31 December 2008

How Far Future

I was noodling around the 'net the other day for info on arcane bits of Provincial legislation. You see, some local property developers want to park (yet again!) an industrial "development" in our beautiful, rural neighbourhood. The current proposal -- in stark contrast to the last one -- is pretty softcore. The trouble is that, to get the zoning permissions, they're following an obscure process that eliminates the need for Environmental Impact Assessments, public-participation processes and the like. Or maybe not. It all depends on whether you can convince the Bureaucrat Of The Moment to buy your interpretation of the legislation and regulations.

Long story short, all this led me to a link to the Provincial Government's Draft1 Climate Change Policy Document. Wow! Who ever would suspect that such a thing exists?

It will take me a good long while to read throught this thing, so all I've done is skim it so far.

Apart from some fairly obvious (to me) missing pieces, the whole thing seems pretty impressive to me. (And this is me -- the anarchist, using a word like "impressive", about government! Will wonders not cease?) In summary, the Western Cape is going to get dryer, mainly in the extreme South-Western areas (i.e. Cape Town, my home town) but not so much where we are (the Southern Cape.) That's assuming the IPCC models have some resemblance to future reality2. The Western Cape is hugely dependent on agriculture as an economic driver, so there's much discussion of that. None of this is the impressive bit...

To me what is important in the document is that
  1. the Western Cape Provincial Government is actually taking Climate Change seriously, and not in denial like some other governments we might mention,
  2. they're actually advocating mitigation strategies, depsite the fact that, as a "developing" nation, South Africa is not "technically" obliged to worry about mitigation4, and
  3. they're talking about actual, concrete actions, not just a lot of waffle, like the National government's discussion documents. (In fact, the National Government's list of "Key Issues" does not even mention climate change at all!)
My point: We can talk about climate change all we want, but unless we take actual, specific, concrete actions, we might as well be wanking.

[1] In the (long) time it took me to write this, the policy document has been gazetted, and is therefore no longer merely a "Draft"...

[2] Extremely dubious! I think that consensus amongst climate scientist3 is that the IPCC model is disastrously wrong. Climate change is happening far quicker than anybody expected or predicted, and it is accelerating faster than any "accepted" models. Of course, academic process being what it is, the climate will simply have gone and changed -- maybe radically -- before academic bodies accept the models that explain the change.

[3] Any climate scientist who reads this and wishes to correct my views, please do!

[4] What bollocks! Every human being is going to be "impacted" by climate change. Anybody who think that mitigation is not part of their personal responsibility should be put up against the wall is clearly deluded.

30 December 2008

Identify That Lettuce

Hyper-red rumpled lettuce?I need some help to identify the lettuce shown here. I think it's Hyper Red Rumpled, but not at all sure. Anybody got a better guess?

23 December 2008

The Big Questions

(This post has nothing whatever to do with self-sufficiency or gardening or seed-saving or alternative energy or chickens. Maybe.)

A few years ago a friend was going through some tough times in her life. No money. No marketable skills. No luck. I asked her the question,
If I handed you 30-million Rand in cash right now, what would you do with your time, with your life, when you wake up tomorrow?
The amount is irrelevant (as is her answer.) I believe that most of us have a Magic Amount of money, more than which we figure we'd be "untouchable". I call it your Fuck You Value. I define it as that amount beyond which -- no matter who makes you an offer -- no matter how financially rewarding that offer might be -- no matter what the circumstances -- we have this lump of cash stashed under the bed (or whatever) that gives us the freedom to say Fuck You, I'm doing X.

Now multiply that amount by 10.

Imagine you actually have that 10 * F amount of money in cold cash, under the bed (or in a bank if you believe that's safer ;-)

I ask you, as I ask myself, "Under such a circumstance, when you wake up tomorrow, what will you spend your time doing?"

Maybe its just another way to discover (if you haven't already) your Passion.

So just today I tripped across/was reminded of another of these Big Huge Hairy Questions:
If a trusted friend could arrange a meeting between you and anyone of your choosing, who would you choose? Not for entertainment or curiosity or bragging rights. Who would you choose to meet?
I confess that I don't have any answer. I can't think of a soul so important that I have to meet them. Including dead or mythical people. More than answering the question, I find the fact that I can't think of anybody I so want to meet to be the most thought-provoking thing.

19 December 2008

Simmering the openseed.org Pot

An exercise in Extreme Slow Cooking, this! For quite a long time, now, I've been (sporadically) working on a web-based tool for tracking and matching seed-exchange wants and offers. You'd think it's such a simple thing I could have batted it out in a couple of weeks... probably so, but I've also been using it as a way to explore different technologies and software design approaches. Not stuff that's interesting to seedy people or self-sufficiency hackers, I know, but satisfying to my inner-geek.

Anyhow, I'm quite determined to get this thing implemented and running as soon as possible. The first version is (deliberately) terribly simple: Anybody who wants will be able to sign-up with the site, and enter a list of the seeds they
  1. offer for swaps and/or
  2. are looking for in exchange.
and then get an email when someone else lists a matching variety, so making it easier for people to get together for swaps. The idea is to complement (not compete with) existing seed-swap sites such as the Blogger Seed Network or Homegrown Goodness.

What The Hell Inspired All This?

There are lots of bloggers who keep their seed-lists (more-or-less) up-to-date on their blogs, websites, etc., just as I do, or who list their seed offers and wishlists on various web-forums and group-chat sites.

As a tech geek, it seems just obvious to me that computers should be doing more than that -- they should actively be matching us up to make it easier to swap seeds! I mean, this is exactly what computers are supposed to be really good at, after all. Isn't it?

The first release of the system will do just that. You'll be able to type-up a list of seeds you offer for sale, swap or giveaway, and you'll also be able to capture a list of seed varieites that you're keen to lay hands on. As soon as you do that, the server will look for other people who have matching wishlists and offers (in reverse, though, if you see what I mean) and will drop an email to both parties suggesting a swap.

I expect some challenges around the matching -- what happens if I misspell (say) Lettuce, or if I enter a plant as "Lactuca sativa" but you're looking for "Lettuce"?  I don't know how well (or otherwise) its all going to work out -- I could really use some help from a SQL1 guru with this sort of stuff. All gods know I'm not one!

Right now most of this works, but it all still looks like crap, as I've made absolutely no attempt to "style" it to look like anything yet. If you have some web-design (especially CSS) skills and are keen to help out, please drop me a line! Otherwise I'll hack something up...

The only significant missing piece right now is any ability to Just Browse through the lists of what's on offer! I feel that this is a crucial piece of functionality, and need to implement something before the site goes into what we propeller-heads call a "Beta Release" -- a working, functional version, but May Contain Some Nasty Surprises2.

Other bits and pieces that I may add later -- depending on how important other people feel they are -- would be a wiki system so that we can write-up plant descriptions, with pictures, growing tips, seed-saving hints, breeding ideas of the various varieties. (My own interest is in veggies, but I really hope that flower and fruit growers will also step up...) Then, too I have in mind to add a "forum" chat system later... we'll see.

The software will be released as Free Software so that if anybody wants to run their own exchange system -- perhaps with a regional or specialty focus -- they'll be able to take advantage of the software. My aim is to build-in functionality that will enable all OpenSeed exchange systems to share all their swap offers globally, but that, too, is a "for later" feature.

So Why All The Waffle Now?

