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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Composting, Brown Snakes, Mulcher, Neatness & Cleanliness

Composting and Brown Snakes

The Brown snake reclining on one of the compost piles was a reminder to write about composts. This particular Brown snake was a lovely pale brown. It looked in awfully good health, most probably from the mice it was devouring out of the compost piles. It didn’t seem in any great hurry to move from its warmth in the sun but 5 minutes later it had vanished. Probably just making sure nobody saw in which compost pile it was housing itself.
While on the subject of Brown snakes, there was the one that we found in the workshop caught in some stored bird netting. That is the problem with both bird netting on the ground and having a small head and big body. Rather than thoughtlessly disposing of this Brown we were able to track down an experienced snake handler living locally who was happy to come over and remove the snake. It was after he arrived that we were informed he would hold the snake and we would have to cut the netting away from the head. This requires great trust. Once the successful removal of the netting was concluded, we decided that as this was its home, the best place for release was in the nearby paddock. After the release the handler commented with some enthusiasm that she (the snake) was a mature female and had recently had some offspring. Sharing the world with other species can be difficult at times. One settling point is that mature snakes seem to know the routines of their territory hence they manage to stay out of the way. Juveniles are a bit of a problem as they are not familiar with the routines and are frightened and are more likely to act aggressively as a way of self defence. At least their teeth are small.
Now back to composting. We have several different composting methods:

Kitchen Waste Compost
  1. The kitchen waste i.e. vegetable trimmings, tea leaves, ground coffee and scraps of paper etc are put into a small rectangular structure assembled from loose bricks. When it is full a little animal manure is placed on top and then it’s covered with straw or hay and left for a couple of months. There are two of these going at once. One has been bedded down and is maturing while the other is being filled. As the maturing pile sinks, the bricks are transferred from it to the growing pile, that way economising on the number of bricks. The fully decomposed material is used in the vegetable garden.  
  2. Garden Waste Compost
  3. The garden waste from weeding is put into one of two large bins with mesh sides held up with star pickets. When one is filled it is left and the other started. After a few months the uncomposted material on top of the first pile is removed and added to the second pile. The material from these composts is use to fill the tyres that grow potatoes.
  4. Compost Tumblers
  5. The compost tumblers are filled with grass clippings, some chicken litter and chipped prunings from the mulcher. There never seems to be enough of this available in a mature state at our place. If it’s not fully composted and is required for a new vegetable planting a trench is dug in the bed and the material buried as is. By the time the seeds or seedling get their roots down to the contents of the trench the worms will have done their job.
  6. Worm Farm
  7. There is the worm farm in black plastic rectangular bins. Firstly, to keep a home base for the red compost worms. Secondly, to provide worm wee and thirdly to compost anything we don’t want the dogs to dig up such as cooked chicken bones or small dead creatures.
  8. Compost Staging Area
  9. Lastly there is a staging area to hold either surplus compost if the tumblers or material from the mulcher get ahead .





Mulching Fish Frames
A heavy duty large mulcher has many uses. Apart from feeding in garden waste we have also processed oyster shells to make shell grit for the chooks. There are two ways to obtain the shells. Firstly buy lots of oysters in the shell from a seafood supplier or secondly and better still, buy oysters in the shell directly from the oyster farmer and ask him for a couple of feed bags or buckets of oyster shells (something they seem to have a lot of).
Another useful feature of garden mulchers is that they can turn fish frames (ie heads, skeleton and tail) into Omega 3 rich mince. Because it is a bit of a messy task its best to process a large quantity at once. These can be bagged into suitable sized batches and frozen then put out for the chooks on a regular basis. Just plonk it on the grass in one pile as they will graze on it until it disappears. The mulching of fish frames is done near the chook yard so the house keeping afterwards is mainly performed by the girls themselves. Standing in front of the mulcher and trying to catch the flying fish mince seems to be a popular activity for our girls. Hosing it out at the end just gives the girls more. Don’t use shark frames as they create havoc with the mulcher. Shark is also at the wrong end of the food chain if you want to keep your mercury intake at low levels. 
Fish Mince




