From Winter to Summer

We seem to have jumped directly from Winter to summer in one week. Two weeks ago we had a frost then a week later we had to cancel two wood firing workshops because there was a total fire ban declared in our area. The main highway from Sydney to Melbourne was closed for most of the day because of a wild-fire.

We haven’t had any significant rain here since March. That was the last time that water flowed into our dam. The dam is now down to 20% capacity. Not a good way to start the warm weather and we aren’t even into summer yet.

All the seasonal winter food harvests are drawing to a close. Janine made what will be the very last batch of marmalade from ‘eureka’ and ‘myer’ lemons and the last 6 seville oranges. It’s very nice too!

I had a very good look at the avocado tree and could only see 4 remaining pears. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any more than that. It’s just that this is what I could see. There are bound to be a few more up there hiding in the foliage. We’ll surely find a few more on the ground in the coming weeks. The little buggers are so very hard to spot at the top of the tree in amongst the similar coloured foliage.

The forget-me-nots have suddenly appeared from the mulch under the avocado and started flowering along with the blue borage. They weren’t even there the last time that I was out there harvesting the avocados. They have just shot up with the warmth and the regular watering that the avocado tree gets.

At this stage, we are watering almost everyday. What we’ll do when the dams become empty? We’ll face that when it happens. We could always use some of the drinking water in the tanks? We have never had to do that in the 41 years that we have lived here. At least not yet?

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Total Fire Ban

We had two wood firing workshops booked for this weekend.

Sadly we have 29oC and windy conditions. So there is a Total Fire Ban declared for the weekend. The fire season has started early! A total fire ban is a TOTAL fire ban! There is nothing that we can do about it. We have to cancel both workshops. Now that the hot weather has arrived early, it may affect the next two weekends that we have planned on our calendar for a Stoneware wood firing and the last raku firing.

Running workshops right up to the end of the season like this does increase the risk of running into fire bans. Some groups actually ask to be booked right at the end of the firing season to take advantage of the longer day length for travelling here and also the warmer daytime temperatures.

I’m NOT a climate sceptic. I believe that we are experiencing man made climate change caused by our use of fossil fuels.

This winter in Australia was 2oC above average winter temperatures across Australia. If this is our new reality, then we had better get ourselves adapted. In the short term. It means only booking wood firing workshops in the middle of winter when it will still be safe to do so, as I hate letting people down. In the longer term, we have been adapting for many years now. Collecting all our own water for drinking and irrigation, dealing with our own sewerage and generating our own solar electricity. This is all still a work in progress.

To this end, I suddenly realised that I had an unexpected day ‘off’ yesterday with the sudden cancellation of the workshop. We had been busy all week preparing the site, the glazes, the wood fuel and the sawdust. We have ordered a new, 2nd generation Tesla battery for our house, as we have an excess of electricity during the day from our solar panels. For the past 10 years, we were able to sell this excess power to the grid at a good price. But now with the end of the subsidy. It is better to store that excess and use it ourselves later in the evening, when we usually buy in green wind power back from the grid.

The announcement of the new Tesla battery came at just the right time for us. We are going to electrify all our energy use in the house and pottery. That means no longer using LP gas. Our choice to use an LP gas stove in the kitchen as a fall back position for cooking during the very hottest months, instead of lighting the wood stove, was based on the proposition that LP gas burnt directly, was greener than using dirty black electricity generated from coal.

We totally withdrew from the coal economy 10 years ago. In keeping with this thinking, we have ordered another 3 kW of Australian made solar panels from ‘Tindo’ in Adelaide. These are tier 1 grade panels, made to the highest specifications. Our original 3 kWs of panels were made in Sydney by BP Solar (since closed) and have performed very well for the past 10 years. It is great to know that we can still buy Australian made solar panels. They are 10% more expensive than the best tier 1 panels from China, but we are employing Australians and that makes it worth it.

Once our new panels and battery are installed, we will replace the gas stove and go fully electric. We have had solar hot water on the house since we built it in the 80’s. We fire all our glaze work in the wood kilns and bisque in the electric kiln. However, before I can install another 3 kiloWatts of solar cells on the pottery roof. I have to remove all the old rusty ‘galvanised’ roofing and install new ‘zincalume’ sheeting, as these are compatible with the aluminium framed solar panels. I had ordered the new roofing last week and it arrived on Friday, along with the 6 lengths of hardwood beams that I also need to add to the roof structure to accommodate the solar panel mountings.

