Monday, 28 November 2016

Hey Dude, where’s my Ruth?



This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link: www.ferngladefarm.com.au

The word “Ruth” can mean many different things. Sometimes it can be a first name, but in this instance I’m thinking of the definition of the word that refers to the feeling of pity. Pity is something that you don’t hear a lot about these days, and because of that general lack of use, it might be worthwhile recalling what that word actually means: “the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the sufferings and misfortunes of others, or a cause for regret or disappointment”. And the opposite of Ruth is where a person is ruthless in that they have no: “pity or compassion for others”.

There is a time for ruth and there is also a time for ruthlessness and it is worth considering that there is also a whole lot of middle ground between those two extremities. And it takes discernment and experience to know when to employ any aspect of those two character traits. I’ve been thinking about this recently as my experiences on the farm over the past few years has permanently changed my perspectives in this matter.

Scritchy who is the boss dog here, has a minor health matter. I like Scritchy and she has a great life here and she is full of energy and spends most of her days instructing the other dogs in what they can and can’t do and where they should be at any one point in time. Scritchy, however, is an old dog at about sixteen years old. The editor and I took Scritchy to the local veterinary clinic to see what could be done about her minor health matter. The local vet really didn’t know what was affecting her. Scritchy was placed on a course of broad spectrum antibiotics and anti-inflammatories which we strictly followed, and now, to be totally honest, she is not better.

Despite the minor health matter, Scritchy is still a very happy dog and she enjoys herself immensely. The local veterinarian (or veterinary surgeon) made me feel like total dirt because I didn’t want to subject Scritchy to a whole raft of tests and observation time so that they could understand what was causing the minor health matter – all at our expense of course. I meekly protested by observing that Scritchy was indeed an old dog and that I wouldn’t be pursuing such options. However, I was still made to feel like dirt for having voiced my unspeakable opinions in this matter.

If that was an isolated incident then I probably would not have thought about the subject again. However, a local doctor recently scoffed at me when I refused to agree to a battery of pathology tests as apparently that is what people who are my age are supposed to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against pathology tests, and those tests can achieve great things, but in this instance, I didn’t feel ill at all – not even remotely - and I was visiting the doctor for the rather pragmatic purpose of getting a chunk of stubborn wax removed from my inner ear (was that too much information? Apologies to the squeamish readers in the audience – I feel as if we have now shared something and have bonded over ear wax!) I was starting to feel as if I was being asked if I: “want fries with that?”

In the past, I’ve subjected older dogs to surgery and from my experience, it is rarely to their benefit. It may extend an older dog’s life, a bit, but they are surely not happy or comfortable about that time.

The thing is though, I know from the experience of living here that a season eventually ends. And then a new season begins. That is life and it can’t be ignored or talked around. Some seasons are far longer than others, and this past winter has extended beyond any winter that I can recall. However, the summer that lead into this winter was also far longer and far hotter on average than any summer in my memory. All I know is that seasons end in their own sweet time.

An old timer once quipped to me that: “if you have livestock, then sooner or later you’ll have deadstock”. And that old timer is not wrong. I have kept chickens for many years now and I know from experience that when any chicken becomes visibly ill she will generally not recover and most likely will soon die and her season will then end. Occasionally in very rare circumstances, a chicken will recover from a visible illness, but that is rare. Nowadays, if I judge that a chicken which has a visible illness, is not recovering and is clearly suffering, then I kill them out of pity for their suffering. On the other hand, I have chickens that are now at least seven years old and they show no signs at all of slowing down.

As to the plants - well, a few weeks back I found myself clearing a perfectly good raised garden bed full of winter and spring vegetables (the chickens enjoyed the greens!). The reason for clearing those winter and spring vegetables was because if I hadn’t done that, then the summer vegetables would not have had the chance to become well established before the serious heat of the summer arrives. Summer vegetables that have not become well established tend to suffer greatly when the day time air temperature in the shade exceeds 40’C (104’F). All I know is that the season for winter and spring vegetables does not extend into the summer down here.
A raised garden bed had recently been cleared of all of the winter and spring vegetables in preparation for the summer
The infrastructure and systems here also get subjected to that ruthlessness. Over the years, I have had to abandon or rework infrastructure and projects because they simply did not work well enough. Walking away from a project that you have invested time, as well as physical and emotional resources, takes a level of clear headedness and just plain old ruthlessness. And I have had to do that many times now as both the editor and I have learned from the very hard school of: “trial and error” that some projects and systems here could be better. It just wasn’t that particular project or system’s season!

