19 December 2007

Best Laid Plans, Plins, Plons, Ploons

So the Summer garden is suffering badly from neglect, the brewing project is going much, much slower than desired, and I've left this blog alone for far too long.  In part I can blame the weather: its been quite wet so far this season.  Not that we're complaining about having plenty of water...

After the very early start this Spring, everything ran to a standstill for quite a while.  I thought perhaps it was just me doing something odd, but after a couple of other local gardeners made similar comments I have to conclude that there's been something odd going on with the weather.

But the excuses aside!  I've been hacking away in front of a computer.  I landed some paying development work, and decided to take it on in the interests of Earning Money -- something of a novelty after almost three years of Living By Our Wits!  There are a few things I'd like to do that will benefit from some cash injection from the Evil Empire...  solar panels, (electrical ones -- we're already more-than-well set up with hot water panels!) paying for Dale's University Sojourns, (so far he's doing it in far better time than I did, so I'm not in a position to criticise!) fixing the Rotovator so that I can nail the Kikuyu and get going with grains, wire bins for more compost heaps, plus some for mushrooms, a wood stove... there's A List.

We've been reaping the benefit of earlier work -- scapes and giant "Garlic", beautiful Cabbages and Kohlrabi, beans ready to be harvested for drying,... but some of the harvest is certainly going to take a knock!

Oh well, Needle, Nardle, Noo, and on we Goo...

27 November 2007

Storming-up a Brew

For a while, now, I've been planning to start brewing beer again, as I did until some years ago.  Remember that one of our self-sufficiency goals is Pizza dinner made completely from self-produced ingredients, baked in a self-built oven.  And a critical part of any self-respecting Pizza dinner has to be the beer!

As ever, the challenge is in getting all the ingredients and equipment needed.  Despite homebrewing being quite popular in SA, it is not like more civilized parts of the world where there are plenty of homebrew shops that can supply the necessary. The tiny handful of suppliers that exist are hard-to-find, carry very limited ranges of ingredients, and are generally not very useful.

grain fields
grain fields
grain fields
Last weekThe week before last I drove down to Gansbaai to rescue pick up J from a visit to her parents. The drive down takes about 5 hours, and the route takes one through the country's breadbasket.  Vast tracts, kilometre upon kilometre of rolling grainlands, as far as the eye can see for hour upon hour upon hour whilst traveling at 120km/h.

It is the harvest season. The road was fraught with grain trucks carting the harvest to silos.  Wheat, barley, wheat, oats, wheat, canola rapeseed, wheat, rye.  And, of course, wheat.

I made a stop in Swellendam, to buy some stone-ground whole flour for breadmaking; there is an old watermill at the local museum where they mill a small quantity of wheat every week.  Swellendam is also in the very heart of Grain Country, and sports a very large grain-storage facility.  As I drove out of town, at least 3-dozen grain trucks were lined up at the silos to offload their precious harvest.  It's been a nerve-wracking time for the farmers.  Millions of Rands tied up in getting the seed into the ground.  Less than perfect rainfall during the growing season, and too much rain a mere fortnight before the harvest.  But at last the harvest is in, safely stored in a silo.  The nation eats.

I detoured off the usual route to Gansbaai, travelling via Caledon -- another major grain-handling town about an hour-and-a-half from Cape Town.  The town is dominated by massive grain silos and the railway tracks that run through them, ready to transport the grain to Gauteng.  My reason for the detour is that Caledon is also home to a very large maltings: SAB Maltings.  The same SAB -- previously South African Breweries -- now SABMiller, that is one of the largest beer conglomerates in the world.  The maltings was a fascinating and entertaining diversion. They produce something like 220000 tonnes of malt a year!  But they're still happy to deal with homebrewers wanting only a tiny, little, insignificant 50kg sack of pale malt.  A very helpful, friendly lady named Estelle was wonderful in helping me get my malt.  For them a tiny little drop in an ocean of beer.  For me a rather large1 quantity.  Had to park the car on a weighbridge long enough to weigh a small train so that they could weigh my purchase.  50kg on the nose!

I'd have taken a picture of my little Corolla pimpmobile on the weighbridge, but, after my single pic of the maltings, the security guy on the gate came running over to tell me, "No, no! You're not allowed to take pictures!"  Say what?  It's not like this is a weapons factory.  They make malt!  We've known how to make malt for thousand of years! WTF?

"What would happen if I just stood outside the gate, across the road and took a picture?" I asked him. "You couldn't stop me then."

"Yes," he agreed, "It's a stupid rule, but its more than my job's worth!"2

I promised him that I would delete the picture from my phone.  Faithless liar.
Caledon Maltings
The Nation's Beer

Much of the drive is along the N2 -- the National Road that runs from Cape Town all the way to Durban and parts beyond.  Driving along the smaller roads between Caledon and Gansbaai gave me a better appreciation of the vastness of the grainlands.  I was quite surprised at the humbleness of the machinery still used to gather in the harvest.  I expected to see lines of giant combines, four abreast, followed by large tractor-trailers catching the grain.  What I saw was simple mowers, cutting down the grain and gathering it into windrows, ready for the thresher in a few days, followed by the bailer to make those gigantic round hay-bales that need a tractor with a forklift attachment to move them.

There was a logic to the old-style balers that made rectangular bales.  Bales were still small enough for a man to lift.  These huge round things? Never!

What would happen to these farmers if you took their diesel away?

They plough, disk and plant their multi-million-rand seedbed using massive four-wheel-drive tractors, four to six wheels per axle.  They spray, spray, spray, poison upon poison, using aeroplanes and wide-boom sprayers aback their tractors. They harvest -- be it with the very large all-in-one combine-harvester mobile grainfactories (and there were some) or with the humbler, simpler  and cheaper machinery -- and load their harvest onto 22m long trucks to be transported hundreds of kilometres to a silo.  From there the grain gets trucked -- mostly trucked, since the rail network no longer finds it economic to transport grain -- to the millers.  The industrial mills that tear the grain apart into its smallest usable components, to be reconstituted into computer-managed maximum-profit product, stuffed with additives to enhance the colour, smell, and, mostly, shelf-life.

What happens when you take the oil away?

What happens when diesel is too expensive?

How do the millions eat?

Let alone drink beer...

The simple truth is, "They don't!" The Elephant In The Room That Nobody Wants To Talk About: there are simply too many of us humans in an energy poor future.  I am not suggesting a catastrophic starvation scenario -- those are more usually politically engendered than arising from natural consequence.  But I don't see how to feed upwards of 6½-billion people without cheap and abundant energy.

I'm planning to get into small-scale grains over the next year or so.  Even if its just for making my own beer :-)



[Pics taken with cellphone camera.  Please excuse the pathetic quality.]


[1] Nearly typed "a very lager quantity" there... Freudian ship?


[2] Not in those words. Poetic license. This is a Xhosa-speaking man for whom English is a third or fourth language. You get the gist. (May I  one day speak Xhosa half as well as he speaks English!)

24 November 2007

Flood Update

Well, the rain has stopped for a little while, though there's a reasonable chance we'll get some more today.  304mm so far, in a span of about 36 hours!  It's stuff like this that really screws-up the averages.

The N2 (national road) is/was blocked in at least two places nearby.  Over 1000 people have had to be airlifted to safety.  More rain forecast for Monday.

Our road is very badly damaged, but people seem to be getting in and out.  Several people in the neighbourhood have been asking the district roads people to fix the culvert for a long time, now, to no avail.  My guess is that they'll get around to fixing it just in time for the next floods!

22 November 2007

A Rain Of Fish

One of my very first posts when I started this blog was about a Big Rain – the Floods of '06, a little over a year ago. Well, brace yourself for The Sequel!

After a drizzly day, yesterday, the heavens opened in the late afternoon, and have not yet shut. At about 8 this morning the rain-guage was showing a guesstimated 102mm overnight.  The scale ends at 100mm. All the dams in the area are overflowing with ummm...  interesting... results for the roads.  I think we'll be unable to get to town for a while, even after the rain stops.  And it's showing no signs of letting-up yet.

There's a river down the middle of the veggie garden, since the small dam beside the house overflows that way.  No serious harm to anything, though, since it was designed and the earth carefully shaped to channel the overflow between veg beds.  It's only the odd mole-tunnels that can cause some small washouts.  Pity the poor Moles, though.

