08 December 2009


36 mm yesterday. A nice soaking rain, too, and very welcome, seeing as it's the first semi-decent rain we've had in a month.

 Meanwhile the Spelt is ripening nicely, and we should be able to harvest it within a week or so. This year's harvest will all be kept for seed, but hopefully next year... we'll be brewing with Spelt ;-)

Actually, we could also use it for bread. On our last sojourn to Cape Town some weeks ago, we stopped off at a lovely museum cum antiquey-shoppe in that famous tourist trap, Hermanus.  (Actually, if you want to see lots of Southern Right Whales, Hermanus is the place to be. Whales come within mere metres of the seaside cliffs, generally from about May/June until October/November, as it's a safe haven for them to give birth. When we stay with family in Gansbaai they the whales can keep us awake half the night with their noise!)

There we found a grain mill in pretty good nick. After umming about it a bit we bought the thing. In retrospect we got a steal! We paid R270 for it, and the plates look like it has never been used for actual milling! We soon put that right, and have baked a couple of loaves with hand-milled flour. It's not as onerous as I had been led to believe. We've learned that no good comes of trying to mill the Wheat to flour in a single pass; it takes 2 or 3 passes through the mill, sifting out the fine flour in between, to get good flour. That said, it only takes about 3 or 5 minutes to mill sufficient grain (450g) for a loaf, so hardly justifies motorising it or anything. And the flavour of the resulting bread is not to be compared with bread made from factory flour.

Put it all together, it means that, in just a short time, our self-sufficiency efforts seem to have taken a quantum leap forward. All that remains now is to rebuild the Clay Oven!

25 November 2009

Plumbing Again

First it was the Header Tank.

The Header Tank lives in the roof of the house, and provides cold water to the kitchen and Geyser by gravity feed. Some gunk had found its way into the ball valve that regulates the water inlet. Oh Joy! An hour spent hacking about in the (cooking hot!) ceiling above the main bedroom, doubled over in the cramped, dark, hot and humid ceiling-space, gammy knee complaining all the while about the weird angles it is forced to whilst supporting the weight of Me, whilst simultaneously trying to avoid putting a foot through the ceiling-panels, dismantling and rebuilding fiddly gunky bits. Did I mention it was hot and foetid up there?

Two days later, upon awakening, I stumbled downstairs, mumbled my way to the kettle to start my accustomed Morning Herb Tea (fresh Yarrow, Rosemary and Spearmint, if you must know!) But... no blue light from the kettle! Ugh. A glance at the microwave clock confirmed: No power. Given current circumstances with the State Owned Electricity Kakistopoly I leapt to the obvious conclusion -- a power outage. But no! For once Eskom were off the hook; our Earth Leakage tripswitch had quite perfectly done its job.

Having some days previous noticed a tiny leak from the house water-pump, I immediately and correctly fingered the culprit. Clearly, some water had found its way into the pump electronics or motor. I had already investigated the various cost options for replacing the motor and/or pressure dome and or other associated bits and pieces. But, judging by the evidence, Herr Murphy's Famous Law had beaten me in our race to A Fix Or Bust.

Upon dismantling the various pressure switches, gauges, inlet, outlets and domes, I discovered that the problems were Multiple. First was the Pressure Dome. For mysterious reasons it fills up with water outsidethe rubber bladder that makes it all work. This is impossible. Actually, there is one way this can logicaly happen, and that's if the bladder has a leak. Then it is Bicycle (Puncture) Repair Man to the rescue. Only sometimes, there is no detectable leak. In which case the water, in defiance of all laws of Classical Physics, is somehow osmosing1 itself through the very fabric of the rubber bladder. Must be something Quantum.

Easily fixed, at any rate. Take the bladder out of the dome, dry everything out. Replace. Repressurise the dome -- which is what makes the whole pressure-switch system work in the first place -- and we're done. Unfortunately, along the way, I discovered the source of the original -- tiny!very tiny! -- leak. The base-plate of the dome had corroded and developed a pinprick-sized hole. A quick trip into town to the farm-supply place confirmed my most jaded guess: Buying a replacement base-plate is not an option. One is forced to buy an entire new pressure dome (including bladder and base-plate) despite the fact that only one piece is faulty. All Hail the Kakistopoly at work!

Nothing daunted, I returned home and got to work with some epoxy resin, and patched the corrosion. Not for the first time, either.

Along the way of fixing the pump and its associated machinery, I decided to replace a couple of the fittings which were badly corroded. Not too surprising after 14 years, really, but I have to ask, who the hell makes water fitting with Steel instead of Brass? I mean, what were they thinking? Had their brains been surgically removed? Or had they simply never heard of Rust? (The lower-left picture tells the story...)

Put all back together, along with a couple of other minor fixes -- like replacing the electrical cable from the motor to the switch, which the manufacturers decided to supply just exactly 5mm too short to allow the entire structure to be assembled in such a way that makes it impossible for water to leak onto the pump electrics, no matter what. All Hail to the Kakistopoly! This involved dismantling the little box housing the electrics and then searching for some of those little round metal wire-connector goodies, which involved...

You get the idea. It is my belief that any single job, if allowed, is fractally composed of smaller jobs that need doing first, each of which is, in turn composed of yet smaller, but conceptually identical (but different in their details and implementation) jobs,... and so ad infinitum.

Stuck the whole business back together. "Throw the Switch, Igor!"

"Yeth, Marthter!"


Tripped the damn Earth Leakage again, didn't I?

Choices. Life is full of choices. I could move back to Cape Town, get a well-paid job as a software designer or architect, live in a little flat in Kloof Nek or Bantry Bay, and be able to afford hiring Someone Else to take care of this sort of shit, or... I could spend the next couple of hours dismantling the motor to see whether I can dry it out and make it work again, with no assurance that this will work, nor any experience of doing anything vaguely like it before.

Anyway, a solid tap with the hammer got the motor into pieces, and 10 minutes with a hair-dryer had it all nicely dried out. Would it ever work again?

"Throw the Switch, Igor!"

