Monday, 31 August 2015

How much can a Koala Bear?

Last week, the temperature plummeted, the skies darkened with thick heavy cloud and the rain fell liberally for days on end.

All plans for outside garden and orchard activities were abandoned. Fortunately, I have an area that is outside and protected from both the rain and the cold southerly winds blowing up from Antarctica. I store a few days firewood for immediate use in that sheltered spot, and it is also very useful for constructing projects when it is raining or the wind is blowing so hard that it feels as if you are chilled to your very bones.

Sunday was such a day. I was battling the big box store blues (more on this later) in that sheltered spot when Poopy the Pomeranian (the fancy name for his species - in a truly ironic twist to the latter story too - is a Swedish Lapphund) who had been casually lounging around on the front veranda, started making a ruckus.

When dogs communicate with humans it’s usually about a lot of rubbish. Honestly, dogs can be very boring and repetitive. Some of their conversation can include the following forgettable gems:
-          I’m hungry, where is my dinner?
-          I need to go to the toilet, let me out now!
-          Come here!
-          That other dog is infringing upon my perquisites and I’m unhappy about it!

But on this day, as Poopy the Pomeranian started barking differently from his usual rubbish, it is always wise in such circumstances to see exactly what was going on. Poopy was trying to alert me to the fact that a very strange creature had decided to make a visit. So, I went to investigate.

And what I found, completely blew me away. So, the first thing I did was to order Poopy into the house – You, in the house now! And off he trotted obediently into the house, as he didn’t want anything at all to do with this particular creature with its massive claws and wide jaw.

For some reason, a young male Koala Bear had decided that he needed a bit of assistance with his journey in life and decided that the house here was a good place to obtain that help. He did very well making that decision and things have been looking up for him ever since. The Koala followed me around like a dog and honestly there were times that I was thinking: You know what? He’d make a great addition to the household (possible name Krusty the Koala).
The author gives the newest Koala resident a little enjoyable head scratch
From the photo it is very hard to describe just how unpleasant it was outside the house that day. I had so many layers of clothing on that I felt like the Michelin Man and even then I was trying to keep my hands warm as you can see in the photo above. The Koala on the other hand had clearly been on the ground and moving across the country for a few days as he was cold and wet.
Close up of the Koala visitor
The poor little fella had a bit of blood on his ears from a burst tick and there were a few other intact ticks on his ears too which have since been removed. Ticks are an unfortunate part of life here for the wildlife (and dogs) and they were a good indication that the Koala had been on the ground for a few days searching out new territory. The ticks here are reasonably benign.
Dispirited looking Koala with food and energy drink
Koalas are not normally found in this area, so I used the bush telegraph (i.e. known contacts) and contacted people that I knew whom had experience with wildlife. The architect that designed the house here runs a wildlife shelter on his property in the mountain range to the north of here and he recounted to me the possible story of the little lost Koala. In addition to that he put me in contact with the local wildlife rescue people who know far more about Koalas than I do and who eventually came to collect the Koala. In the meantime, I wrapped the little fella in a warm towel and provided him an energy drink of: warm water, dark brown sugar with molasses and also a bit of olive oil.

I’ll recount the story about how the little fella possibly came to be up here. For a start, you can tell the Koala is a male because he has a dark patch on his chest. The dark patch indicates the presence of a gland which secretes hormones on trees for the purpose of marking that tree as that particular Koalas territory.

Unfortunately, young Koala males have to always leave the area that they were born into. This is an excellent survival strategy as it prevents the Koala population from the awful problems of in-breeding. However, it can also mean that a young male Koala may travel off into the wild blue yonder on an adventure only to find himself in a land with no food.

That is probably the most reasonable explanation for the young Koalas presence here. The dominant trees here (Eucalyptus Obliqua or Messmate) aren’t good food for a Koala. They much prefer the Manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) which grows along the creek beds and along the swampy and moist main ridges higher up in the mountain range. You see, Koalas don’t have to drink water to survive at all, but instead gain most of their nutrients and fluids from the leaves of the tree species which they prefer. As an interesting side note, the manna gum also produces an edible sap which was often eaten by the Aboriginals and early settlers as a sugar substitute much in the same way that maple sugar comes from Sugar Maple trees.

Koala bears have very small reserves of body fat so are unable to go many days without food. By the time the poor little fella worked his way to my front door he must have been exhausted, cold, wet and hungry. He was certainly dispirited - but still would have made an excellent addition to the household.