It wasn’t the nicest job that I have ever attempted. I fact it was up there with the worst. But it was an unexpected day ‘off’. So I didn’t want to waste it. Pulling an iron roof off in a strong wind isn’t good. Doing timber framing up there on your own with heavy hardwood beams isn’t easy either, then finally re-roofing shiny reflective zincalume in 29oC heat isn’t at all nice. But now it’s all done and the new roof is ready for the contractors to come and install our new solar panels.

The ladder work and hard wood roof framing, has really taken it out of me as well as the heat and I have to lay down afterwards. I’m getting too old for this. But the thought of having electrical independance with 6 thousand watts of solar power and a 15 kW/hr battery kept me at it.

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The old galvanised roofing on the pottery and kiln shed was 100+ years old when we reclaimed in 1983. It’s doing really well for a 140 year old iron roof.

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We had already replaced the top half (right hand side of image) of the roof with new zincalume sheeting in 2007, when we installed the original solar panels. Now it’s time to fill up the remaining roof area. It’s a perfect situation for solar collection of a 30 degree pitch roof facing due north.

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Complete!

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Kiln Number 300, gone to the galvanisers

My 300th kiln is all welded and has gone to the galvanisers. The workshop is now empty and ready for the next few weekend wood firing workshops. This last weekend we had our 7th workshop for this winter/spring season. Only 4 more to go and then its all over for this year. Janine and I are fully occupied collecting, cutting and splitting wood during the week to keep up the wood fuel supply. With 6 kilns going all day, we get through the work pretty quickly, as well as the wood.

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We glaze, pack and fire continuously all day. With each firing, our participants become more familiar with the glazes and the process. Today we have a majority of students who have not done a raku firing before and who have never fired a kiln by themselves before, not to mention that these are very hands-on wood fired kilns. It’s a steep learning curve, but we take it one step at a time and it all goes smoothly and some really beautiful work get made.

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These two pieces made by Jude Keogh from Orange. Photo by Janine

 

 

The Hungry Gap Risotto

We are just in the beginning of spring, but there are still icy winds blowing gale-force off the snow, interspersed with the occasional calm, sunny, warm days. The winter garden is almost depleted, with just 6 carrots and 3 leeks left from the autumn crops, but we still have plenty of broccoli and spinach, which have become a main greens, while we wait for the newly planted seedings  in their new/old cloches, to start to produce.

Keeping to my philosophy of making-do and living frugally, I use what we have in the garden to make a risotto. Its a bit of a hotchpotch affair this time, but ends up really delicious and it couldn’t be more wholesome and fresh. I raid the garden for whatever there is today. We have spring onions, parsley sage and thyme, as well a sprig of oregano. I pare off a side-shoot of some old celery. These little side-shoots are the most tender part of the plant at the moment, as the main bush is heading for the sky, ready to bolt to seed in the coming warm weather.

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There are a couple of new asparagus shoots. The asparagus isn’t doing all that well this spring, as it hasn’t rained properly here for two months and the ground is desiccated by the winter gales, drying everything out. We are having to water everyday now, just as if it were high summer.

I return with my basket of goodies and start to finely chop the celery and older spring onions. While I soak some of our dried mushrooms in hot water, they smell delicious and start to make me salivate while I’m preparing the other vegetables. I go to the trouble of very finely slicing all the veggies, as they are no longer in their prime, going to seed, and getting a bit tough and troublesome, just like me.

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Everybody knows how to make a risotto, so I won’t describe the steps in detail, only the variations. I sautéed the onions and celery for quite a while, maybe 15 mins, to soften them through and get them well cooked, adding the fresh herbs halfway through. Next I stir the rice into the oil and get it well coated, but then continue to heat it while stiring until a few of the grains start to ‘pop’. I was told how to do this by an Italian chef. Clearly there are many different ways to make a risotto.

I don’t have any white wine open, but I do have a little red wine left in a bottle from the previous night, so in it goes with the softened mushroom chunks. I don’t have a pot of boiling stock either, but I do have a little jellied chicken stock in the fridge. It all goes in, but needs some extra water to create the needed depth of liquor to lubricate the rice and extract the starches. This needs to be continually stirred with a little more water added as necessary, for another 15 mins.

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It all comes together into a very delicious risotto that reflects the season, and in particular, this windy, dry, time of year.

 

 

 

NBN – Fail!

