28 October 2006

Shit Happens

One of the joys of self-sufficiency is dealing with your own shit.  After considering all (and I do mean all!) alternatives, we installed a septic-tank system, followed by a reed-bed system for secondary and tertiary treatment of our blackwater.

Invaluable in our research and design were the book "Sewage Solutions: Answering the Call of Nature", the Centre for Alternative Technology's pamphlets "Constructed Wetlands and Reed Beds" and "Making Use of Grey Water in the Garden".  I see that these last two are now available from CAT as PDF downloads!  If ever you have the chance to visit CAT (in Wales) it is very well worth spending a day.  I would love to go there again, since there were many new developments still in the works when J and I visited in about 2000.

Septic-tank systems do have a significant downside, though.  A septic tank is, after all is said and done, nothing more than a settling tank.  About 4% of what goes into them is insoluble, and cannot be washed out or broken down by bacteria, so after some years of usage the septic tank tends to silt-up.  More fastidious waste-system designers recommend pumping the tank out every year - probably simply to avoid running foul of local waste-management regulations.  Actual mean-time-between-pumping depends totally on the number of people using the system, size of the septic tank and frequency of toilet flushing.

It has now been about 6 years since last we had our septic tank emptied, and it has reached the point where the inlet tends to easily block, particularly if we have guests staying, as we have had for the past several weeks.  Eventually I have the delightful job of opening the tank and prodding the errrr...  mass?... with a stick until the inlet unblocks and everything runs normally again for a while.

Ultimately I have to face the fact that we need to get the "sucking Suzie" up here to pump the contents out.  The very real problem, though, is that the municipality charge R1200 (at last enquiry, some years ago) for this service, and this is, not to put too fine a point on it, more than we can presently afford.

Of course it is possible to empty the tank "by hand" - using a bucket, but one is still faced with the problem of disposing of the contents whilst keeping the peace with one's neighbours, and avoiding polluting downslope water.

I will have to toss the entire problem into the laps of the municipal bureaucracy.  Can't wait!

23 October 2006

Loafing About

Bread-making is easy and fun.  Once you get the hang of it, you'll never willingly eat store-bought bread again.  We've been baking our own bread for (probably) a couple of years now, and yesterday was a crowning moment when we cut into a warm,Sourdough Rye Bread stuffed with Olives, Rosemary and Garlic.  So good it needs nothing else.
About a year ago we were still using bought-in dry yeast, but the price had almost doubled in less than a year, and we still had a nagging feeling of not being as self-sufficient as we could be with the whole deal.
So we learned how to make our own yeast starter and to keep it going.  As a result we nowadays eat only "sourdough" breads.  A short business trip toJohannesburg last week that reminded me just how tasteless, lightweight and unsatisfying commercial breads are.  After all, the goal of a commercial bakery is to sell you as much air as possible.
I figure I'll write a few articles on bread-making, but before we can get into some of the more interesting recipes, we need to get going with creating a sourdough starter.

Care And Feeding of Your Very Own Yeastie Beastie.

To make your very own Sourdough Starter, just bake a loaf of white, brown or rye bread, using whatever yeast the recipe recommends.  Wholewheat will do, too, but you'll end up with a lot of chaffy bits in the starter.  Note that commercially-produced wholewheat flour is but a pale and pathetic imitation of the Real Thing, having been torn apart, bleached, "fortified", purified and then put back together in some way that maximises the mill's profits.

Make a little more dough than the recipe calls for - perhaps an extra cup of flour - or just accept that your bread is going to be a little smaller than usual.  When you've finished kneading the dough, break of a lump of dough the size of your fist, or a bit bigger, and place it in a bowl.  Cover with a cloth, and leave this in a warm (not hot!) place for three or four days.  Bake the remainder of the dough into a conventional bread.
After your lump-o-dough has sat around for some days acquiring wild yeasts from the air, add a couple of cups of white-bread flour and enough warm (body-temperature) water to make a stiff batter.  This is your first starter.