The lovely local wildlife rescue person quickly turned up and picked up the poor little Koala and whisked him off to another local carer who specialises in Koalas. A couple of hours in a warm spot with some proper Koala food and a dose of antibiotics and his spirits have improved. I understand that he has now attempted at least one escape and in doing so trashed a bathroom. Well done you, that’s the proper Cherokee spirit! Updates on his progress can be found on this link:

You can check out their main Facebook page for updates too. Incidentally, the Macedon Ranges Wildlife Network group is a group of locals using their own resources and they receive no funding whatsoever from any other sources. As you are all aware, I do not push – and never will – products or services on this blog, however, if you are feeling touched by this story and can donate some loose change I’m pretty sure it could be put to good use by the wildlife network people who otherwise pay for everything out of their own pockets.  Donations – if you want to – can be made via this link here:

There must have been something in the air this week as an endangered and locally very uncommon, Barking Owl (Ninox connivens) also decided to drop by one night for a visit. The owl was totally silent and I only noticed it by sheer accident.
A barking owl decided to make a special guest visit this week
It was a very impressive looking and rare owl, but it isn’t a cute Koala bear is it?

Oh yeah, speaking of Swedish dogs earlier in the blog made me recall that I had a serious case of the big box store blues a few days ago.

The paid business here at the farm was rapidly getting to the point that it was outstripping the paper storage capacity. Many long months ago, a couple of mates had conned me into assisting them with constructing flat pack storage racks for their own business. The racks were a good design, so the editor and I headed off on Thursday night to check out the racks in the big box store.

The box store assaulted my senses as it appeared to be a consumer maze with blaring 1980’s and 90’s disco music. I do respect the musical integrity of those performers but after a while it began to grate on my nerves. When the editor and I finally found the racking, we both looked at it in the cold light of fluorescent and agreed that we wouldn’t pay that much for that particular racking. Instead, we took a different approach and made the racking from scratch. That is what I was doing outside when the Koala bear turned up (Oooo cute Koala!).
The author constructing custom made racking for document storage
Seriously, this stuff cost half the price of the flat pack racking and that cost even includes enough left over materials to construct the experimental Cherokee TM bee hive over the next week or so. Getting back to the racking story though, I coated the pine with a second coat of acrylic protective coating this morning and it is now in place waiting to be filled with files.

The new racking is now in place and ready for use
The racking is good, but it’s not a cute Koala bear is it?

The desk in that office was an interesting purchase many years ago. It is locally handmade, solid European Beech timber and someone wanted to be rid of it for $80 second hand. I said to them: I can help you with that problem!

It is a nice desk, but it’s not a cute Koala bear is it?

Just to give you an idea of how cold it has been down here, when I woke up early on Saturday morning, I thought to myself that it was a bit chilly! The outside temperature was 0.2’C (32.3’F).
The temperature on Saturday morning was a bit chilly
Such days are not conducive to early starts, so I headed off to grab a coffee, a toastie and clear the mail box instead. After a coffee the world was in much clearer focus so I happened to notice that it was snowing.
Snow fell on Mount Macedon on Saturday morning
At least I felt warmer in the snow because of the coffee and toastie! But it isn’t a cute Koala Bear is it?

This winter has recently been declared the coldest winter in 26 years and it certainly feels it to me.

I’ve completely run out of time, space, dry firewood and readers tolerance to talk about house construction, so I promise we’ll get back to it again next week! I can’t promise cute Koala Bears again though!

The temperature outside here at about 9.15pm is 4.2’C degrees Celsius (39.6’F). So far this year there has been 544.0mm (21.4 inches) of rainfall which is up from last week's total of 524.8mm (20.7 inches). Oh yeah, some serious rain is forecast to hit here mid this week!

Monday, 24 August 2015

Living with consequences

Years ago, I read that the average house in Melbourne (which is the nearest big city to this farm) turns over on average once every four years. That is an astounding statistic and it means that on average at least once every four years any house will be available for sale.

Therefore, it may be a fair thing to say that people move houses quite a lot down here. And I’m as guilty as the next person, although to be fair, many of the house moves were made when I was a child and had no influence on such matters.

There are times however, when I’m reminded that in rural areas, many people don’t move houses very often, and you have to be mindful of other people’s opinions of you. The old timers used to refer to this as your - reputation.

People can have such long memories in these sorts of rural places that it is always worthwhile considering how the occasional social faux pas (which is a fancy name for an embarrassing or tactless act or remark) can be recalled decades after the actual event.

The 1970’s were apparently a time for body shirts, jeans with flares, appalling side burns and moustaches, and generally more relaxed attitudes to sex than previous generations.