We got the new, high-speed NBN (National Broadband Network) internet connection today!
I’m so glad to be rid of the old, ultra-slow, fraudband that was supposed to be 8Mb/sec, but was delivered at 0.5 to 1.0 Mb. Fraudband indeed. We paid for broadband, but were given dial-up speeds.
However, now we have the brand spanking new NBN.
We paid for a 25 Mb/sec service contract. But when we turned it on, we found out that it is infact delivered at 5Mb/sec.
That is only 20% of the promised delivery speed! Only slightly better than the 12.5% actually delivered by the fraudband ADSL copper wire service that we are being forced to abandon.
The only good thing that I can say just now is that it is marginally faster, as well as being marginally cheaper than the service that it replaced. However we no longer have a phone line. They say that the VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) will come on-line soon. Maybe tomorrow?
In the mean-time, if anyone wants to contact us. Just use the mobile or send an email. That still works!
It’s a modern world! Get with it! But don’t be like them.
When I say it’s a modern world, what I mean is that the world is full of false statements, over-promising and under-delivering. Hype, cant and empty promises. Miss-labeling, fake advertising and over-charging.
The only lesson that I can learn from all this is don’t be like them!
Be honest, do your best and if you f#@K up, fix your mistakes with a smile.

Productive Pets

Chickens are probably the only pets that give you breakfast each day!

We have 3 chickens, not because we need 3 eggs a day, we don’t. Rather, we can get through one or two eggs each day between us on average, but chickens are flocking animals. They like to hang around together in groups. One chicken would be lonely. I think that it would be cruel to have just one solitary bird. Two chickens would be a bare minimum, at least they would have a friend, but three allows for more of a dynamic relationship between them. Even more would be better for them, maybe 10 would be a comfortable number for them, I’m not too sure, but we don’t want or need that many eggs each day. We don’t want to be chicken farmers.

We chose three hens, even though it was too many for us, but only just enough for them to feel comfortable. It’s a compromise. We want to be responsible animal husbands. We keep our hens locked in their wire reinforced run until 9 or 10 in the morning. Hopefully well after the fox has gone to bed, and we lock them back in in the late afternoon, at 4.30ish, well before he comes back out in the evening. This has worked quite well so far. But foxes are cunning and patient.

Previously, we kept Old English Game Fowl. They were very edgy, skittish and flighty. Very highly strung. They could fly really well, easily capable of flying up into the highest gum tree. We always knew when the fox or a dog was about, as the chickens would all squark and fly up into the trees. We never lost a chicken to a fox. But the ducks weren’t so fast and were sometimes taken. The main problem is that our land isn’t fenced, only the gardens and orchards are fenced. We want the local wallabys, Eastern Grey kangaroos and other wildlife to be able to wander through, drink at the dams and eat the grass. They were here on this land before us.

Our current chickens are hybrid ISA Browns. They were commercially bred for a life in intensive production in cages. We saved them from that fate. They are great egg layers, but the real reason for choosing them instead of a pure breed this time around is that they are so amazingly tame, friendly and personable. They seem to just love hanging around with us in the garden, ‘helping’ us do whatever it is that we find our selves doing at the time. When we go inside for lunch, they usually hang around in the front garden, waiting for us to come back out again. it’s impossible not to be fond of them. They are very cute.

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I’ve read that chickens are the new dogs. There was an article in The Guardian Newspaper recently saying as much.

Pet swap: are chickens really the new dogs?

No longer content to keep poultry as merely egg suppliers, the UK is embracing them as pets, with names and roaming rights
The domestic chicken population in the UK has been stuck at about 500,000 since 2010.
The article was a lightweight bit of flim-flam, but there just might be a little bit of truth in it.
I think that they make great pets, because you can go away for a couple of days and they seem quite contented in their wire run, with dirt to scratch in and dust bath in and plenty to eat and drink.
We have built the run to give them loads of space to roam in, but they very rarely have to spend any time in there as we have them out with us almost every day.

 

Oh to be a chicken next time round! (well, one of ours anyway)

Two Days in the Garden

The days are getting a bit longer now and the sun is a little bit warmer in the daytime. We had 16 degrees today. However, we are still having frosts. This morning it was only very light.

We went to the local markets yesterday and bought a few early vegetable seedlings. I am always optimistic about when we can get in the early veggies. There is a sense of optimism in the air when the days start to get longer and warmer. We buy some tomatoes, zucchini, capsicum and a couple of cucumber plants. The lady on the seedling stall looks at us quizzically, “are you sure you want to buy these?” Our answer is “yes, we do.” We don’t live in Bowral where it takes month longer to get past the frosts. We live on the north side of The Big Hill at what used to be called “Lower Big Hill Siding”. It’s our little piece of Camelot here in the Southern Highlands. The big hill protects us from the worst of the southerly winds that blow off the snow at this time of year.

