Our Wild Life in a Small Village

Although we lead a quiet life in a small village.  Our wild life was exposed yesterday for all to see. We had a Posse of Parrots, a gaggle of gang gangs, a calamity of black cockatoos, all the usual small silvereyes, fire tails and wrens, swarming and flurrying across our gardens. A very noisey pair of juvenile magpies demanding to be constantly fed and the occasional visiting flock of marauding white cockatoos. Thankfully they moved on.

The king parrots spent a few days with us following us around the house and gardens. I presume, hoping to be fed. But we didn’t, so they eventually moved on to visit someone else who would feed them. We have a bird bath, under cover in the shrubbery which is very popular for washing and drinking by all the birds, but we don’t extend our welcome to feeding. I think that they are much better off working the forest around here for their own wild food.

We also had a visit from an echidna. She/he was only here for the day, just passing through and was gone the next morning. As we have 4 dams for water and a couple of hectares of forested land around them, with loads of dead trees on the ground. I suspect that this is a very suitable habitat for him/her, as they swim as well as burrow. There are plenty of termites in the dead wood all around here.

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The Weather Warms Up

As the weather warms up, we continue to harvest the garlic as it starts to mature and dry off. each different variety comes on at slightly different times, but  most of it has been lifted now, with just a few blocks of plants still remaining in the ground.

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The citrus are flowering, one of the lemons is flowering so profusely that the ground under the tree is white with fallen petals. The fragrance is beautiful.

I have spent the last few weeks kiln building, and kiln number 300 is now complete and ready for delivery. This is my penult kiln, kiln number 301 will be my last before I retire from building these larger, heavier kilns. I will continue on in semi-retirement for  a few more years building the smaller, lighter, relocatable, mini wood fired kilns, as these are easier on my worn-out body.

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The birds have started to destroy the fruit crop – as usual!. After 40 years of organic farming here, all the older stone fruit trees are too big for us to net individually these days. It has crossed my mind, that we could net the whole orchard, but this would be prohibitively expensive. We did net the entire vegetable garden area about 15 years ago and that was there best thing that we ever did. Now we get all of our produce and the birds, rabbits, wallabies, possums and eastern grey kangaroos are no longer a problem.

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We spend a day with our good friend Warren, helping us to net all the smaller trees. The parrots have started to hollow out the almonds, looking  for the sweet young developing nuts. There is nothing that we can do about it. The tress in the stone fruit orchard are just too big to net. The birds can have them. I planted a dozen new almond trees, in a row down one side of the netted vegetable garden. These are reaching maturity now and depending on the vagaries of the weather, can produce good crops.

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We drape nets over the smaller trees, supported with tomato stakes and use irrigation pipe hoops to support the nets over the larger trees. We have been doing this for years, it’s a days job every spring. The nets are getting a bit old now and are getting a little brittle, so holes are starting to appear. I made a huge needle out of TIG wire to use as a repair needle to stich the nets back together using baleing twine, repairing holes and joining seams. It works rather well.

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We end the day in the nut grove, by pruning all the suckers from underneath the dozen hazel nut trees on our hands and knees. These trees want to grow as a small wide thicket, so they need constant attention, removing the suckers, to encourage them to grow as upright trees with a single trunk, or two or three trunks. This makes them very much easier to maintain, manage and mow around. It’s a constant job, but the nuts are worth it.

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Nothing is perfect, nothing is ever finished, nothing lasts.

Spring has Finally Arrived

Spring hasn’t sprung. It’s sort of crept in very slowly. It hasn’t rained properly since March, so all the dams are very low and as the weather slowly warms up, we are having to water the vegetable garden and potted plants every day.

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We have been harvesting the new crop of garlic for the past month as it starts to dry off and wilt. I planted over 100 cloves this year and we have harvest a very good strong crop. However, one of the varieties that I planted has turned out to be a bracing type, initially it grew as one stem, but as it matured, it separated into a dozen separate plants. One stem for each clove. I have no idea what the variety is called, as I bought 2 knobs of this garlic from the health food shop, as Australian grown organic garlic, and that is all I know about it. It has quite a mild flavour.

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Each batch of garlic has to be laid out to dry for while before it can be plaited and hung up for storage in the kitchen ceiling truss.

 

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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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!

The Last Day of Winter

Here we are already at the last day of winter. The day starts with a witheringly cold morning. We wake to find ourselves cold even under the sheets in our bed. There is a very healthy frost laying all around. No point in trying to water the garden too early, as nothing will work out there.

I have had this last week ‘off’ to try and catch up on jobs that have needed attending to for some time. Everything got a bit neglected while I concentrated on getting my book printed and my big exhibition up at Watters Gallery. The show is in its final week now and will come down on Saturday. It’s a really good show, if I can say that about something that I have done myself. I’m pleased with it. It couldn’t have been completed or have been as successful without the total support of my partner Janine King, as well as all the help from all the people that I collaborated with over the 15 years of the research. Thankyou Janine!