One thing that is improving over time as the seasons go on, is the sheer diversity of life here at the farm. This week a brand new never before seen here at the farm, parrot, turned up to make a special guest appearance. The parrot is an Eastern Rosella. The farm is normally home to a family of Crimson Rosella parrots (which are largely red coloured with blue markings). However, the Eastern Rosella is the sort of parrot that would have been created if a bunch of drunk twelve year olds were allowed to go crazy with a colouring in book featuring parrots and a vast collection of different coloured pencils. This parrot has to be seen to be believed. A red head, white beard, yellow guts, dark blue mid-riff and light green under carriage. Well done, that about covers every colour.
An Eastern Rosella made a visit to the farm this week and I was lucky to spot it and ask the hard question: What the?
But that clearly wasn’t enough colour for those twelve year olds because as the parrot flew away (who would have thought that something that looked like that was a shy and retiring creature to take flight at the merest sight of a camera?) I spotted a bright green back with light blue and dark blue spots. It is one impressive looking parrot.
A photo of the Eastern Rosella as it takes flight. A Crimson Rosella is on the right hand side of the photo and to be honest it looks rather pedestrian
The marginally warmer weather has caused many huge Bogong moths to visit the farm and they are attracted to the house and garden lights. Poopy the Pomeranian (who everyone by now knows is a Swedish Lapphund) and his dodgy mate Toothy the long haired Dachshund are enjoying this time of year because they are gorging themselves silly on the hapless moths. Then vomiting. And sometimes re-eating.
A huge Bogong moth is attracted to the house lights
In the ongoing crapification saga, this week not only did my computer die, but so too did the weather station. Now I have to out myself here as a complete weather nerd and the weather station was 100% crucial to this most important hobby of mine (i.e. weather nerd!). Anyway, the computer was fixed at great hassle and expense in both time and money. But, even more importantly a new weather station was installed. Excellent! New weather station! Yay! And even better the outdoor measuring unit thingee looks like the Starship Voyager, or perhaps a tug boat. I’m not sure which one really.
A new weather station / tug boat was installed this week
I took the opportunity to locate the new outdoor measuring unit thingee a bit further and deeper into the garden bed and mounted it on a sturdy treated pine post which was cemented into the ground. Speaking of ruthless, I had to hack away many plants in order to clear a spot for that treated pine post.
The new weather station outdoor unit was located further and deeper into the garden bed
We also installed a run of 12V cable from the current machinery shed up the hill to the next higher terrace where the recently completed berry enclosure and raised potato beds are located. The 12V power will eventually be used on that terrace to power a water pump.
A run of 12V cable from the current machinery shed up the hill to a higher terrace was installed
The cable is protected from damage and water ingress by the orange conduit. However, where the cable runs under a pathway, it is also encased in PVC piping for extra protection.

The cable then runs up the garden bed in a deep trench cut into the side of the hill. We used some steel plant pegs to hold the orange conduit which contains the 12V cable firmly down to the ground.
Steel plant pegs hold the orange conduit which contains the 12V cable firmly down to the ground
Then a cubic metre (1.3 cubic yards) of mushroom compost was placed onto the side of the garden bed. We even managed to plant a whole lot of chance seedlings into that mushroom compost. In another year the garden bed will look as if it has always been there.
A cubic metre (1.3 cubic yards) of mushroom compost was placed onto the side of the garden bed
In breaking tomato news… Two new tomato seedlings germinated on the one very hot day last week before a massive storm hit! We now have at least ten tomato plants growing. Yes, things are that bad for the ongoing tomato situation.
Two more tiny tomato plants germinated this week bring the total plants to ten
One year ago and this month, the tomato enclosure looked very different. It is a timely reminder of the differences in each season.
This month and one year ago, the tomato enclosure looked very different
In other plant news, as we had one hot day earlier this week, the citrus responded by suddenly regrowing leaves on the many branches where the wallabies had consumed all of the leaves a few months back.
The citrus responded to a hot day earlier this week by suddenly regrowing leaves on the many branches which had been stripped by the wallabies
The globe artichokes are just about ready to harvest. Globe artichokes are fiddly to eat, but they taste very good. Anyway, these globe artichokes are surrounded by flowers and I reckon it looks quite good!
The globe artichokes are just about ready to harvest
Poppy-gate has become an even more complex scenario this week. Long time readers will recall that Poppy-gate refers to the accidental purchase of a truly epic and quite expensive seed pack of poppy seeds. Anyway, mixed in to all of that riot of colour that is now Poppy-gate, are many vivid blue corn flowers. Go figure that one out. How did they get there?
The poppies are starting to produce abundant and many coloured flowers – along with vivid blue corn flowers
In other areas, the poppies are an almost solid bank of red flowers with the occasional pink flower.
In other areas the poppies are an almost solid bank of red flowers
The temperature outside now at about 8.30pm is 16’C (61’F). So far this year there has been 1,140.8mm (44.9 inches) which is the same as last week’s total of 1,110.6mm (43.7 inches).

