Monday, 25 May 2015

Predictive text


Some of the trees here are massive. Near the recently constructed wood shed is a medium sized Eucalyptus Obliqua tree which most likely germinated after the 1939 bushfires. That dates the tree at about 75 years of age. There are many trees here that are much bigger and older again, but this particular tree is the one of the largest trees close to any buildings on the farm. 
Big tree close to the newly constructed wood shed

A week or so ago, there was a bit of lively discussion amongst the commenters about all things relating to Eucalyptus trees. One point that was raised was that Eucalyptus trees have a habit of dropping limbs without warning. Well, I’m not saying that the particular discussion put the “kiss of death” on my brand new wood shed and water tank – but it was a close thing.

One morning I awoke to see this (and it wasn’t even remotely windy, just wet):
A large limb fell from a nearby Eucalyptus tree almost destroying the new water tank
Looking at the above photo of the tree that is still standing, you can get a good feeling for just how high that branch fell from! I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be underneath that branch when it fell.

It was a bit of a week of dramas because not only did the chainsaw and push mower both decide that crucial parts would break, but two of the dogs disappeared off into the forest one cold night.

There are no fences here and the orchard backs onto tall Eucalyptus forest. The dogs rarely leave the clearing that is the farm. Mostly the here dogs patrol the forest edge, sit in the sun enjoying themselves, keep the wildlife off the orchard during the day, and have a good bark to alert me of the presence of a person unknown to them. My expectations of the dogs’ behaviour are certainly not onerous and they themselves perform useful functions on the farm and everyone seems to be generally happy with the arrangement.

Toothy the dog is a long haired Dachshund which is a breed that was bred to scent, chase, and flush out burrow-dwelling animals. Toothy is also originally a rescue dog from the Lost Dogs Home and I was originally unaware of this particular breed trait. Well, there are plenty of animals in the surrounding forest that enjoy living in burrows. Burrow dwelling animals here include wombats, foxes, snakes and rabbits. With the exception of the rabbits, the other three animals could easily injure, maim or kill a long haired Dachshund. And, Toothy knows that risk.

Toothy, being the intelligent creature that he is minimises his risk during such extra-curricular adventures by employing some friendly dog muscle to back him up. This is where Poopy the very large Pomeranian comes into the story.

Pomeranian breeds are generally intelligent dogs, with an unusual and perverse streak of wilfulness. They also tend to be quite courageous beyond their stature – some may even say foolhardy.

It was a lovely late Autumn day and the sun was shining and there was not even the hint of a breeze. The call of the burrow became too much for Toothy and somehow he convinced Poopy to go a-hunting off and away into the surrounding forest.

Both Poopy and Toothy know, based on past experience that they’ll be in serious trouble if they head off into the surrounding forest on a long dog adventure. That is why they are never allowed out of the house together. But somehow on that sunny afternoon they managed to get their first opportunity in years outside together and so off they went. It was like a scene from the film “Top Gun” where the maverick pilot is explaining his unrepentant actions away to a superior officer: “I saw my opportunity and took it”.

Once realisation had dawned on us, there wasn’t much we could do but wait for their return. It was the usual weekend afternoon: bird calls, trail bikes and the distant sound of the occasional gun shot. The sun eventually set and the clear night skies caused the temperature to drop to as low as 1.4’C (34.5’F). A massive shooting star even fell from the sky into the valley below leaving a smoke trail behind it whilst it broke up into several chunks.

Then at about 8pm, Poopy returned looking very dispirited and with a limp. Needless to say he was immediately nabbed and thrown into the dog enclosure where he skulked into his kennel looking very dejected. The cheeky minx wanted his dinner too. I don’t think so!

Toothy on the other hand was nowhere to be seen. Given Poopy’s general hang-dog vibe and Toothy’s absence, I concluded that Toothy had come to an unpleasant end somewhere out in the forest. It didn’t help that calling for him by his name didn’t produce any sound or his presence. And the forest was unusually quiet that evening except for the nearby call of a very large Powerful Owl.

I started to get a bit concerned at that point and got into the car a drove around the nearby roads on the off chance that I could hear a distressed dog call. A few dogs in the valley below were incessantly barking and the occasional fox and cubs call could be heard somewhere off in the forest, but Toothy has a distinctive voice and that was as absent as he was.