In other parts of the region people are being helicoptered to safety. We're pretty safe; just helicopter in some Scotch and we'll be fine for quite awhile ;-)

Many more pics at Photobucket for the interested. Including the Rain of Fish.  (A bunch of freshly-dead fish lying around where they've been washed out of some dam or other. Great amusement and yummies for the Dogs!)  Sadly Photobucket seems to lack any way of putting the pictures in any kind of sensible order... :-(

Congratulations to Kevin and Becky, and a big Welcome to Owen! We wish you much happiness, learning and fun!

10 November 2007

Chicken Hygeine

The Cottage Smallholder » "How do I keep my chickens clean?" is a great post about Chicken Hygiene!  Chickens are simply not very clean animals.  It's OK up to a point to justify some of their habits by rationalising, "Well, there's no sense applying human standards to other animals."  Mountain Gorillas, for instance,  die if they don't eat each others' shit, since that's how they share certain enzymes vital to their digestive systems.1

Chicken Mites are a real bugger and get out of hand really fast in warm weather.  I detest using poisons, so dealing with Mites was a real dilemma for me for a long time, until The Lightbulb Moment a few years ago.  Now, about four times a year, I clear out the bedding and crap from the chookhouse, and then take a blowtorch to all the surfaces (especially perches.)  Works like a bomb2 and kills all bugs and their egss, provided I play the flame back and forth over each area for a while and let it get good and hot.  Occasionally I get a bit too enthusiastic and manage to scorch the wood a little, but usually there's no problem.

Speaking of which, its probably time I cleaned out the chicken house again this weekend...

[1] I read it somewhere.  What is this? Wikipedia? The Spanish Inquisition?


[2] ...visions of broken bits of chookhouse flying through the air...

29 October 2007

Crop Rotations

Much can be said and written about crop rotation, and much is. Most gardening books I've seen1 seem to recommend one or other variation on a four-year rotation: Legumes-Brassicas-Roots-Everthing else.

Mike of Tiny Farm Blog mentioned in passing that he uses a 7-year rotation scheme. It caught my eye because I, too, use a 7-year plan, and such a long rotation plan is pretty unusual, I think.  My reason for it is this: We like Tomatoes, and lots of them. We really, really like Chillis. We like Potatoes, although they're quite a challenge here, being a favourite snack for Porcupine. Let us not mention Eggplant, due to my ongoing conspicuous lack of success...

So I'm stuck with trying to grow a hell of a lot of Solanums, all more-or-less related, all prone to a common basket of diseases.  And I just couldn't make it work in a four-year rotation scheme.  After much reading, thinking and experimentation, I came up with the following rotation plan:
  1. Lime well (and compost if it's a new bed) then plant Legumes.
  2. Compost well with very good compost2, planting Brassicas.
  3. Compost if the bed needs it, and plant Onions, Leeks, Celery, Fennel.
  4. Supplementary compost, lime or gypsum if needed, to support The Tomatoes.
  5. Roots -- Carrots, Turnips, Beets. By now all that compost is very well broken down, leaving the soil deep and soft.
  6. Lime/gypsum according to pH, and then The Leaves: Endive, Lettuce, Chicory, Chard. Also Radishes and Rocket.
  7. Good compost to support the Chillis.
I am still far from totally satisfied with it!

The glaring omission are the Squash tribe; usually they get squeezed into the Brassica bed, since the Squashes are strictly a Summer thing, when Brassicas (which are Winter-proof here) tend to get neglected in favour of Summers Orgy of Flavours. Otherwise I get some of the bush varieties into the Roots bed.

Although I've managed to keep the Tomatoes/Potatoes as far apart as possible from the Chillis, I am finding that I still don't have enough space for either of them! Its challenging when you're trying to grow a dozen different Tomato varieties in quantities large enough to feed yourselves for a year.

Then, too, I've lately ramped-up on Lettuces and Asian greens (Pak Choi, Tatsoi, Mustard) to the point where one bed every seven years is just not enough. I don't sweat too much over using beds out of order for Lettuces, since they're in and out so quickly, and harbour so few pests and diseases, and demand so little of the soil, that I think it is very unlikely to cause any problems, but I already have problems with overwintering Brassica pests.

There are also a few "other things" -- Tomatillos, (we love Mexican food!) Artichokes, Parsley, Dhanya and Basil, (we use quite a bit of that trio for Pesto) seed-crops needing beds for much longer timespans -- that cause disruptions to this idealised plan, but it seems to work pretty well.  The next challenge will be to work grains into the plan, and I would like to get the seed-crops better separated from the food rotation.

What's your scheme?

[1] Not so very many gardening books. I'm more inclined to watch the plants themselves for the lessons I need to learn.

[2] Not all composts are created equal. Some are mere courtesy calls on Mr Soil Structure, adding little in the nutrition department. Others are something special and deserve due reverence.

26 October 2007

The White Lions of Timbavati

Blogger for Positive Global Change AwardThat's three times, now! Three times that I've been tagged as a "Blogger for Positive Global Change". First by Sarah at Farming Friends, who tagged me months ago1, then, just in the past couple of days by James of "The Good Life" and Robbyn on "The Back Forty".  Wow! Thank you all!2  I'll take the opportunity to act on something that has bothered me for a while, now: Reading this blog it would be easy to think that the whole "self-sufficiency, sustainable future, post-peak-everything" idea is, for us, mostly about gardening. It can never be that simple.

Africa's Most Sacred People
Last night we went to a fascinating, shocking, terrible, wonderful talk/video/fundraiser in Plettenberg Bay (a schlep -- about a 50 minute drive away) presented by Linda Tucker, to raise funds and awareness of the plight of the White Lions of Timbavati.  Linda (who was at school for a while together with J) wrote an incredible book, "Mystery of the White Lions: Children of the Sun God", which we are lucky enough to own in its first edition. Her book documents her incredible, 15-year spiritual journey from international model to being named "Protector of the White Lions" by no lesser a person than the Lion Queen of Timbavati.

White Lions are considered by the High-Shamans of many tribes to be Africa's most sacred animals. According to sacred tradition they were sent by God to teach us how to become human.  It is said that if ever the White Lions disappear from the Timbavati, all Africa will die.

Science and Business
The White Lions are a genetic variation on ordinary tawny Lions, their white (and they really are snowey-white, not merely some lighter shade of brown) colouring results from a recessive gene present in the Timbavati lion population, exactly like blue eyes in humans results from a recessive gene.  They are not albinos; they are a true white colour.

Scientific estimates place the number of White Lions at less than 300 individuals. Not one White Lion is left in the wild.  The Global White Lion Protection Trust is engaged in efforts to reintroduce White Lions into the wild, and things are looking hopeful. The trouble is that, in the wild, the lions become vulnerable to criminal "hunters" who have no compunction in illegally selling a kill to some rich first-worlder3. So, ironically, keeping a lion free turns out to be quite expensive. The Trust is also trying to get various legislative measures, CITES listings and other pushed through to protect these unique Spirit Guides.  Sadly the battle is made difficult because the White Lions are not a genetically distinct species from ordinary tawny lions; they are "simply" a variety of Panthera leo. And, because Lions are not an endangered species, trade in Lions is permitted between zoos, parks, private collectors all around the world. Sadly, this means that trade in White Lions thrives, too, since they are afforded no special protection, despite the deep spiritual significance they hold.

The Timbavati lies in the Eastern part of the country, bordering the Kruger National Park. Besides being famous for the White Lions, the area is infamous for what has become known as the "Canned Hunting Industry." Wealthy landowners "farm" animals for trophy hunting. The White Lions are the most prized of these trophies, fetching upwards of US$70,000 a head. They are bred and raised in captivity, never knowing freedom, never knowing the hunt, denied the freedom of their natural homeland. They are tranquilized and constrained in tiny compounds. And then shot dead by some Brave Hunter standing safe outside the fence, to become a stuffed trophy.

The video showed several lions being "hunted" in this manner. A mature lioness, majestic in her power, awesome in her might, her beauty, confused, dazed and frightened by drugs and strangeness, tethered to a truck. Leaps into the air, screaming and twisting as shot after shot after shot after shot hammer into her...  Her cubs paw at her dead body...