Frankly, I need a little help. Included on the site are the usuall stuff like a "Links" page, and I could use some input on what links to include. I'm particularly looking for seed-bloggers (you know who you are! many of you are already listed ;-) good-quality heirloom seed suppliers, and links to seed-saving, food-biodiversity, plant-breeding, heirloom variety information, seed-politics, etc. At this stage anything's game. Spammy commercial links won't make it ;-)

Where and When?

The site will go live as openseed.org -- hopefully sometime in late-Jan/early-Feb (but no promises -- if somebody offers me a bunch of money to do something else, openseed.org will have to go on hold.)

The site will be non-commercial -- for the time-being I can afford the hosting and such, but I could really, really use help with testing, ideas for more features, and, once it is up-and-running, feedback, bug-reports and content.

Oh, and any good heirloom veg seeds ;-)

(And after that I'll get around to making this blog look like something. Right now it looks like crap and leaves a whole lot of usability to be desired. But it's Summer, right now, and Prime Weeding Season and It All Takes Time.)

[1] The system is currently using MySQL, but could quite easily be transitioned to another database system, but there's no compelling reason to change right now, and it would only slow me down at this point, when my aim is to get something up and running for people to kick the tyres and suggest how to do things better.

[2] Like Windows Vista, then... ;-)

13 December 2008

Thinking Ahead: Seed Wanted!

So here it is, not yet full-Summer, and I'm thinking ahead to my Winter garden. The Tomatoes are still (mostly) under 30cm tall. The Chillis -- the few, pathetic survivors of the season's Great Chilli Holocaust -- barely past the seedling stage.

This year -- in contrast to my usual habit -- I decided to Buy In seedling mix. Usually I just use my own compost, and it works reasonably well, up to a point. My compost is made from stable-muck where they use wood-shavings for the bedding instead of straw. It's great for compost, and means that I get lots of odd fungi in the garden, but its a little heavy for seed-mix. The bottom parts of the seed-trays tends to stay waterlogged, and the roots of all the tiny plants don't get enough Oxygen. So the seeds germinate well, grow fantastically to a point... and then come to a complete halt! Hence my (reluctant) decision to buy in a "professional" seed mix.

Turned out to be a disaster. The stuff is like cement. Maybe harder. The seedlings get even less Oxygen to their roots, if that's possible. As a result I'm having a terrible Chilli year. My third Disastrous Chilli Year in a row! I've lost a number of Chilli varieties that I've been saving seed from for years, including Serrano, Jalapeno (can you fucking believe it?) Bolivian Rainbow, and New Mex #6-4. Only two plants of Cherry Pepper -- I'm guarding them like a Hawk.

So: I'm going to have to buy in a whole lot of Chilli seed for next year to rebuild my seed-stocks. Here's a list of what I'm looking for -- if you have any of these and are open to swaps (or whatever -- I'm happy to pay a reasonably price...) please drop me a line:

  • Pasilla
  • Rocotto (sp?)
  • Jalapeno (none of that Jalapeno-M stuff, thanks -- if it's not hot, what's the point?)
  • Serrano
  • Poblano
  • Nu-Mex #6-4
  • Mira del Sol
  • Cherry Peppers
  • Aji
That's just the absolutely essential ones. Offers of any others will be most welcome!

In exchange I can (probably -- depending on how the season progresses) offer Bishop's Hat (we tend to call it Red Hat around here, being a bunch of open-source software geeks) plus whatever's on my seed list (not currently up-to-date; I promise I'll fix it in a day or three!)

The thing with Chillis is that I can mostly overwinter them quite successfully. We don't get any frost. So my idea is to plant NOW with the idea that I'll only harvest seed somewhere around Jan 2010. (How's that for Long Range Planning?)

And. Whilst I'm Thinking Ahead, I began to contemplate the Winter To Come. See, with such a mild climate, we have (at least) two growing seasons. And, having learned that Chickpeas ("Garbanzo Beans" to some...) are essentially a cool-season crop, I can tell that they'll never do well through a Summer here! So, I'm looking for 2 or 3 varieties of Chickpeas to plant this comning Winter. While I'm at it, I am keenly interested in increasing the number of Bean varieties we grow. At the ver minimum, I want a good Pinto bean, and a variety of large-white bean. (Locally we know them as "Butter Beans". But do you think you can find anyin the seed racks? Or even in the supermarkets as dried beans?? No!They're all in cans!!)

More Beans Welcomed! Currently we are very successful and happy with Dragon's Lingerie and Hopi Black for dried beans, but I'd very much like to expand the range a bit!

If you have seed to swap/sell/give away along these lines, please contact me!

08 December 2008


Fire up in the forest somewhere has brought us the Most Exciting Event In Months. The firefighting helicopter is taking water from one of the (large) dams across the road from us -- no more than a couple of hundred metres away! (I presume they compensate the farmer for the water they take -- that bucket is pretty big!)

A young friend who lives up near that part of the forest has told us that the fire is not considered very serious, and that firefighters should manage to extinguish it tonight. Murphy's Law, though, means that, no sooner had he told us this, than a strong wind sprang up from the South East, which will, no doubt, hamper firefighting efforts.

Most likely it is Pine plantation that is burning; indigenous (Afromontain, mixed hardwood) forest tends to act as a damper, and is considered a retardant to all but the very largest of fires.

Quite exciting, though, to have this chopper flying directly over our heads every ten minutes or so. Ordinarily I have a strong objection to helicopters flying over us1 and the forest, disturbing the Elephants, but this one I'll gladly support!

[1] My anti-helicopter crusade: another story for another day.

22 November 2008

Yellow Crookneck Planting

Planted out a couple of metres of bed (S2 bed) of Yellow Crookneck Squash. Very old seed (DA03) so I've sowed very thickly -- stations about 20xcm apart each way, 2 seeds per station. I'll thin if necessary, but it probably won't be.

The aim is simply to get a few -- 4 or 6 if I'm lucky -- plants from which to keep seed, so I'll be hand-pollinating. I'll also have to tray various measures to keep the dread Pumkpin Flies away -- caging at least, maybe spatter an aromatic (Peppermint?) oil on the leaves as a distractant, maybe try CanadaMike's suggestion of using diatomaceous earth.

Yellow Crookneck Planting

Planted out a couple of metres of bed (S2 bed) of Yellow Crookneck Squash. Very old seed (DA03) so I've sowed very thickly -- stations about 20xcm apart each way, 2 seeds per station. I'll thin if necessary, but it probably won't be.

The aim is simply to get a few -- 4 or 6 if I'm lucky -- plants from which to keep seed, so I'll be hand-pollinating. I'll also have to tray various measures to keep the dread Pumkpin Flies away -- caging at least, maybe spatter an aromatic (Peppermint?) oil on the leaves as a distractant, maybe try CanadaMike's suggestion of using diatomaceous earth.

06 November 2008

The Rat Race

Half-time score:
Rats: 1

African Ingenuity: 6
That's right, no less than six Rats trapped. Hopefully that's cleared out the Colony That Ate The Beans. I don't like having to set these traps, but it's a must-do. After all, we're talking about the carriers of Bubonic Plague, here.

I'll leave the trap out a few more days just to be sure I've caught the lot, but the trap has remained empty the last 2 nights, so I think we may have nailed the problem. This time.

But they'll be back.

01 November 2008

The Braamekraal Bean-Field War

We read, today, from the Book of St. John of See-More, Chapter 3:
Store thee the Grain of the Earth, and the Feed of thy Chickens in safe caches, where it be kept from the predations of The Pestilential Rat.

And succumb not to slothful neglect to Go After any such of this Pestilence as may take up residence in thy fields or in thy gardens.

