Monday, 19 June 2017

Bring me my Chariot of fire

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Continuing my previous school tales:- The more English than the English high school, where I was unceremoniously transferred as a teenager, practiced compulsory sports for all students. Since I enjoyed distance running anyway, I joined the schools distance running team. The running team trained after school two nights per week and then competed all over the countryside on Saturdays. That school managed to consume a lot of my previously “free” time. Fortunately that loss of free time did not hinder my little capitalist ways, and I was able to continue working paid jobs. Unfortunately that meant that I had to get up earlier in the mornings for the daily newspaper rounds, and I hate early mornings!

Back in those days marketing was less sophisticated than it is today. A good example of that is that 'Way Back Then', adults used to lie to kids and tell them that they could 'Do Anything'. Competing in the sport of running, proves just how preposterous that lie is because there is always someone who is faster, or who can run further, than you. And it just doesn't matter what you or your parents may believe about potential running performance because every single week the placement results gave you a reality smack in the head!

Fortunately, such concerns were far from my mind because I was the second fastest runner in the school. The kid that was the fastest runner in the school was marginally faster than I was, but I knew deep down that he was just a better runner. Being a better runner, he never had any serious concerns about his hard won status as the best runner in the school. However for me, I discovered that being second best in anything is a cool place to be, because there is absolutely no pressure to constantly perform at your best. And who performs at their best all of the time? Especially first thing in the morning.

My favourite distance to run was 10km (6.2 miles) but I also occasionally ran 20km (12.4 miles). Over such distances, you get to enjoy a lot of free time in your own mind. Sometimes I used to sing songs in my mind that set a good cadence, and to me the experience is a lot like meditation. As a minor digression, in later years I was rather fond of the artist Moby's song, Bodyrock which had a thumping dance beat which suited my running pace. I have heard that some people struggle with that lack of noise when they are running (and swimmers too), but I am quite comfortable with the quiet of my own mind. As another interesting side story, the editor and I once walked a 130km (80 mile) forest walk over five days in the south west of this state carrying all our own gear on our backs. We headed off on that long walk with great expectations that we’d somehow have awesome thoughts and insights, but no, nothing materialised. Mostly I was thinking about when the next chocolate snack would be. And more importantly which chocolate snack would it be (edit: Chris always got the Turkish Delight because I didn't like it, but I told him that I saved it especially for him as a treat!) I reckon my time would have been better spent down at the local pub enjoying a tasty meal and a full pint of dessert stout! 

Some cheeky wag penned a story many long years ago about an anthromorphised tortoise racing an anthromorphised hare. The tortoise won that race against the much faster hare in what was an unlikely outcome. Clearly the author knew a thing or two about distance running, because a runner has to pace themselves and take into account their abilities and limitations. Over the long years of running, I knew many runners who like the hare, bolted away from the start line early and hard. However, after a short while, those hares were surprisingly easy for me to chase down as they ran out of puff (usually very early on). The tortoise’s strategy however, produces consistently good results. It is a bit of a shame that few people these days want to be identified as a tortoise. I'd be happy to be known as the little tortoise that could (clearly a pint of very excellent dessert stout may assist that imagery)!

Anyway, the more English than the English school trained me well for the workplace because a lot of big organisations have surprisingly competitive cultures. And many of those workplaces have lunchtime running teams which compete against other workplaces. I have spent many lunchtimes running around Melbourne’s botanic gardens. Some people may know Melbourne’s botanical gardens as a delightful historical garden with which to spend a few pleasant hours. I on the hand recall that botanical garden as being surrounded by a gruelling and fast paced running track (with an steep incline at one point) where corporate folks compete against each other for bragging rights. One year, the team that I was running for won. Just saying... (not that I'm competitive. Whatever!)

Over the years, I began running with older people (easier to win!!!) as part of the corporate world so I got to know plenty of them pretty well. I also noticed that a lot of them were showing signs of wear and tear from all that running, and it started me thinking about the process of entropy, and I was forced to consider my own future response to all of that wear and tear.

So it was that one day many years later, I found myself in the physiotherapists clinic seeking help for knee problems. That event was a turning point in my life, and I knew I had to let the sport of running go before it consumed me.