I cannot imagine the worldview of a person who is comfortable with this travesty. I cannot comprehend the soul sickness that must attend such depravity. It would be all too easy to fall into the trap of hating the people who run canned hunting operations and their customers. But really I think they're no more than a manifestation of a sickness that runs deep in our western-mode society (and the whole world lives to a greater degree in that western-mode society.) The sickness that starts with us seeing ourselves as distinct from the natural world, somehow superior to it and aloof. The sickness that results in our believing that "it is up to us to save the planet" -- from the global climate change we have induced, from the poverty of the strip-mall culture, from the soul-sucking aggression of the money system, from the poisons we've spewed into our air, soil and water.

The Earth exists quite happily without us. The Earth has been self-correcting against all manner of disaster for billions of years. The Earth and her people need us big-headed monkies not at all.  The only thing that needs saving is humanity itself.



Take Action
Please click over to the Global White Lion Protection Trust website for more information than I can reasonably fit here. Make a donation while you're there, or, better yet, become a member of the Trust. Your Dollars, Euros and Yen are more powerful currencies than ours; what is a small amount for you is a large amount in Rands, and packs a correspondingly powerful punch.

I highly recommend Linda's book as a fascinating insight into the spiritual heart of Africa. Proceeds all go towards saving White Lions and reintroducing them into the wild.

Please blog about this, write about this, shout about this, talk, sing, dance about this. Help us get the word out to more and more people. Help us celebrate the fact of the White Lions.  Marketers and business-people, politicians and the bloggeratti, all are saying how powerful is this new mode of conversation, how quickly and viral a message can become.  Let us prove that power now.

As an African I beseech you to help us save our spirit guides. As an apprentice human being, I tell you that we are lost if we cannot save these White Lions -- our guardians.

They were sent here to teach us our humanity.  It seems they're not done teaching us yet.


[1] I'm practicing hard to make the SA Olympic Procrastination Squad, but am being outcompeted by the bureaucrats in the Dept. Environmental Affairs and Tourism.  I don't think it is fair that government employees should be allowed to compete for Olympic Teams.

[2] I'll tag some other blogs as Bloggers for Positive Global Change in a separate post. I don't want to stray too far from the desperate, urgent, terrifying, heart-rending message of the White Lions.

[3] Just so you don't get the wrong picture: the people running these canned-hunting operations are not impoverished AK47-wielding third-worlders trying to eke out a living anyway they can. They are extremely wealthy, powerful, well organised business people who will stop at nothing to keep their multi-million dollar a year business intact. The government is set to finally enact legislation (it's been  years in the making) in February next year to ban canned hunting. The canned-hunting industry has already made it clear that they will spend whatever it takes to fight the legislation through the courts, all the way to the Constitutional Court.  Meanwhile, I am certain, they will simply bribe their way around the law -- just another business expense -- so I doubt the law will have any real effect.

04 October 2007

Garlic Rust

That's it!  The garlic has succumbed to Rust. It's quite usual, really, just not so early.  Normally I can just leave the bulbs in the ground until  November, and still get a fair harvest, and they give me a pretty good return despite the Rust.  This year, though, the Rust has been exceptionally early, and many most of the plants have just keeled over.  Feeling around in the soil tells me that the Garlic bulbs are still very small, and far from harvestable.  If I leave them to the depradations of the Rust, they'll do nothing further at all, and we'll end up with a dismal Garlic harvest.  Being a family that takes its Garilc seriously, this is a disaster.

Since I claim, half heartedly (or is that half-arsedly?) to be a research gardener, I'm trying a small experiment: I've chopped the (totally rust-infested) leaves off about 1/3 of the plants.  Of course they've immediately started pushing out new leaves, but I'm hoping that they won't get affected as quickly as when they have an existing load of orange-brown leaves.

Time will tell; I'm even contemplating trialling a Summer planting of Garlic (something I've never done before) as a Path To Recovery.

Life without Garlic is just unthinkable!

24 September 2007

Carbon Footprint of a Wedding

Finally! Two weeks of family from all over the country. Two weeks of The Hectic Social Round. Jason and Carey safely married -- it was a very nice wedding, one of the nicest I've ever been to; very low key, casual and fun!  But I do confess I'm glad its all over.  The wheel of the generations has turned another turn...

I knew we were getting pretty bad at the whole Social Gathering deal, but we have obviously become a bit more reculsive and hermit-like than previously suspected. Space, quiet time, solitude have become positive needs. The past fortnight, as much as we have enjoyed having all the families around, became a trial over the last few days. We, along with J&C, are the only people who actually live in this area, so friends and family arrived from all over the country -- Pietermaritzburg, Grahamstown, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Gansbaai.  I shudder to think of the Carbon footprint of this wedding!  Carey's mom drove from here to Port Elizabeth and back no less then three times -- a drive of three hours each way! -- to cart people to and from the airport there -- all because airfares to PE are a bit cheaper than airfares to George (our nearest airport.)  A clear case where individuals' personal, localized self-interest reflects a direct contradistinction to our common interest.  Crazy stuff...

Needless to say, not much has happened in the way of self-sufficiency for the past fortnight, apart from heavy harvesting the delicious baby-Lettuce mix. Thankfully the crop stood up well to the demands of the crowds!

First Artichoke harvest this morning. Only two 'Chokes, but they look great. I was not even aware that the plants were beginning to flower.

09 September 2007

Catching Up (A Little)

Whew! Busy times mean less blogging. Consider this a quick catch-up, and I'll try and fill in the gaps in a couple of weeks' time.

Veggies
Despite the Wounded Knee (still troubling me, forcing me to move slowly and carefully, but steadily getting better, thanks!) I've managed to dig eight new beds so far, with another 5 to go before I reach my goal. I don't expect too much out of the new beds -- they still need a couple of years of composting before they reach a good level of health.

The Tomatoes have come up. The first were already showing their heads last Friday, only five days after they were sown. This is out in the open , mind-- no greenhouse, no glass, no bottom heat. Only the Tigerellas are being tardy. (Uh Oh!) Tomatillos are up, alongside Radicchio, Lettuce mix, Endive, some of the Squashes and Artichokes, and even a few of the Chillis.  (That was quick!)  I'll follow-up with yet another sowing of most of these again towards the end of the month.


So What's Been Happening?

So what has kept us so busy, you may wonder... Older Son is getting married next weekend, so we're having family from both sides descend on us for the coming week :-O Bride's family are all from Pietermaritzburg, Groom's from Cape Town. Don't expect much in the way of farm news for the next couple of weeks.

During a couple of rainy days early last week I managed to get closer to the finish line with a software project I've been working on sporadically for a couple of months. More when I'm closer to releasing unleashing it on the unsuspecting world! A hint: it's to do with my main passions and predilections -- gardening, seed-saving and tilting at corporatist/ globalist windmills.

The Mushroom Book arrived, Hooray!  Paul Stammets' Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. Wow! Everything from A to Z. So lots to learn. Already I'm trying to figure how and when to incorporate fungal growth into my soil improvement efforts.

28 August 2007

Seeds and Stress

The results of the weekend's planting. Doesn't look like much, does it?

Spring sowing time is always a bit stressful for me. For most vegetable varieties I save all my own seed -- with some notable exceptions -- Radishes, locally-common Turnips, Cauliflowers and Broccoli. I really love saving seed, seeing plants go through their whole lifecycle, from babyhood when they're at their most tender and succulent, through girding their strength, storing up their energies to explode into flower. Ah, the Joy of Sex! Then, into their dowdy, shabby days as they develop their seed, finally to release their offspring to start the next cycle.

But for me, the apprentice gardener, its a stress mission. Did I let the seed develop fully enough last season? Or was I too paranoid of the bugs waiting to pounce on the booty? Did some weevils get into the seed? (hello Peas and Beans!) Have I hung onto the seed too long? Has some invisible bacteria taken a toll?  Did I process the seed properly after harvesting?

There are lots of reasons for saving your own seed, and I mostly try and make it a policy to only ever buy, beg, borrow or steal a new variety once.  After that I try my best to save my own seed, despite my notoriously poor labelling habits and generally dismal level of organisation!

Generally I sow a mix of last-year's seed, plus a bit from the year before if that's proven itself as "good" seed. That's assuming I actually have any seed from last year. Some varieties, notably the Beets and Chards, make seed that is so long-lived that I keep their seed for up to five years at a stretch. Mind you, I'm constantly sowing and growing them, so I notice very quickly if a batch of seed starts to show poor germination, or if plants are not-so-vigorous.  But, as I'm filling seed-trays, popping the seeds into them and covering them carefully, there seems to always be the question in my mind, "Will they come up OK?"