Suffer not the Little Bastards to abide in thy Long Grass, thinking, as you may, "Oh, I'll set a Trap for them Tomorrow."

For Tomorrow may be Too Late, and ye may yet awaken from thy slumber to find an Unholy Proportion of thy bean crop Lying Down, severed in the prime of their growth by The Rat's Razor Teeth. And this shall cause ye a wailing and a gnashing of thine own teeth. And Dental Work may ensue. And ye may also suffer the humiliation of mockery by thy Blogging Peers. And also Hedge Wizard.

For ye may then find that thou hast insufficient Beans for thy Chilli when cometh the Depths Of Winter. And thou mayest resort to Store Bought Lentils. And this is Not Good.

So set ye the Death of Rats to work. Labour ye mightily until it be baited and filled with a good depth of water. Make the bait Tempting unto The Rat with a slathering of Peanut Butter.

And rest ye not until this be done. For The Rat hath surely a dozen babies growing fat on your Bean Crop and your Carrots and your Fennel.

Here endeth the lesson.

28 October 2008

That Good Ol' Inundation Time

That time of year. The Inundation -- not so much the water, though happily the dams and soil are looking much improved from the good rains we've had so far this month -- but the inundation of work in the garden. It's been keeping me pretty busy, I can tell you. I've managed to dig one new bed, bringing the total to 14, and with a little luck I may even get another one dug. Be aware that "digging a bed" for me means heavy composting and double-digging in a heavy clay soil to prepare a deep-bed, so it's a significant investment of energy. And then some people wonder when I am quite... pointed... about visitors to the veggie garden not treading on the beds, but sticking to the paths.  There's also been a lot of rehab work on paths and existing beds, after their 9-month neglect while I worked on a programming contract.

All the plants are terribly slow this year. Spring has been cold, windy and wet, and it's only really in the last week or two that most plants have shown real signs of waking-up. This year's Spring Disaster (isn't there always one?) has been seedling-mix. Usually I use my own compost for seed trays, but it tends to be a bit dense, retaining water a lot, and thus restricting oxygen to the plant roots and slowing plant development. So this year, feeling flush from the effects of the Sojourn In The Desert1, I splashed out on "professional" seedling mix. What a lot of rubbish. It fails to hold water in any adequate way. It forms a lovely cement-like crust over the top, and just generally is worse than my own compost. Chillis planted into it have still failed to show-up. Chillis planted a month later in my own mix are looking much better. Sadly I risked a number of varieties of Chillis, Tomatoes and Lettuces where my seed-stocks were at their end, and I've now lost those lines. Grrrrrrr... That'll be the last time I buy that rubbish. Rather focus on finding ways to lighten-up my own seed mix.

On the bright side, both the Globe Artichokes and the Jerusalem Artichokes are doing really well, as are a bunch of relocated Tomato volunteers. Squashes and Cukes not so good -- too much cold for them -- but we'll keep trying. Beans (for drying) are doing well, though I still lack a really good Pinto bean, and am struggling to source a decent (large-size) Butter Bean. I like Beans.

I've become a lot more focussed on trying to get real staple crops going, so there's been much more work on the simple stuff -- Beans, Potatoes. Leafy crops are all very tasty, vitaminicious and the like, but what we monkeys really want are Carbohydrates. (Bananas are filling the gap, but there's a limit...) As soon as I get all the right factors in the right place at the right time, I'll be burning the rank grass off the top fields and putting them under grains and oilcrops. Fire is frightening stuff, though, no matter how powerful a tool for clearing land! Between the money-world "disasters"2, the increasingly obvious climate changes, and the ever-pressing oil prices my thinking is that anybody who grows food is going to do OK over the next few years!

[1] The Programming Contract. It may only have been 9 months, but there were times when it felt like 40 years...

[2] I find it difficult to take that whole catastrophe too seriously. I mean, really, it's all too "We deluded ourselves into believing that Some Crap was a real value and... It all turned out to be Crap!" No sympathy, me. Of course its had the inevitable effect3 on our Developing Nation Crap Currency, which means that the veggie-breeding book I want (Carol Deppe's book) was R260, but is now R330!

[3] Of course we shouldn't neglect the effect of the Idiot Who Would Be KingPresident and his fuckwit minions...4

[4] OK, OK! I know I made a promise to myself that this blog wouldn't cross into politics, but really... we're in for a Kakistocracy5 worse than the US'ians have suffered these last 8 years.

[5] The word "Kak" is a common South African term for "shit". It actually derives from the Greek word "kakistos", meaning "the worst".

13 October 2008

A Bee, See?

Third time's the charm. (We hope, after the last swarm of Bees buggered offabsconded in the cold weather whilst I was away in Cape Town.)

Last Thursday evening our neighbour Tziporah (not her real name -- but my private nickname for her) called us up. "There's a swarm of Bees hanging under the eaves outside my bedroom. Do you want to come and get them?"

Being a total n00b at this bee business, I was not at all sure how I was going to "get them". I just took a catch-box -- a half-sized hive that takes only five frames -- and placed it a couple of metres away from the swarm at about chest-height. And hoped for the best. Tziporah and I called up a local beekeeper friend who advised us that "the best swarms are those that just move into the box by themselves. Failing that you can try sweeping them into the box with a soft brush."

The "normal" technique when a swarm lands in a tree is to shake the branch suddenly, and the swarm usually drops off -- plop -- into a strategically-placed box. Or you can cut the branch off. Having imbibed of a wee Golden Beverage prior to Tziporah's call, I was a bit apprehensive... So we just left the nucleus-hive conveniently located and hoped for the best.

Day 2, Friday: The weather turned out miserable. Pissing with rain (welcome), Windy (not) and Cold (ugh! It's supposed to be  Spring!) Not a good day for Bees to move about, nor a good day to try sweeping them about. We're informed (with the emotional emphasis of One Who Has Been There) that trying to brush them into a box rainy weather is definitely A Bad Idea. Their wings get wet, and you just end-up killing a whole lot. And this is not a very large swarm to start with!

So now what? We don't want them to get too well oriented to where they are; our houses are about 500 metres apart -- not really far enough for a serious Bee move. If you're moving bees (according to the Slightly Odd Belgian gent in Cape Town who advised me) you should either move them quite slowly -- about a metre a day -- or more than 2 km all at once. Less than 2km and they're likely to make their way back to their previous home. What to do, what to do?  I opted to leave them be for the day.

Day 3, Saturday: A morning call from T... "They've moved in." Hooray!

We left them alone for the day to settle into their new house. Presumably they get the furniture arranges just where they want it, make sure that no Peas have been hidden under Her Highness's Bed,... whatever it is that Bees do when moving house. At dusk I popped over with Ye Rusty Bucket1, taped a cover over the hive entrance, looped a bungge-cord around the box and lid, and drove the hive home where we had prepared an old drum as a hive stand. You must, please, remember that we're in the Land of the Honey Badger, here, and hives cannot be left near the ground lest they get destroyed in short order. The drum is filled with water so that it can't (we hope) be pushed over, either.

Happily we had very fine Spring weather on Sunday, allowing the swarm to really settle in, forage for nectar, and really settle in and get their bearings. Certainly I noticed a lot of Bees in the veggie garden, especially on the Borage and Lavender.

Today (Monday) the Bees are still around, though the weather has turned cooler (and the forecast for the remainder of the week looks like More Of The Same.) But the Bees seem to be quite happy. Soooooo.... hold thumbs that they stick around this time!

