Monday, 16 January 2017

Life, the Universe, and Yeast

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Life always presents mysteries. Like, the other night Scritchy (the boss dog) and I were walking around the house and I noticed that a tree frog was living under the house. The little eyes of the tree frog were staring at us both from behind the safety of the other side of some seriously tough stainless steel mesh. Alas, for poor Scritchy who has discerning tastes and would have enjoyed eating the tree frog! And after that initial tree frog discovery, I noticed that there was more than just one tree frog living under the house. It was a real mystery to me because the tree frogs were all on the other side of a 23mm (almost one inch thick) fire rated wall. And the tree frog looked to me as if it had been enjoying both second helpings and dessert!
A Southern Brown Tree Frog is sitting on the inside and looking out
And whilst we are discussing mysteries, the other evening I heard grunting and rustling sounds just outside the house. What could those noises possibly be? Two wallabies were having a punch up. That is what that sound was! I have seen larger marsupials such as the grey forest kangaroos having a punch up but I have never seen wallabies doing that silly business.

Grey Forest Kangaroos are very social creatures who normally live in large mobs and so the social hierarchy for them is a complex business and fights are a natural part of life in a mob. Wallabies are usually very independent creatures who travel alone and no doubt, the wallabies in this instance were fighting for access to the feed and territory here.
Two wallabies had a massive punch up just outside the house
The victor of that wallaby punch up took a minor break to lick its wounds and catch a deep breath. Meanwhile the editor and I got closer to the victorious wallaby so as to take a photo (for research purposes for the blog, of course).
The victorious wallaby took a minor break to lick its wounds and catch a deep breath
The victorious wallaby kept a close eye on the editor and I. And whilst the victorious wallaby was suitably distracted, the other wallaby saw opportunity and bounced out of the forest at high speed and jumped onto the victorious wallaby. It was total marsupial mayhem that evening! That also goes to prove that even marsupials adhere to the Klingon saying that: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”.

Unlike the two brawling wallabies I can alter the environment here in various ways so that nature produces different outputs from the outputs of the surrounding forest. And those two wallabies understood that the outputs here were worth fighting over.

Outputs are all well and good, but the question remains as to: How much output are you expecting nature to provide?

What I have realised about outputs from nature is that in order to obtain a reliable output from nature you have to consider the very worst case scenario that nature can throw at you. For example, I like apples, and who doesn’t like apples? Imagine for a second if I had only grown a single apple tree here at the farm and those two brawling wallabies crashed into that single apple tree and destroyed that single apple tree. In order to grow apples again, I would then have to wait many long years until a replacement apple tree had grown old enough before it then produced an adequate amount of apples for my consumption.
And I've discovered that every single system that relies on outputs supplied by nature works exactly like that! If you want to grow apple trees because you like eating home grown apples, don’t grow a single apple tree, instead grow as many apple trees as you can physically plant, otherwise sooner or later something will go wrong.

The same rule applies to electricity. If for example, you wanted to power your household using only the sun and photovoltaic (PV) panels, you have to have enough PV panels to get you through the cloudiest, rainiest, snowiest of the worst depths of winter, otherwise you are going to run out of electricity.

Another example is if you wanted to capture and store enough rainwater to supply all of your drinking water, household and garden requirements, then you have to have enough capture and storage to get you through the very hottest, most revolting, and sweatiest drought that you can imagine, otherwise you will eventually be thirsty and smelly.

Of course when I lived in the city, none of that was obvious to me. This may possibly have been because there were no brawling wallabies bouncing through my city garden! However, in the city if I was hungry I could easily walk down to the shops and purchase something to eat. If I wanted light switched on to brighten up a room, all I had to do was flick a switch and then the light switched on. If I felt thirsty and wanted to enjoy a drink of water all I had to do was turn the water tap on and out flowed quality drinking water.

What I have learned from living here is that nature works in ways that are inconceivable to people not used to supplying basic natural outputs for themselves.

The other thing to remember when outputs are limited, is that you don’t want to waste any of them. Indeed most outputs simply don’t go to waste here. Those outputs are generally the inputs for other projects or systems.