After I returned home, I grabbed Poopy and put him on a lead, grabbed some provisions, a compass and headed off into the surrounding forest to see whether we could track Toothy. Poopy was instructed to go find Toothy and he took me to a couple of wombat holes which I’d previously been unaware of. He even sat down near one wombat hole surrounded by tall trees with an understory of ferns and continued his unhappy look. All Poopy really wanted to do was go home back to his warm kennel, and maybe some dinner. So we trudged back home through the cold, dark tall forest dejected and accepted the fact that Toothy had come to a nasty end.

It is worth mentioning that wombats are the equivalent of an armoured personnel carrier because they have a very hard plate along their spine. Wombats live in burrows and they have never been troubled by dogs or foxes because they can use their hard plates to simply squash foxes or dogs against the roof of their burrows. The average wombat is a formidable creature and it is little wonder that they are spread right across this continent.

After what had seemed like hours searching for the recidivist dog Toothy on a very cold and dark night, I went to bed feeling pretty unhappy that I would no longer enjoy his companionable presence.

At about 1.30am, the little tip rat (Toothy) decided that the surrounding forest wasn’t really as nice as a warm hearth, a good meal, dry clean fur and companions and decided to make his presence known by stomping around on the veranda and waking me up. I was truly glad to see that he made his way back home again.
The prodigal dogs return, Poopy and Toothy both return for a solid feeding and warm bed
Back to farm news. Now that the firewood shed has been completed and is about 5/12th full of firewood, I commenced building the rock walls around that shed. Some of those rocks weighed more than I do, and they act as a retaining wall between the machinery shed and the firewood shed.
Construction starts on the retaining wall between the machinery shed and the firewood shed
In the photo above, you can see that I’ve recently also obtained several security screen doors for the forthcoming reconstruction of the chicken shed and enclosure project. The screen doors were purchased at the local tip shop for about $25 each and one of them would have originally cost many hundreds of dollars to produce! I was quite astounded when I stumbled across that particular security door and wondered why the person would have originally disposed of it? Still, it is their loss as it will look very impressive on the chicken run (and most importantly, it will be reasonably rat proof)!

Over the weekend I also had to travel to a nearby town to collect the corrugated sheet steel for the forthcoming chicken shed and enclosure project. A bulk lot of the recycled sheet steel was available for purchase there, and given the difficulty of obtaining second hand steel for the recent wood shed project, I thought that it would be best to strike whilst the iron is hot, as they say (no pun intended).
Corrugated sheet steel waits to be installed on the forthcoming new chicken enclosure and run project
As the new chicken run and enclosure has yet to be commenced many of the current chicken system failings are only too obvious to me. The recent heavy rainfall has caused the deep litter mulch in the chicken run to become very congealed due to excessive quantities of chicken manure (nitrogen and phosphate). Chickens like to scratch and at the same time produce a nitrogen rich fertiliser, so to rectify this problem, I dumped a half cubic metre (0.7 cubic yards) of composted woody mulch into their run today. Hopefully (soil geek alert!), excellent soil will eventuate.
Half a cubic metre of woody composted mulch was brought into the chicken run today
Very observant readers will note that in the photo above, Scritchy the boss dog – who is very unimpressed with either Toothy and Poopy and his bitten them on many recent occasions just to let her displeasure be known – is circling around the chicken run doing her best to assist with the application of woody mulch. Big Plymie the very large Plymouth Rock chicken looks as though she wants nothing more than to eat Scritchy the boss dog and that is pretty much how life on a farm goes. Also, is it my imagination or do chickens always look mildly angry?

I don’t usually mention this but at least one day per week of my time is spent reducing the amount of fallen forest litter in and around the surrounding forest. It is a big job. Given the uncertainty surrounding recent predictions for the forthcoming El Nino, the state government has this week commenced a very large burn off within the nearby forest and that is perhaps the first within my memory. Even some of the larger land holders are taking cleanup action.
Today a large land owner on the edge of the forest here below commenced a massive burn off
Plants always tend to adapt to changing environments and climate and it is interesting to note that one of the rhododendron plants here has produced several stunning flowers on the eve of winter.  They usually flower in spring.
A rhododendron plant has unusually produced a flower on the eve of winter
Apologies everyone, but I’ve written so much on this week’s blog that I’ve run out of writing time so we’ll get back to the house construction thread on next week’s blog. Promise!