Usually they do, and all my worry is for nothing.  Occasionally there are "disasters", and once in a while the disaster doesn't make itself apparent until the plant starts fruiting or flowering, and I learn that I've been careless with plant-isolation distances. Then we celebrate the Wonders of Weird Chillis.

There's still a lot of direct-sown stuff to take care of, lots of beds to dig (if the damn knee will just cooperate!) But these as-yet-barren trays represent the Precious Darlings -- the Chillis, Tomatoes, Tomatilloes, Tamarillos, Squashes and Eggplants.  Nothing I can do to help them now, beyond watering.

25 August 2007

The Battle of Wounded Knee

Why does Bad Stuff always, always choose the worst possible time to happen?  Spring is almost upon us; I am expanding the planting space quite a lot -- from the 13 beds that we already have, to at least 26.  (For the first time ever I'll be making beds in sizes other than 10m2.  Gosh! Adventure!)  I have already dug 6 of the new beds.  I also have to get compost heaps going to feed all those new beds, otherwise they'll be quite useless.

Work was coming along quite nicely, when it all came to an abrupt halt.  About a week ago I managed to do Something Evil to my right knee.  Now, I have quite a high tolerance for pain, so, in my normal fashion, "just lived with it", apart from trying to move in ways that don't agravate the pain or stress my knee.  I figure that pain serves a function.  But alas! It's no good. I keep doing Bad Things, like kneeling down to pull some weeds, or cut some Lettuce for a salad. Yesterday I gave in and resorted to anti-inflammatory tablets.  Trouble is, right now, faced with the busiest time of year, I can't do much of anything.

Just as well we had rain for the last few days -- a nice, soft, soaking rain -- not much in volume, but it has done a world of good for the soil and seedlings.  That kept me indoors and quiet (and frustrated, and cabin-fevered) for most of the week, and now the soil is far too wet to work for at least a couple of days (except I could be hauling horse-shit and making compost heaps, and spreading wood-shavings in pathways, preparing insect-netting, building a greenhouse...) Still, happy to have had the rain, though.

The Tomatoes and Chillis I planted last month have started showing-up in their trays.  Some of them are still MIA, but I'm quite surprised to see anything of them at all.  This weekend will see the start of serious planting of Tomatoes, Chillis, Basil, Tomatillos and Tamarillos in seed trays.  Pole Beans, too, if The Knee holds out, since that means bending down.  Last weekend was the Squashies.

I always have a great deal of difficulty with the Squash Tribe as they fruit just when Fruit/Pumpkin Flies are at their most prolific, and we frequently lose close to 100% of the crop.  Last year I partially solved the problem with a very light-grade shade net -- 12% shading -- and got a decent harvest.  Trouble is its a damn expensive way to cover a very small area.  We've only last week eaten the last of the stored Squashes.  Black Futsu proved themselves quite hardy to the Fruit Fly stings, with about 40% of the crop getting by without any netting at all. Then I heard a secret from the largest ("conventional") veggie farmer locally. "Sow seed on the 14th of August."  By the time the Fruit Flies are rampaging, the Squashes and Pumpkins are hard and thick enough to resist the stings.

So that's what I did.  Here's hoping it works even a little bit!

17 August 2007

Small Victory Against Global Warming

TV adverts...  Ugh!  I so seldom see them, 'cos I so seldom look at the TV.  One one of my rare forays into the mental-candy-floss zone a few months ago just took my breath away.  For all the wrong reasons.  An advert, heavily disguised as a Public Service Announcement, telling us all that "dishwashers use 50% less energy, and 10x less water than handwashing."

Now this might be true in some parts of the world where people wash their dishes by holding them under a stream of hot, running water (and then stick them in the dishwasher!)1 but I cannot, in my wildest imaginings, think of anyway it can be true in a developing country, where the vast majority of people wash their dishes by hand, and many, many of them lack running water in their homes, so having to transport the water by the (heavy) bucketload.  I know that modern dishwashers have become pretty efficient, but I still don't see how they can use less than 3 cups of water -- which would 10x less than we use to wash dishes by hand, in the sink -- to get a load of dishes clean.  In fact, the best figures I can find claim that a high-efficiency dishwasher, in its "eco" mode, uses 12 litres of water.  A sink is full enough for a stack of dishes with 5 or 6 litres.

I lack any way at all to measure the energy efficiency: our hot water is heated by the solar panel on the roof, so our energy expenditure on water heating is almost nil.  Really, really hard to get 50% more efficient than that!

I won't even begin to get into comparing the embedded energy costs of constructing, plumbing, transporting, and eventually disposing of, a dishwasher!  After all, to be completely fair I'd have to figure out the embedded energy cost of our sink and solar panels...

The ad closed with the tagline "so do your bit for the environment." By buying a dishwasher?

Sponsored by Reckitt Benckiser South Africa, makers/distributors of Finish dishwashing products, the ad is part of their campaign to "increase the penetration of dishwashers in the country by an additional 100 000 units by the end of 2007" gratuitously aided by some addle-witted plunk-heads at theCentral Energy Fund -- a state-owned energy company -- who didn't think to question RB's self-serving lies.

After my third viewing of this disingenuous piece of crap,  I could stand the deception no longer.  Booted the trusty 'puter, and fired off a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority.

Well, the weeks ticked by.  I have not seen the ad lately, so assume that the ad-campaign has come to an end.  Lo', yesterday, arrives an email from the ASA, freighted with a PDF:

"A hypothetical reasonable person, on seeing the commercial, would understand that it is a fact that dishwashers use 50% less energy and 10 times less water than washing dishes by hand. The documentation at hand, however, does not specifically confirm this, and specifically indicates that 'study need to be continued to verify these preliminary learning.'

"Based on the above, the [ASA] Directorate is not satisfied that the claims that 'dishwashers use 50% less energy and 10 times less water than washing dishes by hand' is substantiated.  The commercial is therefore in contravention of [the advertising Code]....

"the respondent is required to... withdraw the claim.. with immediate effect... from every medium in which they appear"
Victory is Ours!  A small one, but victory nonetheless.


[1] I've seen it with my own eyes, but being a polite guest in their house, refrained from my usual sort of reaction.

11 August 2007

Can't Wait for Summer

For once I feel like I have the Spring Panic under control; I just have to prepare another ten or so beds. And No, I won't be bastard trenching them all...

My annual order of seeds from Baker Creek arrived yesterday, to much excitement!  Sadly they were out of stock on the Golden Wax Beans I was so looking forward to :-( but they threw in a freebie of a nice-sounding Turnip (Bianca Piatta -- an Italian heirloom) so I have no complaints.   This after I had decided that the three Turnip varieties I already have are Enough!  They refunded the $1.75 cost of the out-of-stock Beans.  In cash.  And the cash made it through the Notoriously Evaporative South African Postal System intact.

Now what the hell do I do with a dollar bill and three quarters?

I am really, really looking forward to the Tomatoes, just hoping to hell that we don't have too bad a blight year!   Steven, in his Dirt Sun Rain blog writes about Tomato Mutants and volunteers. Among this year's planting will be a big beefsteak Tomato I've nicknamed "Sweet Pink" for now. It popped up last year in among the Black Krim, looking quite similar to a Brandywine, but with a very different flavour -- almost too sweet for my taste -- and certainly nothing like Black Krim.

Hey, ho; hey, ho; it's off to dig I go...

08 August 2007

Murder in Hobbiton

This place, this Braamekraal, often feels to me like Tolkien's Hobbiton.  Yesterday we had the illusion well and truly shattered.  A neighbour, John, living in a cottage some 2km up the road from us was murdered in his own home, sometime between 10 and 11 in the morning.

We bumped into one of the investigating policemen around 4:30 in the afternoon just as we set out for a walk with the dogs; he was just waiting for the forensics team to get finished before he could go in with his tracker dog.  They suspect that the killer came from Keurhoek village, about 5km away.

Update 8 Aug 17:50:  We had a visit from the police Inspector this afternoon to let us know that the murderer has been caught.  He returned to the scene of his gruesome crime in the middle of last night and burned the house down, presumably to destroy evidence, and the police tracked him to his own house and arrested him at 2:30 this morning.  Much relief all round, here, I can tell you!

03 August 2007

Garden Archaeology

What sort of antediluvian creature wielded this Fearsome Implement?

This axe-head is about 50% larger than any I've worked with.  Gnarled and knobbled with rust and encrustations, I have to wonder how long it has been lying in the soil...

