Self-reliance in this time of C19 isolation

With the recent rain and the last of the summer heat, the vegetable garden has grown like crazy. We came back from WOMAD and the Writers Week to find the garden was totally overgrown.

I had a couple of attempts to tame it with the strimmer, then Janine could get in with the mower. We spent a day pulling out weeds and clearing space for the new plantings. I should have been a lot busier in the garden a lot earlier, but have been distracted with fencing and other jobs around the place. Everything needs doing no! I still haven’t finished chopping up the last of the pine trees in the back of the house. My tractor broke down and needs some work, so it’s gone off to the tractor whisperer to be made good again. So until I get it back, I can’t move those last few huge logs.

I have finally got around to planting out the winter crops of brassicas, quite late, but better late than never. I’m also planting out the garlic, also a bit late, but OK.

we are practicing social distancing !

We have recently harvested our rather poor crop of red grapes, What with the drought, then the fire, now the very hungry wild life, and in particular, the bower birds, we were lucky to get any crop. Janine has been maintaining a wildlife feeding station down at the back of our land where there are a few possums and we don’t know what else eating the fruit and veg that we put out for them. She has created a an ‘apple’ tree out of a burnt out native tree and its charred branches.

She places the slices of apple there each afternoon and they are all gone in the morning. There isn’t much else to eat in the burnt out forest, but there are now some green shoot appearing from the trunks and root lignotubers of the blackened trees.

We made a small batch of summer wine from our tiny harvest. Best enjoyed straight from the keg as it ferments after a few days. A delightful combination of sweet grape juice, spritz bubbles and a little alcohol.

We may be burnt out. We may be unemployed. We may be in self imposed C19 isolation, but we are eating well as mostly vegetarian and gifted with an amazing group of tremendous friends that have given us so much support and assistance, up until lock-down.

We wouldn’t be be here now in this lucky position without you!

Thank you. You have been so wonderfull to us and helped us through this testing time.

Drought, fire, rain, flood, Greenery

The summer started with extremely dry weather, then the fire. closely followed by loads of rain, slight flooding and now cool autumn weather with a flush of green growth. This is our life. lurching from crisis to crisis, extreme to extreme, drought to flood, fire to rain, barron soil to flush greenery.

I have spent two days mowing to keep the new growth of grass down. I spent a day in the vegetable garden with the whipper-snipper shredding weeds and grass, clearing the fallow beds ready for the autumn planting. and clearing all the paths.

I should have got these winter veggies in a month or two back, but have been otherwise distracted by my close encounter with death and then the never-ending cleanup. I’m just starting to sleep through the whole night again. I have had two good nights now.

I put this down to our holiday escape to Adelaide for Writers week and WOMAD. We had booked and paid for this annual sojourn 6 months ago. If it hadn’t been prepaid, we wouldn’t have gone. There is just so much still to do here, just to get back to tors. Luckily we had paid for it all in advance, so we had to go. I’m very glad that we did. I really needed a break. My neck was so stiff with tension. However, after our time away, where we couldn’t do anything except engage with ideas and concepts, as well as walking several kilometres per day into the city and back. It did us a lot of good and I’ve come back relaxed and able to sleep better. I can now turn my head freely again.

So our time away was good for us, but the garden went to ruin, over-run with weeds after the rain and the last of the warm weather. Under all the over growth there is still a lot of food still to be picked. I hacked and slashed my way through the paths, then returned with the strimmer. Usually, not too much stops this machine, but this level of weed growth really slowed it down. I had to work very slowly, otherwise the cord just slowed down and didn’t work. The same applied to the ride-on mower. I had to drive very slowly to allow the mower to cope with the high level of wet grass. Consequently, the mowing took far longer than usual.

We mowed and whipper-shipped until we ran out of petrol and I ran out of plastic strimmer cord. I used to keep stock of all these consumables, strimmer cord in a big roll, spare chain saw chains and sharpening files, two-stroke mix, ear muffs, chain saw tool kit. They are all melted and burnt. I still don’t know all the things that we have lost. Not until I go to the shed to get something that I always have, but realise that I don’t have a shed anymore. All those small items and tools all gone. Still, all the mowing is now done for at least a week. Time to re-stock all the consumables. I have a long list for tomorrows expedition to the hardware shop.

The garden is starting to take shape – a little. It’ll look a lot better by the end of the week, when I have finished weeding all the beds and planting out new seedlings.