"Yeth, Marthter!"

Click. Hummmmmmmm...

R1200 -- the cost of a new pump -- saved. And only a morning spent. Until the next time.

[1] Is there actually such a word?

21 November 2009

Abbreviated Update

A miscellany. Life has had too much happening to have blogged it all in detail. I may get around to telling some of it in more detail, but, like all other Good Intentions, don't hold your breath.

Last week was a trip down to Cape Town to chat with all the microbreweries between here and there, gathering some basic data for a business idea I have. Along the way was a most interesting visit to the SA Barley Breeding Institute! Many thanks to the kind folk there who were so generous with their time!

CT was a bunch of hectic running around sourcing various materials for the brewery, culminating in a get-together with the SouthYeasters Brew Club on Wednesday evening. My good friend Franz kindly gave me several new yeast strains, including a couple of Belgian abbey strains, so I'm looking forward to brewing some Belgian Ales in a little while.

Cut the trip a little short and returned home on Thursday, as the OB Dog was obviously very seriously ill. And I am very glad we did. We spent a last few hours with her on the vet's lawn last Friday. That evening I had to take the very sad decision to let her go... she was suffering from an inoperable liver tumour that was causing her all sort of grievous problems. We're still very sad about losing her... tears come to my eyes at the oddest moments. I've had many special dogs in my life, but none as special as OB. She taught me things about what it is to be a wolf/dog, and also things about what it is to be a human. The truest friend anyone could have had, we were extremely fortunate to know OB -- most people will never experience that privilege!

This week has been a bunch of gardening, still trying to get beds cleared, Tomatoes transplanted, squashes in,... I've left the bloody Fennels too long in the seedtray... endless litany of weeding and clearing.

Culled a couple of roosters on Wednesday morning, only to have someone leave the chicken-house door unsecured that evening, whereupon the Ratel (or maybe a Gennet or a Lynx) got in that night. Rudely awakened at about 10.30 to the squawking and screeching of dying chickens... the bastard took out 2 roosters and 3 hens, which amounts to half the flock. So I got to spend Thursday morning plucking and cleaning Still More Chickens. Too late did I read Hedgewizard's Really Good Idea... Would have saved me a bunch of work, I can tell you! The only consolation is that I was planning to cull those two roosters anyway.

Also started on making another batch of malt. 2kg of Barley soaking, half of which I'll make into ordinary Crystal Malt, the other half will get roasted much longer in an attempt to make something like a Special B Malt in preparation for those Belgian Ales. I'm thinking of brewing a special Belgian style beer to be named for OB. (She was a Belgian Shepherd.)

And the drought goes on. It's even too hot to brew!

05 November 2009

Drought Finally Official

 Finally our region has been officially declared a Drought Disaster Area, and the Provincial Gov is pumping in emergency funds for "emergency projects such as drilling of boreholes/treatment of effluent water etc."

A couple of weeks ago the local Muni announced that they're going to be constructing a desalinisation works for  Sedgefield. They're even trying to get emergency permission to delay parts of the Environmental Impact Assessment processes that are legally required... despite the fact that brine from a desalinisation works is classed as toxic waste... despite that fact that Eskom has no spare electricity generation capacity to power such energy-intensive boondoggles projects...in the same breath as local pols are mouthing empty bullshit about reducing our Carbon Footprint...

Something is very smelly in the District of Eden! (And it's not just the illegal-but-ignored below-the-water-table septic tanks in Sedgefield.) Apart from totally abdicating responsibility for allowing the development of housing estates in Knysna and Sedgefield far in excess of the actual carrying capacity of our catchment, local officials seem to studiously avoid looking at much simpler, lower tech, more sustainable and cheaper options.

Like requiring rainwater catchment for every house...
Like requiring in-house water to be gravity fed and not pressure-driven (thus reducing by about a factor of 4 the flow rate from taps)...

Despite the drought our rainwater tanks are all full, even while our dams are pretty empty.

Even when the boys were both still living at home we never, ever used as much as 5000litres in a month. And yes, we do wash ourselves and wash our clothes. Pretty regularly. Perhaps when you know and can easilymonitor your stored water levels being conscious about water usage comes more easily.

I shudder to think what the situation will look like in another few weeks when Peak Tourist Season hits...

Update: Forgot to add that the Provincial Gov rates this as the worst drought in 100 to 150 years. Didn't know they were capable of keeping records from that long ago! :-O

27 October 2009

Tragedy Tamarillo

The sad remains of our newest Tamarillo/Tree Tomato after strong winds yesterday. I was so looking forward to propagating this one, as it is a new strain -- much taller than the other strain we already have, and bearing much larger fruit.

In other, better, news, the Spelt is forming beautiful heads and flowering. The tallest stalks are shoulder high, and so far (knock on wood) the pesky Finches have shown not the slightest interest. On the other hand they have uncanny knack for sensing when seeds are 3 days short of fully-ripe!

20 October 2009

Wort Happens

Adrian commented rather extensively on my First Brew with the new rig, and, rather than just reply privately or in an additional comment (where it'll just be lost in the noise), I thought I'd reply more fully here.

Adrian wrote:

Your low extraction might not be the fault of the crush - it could be the grain mix. You didn't mention what proportion of pale malt you'd had in with your home made crystal. I've found my home kilning for crystal doesn't always convert all the starches to sugar in-situ so a good proportion of enzymes are required from the pale malt. Also - upping the steep time and good 'flushing' of the grist will help.
Naaahhh... it was the crush, followed by too-fast sparging. I ran the second brew last Saturday with the help of the latest addition to the arsenal: The Crushinator Mk 2!

The Crushinator works like a charm, though I will adjust the gap between the rollers down by perhaps 0.1mm next time. A little too much paranoia about stuck sparges, I guess. ;-) Sparging took almost a full hour this time around, and I ended up with 19l of 1.042 gravity wort now sitting in primary ferment. Actually first fermentation is almost done. Already! I washed and re-used the yeast from the first batch, and it seems to have worked out fine.

