The Long Dry Continues

It has now been 1 1/4 years since the last significant rain here. Soaking rain that flowed across the ground and filled the dams. We have had only showers and light rain that we harvest on our tin roofs and then collect in our water tanks.

When is the best time to buy a new water tank?  – Last year!

We have just added a new water tank to the little railway station that we bought 40 years ago and moved here to sit next to The Old School building that we live in.

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The new water tank is made out of plastic. I’m not too keen on holding water in plastic, even if it is guaranteed to be virgin, food grade, plastic. All the old water tanks were made from galvanised steel and soldered at the joints with lead solder – not good! Then the later metal tanks were made from zincalume plated steel with silicon rubber sealed joints. I wasn’t too happy about that either. They rusted out very fast too. A complete waste of money. The last metal tank that we bought was made from galvanised steel sheet, but the metal surface had plastic sheeting melted onto it. A process called ‘aquaplate’ , and it was still sealed with silicon.  With these options all being less than perfect, we decided to try a plastic tank this time, as it’s no different to plastic lined steel – and the plastic tanks are half the price of the galvanised steel ones now.

I made a galvanised steel ring to hold the 100 mm. of coarse sand base in place. I cut up a small piece of 1m galvanised steel scrap sheetmetal and guillotine it into 6 long, thin strips. Then I welded them all together end to end, to make a 6 metre long strip and loop it around to join it back into a 2 metre diameter ring. It looks like it’s almost professional.

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I bodgie up a makeshift tap out of parts that I have in the shed. Within an hour of deleivery, the tank is installed, connected and half full of water pumped from another tank, to keep it from blowing away. Which is a distinct possibility it were to be left empty for any length of time.

If this is the future of our weather that we are experiencing. We need to get ourselves prepared. After the last long drought we installed a huge 120,000 litre water tank that collected water from the over-flows from the 3 big roofs. The pottery, the kiln shed and the barn. All that water used to just over-flow from the small tanks on each roof and was then lost onto the ground. We now collect all that excess and it is this water that we are now relying on for the house and also for watering the garden and orchard trees. This can’t last, we will eventually run out. We have so far used 1/4 of our water storage. Eventually we will have to buy drinking water, just like our neighbours on both sides are doing now. Every couple of weeks we hear the water truck grind up the dusty dirt road and then the petrol motor pump starts up and roars into life for the 30 minutes or so that it takes to discharge its precious load into their empty water tanks.

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Each time a car drives past our house along the dirt road these days, it stirs up the dust which rolls across the front of our land and settles on everything coating the whole of our land in a very fine airborne silicosis causing layer of fine dust. It’s in our hair and our lungs, you can’t filter it out. It creeps in under the doors and in through the cracks around the windows. Everything in the house slowly gets coated in it. We have to mop the floor every couple of days and wipe down the shelves. It also settles on all the leaves of the trees and particularly on the solar panels. I need to wash them down every week to keep up their performance.  I wipe the Blueberry leaves with a wet finger, and you can see the layer of dust become more apparent.

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After I finish washing the panels, the water in the bucket is black.

This road didn’t used to be this bad, but recently the local council graded the dirt road and applied a thick layer of what looks like steel-works slag. It has broken down to a very fine dusty substance – whatever it is. It’s horrible. I wrote to the council and complained, but after ten days I got a phone call to say that this road isn’t on their 10 year plan for re-surfacing, so we will have to live with it for the next decade at least. The council man suggested that it might be wise to expect a wait of 15 years! As there are many other country roads ahead of us on their list.

I’m not too sure that I’ll live that long, especially with all this dust in my lungs!

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!

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.

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.

Platform Heal

We bought the old Balmoral Village Railway Station building to save it from demolition back in the 70’s. The local ‘Loopline’ train line had been closed to passenger trains and all passenger services were replaced by a bus service. The line was still open to the odd freight train, or it was used as an alternate line to the main line if there was a derailment on the main line, which actually happened in 1978.

For a whole day and night we got all the Sydney to Melbourne train traffic off the main line diverted along our old loopline tracks. We got to see the Sydney to Melbourne Inter-capital Daylight Express and the Southern Aurora rumbling along past our house at 20 kms hr. on our old, little used, light gauge tracks.

We live on this old and now closed line. It was originally the main line south for about 50 years. It came through here in about 1864 and was replaced by the new main line in about 1916. The old line through here is now just a ‘loop’ off the new line.