A few years ago a story was recounted to me of a local person, who back in the 1970’s, was clearly towards the “hippy” end of the social continuum. The story revolved around the mismatch between his freewheeling attitudes to sex and that of the local prevailing attitude. That young hippy affronted some of the locals by offering his services in the most literal sense to a young couple that were having trouble conceiving a baby.

Three or more decades later, that story was recounted to me via the local grapevine. After hearing that story, I made an internal note to myself: Social faux pas = bad and will be repeated three or more decades later if it is considered to be noteworthy. I won’t even mention the nickname given for the now much older gentleman who still resides in the area (the sperm man).

So what has all this got to do with a blog about living on a small holding? It shows that it is important to understand the social currents that a person lives in. If you have the option to move around from: house to house; city to city; state to state; or even to a different country, then you may be able to walk away from many and varied social faux pas. However, if you plan to live in a particular area for a long time, you have to consider your reputation.

Thursdays are generally the days that I pick up the milk supplies for the week, clear the mail box and enjoy a well earned (edit - in his mind!) feed and coffee at the local general store. It is a nice experience and I look forward to it each week.

For all sorts of reasons, well, actually, Doctors orders (apparently too much coffee is a bad thing!), I have had to reduce my long standing weekly milk order at said local general store. In a rural area this is a delicate matter. Not to mention that local businesses should be supported by local people, otherwise they may disappear.

Last week, as I was enjoying my coffee (purchased coffees don’t count!) and a delicious ham and cheese toastie, a discordant note had intruded upon my otherwise blissful experience (and no it wasn’t a screaming infant, which are usually in plentiful supply). I had a complete mental blank and wondered whether I’d paid for my regular supply of milk or the now reduced supply of milk. What a conundrum! Did I dare risk my reputation of serious integrity on a litre or two of milk?

The simplest solution to my conundrum was to ask the proprietor of the general store the question about what exactly had I paid for? The situation was quickly and cleanly cleared up with many a smile and laugh and we all then moved on with our lives and my reputation remained intact. In the city where people move houses more regularly, the matter may have been transacted upon a completely different basis and I have been pondering this issue ever since.

Spring is fast approaching and in the last week, the bees have been very active and are out and about most days gathering nectar and pollen. Many of the very early fruit trees are now showing off their early blossoms too.
A plumcot which is a hybrid plum and apricot cross produced some early blossoms this week
The firewood shed was not completely filled before the onset of winter due to time constraints and as the weather has allowed over the past week or so, I’ve been cutting and storing more firewood for immediate use. The firewood that is in various piles about the farm has been happily seasoning (which means curing and reducing the tree sugars), but it is not as dry as if it had been stored in the firewood shed. Not being dry means that it does not burn as quickly or with as much energy as if it had been stored properly out of the rain.

At the bottom of each firewood pile are logs that are very moist as they were in contact with the ground. Because of the moisture, those logs won’t burn very well at all. They also have quite a lot of very rich looking black loamy soil firmly attached to their undersides. I decided this week to undertake a new hugelkultur experiment with them and place them in a nearby fern lined dry but natural watercourse and see what happens over the next year or two.
Damp firewood and fungi laden logs placed into a natural fern gully / watercourse
The work this week has been all about trees and the surrounding forest, and I spent a full day cleaning up the surrounding forest and burning off all of the excess flammable materials in preparation for the soon to be here summer. However, I also have begun to make good use of the thousands of eucalyptus saplings and begun constructing a picket fence for the blackberry enclosure.
Eucalyptus saplings were used to fence off the blackberry enclosure
And whilst we are speaking about hippies, the editor was at a nearby hippy farmers market and came across a metal representation of a peacock. That metal artwork was installed onto the door of the new firewood shed and I reckon it looks pretty good.
A new peacock metal artwork adorns the new firewood shed
How did the house get here?
September 2011, meant painting the internal walls. Living in a house that you are also painting at the same time is an interesting exercise in logistics and also requires a whole lot of plastic to protect surfaces from the inevitable paint drops which fall everywhere despite your best intent.
The kitchen is readied for painting
Painting is an activity that you want to do once and properly, so I put three solid coats of quality paint on each and every surface and eventually all of the coats were done. Fortunately, September is a bit warmer than the depths of winter so the paint dried reasonably quickly.
The kitchen was now painted
The fruit trees in the orchard looked so small back in those days:
The orchard was looking small and not very productive back in those days
It wasn’t all about painting back then, as I also planted out the strawberry bed with bare rooted strawberry runners which quickly began producing leaves in the deep soils.
Strawberry runners produce leaves that month
As spring warmed, the new raised vegetable beds began producing some useful greens. Also the diversity of bird life started to increase as constant food, water and shelter became available and I spotted this little red breasted robin enjoying the raised vegetable beds that month.
A little red breasted robin enjoys the new raised vegetable beds
And that month, I also spotted a mum with joey (in the pouch) and her slightly older child approving of the compost fed herbage. Observant readers will note the absolute mess that was left over from the days when timber was harvested from this location. We have been slowly clearing this mess up over the past few years and returning it to a diverse pasture (herbage) which provides excellent feed for the local wildlife.
Mum, joey in pouch and older child kangaroo enjoy the newly established compost fed herbage
The temperature outside here at about 8.30pm is 5.5’C degrees Celsius (41.9’F). So far this year there has been 524.8mm (20.7 inches) of rainfall which is up from last week's total of 521.2mm (20.5 inches).