The aim of the first brew was really to shake down the entire system and iron out some of the (inevitable) bugs. The goal for the 2nd brew was to establish what I'm calling the Baseline Ale: a very plain, simple, straightforward Pale Ale that will serve as a "standard" against which I can compare other experiments and recipes. For example, I'm planning a series of brews where I vary only the water and its constituents. Then another series where I can play around with various hopping techniques. (No! Not "jumping up and down on one leg"!) Then maybe some brews where I play with different yeasts. But changing only a single factor at a time, so that I can compare the result against Baseline Ale and know exactly what is going on.

As a result of the brew being about Baseline Ale I used bought Crystal Malt for both brews, and not my own homemade; that will await a future experiment: I need to be able to taste the differences between my own Crystal and "professionally made". Conversion was almost certainly not part of the problem: my recipe was 95% Pale Malt and only 5% Crystal (guessing that it's 60L) in a single-step infusion mash at 68ºC for a tad over an hour. I will probably extend the mash time a little the next time around.

Are you taking pics of your rig, if so.. are they online anywhere? I'd love to see your setup.

Most of the pics of the rig (and its construction) are now up at http://picasaweb.google.com/mikro2nd/BraamekraalBrauhaus02?feat=directlink

It's a long shot (and some way from you) but when I was down there I did visit a small brewery near Hermanus (Birkenhead Brewery) and I think they malted their own grains from memory - they might flog a few sacks to you if you're passing.

Birkenhead Brewery is still going strong after changing hands and brewmasters (a couple of times?) The current brewmaster is very helpful to homebrewers - one friend regularly buys Crystal Malt from them. They don't currently malt their own grain, though. Pale Malt is all sourced from SAB Maltings in Caledon, and (as far as I know) they import specialty grains directly themselves. We go down to that part of the world fairly frequently, as we have a bunch of family who live in that region, and I am definitely planning to drop by and visit with Andy when next we go down there.

Here in Knysna we have the famous Mitchells Brewery. I went to visit Dave who runs the show there last week, and he, too, is very willing to help out; he offered transport from Caledon for my Pale Malt supplies, and I plan to take him up on that offer!

11 October 2009

Spring Planting

Planted out yesterday: Chiles - 9 or 10 varieties. Some of them only one or two plants each. This is something that's been puzzling me for a while: Many of the seeds I acquire from the North show very poor germination. I wondered whether this was due to their not getting enough after-ripening time, missing out on some cold dormancy, or something similar. I think that Patrick's suggestion is most likely correct: The seeds are probably going through some pretty obnoxious X-rays (or even irradiation) whilst at the tender mercies of the SA post office.

I've had particularly bad luck with Jalapeños this year. Two sowings have been nailed by some creature. Grasshoppers are the most likely suspect. So I only have about 6 plants at this stage ;-) Probably too late for another sowing this year, but I may just give it a go anyway. And here I was planning to try some crosses between them and various other Chiles. Guess I'll have to try crossing them by hand, then.

Also planted out more of the Tomatoes: about a dozen Lime Green Salad, since I know they're particularly sellable. I've been asked ("begged" might be more accurate) for lettuce and other produce by a couple of local restaurants, and, since no other work has been forthcoming this year, am of a mind to give it a go. I've never been mad about the idea of selling produce at markets -- done my time at markets (selling candles!) But I do sorta fancy the idea of growing produce in a dialogue with a chef who appreciates what they're getting, and who can make it part of their "story".

A few days ago I grafted Potato shoots onto some Tomato rootstocks in the hope that this will force them to produce true seed. None of the Potatoes I can grow here have ever produced fruits, and I'm really, really keen to do some breeding work with Potatoes. We get such pathetic crap for Potatoes here... So far the grafts are doing quite well in their plastic bag. At least, none of them have died yet! It's my first attempt at grafting anything, so I'm not really expecting too much. I'm wondering when/how I'll know whether the graft has taken and I can/should remove the plastic tape holding the graft together. Fun experiment, though!

08 October 2009

More Rain Delays Play

More rain.  The trouble is that I have to wait a day or two after rain for the soil to drain enough to work safely without damaging soil structure.

Most of my early planting seems to have paid off, though not by much, I think.  Most of the seeds planted have come up, but are showing such slow progress that plantings made later are likely to catch them up.

I have in mind to start selling (organic) veggie seeds.  I don't know of any organic seed suppliers in SA, and I love growing things all the way to seed.  I usually have to make a conscious effort to rip out plants that have grown past their prime and "should" come out to make space for more productive crops, but I seldom have the heart for it.

Together with the many heirloom and unusual varieties I have, I think this could be a nice little income.  And I love doing it, unlike my feelings about computing these days!  I'll start small, especially since I have some varieties that cannot technically be called "organic" - I simply haven't grown them to seed for enough generations to satisfy purists.  To me it smells of "politics and ego" when I get told that a variety has to have been grown organically for three generations before it can really be considered "organic seed".  I suppose there really has to be a line drawn somewhere, especially since there are so many bullshit artists and fly-by-nights in the local organic scene, but it really is just arb.

I would love some feedback on this idea - what sort of vegetables, what varieties, quantities and pricing...  especially from South African organic growers.

First Wort

Ran the new rig through its first complete brew today. A delight! Everything went very smoothly, with only minor hiccups.

The mashtun's heat-retention was probably the biggest question of the day. Happy to report that it's brilliant. Less than 1º temperature drop over the full hour of mashing!

Burners are fine, though I may try swapping them around for a brew sometime, just as an experiment. I'm pretty sure the 2 burners are pretty unequal, and I don't need such a massive flame under the boiler; once it's reached a rolling boil, only a very tiny flame is needed to maintain the boil.

Pump behaved admirably. The drainage plumbing bits I added are unnecessary: Once the mashtun-drain is disconnected it works just fine as a drain.

The only thing that went wrong was an unexpected leak of coolant-water from the chiller! This after testing it 3 times and not experiencing a problem yet. The only challenge was to keep the leak-water out of the cool wort, since it is dam-water, so something I definitely don't want landing in the wort.