I dug up this Fearsome Implement a few days ago, just as I was coming to the (final! eventual!) finish of a new deep bed in the veggie garden.  About 30cm deep, the fork stopped with a clunk.  We don't have many stones in the soil, here, but there are a few, so that was the natural assumption.  But nooooo....!

My guess is that the axe-head dates back to about the 1950's, but what do I know?  It could be as old as 120 years!  In other parts of the garden we've dug up such miscellan├Ža as Bed Springs, bicycle wheels, many, many glass bottles, ranging from Cheap Booze containers to Patent Medicine bottles, and, once, a Chrome Car Bumper (no doubt 1950's vintage.)

The entire neighbourhood was originally earmarked for the Knysna Woodcutter families -- hillbilly denizens of the Forest in the mid- to late-1800's, and this axe-head is exactly the sort of implement they would have used.  The earliest official survey of the Braamekraal plots is dated 1894.  Sadly the Woodcutters' descendents have mostly mostly moved on.

But the Woodcutters' allotments, one of which we occupy, their trash and their graves, overlay a much older story.  A Bushman1 landscape going back at least fifty-thousand years.  Most inhabitants of the neighbourhood have arrived within the last five to eight years, and are profoundly ignorant of the Woodcutter heritage over which they casually, carelessly splash their MacMansions.  How much more ignorant are they of the Bushman heritage under thir feet?


[1] This touches on a Whole Big Political Issue, about which I am profoundly ignorant. It seems that, whilst people in the NGO/UN/Politically Correct circles would prefer to refer to the Bushman Peoples -- the First Peoples of Africa -- as "the Khoisan tribes", the Bushman peoples themselves prefer the label "Bushman", finding some distinction between themselves and the Khoisan. I probably have the whole thing wrong. The fact remains that these are amongst the most-discriminated-against people in the whole world.  I believe that we could learn a whole lot from them -- or from what tattered remains of their heritage and knowledge still exists.

In SA we have eleven official languages. No single Khoisan language is among them.

31 July 2007

Hoe, Hoe, Hoe

Introducing The Revolutionary Micro-Hoe! Invented by Me; Patent Not Pending; All Rights Reversed. Order Now. One Week Only, Free Cardboard Box1 Included!

For ages, now, I've been wanting one of these.  See, the problem is that I garden using the Deep Bed Method (about which I shall pontificate at a more apropos time.)  This means that a lot of plants get spaced much more closely than recommended by All Manufacturers.  In particular Onions and Garlic are a Perennial Problem2.  They hate weeds, and suffer them poorly.  But they're so closely spaced that any form of conventional hoe is a non-option.

"What to do? What to do?"  Enter the Revolutionary Micro Hoe.  I managed to bum a bit of scrap off the local metal merchants4 to (finally! eventually!) implement the implement: the Plan I've had in mind for months5.

The metal bit is only about 5cm wide, and sharp enough to shave a sheep, meaning it will fit between cramped rows of Onions, severing the roots off Terrible Weeds without damaging the pencil-thick Onions.

Fields trials seem to show that this one is a winner.  Took me less than ten minutes to hoe a 10m2 bed full of Weeds (and a few Onions).  It snickedthrough the weeds like... Oh! Enough with the similies!... It cut through them really easily.

I don't have the angle of the blade quite right, yet.  It needs to be a bit moreacute an angle (contrary to all expectation) than it is.  On the other hand, that involves dismantling the entire contraption, re-sawing the slot in the handle, and re-setting the blade.  More than I can face today.  In use, the handle has a disconcerting tendency to twist anti-clockwise, and that gets a bit uncomfortable after using the Hoe for a time.  But I can live with that, considering how much quicker it is that Hand Weeding!

If you're a Real Human Person wanting to build your own MicroHoe to my design, go ahead with my blessing.  If you're a Company seeking Fortune through the manufacture of MicroHoes, please fuck off.  It's my design, hereby Open Sourced for Real Human Beings.  Only!


[1] Just some random cardboard box, mind you.  No guarantee that the MicroHoe would fit into it, or anything.

[2] AKA a Pain In The Arse3.

[3] "Ass" for the 'Merkins.

[4] Too unhip to even have a website!

[5] Could be years, actually.  My Scotch-addled brain glosses over time like... well... like something very glossy6!

[6] ...had in mind something along the lines of "like gumboots on a duck-beshitten lawn", but I couldn't make it scan.

24 July 2007

"Oh the Climate She Is a' Chaaaangin'"

(Apologies to Bob Dylan)
Something unnatural's going on. Its Winter. The very middle of Winter.  And yesterday I harvested a (Lime Green Salad) Tomato off a plant left over from last Summer.
A Japanese White Eggplant has just fruited.  Normally Eggplants don't make it through the Winter, here.  The climate is just that much too cool for their liking.
Normally seedlings are safe from cutworms at this time of year.
The volunteer Tomatoes popping-up all over the veggie patch never make it as far as growing their true leaves.  This year I have some that have reached 10cm tall and look ready for permanent homes.  Whilst I can (and will!) "make hay whilst the Sun is (briefly) shining", I find the whole thing deeply worrying.
There's a small beetle I call the Cabbage Bug, since the Brassica tribe are their favourite food, along with Beets and Chard.  My reading seems to indicate that they are a sub-family of Laybug, but, unfortunately, one that eats plants.  "Dormant in Winter." I would advise the Neophyte Gardener. Oh! How they would laugh at me now, as I daily watch my Beets, Turnips and Chinese Cabbages -- even Lettuce -- getting shredded by these small beasts.  They look something like Ladybugs -- about the same size and shape -- their colours run to red-and-yellow on black, and they seem to have lack any form of predator.  Oh the Sin of Hubris!  It is soooo tempting to get out some sort of Spray to sort them out.  Presumably whatever birds or bugs normally keep them in check are sleeping through the alleged Winter.
Oh well, we will be Powerless for most of the day.  The electricity company will be replacing a transformer and improving insulation on the cables upstream from us to prevent birds electrocuting themselves.  I'm happy to be powerless for a day in the cause of bird-preservation, even if they are merely the Bloody Noisy Hadeda.  I shall spend the day planting Very Early Tomatoes, Chillis, Eggplants and Tamarillos.
(For those of you who may have been following the Saga Of Autumn-Sown Chillis: The Chillis have survived handily so far.  My seed-tray mix tends to be a bit heavy and airless, being almost-pure compost, so the seedlings are all a bit yellow and pale, and they really want moving out into better homes.  I shall attempt to oblige tomorrow.)
Anybody who claims that there No Such Thing As Global Warming[1] has, I think, probably been eating some of those odd, spotty fungi.  I am deeply worried and frightened by the coming Summer.  Last Summer we saw the "Hole in the Ozone Layer" larger than ever in recorded history.  The Ozone Layer might not be getting the press coverage it was a few years ago -- seems that Al Gore and Peak Oil are stealing the limelight -- but it's still there.  And growing.  I fear the effect on our crops of ever-higher UV levels.  This is part of the reason I am consciously choosing to plant red- and purple-coloured varieties of vegetables where practical; the anthocyanins that cause the red/purple colouration also impart a UV-tolerance.  So I'm told.  We hope.
Already I'm trying to figure out how to erect shadecloth barriers to protect plants through the heat radiation of the coming Summer's afternoons to avoid sun-scalded Tomatoes and Chillis!
And it is only July.
----
[1] Alright, alright: It's really "Global Climate Change" and not "global Warming".  But shorthand works!

