a phone call is enough, but a letter outlining the problem (giving names, dates, addresses and details) is often required before any action can be taken.

Often their presence will be enough to rectify the problem. If it isn’t, and it goes to court, they can offer you assistance in how to do so.

If legal action is necessary, you may be able to take the contractor to small claims court without having to hire a lawyer. Although small claims court is relaxed and informal, its decisions are binding. The maximum size of the claim depends on the province or territory where you live. 

In summation
If you want a good quality job ensure you hire a reputable contractor. This means you have to do some homework. The job may cost you more, but the safeguards built into proper contracts and skilled tradespeople is well worth the additional cost. Remember you get what you pay for.

If a contractor is leery about supplying you certain information you should be very wary. They may not have proper insurance or the experience necessary for the job, or a myriad of other problems.

Remember, get everything in writing and ensure that it is adhered to. This includes materials as well as schedules. If you are not vigilant you may find yourself in great difficulties.

There is an excellent checklist on hiring a contractor available on the Canada Mortgage and Housing Association web site listed at the start of this post.


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Monday, April 23, 2012

Gardening: Maples are in bloom too!

A person should not be too honest. Straight trees are cut first and honest people are screwed first. – Chanakya 

Red maple flowers. They're a little damp. It was a very foggy morning.
A few days ago I posted about the star magnolias being in bloom in Nova Scotia. They’re certainly not the only tree that is doing its “spring thing.” On the weekend we saw a saucer magnolia that was nearly in bloom. That’s about two weeks earlier than usual here. It was a mild winter to say the least.

Sugar maple blossoms. Note the difference in colour from above.
But when we’re looking at what’s shaking off the doldrums of winter we shouldn’t forget those native species that put on a flowery show. 

One such tree is the Acer, more commonly known as the maple tree. It also happens to be the national tree of Canada, and one of its leaves appears on our flag.

From Wikipedia:
There are approximately 129 species, most of which are native to Asia, with a number also appearing in Europe, northern Africa, and North America. Only one species, the poorly studied Acer laurinum, is native to the Southern Hemisphere. Fifty-four species of maples meet the International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria for being under threat of extinction in their native habitat.

The word Acer derives from a Latin word meaning "sharp" (compare "acerbic"), referring to the characteristic points on maple leaves. It was first applied to the genus by the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in 1700. The earliest known fossil maple is Acer alaskense, from the Latest Paleocene of Alaska.

This is a sugar maple seed. Maples make many. many, many.
Photo: Wiki CC
Although several species grow in NS, the most common by far is the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Its habitat ranges from here west to southern Ontario and as far south as Texas. 

If I had thought of it earlier I could have easily posted this plant under my “foraging” category. Sugar maple is the one that is “tapped” for its sap in early spring, that is then turned into maple syrup. It’s a very useful tree.

Maples are big trees. They can grow over 100’ tall with very wide trunks. They are also excellent shade trees. Maples put on a dramatic display in the fall when their leaves turn to colours ranging from yellow orange to bright red.

Another common maple here is the red maple. As the name suggests, its leaves, twigs, flowers and seed pods are all red to varying degrees. It is often used for landscaping because of the foliage, as is the sugar maple.

In both types of maples the flowers appear in corymbs of 5-10 together. You can tell from the photos what is meant by a corycomb. The resulting fruit is a double “samara” with two winged seeds. So many are produced they are often considered a nuisance by gardeners. They tend to sprout quite easily...

Both maples are putting on quite a show right now. They can be easily spotted while on walks or even driving by because of their colour. The sugar maple have flowers that are yellowish-buff. Red maples have red blossoms.

The flowers don’t last too long so if you want to go see them you should really get out and have a look. They’ll soon be gone for another year.

Young sugar maple at right; Henry the Bouvier at left.

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