30 November 2016

C'mon Baby, Light My Fire

Garden trash accumulates. Old, dead branches that are too misshapen to use as fuelwood, fat trunkwood too gnarly to split, rotten with wild fungi and infested borer-beatle, Old planks of untreated wood used as garden benches and now falling to bits. Everything must go!

It's better to burn out
Than it is to rust
Ashes to ashes and
Dust to dust...

17 November 2016

Baboon Vandals

Lots of Baboons about. The day before yesterday the dogs took off after a couple of them and disappeared for several hours. It's a big worry--the dogs can easily be severely injured by the Baboons. Eventually Keira returned, completely exhausted by her adventure. She could barely walk up the hill, let alone run from a Baboon turning on her, and her breathing was extremely ragged from exertion and stress. We were hoping that this would discourage the Baboons a bit and keep them at bay for a couple of weeks, but no such luck. One of them was around a couple of minutes ago. Luckily I was alerted by Scyla and I could chase him off. If it was just a case of them stealing fruit, that would be one problem, but
...and thirty minutes later, having chased off another of the bastards who has broken a large branch off our 20-year-old Apple Tree, Scyla Dog has taken off across the farmlands and, by the sounds of things, chased him up a tree where she will no doubt keep him trapped for some hours.

In the twenty years we've been here, we have never had this much trouble with Baboons.

Update 20 min. later: Scyla has returned, thankfully unharmed, from far across the farmland. We have to do something about these thieves -- it's us or them. I am at a loss just what, though...

11 November 2016

Strange Dreams

I had a dream, last night, that a Bushbuck came and ate the tops off my Tomato plants.

Woke up this morning, and went out to empty the rain gauge (5mm), to find

Strange, and slightly scary, to have such powerful dreams!

05 November 2016

Loving Spring

Love this time of year, despite the pressure to get seeds sown, seedlings transplanted, beds prepared, weeds weeded...

Lime-green Salad Tomatoes. Transplanted into their bed just a couple of days ago. Perfect transplanting weather, followed by a couple of days of light (and much needed) rain means that they've coped with the move perfectly.

Pakistani Maroon Beans are just emerging. They're a pole bean, grown for the dry beans. Suits me well, since I should get a higher yield per area than bush varieties. This is a new variety to me, so we're evaluating the variety as well as growing up a larger seed-supply for next year. Lots of pressure to get more bean varieties planted...

The climbing structure for the Pakistani Maroons. We should have a plant at the bottom of each of the hanging poles. Dog keeps an eye out for greedy moles wanting to eat my beanlings.

16 August 2016

Chickens 2.0

It started out a beautiful, sunny morning. Warm for late-winter, to be sure, but not warm enough to work up a sweat wielding a chainsaw. I swear it was all brought on by that egg I ate for breakfast. As I try to restrict my intake of eggs to two a week. A result of being born into a family with histories of heart disease on both sides of the hereditary divide, and a presumed genetic predisposition to high cholesterol levels. So an egg breakfast is always a special one to begin with.

I start with melting a modest bit of butter -- I know, I should probably use something else, but I am deeply suspicious of margarine, it being just a couple of processing steps short of being plastic, and eggs fried in olive oil,... well, they just don't taste right. Into the hot butter go a couple of Jalapeno Chiles, thickly sliced. There's a critical bit of timing here, and the heat of the butter has to be just right, otherwise you're liable to overdo the chiles and they acquire a nasty, bitter, burned flavour. The moment you start coughing -- possibly sneezing, too-- from the capsaicin fumes wafting from the pan (it should be a heavy, cast-iron pan, for preference) it's time to flip the chile slices over and crack your egg directly onto the chiles, which should be clustered together so that the molten butter is drawn close between them. One the egg-white has solidified at the bottom, though not all the way through, clap a lid over the pan, sealing the aromas in, and infusing the steam with those potent fumes. The timing of this step takes a little practise, and depends to some degree, I suppose, on how you like your fried eggs done. Me, I like them cooked through, but still tender and soft. All gods curse the days when I am distracted from the complications of this task at just the wrong time and end up with the yolk all rubbery and pale and tasting like eggy library paste. For me the yolk should definitely be completely runny, but there should be no trace of ungelled white, the whole infused with the divine pungency of the chiles. Other varieties than Jalapeno are also okay if the season is wrong or you prefer some other strain of peppers. Serranos work well if you're looking for something a little hotter. Sweet peppers are not to be entertained, for what would be the point of this twice weekly treat without the heat?

