Productive Pets

Chickens are probably the only pets that give you breakfast each day!

We have 3 chickens, not because we need 3 eggs a day, we don’t. Rather, we can get through one or two eggs each day between us on average, but chickens are flocking animals. They like to hang around together in groups. One chicken would be lonely. I think that it would be cruel to have just one solitary bird. Two chickens would be a bare minimum, at least they would have a friend, but three allows for more of a dynamic relationship between them. Even more would be better for them, maybe 10 would be a comfortable number for them, I’m not too sure, but we don’t want or need that many eggs each day. We don’t want to be chicken farmers.

We chose three hens, even though it was too many for us, but only just enough for them to feel comfortable. It’s a compromise. We want to be responsible animal husbands. We keep our hens locked in their wire reinforced run until 9 or 10 in the morning. Hopefully well after the fox has gone to bed, and we lock them back in in the late afternoon, at 4.30ish, well before he comes back out in the evening. This has worked quite well so far. But foxes are cunning and patient.

Previously, we kept Old English Game Fowl. They were very edgy, skittish and flighty. Very highly strung. They could fly really well, easily capable of flying up into the highest gum tree. We always knew when the fox or a dog was about, as the chickens would all squark and fly up into the trees. We never lost a chicken to a fox. But the ducks weren’t so fast and were sometimes taken. The main problem is that our land isn’t fenced, only the gardens and orchards are fenced. We want the local wallabys, Eastern Grey kangaroos and other wildlife to be able to wander through, drink at the dams and eat the grass. They were here on this land before us.

Our current chickens are hybrid ISA Browns. They were commercially bred for a life in intensive production in cages. We saved them from that fate. They are great egg layers, but the real reason for choosing them instead of a pure breed this time around is that they are so amazingly tame, friendly and personable. They seem to just love hanging around with us in the garden, ‘helping’ us do whatever it is that we find our selves doing at the time. When we go inside for lunch, they usually hang around in the front garden, waiting for us to come back out again. it’s impossible not to be fond of them. They are very cute.

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I’ve read that chickens are the new dogs. There was an article in The Guardian Newspaper recently saying as much.

Pet swap: are chickens really the new dogs?

No longer content to keep poultry as merely egg suppliers, the UK is embracing them as pets, with names and roaming rights
The domestic chicken population in the UK has been stuck at about 500,000 since 2010.
The article was a lightweight bit of flim-flam, but there just might be a little bit of truth in it.
I think that they make great pets, because you can go away for a couple of days and they seem quite contented in their wire run, with dirt to scratch in and dust bath in and plenty to eat and drink.
We have built the run to give them loads of space to roam in, but they very rarely have to spend any time in there as we have them out with us almost every day.

 

Oh to be a chicken next time round! (well, one of ours anyway)

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.

 

 

Why did our chickens cross the road?

The local council workers have brought a big machine down a back road to clean out the gutters. We live in a dirt road at the furthest end of the village. It seems to take several men standing around to watch the one man in the machine doing the work. I guess that a couple of them are ‘lollipop’ men, to control the flow and speed of the traffic. There are the two school busses and the steady flow of tradies going to work. the occasional delivery truck  and a steady flow of bigger trucks involved with a sub-dividsion closer to the village. It’s a busy section of street. I can hear the machine coming for 15 mins before it arrives here because of the ‘Beep’. ‘Beep’, ‘Beep’, very loud warning sound that it makes as it crawls along, using its bucket to scrape out the earth gutter. When it is just about level with our house. The driver finds two eucalypts that are unacceptably close to the gutter on the other side of the road. Maybe they are 6 to 8 metres high and dead straight. He pushes them over, snapping them off at the base. I see this happen, as I am up early watering the garden. Well, I’m trying to, but the water is slow to come out of the hose as it has frozen solid over night with the frost. The water just trickles out for the first 10 mins, until the water coming through slowly melts the ice, which shoots out in long thin slivers every now and then, with a spurt and a gurgle.

After the men have finished and moved on, I Collect the chain saws in the truck from down in the workshop and drive up along the road and start to saw up the couple of tree trunks, in situ, where they lay.  I measure off the exact length of the wood kiln firebox hobs and start to cut them off section by section. They are perfect diameters and lengths for firing. No splitting will be required. Janine hears the chain saw racket and comes out to help me load the sections of tree trunk into the ute as I finish cutting. We look up from our work to find that the chickens have arrived! I don’t know where they were, but they know the sound of the chainsaw and make a ‘Bee line’ for the sound. They know that there will be good pickings in amongst the wood. They have come running and crossed the road to where we are.

This is a disaster. Now they will think that it is OK for them to forage over here on this side of the road. We quickly clap our hands and try to scar them away, but they are not fooled so easily. They know that we love them and they couldn’t possibly be in any sort of trouble for coming over the road to ‘help’ us clean up? It’s like hearding cats, they duck and swerve back under the truck instead of going back across the road. Janine calls them from the compost heap to encourage them and I clap and chase them. Eventually we get them back onto our side of the road, and safely into another part of the garden.

I’ll have to be more careful in the future and do any cutting on the other side of the road when they are still locked in their house in the mornings. We don’t want them to think that the other side of the road is our land. It’s not. But mainly because they have absolutely no road sense at all, and are completely trusting of us in our cars around our block of land here, as we drive very carefully and slowly when the chickens are in around the vehicles. The will get skittled for sure if they hanging out on the road.

So now we know that chickens will cross a busy road if they think that there is a chain saw working on the other side. There just might be food involved.

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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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