By Denny Scott
Several years ago Gabe and Deborah Caira looked at a property southeast of Blyth and saw their home. They also saw a space they could turn into The Ecobubble: a biologically diverse space into which they could grow.
They purchased the property on Harlock Line, which included the former rural Hullett schoolhouse SS. No. 6. They have renovated the building and worked the lot extensively, transforming it into a space where they could live, grow produce and, eventually, welcome visitors and teach them about their experiences.
Deborah, who grew up in the Kincardine area, and Gabe, who was born and raised in Toronto, moved to the area from Toronto. Years ago, Deborah moved to Toronto where she met Gabe. They eventually married and lived on a small lot in the urban centre. There, they grew produce, which they shared with their neighbours and friends. After Gabe retired, however, they wanted more space to accommodate more growth.
Gabe, a retired IT professional who worked for the City of Toronto, and Deborah, who managed the Queen West Animal Hospital, turned their eyes to Huron County and discovered what would be their new home. They bought the property three years ago, but had to renovate the schoolhouse before they could move in March of 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The goal, Deborah said, was to create something similar in function to what they had in Toronto. At their Toronto urban garden, they welcomed a number of animals and insects that otherwise may not have been there. The same has happened at their new home, she said. With the addition of gardens, trees and a nearly-universal no-kill policy (with LDD moths, formerly known as gypsy moths, and insects that feed on or bite humans being exempt from the policy), she said they have created a similar biome.
Due to the permaculture practices (which focus on sustainability and biodiversity), she said, they have welcomed a plethora of new animal species, birds and insects, which all become part of their “bubble”, so she feels responsible for them.
“We’ve seen hundreds of honeybees, many different kinds of birds, owls, red chipmunks and red squirrels which we didn’t see before,” Deborah said. “We’re creating a tiny ecosystem here.”
The whole idea, Gabe said, is based on the couple liking to leave things better than they found them, and since the property was very much a blank canvas, he and Deborah were able to quickly adapt the space to provide biodiversity.
Deborah said that work will continue with 50 to 60 per cent of the grass converted into meadowlands as she works with Ontario native plants to promote growth and attract animals.
“The goal is to protect the space and to make it lush,” she said.
Gardening provides much of what the couple eats and shares, but to continue that in the winter, they needed to find a solution, the couple said.
In a serendipitous turn of events, the couple found, in their search for a greenhouse to provide year-round food, a company called Arctic Acres (arcticacres.ca) that builds geodesic dome greenhouses, giving their farm, The Ecobubble, a fittingly-shaped greenhouse that has made the couple’s half acre an even more unique spot for visitors.
Gabe said the requirements for a greenhouse that would help them become more self-sufficient included standing up to the heavy snow and high winds that sweep through the rural countryside of Huron County. Fortunately, Arctic Acres’ geodesic domes are able to provide that.
“We built the dome in February and, within three weeks, we were eating produce out of it,” Deborah said. “Our hope is just to grow food all through the winter.”
The dome has met their needs wonderfully, Deborah said, and has been a unique experience to create and operate.
Part of the dome holds an 1,100-gallon tank of water, which operates as a heatsink for the structure, Gabe said. In the summer, it helps to cool the space, while in the winter it helps to keep it warm, and with a recently-introduced school of tilapia fish, the water can be used to hydrate plants throughout the winter as the fish create a healthy ecosystem in the water.
The dome has also provided a great conversation-starter with neighbours, the couple said, with Gabe adding that they’ve even been fostering new relationships between neighbours as they welcomed outdoor visitors to their property.
The greenhouse has even garnered the attention of York University in Toronto whose representatives, through Arctic Acres, contacted the Cairas about having students attend their new home. The hope is that the Cairas could share what they’ve learned, starting from scratch, and the students can learn about the project and the techniques being used and help to further the school’s green project, Project Climate Change: York University’s Climate Solutions Park.
The Cairas have welcomed a student with a deep understanding of compost, who helped around the farm, and the coordinator of the UREAL program, a work-integrated learning project at York university, who is well-versed in videography who wanted to document what was happening at the site.
Deborah explained that, aside from the greenhouse, the rest of their gardens, 11 in total, follow what’s called Hugelkultur, which literally translates to hill culture.
Through chopping up a felled maple tree that was on their property, Deborah and Gabe were able to build raised gardens over top of compost pits. Using the logs of the maple tree, clippings, compost materials and even cardboard (anything that decomposes, Deborah said), the Cairas created what Gabe calls “soil lasagna” that helps gardens persist without regular watering.
“I haven’t had to water for six weeks now,” Deborah said, during the late-summer interview. “The wood and other materials compost on their own and retain the water.”
The couple has also built a “glamping” space on their property featuring an outhouse-style composting toilet and a bunkie for visitors.
When it’s complete, the space will welcome visitors and friends from Toronto, students working on the aforementioned York University project and others. During the winter, Deborah says the space will be a cold cellar.
One of the first interactions that Deborah and Gabe have had with some of the people in the area was after they started sharing their produce.
Deborah says there is no greater feeling than feeding someone, so, when it came time to harvest their produce, she started giving it away through a farmgate stand on their property. She shared the idea online and it has really taken off.
People have been using the space and enjoying the produce, but also bringing their own and trading, Deborah said.
Gardeners often tackle their passion not out of a desire to get rich, but for the challenge, Gabe said, and the byproduct of that is having a lot of produce to share.
For now, the produce is free, but Deborah said in the winter they may need to start charging to offset the cost of growing in the greenhouse. For the meantime, however, she’s happy to share and meet people through the farmgate.
The couple said they’re blessed to be able to pursue their projects without relying on them for a livelihood, but Gabe says, if they worked at it, they would likely be able to.
The offerings at the produce stand are varied, Deborah said, as she is experimenting to find out exactly what grows well in Huron County. For example, she said, she’s found that artichokes grow well here and they suffer from few pests.
She has also found that some of the more intense storms can have damaging impacts on the property, which has led to some changes being made throughout the season.
Regardless of challenges like that, she and Gabe are enjoying being a part of the community and, with the easing of restrictions on the public due to COVID-19, they are looking forward to meeting more of their neighbours and expanding their presence in the community.
For more information, visit ecobubble.ca, e-mail the Cairas at firstname.lastname@example.org or look for the organization on Facebook. ◊