Once I could see what was still in there, I picked a load of vegetables and herbs for a mirepoix. A parsnip. some celery, a few carrots, the herbs, thyme parsley sage and bay leaves, plus a little salt and pepper corns to flavour it up. I bought a beef femur and a pigs trotter, which I boiled in an excess of water without roasting this time, as I usually roast the bones first to caramelised then a little, but this time, to save time, they went straight unto the pot. Another boiler had the herbs and veggies.

Last night we had the wood stove on for the first time this year, because of the sudden drop in temperature with the rain, so I was able to let them both boil down nicely over the evening and into the night. Today I separated the marrow from the cooled bones and drained the mirepoix, discarding the green matter. Then both liquors went back into the big boiler together with a bottle of good red wine and some tomato paste. Here I deviated from the normal script. We have run out of tomatoes, so I indulged myself in the use of a packet of bought concentrated tomato paste. Australian of course!

So this is our new life post fire. All the old standards have fallen. I didn’t roast the bones! I have bought tomato paste from a shop! where will this all end?

I finished reducing the stock down from the initial 9 litres to less than 1 litre. I must say that it is really delicious, savoury, sour, salty, and ever so slightly sweet – just a hint, and very viscous and creamy in the mouth.

You can’t buy stuff like this. its real food! This will be stored in the freezer and just a sliver of this frozen gel with be like a stock cube added to any wintery dish. Beautiful, and so rewarding.

Back of the black

I think that we are seeing the last days of the blackened, burnt trees and foliage here. Since it started raining this last week, it has washed a lot of the carbon and ash into the ground and in some cases down into the dam. It has occurred to me that there will now be a record of this catastrophic event permanently laid down in the sedimentary strata of this black event on our land.

The rains have washed a lot of the ground clean. I must say that it won’t be soon enough for me to see the bare earth covered with a coating of green again. Over the past 6 or 7 weeks that we’ve been clearing up all this burnt rubbish that was once our garden and workshop. I have become acutely sensitive to the smell of black carbon, charcoal dust and black ash. I’ll be very pleased to see the back of the black and start to work on things that are not covered in charcoal.

Yesterday I had my friends Colin and Denis come over to help me do what I had hoped would be the last of the chainsawing of the blacked and dead trees from the fire. We didn’t quite finish the job, so there is still one more day in it for me to get it all cleared away.

It’s dirty work and I’m over it.

As a token gesture to the start of the cleaner phase of the clean-up. I bought 12 tonnes of crushed gravel for the driveway. the drive way in had become a dirty squishy, quagmire since the rains with all the heavy machinery and a few trucks coming and going over it, making it a slippery black mess. Two truck loads of gravel have started to fixed that.

Things are starting look better. Everything has started to have a more optimistic look about it. It’s certainly a lot less black.

The rain has finally come. We didn’t get the record levels of rainfall that other places got, thankfully! But it was quite enough for us. 190mm. It filled all 4 dams to overflowing and filled most of our rainwater tanks. The reason that the two biggest tanks didn’t fill, is because the two large roofs that used to feed them are now gone!

It’s nice to see the dams full again, pitty that the water is a rather black/brown colour. This will eventually be diluted and washed out, or settle into the sediment.

We got a surprise phone call from our friends Andy and Cintia last week, to say that they had 4 hours spare and could they give us a hand. We fixed up my blacksmiths vice, anvil and swage block, outside the garden shed. Then we pulled down the last two kiln chimneys . A great surprise and a lot of work achieved. Many hands etc.

Its not a real garden shed, now its a forgery!

Boards, Not Bored

We have spent this 5th week continuing on the long journey of cleaning up this tragic mess. Last week we had the 3 big dead pine trees felled professionally. This week we hired a portable ‘Lucas’ saw mill and started milling the biggest of the pine logs into boards, so that we can incorporate this home-grown and home-milled timber into the lining of our new pottery, when we build it.


We cut nine x 75mm. thick slabs in one day and 90 planks of 250mm. x 30mm. on the 2nd day. The big 75mm. thick slabs are 3 metres long, and 700mm. to 900mm. wide. They will make great work bench tops in one single slab. We will use one in the pottery as a work bench and another for a wedging table. Perhaps a third in the gallery room. I intend to use the planks vertically, as lining boards in the throwing room.

We also cleaned up the stone fruit orchard and took the dead peach trees away to the big burn pile. It’s going to be a huge job in the winter time to burn all this fire affected material. That is if we get a winter, that is safe to burn off these piles.

