These hot days

We have been enjoying, or perhaps suffering, a few hot days this week.

The mercury hit 44oC on the back verandah yesterday. Far too hot to try and very much that was physical out side or even in the kiln shed. I stayed inside after watering the vegetable garden in the morning. I read a book instead. It was really the only sensible thing do.We had watered everything the night before as well, but as the heat set in and built up, the plants wilted and lay down. By the afternoon the sweet corn was frazzled and its leaves white and papery dry. I hope that it survives!

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It was so hot that even the candles suffered erectile disfunction!

2017, so long and thanks for all the fish

As this year slowly fades into the next, without a bang or a whimper, each day arrives and passes in a heat haze of small summer jobs around the house and gardens. I service all the fire fighting pumps. We have 4 or them. Cleaning the air filters and changing the oil, ready for any fire emergency that might crop up in this heat. These pumps are used for other jobs throughout the year, for garden irrigation, roof sprinklers on the house and workshop roofs for cooling on the hottest days and water transfer from tank to tank, this occasional work keeps them in good working order, so that I know that I can rely on them in any emergency.

We had a couple of weekend workshops of garden maintenance, with a couple of our pottery students and friends helping us get the garden back up to speed after our long absence OS in the late spring . They earned themselves a free raku firing workshop  ticket in the winter for their trouble. A very special thanks to all those friends who helped us out during the past 12 months, your friendship and support is greatly appreciated.

The garden is now producing a lot of food for us and will continue to do so into the future, with the germination and growth of all the seeds that we planted. We have successive plantings of corn, beans and zucchinis, etc. to keep us going.

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We have enjoyed a number of lovely meals recently from the garden. Our protein is mostly sea food based, as we have a very good fish man that drives up from the coast a couple of days a week. We often bake a whole fish and boil the bones to make a stock that we can use later to make something else. Recently I pan-fried a whole trout in olive oil and garlic, stuffed with lemon thyme from the garden and dressed with lemon juice and crushed almonds. I finished it under alfoil to slowly steam it through, de-glazed with a little splash of chardonnay and a dash of fresh cream before serving it with some steamed kippfler potatoes. I didn’t get any complaints and I made a good stock of the bones.

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Not only do I get a very good glutinous richly flavoured stock from the bones, but then the Spice Girls (chooks) get a nice surprise for breakfast the next day.

Many meals at this time of year start to look like variations on ratatouille, with mixtures of tomatoes, egg plant, zucchinis and capsicums. I try to mix it up a little using the fish stock to make a blond garden risotto, with Pumpkin, zucchini, caps, garlic and onion. I add a little pinch of saffron and Janine brings in a sprig of fresh oregano to help it along a little. I finish it with a chunk of butter to make it extra creamy and smooth.

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Later, we bake a snapper in the same way, except , this time I use some of the days tomato passata to simmer it with the days vegetable pick.

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I take the time to clean, scrub, oil and then re-wax the kitchen table.

 Someone once told me that I should oil my handmade furniture once a day for a week, then once a week for a month, once a month for a year and then annually after that. So now is the time for such small details to add up and need addressing. I refuse to go into the factory or the workshop for this precious week between Xmas and new year to do  kiln work. Instead I work at all the other jobs that need doing annually, like this one. A change is as good as a holiday! It’s been a busy year with trips to China, Adelaide, Canberra, Cambodia, Korea, then Japan and Korea and Japan again. Plus the launch of my new book ‘5 Stones’ at my big show of my 15 years of research into single stone porcelain at Watters Gallery. I still haven’t written up all of the recent Japanese trip yet. Maybe in the new year.

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I do go into the workshop many times through this week, but it is to get tools that I need for maintenance and to do repairs on household items.

I will go back to work on the 2nd after our Swiss Intern arrives for a 6 week stay with us. We will be busy making single stone porcelain and building kilns after she has settled in.

Last year we had Lauge from Denmark, this year it will be Catherine from Switzerland. Something to look forward to. However, before that, we will have our annual New Years day recovery party to welcome the new year in and I will be cooking up a selection  of our garden produce for that.

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!