This week we have begun the process of expanding the berry and tomato enclosures. Wallabies are a local marsupial akin to a slightly smaller kangaroo and they love to eat all of the plants in those enclosures. Keeping them out requires some heavy duty fencing materials as they are quite shifty. Heavy duty fencing support materials means in this case, large treated pine posts cemented into the ground. Anything lesser than those posts and the wallabies can push the fencing over. They are a truly fearsome beast!
We sourced treated pine posts and cement which will be used to expand the berry and tomato enclosures
Installing the treated pine posts which are cemented into the ground means digging holes where the posts will be located. I use my hand auger for digging holes in the clay, and that tool produces a surprisingly clean and deep hole. Of course turning the hand auger takes a fair bit of effort on my part, but I find the physical work to be quite rewarding.
A hand auger is used to dig nice round deep holes for the treated pine posts
The hand auger also cleverly compacts the clay soil inside the auger where it can be lifted cleanly from the hole and relocated elsewhere. I usually dump the clay into a crate which I then carry to another location to use as fill.
The hand auger can also be used to cleverly lift the clay from the hole
Six of the treated pine posts were placed in the holes next to the berry enclosure and then they were cemented into place. Observant readers will note in the next photo that the treated pine posts are a lot higher than they need to be. These posts will be cut down to a height which is consistent with the other fence posts in the future. Readers concerned about any potential waste will be pleased to learn that nothing goes to waste here and we have a future project in mind for those treated pine off cuts.
Six of the treated pine posts were then placed in the holes and the cemented into place
Another two posts were placed into holes and cemented into a garden bed today. One of the posts will be used to relocate a garden tap which is currently located in the walking path. The other post will be used to anchor a bushfire sprinkler. Incidentally the post that has the garden tap will also have a hose hanger to get the 30m / 100ft hose / trip hazard, off the walking path.
Two other posts were cemented into a garden bed so as to remove a water tap from the path and also to anchor a bushfire sprinkler
Unfortunately, the 12 Volt water pump which is used to pump water to that particular garden tap and bushfire sprinkler failed today without warning. So far I have tried about five different types of 12 Volt water pumps and other than one particular water pump which is performing very well, I am reasonably unimpressed with the other types of 12 Volt water pumps in terms of their quality and longevity. The water pump story is quite a frightening one, because every time I upgrade a water pump, the cost doubles over that of the previous water pump. On the other hand, if the water pumps don't work, they are a complete waste of money.

We adjusted the rocks in the garden bed below the berry enclosure and next to the machinery shed. The reason for that adjustment is that some of the soil had been washing off the garden bed and flowing over the rocks holding back that soil. The original rock wall was placed too close to the sloping garden bed to be effective in holding the soil in place. All of the rocks were moved away from the slope of the garden bed by about 25cm / 10 inches so that a more defined lip would catch any falling soil.
The rocks in the rock wall below the berry enclosure were moved further away from the slop to provide a more defined lip
A good dose of composted woody mulch was then applied to that steep garden bed. Previously we had applied a layer of mushroom compost. However over time, we observed that composted woody mulch is a much better material for a steep garden beds as it initially produces a waxy substance which binds the composted woody mulch together. This waxy substance stops the top soil from sliding off a steep garden bed. Mushroom compost on the other hand produces fines which get washed downhill, only to end up on the walking path.
A good dose of composted woody mulch was then applied to that steep garden bed
Water is everything here and I noticed that a garden hose which was 30m / 100ft long had developed cracks and was in danger of failing. Anticipating that this may have had unpredictable and very wet consequences for the editor who may have been using the hose at the time, I took action! This is not a good situation for me and so the failing hose was replaced. It is interesting to me that the original hose was only slightly more than ten years old, but the UV in the summer sun here is quite extreme and it breaks materials down very quickly. Anyway, as hoses have been failing over time, I have been replacing them with more durable hoses that can be expected to have a much longer life than ten years.
A failing hose was replaced with a more durable hose this week
Observant readers will note that in the photo way way way above of the expanding the berry bed, a raised potato bed was in the process of being dismantled. And that means fresh home grown potatoes were harvested from the soon to be completely dismantled raised garden bed. Yum!
We have been harvesting home grown potatoes (and baking bread)
The citrus trees produce well during the winter here although they have been very slow to ripen for some reason this year. The first grapefruit for the season is almost ripe, and look at how many more fruit are on that tree.
The first grapefruit for the season is almost ripe
And I leave you with some lovely winter flower photos from about the farm:
African daisies put on a good show
I believe this is some sort of native fireweed which a daisy (Senecio)
The temperature outside now at about 8.30pm is 9’C (48’F). So far this year there has been 397.0mm (15.6 inches) which is more than last week’s total of 394.8mm (15.5 inches).