17 July 2007

Next Summer's Crops

So here's what I'm planning for the Summer.  As usual I don't have enough bed-space for them all, so I'd best get digging!  I'm also getting the rotovator fixed so that I can clear some "field" space for the more broadscale stuff.  My focus is threefold:
  • First, and most important, is our food supply -- the self-sufficiency thing.  Dried beans, sunflower-seed, grains, winter squashes for storage.
  • Second, I am strongly leaning towards selling some produce, hence an eye towards visually appealing varieties, unusual and unique stuff, and things that will appeal to gourmet chefs.  My thinking is to sell and exclusive range to just a few upmarket restaurants.
  • Third, seed-saving; keeping all the varieties going, plus enough to sell seed.
Tough challenge, and, in honesty, I doubt that I'll achieve it all.  Still, if you don't aim high... New varieties that we've never tried before are marked with a *; all seed is from our own stocks, except those marked with a § (and, of course, the * varieties, too).
The List
Salad mix -- more-or-less a year-round thing; the only time it slows down is in Dec/Jan, when high temperatures inhibit germination of the Lettuces.  Easily solved with a bit of shadecloth, or by putting the seed-trays in a cool, damp place.
  • lettuce (about 12-14 varieties)
  • pak choy
  • tat soi
  • red mustard
  • rocket
  • chicory
  • radicchio - Red of Veronna
  • curly endive
  • radish
  • spring onions
  • chives, garlic chives
Tomatoes:
  • brandywine
  • a mysterious "sweet pink" variety that was mixed in with another packet of seed
  • cherokee purple
  • black krim
  • gold nugget
  • ida gold
  • lime green
  • tigerella
  • roman candle*
  • purple russian*
  • black cherry*
(Thanks to Patrick for suggesting the last two -- I'm looking forward to them very much!) Cucumbers:
  • lemon cuke -- quite insect resistant; very important here
  • chinese golden
  • telegraph improved (maybe!)
Beans:
  • hopi black (field scale)
  • dragon's lingerie (field scale)
  • rattlesnake
  • chickpeas§
  • yellow wax
Eggplant:
  • Japanese White
  • Black Beauty
  • Japanese Purple (if I can get hold of some)
Beets:
  • crimson globe (the old standby)
  • golden (hopefully -- I had very poor germination, and this is a last-ditch attempt with the remaining seed from last year)
  • chioggia*
Squashes & Pumpkin:
  • black futsu (yum!)
  • butternut (very common commercially, and cheap, so I may drop them)
  • yellow straightneck§
  • caserta (as baby marrow)
  • mystery round squash
  • golden hubbard (may also get dropped, depending on space)
  • table queen
  • "gnome" (mottled orange/yellow winter sq., about 1/2kg, very tasty)
  • some sort of Pumpkin for seeds*
You can probably tell that I do quite a bit of my "seed shopping" in the produce stores and supermarket. ;-)
Chillis:
  • jalape├▒o
  • cherry
  • habanero
  • serrano
  • "anaheim" (misnamed, methinks)
  • ancho
  • tabasco
  • red hat
  • pasilla*
  • new mex big jim* (had them in the past and then managed to lose the variety!)
Tomatillo
Tamarillo
Snap Peas - Golden Sweet, Sugar Snap
Sweet Potato
Potato
Sorghum* (for chook feed)
Wheat* (maybe, depending on space, energy)
Artichokes -- Purple of Romagna
Cabbage (a bit neglected in Summer, but coleslaw is always nice on hot evenings) Kohlrabi - Early Purple Vienna (or maybe not)
Watermelon - Moon & Stars*
Leeks (just a few)
Sweet Pepper - Cosmic Purple*, California Wonder* (maybe)
Carrots
Swiss Chard - Luculus
Parsley (plain, flat-leaf kind -- much more flavoursome!)
Coriander/dhanya (we eat a lot of curries and Indian dishes)
Throw in an assortment of herbs, and that's about it!

13 July 2007

Space: The Final Frontier

Serendipity Happens: A 48-hour power outage last week set me thinking about food preservation. Without the freezer. Today my feed-reader plunksSharon Astyk's post on Low Energy Food Preservation onto my plate.  Her blog is always interesting, packed with detailed information and deep insight.  Honestly, I don't know how Sharon finds the time for such prolific posting! 

We mostly rely on the freezer for preserving our produce, but then, as last week, you begin to wonder whether an entire Summer's harvest is going to survive and ever-lengthening power failure...  Forgetting the old permaculture principle, were we: Critical functions must be supported by more than one element.  Honestly, it's just too easy to fall into a comfort-zone and stay there.

So we're starting to look at and learn about other ways to preserve food.  The catch, of course, with all this preserving of produce, is that you need somewhere to store it all.  One of the most serious gaps in our original planning was in not providing for sufficient storage space.  Despite having added two small sheds and a garden "cupboard" to our storage, despite using chunks of the 3-car carport for storing bulk chookfood, rotovator, mower, various toolchestsfull of crap, we're still perpetually short of storage space.

Not only do you need somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight to store preserved produce, you also need to store all the empty jars and bottles (and their lids!) until you're ready to fill them up.  And you need lots of them!  Then you need somewhere cool, dark and dry to store self-saved seed; somewhere where labels and containers won't get mixed up.  It's pretty easy for conventional farmers who typically buy-in their seed, and only need to store a few varieties for a short period of time; quite another for a self-sufficient holding, where you regularly keep dozens of plant varieties.

Then there's somewhere to stash tools.  And it's not good enough to just say "tools": There are general small tools -- hammers, pliers, vice grips, screwdrivers, measuring tapes and set squares -- specialised and power tools, plumbing-specific tools, gardening tools large and small, powered and handraulic.  Some are pretty specialised to a self-sufficient setup: I am planning to make an oil-press and a solar-dehydrator, aiming to acquire a flour mill; they'll all need places to live.  Some of these more specialised tools get used only once or twice a year -- the ridging hoe is only needed a few times in Spring.

But they all need safe, dry storage space.  Turns out that the one wendy-house outside the kitchen door is not as dry as we expected it to be.  Result: a lot of hand tools furred in a fine rust needing cleaning.  Trying to be self-sufficient demands a lot more storage area than I expected.

I'm thinking of enclosing a piece of the carport...

10 July 2007

Organic Growing vs. Organic Growing

Over on The Back Forty blog,  Robbyn asks, "Are Organic Pesticides Safe?

The short answer could be, "Yes.  They degrade rapidly in the environment, and so pose no long term threat."

Another, equally valid, short answer could be, "No! So-called Organic Pesticides, like any other disruptive measure, break the links and cycles in the local ecosystem, so, in the long term, they simply aggravate the problem you're trying to solve, albeit slightly more safely than do conventional pesticides."

As anyone who has taken a more-than-cursory glimpse at our farm website will have figured, I place my self firmly in the latter camp.  If I use a poison (of whatever nature) to kill off the aphids presently attacking my Broccoli1, then I disrupt the food supply for the Ladybugs that make a meal of Aphids.  Consequently the Ladybug population is going to decline for want of food.  Then, come Summer, when I get a real Aphid infestation, I'll surely want for more Ladybugs.  But they won't be there, due to my interference.  Much better to leave things largely alone.

If the Aphid attack gets too severe -- unlikely, as the weather forecast is for a bit of cold front in another day or so -- I will resort to blasting the Aphids off with the hose, where they will remain as prey to the Ladybugs, but not on my soon-to-seed Early Purple Broccoli.

Remember that the term "Pesticide" still contains the root "-cide": death.  It is a paradox to me that so many growers are trying so hard to grow stuff -- to make plants live, so that we in turn can eat and live, live and be healthy -- but spend their time running around trying to kill everything else.  Surely the answer to vibrant life, exuberant life-liness, cannot lie in death!

Keep in mind who benefits most from pesticide use!

Excursion

One of my favourite memories is of a Saturday Morning Gardening show on TV, presented by a well-known local gardening "expert".  Mainly the show is a thinly veiled advert for selling more gardening stuff2, as are most of these things.

By his own admission, he knows next-to-nothing about "organic" methods.  One particular occasion, he was scripted to shill for a company launching a new range of "organic pesticides and fertilisers", and ended up chatting to an organic veggie grower.  (Well, he looked pretty organic!)  At the key product-placement-point in the programme, the presenter looks over at the veggie grower, and says, "So what would you use if your crops were attacked by X?"  (Some pest; can't remember.)

The grower looked completely blank, frowned, mumbled something along the lines of, "I don't know. Never happens 'cos of the Wasps."

Exit Stage Left.


"But What Is Lurgy?"

All this begs the question,  "What is the meaning of the term 'organic'?"  I think the "Certified Organic" labels are pretty-much3 a load of crap (depending where in the world you are to some extent.)  The range of practise that can legitimately be called "organic" is so wide as to render a single blanket label meaningless.  At one end of the spectrum, all a grower has to do is replace the existing fossil-fuel-based fertilisers and pesticides with equivalents acceptable under some-or-other certification regime.  At the other end are more "hardcore" practices that shun all such artificial interventions, and aim to build up a vibrantly healthy ecology, especially in the soil, and then rely on the natural health of plants to cope with whatever comes along.

