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.

 

 

Winter Weekend Workshop, Wood-fired Raku

We are smack in the middle of the winter weekend wood firing workshops. 5 down and 5 to go. We have to take the truck down into the bushy part of our land and collect a load of small dead dry branches for the next raku firing workshop. We get through a truck load in one day with 6 wood fired kilns going all day. Collecting all of our own fuel from our own land like this is just one more aspect of our attempt at self-reliance. It’s time consuming, but fit, active, healthy work, and it helps to keep the forest in good condition.

 

Amazingly, the chickens know the sound of the chainsaw and within minutes they appear, having covered the 100 metres across the block from the garden area where they spend most of their time, through the cherry orchard, the hazelnut grove, past the dam and the wood shed and they find us down the lane. The are motivated by food. They know that the chainsaw means termites, centipedes, under-bark beetles and cockroaches. We aren’t that happy to see them arrive here in this more remote part of our land. It means that they now know that this place exists and that they can roam here at other times. They learn their boundaries by following us. They don’t go where we don’t go. This place is the wild-wood for them and they will be very vulnerable to the fox if they come here alone.

 

We set about dragging the dead branches out of the forest. Once we have a good pile to get started with. Janine keeps on delivering more sticks and branches to me in the track. The closest place where I can reverse to truck to. I set up the saw horse and start to cut the branches into smaller sized pieces, suitable for use in the little Stefan Jakob style bin kilns. The chickens have no fear, they love to get in right under the saw to catch the falling bugs. I have to persuade them to look elsewhere in a rotten tree stump to excavate for termites. It works for a while but they are soon back in my wood pile, under my feet. They have decided that they love sugar ants and their larvae, that are falling out of some of the hollow rotten logs.

When we have loaded the truck, the chickens don’t want to leave this new exciting site that they hadn’t previously known about. We have to go back and entice them to follow us to safer ground, closer to the house. They wouldn’t last too long out in the bush.

We need to drive the truck up to the wood shed so that we can split the thicker section logs down to thin pieces suitable for the small fireboxes on these little kilns. As soon as the splitter engine starts up, they soon appear, ready to ‘help’ Janine with the wood splitting.

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I sharpen and service the chain saws, while Janine and her ‘helpers’ finish splitting the last of the wood.

The workshop is a success as they always are. Everyone getting a chance to fire their own work in their own kiln, usually working together in pairs or small groups.

 

 

The day ends with a little shower of rain, that sends us under cover for a few minutes, but it soon clears to a light sprinkle and we are all back out there cleaning up and washing the finished pots, raking the saw dust looking for lost pieces or little parts that have broken off.

At the end of the day, the truck is empty and there are just 6 pieces of wood left in the wheel barrow.

A good day.

Avocados and Oysters

What do Avocados and oysters have in common?

Answer; They are both best eaten raw with only a dressing of lemon juice and some freshly ground pepper.

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We have apparently reached peak avocado season now. We find a freshly fallen avocado each morning on the lawn. We decide that it is tine to do a big pick. We use the tall 2.4 metre step-ladder and the 4 metre long pruning shears, so that I can get to those pesky little critters right at the top of the tree. They have so far escaped picking, being so difficult to reach, right up there.

A little bit of circus work and we fill our basket with a dozen nicely sized fruits. That’ll keep us going for another week or so and save us from being killed by falling fruit.

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Have Wheel, Will Barrow

Now that the wheel barrow is back up and running again, and I have some time again. I get around to planting the new avocado tree.

We have an avocado tree. We have had it growing in the yard between the cherry orchard and the hazel nut grove. It’s been growing well for the past 40 years and usually has a good crop of avocados each winter. We pick about half a dozen or so each week. It has to be done at least a week in advance of when you want to eat them, as they take 7 to 10 days to finish ripening up after picking.

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The tree has grown quite large over the years, so we now need a step-ladder and  extendable, long-handled, pruning secateurs to reach up to the top to get at them. We get out there, Janine underneath where we think that the fruit will land. I get up close to it with the long secateurs. When fully extended, this gadget gets to fruit up to 6 metres high and is quite unwieldy to handle up above your head with arms outstretched. I cut the stem and Janine catches the fruit in a towel that she has stretched between her arms, like a fireman blanket. It works quite well – usually. Unless the avocado hits a branch on the way down and spins off at a tangent.

We have been eating avocados for the past couple of months now and there are still plenty up there in the upper branches. Because they don’t ripen until they are picked. It’s the best fruit tree that we have. We can decide when we want to eat the fruit at our convenience. We have had an unseen avocado last up in the dizzying heights of the upper branches for 5 months and suddenly dropping off in December.