Monday, 21 November 2016

1100 days in a Food Forest

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link: www.ferngladefarm.com.au

Over three years ago I began compiling a series of photographs showing the growth of the orchard here. Now 700 still photos later, I have compiled those photographs into a short YouTube video. This was the project that did not really want to happen and everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong. Even my computer died this evening! I believe the engineer Scotty from the Starship Enterprise summed it up nicely when he said to Captain Kirk: “The engines can’t take it anymore Captain, they’re going to blow!” And blow up they did and now my computer no longer works.

Fortunately here at Fernglade Farm we are undaunted by technical issues and I now bring to you the video: 1,100 days in a Food Forest. I hope you enjoy it!

Fortunately many of the systems here are more resilient than the pesky computer and video software! The raised potato beds received a good dose of additional manure this week. And I must say, I am absolutely astounded at how fast these plants are growing here. This is a before photo:
The raised potato beds prior to having the additional manure added
None of those three raised potato beds have received any additional watering and I find that potatoes are happy to grow with just the rainfall supplied by the sky! After the almost cubic metre (1.3 cubic yards) of mushroom compost was added to the raised beds, they now look like this:
The raised potato beds after having the additional manure added
The flower garden on the steep slope next to the potato beds has also commenced. The flower gardens provide plenty of pollen and nectar for the many insects that live here on the farm and they work very hard! Starting a flower garden involves applying manure to the bare clay. Then that manure needs to get established over the next few months before planting it out with cuttings and plants in early Autumn. Getting established is the fancy label for not doing too much to it other than letting it stabilise.
The steep garden bed below the potato beds was commenced this week with the application of a load of manure
The drain within the chicken enclosure became blocked up. I had foolishly put a bend in the drain pipe so as to direct the water from the drain onto a walnut tree. The walnut tree died and the drain became blocked because organic matter collected in the bend in the pipe. This week I cut the drain pipe, removing the bend and replacing it with a completely straight section of pipe. Now the water flows out of the drain very well. Toothy can be seen in the photo below lending a hand by consuming some of the organic matter blockage which oozed out of the drain pipe! It didn’t smell very nice to me, but dogs will be dogs!
Toothy assists with removing a bend from the drain pipe from the chickens enclosure
If anyone is a bit squeamish, then I suggest to skip this paragraph and the next photo! The organic matter which oozed out of the cut pipe was about three feet long. It was kind of awesome to see!
The cut drain pipe from the chicken enclosure contained about three feet of solid organic matter
Speaking of the chickens, they have been assisting with - is destroying the correct word? – the new garden bed near to their enclosure. Aren’t they helpful?
The chickens assist with digging up the new garden bed near their enclosure
The wallabies which live on the farm like to destroy things too! One of their favourite things to destroy are roses. I grow roses in hidden spots in the garden and the wallabies are yet to find them! Here is one beautiful rose flower surrounded by herbs including soap wort:
This superb rose grows hidden among soap wort herbs
Roses aren’t the only spectacular flowering plants here, as the rhododendrons are competing with them to see who can put on a better show. I’ll leave judging that to you, the readers!
The rhododendrons are also putting on a great show at this time of year
Whilst catmint is not as attractive a flower as either the roses or the rhododendrons, they sure do hold the title for one of the best plants to feed the beneficial insects in your garden. Catmint positively buzzes with bees and other insects all day long.
Catmint is one of the best plants to feed beneficial insects to your garden
The flowers are all telling a story that the weather has been superb this week and the sun has shone strongly. The orchard in particular is almost dancing with the extra energy provided by the sun:
The orchard is almost jumping out of the soil with the extra energy provided by the sun this week
The sun is even reaching into the very shady fern gully that I planted out in autumn. The tree ferns have begun the slow process of unfurling new fronds and you can see new fronds in the crowns of those ferns:
The tree ferns have begun the slow process of unfurling new fronds
The sun is also ensuring that the many different fruits are swelling on the fruit trees. The cherries will be the first stone fruit to ripen this season:
Cherries should be the first stone fruit to ripen this season
Earlier this season the mulberry fruit trees produced really insipid coloured leaves and I believed that the trees were sick or diseased. This week, due to the stronger sun the mulberry fruit trees have turned a more normal dark green colour and the fruit is starting to swell and ripen.
The mulberry fruit trees are starting to look good after a dodgy start to the season
The apple trees appear to be producing a bumper crop this year – and many of them are still in flower.
The apple trees look set to produce a bumper crop this year
The Asian and European pears likewise seem to be producing a bumper crop. The other day, I spotted this Corella Pear swelling and ripening in the sun and the colour of that fruit looks awesome:
A corella pear enjoying the late spring warmth
But nothing beats the Asian pears for sheer quantity of fruit. This nashi pear is a very reliable fruit tree. I just have to remember to net the tree before the parrots get to the fruit!
The nashi pears are prolific and reliable fruiting trees
The temperature outside now at about 10.45pm is 20.1’C (46.4’F). So far this year there has been 1,110.6mm (43.7 inches) which is the same as last week’s total of 1,110.6mm (43.7 inches).