Whilst I consider that my own growing is pretty much towards the "hardcore" end of the spectrum4, I am not knocking the other choices.  There have to be paths for "conventional" growers to transition  to a more sustainable practise while coping with the realities of the supermarket-oriented supply chain, the bank-beholden, joyless, tractor-enchained existence of industrial agriculture.  (I cannot find it in myself to call that "farming", and, evidently, many agro-industry growers I have met agree, shunning the label "farmer".)

I would propose a three-level organic certification scheme.  Something along the lines of "Green Label Organic" for the conventional-using-alternative-chemicals approach, "Silver Label" for somewhere in-between, and "Gold Standard" for the hardcore non-interventionist approach.  It would take some working out, some marketing to educate consumers about the differences, but would enable price-tiering to the benefit of all.  Maybe.  It all sounds a lot like working in an office to me, and part of a way of thinking about the world that is soon to pass.

Mike's Answer to Robbyn

So, to answer Robbyn (if you've made it this far!) I would give the Stinkbugs a Round Of Applause.  Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!  around the bugs, leaves and all.  Damage to the leaves is minimal; you get Squashed Stinkbug all over your hands, but that washes off easily enough; the bugs you don't squash will fly away or get knocked off your Tomatoes, and you'll give predators some time to get going.  Worst case, the crop will take a knock, but look upon it as a long-term investment in your garden's health.

Longer term, the Big Deal -- what defines "organic" for me -- is to build up your soil.  Lots of compost, even if its pretty rubbish compost; as long as you're adding lots and lots of organic matter to the soil, sooner or later things will improve.  As the soil becomes healthier -- and plenty of fungal activity is a good sign -- the biodiversity of your garden will improve.  Everything derives from the soil/Earth itself, all plant health, all the predators, and ultimately our own wellbeing.

Tolerate the pests.  You cannot cultivate a healthy garden without them!
----
1Aphids! In July, no less.  I thought the buggers were all in bed for the Winter!


2Trying to remain polite and maintain a "Family" rating, here.


3But not totally! And sometimes very necessary as a way to reassure buyers.


4Even though I have violated the principle myself, on occasion, before anybody calls me out for lying!

08 July 2007

Planning Summer Crops

Planning for Summer

For once I feel like I'm getting ahead of the curve.  My usual Summer planting: a haphazard sowing of tried-and-trusted favourites, interspersed with a motley assortment of new varieties I just couldn't resist.  Result: Not enough beds, seed-trays of plants unused, packets of seed growing old, unopened, in the seed cupboard.

Not this year!  Took advantage of some crappy weather yesterday (and back muscles complaining about the previous day's exertions) to draw up plant-lists...  all the things I'd like to grow in the coming Summer season.  A primary goal is to identify "gaps" -- the things I always see halfway through the growing season, and say, "I wish I had planted..."

I'm also having to triage my New Variety Lust pretty ruthlessly...

Missing Links

I'll write up my planting-list soon, for anyone who is interested.  I would really like some advice on good varieties.  Bear in mind that, come Spring and Summer, I'm dealing with a warm, humid climate, and a heavy clay-loam soil.  Water supply can be a problem, depending on our luck with the weather.  Meanwhile, here's what I am looking for:

Tomatoes: I have about 8 or 10 varieties planned, but could well do with another couple of smaller and medium-sized varieties -- salad, paste and drying tomatoes. (I'm planning to build a solar dehydrator, since our climate really puts a crimp in sun-drying.)

Beans and Peas: I have a couple of good varieties of field-beans for drying, but would like to add Pinto beans.  I am looking for one or two (or three) kinds of Snap or Snow Peas, preferably in interesting colours, should I get into supplying gourmet salad stuff (which is a possibility I'm contemplating.)  Chickpeas I'll probably source from the Health Food section of the supermarket.  I'm also looking for some sort of Pea suited to drying and making Pea Flour (Channa Flour.)

Squash/Pumpkin: Looking for an "edible seed" variety so we can harvest Pumpkin seed for breads and snacks. In general Squashes and Pumpkin are difficult subjects, here, since they get nailed by Pumpkin Fly, so all Squashie crops have to be netted, and the netting is damn expensive, limiting how many of these plants I can realistically grow.

Carrots: I would just love more varieties.  We have so few Carrot varieties available locally, all orange, and I'd really love to get some of the more colourful ones.

Peppers, Sweet and Hot: I already plant too many Chilli varieties.  (Nonsense!  There's no such thing as too many Chillis!)  I still need a hot, thin-walled variety suitable for drying and crushing.  Flavour is, of course, the key.  I can easily get seed for Long Red Cayenne, but the flavour is so boring that they're not worth the bother.  I'd also like to get New Mex "Big Jim" back again!  Then, too, I want to make an effort to branch out into Sweet Peppers a bit this year; something I've never much bothered with before.  I did have a very lovely tasting variety called Sweet Banana -- beautiful colour changes, too -- but managed to lose them in The Great Crossing of 2002.  I'd love to get them again.  I'm not much interested in the ordinary California Wonder type of blocky Peppers you get in the supermarkets, mass-grown in tunnels and sold in Red-Yellow-Green packs -- they don't taste like much at all.

WatermelonSmaller ones.  I've not grown watermelon before, but only because I've not had a way to keep them from the insect pests before now.

Onions:  Locally available Onion varieties are very limited and boring, being completely oriented to the large commercial growers.  I am particularly looking for a large/sweet/mild variety good for salads.

Whew!

There's loads more I want, but I'm  not going to get.  As it is, I'm already preparing new beds, and clearing new ground for field-scale crops, and we still have most of Winter to get through.

Please help with advice and suggestions!  Open-pollinated only, please.  Heirlooms greatly preferred.
If, for any reason, comments are not working properly, or you just prefer to let me know privately what you think, please drop me a line at mikro2nd [at] gmail [dot] com.

05 July 2007

The Self-Sufficient Dog

Guinea Fowl are endemic to this area, or perhaps I should say pandemic,since they additionally get housed, fed and pampered by a neighbour.  The result? A Guinea Fowl population rocketing out of control.  Many of their natural predators have been chased away by us humans so there are several flocks in the neighbourhood, each numbering fifty to a hundred birds.

They can be a Great Bloody Nuisance when they attack my Lettuces and Swiss Chard, and for a while I've been keen on shooting a few for the pot, or at least for supplementing the dogs' diet.  I've made a few half-arsed attempts to cull the flocks, but the dogs generally alert the Guineas before I can get close enough and have great fun chasing the entire flock into the air.

This morning for the first time, OB must have lucked into one. Or perhaps Myah helped her.

Happiness is a Warm Breakfast... Lucky doggie! She won't be wanting supper tonight, that's for sure.

When I first found OB gnawing on a wing, she looked very warily at me... she knows full well that she is not allowed to go after the Chickens, and this is obviously very close to the same thing to her, too.  Even after I made it clear to her that I thought she was a clever dog, and then leaving her to get on with Dinner, she was quite unsure.  In the end Hunter Genes win, though.

I would really like it if she could continue to catch a Guinea Fowl once in a while -- good for her, good for the local ecosystem to have them culled, good for the Guineas, since the weak, slow and stupid will get caught first.  (Though its an awesome thing to contemplate: Something even more stupid that a Guinea Fowl!)  On the other hand I don't want her to start wandering off into the forest to hunt, so we'll have to keep a close eye on how this all unfolds.

02 July 2007

The Clock of the World

Keeping Track

Tactics is extension in space.  Strategy is extension in time.

Gardening teaches both Tactics and Strategy to the attentive student, though the emphasis tend to be on Strategy.

Tactics: Laying out garden beds. Which hoe to use for a given weed-challenge.  The pointy shovel or the straight-edged shovel for lifting that particular pile of manure?  Spade or fork for digging that bed?

Strategy: Right now, in the middle of Winter, I have no more than another month before all considerations of next Summer's crops will be before me.  Already I weigh up whether I have enough seed of the varieties I would like to grow, and seed orders take form.  Time to buy the crop netting I will need to keep Pumpkin Fly from the Cucurbits, come mid-January.  Compost heaps are a-cooking in anticipation of the Spring Rush.  It's already late to be digging new beds to increase the area under cultivation.

I usually end-up getting it wrong somewhere along the line.  Don't we all?

I guess that everyone has their own strange and unique ways to keep track of what-to-do-when.  Of course you have to remember to actually look at the damn wall-chart/spreadsheet/book/diary.