The temperature outside here at about 8.45pm is 7.2 degrees Celsius (45.0’F). So far this year there has been 310.6mm (12.2 inches) of rainfall which is up from last week's total of 285.6mm (11.2 inches).

Monday, 18 May 2015

Pole Position



Ahh, autumn, ‘tis the season for the smell of: wood smoke! Occasionally on a fine sunny day on a weekend during the seasons of autumn, winter and spring I can look down into the valley below from this eagle’s eyrie and it can look as if every man and their dog are having a burn off. In fact sometimes I wonder whether Tolkien’s mythical land of Mordor had as many fires as can be seen around these parts during some weekends.

The Bureau of Meteorology has predicted that the coming summer here will be an El Nino summer, which may possibly mean hotter and drier conditions, so I (and whole lot of other people) have been wisely collecting and burning off accumulated combustible materials in the surrounding forest and burning them off. The theory behind the burning off is that should a wild fire sweep through the area, there will be less combustible fuels, therefore any fire will be at a lower temperature and the very old eucalyptus trees (which can reach several hundred years of age) will have a far greater chance of surviving the fires. The birds, marsupial bats, sugar gliders, possums etc. only live on the very large and very old trees because they have hollows. As an interesting side note, hollows on the very large and old eucalyptus trees are created because branches have dropped off them at some stage in the past. Such events are an opportunity for a diverse range of animals and birds to set up house in the eucalyptus trees. It is interesting to note that very young eucalyptus forests are very quiet forests!
Smoke from many burn offs rise up in the valley below
One thing that eucalyptus forests produce in humungous quantities is quality firewood. And Scritchy the boss dog at the farm here often takes advantage of that produce as she exerts her perquisites. This means that she can “cook her head” on cold nights in pole position on the toasty tiles in front of the wood fire.
Scritchy the boss dog “cooks her head” in pole position in front of the wood fire
Observant readers will also note that not only is a Scritchy cooking, but there is also a tub of yoghurt happily cooking away, as well as 50 litres of various future brews bubbling in that excess forest heat.

If the dogs here ever had to scramble for raw survival, I suspect that they’d be alright. For example, Sir Scruffy who is the largest dog here and is fed only as much as the much smaller Scritchy the boss dog is getting fat despite numerous farm border patrols throughout the day. Each of those farm border patrols requires much energy and can occasionally involve a confrontation with a 6 foot plus Kangaroo/s which is no small thing for a dog. The additional food source is a mystery which will probably remain unsolved (although I have my suspicions).

Anyway, I’d been thinking about dog food recently as I’d realised that I work in the money economy for one month just to purchase a year’s supply of dog food. This seems an extraordinary amount of my time, so I‘ve recently been investigating other peoples current experiences with dog food. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet (and thanks Pam also for your experiences!), I’ve now commenced the slow process of learning to produce dog food here.

It is worth mentioning that for some staples which I don’t grow at the farm (grains etc.); I usually purchase bulk quantities and store them in the kitchen and cantina. I’ve been cooking food since I was about 12 years old, so I’m a bit of an old hand in that area. Cooking is actually a joy for me. However, one product that I did not previously buy in bulk was organic rolled oats, but the good folks at the CERES Brunswick grocery store helped with that lack:
Poopy the Pomeranian looks on with approval at the bulk purchase of organic rolled oats
The first experimental batch of dog biscuits went into the wood oven this week. All I can say is that the dogs thoroughly approved of them.
The first experimental batch of dog biscuits are on the cooling tray waiting for the ultimate test
A replacement and brand new water tank turned up at the local supplier this week. It is worthwhile mentioning that I breathed a huge sigh of relief to see a brand new water tank waiting for me at the suppliers. They were very good about the whole situation as the original water tank which I originally attempted to pick-up from that supplier last week was clearly faulty and would not have lasted very long at all! 