The crush was terrible, though, so very poor extraction. OG 1.030! OK, so I have a week to solve the crusher issue while this batch ferments out.

All done, including cleanup, in a fraction over 4 hours. Pretty good going for a first run, and possibly the most relaxed brew day I've ever had.

05 October 2009

Malting: First Attempt

few days ago, I decided to try my hand at malting barley. Why not jump in at the deep end? I'll go straight for a Crystal Malt. After all, Pale Malt is easy enough to obtain; it's the specialised malts that are more difficult to get hold of.

I bought a 5kg bag of Barley from the local farm-supply store, and put 1kg into a bucket, covered with water, and soaked overnight.

Mistake 1: I should have pre-screened the grain first. There was a fair quantity of undersized grains, chaff and bits of stalk. I doubt that this grain would have been allowed into the silos at Caledon, but, after all, it is being sold as bird-food, not as malting-quality Barley.

After soaking, I kept the grain moist by wetting it twice a day, just as I would do for any salad-sprouts. After 24 hours most of the grains were putting out little rootlets, and after 36 hours I could see the acrospire growing by dismantling individual grains. On average grains were about 30% converted at around 48 hours -- that is: the acrospire was about 30% of the length of the kernel.

By this morning -- 3½ days -- quite a number of the grains were "overconverted" -- thay had already started sprouting. Ideally I wanted to catch them when they were 75 to 100% converted. Actually, I probably did get close to that for the majority of the grains, and, no doubt, some are still a little under my target.

Learning 2: The vertical turning of the grain is extremely important. Happily I figured this one out quite early in the soaking, so not too much harm done. The grains at the bottom of the bucket stay wetter, but get less air; the grains at the top tend to dry out, but end-up growing more quickly. So the vertical turning is important to try and even-out the germination rate of the grain population. I think that 3 turnings a day would be optimal. More than than would only increase the risk of damaging the tender growing grains.

Now, since I want to make a Crystal Malt, then next step is to wet-roast the grain, and hold it at a saccharification rest (69 or 70°C) for (I guessed!) about 50 minutes. Essentially we want to conduct a normal mashing process -- turning starches into sugars -- but keep the sugars inside each little kernel instead of dissolving the sugars out into wort.I just plonked the malted barley into a big pot and put it on the stove at a very low heat with a bit of hot water in the bottom of the pot to keep things steamy and moist. This gave me a bit of trouble in maintaining the correct temperature. Were I to try malting on a regular basis, this is one of the steps I would bear down on to get better; I think that a steam-driven warming might be more controllable, or perhaps a simple double-boiler setup. 30 Minutes into the mashing/roasting step I could clearly (though not strongly) taste the sweetness developing, so I couldn't have missed the temperature window too badly.

Learning 3: Even using the biggest cooking-pot we have I don't think we could comfortably roast more than about 1½kg of malt at a time. One would certainly need/want to handle larger volumes than that, and even more so if I want to produce a Pale Malt.

The final step -- kilning -- was done in the oven. I spread the malt out on a couple of baking trays so that the grain-bed is not too thick, and stuck them in the oven at about 130°C -- or as close to that as the oven thermostat will manage. The grain was turned and mixed roughly every 30 minutes to try and ensure even toasting. After 30 minutes the grain bed was starting to dry out, and a delicious, honey-ish, caramel aroma started wafting through the house. At 60 minutes, there is still some moisture in the individual grains, but the kernels have developed distinctly tough skins. Rootlets have mostly dried out. 90 minutes: Grains are developing a crunchy outer coat. Some are getting distinctly chewey inside, and the roasting pans are gaining a small amount of caramelly deposit on them. I see some challenging washing-up in my future! I originally -- based on reading and thumbsuck -- planned to kiln the grain for 2 hours, but at that stage the grain still didn't get that really Crystal crunchy texture, so I kilned for an additional ½hour, and then left the trays in the oven while it cooled. Turns out to have (maybe!) been a mistake to add the extra ½hour.

After cooling, the malt is dentalwork endangeringly crunchy. Flavour is really good, tending almost to the Dark Side (burnt sugar flavour), but strongly well of Caramel. Colour: I would guess at a 60 to 80L range somewhere. 1kg of Barley resulted in 690g Crystal Malt, though I certainly lost a bit during a accident whilst rinsing the sprouts, and a bit more to tasting at every stage of the process.

I have subsequently tripped across another homebrewer's account of trying to malt barley at home. Sadly the blog lacks an account of how it turned out. That process mentions a couple of air-drying steps between soaking and mashing, and after mashing, but before roasting. I think this would probably be a good idea, and might help to reduce the kilning time.

Lessons for next time: Better temperature control at the mashing/roasting stage! And perhaps mashing for longer.

All-in-all I would call it a success, but the final test awaits: Trying it out in a brew!

01 October 2009


I'm fed up with the useless South African internet/mail-order homebrew suppliers. Essentially there are only 3, and they're all pretty useless in my experience. Orders fail to pitch up for months. Ingredients that I'm  told are in stock, mysteriously become out-of-stock upon ordering. Websites that list fairly common-use grains as out-of-stock -- since March 2008!

It makes me want to set up my own internet brewshop. The buggers are ripe for some competition!

There are some challenges to the thing, I admit. Firstly, I think that most (all?) of the online suppliers are under capitalised. I suspect that running a brew-supply business needs quite a lot of working capital: you have to stock quite a significant range of yeasts, malts, hops and adjuncts, not to mention expensive kits, in order to really "be in business", even if you only carry a quite restricted product range. That all ties up quite a lot of money in eminently perishable products that you hope you might sell before they're stale. Then, too, I don't know that there are enough home- / craft- / nano- / micro-breweries in SA to really sustain such a business. Maybe there are, but I suspect that it is very borderline.

And to think, all I want is some specialty malts and a couple of yeasts.