Monday, 17 August 2015

Manure happens

Here at Fernglade Farm headquarters (FFHQ), we are on the cutting edge of testing and development of small holding systems (SHS). FFHQ brings to you – the reader – the most up to date information and progress on the various SHS under development here. Constant improvement is the watchword here!

And what we’ve learned so far, is that even after 5 years of living here at FFHQ, we still get things hopelessly wrong. But we’re learning and more importantly, we’re correcting those errors so that the SHS just work!

Now that the brand new chicken house and run (the Chooktopia project) has been mostly completed, I’ve had to contemplate the walking path between the house and Chooktopia. Unfortunately, there were several fruit trees on that future pathway. Something had to give and so those fruit trees had to be moved.

This week I moved quite a few of those fruit trees from that pathway. Fortunately, it is still winter here and those colder weather conditions favour moving fruit trees. That watchword, constant improvement, strikes yet again!
Relocating a hazelnut tree from the site of a future pathway to a different location this week
Soil geek alert! Observant readers will note how black and loamy the soil is around the roots of the hazelnut tree in the photo above. That is the result of applying various composts, manures and mulch over many years in the orchard.

Winter is the time to move fruit trees as many of them here are still deciduous (which is a fancy name for sleepy) and if those fruit trees are small enough they’ll relocate without too much of a shock. The trick with relocating a fruit tree successfully is to obtain as much of the root system and the surrounding soil as possible. The general rule for a well-established and healthy tree is that the root system below ground will be the equivalent mass as the fruit tree above the ground. Once you understand that general rule, you may get an insight into how hard (but certainly not impossible) it may be to relocate advanced trees.

Once the pathway between the house and Chooktopia had been cleared of fruit trees, I could then begin some of the landscaping works around the chicken housing. That work included building up the soil around the front and downhill side of Chooktopia. That newly cleared path was just perfect for using the wheelbarrow to bring soil across to the chicken’s area.
The native birds assist with the supervision of landscaping the chickens enclosure
A family of Kookaburra and Magpie birds also assisted with the landscaping. Actually, the native birds normally follow me around when I’m working because I throw (or uncover) witchetty grubs for them to feast on. As a bit of a fun fact, if I feed too many grubs to the birds they become sluggish and I can then sneak up behind those same birds and grab them! The chickens will also happily eat the grubs and in the photo above a white Silky chicken can be seen just on the inside of Chooktopia front door, willing the door to open using the full force of her fluffy personality.

That additional soil for Chooktopia was recovered from excavations behind the recently constructed wood shed. That landscaping was never quite completed, but after much digging and hauling by hand this week I can now walk completely around that wood shed and water tank – which wasn’t possible before. And there is still much soil to be removed from that area. Soil is a precious thing and it will all be deployed around the farm to good effect. Nothing goes to waste here!
Excavations this week have opened up a pathway behind the wood shed and the new water tank
The above photo shows some interesting things. That dark grey water tank is now completely full and you can see that it is overflowing at the top thanks to the winter rains. There is even a water pump at the base of the tank in a constructed steel cover, ready to be installed. Both of those items require a bit of serious plumbing which will hopefully take place over the next month or so.

Moving the soil was OK, but I was still left with the many fruit trees sitting in containers which had to be replanted somewhere else reasonably quickly.

For some unexplained reason I previously had a reluctance to plant fruit trees in amongst the garden beds with their mixed herbs, flowers and vegetables. I can’t explain why I had that initial reluctance. Then last year an Anzac peach fruit tree became absorbed into one of the garden beds through no fault of its own. If I was being a smarty pants, I would say that it was a deliberate experiment, but alas it was pure chance. And wouldn't you know it? That Anzac peach fruit tree grew much faster than any other fruit tree and you could almost see that tree growing if you watched closely enough!