Our vegetable garden, although fire affected, is still just producing a few tomatoes, capsicums and zucchinis. The sweet basil, and chillies on the other hand are booming. They love the hot dry weather.Every meal at the moment is a variation on ratatouille.

At last we are starting to engage ourselves in jobs that have a positive element.

We celebrate a very tough couple of extremely hot days in the full sun, rolling logs and milling them through the whole of these blisteringly hot days. Lathered in sunblock and drinking copious bottles of water, we can’t afford to stop. The mill is expensive to hire at $800 to $1000 per day. Any time spent sitting down eats into our meagre budget. I will be a lot happier after we have heard from the insurance company, and find out what they intend to do. They have emailed us to say that they will payout for the lost equipment in the pottery and kiln shed. but we haven’t seen any money as yet. No mention of the building as yet.
In the mean time, turning dead trees into useful lumber is a rewarding endeavour. I’m hoping that I will sleep better, simply from the effort expended and the exhaustion.

Finally, some good news!

The electrical power was re-connected after 5 days. A massive effort by the power crews, they almost got in finished before Xmas, but not quite. So we were back connected to the grid the day after Xmas holiday. We were not totally without power, as after a couple of days in the dark, a friend dropped by with a small generator. So we could run the fridge and save everything in the freezer compartment.

So many people have offered to give us a hand with a days labour in the coming weeks and months. We have already had my best friends Len Smith and Warren Hogden here a couple of times to get us started. Thank you guys!!! You got us up and working, dragging me out of my lethargy and shock.

We started the epic journey of the clean-up. Janine and I had begun raking and scraping up bits of the massive load of charcoal, rubble, ash and dead, burnt shrubs and small trees. We worked and worked, with little impact. However, after a couple of days, my friend Ross, who works in earth moving and has an excavator and tip truck, turned up one evening. He told me that he would be working with the excavator for the next week, so he had brought his ‘bobcat’ skid steer loader for me to borrow until he needed it.

I had borrowed one of his bobcats some years ago to do a bit of earth moving, to create our new expanded vegetable garden. So I knew a little bit about working with these amazing machines. Once you get used to the various levers and buttons, it starts to become 2nd nature. I was up to speed by the second day. Two levers, one for each hand, each with 5 functions, plus two foot pedals. It’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time, but by the end of that first week we had made some sort of impression.

More friends have turned up for a day or two here and there and Ross came back with his tip truck and did a lot of heavy digging and lifting. So now after two weeks of pretty intensive work, we have the front yard looking pretty clean now – although devastated.

The front garden along the street.
The back yard, where the wood shed once stood and the twenty tonnes of cut, split and stacked wood for the kiln, now just ash. What remains of the new hydraulic wood splitter still stands in total defiance, like monty Pythons wounded knight. “Come on, it’s only a flash wound”!

I don’t have a flesh wound.
The new ‘clean’ front yard, waiting for some creative reconstruction

Self-reliance in dry times

As the drought deepens and the climate crisis escalates unchecked, with our politicians heads firmly buried deep in the sand. Crisis, What crisis? We muddle on in our independent, self-reliant, way. With the dam water very low. Actually, extremely low. We are saving what water we have in it for use in the coming weeks with the imminent arrival of the massive bush fire that is ravaging a lot of Eastern New South Wales.

The fire closest to us has burned over 112,000 hectares, or half a million acres, in the last two weeks. It is now just 17 km for our Village. When the next hot, dry, North Westerly wind blows in it will bring it here. Currently, the wind is in our favour and mostly blowing from the west. Inevitably to will swing around at some point. Then our time will come to deal with it Nothing can put out a fire of this scale – only good heavy prolonged rain. That is unlikely in the next month or two. So we just sit and wait.

We have tested all the roof and wall mounted sprinkler systems on the house, pottery, barn and kiln shed. I have even set up temporary, ground mounted, sprinklers on hoses in front of the wood shed and Railway Station building. We have done everything that we can, so now we wait.

The sun is orange because there is so much smoke and fall out from the sky of charred leaves and fine ash, it slowly blankets every thing. The car is covered in fine dust. All the roofs are dusty. Today I had to wash the solar panels 3 times, with mop and squeegee and 3 changes of water in the bucket, in order to get the water to run almost clear. The output from the system jumped up almost 500 watts straight away as I was washing the panels. Not just because they were cleaner, but the washing would have cooled them and made them more efficient.