Suddenly I was struck by a passing Thought Particle! A few weeks ago we were treated to a  tour of the Caledon Maltings, arranged by the SouthYeasters brew-club. (And I'm very remiss in blogging that fascinating tour!)  And we learned a bit about the malting process, didn't we? (At least, as practised on an industrial scale!) Why not try my hand at a bit of malting?

So, this afternoon I bought 5 kilos of barley from the local farm co-op. Bunged 1kg into a bucket of water to soak overnight, and let's see how it goes! After all, stage one is only sprouting grains, no? And we've certainly done that plenty times. I'll probably leap in at the deep-end and try for a Caramel Malt straight-off. Why stick to something simple, eh? So the roasting process might catch me out... what's the risk? A whole kilo of Barley! If I manage to figure the process out in a tiny batch (though 1kg still gives me a decent amount of malt to use for brewing if it does work out OK) then I'll worry about scaling the process up a bit.

Hmmmmm... maybe -- between the home-brewers and the microbreweries -- there's enough of a market for a local specialty-grain maltings locally ;-)

26 September 2009

Brewery - Part 3

Testing the Rig

Finally, having plumbed together all the pipework and gas-lines, added electrical wiring for the pump and a light, modified the stand to accommodate a taller-than-planned gas-burner, jacketed the 3 vessels, it's time to test the bits and pieces.

As any good programmer will tell, you, first you run your Unit Tests. Then, if they're successful, you run Integration Tests. So the morning was filled with testing the various pieces by themselves.

First the gas burners: I had the good fortune to run into a fantastically helpful gas expert, Brian from Knysna Gas. The moment he heard what I was up to, he leapt into action. When I told him which burners I was planning to use, he immediately said, "No! That's not what you want. You want High Pressure burners!" Dragged me out to the back of the shop, and started cobbling together a high-pressure burner setup out of odd parts lying about. Pretty soon he'd put together a burner that can melt all known Chinese restaurants, and roast an ox at 30 paces. This, together with all its pipework,and a high-pressure gas regulator (the Really Expensive Bit) he just gave to me. I ended-up buying another burner from him, once I saw how effective these are compared to the puny piece of junk I had back home. A thousand thanks to Brian for the bits of kit and the excellent advice!

After testing carefully that there were no gas leaks, I fired-up the burners. "All system ready for liftoff. T minus 5." I had to modify the new burner to fit beneath the boiler -- it's stand was too tall, and not needed in any case, since the bench provides its own support for the boiler.

Next the chiller: Finally plumbed in all the necessary fittings for the coolant water, and was ready for testing. My cooling arrangement is a little unorthodox, reflecting both my peculiar circumstance -- no municipal/piped water supply -- and our on-going shortage of rainwater driving our need to conserve every drop.

Cooling water is drawn from the dam near the house, pumped by the already-existing water-pump and pipework. The stuff that waters the veggie garden. After running through the chiller, the water is allowed to drain of via existing drainage back into the dam. Right now the dam is pretty empty, so the water is not as chilly as it should be with a more reasonable depth of water. At least I could establish that the chiller acts as expected with no leaks. T minus 4.

Next up, a cold-water test of all the pipework and the pump. Far better than testing with hot water and discovering that something leaks! Small hold during countdown, here. The pump is a little washing-machine drainage pump, and really quite weak. It has a couple of significant advantages, though: It will happily pump quite large bits of junk along with liquids, which is a very likely scenario when lautering as the mash is quite likely to initially contain bits of grain-husk. Then, too, it is unperturbed by pumping air, provided it is able to self-prime. The only problem with my setup is that the outlet pipe is a bit long, and dips down from the pump, with the result that the pump is prone to developing airlocks which stop it working. It's a problem easily solved, though, and happily caught during testing and not when I have tubs full of rich, hot wort. T minus 3.

Time to find out how well those burners work! 20l of water at 19C in the HLT (Hot Liquid Tank) took around 30 minutes to heat up to 80C. Not bad going, I thought. Pumping the hot water through all the pipes, back and forth between the HLT and the MLT (Mash/Lauter Tank) also served to clean-out any solvents, oils and odd smells from the pipes and pump.

Here's where I discovered the first needed mods to the system. First, there's a bit of clear "plastic" piping joining some plumbing to the pump inlet, and I have strong doubts about its lifetime. I'll have to find a replacement. Second, I need to add a drainage valve to the bottom-most bits of plumbing. right now I have no way to completely drain the whole system, and I don't particularly want to leave water sitting in the pipes -- especially not in the steel parts of the plumbing.

Still, it all seemed to handle hot liquids quite handily. I also learned that, left to its own devices with the stopcock fully open, the pump wants to drain the MLT far too fast. I guess it will be a bit of a learning experience for me to see just where to set that stopcock for a good flow-rate for lautering.

In the process I also learned that I need to preheat the MLT before thinking about starting the mash: The water drops about 10C in temperature just to warm-up the stainless steel tank! T minus 2.

Finally transferred all the water over to the boiler, and fired up the Really Serious Burner. 63C to a full rolling boil in just 13 minutes. Wow! A whole lot of other little concerns got settled along the way. Despite the effectiveness of the burners, the pipes supporting the tanks are easily up to the job, and they don't get significantly hot during a burn -- at least, not hot enough to scorch the wooden frame. Whilst they do get pretty warm, I can still touch them without fear. I was a bit worried that they might bend under the combination of heat and weight. Of course I still have to test them for a full 60- or 90-minute boil under a full 40litre load! but I can have a reasonable degree of confidence that I'm not inviting a disaster. T minus 1 and counting.

Finally, plugged the chiller onto the (still extremely hot) boiler, plugged in the coolant hoses, and let 'er rip. Incoming water (soon to be boiled wort) at a high 90-something C; water falling out into a fermentation vessel: 24C. Good enough for me, and I was really running the coolant water quite slowly. I stopped the coolant water once I was satisfied that the chiller was working well, as I wanted the hot water to clean out any gunk in the chiller copper-inner before I run real wort through it! I do need to figure out a better way of coupling and uncoupling the chiller from the boiler, though. The way I'm doing it now is quite unsatisfactory, and the brass parts probably won't last very long under current conditions.