Monday, 14 November 2016

Money and Prejudice

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link: www.ferngladefarm.com.au

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a small holding in the black, must surely be growing a patch of drugs. That universal truth or question was actually posed to me a few weeks ago by my now former hairdresser – let’s call him Mr Darcy (not his real name).

I have to confess that, at first I was rather annoyed by the question posed to me by Mr Darcy. However, as time passed, I became less annoyed by the question and more curious as to why he posed that question and what it actually meant. A cheeky friend helpfully suggested that Mr Darcy was perhaps looking for a supplier, and all I can add to my friend’s witty observation is that we shall never know the truth of that particular matter! There was something about the question that intrigued me as I felt that there was a deeper truth hidden within it, but for a while I couldn’t quite come to grips with that deeper truth. Ever since the question was posed to me, I have been turning it over and over in my mind, until I came to a reasonable understanding of those deeper truths.

The day that I had my haircut was a beautiful spring day and I was in good spirits. The sun was shining and the weather was sweet. I’d only just completed my visit to the Queen Victoria Market on the outskirts of the Central Business District of Melbourne. I usually visit that market once every two months or so to purchase all of the fruit and vegetables that I can’t grow here. As an example, it is way too cold to grow peanuts here, and besides when we did try growing them, Poopy the Pomeranian (who is actually a Swedish Lapphund), dug them all up and ate them!

What were we talking about? Oh, that’s right: A beautiful spring day. It was a weekday and I arrived at the hairdresser early and they were running a little bit late. I was in no hurry at all, and so I sat in the chair by the window at the hairdresser and watched all of the people walking past on the street and wondered about their stories. I was also savouring the expectation of a coffee after the haircut and possibly after that, a quality hamburger. My gut would soon be filled with quality food and drink and all was good with the world. It was only when the question was posed to me by Mr Darcy that a small dark cloud entered into my consciousness.

In its most blunt terms, Mr Darcy’s question was highlighting to me that there is a public perception that it is not possible to make a reasonable income derived from the land on a small holding, and therefore, I must be up to some sort of illegal and also possibly very profitable business here. My conduct elicited so many fascinating questions such as: It was an expensive haircut after all; how was I enjoying it during the week; how did I pay for it; and why was I so relaxed? These were all good questions and honestly, I’d heard Mr Darcy’s trope before from other people, so I felt that I could no longer ignore the deeper truths which people were communicating to me.

