March

During March, the 2 folk, the dog and the tractor enjoyed the last few golden days of summer, and revelled in the cool change and rain. This month of season shifting is full of hope and energy.  With the reveal of autumn, the leaf colour change, mushrooms in the paddocks and the orb spiders with their expansive webs, there is plenty of preparation. Garlic crop, kitchen garden, paddock tree plantings, and house build all dominate. The folk and tractor did run new fencing lines, worked the garlic paddock and lifted loads of wood, whilst the dog, well, she took to snoozing and catching happy rays on her bed, her plans well executed.

When we started our owner-builder adventure we thought we had thoroughly investigated and assessed all things building, finance and personal, making sure we had the means to achieve this big project.  How do you prepare when you have no previous experience of this scale of project?  Perhaps if you truly knew what was involved you may not start? There have been many amazing things achieved by amateurs in various fields of endeavour.  They say fortune favours the brave (and, I add, the persistent), but note they don’t say the best financial managers, or the best at quantifying, or the smartest.  It would seem whenever you embark on a big adventure you can not fully comprehend the whole project, all you can do is be brave, start and persist.

I have no regrets about starting this house build (and garden build and farm enterprise start-up).  Apart from new skills, I have learned a little more patience, perseverance and to focus on what is in front of me, not the future. I definitely have moments of feeling overwhelmed and inadequate, wondering if the house build will ever end. Yet more often there are moments of inordinate excitement at the slightest achievement.

With the kitchen finished we are itching to progress the earthworks for the final house module, courtyard and western deck.  Be prepared for way too much information on concrete mix (aka mud) than is socially acceptable.  I also need to source a very very good hand cream.  We enjoy this type of work, especially in winter, as we get a bit of a routine going and brickwork is so much more rewarding than plasterboard work, for us anyway!

The vegetable garden is a microcosm of wonder and angst at the moment.  It is with joy (see inordinate excitement at small achievements above) that I can show a pic of home grown, fully formed, EDIBLE, cucumbers. We grew 10 fruit of 2 plants so there is a pile there to learn about maximising harvest volumes etc.  But I’ve seen it’s now possible and that is a good space to find myself.

Frustratingly, the tomatoes are fast running out of time to ripen.  I’m harvesting about 4kg per week but, as you can see, there is a stunning cascade of perfect green fruit, soon to be hit by pests or frost. At any whiff of a frost we will hoik out the plants and hang them upside down in the shed to encourage the late developers.  We could source locally grown tomatoes to meet the 20kg min target but that is not why we grow vegetables.

We grow vegetables for the taste and health benefits associated with fresh organic produce; for the mental and spiritual benefit of a connection to the earth, the seasons and life; the constant challenge to improve yields, and survival rates; and to change the world view from blindly accepting industrialised mass consumerism.  To grow some part of your food chain yourself is so empowering that I am beginning to think the TV show, Gardening Australia, is actually subliminally promoting a fantastically subversive paradigm rather than a helpful national gardening programme.

Fresh produce from the kitchen garden this month includes asparagus (I so need help with this), kale, chives, spring onions, rhubarb, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, parsley, and sage.  Plantings I’d like to progress are broadbeans and peas.  The broccoli and brussel sprouts are planted and busy growing, and being eaten by something largish that is not human.

The garlic paddock bed preparation continues as we barrel towards Easter.  I plant our early season crop (Turban group) at April and the late season crop (Standard Purple Stripe group) a month later in May. This is just the time construct that suits us.  The ideal time to plant garlic is when the seed (clove) has a shoot that is 2/3rds of the way up the clove.  You can only know this from cutting a clove open, comforted by the fact you can eat it later, so nothing is wasted.  From my experience waiting until the shoot is bulging out the top won’t produce the best bulbs, but still useable.  For the seed shown here, some are ready to go now, yet others have a week or 2 before they are ready for planting.  I just love how this plant accommodates our circumstances, regions and climates.

We have also been working the beds to improve the soil.  Last season the crop suffered in size due to a lack of water and nutrients.  Thankfully they cured very well, so this part of the production process is solved, for now (yes, climate change is real).  In accordance with our regenerative grazing practice, we moved the sheep onto their next paddock so we could work the beds.  This involves adding plenty more manure (sheep and chicken), household compost, lime, and microbial mixtures (EM1 Bokashi).  We then dig it all in and test the soil pH, looking for a result in the range between 6.5 and 7.  This creates a neutral environment required to encourage nutrient takeup, improve water holding capacity and encourage soil fauna and microbial activity.