Now if Vincent at beerkeg.co.za will get his arse in gear and get me my ingredients, we might even have a liftoff!

19 September 2009

Brewery Part 2

Good progress yesterday and today. Having cleared the shed and built a sturdy bench for the pots to stand on, today was about testing and refining that design. The pots are now insulated with pink-stuff, and I have some old aluminium printers' plates that I'll use to encase them in Full Metal Jackets. (Duct tape doesn't work in the heat! ;-)

I've assembled the main plumbing bits and pump, and added supports to the bench for mounting all that plumbing machinery. I would have like to get stainless steel pipe-connectors, but sourcing it in a small town has proved too challenging. Instead I've gone with galvanised steel. Yes! It'll rust in time, but I should get a good bit of use out of it first, and -- who knows! -- by then the brewery might be able to pay its own way for new parts...

I've also added mounting structs and steel shields for supporting the burner, and more-or-less decided that I need a second burner. As much as I want to keep the whole setup as simple as possible, initially, I can see that shunting the one burner back and forth between the Hot Liquid Tank and the Boiler is
  1. way too much hassle, and
  2. a recipe for a disaster involving very hot liquids!
So a second burner and the various bits of gas piping, T-pieces, etc. are on the shopping list (subject to price.)

I also built a support frame for the counterflow chiller I built yesterday. Just a simple, lightweight wooden frame so that I can hang the whole affair up and out of the way while it is not in use. The only real cock-up so far is the connector for hooking the chiller onto the boiler: The guy at the hardware shop gave me the wrong size. :-( Not serious -- I'll just exchange it -- but it set me back from testing the boiler/chiller system today or tomorrow, as they won't be open again until Monday.

The major Outstanding Obstacle at this stage: The Crushinator.

I have a couple of designs in mind for a crusher, but none of it is simple, despite the simplicity of the concept. As with anything, the devil is in the details, and the details ramify out fractally.

Update: I forgot to mention -- I'd post some pix, but I seem to have mislaid the connector lead for the camera. Oh the joys of aging memory...

15 September 2009

Brewery - Part 1

Building a new brewery... a 40litre system this time. I'm tired of hacking around with buckets in tubs of ice, so the aim is to "do it properly". Amongst my design goals:
  • Keep things as simple as possible to keep costs down for now
  • Keep the design as open-ended as is realistic. This is just "good OO design 101".
  • Budget limit R2500 (around EUR230/USD335 today).
  • Must be easy to clean/sterilise the dirty pots. (Having been party to a pretty terrible-tasting brew once before...)
What kick-started the whole affair was scoring 3 used stainless-steel kegs via a friend for R750. I could possibly have knocked the price down a little, but... new, half-sized kegs go for R1250 and up... and used kegs are like hens' teeth around here. So: a bargain at the price, especially as the kegs already had the tops cut our and various holes cut with threaded fittings attached. (Stainless-steel welding goes for around R300 per weld, so I scored R900-worth just in welds!)

My basic plan is a 3-tank system: The first is simply a Hot Liquid Tank -- the source of hot water for mashing, sparging and cleanup. The 2nd will be the mash/lauter tun, and the 3rd the boiler. I could get away with only 2 tanks, but I have definite intentions of converting it all to a HERMS system pretty soon for the extra control and precision it gives for mashing temperatures.

First stop has been to clear the shed nearest the house (just outside the kitchen door!) of junk, and to build a sturdy bench to accommodate the 3 pots, gas burners, chilller, etc. The shed was the most logical place for the brewery: electrified (for pumps) and plumbed (it houses the house-water pump) and close to the dam for cooling water. This much is pretty-much  accomplished. All that's left is to arrange a stand/support for the gas burner. I'm sticking with gas heating, since, sooner or later, we want to get off the grid, and then electrical water heating is a no-go. I also have some vague ideas of trying to build a wood-gasifier for heating at some later date...

Still to do:
  • insulate the pots
  • build a chiller -- immersion or counterflow still undecided and much-debated (input welcome!)
  • plumbing and pump
  • build a crusher
I have about a week or 10 days until some ingredients arrive. Can't wait!

27 July 2009

Catch-up: WinterSeason09

The Winter season has been an almost total write-off due to the still-continuing drought. Good rains (46mm) last week might be the break we've been looking for.

In the ground currently:

  • Self-sown Deer Tongue Lettuce and Cimaron Lettuce for seed;
  • Kabouli Black Chickpeas, Winnifreds Chickpeas and (ordinary white) Chickpeas from the health-shop, all for seed;
  • Spelt in 2 locations, doing quite well;
  • Beets for eating;
  • the Chenopod grex, which, though not doing particularly well, plods on;
  • Amber Globe Turnip (also for seed);
  • some surviving Chiles;
  • and lots and lots of Chickweed.
The season is very warm. A handful of Tat Soi are flowering already! Lots of volunteer Tomatoes are still looking healthy, and they should be dead. Some Tomatoes are even still fruiting (though the fruits are not ripening.)  Golden Sweet Snow Peas: One batch got mowed by Rats or Guinea Fowl but survived and are just flowering; another batch are doing quite well. A small handful of Texas Grano Onions are doing quite well. Birds are gathering OB-fur for nestbuilding, and the Anna Apple tree has started flowering, so, taking a big chance on the very limited quantities of seed I have from last year's order of Chile-seed from Solana Seed in Canada, I've planted a 10x20 speedling tray -- 1 variety to a row -- of Chiles and putting them on the stoep, which should be warmer and sunnier than the seed-racks in the veggie garden. On cooler days I'll move them into Dale's room, which has proved to be quite a good hot-house for the few late-sown Chiles from last year (which are thriving!)

No compost. (See drought notes prior...) so it's going to be an interesting Spring/Summer. I believe that this new climate-regime is permanent. This is our New Normal weather. Welcome to it; Adapt Or Die.

10 June 2009

Noisy Neighbours

So a Sailor walks into a bar. A ship's wheel is sticking out of the front of his pants. "Errrmmm.... Excuse me," says the barkeep, "Do you know you have a ship's wheel in your pants?"