Neatness and Cleanliness

We haven’t been struck by the neatness stick. There are far too many other important jobs to be performed as part of our self sufficiency. You won’t find us shaving the lawn or nipping every out of place blade of grass. The lawns get done in time and the edges trimmed and it always looks nice afterwards but it is not a regular event. The vegetables get weeded but not every day. A few weeds are always showing. The vegetables aren’t always in neat rows. Firstly, there is always the odd failure and secondly we make every attempt at succession planting to avoid that wasteful glut. Our concentration is on diversity as much as anything.
Many plants are left to go to seed. This is inherently untidy but returns substantial benefits. Parsnip, parsley, coriander, fennel, endive, several types of radicchio, celeriac and land cress are now self sown.
The cats and dogs are allowed to wander in and out of the house and they always forget to wipe their feet. Hence we have tiled floors in most rooms while other rooms are kept out of bounds. Vacuuming is not a high priority. Usually we are prodded into action when visitors are imminent. This usually ends up being a major event for us which includes washing the floors.
We are particular in the kitchen as we spend a lot of time preparing and cooking. There is never enough bench space at our place and so dirty dishes are not left lying about. Pots and pans are in continual use and consequently are quickly cleaned once used. The dishwasher is run every day. Somehow we manage to fill it easily. Wine bottles which will be reused get the dishwasher treatment as well. Some things are hand washed buts that’s usually because they can’t fit or shouldn’t go in the dishwasher. Time is at a premium when sustaining our style of living and the dishwasher is very efficient. As we are on tank water (albeit over 100,000 litres) it’s still important to conserve water. Only three criteria were used for dishwasher selection: lowest water usage, lowest power consumption and lowest noise level.
Workshop Just Finished
Having said all that about lack of neatness, there are some essential rules. One of which is anything that has been finished with is returned to its usual storage place. No wasted time wandering about looking for it or trying to remember where it was last used. This applies to the garden implements, workshop tools, kitchen utensils and anything else. Putting away immediately when finished may seem a chore when in a hurry but once the routine is developed it becomes automatic and the dividends commence flowing. The photograph of the workshop was taken when it was first completed it has a much more used look now but the tools are still returned to their rightful place. Repairing anything on the go is a speedy process.
There seems to be an excessive emphasis in the world on the use of cleaners, antiseptics and antibacterial agents. Surely attempting to live in a sterile environment can’t be good for our body’s ability to develop its immune system. There is a place for hygiene in the preparation of food but not to the extent of spraying every surface with antibacterial agents. A little soap and hot water is enough. When making beer or wine hygiene is critical with fermentation containers and bottles. Leafy vegetables need to be washed to remove grit and root vegetables need a good scrub but peeling only removes the goodness that lies beneath the skin. Cuts and scratches are inevitable when working outdoors. The wearing of gloves assists in avoiding many of these but sometimes it is difficult to perform certain tasks with hands encased. It doesn’t hurt to shed a little blood from a cut or scratch, this is the body’s way of rinsing out any contaminants. A good wash in clean water is usually all that is needed. Some temporary protection from further contamination or excessive bleeding may necessitate a bandage or adhesive patch if returning to a dirty task. But once clear of dirty tasks take off the bandage and let fresh air circulate and dry out the wound and let natural healing occur.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fox Proof Fences, Magpie, Ported Prunes, Newspapers, Aquarobics, Planning, Mosquitos

Fox Proof Fencing

Some years ago, after a savage Fox attack in which 20 chooks were killed, it was decided to make a serious attempt at replacing the fencing around the orchard with a long lasting Fox proof solution. By dividing the Orchard and house yard into a number of logical sections, it was easier to erect the fencing in stages. The first stage was the immediate area around the chook pen, followed by the main part of the orchard, then the house yard and finally the last piece was the internal fence between the house yard and the Orchard.

Fox Proof Fence

Over the last few weeks that last section of fence has gone up, along with a number of extra access gates for convenient entry at different points. The project is slow as each gateway requires additional strainers and stays. Additionally, the gates are handmade as are some of the fittings. Because the ground is so rocky each strainer and stay is cemented into place.
Everything is done in steel. The netting is extra heavy duty and should last more than 20 years. The top wire is designed to be electrified to stop cattle leaning over and to prevent anything climbing over. A 300mm sacrificial strip of netting is laid on the ground and attached to the vertical netting with clips. Once the grass has grown through it prevents anything digging under the fence.

300mm sacrificial Panel
There is evidence that Foxes have been on the outside. But so far it has worked well with no Fox penetration.
Redoing the fences was a good opportunity to also attend to the water distribution system. The garden pressure system distributes water to all parts of the Orchard and house yard via 25 mm poly pipes. Under the old system, all the pipes were tied to the fence above ground. This was a good opportunity to bury the pipe and install risers and additional taps to simplify watering. One of the problems with exposed black poly in Summer is the extremely hot water that first comes out. At least now it is shaded to a large extent.