06 October 2008

Hopi Black

Hooray!  The Hopi Black Beans are finally up.  It's certainly been a long wait... I'd almost given them up as a write-off.

In truth, though, it has been a late, cold Spring so far. Nights are still cold, and that also means that Chilli germination is exceedingly slow. So slow that I am worried that seeds may be rotting in their trays.  So worried that I replanted a new batch of the Most Wanted Chillis last weekend.

The only chillis that are actually Jumping Up in their trays are the Habaneros. Far more than I can reasonably cope with. The other  Big Surprise is the Hot Bananas -- a random cross between Sweet Banana and something hotter -- probably Jalapeno or Serrano. So what I have are the F1 children and we shall certainly have some surprises in store.

So here's an idea: Take a bunch of fresh Habaneros and chop their stem-ends off so that they're pretty-well opened up. Drown them in a jar of Honey. Leave alone for a few weeks.  Hot Habanero Honey, anyone?

05 October 2008

Feeding the Dinosaurs

Hedgewizard speaks to a very important problem in "The Second Famine Year" -- the price of animal feed, and Chicken feed in particular.

Locally prices have gone up by over 50% in the past 6 or 8 months, so I've been focussing on growing lots more greens specifically for the chickens. They love Endive, which is great, since it is so quick and easy to grow, and equally easy to produce masses of seed. The Ladies also get all the older lettuces as they come out of the ground, and I've just sowed a row of grain-sorghum to give that a try as another feed source.

Another plan I must soon get around to implementing1 is to build a Kale-Ark in the chicken-run. The idea is to plant a bed of Kale (and the Chooks love all of the Cabbage tribe!) and protect it with a wire-mesh tent. Then, as the plants grown bigger, the Chooks will be able to peck at the leaves that poke through the mesh without destroying the plants. At least that's the Theory2...

At least Hedgewizard has the option of buying organic feed!  No such luck around here, so our chooks are fed on non-organic crushed maize for their staple diet.  I've checked and the supplier assures me that it is GM-free, thankfully, since so many SA farmers have swallowed the GM hype, as have the geniuses in the Dept. of Agriculture. :-(

Interestingly, there seem to be a strong correlation between the amount of greens they get and the number of eggs we get, so the sooner we can ween ourselves off bought-in Chicken food, the better!

[1] As soon as I finish painting the house, digging new beds, fixing the chainsaw, making more compost, port the blog to a new platform, cut firewood for Summer, deconstruct the broken shade-house, construct a greenhouse in its place,...

[2] "In theory, theory and practise are the same, but in practise they never are."

11 September 2008

Magic Mushrooms

In the past few years we've had the occasional mushroom pop up in the lawn, and eventually a body has to get around to wondering, "I wonder if I can eat those things..."

As a child I was fed many dire and dreadful stories about people -- "Seasoned mushroom hunters! Decades of experience identifying and picking wild mushrooms..." -- suddenly up and dying after a dreadful mistake consuming a "poisonous toadstool". So it was with just a hint of trepidation that, after much careful umming over mushroom books and identification guides, J standing by with the car-keys ready to rush me off to hospital at the first signs of turning blue, I gingerly tasted a tiny fragment of one of these little white lawn-jobbies a few years ago... Too tiny a fragment to even find out if they tasted good! Several hours later, still alive, I tried a bigger piece, and waited for The End. Or at least some decent hallucinations.  No such luck. Some more hours went by, and, emboldened by my continuing good health, I ate the rest of the damn thing. Delicious!

The mushrooms in question are Agaricus campestris, the Field Mushroom, and a close relative to Agaricus bisporus, the Button Mushroom we so commonly buy in the supermarkets, and they're a roughly similar size shape and colour to Button Mushrooms. Around this area there are no poisonous species similar to the Field Mushrooms, so you'd have to be pretty careless to mistake these for something poisonous.

For reasons unknown, this year we've had a sudden population explosion, with small clumps of these mushrooms popping up like mad all over the lawn over quite a wide area. Enough to keep us well fed with mushrooms for the past few months, and especially welcome through Winter when not much else is happening in the garden. Never an all-at-once glut of mushrooms, but a pretty constant supply -- enough that we've not had to buy mushrooms in 3 or 4 months.

Of course they're not the perfect, clean, brownish-white of indoor-cultivated commercial specimens, and we have to clean off odd bits of grass and twig and soil before they're ready to eat. The flavour is similar to a Button Mushroom, though a bit stronger and wilder, most likely because they're absolutely fresh. But the texture is noticeably different: silkier and a bit "slippery" when cooked. We've been enjoying them in pastas, in pizzas, with eggs for a breakfast feast, and raw in salads.

Apart from the odd mushroom getting trampled or pecked by curious chickens, we've made sure to leave a fair percentage of them to open fully and release their spores in the hope of equal (or better) harvests in years to come. Not only have they been a welcome addition to the food supply, but they also confirm my long-held belief that mushroom cultivation is a natural for our area.

I'm also sure they're trying to teach us something about the need for healthy mycelial life in our soils...

09 September 2008

Winners in the Tomato All Comers Stakes...

First of the Tomatoes to germinate this year: Brandywines, (yay!) Cherokee Purple and Striped Roman.

In the seed-Lettuce departments we have the mysterious variety identified only as "Lettuce K" to this point, and -- this just in -- a couple of cells of "Merlot" -- a small, curly leafed variety, with the most intense deep-marron colour I have ever seen. The few plants I was keeping for seed last season got Take Out at the last minute by a dastardly Porcupine (or so I guess) so I was fearfully low on seed. Hopefully the current planting will rescue the situation.

I also noticed the very first couple of Dragon's Lingerie beans popping their heads out of the ground. Time to get the Hopi Black beans in, too, then (barring disaster) we'll be set for a year's-worth of dry beans. I'm pushing things a bit with the DL beans -- they're actually occupying a bed marked for Chillis in the rotation, but I'm betting I can plant the young Chillis out between the Beans, and then whip the Beans out before the Chillis need the space in any serious way.

No Chillis are up yet, but that's expected. We won't see them for at least another couple of weeks.

28 August 2008

Hands in the Soil

What a great day it's been! I spent the entire day (well most of it, anyway) in the veggie garden. Planted a bed full of Dragon's Lingerie beans -- a great bean for drying. Cleared another bed for Carrots and Beets. Cleared weeds and thinned Beets. Cleared pathways and re-surveyed several of the beds that have "wandered" from years of being dug over using the Mark One Eyeball Edge Estimation Technique.

The weather was not brilliant -- windy with a not-so-subtle hint menace of chill, but better than the forecast for the weekend. That means I'll likely have be trapped indoors over the weekend, with plenty of time for my course-preparation work then, and I decided that I'd rather take advantage of my current happy-clientlessness and the half-decent weather to get preparations underway for the new season.

I really must build a compost heap, if only as a way to provide some bottom-heat for getting Chillis germinated. I have seed-trays planted out, but temperatures are certainly not what Chillis would really like, yet, so any help I can give them sounds like a good idea.

Even though I'm pretty out of shape from 9 months of deskwork and my lower-back and arms ache a bit, its a good ache! A much healthier feeling. I feel much, much better for having had my hands in the soil all day than I've ever got from having my hands on a keyboard all day.

The image of self-sufficiency as a life of pure drudgery and unremitting toil is just plain wrong. I can't imagine anything more drudgeful, unremitting and draining than a day of office politics, meetings and drearily coding CRUD1. The human mind, body and spirit are not made for that; we need variety. We need quiet time. We need non-thinking time. We need contact with the Earth; with the soil. Gardening gives us all these and more.