"Oh, Aye!" replies the old salt. "It's drivin' me nuts!"
To the West we have Deon, a local farmer with very extensive lands - I would guess in the thousands-of-hectares range. He's bought himself a bulldozer - quite a serious machine - and is clearing areas of his land of weedy trees. He's already cleared out some watercourses to the West, and that's a good thing, especially with the drought still more-or-less in residence. It's actually quite fascinating to see the real lay of the land once the trees (and they're mostly all invasive aliens) have been removed. He's taking good care, too, that topsoil is not being stripped. Still, it's a pretty noisy business, this bulldozing.

To the West East we have the local Forestry company thinning the Pine Plantation, so on that side its chainsaws and tractors pulling out logs all day, not to mention the daily logging-truck growling past. The thinning operation has been going on for about 3 or 4 weeks now. At times it's pretty noisy, and other times we don't hear them at all until we go for a walk in that direction (our favourite walks) with the doggies. I find it quite fascinating, the weird and unpredictable ways that sound travels (or fails to travel.)

And to the North we have Ms Bayou Babe (the official Village Halfwit) engaging in Major Earthworks on her property. A digger-loader is now well into its third week of work on the land. They must be halfway to China by now! In a way I feel sorry for these people; it seems to me a kind of sickness, to hate a piece of land so much that you feel compelled to completely terraform it. What led you to acquire that piece of land if you did not love it for what it was? Anyway, it's noise there, too, from dawn to dusk.

And to think we moved to the country for the peace, quiet and tranquility!

It'll all come to an end, sooner or later, I know, but in the meantime, "It's drivin' me nuts!"

09 June 2009

Chainsaw Woes 2

Following my whinge (winge? whinj? How the hell do you spell it?) to Husqvarna yesterday, to their full credit, I had responses by email from their MD and their Territory Manager by phone first thing this morning. That sort of response is pretty unusual in the Global Kakistopoly, in my experience, so full marks to Husqvarna South Africa!

The real point, as I reiterated to them, is that, so long as Topsaw is the sole agent/dealer for them this area, there is no way I will own Husqvarna products. The pain and uncertainty is just not worth it.

Just thought that Husqvarna's name should be kept in the clear on this, in all fairness...


Wrote up the origin and definition, with appropriate ranting, of the word "Kakistopoly," a word of (as far as I know) my own invention.

Share and Enjoy!

08 June 2009

Chainsaw Woes

A copy of my letter to Husqvarna South Africa:

I recently took my chainsaw to the local dealer/agents in the South Cape, Topsaw, for a minor service. I was told that the expected price of such a service was in the range of R250-R400, which I accepted, with the clear instruction to phone me if any other problems were uncovered.

Upon calling to enquire about the progress of the service after a week, I was told that parts were on order and that the repair bill would be R1250! You can imagine my consternation. Times are tough, and I cannot honestly afford to pay that much.

Their report of the behaviour of the chainsaw after its service bears absolutely NO resemblance to the performance of the machine prior to the service, and I strongly believe that they have carried out this additional and expensive work unnecessarily. It is my considered opinion, in the light of disucssions with numerous friends and acquaintances who have suffered similar occurences at their hands, that Topsaw are no better than a bunch of thieves and con artists.

As a result, despite believing that Husqvarna makes a top-class chainsaw, I shall be selling the machine as soon as I have it back (though I fully expect there might be some further delays, obfuscation and additional expenses) in order to go and buy a Stihl, simply so that I never have to deal with this bunch of sharks ever again.

23 May 2009

Notes to self...

Dry again, this month. 11mm to date. May is really too late to be planting things, but then earlier would just have been a waste of time and effort, this year.

Gave-up on the Brassicas that were sitting in trays -- they'd been there too long. Instead I direct-sowed some CopenhagenMarketCabbage inGardenBed1 and it is just starting to come-up. Carrots still have made no showing. RedMustard sowed last week in GardenBed8 for seed, along withEarlyPurpleKohlrabi. Must still sow more Brassicas.

Have been struggling to buy (any) grain in small quantities for covering a bed or two (and to gain experience with grains.) Might just have to go with the Buckwheat I've got.

Transplanted the (few) Winter-experiment Chillies that have come-up into tubes; I must move them somewhere warmer for Winter. From memory:JalapeñoPurpleAjiDulceAjiAmarilloTabascoTschanad and a single (green) Jalapeño.


22 May 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different

Jason returned from a short business trip to Sweden, and brought back something special: A copy of the (Limited Edition) new album by Folk/Pagan/Melodic Black Metal band Eluveitie, Evocation 1 - The Arcane Dominion.

All I can say is...

Don't be put off by the "Metal" tag... the album has not an electronic instrument in sight, yet still manages to pull of this weird fusion of Celtic folk, metal, prog-rock and even a bit of rap on one track! Almost all the lyrics are in the ancient and extinct Helvetii Gaulish language, giving a very Pagan, spiritual feel that haunts and teases some memory deep in the DNA.

I cannot praise this album highly enough. This is a work of genius.

18 May 2009

Winter Legumes

Just dug over Garden Bed 10 in preparation for Winter Legumes. Soil seems in pretty good condition -- still quite a bit of old compost, which is something of a surprise. I don't expect it to contribute much in the way of nutrition, but at least the soil condition is reasonable.

Plan to plant a few short rows each of MungBean, SoyBean and BrownLentil -- all very old seed, so not holding my breath much. Then I want some more Snow, Snap and Shelling peas, and maybe some BroadBeans if there seems to be enough room.

I know its late to be planting them, and there's still no rain forecast for the coming week or so, but it's a risk we'll have to take!

14 May 2009

Outcast, Desert Island

Old Rocky Rooster, once Leader of the Pack, King of the Heap is now merely Rooster Emeritus. He's been cast out by one young lad who is now the Royal Highness. Not to mention Twice the Wideness. In plain English, Rocky has been ousted by one of the younger roosters -- one of the Giants that Jayne has bred over the years. (It's reached the point where we think we've bred them just a bit too large, as the Hens definitely take some strain from the Giants, and we'll be backing off to something a bit more reasonable in size. Some of them are larger than shop-bought Turkeys!)

