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.

 

Total Fire Ban

We had two wood firing workshops booked for this weekend.

Sadly we have 29oC and windy conditions. So there is a Total Fire Ban declared for the weekend. The fire season has started early! A total fire ban is a TOTAL fire ban! There is nothing that we can do about it. We have to cancel both workshops. Now that the hot weather has arrived early, it may affect the next two weekends that we have planned on our calendar for a Stoneware wood firing and the last raku firing.

Running workshops right up to the end of the season like this does increase the risk of running into fire bans. Some groups actually ask to be booked right at the end of the firing season to take advantage of the longer day length for travelling here and also the warmer daytime temperatures.

I’m NOT a climate sceptic. I believe that we are experiencing man made climate change caused by our use of fossil fuels.

This winter in Australia was 2oC above average winter temperatures across Australia. If this is our new reality, then we had better get ourselves adapted. In the short term. It means only booking wood firing workshops in the middle of winter when it will still be safe to do so, as I hate letting people down. In the longer term, we have been adapting for many years now. Collecting all our own water for drinking and irrigation, dealing with our own sewerage and generating our own solar electricity. This is all still a work in progress.

To this end, I suddenly realised that I had an unexpected day ‘off’ yesterday with the sudden cancellation of the workshop. We had been busy all week preparing the site, the glazes, the wood fuel and the sawdust. We have ordered a new, 2nd generation Tesla battery for our house, as we have an excess of electricity during the day from our solar panels. For the past 10 years, we were able to sell this excess power to the grid at a good price. But now with the end of the subsidy. It is better to store that excess and use it ourselves later in the evening, when we usually buy in green wind power back from the grid.

The announcement of the new Tesla battery came at just the right time for us. We are going to electrify all our energy use in the house and pottery. That means no longer using LP gas. Our choice to use an LP gas stove in the kitchen as a fall back position for cooking during the very hottest months, instead of lighting the wood stove, was based on the proposition that LP gas burnt directly, was greener than using dirty black electricity generated from coal.

We totally withdrew from the coal economy 10 years ago. In keeping with this thinking, we have ordered another 3 kW of Australian made solar panels from ‘Tindo’ in Adelaide. These are tier 1 grade panels, made to the highest specifications. Our original 3 kWs of panels were made in Sydney by BP Solar (since closed) and have performed very well for the past 10 years. It is great to know that we can still buy Australian made solar panels. They are 10% more expensive than the best tier 1 panels from China, but we are employing Australians and that makes it worth it.

Once our new panels and battery are installed, we will replace the gas stove and go fully electric. We have had solar hot water on the house since we built it in the 80’s. We fire all our glaze work in the wood kilns and bisque in the electric kiln. However, before I can install another 3 kiloWatts of solar cells on the pottery roof. I have to remove all the old rusty ‘galvanised’ roofing and install new ‘zincalume’ sheeting, as these are compatible with the aluminium framed solar panels. I had ordered the new roofing last week and it arrived on Friday, along with the 6 lengths of hardwood beams that I also need to add to the roof structure to accommodate the solar panel mountings.

It wasn’t the nicest job that I have ever attempted. I fact it was up there with the worst. But it was an unexpected day ‘off’. So I didn’t want to waste it. Pulling an iron roof off in a strong wind isn’t good. Doing timber framing up there on your own with heavy hardwood beams isn’t easy either, then finally re-roofing shiny reflective zincalume in 29oC heat isn’t at all nice. But now it’s all done and the new roof is ready for the contractors to come and install our new solar panels.

The ladder work and hard wood roof framing, has really taken it out of me as well as the heat and I have to lay down afterwards. I’m getting too old for this. But the thought of having electrical independance with 6 thousand watts of solar power and a 15 kW/hr battery kept me at it.

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The old galvanised roofing on the pottery and kiln shed was 100+ years old when we reclaimed in 1983. It’s doing really well for a 140 year old iron roof.

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We had already replaced the top half (right hand side of image) of the roof with new zincalume sheeting in 2007, when we installed the original solar panels. Now it’s time to fill up the remaining roof area. It’s a perfect situation for solar collection of a 30 degree pitch roof facing due north.

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Complete!

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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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