Water Riser
Progressively we have been simplifying everything to make as many tasks easy. Although all the trees in the orchard are on an irrigation system, sometimes only one or two trees need a drink. Taps are at regular intervals with dedicated hoses, no more wasting time dragging hoses to another tap. As hoses wear out we invest in better quality kink free hoses to reduce frustration and increase longevity. Although experience has shown that kink free is a bit of a dream. Less kinky might be a better description.
Found a juvenile magpie recently wandering around the paddock. It is too young to assess gender. The first week was hard work as it was very shitty. Feeding involved poking food down its throat. Finally the struggle is over and it feeds as per normal and often. Having settled down it now preens and has commenced practising its traditional magpie chorusing. Hopefully it will grow quickly before we run out of curl grubs and worms. It has adapted to soaked dry cat food but the cats have not adapted to it. Heavy supervision and a strong cage have kept it alive.

Young Magpie
They have wonderful personalities, forever interested in everything that is going on and a curious streak, pecking and lifting things to see what they are. They are amazingly quick learners as well. When the sun hits them they splay out in a tangle of wings and feathers looking as if someone has chucked them on the ground. The chooks don’t like it at all. They come roaring out of nowhere on the attack. All it does is fall on its back in defeat. Just as well we don’t have carpets in the house as it continually leaves small gifts in various places when on the loose. The only mistake we made was feeding it some Mulberries one day. The gifts left behind can stain some things badly.
Hopefully one day soon it will be able to feed itself and fly well enough to make its own way in the world. We’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Ported Prunes
A very simple recipe is to fill a jar with pitted prunes and top up with port. Leave for a month to allow the prunes to swell. Our favourite way of serving is with plain yoghurt.

Ported Prunes
The best port to use is the one you make yourself using a port barrel. This can be oak (which is a bit expensive) or pottery. Buy a number of different ports. The cheaper the better and mix into the barrel and forget about it for a while (the longer the better). Eventually it miraculously changes and becomes a delicious port. When it tastes good drain off what you need for immediate medium term use and top up the barrel. It won’t take as long to transform once you have a solid base material.


Local and national newspapers, their supplements and inserts and magazines can be interesting to peruse but not really worth the investment. A simple arrangement was made with different friends who do choose to invest in them. They keep the publications and pass them onto us. The articles that are of interest aren’t affected by the time delay. Anything time critical has already had adequate coverage on radio, television and the web.
In return we pass excess produce onto them. Eggs, vegetables, cheese and even wine find their way into the barter process.
The newspapers are finally put to good used as mulch under the tyres in which we grow potatoes. Growing potatoes in tyres is easy when you’re challenged for either garden space or in our case soil. However they are a good spot for snakes which make a plopping sound when the tyre is lifted and the snake falls on your foot. It is usually just as frightened as you are and slithers away as quickly as you are running in the opposite direction.


There are lots of different forms of exercise but Aquarobics is great in Spring and Summer. We don’t have a pool and use the local council pool buying a season family ticket to economise. Two to four times each week for about 45 minutes is plenty. The best time is early in the morning to set you up for the day. It is also a good time to avoid the crowds
The three areas we concentrate on are the legs, back and upper body. Gradually building muscle tone and keeping the joints flexible. Starting the season with shorter periods for each exercise and gradually increasing the time spent on each as fitness improves.
It’s possible to include aerobic sequences into the session but we prefer to finish off by swimming laps. About an hour after finishing, the body gets a warm glowing feeling indicating it has been used. This is a very satisfying feeling. It also seems to fill us with renewed energy.
There are lots of books available in the market place as well as in the local library system. Over time, we have developed a series of routines which give us the maximum benefit. It is critical to start and finish the sessions with a balance of stretches.


Every so often we spend a little time looking at what we do and listing down all the tasks that we find frustrating, annoying, costly and time consuming. Gaining efficiency is important to provide more time for those other things we want to enjoy.
Each item is then re-sequenced from worst to least worst. And then possible solutions are listed. Finally, over time practical solutions are implemented. Sometimes it may mean waiting until something wears out before replacing it with a more efficient unit and in some cases there may not be a practical solution. Gradually we have been able to gain efficiencies which enable us to do many other things and still have time to relax.