The brand new water tank on the bright yellow trailer was almost as big as the car itself!
The new water tank is safely back at the farm on the back of the bright yellow trailer
Water tanks are very large, very heavy, very slippery and very round. That makes them very awkward to move from one spot to another. After what seemed like an hour the editor and I managed to manoeuvre the new water tank around to the back of the new firewood shed. And there it sat.

The new water tank was moved around to the rear of the new firewood shed

Very observant readers will notice that the gable ends (the high up bits on the side walls) of the new firewood shed have been installed. Over the next day or so, I also installed steel guttering which collects any rain water which falls onto the roof of the new firewood shed. That rain water is then channelled withn the steel gutters into a single hole (the technical term for the hole is called a pop) where it falls and is transported into the new water tank via plastic pipes.
The new water tank is installed and waiting to collect the next few drops of rain fall
As the sun was shining over the past few days and all of the other water tanks on the farm were full, I transferred 3,500 litres (924 gallons) of water from the existing tanks into this brand new water tank.This weight will stop the water tank from blowing away down the hill. Seriously!

As it is now only less than two weeks out from the official start of winter, I thought that it would be interesting to revisit the tomato beds. The tomato fruit are still hanging on the vines and you can see just how much fruit is still to be picked. It is also possible to observe that the vines are slowly dying on the right hand side of the garden bed as that is the side that receives the cold winds. Any unpicked fruit will be brought inside over the next few weeks to slowly ripen.
Tomatoes are nearing the end of their growing season here – two weeks out from winter
It is the absolute latest time here for bulb planting for this year. For some reason a few months back, I had a sense that the local Riddells Creek Daffodil farm, which sells many varieties of bulbs, was perhaps going to close over the next year or two, so I went crazy and just bought all sorts of weird and wonderful bulbs. It was the planting bit that proved to be the hardest part about the bulbs, so I devoted a couple of hours to planting the bulbs out throughout the garden and orchard. Some of the bulbs such as the Ixia’s and Spraxia’s were tiny and the bloke at the farm had sold me tens of dozens of the bulbs. Anyway, after vowing to never purchase another bulb ever again, they were all somehow planted and all was good.

A big box of hard bulb work
How did the house get here?
Living in an unfinished house with no lights is kind of fun. It is sort of like camping with construction materials in your living room and oh yeah, no lights! So it was in October 2010, when huge stacks of fire rated plaster, bags of insulation and miscellaneous tools were littered throughout the living area. And the internal walls of the house were very pink – due to the fire rated plaster. I must say that the pink walls weren’t working for me as a colour and I don’t recommend it. Hehe!
The living area of the house had building materials and equipment as well as the more expected items
That month I also began installing the very thick 15mm (0.6 inch) fibro-cement sheets that form the supporting deck for the verandas. It is a very solid material as well as being reasonably moisture and fire retardant. If you look carefully at the photo below, you’ll notice that there is a steel flashing that sits just under the bottom of the lowest weatherboard. The fibro-cement sheet neatly slots under that steel flashing to give a weather and fire resistant join between the walls and the veranda deck. The funny thing about each stage of the construction of this house is that you had to understand exactly how all the details meshed together neatly well in advance of construction.
The fibro-cement in the veranda decks were starting to be installed
And, another steel flashing was installed under that fibro-cement decking sheets along the edge of the veranda. This was so that another fire rated wall slotted neatly into that and protected the area underneath the veranda.
The outer edge of the veranda deck shows further use of steel flashings under the fibro-cement
The garden and orchard weren't neglected as even 5 years ago, daffodils popped their heads out of the ground!
A few daffodils bravely popped their heads out of the ground 5 years ago
It is also funny looking back at the orchard at that time as the fruit trees were very small. Even the chicken enclosure didn’t exist back then. At that time it was merely a roof over a steel water tank and I used that roof to collect water which was could be used in the construction. Unfortunately, the steel water tank in that system always leaked, despite my best efforts at repair and it eventually was cut up into many discs that are now the raised garden beds that you see today!
The orchard is looking very small and very young, and a steel water tank exists where the chicken enclosure is today
To be continued…

The temperature outside here at about 8.30pm is 10.5 degrees Celsius (50.9’F). So far this year there has been 285.6mm (11.2 inches) of rainfall which is up from last week's total of 274.6mm (10.8 inches).

