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.

First Peaches of the Season

Janine and I set up the plastic pipe hoops and installed the netting over the peach tress in the stone fruit orchard 3 weeks ago as the fruit started to appear. These early peach trees develop their fruit so quickly. They swell from buds in no time flat.

We knew that it was time to cover them when we saw parrots in the trees starting to eat the tiny young green fruit. It’s been so dry here as the drought drags on. Actually I don’t believe that it is a drought – an unusual event, that is just bad luck, as the politicians would have us believe. No! I believe that this is the new normal for us in this continuously developing global heating crisis. The rain fall pattern has been changing and our share of the rain has been steadily decreasing ever since we settled here 43 years ago.

We used to be able to get by here in this place with the water that we collected in our dams. We used to get terrific, short, intense rain storms, that would drop 20 to 25 mm. of water in an hour or two. This sudden flow of water had no time to soak into the soil and just flooded down the road in the gutters and then down the ditches that we had dug to harvest that flow, and into our dams. A good storm like that gave us sufficient water to get us through the best part of summer. We don’t get those storms any more, not for a decade or more now. In the 70’s we could get two or three of those storms in the summer months. Sadly no longer.

I have been a long-term subscriber to ‘NewScientist’ magazine, published out of the UK, but we now have our own branch here in Australia these days, with an Australian edition, so the Australian content has been increasing steadily. Over the 45 years that I have been a subscriber and reading the research published on our increasing emissions of carbon into the atmosphere. I’ve seen the steady increase in certainty in the science behind our understanding of the evolving crisis. I’ve also seen the strenuous denials from the carbon intensive industries lobby, building from straight out denial that the earth is warming at all, to now admitting that there is warming, but it is nothing to do with carbon in the atmosphere. All the denial and fake news claims, even the spurious pseudo scientific fake ‘research’ sponsored by the carbon lobby, is straight out of the cigarette industry playbook.

We are drying out here, slowly but surely. We have some peaches on the early peach trees, but there are no apples and just a few pears, as there wasn’t enough cold nights over winter to build up sufficient ‘winter chill hours’ that the fruit trees require to be able to ‘set’ fruit. We did get a ‘set’ of cherries on the trees, but with the exceptionally dry conditions, it has driven the kangaroos up out of the dense bush in the gullies up into our back yard and right up to the house in search of food. They have begun eating the cherry trees lower branches and the parrots have taken all the fruit while it was still green and hard. I’ve never seen that before. These wild animals are obviously very hungry.

In some ways it’s OK, as now we don’t have to worry about keeping the water up to the orchard, as we are very low in water storage. All 4 dams are close to empty. I need to get the portable petrol pump out and pump all the 3 other dams dry and locate all the remaining water into just one dam to minimise surface area and evaporation. We may need that water to fight fires over the coming summer.

At the moment we are OK, we are managing to water the vegetables and the few peaches from our rain water storage tanks, but this is a finite resource. We are already half way through our main large water tank, and we are still in spring! We still have one more large water tank full. That is our reserve supply. We’ll just have to wait and see how things pan out.

With almost every roof on our property already fitted up with guttering and a rain water tank, it’s hard to imagine how we can increase our storage in the short term. We can only double up on our storage tanks to catch the overflow from the original tanks, should there be a big storm – which there will be one day, bit that isn’t going to be any help just now.

For the time being, we have some early peaches to console us and reward us for our efforts.

Flanders Poppies

We are in peak Poppy season now with a lovely display of colour throughout the garden. Over the years I have selected only the single petaled variety, removing the doubles as they appear, I let the doubles flower, but remove the seed heads before they ripen.

There are hundreds of poppy varieties, but I really love the single intense red variety. Particularly the one with the black centre. I’m not so keen on the white centred variety of the same flower, so I have slowly removed that one as well. I just love the contrast of the black with the bright red.

These wild flowers just suit themselves where they grow, but they love to come up where the soil has been disturbed, ie, dug over, just like in a garden bed. They will come up in the orchard and sometimes in the lawn too, but all the wild life around here love them just as much as I do and they get eaten off pretty quickly. I doubt that there is any opium in the young leaves of the seedlings, but the locals seem to love them. The don’t stand a chance if they are not fenced. They must seem like junk food or cake to a kangaroo. They seek them out and selectively nibble them down to the ground.

I have selected a few slightly different shades of red over time, from pale orange red to dark claret crimson, but I love the fire engine red the most.