Mosquito Trap

An old school friend recently visited. He provided an unusual tip for mosquito control. Find some open topped containers of preferably dark blue or black. Put water in them and position them in shady spots on the southern side of the house. Empty and refill them every two weeks. As the sun sets mosquitoes look for cool dark places containing water. Cool and dark so that they can be sure the water will not evaporate after they lay their eggs. Regular emptying ensures the wrigglers never mature. My friend swears by this solution. We have implemented it and will make an assessment at the end of Summer.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Wind, Yoghurt, Roasted Peanuts, Motor Vehicles and Guinea Fowl


Woke briefly just after 4 am to the sound of the wind tearing over the house. Later in the morning we discovered “tearing” appropriate. No tress down but pieces torn from the grape vines that cover the pergola, a few unsecured bits around the verandah scattered and in the tomato bed the odd damaged tomato seedling. Nothing major else where. The worst situation is strong wind after rain when the ground is sodden and the natives have no grip in the ground. When this happened last time we lost over 20 trees.
One of the best jobs we completed when we first arrived was the planting of a double row of Casuarina trees on the westerly aspect.These Casuarina Glauca are well over 10 metres tall. The spacing filters and breaks up the wind and protects the orchard and the house. Casuarina are excellent for this task as they are drought tolerant and equally happy with wet feet. They seed prolifically and send up shoots thickening the wind break. They can also be eaten as fodder by cattle.

Casuarina Windbreak

They wind also caused a power outage. When we first acquired the property, power was very unreliable with outages almost every month. As a result we purchased a petrol driven generator which has paid for itself many times. It is always fully fuelled with extension cords nearby. About 20 minutes is required to connect the water supply and the kitchen.


Every few weeks we make a large quantity of yogurt from unpasteurised milk. By placing a 15 litre stainless steel pot inside a 25 litre stainless pot partly filled with water we create a bain-marie like contraption. This means the temperature can be kept reasonably constant more easily. Thermometer is placed in the water and as the temperature drops to the minimum it is easy to fire up the stove top and bring back to the maximum. The temperature depends on which culture is used.

Yoghurt in Progress

We purchase our culture from Cheeselinks. They publish a small book which covers cheese and yoghurt making as well as supply all the components of cheese and yoghurt making.
It’s best to make this on a day where you are not far away so that the temperature can be monitored. Our culture takes about 6-8 hours but we keep it going all day and let it sit overnight. The next morning it is chilled in the refrigerator (or put in the freezer for a shorter time) and then to get a thicker consistency it is drained in a large sieve lined with cheese cloth (or in our case a piece of nylon curtain) sitting on a 9 litre plastic bucket. The longer it drains the thicker it becomes. If Labna is required leave it there all day turning it every now and then until it is thick enough.
The book says that you can add skim milk powder to the milk before you start in order to save the draining process. Skim milk powder is full of free radicals and like any heavily processed food best avoided.
Draining Yoghurt
Lastly the drained liquid is used to soak grain overnight and fed to the chooks. They really like the soaked grains. Alternatively add it to the compost and let the worms have a feast.
1 KG Tubs for Storing Yoghurt

Soaking Grain with Whey drained from Yoghurt



Salted roasted peanuts are delicious. Unfortunately the shop bought variety are roasted in vegetable oil. In itself not all that bad but vegetable oil is high in Omega 6 and our Western diets tend to be too high in Omega 6.
One way to enjoy this snack at a significantly lower cost and in a healthier form is to roast your own.
Buy raw peanuts, preferably Australian grown, as they are produced under more stringent regulations than the imported nuts. Many wholesalers sell them very cheaply in kilogram packs. Put them in a baking dish no more than 2-3 deep and bake in an oven at 180-200 degrees Celsius for 20-30 minutes until brown enough for your liking. The thicker the layer of nuts the longer it takes. They may need a stir occasionally as the outsides edge tends to cook first. While they are cooking mix some salt (no more than a tablespoon unless you like it quite salty, otherwise a teaspoon is enough) with a couple of table spoons of water. This will service a kilogram of nuts. When the peanuts are cooked to your liking pour the mixture of salt and water over them while they are still hot and mix thoroughly. The water will evaporate and the salt adhere to the nuts.