This week, the editor and I decided to remove some of the rocks in the paddock below the house that were sticking up out of the ground. What to do with the unwanted rocks?
Some of the large rocks sticking up out of the ground in the paddock below the house
It turns out that rocks are rather handy when they are used to fill up the new rock gabion project. Regular readers will recall that this project has been ongoing for the past few weeks. And since the farm has long since passed Peak Rocks (the point where all of the easy to obtain rocks have been reallocated and used in various projects) and we have to go further afield now to obtain new rocks, we thought to ourselves that we can take on these rocks in the paddock!

Six hours of work later involving the electric (solar powered) jackhammer and a rock breaking tip, we managed to remove all of the large rocks in the paddock below the house. Honestly using a jackhammer to break up solid rocks is very hard work (which is probably why rock breaking was used as penance in times past) and for the rest of the afternoon following that work I could still feel the jackhammer pulsing away – like a ghost feeling – in my arms.
Six hours of work removed all of the large rocks sticking out of the ground in the paddock below the house
The jackhammer was used to split the rocks into smaller and more manageable sized rocks. We then used a 6 foot long steel house wrecking bar to lever the now smaller rocks out of the ground. Even then some of the rocks were absolutely huge and weighed more than I do.
The author leans on the jackhammer and surveys some of the large rocks removed from the paddock
Observant readers will note that I am wearing a bee hat in the above photo. The purpose of that bee hat is not to keep bees off my face, but instead the broad brim of the hat assists with keeping the sun off my face whilst the mesh does the same thing for the pesky flies. It is a well known fact that a person cannot wield a jackhammer and swish flies away from their face at the same time!

The following day, we drove the little dirt rat of a Suzuki and the bright yellow trailer down the hill and into the paddock and used mushroom compost to fill up all of the holes left behind where the rocks once were. All of the rocks were then loaded onto the bright yellow trailer.

At that point we decided to drive the little dirt rat of a Suzuki back up the steep hill only to find that despite four wheel drive and low range gearing, the grass contained so much moisture that the little dirt rat of a Suzuki couldn’t make it back up the hill. The wheels spun on the damp green grass. Two of the largest rocks which we’d valiantly managed to load onto the bright yellow trailer had to be rolled back off the bright yellow trailer. In a pique of unhappiness, we rolled those two large rocks off and away down the hill. Alas poor rocks, I knew them well, but for a brief time.

After the two largest rocks were removed, the little dirt rat of a Suzuki managed to climb back up the hill without further incident. The output from that paddock clearing project (i.e. the rocks) then became the input for the rock gabion wall project.
The rocks which were removed from the paddock were then placed in the new rock gabion walls
The ground was quite damp on Friday as a slow storm had rolled over this corner of the continent and dumped some rain. During the storm we had the opportunity to observe how the drains which collect water from the many roofs for storage in water tanks were working. The drain which collects water off the firewood shed roof was allowing some water to fall onto the ground behind the firewood shed. This water was then slowly seeping into the firewood shed. That drain was repaired so that it now functions correctly.
The drain which collects water from the roof of the firewood shed was repaired
That firewood shed had been slowly emptied over the previous winter. We observed that the surface that the firewood sat on had also compacted over the past twelve months, possibly also contributing to the water flowing into the firewood shed. If that surface height was increased, it would be less likely that water would enter the firewood shed. We therefore added another half cubic metre (0.4 cubic yards) of the local crushed rock with lime to the surface.
Inside the firewood shed with the compacted surface prior to additional material being added so that the height would be increased
Once all of the minor alterations to the firewood shed were complete, we were then able to begin filling that shed with dried and seasoned firewood! One bright yellow trailer load of firewood later and the shed looks like this:
The firewood shed has now begun to be filled with summer dried and seasoned firewood
And just in case anyone was concerned, the wood ash from burning the firewood in the future will be added back onto the soil in the orchards (as a form of fertiliser).