Which brings me, somewhat meanderingly, back to my point...

Despite us having purchased good quality, free-range, organic eggs, I find them to be pale, lacklustre and lacking in flavour when compared with my memories of eggs from our own hens. The texture of the yolk is all thin and runny, too, nothing like the thick, almost syrupy consistency and strong, almost meaty flavour of pasture-fed homegrown.

Time, I think, and, if I'm slightly honest, well past time, to get our own flock again.

This time, though, they'll be housed far from the road so the neighbourhood dogs can't get to them. Besides, the old chicken-run's fences are way past their use-by date. Trees have grown up through the wire mesh in places, complicating a the potential repair job beyond contemplation, and the entire run has become infested with woody weeds. The fences there always were a hopeless cause, because the one end of the run contains a very large and old Oak Tree. During Acorn Season, the local bushpig family, lacking all respect for wire fences, simply lift the mesh with their strong snouts and tusks to gain access to the delicious acornage. And once the fences were broken, all the other local predators would come for their favoured provender -- our chooks. It was a battle I was never going to win. So the chicken run has to move.

Too, the old chicken house was never very satisfactory, the original design having been based upon book-learning and then heavily modified as we rapidly learned what all was wrong with that. Another story for another day, though. Suffice to observe that it was difficult to clean -- so cleaning got delayed and generally neglected -- resulting in problems with mites, dust and smells. We really need a new chook-house, too. All-in-all a start-from-scratch-again sort of a deal.

When we did have happy and healthy chickens, I had always wanted to reduce the amount of feed we bought in for them. Pasture-fed as close to 100% is my aim, though I realise that we will probably need to supplement the food a little in the slow-growth times of the year.

Having considered a number of options, I have picked a spot, not too far from the house, yet not too near, reasonably flat, though quite overgrown with rank grass and weeds. My plan is to build a bomb-proof (or, more precisely, Ratel-proof) enclosure perhaps 5x5m in extent. (I'll go into the design details another time -- this missive has run on far too long already!) and today's job was to start clearing the designated spot, starting with some trees and branches that intrude and generally make it difficult to see the ground well enough for the detailed marking out and planning that's needed before we know just how much fencing material to acquire, so out came the (recently serviced) chainsaw (so running beautifully smoothly and reliably) and I went to work... on an egg.

02 March 2016

Truckalorry Time

There's that grumbling thunder in the distance again, the grunting roar of another truck rumbling downhill, picking up the speed to make it up the next hill, gears grinding as the driver changes up and up again to goad his vehicle, burdened by its load of clay and soil, up over the crest of the hill and down the next trough of our rollercoaster road. It is just past eight in the morning, and already at least five or six loads have passed by, shaking the house, rattling the windows and filling the air with dust and the stench of diesel. I have lost count, by now. Lost count of how long it's been going on. Weeks, at least. Sometimes it feels like it will never come to an end.
But it will, of course. Even if it is a mountain they're flattening, it must eventually come to an end, mustn't it? I have to wonder, though, what failure of imagination causes an architect or town planner to decide that a hill must be removed. I suppose it is harder work to come up with a prettier and more interesting place to build, a place that lives around the hill, that celebrates its heights and valleys and takes advantage of its slopes and curves. But here it has been decreed: the hill must go. And so it has to go somewhere, and, between the local farmer who owns a piece of land that he little loves, a piece of land too inconveniently remote for him to properly care for and learn the value and meaning of, between him and the town planners, they're moving the hill into a little gulley that runs through his land. What paucity of imagination, what poverty of mind wants to flatten the world in this way? Raze that hill, smooth out that valley, fill in the gaps that wrinkle the world, that give the land its texture and character and meaning, its niches and crannies, that keep it a wonder of hidden mysteries discoverable only when you walk their way, leaving your human mind behind to enter the lively universe.

Another truck rumbles past, engine whining with strain to top the rise, brakes groaning and exhaust chuffing and coughing as the truck slows to take the corner. Then down through the gear changes for the long straight track sloping gently down to the valley where the spoil is being dumped. Sometimes it feels like they're rumbling right through the house as they grumble by every five minutes or so. What happened to the quiet country lane we used to live in, the clean, sweet, pure air breathed out by the forest's trees? Did some maniac look at it and decide, "Those people enjoy more than their fair share of peace and quiet. We must give them a taste of what other people live with day in and day out, a taste of how the real world really is. They must get their fair helping of noise and stink and dusty air like the rest of us. It isn't fair, otherwise." And so, another truck rumbles past, carrying its wedge of hillside down into the sweet, wooded valley.