The original line was difficult for some of the older steam engines, as the gradient was very steep. Digging cuttings through the hard rock of these steep hills was time-consuming and expensive. There is an extremely deep cutting just up the road from here. I was told that it was the deepest railway cutting in the Southern Hemisphere when it was built. This cutting allows the line up through a difficult part of the terrain to the next village that was originally called ‘Big Hill’.

Our village was, at the time, a place to keep and maintain an extra steam engine. When the Sydney train arrived here. The spare locomotive was hitched on to the train and used to pull the carriages up this steepest part of the line. Even so, it was a very slow and difficult job to get the train up the big hill.

There is an old story, and I can’t vouch for its truth, about a bush ranger stepping up onto the very slow-moving train at the front and robbing everyone on the train as he walked down through the carriages, and then hopping off again, not too far from where he got on!

There were originally 7 stations along this part of the original train line, now the ‘loop’. We live right in the centre of the loopline. As we are half way between the two ends of the loop. It was decided that a School would be built at the half way point to service all the children of the track ‘fettlers’ and engine maintenance men that were stationed here.

The school was opened in 1893 and operated full-time until the line was relocated to the new route in 1919 and the population started to decline, as the railway men and their families slowly moved away. The school then operated as a part-time school for a few more years, and then closed. It reopened during the Second World War as a part time school, sharing a teacher between here and the now named village of Hill Top, higher up the line. The school closed permanently at the end of the war. The station remained open until the line was closed to passenger traffic.

Once the line was closed to passenger traffic and the bus service instigated. It was decided to tender all the stations along the line for demolition. The first station to be offered up to tender for demolition was Hill Top station, next door. We heard on the grape-vine, that the only bidder just wanted the tin off the roof to build a chook shed, so only offered $2, won the bid, took the iron off and burnt the building down to comply with the clause that stated “remove to ground level”.

When the Balmoral Village station came up for tender next, we were keen to see it preserved and not destroyed, so we bid the ridiculous price of $250 to make sure that we would win and could preserve it. $250 was about half the cost of the wood to build a new one. We won of course. No-one in their right mind would pay that much for what amounted to a little old wooden shed.  A very old wooden shed indeed. It is thought to have been installed in 1864 or there-abouts, when the line opened. Making it the oldest building in the village. We thought it worth saving.

We measured it up and built footings to suit, then hired a crane and low-loader. We picked it up and drove it home to the school in one piece. Then lifted it into place. It was the biggest job that I have ever attempted and it all went like clockwork. It turned out to be the least troublesome thing that I have done. However, I did spend a lot of time planning, preparing and choreographing it.

Once we realised that we now owned all (both) of the public buildings in the village and there is no water works to buy. We could put a motel on Pall Mall and charge all passers-by to pay $200 dollars to pass ‘GO’!

Instead, we decided to sand blast off all the old flaky paint when we sand blasted the old School classroom. We had hired all the equipment for the weekend and had some spare time and ‘shot’ left on the Sunday evening, so we cleaned it back. I bought undercoat and we made some top coat our selves. We bought a one gallon tin of pale yellow oil based gloss top coat, then added an equal amount of turps mixed with mica and talc dust 200# that we had in the pottery for making our glazes. This gave us 2 gallons of paint. This rock dust saturated oil paint is still as good as new today. No drying out or flaking off. The stone particles guarantee that there will be no UV penetration. The little weatherboard waiting room is still in good shape. Well the paint job is anyway.

Interestingly, we noticed that after we cleaned and painted the waiting room. The train line fettlers that passed along the line each few days, saw the station building in its new location and new clothes and waved to us and we waved back. They saw that we thought that the building had some historical merit and was worth saving and restoring.

After that no more stations were offered for demolition. All the others have now been restored and painted creamy yellow! Personal activism does work sometimes.

Well that was 40 years ago, and the poor old wooden sleepers on the platform have been weathering away. I have no idea how old they are. Not 153 years I shouldn’t think. I’m sure that they are not original. Perhaps they were replaced in the 60’s when there was a derailment at the station when a goods carriage came off the line and ploughed into the end of the station destroying the Ticket Office building. Perhaps the original sleepers on the platform were replaced when the platform was repaired?

They are sill in good shape where they are under cover of the verandah, but the exposed ends are rotting away. We have our wet weather clothes line under the verandah and Janine has stopped using it because she feels that it is too unsafe.

I take a day ‘off’ and go down to the timber yard and buy new ‘treated’ sleepers. I slowly remove each of the old sleepers a few at a time, and replace them with the new ones. It all goes pretty much to plane and is finished by the end of the day. However, I still have to put up the new guttering.

Everything goes to plan, except that I drop one of the old heavy hardwood sleepers on my recently damaged and recovering finger, which splits it open again.