Some yers back I scattered a few poppy seeds around, down in the vineyard among the rows of cabinet sauvignon. I had this romantic idea of there being rows of grapes and an understory of crimson red flowers. Something like you might see in an impressionist painting. Well that was a very nice idyl on my part. Dream on Walter!.

They grew quite well in there as it was a fenced off area to keep all the locals out. The rabbits, wallabies, kangaroos, and wombats. They all like to graze on tender grape vine shoots and tendrils. The fence worked, but there was some thing that I hadn’t counted on. Wood ducks! The wild wood ducks figured out that they could fly in, swooping down low and land length wise in-between the rows of vines, just like a landing strip. They spent the day in there. Grazing on the poppies in the morning, and then lay about chatting amongst them selves for the rest of the day. After that first year, and my cunning plan was discovered by the ducks. I never got another poppy from the vineyard. Such is life!

These days the local wildlife cleans up any attempt to grow poppies out in the open areas of lawn. Poppies only thrive inside the protective surrounds of the aesthetic environment of the garden with its totally netted protective cover. A bit like artists in the larger society!

I enjoy my little hobby of supporting and protecting this delicate and vulnerable species. It’s a bit like being a patron of the arts. We have so many poppy flowers at the moment that Janine picks a few each day and puts them in a vase in the kitchen and bathroom. The only survive for a day and start dropping petals by the evening. They are looking pretty drowsy by the next day and comatose in the evening. Luckily we have a lot of them just now and we can afford to replace them each alternative day.

My own little memento mori! Life is short and can be brutal. Enjoy the beauty while you can.

Back home to Spring in the garden

I’ve been away for a while travelling and researching in China. It was a very interesting trip and I will have some stories and images to write about here in the next few days and weeks, as soon as I can get around to it. I have been very busy these last few days, since returning home, doing a number of things. All of which needed doing all at once as soon as I was back.

We had some terrible storms and gales while I was away, so there were a couple of days welding the chain saw, wheel barrow and rake, getting the driveway clear and the various fallen limbs off the fences etc.

We had one really big she-oak snap in half and fall, but not quite to the ground, so it was left hanging precariously until I got home. A definite no-go zone for all and sundry, until I could get in there and cut it down to make it safe. Janine and I then cut it up into fire wood sized small pieces to clear the space again. A big job and I’m always relieved when events like this are resolved without damage to property or me while I’m in there and under the branches cutting the wedge out to encourage it to fall into a safe place.

It all went well, but it makes me realise that I’m getting a bit older now and I have think these things through property before I start. It’s probably called risk analysis or some other clever name these days, but it’s what I have always done. Pace it out, measure the space, asses the weight and any bias in the load on the trunk. I want to do this safely.

Sometimes I put a 13mm. steel cable around the tree and winch it over in the right direction using my slow and steady ‘come-along’ hand winch. This tree wasn’t so tall any more, so I just used the tractor to winch it along with a suitably heave load chain. Needless to say, that with a wedge cut out, a slice in the rear and the tractor pulling it along, it fell precisely in the right spot.

I insist on working alone when I’m doing dangerous jobs like this. Any other person on the site is one more risk. The chickens always come running when they hear the chainsaw start up, so luckily for me and particularly for them, they didn’t get to where I was working before I had it felled.

So now all that heavy work is doneAll the wood cut and stacked in the wood shed, it is time to give the vegetable garden a bit of a work over with plantings of spring vegetables, seeds and seedlings to get it all ready for the summer. The soil temperature is almost up to 15oC, so a good time to get started. The asparagus is up and we have had a few meals already. That’s a good sign that spring has sprung.

I have been pulling out wheelbarrow loads of red ‘Flanders’ poppies. The come up wild, like weeds everywhere that the soil is disturbed. I love them, they are so delicate, beautiful and very short lived. Each flower wilts the day it is picked. They are only good for one day in a vase. However, they come up absolutely anywhere and everywhere that I have gardened or worked the soil the previous year. Of course that usually means in the garden beds. We like them so much that we usually have a lot of them overwintering in the fallow beds.

Well, the time has come to thin them out. I remove them from each part of the garden as I need the space to plant out the new vegetables. I leave as many as I can along the edges and in the paths. They will flower all through the spring into early summer and set seed in the autumn to replenish themselves again for next year.

Beauty and frugal practicality in balence. The cycle will go on, as long as we’re here to keep tilling the soil and creating that fertile environment.