I recall reading that physical contact with the soil has been proven beneficial: Soil contains bacteria and fungi that stimulate endorhpin production and so literally makes us feel good! (Wish I could find the reference, but I can't. Anyone who does, please drop me a line.) I guess this assumes that your soil is healthy and free of toxic concoctions...

Whatever the reason... a Good Day!
[1] For non-computer people, that's a technical acronym for "Create Read Update Delete" -- the most boring, mindless and tedious kind of programming there is. And a whole bunch of what's wanted out of corporate software.

24 August 2008


Spring seems to be springing up on us again. Comfrey is making new leaves, Apple trees are blossoming, and various birds are growing their mating plumage.

Time to get a-planting! Sowed trays of Tomatoes -- 14 varieties, despite my solemn promise to myself to focus on fewer varieties this year -- and Chillis -- 10 varieties so far, but I still have to sow the "large quantities wanted" varieties: Jalapeño, Serrano, Cherry and Habanero.

Also managed to get some Squashes into the ground, in a bed close-by where I can cage and guard them closely against the dread Pumpkin Flies -- If I can just get 2-dozen undamaged squashies off that lot we'll be set for a year's supply. Black Futsu and some anonymous Japanese-origin winter squash already planted; must still get come Butternuts and Gems (Acorn Squash) into the ground. According to local weatherlore, I'm 10 days late with Squash sowing! Summer Squashes will come and go as space and fancy permits. Cucumbers will have to share space with the Grapevines and Granadillas -- I don't have the time to give them their own dedicated space.

I'm also way behind on compost making, so its going to be a chaotic and challenging season this year. Mostly due to my being chained to a desk this year. Though its been good for the bank-balance, I'm very glad relieved beyond belief that my contract comes to an end on Monday and I can gleefully fire the bunch of halfwits I've been working for, and get back some balance and garden time.

Sorted out the Lettuce seed stock, so now I have a clear idea of which Lettuce varieties need propagating-up to get the volumes healthy. It's pretty challenging keeping 16 varieties of Lettuce all going at once.

Sadly the Mangels I was growing for seed (they're biennial, so need two years to produce seed) were taken out by Rats during the Winter. Fortunately I still have enough seed to start again.

Mustn't forget to sow Basil, Lemon Basil, Parsley, Coriander, Bok Choi, Tatsoi (sp?), sundry Cabbage Tribe, get some Sweet Potato runners,... oh! and beans for drying are wanted in Significant Measure this year. It is not very difficult to get self-sufficient in Beans for a year, even though I like Beans (A Lot!) as they're such a trouble-free crop. Not to mention that, last time I checked, prices for dried Beans and Lentils were over 150% higher (globally!) than last year. Then, too, I'm keen to try my hand at growing Sorghum for feeding to the chooks.

Lots of work ahead to get beds prepared... that old Spring Panic again!

05 August 2008

Beelieve It Or Not...

A good-sized swarm of bees has just a few minutes ago moved into one of our bee-boxes.

They totally ignored the freshly-prepared and lovingly-tended catch boxes we've had out since our last, unsuccessful attempt to catch a swarm, and moved into the tatty, unprepared full-sized brood-box! In the space of just 5 or 10 minutes, they moved in and are contentedly getting the furniture arranged. The only trouble is that the box in question is a bit too close to the house and the veggie-garden gate for comfort. Bear in mind that these are not your meek and mild European Bees, but a race of the dread and fearsome African Honey Bee -- Apis mellifera capensis -- and not to be messed with lightly. We'll give them a few days to get settled, and then see to moving the hive somewhere a bit more convenient to ourselves. The bad thing is that the hive is totally vulnerable to any Honey Badgers that might wander by -- we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed for a few days until we can get them settled somewhere safer.

Hooray! Finally, after years of trying to catch a swarm...

(In the picture you can probably not make out the Bees themselves moving into the white, full-sized box. Atop the hive is one of the catch boxes, freshly prepared, and not yet placed in a strategic location.)

21 July 2008

The Duty

The Chicken population has got out of hand. Nine Eight Seven roosters and nine hens. No wonder the poor Ladies have taken to hiding inside the Chook House all day!

Terry Pratchett got it all wrong. The Death of Rats should be personifiedperratified not as a Rat, but as a Cat. (Or small, frantically yapping Dog.) I, in turn, should be dressed up as the Death of Chickens. Or a Death of Chickens, anyway, if Death is going to franchise out his operation, as seems increasingly popular. Clearly not a very active or diligent Death of Chickens, otherwise we would not have this Chicken Overpopulation Problem.

Every time I go out to give the Chooks their evening feed, I curse myself for not having got around to offing a few of the roosters. Most of the younger roosters have grown as big as they're ever going to get, and have reached that stage where they'll bonk anything and everything in sight. About 18 or 20, in other words. Finally I got determined and caught three of them last night. Evenings are really the only time we stand a chance of catching them -- once they're roosting for the night, safe (or so they think) in the Chook House1.

I thought I had the "right" three... A number of the younger roosters Must Go, along with the Rocky Rooster -- the Grandfather of the flock. He must be about 6 or 7 years old by now, and has been a fantastice Head Honcho, but he's definitely showing his age lately, and we have another youngster who is an exact clone and who we'll keep as his replacement. Needless to say the moon was not up yet when I went out to catch them, so I ended up catching the youngster instead of the Old Fart. So: 2 out of a desired 3 is not too bad.

Started getting the Terrible Two out this morning for Choppie Choppie... the smaller of them put up such a squawkin' and a flappin' and a kickin' and scratchin' that he managed to escape me. Bugger!

Oh well. The best laid plans... At least there's a (very large!) chicken in the freezer right now. With just J & I at home it should make at least three meals. We'll try again tonight.

[1] For readers of Afrikaans, it's really called Die Hoendervleis Paleis. But how the hell do I translate that to English and still make it rhyme?

13 July 2008

Blissful Winter's Day

What a beautiful day! Perfect warm sunshine after a couple of weeks of cold and dreary -- shorts 'n' T-shirt weather.

Just the right sort of day for starting to clear up the Wintering beds and begin preparing for Spring. Things have gotten pretty wild, what with me being otherwise occupied in Babylon earning Monkeys. Kikuyu grass has crept into several of the beds... weeds mulching all the empty spaces that now -- some of them at least -- needing to be cleared.

Planted another length of salad-mix -- direct sown, mixed, looseleaf Lettuces in three rows, interspersed with a row each of Rocket and Red Mustard. The combination works perfectly; once the plants are all up to a harvestable (but still baby) size, I can just snip a swathe across the bed for a supper's salad, and get the perfect mix of leaves that we love best.

A "length" of bed perhaps needs some explanation. All of my deep beds are 1m wide by 11m long. 1m of the length is taken by plantings of insect-attracting herbs at each end of the bed, leaving me with 10m2 to work with. (Close enough to 100sq.ft. for the metrically-challenged.) Very convenient if I ever get around to keeping yield records1. The "length" to which I refer -- the usual "unit of planting" for many things like salading, Beets, Swiss Chard, Carrots -- is the length of my rake handle -- about 1.5m. It is a pretty convenient length for successive sowings. I lay the rake down along the bed and draw a drill with the hoe. The width of the rake-head gives me a guide for spacing rows... works perfectly for me.