I wonder what will become of the stream that once flowed down that gulley when it rained. Where will that water go now? Will it find a new path and wend its way twistilly down to the river, or will the farmers and gardeners downstream, ignorant of the valley's demise, wrongly complain, in years to come, that Global Warming must have dried up the rain, that the river never used to run so empty. Or it may not. It may decide to follow the same path down to the sea as it's done for thousands of years. For water is strong stuff, more wily and headstrong than people like to think, so it may just decide to take their stinking and sullen clay along with it, downstream to the river, all the way to the sea. And perhaps the farmers and gardeners will complain amongst themselves that the water is muddy and cloudy and foul, and they'll wonder what happened to the clear, sweet stream of years past.

It looks like we might get some rain next week, and very welcome it will be. If we're lucky it will be the end of this dry spell. Even though it is quite normal, at this time of year, for the weather to run hot and dry, we're anxious to get our Winter crops into the ground and off to a good start before they slow down for their cold, deep, midwinter sleep.

I sowed Barley in the Top Field a few days ago. I hadn't planned to. I bought the Barley for malting, to make beer from it, but some Weevils got in to the bag. I found the little buggers before things got too bad, so most of the grain was still whole, though not good enough to malt any more, so I cast it into the field, in amongst the tall grasses and weeds growing there to grow as a Winter cover crop that will add its bulk to the soil come Springtime. Right now I need to cut all that tall weedy growth down so that it covers the seed, mulching it beneath a protective blanket, sheltering it from the wind and sun and thieving birds, turning slow through the Autumn days into compost to enrich and restore the soil. It would be best if I can get that done before the rains come next week.

This is the third season I've been doing this, reviving the compacted and abused land that I call the Top Field. Sullen, sticky mud during wet times, and hard, grey and hostile in the dry, the field was in very poor shape. Conventional thinking would have me go in there with poisons to kill the weeds, plough and rotary cultivator to break up the soil and store-bought fertilizers to inject some instant nutrition, and I would probably have reaped a crop almost immediately, in that very first season of planting. Then I'd have to repeat all that work and expense again the next season if I were to hope for any sort of crop again. And I would be fighting the weeds and the bugs and the parasites and diseases every step of the way as my crop struggled to grow up on the instant-breakfast diet I'd be feeding it. Instead I opted to live with the wrinkles in the land, its peaks and valleys and slopes and curves, its weaknesses and strengths. I planted a varied and complex mix of pioneers directly into the rank and weedy grasses that were there, then slashed the tall growth down as a mulch, as an in-place compost. And then did it again the next season. Let the roots of the plants open up the soil. Let them burrow their way deep into the ground, creating channels and pathways anew for water and nutrients to follow, hollows and crevices for fungi and bacteria to homestead.

And the land responds. The soil comes back to life as the soil-dwellers return, fed by the organic matter, by the fungi breaking down the plants. It regains a texture and a structure that feeds and supports all the living things that it takes to become a healthy, thriving ecosystem underground. The soil is regaining its spongy texture, the small round crumbs clumping together in a dense, fluffy crumble, reconstituting itself from the sullen, sticky clay smear it was, once again becoming able to absorb and hold water vastly within its depths, safe, away from the thieving Sun and wind. With a little luck I should at last be able to get some useful crops growing there next Spring, and I can begin to expand the area, to bring more of the Top Field back to life.

So we bend and flex with the opportunities, we see the chance of rain on its way and we pounce, taking advantage of its blessing. We twist with the curves, sail with the wind, coast down the slopes of chance and flowing water, and up the next hill, trying at each step to bring life, to bring energy, to nutrify and build up the variety and richness that is thriving nature, to begin to learn how to work with, and not against, the advantages of complexity, the self-healing networks of energy and chemistry that spontaneously erupt into being, feeding, supporting and enhancing one another to foster life, abundant and fecund and healthful. To learn the technologies of life, evolution, resilience and adaptability.

Another truck thunders past, bringing its load of dead and spoiled earth. Brakes wheeze as it turns the corner, and I wonder what sort of wasteland will be left behind where the hill once rose, what sort of gardens will people struggle to make where the living soil, the slopes and the valleys and twisty curves have been bulldozed flat and carted away. Every five minutes or so they come, grinding and farting and roaring down our narrow rollercoaster road. The road is quite broken by now from all those heavy-laden trucks rumbling over it. Steel bangs and clanks against steel as the truck bounces over the holes they've made, holes big enough to swallow a small car or a cow. I wonder if the town planners have any thoughts of rebuilding it when they're done. I doubt it. No hills to flatten, here. No valleys to fill. No fun at all. None of that power drug, no stamp of manly authority over the inanimate and silent Earth. Every five minutes or so for at least three weeks and more, and no sign of an end, though an end must come, sooner or later. An end to the madness.