Two standout events attended this month were the book launch of “A Tree in the House” by Annabelle Hickson and a Creatives Retreat at Mt Henry Homestead, Binda, NSW.

Instagram has been a wonderful way for me to connect to like-minded folk, ask questions, be educated and find support.  It reduces feelings of isolation (or negative mind babble) and is a source of inspiration.  Walking into this book launch was like walking into a party with all the confidence of knowing everyone in the room, and liking them.

The retreat at Binda was along the same lines, despite only knowing 1 person there well enough to call a friend.  I now have 12 new friends, remarkable, creative, inspiring women who have gifted me so much.  I stood in the same spots as they did, only they captured much more than I ever could.  I am in awe of them, they are true creatives.  And boy did we eat well!

The honeycomb picture below represents a quiet moment.  I was surrounded by the sound of new female voices, a joyous cacophony of delight, cries of recognition, conversation and lots of laughter.  All jammed into a country kitchen and magnified fantastically.  Suddenly everyone, as if by some telepathic agreement, left the kitchen and I was struck by the quietness left behind, my natural habitat.  At this moment I did see late afternoon sun bathing the kitchen table, warming the honeycomb and oregano and filling the room with the scents of late summer.  I felt reassured and calm in this unfamiliar place.

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the scents and colour of late summer

 

Book list March

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Inspiration and food, the novels just did not cut it this month

Inspiration to work with flowers, ravage roadsides and friends gardens in the name of creative license via “A Tree in the House” and the beautifully told story of a family and wonderful Italian food that speaks only love in “Tortellini at Midnight”. With all the socialising and farm work novels barely got a look in let alone stayed with me.  Again recommendations from 2 female TV folk, who are clearly not my book type.

Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential

Sir Winston Churchill

A project is a statement of faith in the possibilities of our own growth

The School of Life

 

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I could lose hours just staring

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February

This February the 2 folk, the dog and the tractor were decidedly busy on all things NOT tomato related.  For the first time in 6 years, our February was not dominated by the tomato harvest and preserving.

The kitchen garden is producing well at the moment.  We clearly have a tomato forest, despite the new trellis system, with plenty of green tomatoes just on the cusp of ripening.  In the last 2 days of February, I’ve collected 1kg of our expected harvest of 20kg.  A year ago I noted tomatoes do not need to ‘ripen on the vine’ to improve in flavour.  Ripening indoors certainly takes the pressure off worrying about any insect attack.  The kitchen garden supports a small flock of sparrows, geckos, and lizards who feed on the known bugs in the garden. I provide water and real estate in return.  The generosity does not extend to the rabbit who has found the kale, just how do you remove this pest? Hopefully, once Ginger the Airedale terrier is back on free-range duty the rabbit will move on.

It is with much joy I can include a picture of my first ever triumphant cucumber flower (with a sister flower hiding behind the leaf – that makes 2!) and our first Cox’s Orange Pippen apple.  All previous attempts to grow cucumbers failed due to pest attack, lack of water, and wind snapping stems.  This tiny, and I suspect, way too late to fruit, flower gives me hope for next season.  Over the failed attempts I have learned cucumbers take much more water than you think and need plenty of protection of their main trunk.  I adapted some old plastic pots which worked a treat.  As I have not got past this point previously I am sure there are more lessons in store!  For the apple, this was the only one of 8 to survive to picking, on one tree of 10 (other varieties).  I confirm this variety of apple tree is tough.  It has survived years of insufficient water, bad pruning, and sheep grazing. Takeaways for me, water every day, don’t let fruit set for the first 2 years to establish the plant, prune well and keep the sheep out. This apple represents deep patience and looks so good…and I’m too nervous to taste it.

This year I found the time to hedge the rosemary border before it set flower.  This sounds at odds with regular wisdom.  However, there were no flower buds evident and our autumn is sufficiently warm to ensure a good amount of new growth and flower before winter arrives. Rosemary is a major food source for bees here during late autumn and winter.  Last year I felt pretty sick having to hedge the border during its flowering time, so much so that I did it bit by bit to give the hard-working girls a chance.  It dragged on a bit, to be honest. I hope this approach will avoid such a palaver.

Fresh produce in the kitchen garden this month includes kale, spinach, lettuce, spring onions, chives, parsley, tarragon, basil, the last of the peas, tomatoes, and rosemary. Plantings to progress are broccoli, brussel sprouts and peas.