Monday, 11 May 2015

Beeing ahead of the Game


A trip to the nearest town this week ended in a bit of a disaster. The little white Suzuki, the bright yellow trailer and I all headed into the little smoke of Sunbury to pick up a water storage tank for the new wood shed.  It was very exciting as more water storage makes it easier for me to keep the garden and orchard being productive through the next hot summer.

At the suppliers store, we loaded the water tank (which was a special order) onto the bright yellow trailer and then both the guy from the store and I looked at the bottom of the tank as it had a very unusual looking bulge and crease. That’s not good, I remarked and off we went to get the store manager. It was decided that the water tank had to be returned to the manufacturer and a new one supplied. Polyethylene (plastic) water tanks are almost impossible to repair – believe me, I’ve tried. Nothing seems to stick to food grade polyethylene and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that it is one of the slipperiest materials on the planet!

So, I left the supplier empty handed. It was not a wasted trip though, as I had a number of other supplies to pick up in the little smoke. One of those supplies was a couple of extra demijohns from the home brew supplier. Demijohns are beautifully made large glass bottles used for fermenting alcohol. I purchase 5 litre (1.32 gallon) demijohns as they are quite light weight – when full – and if for some reason they break you only end up with a small quantity of liquid mess on the floor. Demijohns come in much larger sizes. One of my mates uses a 50 litre (13.2 gallons) demijohn and that thing is a huge monster and takes up the entire corner of a room!

Anyway, the reason that I mention the purchase of the demijohns is that I’ve been noticing articles in the newspapers recently which are stating that mead, which is an alcoholic drink made from honey and water with added spices, is now making a come-back due to the popularity of stories such as George R. R. Martin’s - Game of Thrones series (I’ve read the books). As an interesting side note the present tradition of the honeymoon arose (note the use of the word honey) from a Viking custom related to the drinking of mead for a month after marriage (please let’s keep this family friendly, people!)

I keep a few hives of bees here for pollination of the fruit trees, but also for their honey. And, I’ve been making mead for a few years now but have recently decided that because of the difficulties surrounding keeping bees and the cost of honey, mead has now been relegated to last year status! I still make mead, but I’ve been experimenting with other country wines based on whatever fruits are producing in quantity here. This week I started an Australian Round Lime wine to see what it will taste like. Thus the need for the extra demijohns (just in case it doesn’t work out)!

Juicing the Australian Round Limes to produce a new and (hopefully) interesting country wine
One of the top order predators here at the farm is the wedge tail eagle. The wedge tail eagles are often performing lazy circles in the skies above the farm and one evening last week when I was in the orchard supervising the chickens who were enjoying a bit of time eating all of the various bugs and greens, the chickens all became quite agitated and started making this strange burr, burr, sort of noise. That is the chickens speak to let them all know that there is a predator around and that they should become alert. The ladies stopped in their tracks and looked around before running back to the shelter of their secure hen house.

The funny thing about wedge tail eagles is that for such a massive predatory bird, they make a sort of cheep, cheep, cheep, sound which doesn’t quite fit their aggressive image. I’d have to suggest that they are very confident of their place in the pecking order!

A wedge tail eagle soars lazily above the farm
A big storm from the Southern Ocean has been pounding the farm this week with rain and wind so there has been a great urgency to get the roof installed onto the new firewood shed.

One day earlier in the week, despite getting increasingly wet and cold as the day progressed I managed to install half the steel roof sheets onto the new firewood shed.

Half of the steel roof sheets were installed onto the new firewood shed
The new firewood shed is quite unusual because I also installed an internal lining of steel sheeting. The internal lining was installed to eliminate the damage to the external steel cladding due to firewood pressing against it from the inside and either rusting it from the inside out or simply that the sheer weight of the stuff may have pushed the external cladding outwards. That would be a bad situation for a firewood shed because rainfall could then enter the shed and the firewood would not only be wet, but rodents could enter the shed, the shed structure itself would start to be damaged and the firewood would most likely start to rot.