02 October 2014

Experimental Gardening: Quinoa

Quinoa is one of the things we like to call Ooh Aah Foods – wonder foods that some of our hippy neighbours consider a cure-all for everything. Originating from the South Americas it really is a wonderful grain, and very healthful; stuffed with essential amino acids, and high in Calcium, Phosphorus and Iron. We really like eating it. Trouble is, its damn expensive.
Back in late Autumn, while I was still largely unable to tackle any serious gardening, I looked at a packet of Quinoa, and, true to form, though to myself, “How hard can it be? I mean, millions of peasant farmers in South America have been growing this stuff for centuries... why shouldn't I Give It A Go?”

So I did. A little research told me that there are many, many strains of Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, so quite closely related to the Chickweed that so prolifically sprouts all over our Winter veggie garden) adapted mainly for various altitudes ranging from coastal plains in Chile to the high Andes of Bolivia and Peru. It is a cool-weather species, so definitely something for our usually-sparse Winter garden. On the other hand, we don't get frosts, so we're ahead of the game in that regard.

The packet of Quinoa we had in the grocery cupboard was on we bought off the “health food” shelf of our local supermarket, and originated from Peru, so it looked to me like the odds were stacked against us. I guess that Quinoa from Peru is more likely to be a high-altitude variety, and we are at a decidedly low altitude. Then, too, many imported foodstuffs get irradiated – supposedly to ensure that no produce-borne diseases make it into the country. On the other hand, irradiated foods are usually labelled as such (though not always, since such labelling is not a hard legal requirement) and I would assume that the very reputable health-food packager would be somewhat sensitive to the issues of food irradiation. So my guess was that the Quinoa was not really very likely to have been irradiated, which would naturally kill the germ-plasm, and make germination impossible. There was also some question as to the suitability of our quite heavy soil for Quinoa cultivation.

Nothing daunted, I cleared a small patch in one of the veggie beds, about ½ a metre long, and sowed a handful of the Quinoa “grain” by simply scattering it on the prepared soil surface and raking the grains shallowly into the soil.

Much to my delight, it germinated within about a week or ten days (as my frequently failing memory serves.) It grew away quite happily, though numbers dwindled steadily through the Winter as every bug in the land decided to have a munch on this new, exotic foodstuff. Losses were compounded by my “neglectful” methods of growing things – I tend not to water crops except at critical times. Mainly we lack an adequate source of irrigation water and are forced to rely on rainfall. I suppose you could argue that it is a simple case of bowing to the inevitable, but I call it a “selection pressure” in evolving varieties that grow well under the conditions we have available.

Quinoa Grain HeadsNow it is Springtime, and the 5 or so remaining plants have produced lovely little heads of grain. The plants are a bit spindly and grew to about knee-high before forming flower-heads. As they show clear signs of drying and are beginning to lose of of the grains I pulled the plants out of the ground to finish drying them indoors. The next stage of the experiment will be figuring out how to process the grain further: Quinoa grains are coated in a soapy (saponin) layer that needs to be washed off before the grain is edible. I consider this saponin layer a huge advantage under our growing conditions, as we “suffer” from losing a lot of small seed-crops to birds. The Cabbage tribe are particularly favourite targets for myriad seed-eating birds, as are the (Summer growing) seed Amaranths; the birds have an uncanny knack of stripping out seed pods and heads just a few days before they're truly ripe enough to harvest. I've come to the conclusion that the only solution will be to completely cage such crops if we're determined to grow them. The Quinoa, on the other hand, suffers no such depredations due to its unpalatable soapy coating, so that's a big win!

All in all, I will definitely grow Quinoa again next Winter, and on a much more adventurous scale. This could even be a viable cash crop for us, given the very high prices it commands. I will do things a little differently, though: I believe we will obtain much better yields if we start the plants in seed-trays and transplant them to a more regular spacing in a much better prepared bed. Bug protection will probably be best achieved by interplanting the Quinoa with other trap crops (Buckwheat, perhaps.)

It's been an interesting little experiment, and one that rates as a good success with exciting prospects for our food future, so I am happy to count on it being a regular in our Winter garden.

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