We have scaled back our summer vegetable garden to just about half its usual size to reduce our water usage and we are only watering the younger and most dependant fruit tress that are one and two years old. All the older trees with deeper and more established root systems are having to fend for themselves. Several garden plants and a couple of older native trees have just keeled over and snuffed it. The times they are a changing. We will emerge from this very dry period with a different garden. When the rains come, it will probably flood. We have been told to expect more extremes in the weather. We will find out which plants can cope with draught and flood.

We have been doleing out our drinking water from the water tanks to keep the blue berries and young berries alive and producing, as well as the early peaches. That will be the sum total of our fruit for this summer. It’s all we can manage to support. Other trees that are not being watered, like the quince trees, have shed all their small partially formed fruit in an effort to save them selves. Ditto, the apples and pears. All four of our fig trees appear to have died, dropped all their leaves, turned brown and lost any sign of green tips at the dried out buds. I spoke to our neighbour at the shopping centre yesterday, and she told me that her parents are buying two truck loads of water each week to keep their garden alive. That’s hundreds of dollars worth of water being trucked in. We have never had to buy water in the past 43 years of our life here. We are frugal and we have planned well in advance. I guess that we will have to learn to live without figs. A small price to ask. But I can’t help but think, which trees are next?

In the mean time we have peaches, youngberries and blue berries to pick and preserve. This last basket full of the early peaches smell divine, fresh off the tree and so warm and fragrant. They are such a treasure, we eat most of them raw for breakfast and deserts, but we also vacuum seal some of them for later.

Todays job was to pick the berries. Both Young and blue. This will be the last pick of young berries, the canes started producing on the 24th of November. A whole month earlier than when they were first planted in 1977. We remove the netting and let the chooks in to clean up. The birds will get all the other higher odds and ends. We roll up the net and dismantle the hoop frames. Stored away till this time next year.

This last pick is about 700 g, making a rather small harvest this year, but exceptional, given the difficult conditions. We harvested about 5 to 6 kilos altogether. We have youngberry ice-cream in the freezer and 5 jars of vacuum sealed fruit in the pantry. It’s a pleasing reward for our efforts.

Janine whips berry puree into our local, pure, Picton dairy cream to make ice-cream. Nothing could be more natural and flavoursome. This has to be the most delicious way to get plaque build up in your arteries. At least there are no colours, preservatives, chemicals or artificial substances in there. Not too much sugar either.

The blue berries haven’t looked back since we potted them and moved them into the netted vegetable garden as a border. This keeps the birds off and makes sure that they get a bit of water every time we water the veggies. They reward us with their fruit. 3 kgs so far this summer and the season has only just begun. The will continue fruiting for a couple of months, into February, as we have chosen early, medium and late varieties.

Blue berries ripen over time, with only just a few ripe blue ones every so often spread out over all the little bunches. They are quite time consuming to pick. But which fruit isn’t? We have to pluck each individual berry from its neighbour in the tight little clusters. Today we manage 700g in half an hour with both of us at it. I have no idea how they produce these things commercially for just a few dollars per punnet. Slave labour?

Its a beautiful and rewarding thing to share this wholesome activity together. We are managing to eat them all fresh for breakfast and desserts so far, but there comes a time when the novelty wears off and we start to freeze some for later. Janine has experimented and learnt to make a beautiful blueberry sauce with a little brandy and cream. We force our selves to eat it 🙂

Banana fritters with berry ice-cream as a second course for breakfast after the berry fruit salad. Someones got to do it!

Rainwater catchment

As the weather has slowly dried out over the four and a bit decades that we have lived here, the dams that we dug when we arrived here in 1976, and worked so well for 20 years, are now all dried out. We haven’t had significant rain fall to saturate the ground and flow down the gutters and channels into those dams. So we find ourselves towards the end of spring now with virtually no water in the dams. This is the 3rd year with no significant flows into the dams and the 2nd decade where the dams don’t fill to overflowing. i can’t remember a time when they were all full.

It is quite shocking to me to have to start the year with just 500mm. of water in our main dam. That will only last a couple of hours in a fire situation – if it came today! But there won’t be this much water left in there in a month or twos time, at the height of summer – if any! Evaporation will see an end to that little bit of water that is left.

Our biggest dam, built specially to irrigate the vineyard, we called Max Lake! It is now bone dry since last week, the final little puddles evaporated away in the heat and the wind. No water flowed into it for at least 3 years. It was once a glorious swimming hole in years past. Particularly when our son was young, we had a lot of fun swimming in there over summer. 2 metres deep of serious fun filled water. Now home to just a few dried out reeds.