On Monday, I will start to weld up my 300th kiln! I have one more big kiln booked in after that, with deposit paid, to be welded before the end of the year. I will then be 66 years old and it’s time to retire from building the bigger, heavy kilns. I will continue to make the smaller, lighter, monocoque stainless steel framed ‘dual-fuel’, wood fired and gas fired kilns for a while.

I went down to the steel yard to buy the required steel sections, so that I will be ready to start work on time next week, and while there noticed that they had a load of used pallets that needed to be taken away. As I had the truck and all the steel was up on the racks. I decided to fill the tray with pallets. These can be broken down into small, thin sections that are very good for firing the small ‘dual-fuel’ kilns in wood fired mode. After I get all the steel off the carry racks, I take the truck to the kiln firing area and unload, then cut them all up with the chain saw, into shorter, straight, sections. These are then taken to the wood shed where they are split into thin pieces and loaded back onto the truck and stacked into the trailer standing at the edge of the raku firing space, ready for use in the next 4 low temp wood firing workshops. We have almost enough wood in stock now. It will need just one more day or two to collect enough to see us through to October and the end of the firing season.

 

During this last week ‘off’, I have also pruned the peaches, almonds and shiraz grape vines. All these jobs have needed doing for some months, but now is their time. I also need to be getting stuck into the cherry trees, but time is running out. In small moments each day at lunch time, I get up on the Old School House roof and fix the flashing, repair the fascia and paint, prime, and top coat a series of rusty patches where pine needles have collected over the years and caused the galvanising to corrode. I notice these rusty patches every time I get up on the tall extension ladder to clean the gutters. This job can’t wait another week, so I manage to fit it in.

 

 

One other job that has been waiting almost a year now, is the water tank on the chicken shed roof. I was given this galvanised water tank for free, because someone? Built it very badly and put the water inlet filter hole in the base, rather than the top. Useless! i managed to silicone and pop rivet a gal patch over the hole and make a new hole in the top where it belonged. All too easy, but when it filled up with water, my patch held well, but there were 3 other places where it sprang little spouts of water leaks. It’s been very dry , with no rain for several weeks now. So, I take the tank down off its stand and dry it out completely by cutting the entire top out, so that it can fully drain and get sufficient air movement to completely dry out. When it’s dry, I can crawl inside and brush it out and clean it well, then apply 4 tubes of silicone rubber to all the internal joints and seams. That should do it!

i use up a lot of small off-cuts of galvanised steel sheet to make a flange on top of the tank and replace the original lid, all pop-riveted back into its old place. No one will ever know!

The last job this week, which we have tackled each morning and evening, is to wheel barrow 5 tonnes of mushroom compost into the orchard and spread it around all the stone fruit trees. I started the week by mowing, then spreading wood ashes from the fire all around the drip line of the trees. I find that all the old marrow bones from the stock have been calcined in the fire and are now reduced to a soft crumbly, powdery state. I spread it all evenly around. The wood ashes will provide potassium, the calcined cow bones will provide phosphate, and the chicken manure that  I add will provide the nitrogen. Its a home made, balanced diet, of naturally produced fertiliser for the fruit trees. It just couldn’t be more natural and organic.

 

 

 

The chickens come and help to spread the ashes and compost and get a cuddle for their work efforts from Janine.

 

 

The Last Batch of Marmalade

We are almost at the end of winter now and the last of the citrus still on the trees are  the Seville oranges. We have been making marmalade steadily through the winter months – and eating it too. We have been only just keeping ahead of our consumption.

For the past few months, I have been working flat out everyday, hardly ever taking any time off to work in the garden and around the house. Only the bare necessities could be done. The garden was looking a bit neglected and there were some essential maintenance jobs that needed seeing to.

Now my big show is up and I have given my artists talk last Saturday, then run a wood fire weekend workshop on Sunday, Today is a day off. We allow ourselves to sleep in a bit, have a late breakfast, then it is into the garden to harvest the last of the  Seville oranges. I get a couple of baskets full, as well as a few lemons. We spend our ‘day off ‘ making marmalade.

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We make something of an effort to make nice marmalade. For us, that means using the orange juice as the only liquid. We take the time to cut away almost all of the white pith, using just the thin strip of coloured fruit skin, and that skin is sliced quite thin. Each of us has our own way of dealing with the process. I like it sliced very thin, as thin as possible, with as little white as possible.

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We squeeze out the fruit juice and pour it into a saucepan, all the pips are separated out to another smaller sauce pan and simmered with a minimum of water to extract the pectin. This is pushed through a small kitchen sieve and eventually back into the lager pan of juice and peel. The thinly sliced peel and juice is roughly weighed and about 40% of this weight is added as sugar, but we have experimented with as little as 35% sugar. I like it less sweet and a bit more bitey. I have heard of recipes that say 50% of sugar and even equal parts of sugar. I don’t think that I would like it that sweet.

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Janine has made a hand-thrown, glazed, pottery funnel to make the pouring of jams, jellies and marmalade easier.

As we only seem to eat marmalade on toast for breakfast through the winter, we will have enough now in stock to last us through the last of the cool weather and through into the next winter, when the citrus will come back on again.