You should also add a couple of tablespoons of sugar - brown sugar is better, simply because it tastes better.  Or use molasses, honey or malt-extract instead of sugar.  What you choose here will have an influence on the taste of your sourdough starter in the long term.  Sugar or molasses is sucrose; malt extract is maltose; and honey is a complex mixture of stuff.  What you use will influence which sorts of yeasties thrive in your starter, and which varieties of yeast are discriminated against.  Some yeasts prefer maltose, some sucrose, and so on.  Then, too, the kind of flour you use will also exert a small influence.

Bung this lot into the refrigerator until you're ready to bake your first sourdough loaf.  When you do bake, scoop out a couple of cups of your starter into a bowl, add two cups of flour and enough lukewarm water to make a stiff batter again.  This lot you keep for next time, and the remainder of the starter you use to make your bread.

For the first several generations your starter probably won't taste very "sour".  It takes time for the starter to acquire a distinctive yeast ecosystem.  It also means that every sourdough starter is absolutely unique.  Nobody will be able to imitate your breads!  Very, very occasionally you may get unlucky and find the starter acquiring an "off" taste.  Chuck it and start again.  Mostly this won't happen though, because you've started with a very strong yeastie population from the commercial yeast in your first starter, and these yeastie beasties will outcompete any of the unpleasant wild beasties that may stray into the mix.

After four or five generations of starter you should have a fine, distinctively sour starter, and you'll never need to buy yeast again.

People who are exceptionally more organised than we might like to try keeping several strains of starter - one lot fed on (say) malt and rye flour, another lot fed on honey and wheaten flour, and so on.  Please let us know how it turns out.

Remember and give thanks to the little yeastie beasties who leaven our bread and beer.  Without them life would be much less palatable.

17 October 2006

If a Tree Falls...

If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

We are not able to answer that question definitively (though some claim to.)  However, we can definitely state that if a tree falls across the road, and there's no one there to hear it, you're sure to get an early-morning phone call from irate neighbours who are going to be late for work and school.

A tree at the bottom-end of our property has been leaning further and further for months, now, ever since the heavy rains softened the soil.  Really there are about four of these trees, stacked like dominoes waiting to be knocked over.  They are a formidable challenge to bring down, since any disturbance would set off a chain reaction.  Dangerous stuff.

An early phone call from our next-door neighbour let us know that one of the trees had finally made it down to ground-level, blocking all traffic on the road.  Off I went, chainsaw and slasher in hand, to clear the road.  A good, energetic start to the day, and we'll have plenty of firewood when I finish clearing the mess.

It's incidents like this that highlight the differences between our community of relatively-self-reliant people, and townies.  In a town or city people would be less inclined to jump in and sort out the problem; more likely to wait for the Council to send a team to sort things out.  Really the problem was quite a minor one, and it took us no more than 15 minutes to clear enough of the fallen tree that vehicles can pass normally.  If we'd waited for the Council to send someone, we'd probably still be waiting 6 hours later.

Similarly, when the road was being washed away by heavy rains, we were all out there, sodden, helping to clear a drainage ditch.  Or when potholes appear in the (dirt) road, someone eventually gets sufficiently irritated to dig some gravel from the roadside and fill the hole.  Much healthier for our own state of mind; much healthier for our relationships with our neighbours; much healither for community-building.

As soon as the rain stops I'll get out there and clear things a bit better and collect my firewood.

15 October 2006

Tomato Transplant

Perfect weather today for transplanting: Light drizzly rain.  Not enough to make the soil wet and sticky, not too cold to make outside work unpleasant.