So the editor and I decided to plant all of the relocated fruit trees into either existing or new garden beds and we’ll watch what happens this summer.
Relocated fruit trees are planted directly into existing garden beds
I didn’t quite have enough space in the existing garden beds to take all of the relocated fruit trees, so the lower rock wall below the house was extended quite a long way this week.
Relocated fruit trees are planted into new garden beds
Just to make sure those relocated fruit trees get quickly established, I applied two cubic metres (70.6 cubic feet) of manure into those areas in the form of mushroom compost (a fancy name for a mix of horse manure and bedding straw).

In other farm news this week, I officially ran out of firewood in the wood shed. Readers with good memories will recall that the wood shed was only (7/12ths) full just before the serious winter rains and cold weather hit. It is not the end of the world for me as a couple of hours of cutting with the chainsaw produced about another month’s supply of seasoned firewood. The firewood is not as dry as I’ve become used to, but then as the old timers say: beggars cannot be choosers!

In other energy news, the batteries for the house were completely recharged by the solar photovoltaic panels at some point in the afternoon each day this week. This is because the sun is now higher in the sky and you can even occasionally feel its bite. It is a real pleasure to check out the status of the batteries and find the following display (SOC refers to State of Charge):
The house batteries are now fully recharged each day by the solar photovoltaic panels
The solar power system statistics for the week is as follows:

Battery % full at the start of the day - Amount generated by the 4.2kW of PV panels during that day
Tuesday 11th August – 87% full – 6.8kWh
Wednesday 12th August – 88% full – 4.0kWh
Thursday 13th August – 91% full – 4.9kWh
Friday 14th August – 94% full – 4.9kWh
Saturday 15th August – 94% full – 3.8kWh
Sunday 16th August – 94% full – 5.6kWh
Monday 17th August – 94% full – 6.6kWh

From this week onwards, the batteries will generally be full at some point each day until early June (winter) next year. I do hope that readers can take away three messages from these statistics:
·         Solar photovoltaic panels provide very little electrical energy during the depths of winter;
·         It is possible to live in a modern household and use very little electrical energy; and
·         Very large batteries take a long time to become fully charged (think electric vehicle batteries!).

How did the house get here?
Way back long ago, oh well, actually, four years ago this month, I painted the insides of the front half of the house. I like painting so I only ever use a brush (rather than a roller) as it gives such a nice solid finish on the walls. Nowadays, people generally spray paint onto the walls, but I'm a bit old school with such things.
the rooms in the front half of the house were painted
Fortunately, constructing a small house means that painting is finished fairly quickly.

The rear room in the house had all of the plaster joins sanded flat that month. That was a big job as it had to be completed in a single day. All of the sanding was done by hand – rather than machine – and by the end of the day I thought my arm was going to fall off my shoulder! It hurt, and the clean-up of all of the plaster dust took about four to five hours. Still, it looked good and it is very hard to now see where all of the plaster joins are.
The rear half of the house had all of the plaster joins sanded in one day – living room
The rear half of the house had all of the plaster joins sanded in one day - adjoining kitchen
That month, I discovered to my horror, that the very fancy solar hot water system did not work – and had not worked since the day of installation.  Yes, I freely admit that I totally cracked the sads about that one as I’d gone through the entire previous summer without any solar hot water benefit! The solar hot water panels looked good though.
The solar hot water panels looked good on the roof doing absolutely nothing
Fortunately it was an easy fix and the suppliers provided a brand new hot water pump and controller. Solar hot water is excellent, but it does pay to ensure that any systems that you install actually do work and don't assume that people installing systems will actually test them.

A wedge tailed eagle landed on a nearby tree that month and I was lucky enough to have the camera on hand. I often wonder whether the eagle was eyeing off Scritchy the boss dog or the chickens. Either way, the eagles here mean business!

A wedge tail eagle landed in a nearby tree eyeing off the snack potential
The recently planted and fertilised grass and herbage began to grow that month and a couple of small kangaroos were regular visitors to the farm, although they look rather wet and bedraggled in the photo below.
A couple of small kangaroos enjoy the recently sown grass and herbage
Walking around I also spotted a seedling fruit tree which looks as though it may be an apricot. There are a few self-sown fruit trees on the farm and I look forward to seeing how they grow over the next few years. What it says to me is that an orchard can reproduce itself, exactly like a forest, given the right conditions. I often randomly throw seeds and fruit kernels about the outer edges of the orchard and it is surprising what can result from that.
I spied this self-sown apricot fruit tree in the orchard
The temperature outside here at about 9.00pm is 2.2’C degrees Celsius (36.0’F). So far this year there has been 521.2mm (20.5 inches) of rainfall which is up from last week's total of 508.8mm (20.0 inches).