Next month starts the busy season -- seed plantings... I really must get around to checking the seed stocks, but I'm pretty sure that I've got everything we'll want. I do need to get some new strains of Jalapenos and Serrano peppers in, but apart from that, I should be able to plant entirely from my own seed-saving. A small but critical step in our goal of self-sufficiency.

All-in-all a great day! It was just so nice to be out in the garden instead of stuck behind a monitor.

[1] i.e. Bloody unlikely!

30 June 2008

Bee Gone

Our Bee adventure didn't last long. The very next day the swarm was off.

We saw the swarm milling about, on the verge of absconding, and managed to bring them down again by spraying water into the air with a hose. This time they settled on a downright upright branch in the Very Thorny Lemon Tree, so it wasn't easy to shake them off into a box this time. After clearing away some interfering branches, and with the help of a soft brush, We managed to get them back into the nuc-hive -- a small hive that only carries five frames.

Clearly something was wrong, because the next day they escaped yet again, this time for good.

On my trip to Cape Town last week I made time to stop in at the Honey Bee Foundation -- a slightly nutty Belgian gentleman who has made it his mission to teach The Art to new Beekeepers, and incidentally runs a Bee Supply shop. He was most helpful!

Evidently my mistake was in using all fully-waxed frames in the nuc-box. I should have left a couple of empty frames in the middle to give the Bees space to cluster and keep warm. Actually the middle frames should not be totally empty, but need a small strip of wax along the top of the frame to guide the Bees into building mostly worker-bee cells and not too many drone cells.

In retrospect I also strongly suspect that the swarm was too small -- it really was a tiny swarm. Reading Adrian's Bee catching adventure has made me realise just how small our swarm was!

Having now been bitten (stung?) by the bug, I now very badly want to get a couple of swarms! So: catch-boxes are out, well beyond reach of the Honey Badgers, correctly framed, cleaned of all wax-moth, ants, spiders and dead leaves, sterilised with a blast from the trusty blowtorch.

13 June 2008

Bee Happy

We've just captured our first swarm of Bees!

A couple of hours ago, Dale noticed a swarm forming around the Thorn Tree near the house, and called me to come and have a look. As we watched, they moved over to a Lavender Bush growing at the corner of the patio. Half an hour or so later, they had all disappeared. Or so we all thought.

Just what prompted me to look closer, I'm not sure. There they were, in a clump the size of a Melon, clustered around a few of the Lavender branches, no more than 20cm off the ground.

We flew into action: Dale off to find a cardboard shoebox, me to grab an empty beehive and place it on a bench off the ground. Couldn't find a piece of board for a ramp; used one of the beehive inner-lids.


About two-thirds of the bees fell into the shoebox. Lots of bees buzzing around, but it was pretty clear to me -- dressed in my ultra-protective shorts and T-shirt! -- that this was a confused buzzing rather than an angry buzzing. How the hell would I know a thing like that? I've never yet had the privilege of keeping bees in reality, though I've wanted to for some years, now.

Gently shook the bees onto the ramp leading up to the beehive. In theory they should have started walking up the ramp into the darkness of the hive, but instead, just lots of aimless milling about. Gave them 10 or 15 minutes to calm down, and, sure enough, there under the Lavender, was a somewhat-reduced clump of Bees. Obviously we missed the Queen the first time around. Lopped of a couple of interfering branches and tried again. BUZZZZZZZ... lots of Bees in the shoebox again... Dale standing by to whip off the lid of the hive... Unceremoniously DUMPed the whole lot of them directly into the hive, and ("careful, don't squash the Bees!") quickly slide the lid back on.

Almost instantly, all the bees buzzing about outside the hive started barreling into the hive as fast as they could find the entrance. All but a couple of dozen standing on the landing platform outside the hive entrance, looking for all the world like Jumbo Jets revving their engines to the max at the start of a very short runway, clinging on for dear life, as their wings fanned fresh air into the hive. Clearly we got the Queen on our second attempt.

Half an hour later, they seem to have settled into the hive quite happily, humming away contentedly. OB the PhD thinks we've specially arranged a box of Mexican Food Doggie Treats for her -- she loves to eat bees. I guess that they taste like Chillis in a Sweet Syrup -- very yummy! It will be easier for her once I can move them a little further away from the house, but in the meantime she's filled with Insatiable Curiosity about the humming noise coming from the box.

Great fun. Great excitement. And nobody got a stung. I guess I'd better read that Bee book again pretty quickly!

02 June 2008

Signal and Noise

Still barely alive.

Thank goodness my (6 month, software development) contract is finished! I originally contracted to deliver 40 work-hours per month. It ended-up regularly going beyond 90. Utter chaos.

Imagine someone1 calling up a builder. "I want a wall built."

"OK!" says O'Reilly.2

"So can you have it done by Monday, then?" Notice that you have not given him any plans, nor even the slightest indication of where the wall should go, how high it should be or how long, what materials are wanted... But imagine further, that, when O'Reilly quite reasonably refuses to give an estimate, our Customer promptly throws their toys out of the cot in no small way. And a month further into the saga accuses O'Reilly of gross incompetence and/or being and out-and-out crook.

All this and more has been part of my life for the past 6 months. Oh, the money was nice to have for a change, but I'm not sure the cost was worth it. My health is still recovering -- bronchial infection as a direct result of stress... Still, it has been an interesting little sojourn back into Money World. At least we've mostly-cleared the debt piled-up by our son's (still-ongoing) Adventures at Rhodes University. All this is the reason there's been so little action on this blog: Nothing On-Topic to blog about, and I don't want to add to the stream of noise.

The only real self-sufficiency news of any note is the continuing shortage of rain. March and April both produced less than half the average rainfall (5-year average) and May saw us getting a mere 14mm. (Average for May is 71mm!) Dams are rapidly approaching Empty. I put some Carrots into the ground yesterday and cannot be sure I'll have enough water to get them established. I have the Usual Winter Suspects in seed-trays -- Cabbages, some Florence Fennel, lots of Onions and Leeks -- but they're terribly slow and late -- Slugs got into the "on-time" batch so the seed-trays are month-late desperation tries...

But still no rain! Household water supplies are fine. We are so conservative with our water that by the time our water tanks start running dry the entire region will be a disaster-area. But for the garden and fields things are looking pretty grim.

[1] I know that none of you, dear readers, would ever behave in such an unreasonable manner as this hypothetical customer. Take my word for it: They do exist!
[2] And Python fans will be shouting "Run Away!", won't they...

18 April 2008

Why You Just Can't Buy Good Horseradish

Tomorrow evening sees the start of Pesach (Passover.)  The time when Jews1 the world over remember the liberation of their ancestors2 from a life of slavery in Egypt.  It is primarily a happy festival, but, intermingled with the happiness of liberation from slavery3, we remember the suffering and hardship, too, and one of the traditions is that we eat bitter herbs to remember the bitter times and tears -- even the tears of the ordinary Egyptians who had to endure the Ten Plagues brought down on them as a result of their political leaders' refusal to negotiate a good faith, mutually satisfactory settlement.

Prime amongst the Bitter Herbs is Horseradish -- "Chrain" in Yiddish ("ch" as in "loch".)  Or perhaps that only happens to Jewish descendants of the European diaspora.

For most people, there are only really two ways to lay hands on Chrain in any shape manner or form: Either you buy ready-made Chrain, stained purpley-pink, and tasting about like crunchy cotton-wool, or you buy some Horseradish roots, and suffer tears, agony and pain shredding it up really, really small, adding vinegar, a bit of salt pepper and maybe a touch of sugar, and making your own.