This year, I plan to make a temporary cloche for the first time. Many years ago, possibly 25 or 30 years ago? I made several light-weight steel frames, welded out of 10mm round bar. I strung wire mesh all around them, and we used them to place over the garden beds. This was our first attempt to stop the birds from eating all our vegetables. There weren’t very many birds around when we first came here, as there was nothing much here for them.

However, over the years, as we built up the soil organically with manures and compost, planted fruit trees and vegetables, mowed the weeds into some sort of lawn and built dams to hold the rain water run-off. We changed the local environment to be more beneficial for the local wildlife as well as for us. With permanent water, open spaces filled with fruit and greens, tall trees for roosting and lower bushes for cover and protection. We slowly found that we had created a big problem for ourselves as well.

Now there are hundreds of birds living here in all categories. This is wonderful. They are flourishing in our micro-environment. Our problem is that they want to eat most of the things that we do. So we had to come up with solutions to keep our food safe.

The small wire frames were my first attempt to protect each individual garden bed. I could just flip them on their side to get access for picking and weeding. This worked well enough for a few beds, but as I wanted to expand the garden, it became obvious that we needed a better, larger and more convenient and preferably permanent solution. So the large covered vegetable garden was eventually built and has been terrific. The now discarded wire frames were left sitting on top of the concrete water tank for the past 20 years. Up there weeds didn’t grow through them and they didn’t have to be continually moved.

Now, 3 of these frames are being reinvented as cloches. Frost and wind protectors. I cover them in a layer of shrink-wrap, using the big, industrial shrink-wrap dispenser gadget that I use to wrap kilns before delivery.

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We have spent one day weeding, mowing and generally cleaning up around the garden, as it was looking a bit neglected and un-loved. For me this is the hardest part and take a toll on my back, as it involves a lot of bending and getting up and down. Firstly, I go around all the edges with a garden fork and loosen all the weeds. Then I work my way to the centre. Next, it’s time to get down and pull all the weeds loose and shake off the soil. This is time-consuming, slow work, but needs to be done. Only the sub-clover is left to be dug in. It’s the invasive weeds like couch grass that really need to be dug out and removed. All this ‘plants-out-of-place’ material is either piled on the compost heap, or in the case of the couch is transferred to the dam bank, where we wish it a long and productive life binding the soil over there.

Today we have spread a load of charcoal and ashes sieved from the fire-place when extracting the finest particles of ash for glazemaking. Next we wheelbarrow in 20 loads of spent mushroom compost and spread it all over the empty beds, along with a few handfuls of dolomite to sweeten the soil a little where necessary and some chicken manure. Lastly I spent an hour or two rotary hoeing it all into a deep, homogenous, rich mix.

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We haven’t done a really big upgrade of the garden beds like this for a few years now. I usually just add the compost and manure on top of the soil and let the worms do the work. However, I have noticed that this minimal intervention method, over time, leaves the soil depleted of the fibrous compost. The soil remains crumbly with many worms, but somehow denser and heavier. After a total make-over like this, digging in massive amounts of compost. The soil becomes light, fibrous and very open.

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I know that the rotary-hoe kills worms, but there are plenty of them in there and after a treatment like this the numbers bounce back 10 fold in a very short time, because I don’t do every bit of the garden at one time, just patches. This allows worms from the nearby untouched areas in-between to invade the freshly dug ground and multiply very fast. I don’t know if there is a better way, but this has worked for us for many years. I can imagine that lightly forking it all through would be better for the worms, but my 65 year old back isn’t up to it any more.

The vegetable garden under netting is about 450 sq. metres. About the size of the modern block of land for suburban housing. Of this netted area, I have about 150 sq. metres, or a third, under intensive cultivation for vegetables, another third has permanent blueberries, grape vines and almond trees. The remainder being walkways and paths.

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We finish up the second day with planting out the seedlings. Planting seeds and finally watering everything in. A very productive weekend. The new re-invented cloches look a bit modern and space-age in our rustic garden, but as I clean everything up and the heat of the day drains away, my fingers start to feel the cold. I know that the plants will appreciate the plastic ‘dooner’.

Two days in the garden – six months of food!