Arable land in Australia is very expensive. Arable, is a fancy word which means that you can readily grow crops on that land i.e. the land is fertile. The cheapest land available, whether you are leasing or buying – like the block of land that I live on – is usually cheap because it is not arable. The climate may be perfect, the rainfall may be regular, but if the land is not arable, then you will be very unlikely to be able to readily grow crops. I understood this problem when I purchased this block of land as I knew there was no top soil at all here. This lack of fertility in land can be fixed by many different means, but it takes time and also resources such as compost and/or mulch. Some of those resources, such as, compost can be free (for example Green Manure crops) if you have the time. However, if you have either a lease or a mortgage to pay for the use of that land, then you may be under pressure to grow something to sell straight away so as to pay for your lease or mortgage. That is not a good situation.

As an insight to the readers here, I reckon over the past decade, we have distributed over 500 cubic metres (650 cubic yards) of mulch and/or compost onto this land so as to restore the soil fertility. It sounds like a lot, but in reality, it is about one cubic per week over that long period of time.

Even if you somehow managed to obtain your land cost free, you then have to consider what crops you are going to grow and who as well as how, are you going to sell all of that produce? Those questions are no small matters. For example this past winter because of the excellent rainfall, I had a huge crop of lemons. There have been hundreds of lemon fruits grown here this year. Lemons generally sell at the market for about $1 each and that equates into hundreds of dollars of income. However, that small income of only a couple of hundreds of dollars of fruit sales during winter is not going to cover any average lease or mortgage payments. And that completely ignores the initial purchase and expense of feeding and maintaining all of those fruit trees during their long and productive lives.

However, if you were to consume those lemons and/or find a productive use for the lemons, then you would not have to purchase other food stuffs from an external source which requires money (which has to be earned). I have been converting those lemons into lemon wine and also feeding them to the chickens and they have been enjoying about 5 lemons per day for the past few months.

The Mr Darcy character of the Jane Austen story, Pride and Prejudice could well afford a mansion. That character was clearly full of money. Most of the rest of us mere mortals are clearly not full of money, but many of us aspire to live in, purchase, or build a mansion. Last week, I outed myself as a fan of the long running television show: Grand Designs UK. It is a great show and has been running for 17 years now. No doubt Mr Darcy (the original one not the hairdresser one) would have wanted to have been on the show! One of the core themes expressed in that show is that people design houses that are far too big, and generally when that happens the individuals run over budget and end up in debt. In one particular stand out show, the male of the household was an accountant, and the family eventually ended up with apparently 11 different forms of debt just to pay for the construction. I am an accountant and I didn’t even know that there were 11 different forms of debt available to an individual! It was an impressive feat, but the larger question is: Was it worth it?

A smaller house is cheaper to construct, cheaper to keep warm, easier to clean, and cheaper to maintain when it inevitably requires maintenance. People tend to understand those concepts in an intuitive sense but then fail to implement them in their own lives. And there is nothing inherently wrong with those alternative choices as long as they can afford them.

As Mr Darcy (of this story - the pretender) was cutting my hair and we were chatting away, he was also clearly doing the calculations in his head. And to him those calculations lead him to ask me his rather inappropriate question. I was so floored by his question that I never really had the chance to explain to him that: We purchased a very cheap block of land that nobody else wanted; We built a small house using our sweat labour; We obtain a lot of energy and water from the resources on this block of land; and we try to consume as much produce as we can which is grown on this farm. It really is that simple.