Monday, 12 June 2017

Courting trouble

We have to take a short detour from the story of the previous two weeks because it is now less than a week and half to the winter solstice (in the Southern Hemisphere at least).

For about a month either side of the winter solstice, my mind reflects upon the deficiencies of the off grid solar power system here. Don’t get me wrong, I love solar energy as it is a great source of electricity. It just happens to be subject to some deficiencies which generally show up at this time of year.

Some of those deficiencies are site specific because the farm is on a south western facing slope of the mountain range. During winter this side of the mountain range enjoys less sun than on the north facing slopes (the reverse is true in the Northern Hemisphere). Perhaps this is why it is less fashionable than the other side!

The tall trees surrounding the farm also grow ever taller each year, and the slightest shadow on a solar photovoltaic panel (we’ll just call them solar panels from here on) reduces the electrical output of that solar panel far more than would seem likely.

The final deficiency is that the weather is usually cloudy and rainy during winter. Those weather conditions are normal for this time of year, but any cloud at all will reduce the output of a solar panel, and very thick clouds can reduce the output to almost nothing at all.

The other day, I looked out the window and saw this view:
A winter view looking over the valley towards the central highlands
For about a month either side of the winter solstice I anxiously watch the weather and the weather forecast and hope that I never have to use the petrol generator (gas for people living in the US) to put some electrical charge into the house batteries.

“I fall apart when you’re around
When you're here, I'm nowhere
I can't pretend that I'm not down
I show it I know it”

Years ago I set myself the goal of living with an off grid solar power system and not using the petrol generator. During those early years I heaped truck loads of beliefs onto the ability of solar panels to produce lots of electricity, whilst the batteries would be able to provide that electricity whenever I needed it.

I began my off grid solar power journey with only eight panels. Let’s say that once the merest sniff of winter arrived (it was actually only very early autumn) in those early days, I ran out of power very quickly.

“I've been a fool, more than once, more than twice
I'm gonna move to a new town where the people are nice”

Running out of power was the point in time that I discovered my ill feelings towards petrol generators. I originally purchased a quality generator, but I accidentally blew up the main capacitor inside the generator (my fault) during those early days. This disaster happened just prior to the Easter holiday that year. I took the generator to the shop for repairs. The generator was repaired easily enough, but I didn’t gain access to the repaired generator until after the Easter holidays. And every day the charge in batteries went lower and lower. The batteries eventually got to about as low as 30% full.

Batteries are funny things because if you want them to last for a very long time, you basically can’t use them much. In practical terms, not using batteries much means not taking them below about 70% full. Also when the charge in batteries gets very low, the battery may not necessarily supply the sorts of power that electricity intensive machines (such as coffee machines with a heating element) require. Not supplying the editor with a morning coffee is definitely courting trouble. It would be trouble with me too!

Long term readers will recall that in previous years I have had access to a wood fired oven. Due to the recent change in wood heaters, I now no longer have access to a wood fired oven with which to cook. Instead I have been using the electric oven (and occasionally the gas LPG oven). My electricity demands have increased recently due to the loss of that wood oven, and the other day the editor came up with a genius idea: Add more solar panels!

“I hope I never, I hope I never have to sigh again
I hope I never, I hope I never have to cry again
I still want to beam and smile yeah
Happiness is back in style yeah”

Every year, we have made incremental improvements to the off grid solar power system. However, this year we intend to add five more solar panels to the system. This will bring the total number of installed solar panels to thirty. I have been told by a reliable source that the theoretical upper limit for solar panels in my off grid system is about fifty. Neither the editor, nor I have any intention of reaching that upper limit as there are significant diminishing returns to adding additional solar panels. And you have to remember that we are only seeking to use about 7kWh to 8kWh per day during this time of year. This expectation is far below the average daily household electricty usage in Australia. I really worry about people who promote solar power as a reliable replacement for base load electricity provided by coal fired (and their other ilk) power stations.