I have a new hobby! I am slowly exploring the world of beer making from its very basics. And don’t let anyone tell you that making beer is a complex process because it is a very simple process which has been done by humans for many millennia. One of our first experiments is to make a version of millet beer known in Asia as Tongba!
We have begun making millet beer this week which is known in Asia as Tongba
The ongoing humid weather is clearly making the wallabies a bit grumpy, but the berry season has been better than I can recall and so this week we made a couple of demijohns of Strawberry wine. Strawberry wine is superb. Nuff said!
Strawberry wine is superb! Nuff said! So is pizza.
With country wines it is always interesting to see the yeasts irrupting (that is a fancy name for yeasts going on a massive sugar binge party) in the first day or so of the wine making process. The strawberry base made that yeast mess look like a strawberry meringue. I wouldn’t advise consuming it though, as that output is a job for the worms in the worm farm!
The yeasts in strawberry wine go feral and have a massive sugar rave/dance off
Oh, speaking of feral partying, the carrots have gone completely feral. Many years ago I let a carrot go to seed and now carrots turn up everywhere.
Carrots have gone completely feral
Pentstemon’s are producing beautiful flowers and the native blue banded bees and the honeyeaters really appreciate the nectar contained in the flowers.
Pentstemon’s are also going feral and producing beautiful flowers
The soapwort herb has just begun producing flowers over the past few days. In the photo below you can also see the white yarrow flowers which are to the left of the soapwort flowers:
The soapwort herb has just begun producing flowers over the past few days
Who doesn’t love foxglove flowers? I found this plant somewhere on a get rid of these plants table for a throw out price. Their outputs are my inputs and aren’t the colours superb too?
Who doesn’t love foxglove flowers?
The very first of the mint family plants to flower are oregano, and those plants flower their purple flowers for months. Plus the fresh leaves are excellent on pizza. Yum!
Oregano is now flowering this week
The award for the most pugnacious thing here at the farm doesn’t go to brawling wallabies, it actually goes to the zucchini / courgette plants who also take out the "Fernglade Farm Annual Triffid Award" (otherwise known as FATA) as they have doubled in size in just one week. Don’t turn your back on those plants or you may become the inputs to stuffed zucchini flowers!
zucchini / courgette plants who also take out the "Fernglade Farm Annual Triffid Award" (otherwise known as FATA)
The temperature outside now at about 8.00pm is 27’C (81’F). So far this year there has been 11.6mm (0.5 inches) which is up from last week’s total of 3.8mm (0.1 inches).

Monday, 9 January 2017

Grandmaster Fluff

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link:

A few days ago I had a bright idea for this week’s blog centred around the 1982 hip hop song “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I had intended to name this week’s blog “Grandmaster Fluff and the Fluffy Four”. The use of the words “Fluffy Four” in the blog title refers to the canines here. In my mind I felt that that particular blog story would have been quite amusing.

Then I read the lyrics to the hip hop song: “The Message”. I have total respect for Grandmaster Flash and his crew, because that song has some of the darkest lyrics and tells one of the darkest stories that I’ve read for quite a while. I remarked to the editor that there was no way I could do anything even remotely amusing with those lyrics and enquired as to whether she had any ideas. The editor took a look at the lyrics and rapidly came to the same conclusion that I did.

On the other hand, the lyrics in that hip hop song tell an interesting story and it is noticeable that the darkness and problems build for the protagonist in the song and story as the song continues. If a person was to view the lyrics and story as told in the hip hop song through the eyes of an ecologist, that person could sum up the issues raised as: Population Pressures (which I wrote about in Magical Christmas Unicorns, 19th December 2016); Fierce competition for limited resources; and the effects of Pollution. There is nothing even remotely amusing about any of those issues.

The day after quietly shelving that blog idea, the editor and I were repairing the storm damage (see last week’s blog) about the farm. To take my mind off the hot summer conditions whilst I worked, I often have the radio playing quietly in the background. Working out in the summer sun down here is like working under a radiator. Sometimes the summer air temperature can be cool, but despite that the unrelenting sun (with the Extreme UV rays) bakes your skin. And when the sun shows its face from behind the clouds, for some reason, the common house flies dance and dart around your face annoying you.

So, the radio and its music is a good distraction whilst we worked in the hot summer sun. And earlier this week I heard the 2009 song “Underdog” by the band Kasabian. I thought to myself, there is the song for the blog story, but what should this week’s story be about? In a strange coincidence, the ever helpful editor then quipped: “Why don’t you write a story about poo? Everyone loves poo stories!”

Fate had stepped in and this week’s blog story was saved! 

Without further ado, here is a story about poo!