No good turn ever goes un punished. I’ve healed the platform, I now have to wait for my hand to re-heal.

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Heath Cullen House Concert

We hosted a house concert last week for Heath Cullen. A great favourite of ours. He is a lovely person and a very good musician. Every one seems pleased with the concert. We had our lounge room in the Old School Building packed to chockers with 38 people in the house. We were very pleased with the turn-up. Everyone brought a plate to share and there was, as there often is, way too much food to eat on the night and we had to ask our friends to take much of the left-overs back with them, as we have all the food that we need in our vegetable garden. We want for little.

Live music is such a pleasure. Especially with someone like Heath, who has so much talent and has so much to offer. We asked everyone to arrive by 6.30 for a 7.oopm start. Heath was here at 5 to set up and we ended up re-arranging the chairs to suit his personal choice of performance space, We had an early dinner with him and a few friends who helped us to clean out the house and set up the chairs.

We had two 45 min sets of songs with a half hour break in-between, which got a bit stretched with everyone eating , drinking and talking animatedly with each other. After the show, half of our guests stayed on the chat and the night ended going on till quite late, with Heath leaving about 11.00pm.

A thoroughly enjoyable event and night. We will be doing it again in a few months with another musician that we like. I’m keen to have Lucie Thorne here some time. Check out her web site. <luciethorne.com>. ‘The Age’ newspaper reviewer, had this to say about Lucie.

“Thorne writes some of the most simple and beautiful songs you will hear” **** The Age.

Heath is keen to come back again next year. And we’re keen to have him here.

His three  CD’s have been on regular play all this week.

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Check out Heath’s web site;  <heathcullen.com>

A realy nice person, a great performer, lovely music, good company, intimate space and our solid brick, old class room, has excellent acoustics. What more could you want ?

No Rest in Paradise

The hot weather is here now and we are out in the garden early to get the jobs done before the heat sets in. We’ve had some 30 oC+ days recently. we pick cherries and the early peaches, and lucky that we did as a thunderstorm comes through in the afternoon. All dry thunder at first but then it breaks, and boy does it break. We are pelted with hail stones that pile up on the lawn and against fences and wall. the rain floods in over the verandah. We are safe inside the house, but there are some new leaks in our old 123 year old roof. I’ll have to get up there again tomorrow and see what I can do, but not now.

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can see the leaves being shredded from the trees in the garden. I can only imagine what is happening to the tomatoes and other soft vegetables in the garden. The chooks will be OK. They will be hiding in their house, very scarred I’m sure, but physically OK. It’s a good thing that we harvested the two boxes of early peaches this morning!

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In the evening we sit and peel peaches for preserving, shelling dried peas and milling dried broad beans down into broad bean flour to make falafel. I also grind down some of last years sun-dried corn niblets into polenta flour. There is always something to do. I might even find some time to watch the idiot box if there were anything on, but there isn’t. So I don’t. The pressure is off on this new big kiln, as the work is well under way and back on schedule, as I have a new welder.

We have delivered all our work for the Xmas shows in the Sydney Galleries as our open studio weekends are over. The tea pot sets are taped up and ready for packing up for delivery. We exhibit our joint domestic wares as King and Co. This is to separate this work from my tea bowls that I show in my own name at Watters Gallery. The opening at Watters went well and I seem to have sold 4 out of the 8  ‘kintsugi’ gold repaired bowls that I took in for the show.

I have found time again to practice my Cello. Its been locked in its case for some time now. We also find some time each morning to work over the garden beds before it gets too hot. We get them planted out with new seeds for the summer. This should have been done a month or two ago, but we have only now just found the time. I haven’t had any spare time since I got busy in August, followed by my research trip to Korea and so on.

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We have harvested the garlic and onions to make room in some of the garden beds. The garlic is a bit disappointing this year, but the onions are fantastic. They have all done well, red, white and brown.

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They all need to be spread out and dried, before plaiting and hanging.
I stole this little piece of text below from one of Janine’s emails to one of our friends. Speaking of our chooks and the garden. I think that it sums up our time here just now.

Our ‘spice girls’ who we realise only come to us because there might be food for them. Otherwise they scour our block and so do we (looking for them) so cunning Mr Fox doesn’t have them for dinner.
Thankfully the days are a little cooler, for a little while. Summer is no longer my favourite season. But cherries and peaches are sweet, ripe and we eat our way through the ones we save from the birds – with all manner of nets, wires pegs and stalking.
There is no rest in paradise!

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It’s time to have some more different sorts of fun. Roll on summer!