The first Tomato seedlings - Tigerella, Ida Gold, Black Krim and a few Cherokee Purple - are ready to go into the ground.  I'm dubious about the timing of the Cherokee Purple, though.  CP is a medium-large heirloom variety, with a beautiful, purply-browny-red colour, shading to green shoulders, with a wonderful, rich flavour.  Last year was my first trial with them, and they suffered badly from sun-scald.  Later in the season, when the sun was less fierce, they faired much better, so I decided to use them as a late-season harvest, but a few volunteers popped up early this Spring, and I didn't have the heart to weed them out.  Now I have these few very-early plants, and it looks like the coming summer may bring particularly harsh sun.  Not good news for Cherokee Purples.

I have planted another batch for late-season harvest, but I doubt we'll see much fruit off the earlies.

We will have to deal with much more of this sort of uncertainty as the globe warms.  Species that have traditionally been well-adapted to an area may find themselves unsuited to their homes as climate change progresses.  Our only defence is diversity - lots of species, lots of different varieties from different parts of the world.  Especially since we can't predict the direction and severity of change.

I know this goes against the grain for many conservationists.  I grew up in the Cape Floral Kingdom, the geographically smallest, but most diverse per unit area of the world's six floral kingdoms.  Large areas of the Western Cape's indigenous vegetation, and unknown numbers of species, have been lost to alien plants, so we are deeply wary of intriducing strangers into the area.  But, where food plants are concerned, I can see no reason to introduce new varieties of species that have been imported a long time ago.  Then, too, our cultivated food plants tend to be so much less vigorous than wild plants that they stand little hope in competition with endemic species.  Not universally true: Cosmos, Canna, and St Johns Wort have become invasive alien nuisances - but a reasonable generalisation for vegetable species.

Still, with the uncertainties of climate change, variety is our best strategy for coping.   Variety, and accepting that we are likely to suffer some weather-induced losses each year.

14 October 2006

Blasted by Bugs

Damn and Blast!  Last weekend saw us hit by a double-whammy.  A berg wind (very hot, adiabatic wind coming off the escarpment) coupled with a no-doubt-related outbreak of Cabbage Beetles.  I don't know if they have a "real" name - its a species of Shield Bug - that attacks the Cabbage tribe of plants almpst exclusively.  They're about the size of Ladybugs, black with distinctive orange dots patterned on their carapace.

These little buggers suck the sap from the plants, which, coupled with the very hot, dry wind, has caused major havoc.  Chinese Cabbage that have made it all the way as far as seeding have been destroyed.  Bok Choy, Tat Soy, Red Mustard and Rocket that were 5 days from harvesting -- nailed.  Radishes that just came up a couple of weeks ago -- trashed.  Golden Globe turnips that I am growing for seed have taken a severe beating, but should survive.

The trouble with these little bugs is that they exude some Noxious Stuff, so nothing (as far as I can determine) eats them.  The only solution I can come up with is caging the plants with an insect-proof netting.

Caging is my latest Bright Idea for several things.  Not only will it keep the Cabbage Eating Bastards at bay, but will also work as isolation cages for Chillis so that I avoid a repeat of The Great Cross-Pollination "Experiment" of 2002.  Additionally, I think it may work quite nicely to keep Squashes from being stung  by Fruit Fly (well, I guess that they're roughly the same thing as Pumpkin Fly).  I am quite late for planting Squashes this year, which means that all the fruiting will happen during the Fruit Fly Season.  Normally this would mean 100% losses, but I am optimistic (eternally?) that caging will prove to be a good solution.

04 October 2006

Things that go Bump in the Night


Around here Honey Badgers are a protected species.  My beehives are strapped onto metre-high posts to avoid the risk... well... the certainty of having them ripped to shreds by a Honey Badger.  Nevertheless, Honey Badgers, or Ratels, are quite common in the area, and a bloody nuisance when it comes to Chickens and other small livestock.

When we first got Chickens, we made several mistakes in our Chicken housing, resulting in a couple of near-total losses of our flock.  So Chicken House Design has eventually evolved to a Badger-Proof plan.  With oneFatal Weakness.

We humans have to close the door to the Chicken House every evening once the Chooks have gone to bed, and we have to remove the ramp that leads up to the entrance.  And every morning, we have to let the Chooks out (and feed the breakfast) and put up the entrance-ramp.