I learnt a few years ago that avocados are self fertile. BUT, you get a better fruit set if there are other different varieties close at hand. Avocados come in two families. Type A and B. It is best if you have one of each. So I decided to buy another tree. We currently have a variety called ‘bacon’ which is the cool hardy one. Hence it has survived the snow fall and the deep frosts of the early years. However, now with global warming and reduced frosts here, it seems to be doing very well. I don’t know how long avocados live, but 40 years is a good effort for a fruit tree growing at the very edge of its range, and lets face it, they are a tropical fruit. So we have been very lucky as well as industrious.

When I went to buy the second tree, it soon became apparent that you can’t just go out and buy an avocado tree these days in Australia. The fruit is so damn popular (and expensive) that people are planting vast orchards of them and the growers are flat-out keeping up with the demand. Selling thousands at a time to commercial plantations. I had to put my name down with a few growers, then wait a year for the chance to pick up one of the left-overs from large orders.

One year on and we now have 5 more trees. Making a balance of early and late fruiters and a balance of 3 of each type A and type B varieties. This latest tree, that was delivery last week, has been harden off by the back door, next to the water tank. It is now ready to plant. This one is a small-sized tree, only expected to grow to 2.5 to 3 metres, and is a bit frost tender. Depending on how big it grows, I’m hoping to be able to keep it protected for the first few years.

It gets a big, wide hole excavated for it and this is then filled with a mixture of old rotted manure and compost into the soil. Avacados are rich feeders. It also gets a steel mesh tree guard up to 1 metre high to stop the kangaroos from eating it in the first few weeks. The kangaroos took the top clean out of another tree that I planted on its first night, before I got the tree guard in place. They love to try anything new.

Some of the earlier trees that I planted in the autumn are now just about to burst their new buds into spring growth. They seem like they are growing very well.

If all goes well. In the future we might expect an avocado season of over 6 months.

 

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I shrink-wrap the wire frame to protect the tender little thing for the next month, until the cold winds blow them selves out and spring starts proper.

Frosty Mornings, Lovely Days.

 

We wake to a cracking frost this morning. We have had a few good ones these last few weeks. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just what it is. The frost has killed off every soft and vulnerable plant in the garden that were struggling on through the cold weather and short days. Plants like basil, just turn up their toes at the slightest hint of cold, quite early on in the season. The first really cool shift in the weather makes them lose a lot of their leaves. The next cold snap, especially if there is a cold wind with it and they are gone till we replant them in the spring.

Tomatoes hang on a lot longer, but the first light frost or near frost makes them lose their leaves. Funnily the lingering un-ripe fruit isn’t affected and can be brought into the kitchen and ripened on the window sill over the next few weeks.

Nasturtiums and capsicums seem to be able to tolerate a light frost and remain intact, although not exactly thriving. However, this mornings beauty has put an end to everything that was gamely battling on. This spells the end of the lingering autumn stragglers.

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What is great about a period of good solid frosts, is that they benefit the plants that have excellent frost tolerance and even rely on the freezing to establish the ‘chill-factor’ chemicals in the new growth that will emerge as fruiting buds in the spring. Some varieties of fruit trees need a good chill to become fertile. All the older varieties of plants like apples, pears, the stone fruits and particularly hazel nuts, need to get a hundred or more hours of below 4oC temperatures. If they don’t, the flowers cannot become fertile in the next growing season. A few years ago, we had a winter here without frost and didn’t get any fruit set on any of the apples or pears.

Hazels and filberts have slightly different origins, with one being rounder and the other more ovoid. Filberts have a longer skirt on the outer shell. They both seem to have originated in Asia minor/Turkey, but have been developed into stronger and more prolific bearers of larger nuts over the long period of domestication.

Hazel/filbert nuts are reliant on a high number of cold nights to establish their chill factor chemistry. A lot of work has been done on breeding local varieties of low chill factor nuts here in Australian in the post war period. In Australia, we just don’t get the sort of winters that are common in north America and Europe. However, we just happen to have a hazelnut farm research station near us here in the Southern Highlands.

We have been able to buy grafted varieties of local hazels that have been bred to fruit in warmer low chill areas like here. We have these low-chill fruiting hazel/filbert nut trees inter-planted in the nut grove with others that are inoculated with French black Perigord truffle fungus. We are hoping that the spores will spread to all of the other hazel/filbert trees at some time in the future.

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A good bit of cold weather really helps to colour up the citrus and sweetens the Brussel sprouts. In the mean time the frost looks great on the surviving plants until the sun comes up and melts it away.

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The sun shines and the days are glorious, as long as there is no wind.

When the weather changes and the wind blows off the snow. There is no frost but the days can be bleak. When we came here, the locals described it as a lazy wind. It doesn’t blow around you, but rather, straight through you.