Making the Most of Winter

It’s another blowy, blustering cool day, with a wind that is bringing down a few branches. Luckily, it was quite still yesterday evening, so we decided to burn off our pile of garden, orchard and vineyard prunings. We manage to assemble quite a pile of these prunings during the autumn pruning period. We pile them up to dry out for a couple of months and then burn off the pile at the end of winter, just before the spring fire bans come into force. In the past we have waited for a cool damp night after rain, but it just hasn’t rained at all for months, so the pile just sat there. 
Last night was forecast to be damp with the possibility of a slight shower. That was good enough, After dinner we went down to the burn pile site, next to the Pantryfield garden and lit it up. It was a very slow quiet burn that took 3 hours to get through all the sticks, twigs and branches. By 11 pm it was just a pile of white ash and a few glowing embers. It’s a good feeling to get the fire hazard out of the way before summer, otherwise it would have to sit there for another 8 months. Fortunately it started to rain ever so gently later in the night, just half a mm. in the rain gauge this morning, but enough to settle it all down.


 Today a fierce, gusty wind has settled in, so we are back inside, after doing all our jobs, collecting fire wood and stacking it inside ready for tonights fires, watering the small seedlings and cleaning up. Now the sun is fully up, we drove the car down to the high amperage charging station down by the kiln factory. The kiln shed has 3 phase power installed, so we placed the fast charger down there, as there is no electricity in the car port. The kiln shed roof also has 6kW of solar panels on its roof, so direct access to the solar power for charging the car and firing the kiln.
As we’re inside, we decide to deal with kitchen duties. We held our second marmalade making workshop at the weekend, so there are numerous small jars of marmalade to be washed and dried , then labeled and stored away in the pantry. We made 3 batches, each slightly different, but all of them centred on Seville oranges, of which we have a beautiful crop this year. Hard to fathom, as we are currently in a drought. But we have been watering the citrus grove regularly.


Each large boiler, makes between 7 to 10 jars of marmalade, depending on the size of the jars. Our very good friends Toni and Chris turned up and the afternoon eventually wound it’s way into evening and dinner.


The other job on the kitchen list is to make a stock out of the bones left over from a duck that we have in the fridge. I start by browning some onion in olive oil, then garlic and water. Our organic garden garlic is getting close to the end now as the winter peters-out. What we have left is stored, hung up, outside on the back verandah in long plaits. This is starting to sprout now, but it still gives us the good garlic flavour. The new crop of garlic is filling out in the garden, but is still 3 months away from maturity.



I add water, the bones, a lemon, chillies, the very last of our late season tomatoes that we picked 6 weeks ago when they were still a bit green, as the bushes had been burnt off by the frost, and some pepper. After simmering for an hour, I pass it thorough a sieve to separate the bones and mirepoix from the stock. I add a bottle of ‘fume’ wine and return the clear stock to the stove to reduce. It happens in among all the other jobs, slowly and steadily, filling the kitchen with a warm, delicious fragrance that is so welcoming on a cold windy day.
 Domestic jobs can be really engaging and fulfilling sometimes. This is one of those times.You’ll notice that I don’t write too much about cleaning the grease trap!
Our enigmatic friend Annabelle Sloujé sent me this image that she saw somewhere, after I wrote about making a beef bone stock last week.
Best wishes from Steve who is making the most of winter – while it lasts.

The Winter Garden

The garden can look a bit barren at this time of year, but there is still plenty to eat. We have all the brassicas doing very well with the frosty nights. Cabbages, cauliflowers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kohlrabi all bountiful and gorgeous. We also have leeks and celery, and we have just finished off the last of the autumn/winter crop of carrots. 

Of course we always have spring onions and lettuces for salads when the days are suitably sunny and warm, as is often the case these days in the global emergency. Winters as we knew them in the 70’s are over. No more snow and many fewer frosts that are much milder in intensity. Fruit trees are flowering now just past mid winter and not in spring. Everything has advanced about 4 to 6 weeks earlier over our 43 years here.

peaches

almonds

blue berries

At this time of year, the days are getting longer and the soil temperature is just starting to warm up a little with the soil just starting to hit 10oC. The asparagus is responding to this minuscule change and starting to sprout. We have our first couple of spears poking their heads up.

Although the beds look barren under their winter mulch, there is the beginnings of spring growth.

There may be some benefits to a warmer climate, but the down side for us is the prolonged drought, with only one significant rain event of 30mm over winter. We are preparing our selves for a long dry and very hot summer with July breaking many records for the hottest winter month. This past July being the 3rd hottest July ever recorded.
On the positive side, there are lots of people starting to wake from their media/Murdoch induced stupor, and starting to take action. I am seeing a lot more positive articles in journals indicating creative, affirmative thinking.