Last night we forgot.

Sometime around a quarter-to-midnight, a massive, panic-stricken squawking woke me from my deepest slumber.  Realisation of my folly hit me immediately.  Both J and I had forgotten to shut the Chickens in.  For the first time in 5 or 7 years.

Leapt out of bed, grabbed to torch ("flashlight" to speakers of American,) down the stairs as fast as sleepy legs allow.  OB the Very Clever Doggie and I to the rescue  (salvage!)  Left to their own devices, a Ratel will (and I speak from experience) run amok and kill every chicken in sight.  At the Chicken Run, several chickens running around helplessly in the semi-dark (half-moon behind the clouds.) Chickens are virtually blind in anything darker than dusklight.  I managed to catch a couple of them and put them back in their Safehouse.  Unfortunately one hen, recently gone broody, was one of those closest to the door, and I missed her, so she spent the night out, off her clutch of eggs.  Anybody care to bet whether any of those chicks survive?

Mid-morning this morning, OB the Dog (did I mention that she really is veryclever?) came to call us; she had found one of the young roosters, fatally damaged by the Ratel.  His neck was clearly broken, but not all the way through, and he was still barely alive.  Poor bugger.  I quickly and painlessly put him out of his misery, and that pretty-much determined the remainder of my morning: Plucking and Cleaning Chicken.

OB, PhD, got her favourite treat: chicken head and feet.  And we have a delicious chicken tenderising in the freezer.  I've been meaning to cull those roosters anyway!

A Job Title

In other news: Dug up the Winter Garlic - around 200 bulbs, which should see us through the year.  Some are disappointingly small. :-O  I am planning to try a Spring planting of Garlic for harvest in May/June.  I see no reason it should fail, and, if successful, means that we can easily do two Garlic plantings a year.  Yay!

Which brings me to a final point: I have recently had several people ask me "So what do you DO?"  A question I face with the utmost trepidation and hesitation, being entirely unsure how to answer it.  Why all this focus on what we DO?  Why no interest in what we ARE?

Anyway, I now have an answer to "What do you do?": "Research Gardener".

Update 5/10/06:I just tripped across a very similar story to our Honey Badger incident on one of my favourite sites - Pocket Farm: A Bump in the Night

01 October 2006

Veggie Garden Update

Things are taking shape for Summer in the Veggie Garden.  I finally finished clearing the top bed in the new area of the garden, and have taken a break from that in favour of clearing beds in The Hexes.  It is all a question of the most effective use of my limited energy – its quicker to clear Hex beds than to clear Kikuyu from new areas.

Most of the seed-trays are showing signs of life.  The quickest of the Tomatoes are almost ready for setting out: a locally-common variety called Red Kaki – an ordinary-ish, red, medium-large Tomato, but selectively bred over the years by yours-truly for improved flavour, so I guess I could start thinking of a new name for it one of these years.  Always good to have a hardy backup in case disaster strikes with the Brandywines or any of the other exotics.  Perhaps in another ten years or so I will have selected decent strains of all those imports to be better adapted to the local soils and climate (whatever climate we may have a decade from now!)

I keep intending to plant more Basil seed.  I've had rather poor germination this year – perhaps I used particularly old seed, or maybe I was just too optimistic in my timing.  Either way, its one of those cases where I keep looking at the spotty little seedlings in their tray, and think, "I must plant more," but somehow haven't got around to it yet.  Could be my "disaster-of-neglect" for this year :-O

The Big Happy Surprise is the appearance of some Sweet Banana Chilli seedlings.  The seed is really old, and I failed to produce any of them last year.  Barring Slug, Snail or Cutworm disaster I shall cherish the few plants carefully to ensure fresh seed for the future.

I'm way behind on planting dried-beans and Squashes, and there's heavy rain forecast for the next few days...  Oh well, we need the rain!

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