Motor Vehicle

We’ve found that we can survive with only one car these days. With both of us working part time, one locally, a single car and a bicycle work very well. On the odd occasion when a push bike isn’t an alternative (which is very rare) it just means getting up a little earlier to share a ride. Riding 15-20 kilometres 2-3 times a week doesn’t hurt the waist line or the aerobic activity. The big benefit is the annual cost saving. It is not just the fuel, registration, insurance and maintenance it is also the waisted capital investment which only depreciates.
Even with only one vehicle we still don’t make special trips. If shopping needs doing it is done on a work day either after work or both travel together with one shopping while the other works. Again, applying a permaculture principle about making everything have more than one benefit. And that doesn’t mean just going to two shops. No quick trip down to the corner shop for a newspaper. Here are two obscure tips on saving fuel. They may not have any scientific backing but they were found accidently. One tip is to buy fuel in the morning on the cheapest day of the week. The reason is that the fuel is cooler and takes up less volume, consequently you get more for your dollar. Another tip is if you have a big fuel tank and are going on a long trip keep the tank only partly filled so that you are not using fuel to carry the extra kilograms with you.
When you are dependent on one car there are some things that become important. Membership of a roadside service group is good insurance. Regular servicing of the car pays for itself over the long term. We drop ours off every 10,000km with a very good mechanic. This ensures any problems are spotted early. Our purchased 2nd hand car is 9 years old and approaching 300,000 kilometres with no breakdowns or major problems.
Our disaster recovery plan is firstly a rental i.e. if we need a second vehicle or the current one is out of action. It is cheaper to rent a small vehicle for a week or more than maintain a second vehicle. Secondly when we bought this car we started saving for its replacement. That money is kept in a term deposit with interest accruing ready to buy a good 2nd hand replacement should this one become unreliable.
Some other cost saving tips are buying the vehicle from the fleet car auctions which (whenever we have purchased) have always been cheaper. Selecting the vehicle based on our planned usage ie we drive a 6 cylinder because of the need to tow a large trailer and the predominately highway driving of 80 km/hr or more. Our vehicle had the lowest fuel consumption for these needs. Attend a few auctions first and record selling prices on different makes of similar featured cars. Not surprisingly some makes are consistently cheaper because of a perceived, not necessarily real, quality issue. Little things affect the final price. Features such as an ugly colour, front bench seat and column gear change on a sedan lower the bidding. Plainer cars are cheaper. There can be a $5000-$8000 difference between makes of the same vintage and optioned vehicles.

Benjamin and Lewis

Not so long ago we gave some fertilised Guinea Fowl eggs to a friend who lives a few kilometres away. Three of the eggs hatched producing two boys and a girl. The resident male Guinea Fowl on that property had soon enticed the lone girl. He treated the two boys badly with repeated attacks. The boys took it stoically and just cowered under the beatings. Our friend asked if there was any opportunity to rehouse them. As we had a much larger flock we felt they could be accommodated.
When they first arrived we placed them in a large disused aviary for the first couple of weeks to enable them to acclimatise. After the breaking in period we left the door open but it was almost another two weeks before these timid boys would tentatively come out. Each day they went a little further. They always stayed together. Eventually they roosted on a steel cross piece near the aviary and returned each day for food and water.
Gradually, as they grew, they became braver and would circle over to the house where a dish of food was kept for the resident yard poultry immediately running away if anyone or anything approached. They were devoted to each other, almost as if twins. They ate together and would have running games afterwards like two children. We named them Benjamin and Lewis after the characters in Bruce Chatwin’s novel On the Black Hill They never approached or joined the other Guinea Fowl.
At some point Lewis started to chat to one of the single girls on the other side of the fence. He stayed in the yard and she in the orchard. Then gradually he and Benjamin would jump the fence into the orchard but always return not long afterward. Every night the brothers slept on their steel perch side by side. Still totally devoted to each other. Lewis maintained some contact with the female but Benjamin only ever knew Lewis’s company.
For some unknown reason the other day Lewis went where he had never gone before, all the way to the chicken pen. He panicked once inside and couldn’t work out how to escape. We were not far away and decided to let him calm down and work his way out. Unknown to us one of our dogs, a working cattle dog, was attracted by the fluttering and noise. In the ensuing fuss Lewis was bitten but not just a minor loss of feathers, a tooth punctured his lung. He was clearly seriously hurt and we were forced to put him down.


Benjamin witnessed all this. He was completely distressed. Eventually he went to their perching spot and just slumped below the perch with his head hanging and spirit completely broken. This morning before light we could see a single outline on the perch. Benjamin alone for the first time in his life. The saddest sight in the world.