Either way, every year, I hear the same complaint from my father and his brother:  "You Just Can't Get Decent Chrain Anymore.  It's Just Not The Way Chrain Used To Taste! Weak and Pathetic, I Call It."

And they're right!7

Even home-made from store-bought roots, its just Not As Strong.  And finally I've worked out why.

By an amazing coincidence, one of the farmers in the near neighbourhood grows Horseradish, on what we can only properly term "Commercial Scale".  Last year I bumped into him at the local store, his pickup piled high with bushel-sacks of Horseradish -- merely a sample, he assured me, for the food processors to test for quality.  Each year he ships out tonnes and tonnes of Horseradish.  My guess is that he probably represents the country's entire Horseradish supply.

He doesn't make a fortune selling Horseradish.  Like too many farmers everywhere, he barely scrapes by.  I strongly suspect that, like everybody else who has ever grown Horseradish -- anywhere -- he grows it every year simply because, well... he grew it last year.  You see, you can never get all the roots out of the ground.  They spread in mass profusion, snap at so much as a glance, and the tiniest piece comes up as next year's crown.  No wonder Comfrey holds no fears for me!

A few days ago I dug up my Horseradish roots.  Grown from supermarket-bought crowns a few years ago, they have Migrated.  Now they infest pathways and Real Veggie beds, and generally make a Bloody Nuisance6 of themselves.  Got some fine roots out, though, and saved the crowns for planting for next year.  My Plan is to fill a wire-bin with stable-sweepings, plant the Horseradish in that, and harvest long, straight, clean, Ready To Shred roots, without all the hassle of deformed, soil-grown roots, next year.  I had the same Plan last year...

But here's why Chrain doesn't taste like the Olde Tyme Thinge.  IT CAN'T.  You see, the characteristic Horseradish flavour comes about in an interesting8 way:  The pungent aroma and flavour of Horseradish is a Mustard Oil produced from two separate chemicals that occur in separate cells within Horseradish roots.  The Oil in question is only produced when you crush the root, mingling the two components.  This oil is highly volatile, escaping easily through through rubber seals of glass jars.  It is almost as difficult to contain as Hydrogen gas9, so flavour and odour don't last long once the chrain has been made up.

Now we can understand why Store Bought chrain is but a pale, pathetic imitation of the Real Thing.  But how do we explain that chrain made from Store Bought Roots lacks the authority of the Real McCohen?

Warren (my farmer friend across the way) had to deliver his Horseradish samples to the Supermarkets  at least three months ago.  He had to deliver the Bulk Fresh Produce at least 6 weeks ago.    I, on the other hand, harvested my
Horseradish root at its very Prime.  A mere ten days before Pesach.

Harvested two months before its Prime;  Transported across half a continent;  cold storaged until Ready For Processing.  Pasteurized.  Radeurized.  God-Knows-What-erized.  How the hell could Commercial Horseradish ever taste like the real thing?  Thin, straggly, pre-teen Horseradish roots, not yet matured... How can anybody expect them to substitute for True Horseradish?

So the sad, sorry story is that Store Bought just cannot compete with Home Grown.  My Dad (and Uncle) are right.  "You Just Can't Get Decent Chrain Anymore."

Unless you grow your own.

You see, in their youth, the only Chrain available at Pesach was what Uncle Scholem  grew.  In their memory of Pesach Past; in their recollection of childhood seders, in the tears they cried from for our Ancestors Freed from Slavery In Egypt, my Dad (and Uncle) were right.  Chrain Ain't What It Was.  It can't be!  Nothing harvested months ago can be!

I suspect that this story is all too true for far too many foodstuffs eaten in good faith by masses of people everywhere.  People who believe they're eating Real Food.  The truth is that they're eating Prematurely Harvested Crap.  It is not any single body's fault.  Not the Farmer's -- he just grows the stuff and ships what the supermarkets are willing to buy.   Not the Supermarket's fault -- they just buy it in, ship it out (usually about as fast as it's being offloaded from the truck at the back of the store.)  And certainly not the consumer's fault -- they just wanna buy Horseradish Root.

How many flavours are lost to the mass of humanity?  How many wonderful tastes will most people never know?  Simply because they cannot or will not grow their own?

[1] and atheists of Jewish descent...
[2] well... somebody's ancestors, anyway!

[3] Particularly poignant for Jews4 who grew-up in Apartheid South Africa.

[4] and atheists of Jewish descent who have an functioning conscience...

[5] There was a "5"?  Give me anothe Scothc!

[6] Been watching too much of the Black Books series lately... You supply the voices.

[7] OK, admittedly some of that is just old men remembering their youth through rose-tinted specs.

[8] ...for some value of "interesting"...

[9] I exaggerate!10

[10] ... but only slightly.

06 March 2008

Plan Be Unplugged

Fit the First

Unless you're living in South Africa, you're probably unaware that the country is in the midst of an Energy Crisis. Rolling blackouts are the order of the day; even the mines -- traditionally the mainstay of the economy[1] -- are having to deal with major power-cuts.  Stories abound of commuter trains stranded, traffic snarl-ups due to non-funtioning traffic lights, hospital patients dependent on breathing machines having to be "breathed" by manual labour, telephones and network connections that stop working because the local telephone exchange exhausts its backup power. Nobody is untouched. Every one of us has a story of somebody we know being affected in a life- or income-threatening way.

My youngest brother, Richard, owns a factory that produces sugar sticks -- great lumps of crystalised sugar at the end of a stick, for stirring into coffee (or even -- ugh, gods forbid! -- tea!) Signpost to the pointymost peak of Peak Everything Civilisation, I suppose, but there it is. Trouble is, the process of producing a sugar stick takes 3 days. Three days of pernickity temperature differentials, maddeningly-critical evaporation rates and inexplicably unstable solution-flow rates. Three days. Unless the power fails. Then you get to throw away an entire batch -- 5 tonnes -- of sugar solution, and start again, hoping against hope that the power stays up long enough to make a living. It would be one thing if the business were a well-established one, with a stable, understanding and patient customer base, but it's not. They're still a startup. They produce the best quality sugar sticks in the world, at one third the price of their closest competitors, but they're The New Kids on the Block. They've signed some great customers. But those customers will evaporate if they can't deliver the goods. The fact of power-cuts every second day will produce sympathy from the individuals involved who understand the whys and wherefores; but the fact remains... the customers will go away.

The "current" energy problems are totally the responsibility of the government. Despite the public anger at Eskom, the state-owned-and-run electricity monopoly. More than ten years ago (in 1998, to be exact,) Eskom was warning government that, given government's economic growth targets, Eskom would need to build several more baseload power stations to meet the demand. Given that it takes about ten years to build a significant baseload power-station -- not to mention the getting through all the Environmental Impact Assessments and Community Consultation and Planning requirements. At the time, it was Not Politically Convenient to hear this message, so Mbeki's cabinet ignored it. So we sit with Economically Significant Power Cuts.

Recently some government schmuck tried to suggest that the power shortage was a result of Apartheid-Era Planning -- The Usual Scapegoat. Oh how we laugh! (I'll bet it was my "friend" Arshole Alec, the Arithmetically Challenged Minister Who Has Shot His Bolt. Whilst the apartheid regime certainly left us with lots of horrible legacy, this particular clusterfuck came about on the ANC's watch. The Old Nats (may they rot in hell) would never have permitted such sloppy planning! (whatever else they may have turned a blind-eye to...)

Premonition of the Great Unwinding. We South Africans are the Pathfinders. We are the first to glimpse the course of Energy Descent. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, we go.