Well, it isn’t really that simple. The weather here this spring has been so variable (massive swings between hot and cold weather) that the tomato seedlings have died after planting them out, not once, not twice, but three times! This week the editor and I held an emergency tomato summit and discussed the various options for the tomatoes this season.
Tomato cam tells no lies and this is one sad sorry tale of tomato flies and death and stuff (thanks Mariah!)
As the weather had been very changeable between hot and cold, but usually cold, the editor and I decided to place large quantities of composted woody mulch between all of the rows in the tomato enclosure. The enclosure required 2 cubic metres (2.6 cubic yards) of composted woody mulch and the purpose of this is to keep the raised tomato soil mounds warm by levellling out the surface. The composted woody mulch has enough bacterial activity that it should keep the soil warmer than it would otherwise be. The composted woody mulch should also reduce the evaporation of soil moisture on hot and sunny days.
The tomato enclosure has had a good quantity of composted woody mulch placed between the existing rows so as to keep the soil warm
Observant readers will note that a new leaky hose watering system has replaced the overhead sprinkler. The leaky hose will provide more water for the struggling tomato seedlings. The raised soil mounds were also replanted with tomato seedlings and about 100 tomato seeds were planted into those rows as well. We have decided to hedge our bets and so obtained an additional batch of tomato seeds from a quality supplier.

In the event that all of the tomato seeds and seedlings die, then I guess there is always the local native tomato equivalent (which is also in the Nightshade plant family) which is a Kangaroo Apple. Unfortunately, that plant, although it is in the same plant family as tomatoes, the edible fruit tastes like soap to me…
A large Kangaroo apple (purple flowers) is enjoying the conditions and should produce a bumper crop of soap tasting, but edible fruit
We now take a quick break from scheduled programming to report on the ongoing dog wars here at Fernglade Farm. Toothy (a long haired dachshund), the contender, managed to thief off with a container of double cream. Scritchy the boss dog (a miniature fox terrier) was having none of that Toothy business:
Toothy gets the double cream, whilst Scritchy the boss dog looks on and moves in for the kill
Scritchy however, gets what Scritchy wants…
Scritchy gets what Scritchy wants
Back to the regular programming! Speaking of Scritchy, we almost walked on a massive toad the other night. The weather had turned back to winter conditions and it was raining.
Scritchy and I spotted a huge toad here last week
The weather turned really ugly over the past few days as Sir Scruffy can attest, and who in such conditions often resembles a wet mop.
Sir Scruffy performs his best impersonation of a wet mop as the weather turned ugly
I even spotted a dragonfly sheltering under the dry veranda one night as the rain fell and the winds howled.
A dragonfly was sheltering under the dry veranda as the rain fell and the winds howled
Over the weekend, in between the rain, I began to clear up the two huge fallen chunks of trees which almost dropped into the orchard a few weeks back.
One of the two large branches which almost dropped into the orchard over the past few weeks
Fortunately, the chainsaw is a handy tool with which to turn those dropped branches into firewood. Firewood as I should remind the readers, is a mostly free energy source if you live near a forest!
The author cuts up one of the recently fallen massive tree branches into usable firewood lengths
The mowing is now mostly complete. And it has been very interesting to observe just how fast some of the companion plants around the fruit trees grow. Borage is one of the fastest growing plants and is reasonably indestructible.
This little borage plant has begun to rapidly regrow since it was chopped and dropped
The few apricots that I have growing on the many trees here are starting to swell and ripen.
The few apricots that I have growing on the many trees here are starting to swell and ripen
The almonds are growing better this season than ever before!
The almonds are growing better this season than ever before!
The rain added to the cold conditions has meant that the otherwise hardy peaches and nectarine fruit trees have succumbed to curly leaf, which is a fungal disease. As you can see in this fruit tree, the older leaves will die back, and the fruit tree should recover.
The rain added to the cold conditions has meant that the otherwise hardy peaches and nectarine fruit trees have succumbed to curly leaf
The older of the two asparagus beds has begun to regrow new spears since we cut it back hard last week. We are now harvesting those spears and will continue to do so for a few more weeks.
The older of the two asparagus beds has begun to regrow new spears since we cut it back hard last week
A white sapote fruit tree which is a sub-tropical fruit tree which lost its leaves during the winter as it is far outside its normal range has begun to regrow its leaves.
A white sapote fruit tree which lost its leaves during the winter has begun to regrow those leaves
The rhododendrons are looking superb and are putting on a good show of flowers. This one is located next to a sugar maple.
This rhododendron next to a sugar maple is putting on a good show of flowers
But the bearded irises are some of the showiest flowers around!
Bearded irises are some of the showiest flowers around!
The temperature outside now at about 8.30pm is 8.0’C (46.4’F). So far this year there has been 1,110.6mm (43.7 inches) which is up from last week’s total of 1,069.0mm (42.1 inches).