Hedgewizard describes, in a hilarious post, the soggy and disastrous end to one such system.

Detour

I have quite a few friends who subscribe to Rudolf Steiner's ideas on cultivation, summed up, codified and dogmatised as Biodynamic Growing.  Most are not Deeply Committed Members Of The Movement, merely dabblers who apply an eclectic handful of biodynamic potions and techniques -- a pinch of some or other weird concoction kept in a cow's horn added to the compost heap while dancing clockwise at full moon; Yarrow stored in a deer-bladder pouch.  A bit challenging, that last one, since the Red Deer fail utterly to be found in South Africa.

No!  I sound like I'm dissing the biodynamic ideas, and really, I'm not!  I just have trouble believing that these homoeopathic treatments of seed, soil, water and compost can have any significant effect on the growth of plants when its simply a case of not getting enough water, nitrogen or calcium, or when the soil pH is way out of whack.  In other words, the effects of macro-nutrient deficiency or imbalance vastly overshadows whether the moon was in Scorpio or Leo when you planted the seed.  Personally I don't believe I am that good a gardener that I have those large-effect inputs well enough under control for the subtle effects of biodynamic preparations to manifest.

One of the key ideas of biodynamic gardening is Sowing By The Moon.  In broad outline, we should sow leaf crops in the First Quarter of the moon -- that period from New Moon to Half Moon during the waxing phase -- fruit crops (Tomatoes, Chillis, Squashes and so on) from the Waxing Half to just before Full Moon, and root crops from Full Moon until the Waning Half.  The last quarter of the moon is no good for planting anything, and should be kept for digging beds, weeding and mulching.  Of course this is only the very crude outline; there is much, much more subtle detail; attention to astrological effects and their interaction with the nature of various plant varieties.

Whether you buy into this stuff or not (and I make no comment or commitment either way, myself) there is one very useful idea.

The Moon

The Moon gives us the perfect clock we need.  Every Moonth, sometime in the First Quarter, I know I need to plant Lettuce.  Every Half Moon its time to sow Radishes.

No need for fancy systems.  Just going outside of an evening to take a look at the sky.

The Sky

Number One Son bought an imposing reflector telescope, so we've been having lots of fun learning to use it.  Our triumph was getting good views of Jupiter, Saturn (it's awsome!) and Venus (blindingly bright) all on one evening's perfect viewing a couple of weeks ago.  Consequently we're learning a whole lot about the constellations -- the patterns of the heavens. The Clock Of The Year.

Then, too, I would dearly love to learn more about how to read Nature's clocks. Bits of folklore like, "Plant your Potatoes when the Apple trees blossom."  Anybody have some pointer to that sort of knowledge?  I imagine that huge swathes of that sort of lore has already been lost; how do we relearn it?  Reinvent it?

Yet more ways to reconnect ourselves with the Universe.  Actually, we've never really been disconnected; only in the tiny space inside our own heads have we thought so.

27 June 2007

Heavy Weather

Monday night saw us weathering a blazing gale-force storm.  Sadly no rain came with the wind!  Happily we had a few drops (8mm) last night and this morning; our storage had reached about 26% draw-down: one tank was almost empty after six weeks of almost no rain (2mm in that time!)

The house rocks like a Spanish Galleon in these howling winds, and it kept us anxiously awake deep into the wee hours.  The Chicken House blew right over!  Luckily there was just enough light for the boys and I to right it in time for the Chooks to get to bed and prop it up with a motley assortment of poles and ropes.  I guess we're in for a spot of repairs and rebuilding, now; opportunity to implement the design changes I've been thinking about for a looong time, now.

We lost power around 5:30 on Monday evening, and it was finally restored around 2 this afternoon -- about 45 hours.  I was getting just a bit anxious about the freezer full of Summer Tomatoes.

At least four trees came down around the place -- we're still counting.  At least we won't want for firewood anytime soon.  Thankfully Dale is home for university vac., and very good with helping out on these chores.  I'll post some pics as soon as I get some, but things have been happening so fast, and the camera is definitely not one of the things foremost in my mind.

I confess that being without power for a couple of days has given us cause to rethink some of our priorities around getting more self-sufficient.  A new fireplace (ours is rusting to shreds!) is less important than a wood-stove.  A manual/wind/solar pump to move water from the storage tanks to the header tank.  Rebuilding the Pizza Oven.  Canning/drying/pickling as a way of preserving food instead of freezing.  Building a high-efficiency freezer and/or fridge.  We are getting quite a few of things right, and I feel quite please and proud of that.  But still have a lot of gaps to fill! 

23 June 2007

Self-sufficiency and Stress

The week past has been a journey back in time, back in psyche and spirit, back into a world I no longer inhabit.  It's been a worthwhile journey, sharpening my understanding of just how far outside the circle I have managed to wander.  A week performing a "code audit" of a large-ish software system.

Basically this means analysing the software using a variety of techniques and tools, knowing where to look for likely problem areas, and then writing a report on what you think of the whole mess.  Too many hours sitting chained to a PC so that the job gets completed "on time" -- whatever that means.  Too little time being physically active in the garden; too little time doing the myriad of small things that need doing around the farm; too time spent solving real challenges.  But it will bring in a little bit of money, so...

A new blog I just tripped across -- After Peak Oil: Awakening:
we had thought about "the good life" some years previously, but shelved our ideas since it felt like we would be giving ourselves additional stress and complications in return for some fanciful daydream about keeping chickens and the like.
The additional stress and complication?  Well, complication, yes.  But stress?  Looking back on the last decade of my life, I guess I have to acknowledge that there was stress involved in moving from a 9-to-5-pension-medical-annual-holiday existence to our somewhat-self-sufficient life.  Most of that stress was money stress.  Initially the stress of "where's the money going to come from", through the stresses of letting go of "normal" expectations around the "normal" flow of money in-and-out every month, every year, to my present state where, while I think its fun to have and use money, and its useful stuff for a limited number of purposes, I don't really feel it touches me any more.  Not in the way that most of humanity is hooked into the Conventional Money System.  Trapped in it, really.

But really, I think we Braamekraalies suffer far less from stress than ever before in our lives, and the reason is really very simple:
Human Beings are not built for single-tasking.

We evolved out on The African Plains, wary for the multitude of predators that think we make a tasty midday snack, keeping a sharp eye out for our own lunch.  We are intensely social monkeys who constantly touch, taste, see, hear, smell, constantly challenged, constantly problem-solving.  We are not well suited, physically, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually, to the low-input environment, the repetetive tasks provided by office jobs and suburban life in front of the desk, TV and steering-wheel.  Subjected to that sort of existence, we begin to break down.  To suffer stress.

Simply put, a self-sufficient lifestyle (at whatever level) keeps us challenged, interested, awake and alive.  The sheer variety of tasks that we face is the important thing, here.  Our brains and bodies are well adapted to variety.  Need it, in fact.

21 June 2007

Ring Out Those Solstice Bells

Merry Mid-Orbit.

Not sure if its today or tomorrow, since both days share exactly the same sunrise and sunset times.  But at least tonight is the longest night of the year.  Hooray!  Where's the bugger we have to off to ensure the sun rises again?

Ach! well, at least the days get longer from (about) now.

Temperature was 21C today(!), so I can only assume that Real Winter is still on its way...  Still time to put some Kale into the ground to keep the Chooks through the Hungry Gap.  As you can tell, my thoughts have already turned to The Spring Madness and Summer Planting.  I feel that I have things quite in-hand this year, since I'm already clearing and preparing beds for next Spring.  I really feel that we've kicked our Self Sufficiency Efforts up a notch.

A Very Small Notch.  But a Notch nevertheless!

17 June 2007

Horrible Weather

Hot, dry, adiabatic wind from the North-West battering at the trees.  Too hot for serious work, too dry for transplanting.  Blowing so hard I can't even offload the horse-shit I collected on Friday into a compost bin; it would all just get blown right back into my face.

No rain in sight.

I seem to have lost the seed I had for a very nice-looking Golden Wax Bush Bean.  The couple of plants that have made it will have to do for seed saving.  The one bean I tasted was spectacular, and I really need a couple of good bush varieties to use as interplants.  As I recall, the seed was one of those packets from Baker Creek that was less-than-satisfactory.  Along with the Golden Beet I was so looking forward to, what I got was dismal germination rates, and very low plant vigor.

Moan, moan, moan.

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