“Kill me if you dare, hold my head up everywhere
Keep myself right on this train
I'm the underdog, live my life on a lullaby
Keep myself riding on this train”

Alert readers will recall the earlier reference to the “Fluffy Four” which is a satirical reference to the farm dogs. Those dogs eat a lot of food, most of which I make from scratch. In fact one of them is pestering me for his dinner right now. Can you guess which is the beast that is pestering me? Ha! It is Poopy the Pomeranian (clever readers will by now know that he is actually a Swedish Lapphund) who is pestering me for his dinner.

As is the way of things, food passing through an animal soon becomes poo. And four fluffy’s can generate a lot of poo. In fact each fluffy produces around three poos per day. That's twelve a day, or eighty four per week or four thousand, three hundred and eighty per year in a non-leap year (for the numerically inclined).

As a bit of a confession about the dog’s poo which may horrify some readers: I haven’t picked up or disposed of any dog poo for well over a decade now, really since moving to the country. In complete contrast to this disregard for the dogs poo here, if I was to do the same thing in a city environment, that would one be the most outrageous and discourteous behaviour to my fellow humans. Imagine for a brief moment the huge mess caused by a city's dogs inhabitants if lots of people did not bother picking up that dog poo (the technical name for this act is Population Pressure and Pollution)! If that was the case, you certainly wouldn’t be able to walk more than a few metres without stepping on a steamer. I don’t recall that Grandmaster Flash used that particular example of Population Pressure and Pollution in the hip hop song although he did mention other bodily functions. He certainly could have mentioned the outrage of dog poo left on the stairs!

A city may be an interesting place, but when it comes to examining the diversity of life within its boundaries, a city is a very simple ecosystem. In contrast, a farm that encourages a diverse range of wildlife is a very complex ecosystem. And here, many of the diverse species of birds that call this farm home realise that dog poo is an excellent food source.
One of the crimson rosellas tucking into a fresh dog poo
“Tell me if you're down, throw your weapons to the ground
Keep myself right on this train
Hey bird you're on the wire, sold yourself for another one
Keep myself riding on this train”

A dog poo – or any other animal poo for that matter – will not last more than a day here as many of the diverse bird species that live on the farm are very aware of these “resource patties” and competition for that limited resource is fierce! And the beautiful thing is that the birds in their own time will produce guano (which is the fancy name for bird poo) and deposit that randomly throughout the farm and surrounding forest. And best of all I haven’t had to lift a single finger to encourage this random movement of minerals (which is what poo is in its most basic form) around the farm. It is also worth mentioning that bird poo is a very good soil enhancer and plant food.

Saturday night was the warmest overnight minimum temperature since 1997. It sure is getting hot down here, and when I woke up this morning to a house which was warmer than I can ever recall, the weather station was showing that the inside temperature of the house was the same as the outside temperature at 24’C (75’F).
Sunday morning was the warmest overnight low temperature that I can recall
We don’t let a bit of hot weather stop the continuing projects and juggernaut that is Fernglade Farm! However, the storm last week sure did exactly that, and we have spent most of this week repairing that storm damage.

“Love in Technicolor sprayed out on walls
Well, I've been pounding at the pavement till there's nothing at all
I got my cloak and dagger in a bar room brawl
See the local loves a fighter, loves a winner to fall”