To distract us from the looming black hole of no tomatoes, we have put our energies into fencing new paddocks off for sheep, attending sheep farm tours and eating our way around local shows.

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Scones with jam and cream – what else?

We had a great day visiting 10 local sheep farmers in the area for the Gunning leg of the Flock Ewe Competition (a friend of mine burst out laughing when they head this – I’m yet to confirm if its deliberate, which I highly suspect, or country charm).  What hit home is how different folk farm differently and it’s been a god-awful year for most of them. We saw plenty of sheep, all in pretty good shape given the drought conditions, and plenty of sheds, some centuries old and others modern monoliths.

The garlic paddock is under preparation, with the sheep now camping in the area where the new beds will go. Where sheep camp is where the manure and urine are most concentrated.  Along with mountains of collected manure, organic inputs such as vegetable compost and microbial inputs are my key method for developing our soils into rich dark earth teeming with microfauna and flora.

Planting plan this year includes cultivating the soil to a min of 40cms; heavily fertilise with sheep manure; add soil improvers such as EM1 microbial solutions, and vegetable compost; mulch heavily but ‘fluffily’; and water consistently rather than wait on mother nature.

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The best and worst 2018 garlic crop

I thought I’d show a pic of the best and worst garlic from my crop this season. It is disheartening when you get bulbs like the one on the left, but to give garlic its due, this plant, despite the lack of water, attack by Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, and insufficient nutrients, still managed to produce a bulb I can plant.  This is what they call a super clove.  Typically produced when a garlic plant goes into stress mode.  It makes the call to put all its energies into producing one clove rather than several tiny cloves.  If I plant this super clove out, in the right conditions, it will outperform a clove from an ordinary bulb.  So all is not lost – what a remarkable plant to grow.

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timber, scaffolding and in the background a wood working space – this is our living room

The owner-builder adventure continues with the delivery of the solid Blackwood timber we are using to surround our windows, door frames and the huge 4m shelf in the kitchen.  We have saved up for this for the last few months and to see it safely inside the house is a moment of excitement.  Does anyone else live with scaffolding and bundles of wood in their main living space?

Book List February

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knitting = audio books and podcasts

Audio book was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which I thoroughly recommend.

It was a real mixed bag this month.  On recommendation from ‘others’ I read the books written by Melanie Benjamin and I was left underwhelmed.  I enjoyed The Wife by Meg Wolitzer as the voice of the female protagonist is very believable and authentic (now there is a word for the times).  I’ve included Flour and Stone by Nadine Ingham (again) because for the first time ever I made choux pastry, as in profiteroles and eclairs. Oh yes, let me repeat, I can make profiteroles and eclairs, albeit funny shaped and sans cream.

I have (finally) discovered podcasts and the one that has caught my heart is Dispatch to a Friend by Annabelle Hickson and Gillian Bell. What I like about a podcast is that it is not like the radio where you have to suffer the comments by other listeners or topics on subjects from the far right or left of politics, or politicians for that matter! A key reason for why podcasts and audio books are now firmly in my life is that I have worked out I can knit whilst listening to them. How I revel in the double indulgence.

Last word

The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility – Paulo Coelho

 

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Paddock walk finds. The strength and fragility are so evident.  Can you see the lambswool in the nest?

 

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January

This January was full of milestones for the 2 folk, the dog and the tractor.  Another shearing day under our belt, progress in the house build and celebrating our first year of storytelling here on this blog.

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I’m listening.

Exactly a year ago, in the first post, I showed a picture of zinc coated kitchen cabinetry – bespoke in all the glory of the word.  Time is a benefit to the owner-builder, not in an economic sense, rather the ability to take time in deciding design and materials. With the chance to experiment and explore the more unorthodox solutions and get creative in the process you too could end up with bespoke cabinetry. Below are pictures of the kitchen today, along with the construction phases, finished with the originally designed wood cabinetry. There are quite a few marine notes to this landlocked build, only out here we joke about how we may have mislaid the water and the boat but have plenty of wind to sail a house.

I am amazed at how much warmth the natural wood has added to this central space. After many test pieces we settled on a native wood to avoid painting construction wood, the use of plastic wrapped cabinets, high maintenance marble or highly reflective glass.  Wood seemed to address these issues, was a medium we can work in with easy access.  The next step is to add some greenery and personal touches that make cooking, sitting, discussing and working in the space all the more pleasurable.