Raw Milk, Spring Vegetables, Orchard Fruit Fly Control


Collected milk yesterday afternoon, just over 20 litres which will last the week. Not just for us, the dogs and cats love the stuff, even the chooks want some. Not any ordinary milk but straight from the cow, unpasteurised and still warm. There are a couple of friendly dairy farmers close by who are happy to part company with some of their production in exchange for some “cash money”.
This isn’t A2 milk nor is it organic or biodynamic, but it does have one important feature in that it is not pasteurised or homogenised. A2 milk is found in the older breeds such as Jersey, Asian and African cows. A1 milk is found in breeds such as Holsteins. A1 milk has mutated beta casein so that it liberates BCM 7 into the tract of the animal consuming it. BCM 7 has been linked to neurological impairment. Dr Keith Woodford’s The Devil in the Milk looks at this in much detail but a quick reference is Wikipedia. Briefly, his research shows a direct correlation between populations exposure to A1 milk and incidence of autoimmune disease, heart disease, type 1 diabetes, autism and schizophrenia
William Campbell Douglass MD writes in The Milk of Human Kindness Is Not Pasteurized about the negative aspects of pasteurisation. There are other studies, in particular Francis M. Pottenger, Jr. Again refer to an article in Wikipedia called Pottenger’s Cats. In summary, cats on raw milk as opposed to pasteurised were healthier.
Our raw milk has a shelf life of 7-10 days. The important factors are making sure the containers in which it is stored are thoroughly cleaned each time and also that the milk is refrigerated quickly to 4 degrees Celsius or lower ie put in a normal refrigerator.

Weekly Milk Supply Home Bottling
The farmer we purchase from receives quality awards for his milk. The quality is measured by low SCC (Somatic Cell Count) i.e. a measure of pathogenic bacteria responsible for mastitis and TPC (Total Platelet Count) i.e. measurement of all bacteria in the milk. When milk is collected from dairy farms the temperature is recorded to ensure the vat is operating correctly and the samples taken are also tested for the presence of antibiotics. Our dairy farmer takes enormous pride in keeping his counts at low levels, his refrigeration correctly working and the milk from any cows treated with antibiotics not put in the vat. He even drinks his own milk


Asparagus Bed
An interesting thing is going on with our Asparagus. The 2 year old plants (Connovers Colossal and Argenteuil) came up as expected during the last week of August and the first week of September. These we won’t harvest for at least another year. The four year old Mary Washington’s did nothing until early October. Most unusual and unexplained. Our favourite way of eating Asparagus is to lightly steam them and serve whole spears sprinkled with Parmesan, chopped hard boiled egg and a good splash of dressing. The dressing is made from Apple Cider Vinegar, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, some Miso a dash of Shoyu and some Balsamic Vinegar .

Tomato Bed Trellis
What we call the Tomato Bed is all planted out. It’s a bed a metre wide and about 30 metres long made from a layer of composted cow manure, a layer of litter from the chook yard and a layer of mulch hay. It’s that long because we can’t ever seem to reduce the number of varieties we like to try. This year there are 15 varieties and 25 seedlings interplanted with some Basil. These don’t take up all the 30 metres and so there are some capsicum and eggplant at one end. No staking involved. Instead, three layers of mesh at 400 mm spacing (roughly) are supported by steel posts every 2.5 metres. The plants grow up through the mesh and don’t need staking, just tuck in any outside branches during the growing season. The ease of maintenance appeals to our lack of discipline.

Tomato Puree

We preserve very few fruits and vegetables. Eating fresh is important and so we have a pick and eat policy. However, Tomatoes provide great flavour to Pasta sauces, stews and all types of other dishes. When we have had our fill of fresh tomatoes, the bottling starts. Tomatoes through a blender, then into a big pot, raised to a rolling boil for few minutes and into steel capped glass jars. About 50-70 keep us supplied for the rest of the year with a few left over in case of a disaster in the tomato bed the next year. Jars are easily acquired from friends who prefer pre-packaged pasta sauces.