The 1 to 10 of Orchard Pruning

We have spent this winter weekend pruning the fruit trees in the orchards.

I had my good friend Warren over to help me. Warren is the man who a can do almost anything at all, and do it well — with a smile. He is so good to have around.
We started by shovelling up all the ash from the past burn piles of garden prunings over the recent season of garden clean-ups. These piles of vegetation grow during the hot months as we slowly accumulate material. Finally when the cool weather arrives and there are no more fire bans we are able to burn the accumulated bushy piles. The amount of ash is amazing. We are able to fill two wheel barrows to the brim. All this ash gets put back into the garden and orchards. Sprinkled around the fruit trees as fertiliser. Ash contains all the nutrients that a plant needs to grow. We don’t use commercial synthetic fertilisers in our gardens and orchards. We are fully committed to growing organically. We only use chicken manure and ashes from our fire place and stove, plus once a year like this, the ash from the burn piles.
The ash is spread around each of the trees at the drip line and will get watered in when it rains. Ash has sodium and potassium, calcium and magnesium, alumina and silica, plus iron and titanium, all in various proportions depending on the plant material that was burnt.
I also throw the beef marrow bones that are left over after making stock in the kitchen. After roasting and boiling the bones with a vegetable stock, the bones are given to the chooks for a day or two to pick over, then they end up on the burn pile. I fish the fragile, brittle, burnt, calcined bone remnants out of the ashes and crush them up to add back to the garden. Calcined bones contain phosphorous, which is severely lacking in our ancient, depleted, Australian soils. Bone ash is a great addition to an organic garden.
The winter pruning weekend has a kind of old English folk tale, come nursery rhyme sort of feel to the work. It’s a very ancient activity to get involved in at this time of year. It’s a must-do occupation if you want healthy trees and more fruit next year. It has to be done and it can’t be put off. It has to be done NOW! Janine and I have been doing this for over 40 years.
We gave it the old one-two. We started by putting on our work boots. Unfortunately no buckles involved on this occasion  just velcro, laughing sided elastic boots and lace-ups.
Then it was three four. Open the gate to the orchard. It doesn’t rhyme, like ‘door’ would  but it allowed us to come and go at will, while we pruned the fruit trees back into shape for the coming spring time flush of growth. The chooks take the opportunity of the open gate to come on in and help us work, by getting in under our feet. They come in here about every second day, but only stay for an hour or so before wandering off to look for something more interesting to do. Because we are in here working all day, they stay and work all day too! They just love a bit of human company.
Pruning takes a lot of effort and a lot of thinking and planning too. It’s not mindless. It isn’t just chopping off branches willy nilly. We are constantly conscious that neither willy gets chopped off. Especially since we are using a combination of mini chain saw, pole pruner, secateurs and various lengths of garden loppers. We both drew blood on several occasions from the large spikes on the branches of the yellow plum tree, and other spiky objects and sharpe tools. Luckily our willies and nillies survived intact. We have to treat each tree slightly differently depending on its shape and age, but also its individual habit. As well as considering that each variety of fruit tree fruits and flowers on different wood. Some only on old established fruiting spurs, like cherries, apples and pears, but others on 2nd year growth wood only, so old 3rd year wood is removed after fruiting, 2nd year wood is retained for this years crop and new growth is encouraged for next years fruit.
Probably the most important thing is to remove any dead and decayed wood to minimise disease and this all needs to be picked up, carted off and burnt.
Next it was five six, and we spent a lot of time picking up all our prunings and carting them all down to the burn pile at the back of our block. There are 30 trees in the stone-fruit orchard, a dozen cherry trees in the Chekov orchard, a dozen almonds in the veggie garden, a dozen citrus in the orange grove and a dozen hazel nuts in the old olive grove.  We have over 100 fruit, nut and food bearing trees in total. The picking up of sticks actually takes longer than the climbing up and down the ladder and into the branches of the trees to do the cutting and sawing.
The pruning went pretty well, we are getting better at it these days. However, we totally failed on the next part of seven and eight. Try as we might the burn pile of sticks wouldn’t stay straight. The off-cuts of fruit tree branches are just too forky and twisty to lay straight.
We did however have the constant help and supervision of the ’Spice Girls’ at all times. The big brown hens love a bit of garden activity and are keen to be right in the middle of it scratching and pecking, so nine ten was no problem.
Pruning is one of those jobs that it is really good to finish. See you again next year. Same place, Same time of year. I have a new trimming attachment for my whipper/snipper thing. It goes all the way up to 11!