We have experienced the hot version of every season this month.  Summer started bang out of the gates with multiple 5 day runs above 35°C – blowing the average number of 5 days in summer out the window. Thankfully these vile runs of heat have been punctuated with much cooler misty moisture laden mornings and afternoon downpours (read: heightened garlic curing anxiety).  I note I only seem to photograph the rain days and not the high searing eye blinding heat days.  In context, I never thought I would view a day of 33°C as a ‘cool change’ but either my new found climate adaptability or a new level of insanity is finally at play.

We had our 2nd shearing day just after New Year.  Planning starts at least a month out in order to fit in with various crew commitments. Excluding death, fires and rain, the date set is the date you shear.  This time it was the first of the 40°C heat cycles for the month.  Even with a very early start, in an attempt to beat the heat, we were grateful this was a small flock.  Shearing at this time of year was a new experience and with the time spent ensuring water, shade and safe cartage for the days leading up to shearing day we don’t plan to repeat the timing.  It’s stressful on the human and woolly folk.

Shade from mature trees is what we crave at our exposed site during these extreme weather events. Trees provide both shade and airconditioning on hot days, something all animals need. We don’t have enough mature trees throughout the paddocks and around the house despite our planting efforts. Without sufficient shade, the extremely hot weather makes rotational grazing difficult to implement in our regenerative practice.  On a long list of limitations, we have yet to resolve having only 2 mature shade-giving trees on the property.  These 2 trees need to cover 3 months of potentially super hot weather and accommodate 4 months rest between use.  After grazing the first paddock, let’s say for a month, it is ideal to rest this paddock for 4 months to ensure sufficient regrowth of pasture.  After the first month, the sheep are moved to the next paddock with a tree and once this month is up, where can they go?  They can not go back to the first paddock, as it will risk over-grazing the plants.  Perhaps in a year with normal rainfall, the pasture may have regrown more quickly enabling us to reduce the rest period – but that is not our experience this year.  So we face opening up untouched land with very long grass and juvenile tree lots.  Read plenty of fencing work and taking the tractor out into the paddocks in hot dry conditions.  Something we always try and avoid to reduce the risk of starting a fire.  Machinery, dry grass, and an unseen granite rock are all you need to create havoc.  This requires another vehicle loaded with water shadowing the tractor. A tense day for all. One day, after much more experience and sound practice, our place will be a rare haven in times of heat stress.

The kitchen garden is ever evolving.  The perennial rhubarb and tarragon are well established, the chives, spring onions and parsley are looking good.  I have planted more peas and am trying cucumbers again.  The tomatoes are thriving.  This year I am trialing using a trellis system for the 2 varieties, San Marzano (Italian plum) and Rouge de Marmande (French beefsteak).  The idea, from “Backyard Bounty” (ABC Organic Gardener, ABC books, 2017), is to reduce time spent staking, tying and thinning the bushy plants.  I usually plant 20 homegrown seedlings in a highly fortified fenced off area in the vegetable patch. I do have to grow more than I need to compensate for humans, inquisitive sheep (fencing testers extraordinaire) and failing irrigation.  Ruthlessly any plants that don’t make it into the secure zone are given away.

Book List January

I mixed it up this month, with a long and engaging listen to “A Gentleman in Moscow” on Audible and some print books.  The audible book was over 17hrs of listening. I listened to it at night before bed, forcing me to sit still, like TV does, but with many more benefits.  It definitely extended the experience of the novel because I am confident I would have read/gobbled the book much faster, but not managed the Russian names anywhere near as beautifully.

2019 01 audible book, a gentleman in moscow by amor towles

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With all the hot weather I have really struggled to put myself near any heat source such as a BBQ, gas hob or oven.  My reading list reflects my attempts to produce satisfying raw vegetable dishes, with the book by Nadine Ingram vicariously feeding any baked goods cravings. In the Resilient Farm and Homestead by Ben Falk, I came across an interesting suggestion that we need to move from being ‘less bad consumers’ to ‘producers’ in order to change the world from mass consumerism and industrialised farming.  Putting utopian ideals aside, he suggests growing your own vegetables instead of purchasing organically grown vegetables, harvesting rainwater and cycling it on your land rather than buying a water saving device and so on.

Last word

Worrying pretty much all of the time isn’t a sign that something has gone wrong, merely that we’re properly alive.

School of Life, cards on resilience 2018

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The relief you feel when something that’s definitely foreign in your boot reveals itself to be benign

 

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