We’ve descended into a serious discussion here, so I thought that I’d lighten the mood by showing a photo of a very cool looking cloud which captured the light of the setting sun the other day.
A cool looking cloud catches the setting sun the other day. People with active imaginations may be able to see the form of a rabbit in that cloud
In order to connect up four of the five new solar panels, I had to run a very thick cable underground in a trench. But first, that long 30m / 100ft trench had to be dug by hand through the editors beautiful courtyard and beyond. Oops! Talk about courting trouble!
A long 30m / 100ft trench had to be dug by hand through the editors beautiful courtyard and beyond
“It should be possible I know
To see you without stress
But I can see I'll have to go”

Fortunately the destination for that long trench was in a more utilitarian area than the courtyard.
The other end of the long trench eventually reached its destination
Anyway, the technical side of things is that with a longer cable run generally the thicker cable has to be. Thinner cables lose electricity to heat. Electricity, from my perspective, seems to be like trying to store water in a leaky bucket. Seriously, the electricity just disappears everywhere. I have to laugh when people suggest that we should cover the deserts with solar panels as they don’t realise that deserts tend to be a long way from anywhere with good coffee, and transmitting that electricity from such a great distance is a difficult and expensive business. They may also have forgotten that high temperatures in deserts tend to reduce the output from solar panels. Plus they also make the assumption that nothing lives in the desert that may also want to use that sun.
The author holds a very heavy run of long cables
It is not all work here, as sometimes we just muck around, and the other afternoon whilst installing the long cable, I gave Scritchy the boss dog a scare from under the house.
The author scares Scritchy the boss dog from under the house
The cable was then enclosed by conduit to protect it. Then the area where the trench was dug was repaired. See how I avoid trouble with the editor: Clean up after yourself!
The fluffy collective enjoyed a few moments of mid-winter sun on the recently repaired courtyard
I then added a layer of crushed rock with lime over the top of the repaired surface in the courtyard. And you would never know what lies far beneath the surface! In addition to that, I added the first of the five solar panels to the off grid solar power system. That solar panel is on the very left hand side of the white cantina shed.
The surface of the courtyard was soon repaired and almost looking exactly as it used to look
Far out, that was a lot of work this week. Still, I hope I never have to see that generator again!

“I'm for living while you can
I'm an optimistic man
I hope I never, I hope I never have to see you again
Again, oh oh oh oh...”

We added some new ferns to the developing fern gully. The fern gully is important as it is placed high up at the top of the sunny orchard and the fern gully is used to infiltrate water into the soil which is collected from a huge expanse of the road. Eventually that collected water will travel downhill through the soil and be available to the sunny orchard. That’s the plan anyway…
Several more tree ferns and a couple of Blackwoods (Acacia Melanoxylon) were purchased this week
I reckon the fern gully is looking pretty good. The tree ferns will get taller as the years go on and the other ferns will spread to cover the area.
I reckon the fern gully is looking pretty good
Poopy rat bane proves that he is the fastest Pomeranian (technically he is a Sweedish Lapphund) down under as he can catch and kill rats. You go, Poopy! (edit: perhaps he found it already dead and is just a great salesman.)
Poopy rat bane proves that he is the fastest Pomeranian (technically a Sweedish Lapphund) down under
We harvested and cooked some beets this week. In the photo below on the left is a beetroot which has purple flesh. On the right in the photo below is a sugar beet which has 20% sugar and is very sweet.
We harvested and cooked beetroot and sugar beet this week
The Medlars are slowly being converted into medlar jelly. Whilst we were purchasing tree ferns, we also picked up many seedling potatoes for planting out later in the season. And the purple leaves from the beetroot were used to make a very tasty pesto (which is in the little bowl in the photo below):
Medlar jelly is being produced. Seedling potatoes were bought. And beetroot leaves were used to make a tasty pesto
Concerned readers may wonder and yes I have to admit that I feel like I have done a hard few days of work this week. With that in mind and in order to lift our spirits, I present you with some flowers which I spotted today:
A mysterious daisy is enjoying the winter weather
The succulents are also loving the winter weather
The geraniums flower all year around here, although the flowers are more prolific in the warmer months
Penstemon’s are still flowering which seems very late to me
I noticed that a Feverfew herb appears to have hybridised and produced this strange flower
I really do hope that I don’t have to use that generator again!

The temperature outside now at about 7.00pm is 9’C (48’F). So far this year there has been 394.8mm (15.5 inches) which is more than last week’s total of 385.8mm (15.2 inches).

With the greatest of respects for the excellent New Zealand punk band "Split Enz" for their 1980 song "I hope I never" which was used in the story this week. As an interesting side note Tim Finn of that band is brother to Neil Finn who was the lead singer of the enormously successful band "Crowded House".