This tomato puree keeps for years. Leave in the seeds and skins. It is crazy to remove these when they contain so many of the vitamins and minerals. The sauces may look a little better without the skin and seed but not as healthy. If we want a more intense tomato sauce we mix some dried tomatoes with the tomato puree in a blender before cooking. This gives a thick very rich tomato flavour. The tomatoes are dried in a Nara drier which has five trays. Thick slices of tomato sprinkled with salt to help preserve. You need to experiment a bit until you get a feel for the quantity of salt. If they are too salty they can be soaked in hot water before use. Dry them quite dry and place in a jar covering with extra virgin olive oil. Don’t fill all five trays to start. Start with 2-3 trays of freshly cut tomatoes then when they are partially done add the remaining trays. This eliminates the possibly of any mould forming because of the humidity.
The Tomato bed is not just the tomatoes it also includes a large weed matted area planted to melons, pumpkin, cucumber, zucchini, beans, and okra. The bed is out in a paddock and we move it every year. That’s right, dismantle and erect. It takes about 3 days in total and then for the next 8-9 months it provides food. The by products are the increased fertility and grass cover of the once barren hilltop. Over the last 17 years we have worked from one end of the ridge to the other and last year returned to the beginning. Another form of rotational planting.

Melon Bed
We have settled on two types of climbing beans. One is called a Rattlesnake. Its attraction is the quality in taste, no matter how mature it becomes. It is prolific and has an extended growing season. The other is the Chinese Snake Bean. You know those thin 300-400 mm long things. Best picked early when crunchy. A different but pleasant taste, prolific and again a long growing season.
Should also mention the Japanese climbing cucumber. Will climb easily up a space saving trellis, can be eaten small or large. Can grow quite large fruit which is still tasty and has a long growing season.
Cabbage can be a useful vegetable. We’ve found two recipes.
Recipe 1 Sauerkraut: using a Russian mother’s old recipe. Slice into ribbons, finely chop some carrot, add some dill or caraway seeds then spent a few minutes scrunching this so that is all nicely bruised. Stuff it very firmly into a huge glass container or enamelled pot and weigh down so that the liquid covers the pulp. This will ferment over the next week and can then be sealed and stored in the refrigerator indefinitely. And by the way the Carrot and seeds can be left out.
Recipe 2 Asian Cabbage: cut into ribbons enough cabbage for immediate use. Place in a saucepan with plenty of extra virgin olive oil (or butter), add chopped dry chilli to taste with a liberal sprinkle of Fish Sauce. Simmer till tender and serve with whatever else you are having. Make sure the Fish Sauce is real ie salt and fish only not one of the fake ones with added this and that.
Just a note on Extra Virgin Olive Oil. There a lots of good Australian oils available at very good prices; we use it in all our cooking. Aldi have one of the best which has been tested for quality and definitely price. Cold pressed and less than 1% acidity. Some of the imports have tested with higher acidity and some have also been adulterated with other oils. Stay clear of Pomace oil unless you are using it for making soap or lubrication. It is chemically extracted and not a healthy product.


Bagged Fruit
Spring has arrived and with it the self defence plans are implemented. The Tropical Peach and Nectarine trees have flowered and the small green fruit appeared. On go the fruit fly and parrot protection bags. For these early ripening fruits, paper bags (ex Green Harvest) are placed over the fruit. Usually with small fruit we’ll do 30-40 bags as that is about as much as can be eaten during the season. The Apricots, early Plum and non tropical Nectarine are next and the traditional Peach. The Tropical Apple is a longer ripening fruit and has huge bunches which require large cloth bags. By the time the Tropical Apple is ready to harvest the parrots are desperate and will shred paper bags. With larger fruit such as apples and pears, 20 bags are sufficient, unless it’s for Cider or Perry then it’s an all out effort.
This can be a tedious task, however securing a supply of fruit is vital. But with earphones attached listening to local radio passes the time pleasantly. We find netting helped with the birds but was very damaging to trees when removal was required and didn’t help with fruit fly. We have tried various organic pots and potions against fruit fly but at best only a small percentage of the flies are caught. The only 100% solutions are bagging and chemical sprays. Chemical sprays are not acceptable to us.
Mulberries are on at the moment. The sweetest fruit is that which falls into your hand when touched. It is impossible to keep for any length of time. We pick a couple of hours before eating at the earliest or just forage from the tree.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In the Beginning...