We used to rely on the dams for our irrigation water and fire fighting reserves. But no more. We have to think differently now. This is now the new normal. We have managed to get through the past few summers using our tank water storage. We have put a lot of effort into installing water tanks on every roof on our land. This has worked very well up until now, But this year we are not quite through spring and we have almost emptied one of our two large water tanks, mostly through watering the garden and orchards. With the global crisis deepening, I can see a time when we will run out of water before the end of summer in coming years.

The most pressing question on my mind right now is what will we use to fight bush fires in late summer and autumn. I guess that we will have to buy water and have it trucked in. Not a happy thought. In particular because when disaster strikes, every one will be wanting water delivered and only the regular customers will be getting service. I know how it works. We have never bought water for 40 years. We don’t even know who sells it these days. So we shouldn’t be relying on that to save us. In a funny quirk of fate, those of us in this village who are poorly prepared and always buy water, will get it, as they must, because they are the most needy. We, on the other hand, have spent our lives trying to be prepared as best that we can be, and are almost totally self-reliant, We will be the the ones to be left to fend for ourselves – as we always have.

Water storage is very finite and with every roof already having a water tank connected to it. Our options are limited. We have purchased a new, smaller sized, water tank every year now for the past 4 years. Installing those tanks on all the smaller tin roofs on the little sheds, and even the little railway station building has two. Just so that there isn’t any water allowed to be wasted. Once caught and held, then we can use it later at our discretion.

Having thought through the possibilities. We decided to up-grade to a much larger water tank on the barn. The barn has a huge roof, but only a relatively small 1,000 gallon/4,500 litre water tank that we put on there almost 20 years ago when we built the barn, to satisfy the local council building inspectors. We don’t use it for the garden at all. It is there with it’s own independent pump to supply the roof and wall sprinklers that I fitted to the building specifically for fire fighting. As it’s only been used twice in its life. It remains constantly full. However, when it rains and the tank overflows, I have the overflow connected into the plumbing system that delivers the water from all 3 big sheds into the 120,000 litre concrete water tank at the bottom of our block. This is the tank that is now almost empty. I can connect the new proposed tank in parallel with the old one. That way, I only need to do a bit of plumbing.

I realise that I can add a 7,500 gallon/35,000 litre water tank on the other side of the building. This is a significant exercise, cutting a 4.5 metre diameter level base through the top soil and placing 2 cubic metres of fine basalt dust, then spreading it and compacting it to make a solid base for the tank to sit on. I’ve been at this job since Friday last week. The base is done now, so I have turned my attention to the roof plumbing. I need to put in a syphon gutter system to take the water to the other side of the shed.

I wonder why it is that I seem to end up doing these jobs in such hot weather. Answer. every day is hot these days. Summer starts 3 months earlier and goes on for another 3 months longer. We are having 9 months of summer these past few years.

The old saying goes, When is the best time to plant a tree? The answer is, 20 years ago! That is also the answer to when I should have put in this larger tank, but I was already fully committed 20 years ago to installing the water tanks that we already do have now. So now is the best time for this new tank! When it rains again, as it most certainly will. We will fill this tank with rain water and be better off in the future. This is just forward planning!

So, today I’m digging this trench into rock hard dirt that is as tough as concrete. I end up having to use a crow bar and a pick to penetrate the soil. I give up pretty quickly and go and get the tractor to try ripping a groove into the hard packed, baked soil. I end up bending parts of the the tractor and need to go to the toy shop, formally known as the kiln factory, to put the bent and broken parts under the hydraulic press and bend them back into shape. If nothing else, I get to spend a few minutes out of the full sun, in the shade, in the shed, making good the repairs. I love the toy shop! I can fix almost anything in there – one way or another.

By the end of the day, I’m pretty rats, but the hole is dug and the pipes are laid and blue-glued together. The new lengths of guttering should be delivered tomorrow?! I should have it all back together by the day after. It can rain by the end of the week and I’ll be OK with that.

As for the new water tank, well, I haven’t even ordered that as yet. First things first. Watch this space !

At the end of this days tough work, I go to the garden and find that I can pick the first of this years crop of tomatoes. 3 red tomatoes, It’s the 26th of November. I can’t remember an earlier date for the first red tomato of the season. We can usually get a few before Xmas, but this is a whole month earlier than Xmas. If global warming is a communist plot to disrupt Western economies, as Donald Trump claimed, then, thank you to the Chinese Communist Party for these unseasonably early red tomatoes here in Australia. I wonder how they do it?

Maybe every dark cloud has a silver lining? I’d be happy just to see some clouds! Dark or otherwise.