The internal steel lining of the new firewood shed is made using recycled garage metal sheeting. That sheeting is the stuff that is supplied nowadays with flat pack garden sheds. Observant readers will note just how easy it was for me to bend the internal lining steel around the corners of the new firewood shed and also just how many dents that came with those recycled sheets. It is not impossible, but it is very difficult to bend or damage the old school galvanised iron sheets used on the external cladding.

Installing the internal steel lining for the firewood shed
Fortunately a day arrived when there was no rainfall, so I commenced installing the other half of the roof sheets.

Scritchy and Sir Scruffy supervise the installation of the remaining roof sheets
Once the remaining roof sheets were all installed, I then had to race the rapidly approaching dusk as well as the advancing rain and install the steel ridge capping which is used to stop rain falling into the very centre of the new firewood shed.

Installing the ridge capping and cleverly avoiding the super atomic wedgie
For those that are concerned, in such situations, I employ a very thick sponge to sit on so as to avoid the self-imposed super atomic wedgie. Ouch!

I haven’t quite finished the gable ends (the high up side wall bits) of the new firewood shed because the rain moved in, however I did bring three loads of seasoned firewood up on the bright yellow (7x5 foot) trailer and have split and stored them in the shed for drying. Dry firewood is like having surplus money in the bank – but better!

3 trailer loads of seasoned firewood were brought up the hill and split and stored in the new firewood shed
Needless to say, the ground is now so wet that I am unable to use the little white Suzuki and the bright yellow trailer to bring anymore firewood up the hill and will fill the new firewood shed from other easier to obtain sources. Just for people’s interests, I reckon the new shed will store at least 12 trailer loads of firewood – which is hopefully more than enough to get through an entire year.

The new firewood shed is looking good with its friends
How did the house get here?

Whilst I was building the house here way back in 2010, I rented in a nearby housing estate. The rental house was mostly inoffensive – although painted purple and completely uninsulated - actually in hindsight it probably was offensive. When I moved in to the rental property, it had large sections of bare patches of hard baked clay in the lawn.

Me, being me, let the dogs do their business all over the place because the local birds used to sit on the fence and watch the dogs do whatever dogs do. Then when the dogs were elsewhere, the birds would dive onto their business, scratch it up and do their own business and the cycle of life began on those bare patches of clay. Then after a while with all of that fertilising going on from the dogs and birds, the grass started growing in certain patches quite prolifically.

I then had to mow. The prolifically growing grass was caught in the mowers catcher. I’d then dump the mowers catcher over the areas where nothing was growing and eventually the whole area was a nice and even lush patch of grass.

It was all very innocent and well intentioned. The worms, grass, dogs and birds were all happy, until one day I received a letter from the landlord demanding that I mow the grass more regularly or they would charge me to have it performed. The landlord had also decided to increase the monthly rental and put the house “on the market” and demanded that we make the house available for open for inspections every single weekend.

So I decided instead to move into our unfinished house with no lights. It was a bit rough at first, but the house slowly came together over a few months.

But before the house was finished there was still plenty of work to do. The internal fire walls, insulation and plastering had to be done. It was nowhere near finished when I moved in.

The insulation, plastering and firewalls were still being installed on the house
Storage was a huge problem as there was none, so I installed the floor to ceiling bookshelves in the hallway (hope you like them, Lewis and Inge!)

The floor to ceiling bookshelves were installed to provide some storage in the house
A temporary kitchen was installed so that I could cook and then wash up the various pots, pans and dishes. The candles were for light at night – it was very ambient and quite pleasant!

Temporary kitchen in the unfinished house
The plumbers setup the bathroom too so that at least I could go to the toilet, wash my hands and have a warm bath. It was very considerate of them! Unfortunately one night, it was so dark that I walked through the timber wall frame on an unplastered wall on my way to the bathroom and smacked my face into one of the timber studs. Ouch! I installed a night light in the bathroom and avoided that particular problem again.
Toilet, hand wash basin and bath were installed into the unfinished house
To be continued…

The temperature outside here at about 8.30pm is 9.2 degrees Celsius (48.6’F). So far this year there has been 274.6mm (10.8 inches) of rainfall which is up from last week's total of 226.4mm (8.9 inches).