For us it was the Eggplants. Living together in a house with a huge backyard in a small country town in northern New South Wales, we planted out some Eggplant seedlings in a small bare patch at the back of the 1920’s house. The bed had been prepared with a liberal addition of chicken litter and a heavy mulch cover, not dissimilar to the Esther Dean style of gardening. Sometime later huge melon size Eggplants grew on substantial plants. Out came the cookery and preserving books and feasts followed. There is nothing like an early success to draw you deeper into the labours of growing food.
Not that we had totally unrelated backgrounds. Both our mothers tendered vegetable gardens during our childhoods. Growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s was about making the most of what you had. Maybe we just wanted to relive the happiness of growing up and running free. Whatever it was, it took us into the next quarter of a century of doing things with soil, water and poo, not to mention the pleasures that followed in consumption.
Juliette and Friends in the City
So from Eggplants came chooks rescued from a battery. Doesn’t take long for the feathers to grow back and the unwalkable claws to wear down with the scratching on real dirt The old family recipe for Home Brew Beer didn’t say you shouldn’t use 70 litre plastic garbage bins. We added later that they tend to split from the heat and the 70 litres of sugary liquid is difficult to clear from the kitchen floor. And just to make it feel like a real farm along came the poddy calf, Juliette (after Juliette de Bairacli Levy whose work “The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable” inspired us further).
Juliette thrived on gleanings from the local fruit and veg shop’s throw outs. We’re still not too proud to glean when necessary. So adaptable that on a lean day she broke into the shed and consumed half a bag of wheat. Most animals would be seriously unwell after that, but Juliette just burped.  After a older and larger Juliette head butted a police constable into a neighbour’s lemon tree it was time to look for a larger holding and try real farming. Goodbye forever to suburban living and hello to land, privacy and opportunity. We kept our day jobs to pay for all this.
The Old Farm in Good Times
Along came 1000 acres in a remote valley and onto it went ducks and sheep and cattle and pigs and geese and cats and dogs. Youth and enthusiasm provides the ability to start earlier and finish later and work all weekend while keeping fulltime jobs. This was a time of learning. TAFE courses to learn animal husbandry, pasture production, welding, bee keeping and lots more. In conjunction were the hands on (at least one hand as the other hand had a book in it) salting and smoking meats, churning butter and cheese making, fruit wines, preserving various bumper crops etc. Milking, branding, vaccination, breeding, tractor maintenance, mustering, horse riding and working dogs in rough country.
And three years on, a drought which took the edge of the pleasure and a decision to downsize. Raising cattle for slaughter really wasn’t in our being anyway. One of us had turned to vegetarianism after participating in too many home kills.
The selection criteria for the new venture were fairly simple. An existing residence in any form (nothing is not fixable). A good distance to the road to remove the possibility of the cats becoming road kill. Far enough from the neighbours so you can pee off the back step (an old farming friend rates this as 2nd only to the water supply), a robust water supply or the opportunity to make one. And a view to share with the end of day beer or glass of wine.
The View from Home Hill Farm
The second property viewed met the criteria. A house 300 metres from the road with lots of potential for a handyman on 25 acres, neighbours out of sight, potential for a big dam and a view across the valley. A rock pile on a ridge facing north east but then soil can be bought or made. A little wind swept in the southerlies and westerlies. What didn’t get blown down endured until the windbreaks threw up a protective screen. And it is almost frost free.
The Beginning of a Vegetable Garden
The first and most important task was getting a vegetable patch started. Can’t dig down, too many rocks. Two courses of concrete blocks and 10 cubic metres of soil provide a raised garden for instant planting. Before unpacking is finished the Department of Soil Conservation (as it was known then) inspects and samples different dam sites. Not long after two D5 Caterpillar dozers arrive and in no time the dam wall is finished. While the D5s are about, a trench is ripped 200 metres from the dam to a holding tank near the house and in goes a nice fat black pipe connected to an easy to repair piston pump and small petrol motor. Later, when finance permits, a backup twin is installed. Within two weeks rain sets in and we are self sufficient in garden water. In go two more concrete tanks for rain water giving 100,000 litres of potable water and 7 mega litres of irrigation water.
The Orchard Starting
The first year is intense:  erecting temporary chook shelters, additional garden beds, marking out the orchard and selecting and planting almost 100 fruit and nut trees and a small vineyard. In between some household improvements, time is even found to attend work and start the process of clearing the mortgage. At some time in the future outside work needs to be replaced with the more important home work.
So this is the context in which we started a 20 year saga of developing our preferred life style.
One of the Permaculture ideas was to keep a weekly journal of farm events such as when the first Asparagus emerges, which trees have flowered, what’s been planted and has germinated etc. Ours is just an old unused hard covered multi column cash book in which two pages have been allocated to every week and a monthly summary page. It’s kept open in the kitchen (the most used room) and important events are pencilled onto the relevant page.