Fit the Second

For the couple of years I've had DSL internet service, it has been great. In the face of country-wide complaints (verging on rioting, mayhem and life-threats to Telkom's management) about the Totally Fucking Useless National Telco I have been a lone voice in the wilderness saying what a great DSL service I get. Well bite my shiny metal ass blow me down. A major service outage about ten days ago. Two days of frustration and stress and hours (literally!) on hold. "Thank You For Your Patience. Your Call ''Will'' Be Answered As Soon As A Customer Service Agent Is Available." It wears a little thin after an hour, I'll tell you! This, right at the time when the small flow of money I'm earning is totally dependent on that thin strand of copper I call "The Internet." It all came right in the end, only to be followed by another failure last Friday. The line is still down.

Fit the Future

So this is the face of the powerdown. Not in a cataclysmic implosion, does our civilization die, but little piece by little piece. Some things will undoubtedly get better even as other parts of the technological iceberg disintegrate. Not a single all-in-one unravelling of the Jersey of Warm Fuzziness, but one loose thread at a time.

Even as cellphone service improves and prices fall, fixed-line service goes down the toilet. Even as our air-force's latest toys scream by overhead, petrol prices are at an all-time high, and people are wondering why food prices seem to have skyrocketted, too. Can there really be such a disconnect in peoples' understanding?

'Tis the season for Growing Corn in Rheenendal, and never before have I seen as much acreage[2] dedicated to growing Maize. Most of it, I am guessing, contracted to American biofuel companies. Why do I not feel Warm and Fuzzy like this is a reasonable and sustainable way to provide the energy needs of 6 or 10 or 12 billion people striving to live a first-world lifestyle, driving their Hummers to collect the kids from school[4], annual holidays in another hemisphere and fresh Canadian Salmon for Summer Snacks?

The Unterste Schürer[5]

In a low-energy future -- and we're going to have one, whether we like it or not -- the planet cannot sustainably support so many of us. I realise that I risk the wrath of feminists everywhere (and The Pope[7]) but we face simple choice: reduce our numbers in a managed way, or have Gaia reduce them in an unmanaged way.

What's your choice?

[1] South Africa still produces something like 50% of the world's gold each year, not to mention a host of rare and obscure minerals that turn out to be totally essential to modern industry. Stuff like Cadmium and Tantalum, Vanadium, Ytterbium[3]. In recent years, though, tourism has generated more jobs and revenue to than even gold mining.

[2] Somehow "hectarage" just doesn't sound the same.

[3] http://www.privatehand.com/flash/elements.html

[4] I couldn't make it up if I tried. Not to mention that home and school are the daunting distance of some 800m apart! I sure that Little Darling's legs would break if they walked that far.

[5] Yiddish[6]. "The Bottom Line".

[6] Spelling optional.

[7] Not noted for his Feminist sympathies, I'll note[8].

[8] "A note? A-Flat[9], I'm sure.  My Mother gave the gift of perfect pitch, you know!"

[9] ...or, given the state of the electrically-disconnected South African gold mines, A-Flat-Minor!

21 February 2008

Everything I Learned About Tethering Goats I Got From A Blog Comment

Stuart and Gabrielle write a lovely post on their blog about their beginning adventures with goats.  I was particularly interested as we've also been thinking about acquiring a couple of goats, and I know too little about them.  I left a small comment on their blog, asking them to follow-up, and mentioning some of my own musings on Matters Goaty.

With no warning, all of my questions were answered1 in depth, breadth and heighth, to a degree unexpected on a blog's comments, by Val Grainger (who has immediately been added to my reading-list!)  Stuff worthy of an entire article in its own right.

If there's anything you want to know about keeping goats on a tether, go and read it there -- there's no point in me regurgitating it here; I could only detract from Val's exposition.

But, to (briefly) address some of the gotchas mention by Val, in thinking about tethering, I have only ever considered a running tether to make sure that the animal have a sufficiently large area to roam.  The other possible solution for confining them is an electric fence --  a solution that has worked well for me with horses and cows.  For goats, though, I will have to get better poles for supporting the electric fence...

[1] Well... all my questions about Goat Tethering, anyway.

12 January 2008

Animal Farm

Small apology to the shade of George Orwell

Stonehead hits the nail on the head with his characteristic pragmatism, asking "Should you keep chickens?" and trying to inject a note of realism into what look set to become a new fashion wave in the UK.

We've seen too many people, over the years, acquiring various animals simply as Wandering Lawn Ornaments.  Sometimes in appalling ignorance of the animals' needs, and with predictably disastrous consequences.

One neighbour acquired a small calf:  The idea of a cow wandering about the place, peacefully mowing the lawn, painted a pastoral watercolour in his city-habituated imagination... The calf was very young, and still needed milk supplements.  A few days later it was dead from starvation.

Another neighbour has a partner who "loves animals" and can't help herself acquiring ever more.  Fortunately she is quite clued-up on their care and keeping, but cannot bring herself to control the inevitable population-bomb, nor will she allow anyone else to do it for her, being too distressed by the thoughts of somebody eating her beloved animals.  So they have several-dozen Guinea Fowl (which happily escape into the wild when their numbers become too great,) 3 or 4 horses, unknown numbers of ducks, geese and chickens, two goats, a couple of dogs, and one vastly-overweight Pig.  All simply as "pets".  The feed bill each month is staggering.  And he is kept pretty busy building and maintaining animal housing and enclosures.  Oh! In fairness, they do milk the goats and eat some eggs.

All this is apropos, as I am thinking of acquiring some more animals to help around here.

I have in mind a couple of goats to help manage the rank, weedy grass-bramble-and-alien-tree infestations in various parts of the farm, to be followed by a couple of pigs to clean the soil of roots and weed tubers as a prelude to a planting of grains or beans, then following-up with fodder crops again to close the circle and bring the animals round again for the next cycle.  Fortunately a neighbourhood friend (as opposed to a mere "neighbour") has great experience with goats, and has been considering getting a small herd for herself again, so we'll probably try and find some way to work together on that, pooling our knowledge, resources and energy.  Another local farmer keeps a herd of pigs as part of his (commercial) farming, so I have a local source of expertise (and animals.)  I freely confess my ignorance of both goats' and pigs' habits and needs, but will make sure I cure that deficiency before taking any concrete steps in this.

Then, too, I'm thinking about adding a couple of sheep to keep the grass around the houses under control...

One of the catches in this Grand Scheme is that we are "mostly-vegetarians".  We still eat some poultry and seafood, but not Pork/Beef/Mutton -- mainly because we feel physically better than if we ate as much meat as most people.  So what to do with a healthy, growing population of various animals?  I could just sell them on to a local butcher, but frankly I don't trust the man's methods, animal-handling practices nor hygiene.  This is probably the single biggest problem for me to solve before acquiring more animals.  I will not abdicate the responsibility for closing the circle.

A local friend, Don, made the comment (having kept goats himself) that animals tie you down a lot.  You can't just pack up, lock the door and go on holiday -- or even out for an evening -- without making provision for the animals to be fed, watered, shut-in at night, checked for accidents,... But then that's true already with our Chickens and Dogs.  Not to mention the delights of cleaning the Chook House in the pissing rain.

I do have one nit to pick with Stoney's post, though: "Chickens are not dumb"?  What other animal, upon laying an egg, spends the next half-hour announcing the availability of fresh food to every predator in the neighbourhood?  I'm often led to wonder how the hell the species has survived this long!

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