The little dirt rat that is the trusty and now 13 year old Suzuki Vitara has been bringing up many loads of the local crushed rock with lime back up the hill over the past week in order to repair storm damage.
The little old Suzuki dirt rat has been bringing loads of the local crushed rock with lime back up the hill this week to repair storm damage
All of the local crushed rock with lime is moved from the trailer by wheelbarrow and then raked flat using a normal garden rake. Once the local crushed rock with lime has been raked flat, water is then sprayed onto that area and the lime quickly sets firm in the hot summer sun. Over the past week we closely observed where the various systems failed during the storm and have used the repairs as an opportunity to correct those failings.
The local crushed rock with lime is placed over storm damaged areas and then raked flat
The area around the new rock gabions also received a good coating of the local crushed rock with lime so as to ensure that any future rainfall flows away from that wood shed.
The local crushed rock with lime was placed around the new rock gabions to ensure that rainfall that collects on the ground flows away from that wood shed
Earlier in the week, the tree dudes who assist me with work around the farm from time to time were scratching around for paid work one day and so they made a surprise visit here. I got them to cut up a massive fallen branch which took them a couple of hours of work. Observant readers may note in the next photo below that the tree that the massive limb fell from is absolutely huge and may well pre-date European settlement.
The tree dudes helped by cutting a massive fallen limb into firewood lengths
The editor made another batch of olive oil soap!
Another batch of olive oil soap was produced this week
This summer has been great for the various berries which are grown here. In about ten minutes of work earlier in the week we picked a plate of black currants, jostaberries, gooseberries, and the very first of this seasons blueberries. All of those berries, along with the red currants picked two weeks ago (which were stored in the refrigerator) were converted into fruit wine which should be able to be consumed next summer!
We picked black currants, jostaberries, gooseberries, and the very first of this seasons blueberries this week
The older raspberry plants are now producing some very tasty fruit. And readers may be surprised to know that so far this season I have not watered these berry canes at all.
The raspberries are starting to ripen
The blueberry crop is also starting to slowly become ripe. Each year brings a slightly bigger crop of tasty blueberries.
Each year brings slightly more tasty blueberries
This season, the apple trees seem to be producing a bumper crop. It is a real pleasure to walk around the orchard and watch the apples become larger with each day that passes.
The apple trees seem to be producing a bumper crop
The Asian nashi pears are really enjoying the combination of hot weather and regular rainfall and the trees are growing very strongly this year and the pears have also been swelling in size.
Asian nashi pears are really enjoying the combination of hot weather and regular rainfall this summer
Today, we cleared a raised bed of broad beans. Originally they were planted almost two months late and that has not seemed to make any difference to the crop. They are an interesting plant in that the plant itself falls over (the fancy word for this is: to lodge) and the large and heavy seeds are scattered ever further away from the original plant. Thus that plant is able to walk across a landscape over successive plant generations.
We cleared a raised bed of broad bean plants today
Clearing the broad bean bed was a quick and easy job. Stripping the broad bean plants of their pods and then shelling the pods is not a quick and easy job. We worked through about a third of that shelling job today.
About a third of the shelling job for the broad beans was done today
The last of the rocket and green mustard plants were also cleared today and the dry seed capsules were harvested and put aside to dry. In the foreground of the next photo are the cucumber plants, some of which are purchased seedlings, whilst the others were raised from saved seed.
Mustard seeds were collected today and the cucumbers plants are now growing strongly
The zucchini (courgette) plants have almost doubled in size over the past week. In the next photo below observant readers will also be able to spot the many basil plants and one rather large coriander plant which is in flower.
Zucchini (courgette) plants have almost doubled in size over the past week
The tomatoes have grown massively over the past few weeks and soon I will have to fence them so as to stop the plants from sprawling all over the ground. In the next photo in the lowest row closest to the camera, the sweet Siberian melons are growing. In the middle row you can see the capsicum (peppers) growing. Whilst on the highest row the miniature eggplants are enjoying the hot conditions.
Tomato cam shows that the tomatoes need to be fenced over the next week, or the vines will sprawl all over the place
The diversity of life here is quite amazing and a few nights ago I spotted a very small baby Southern Brown Tree frog catching insects on the side of the house.
A very small baby Southern Brown Tree frog catches insects on the side of the house
That night there was also a really cool looking brown / green insect wandering around on the veranda.
A really cool looking brown / green insect was wandering around on the veranda
Just before we end the blog for this week, I thought that I should chuck in some flower photos from random spots about the farm:
The herb Feverfew is in full flower this week
A ten year old olive tree has an understory of olive herb and ladies bedstraw herb both of which are in flower
Hydrangea’s put on a good show of blue flowers as seen through an old and tall fennel plant
Who doesn’t like the look of the flowers from the edible globe artichoke plant?
“It don't matter, I won't do what you say
You've got the money and the power, I won't go your way
I can't take from the people, they don't matter at all
I'll be waiting in the shadows till the day that you fall”

Some regular commenters are occasionally concerned that the editor and I work too hard. Just to put that concern to rest, I thought that it would be nice to include a photo of me in my regular coffee spot enjoying a latte and a homemade Anzac biscuit in the shade at the end of a work day!
The author and three fluffy's enjoying a latte and homemade Anzac biscuit at the end of a hot work day

The temperature outside now at about 8.00pm is 26’C (79’F). So far this year there has been 3.8mm (0.1 inches). The half inch of rainfall that hit the farm last week was missed by the official weather station as it was a very localised storm event.