Rocky's has a good innings, though. He's been Leader of the Flock for about 7 years, now. Who knew that chickens could live so long! Now he spends his days all alone, far from the flock, with not a single Hen for companionship or comfort.

I wonder, though, whether he would have lived so long had we not interfered... As the years have gone by we've always culled the younger roosters. The theory goes that, once they're past their fast-growth stage, they're just eating a lot of food, so unless we particularly want to keep them for breeding, or for the sake of Flock Dynamics, into the pot with them! And, because Rocky has been such a good Marshal Of The Hens, we've always hung on to him. Is it our interference that's kept him on for so long? By removing the younger (and larger) roosters, we've been removing his competitors. Perhaps he would have been cast out much earlier in his life, but for our meddling.

And that thought leads me to another: I wonder how much is known about Chicken Flock Dynamics in nature? After all, the chicken factories have no interest in such knowledge, and how many All Natural Chicken Flocks are there left in the world?

Who says you can't teach an Old Chook new tricks, though? At about 5 every afternoon I go to the feed bin to collect chookfood for the evening and morning feeds. Rocky has learned to hang around there at the right time, and persuades me to give him a private feed, away from the beedy eye of the new Flock Leader who would otherwise chase him off.

The real reason I see that he gets a good feeding is that I don't want him totally shrunken and starving when it comes time to put him in the pot; something I must attend to very soon.

Update: Forgot to mention: The "Desert Island" reference is to the ongoing rain shortage. After a decent amount of rain in April, May looks like the drought is not quite ready to let go of us yet... :-(

Update 2:Jayne believes that Rocky is more like 9 or 10 years old, rather than the 7 (or 8) that I thumb-sucked in the post above. Most likely she's right!

29 April 2009

Return of the Mushrooms

The Mushrooms have returned! Seems they were just waiting for a bit of rain. Even more prolific than last year, they're popping up all over the lawn.Good reason to not mow the lawn -- a job I detest that goes against every grain in my being1.

Their flavour is not to be compared with pathetic store-bought fungi, but what I really like best is the idea that I did absolutely nothing to grow them! Oh, I helped them along a little by ensuring that I spread some mature mushrooms around the garden last year so that they would spawn in fresh places, but aside from that it's just been a question of gently plucking them from the ground.

I like the idea so much that I'm going to try and extend it...

The South end of the veggie garden is the boundary of our property bordering the road. Along the fence-line there are a bunch of trees: mostly Australian Blackwoods (Acacia melanoxylon) that are not only and invasive alien species, but a bloody nuisance. The only good thing they do is suck so much moisture from the soil that not even the Kikuyu2 grass thrives. And, as I get rid of the Blackwoods, bit by bit, the Kikuyu wants to return. My plan is to burn what's there off, and immediately plant a mix of Comfrey3, Globe Artichokes and Jerusalem Artichokes4. Maybe some sort of N-fixing groundcover, too.  Where I eliminate the Blackwoods, indigenous pioneer trees readily sprout, and I'm happy to have them! The idea is to establish an area where -- like with the mushrooms -- I do nothing much. And then "hunt" my harvest rather than work at it. Even though I may only get a much smaller harvest, it seems worthwhile, since the (small) aera in question is a wasteland right now, and I don't intend to put any energy into the system beyond getting it established in the first place.

In like vein, there was a significant (2- or 3-dozen?) Guinea Fowl infesting the Chicken Run this afternoon, cleaning up the remnants of the Chook food, I'm sure. I tried -- much to the delight of OB the Hunting Hound -- to bag one with the Pellet Gun, but said Gun is too pathetic (and the shooter struggling with new varifocals!)  to pull the deal off. So I'm thinking about how to devise a Trap... Progress (or its lack) shall be reported here. Watch This Space!

If I ate red meat, there's a herd of wild Bushpig that wants culling. According to one neighbour, our garden is visited infested of an evening by no less than a dozen Wild Boar6, and, according to another, one of these is "the biggest Bushpig I've ever seen!"

I like the idea of Wild Food!

[1] It's not a very huge swathe of lawn. Mainly around the house and areas we frequent so that there are no good hiding places for venomous vipers. I know that I should get sheep and ditch the mower, but then I'd have to find a way to keep them away from the fruit trees and field crops. And I don't eat red meat, so there's no incentive in that direction.

[2] A weed that brings to mind many rude words. Almost impossible to eradicate, but at least nominally indigenous.

[3]Because I like Comfrey. OK?

[4] I just acquired some Jerusalem Artichoke roots last year after many years of searching. Whether I like them enough or not remains an open question5 -- they've not thrived in the drought, and produced only a few small tubers this year.

[5] Even if I don't like them, I'm sure I can brew them up into booze. ;-)

[6] ...or local equivalent...

20 April 2009

Rainish on the Plainish

At last! Some rain. 11mm on Friday evening, and another 11.5mm last night. A reasonable looking forecast for more rain on Wednesday -- should be great queueing to vote in the rain ;-) -- and maybe some more next weekend.

Does this mean the drought is finally over? The ground is still terribly dry, and the dams remain empty. Still, we remain optimistic, so I ran out and planted some stuff, just in time for last night's rain: a salad planting, and some Onions interplanted with Peas. I'm still not taking a chance with anything that's valuable or where I have very small seed-stocks. So things like Spelt and the new Chickpeas are going to have to wait until the water situation looks a little better.

I'm trying a little variation on my standard salad-planting... The normal pattern is about 1.5m of bed containing 3 rows of loose-leaf lettuces, all mixed-up, densely sown, and harvested with the sheep-shears. In between those rows go a row of Rocket and a row of Red Mustard -- we love the flavour combination. In the past I've tried to squeeze Radishes in, too, but in truth it doesn't work too well; the Radishes grow at such a different pace to the leaves that they're better off in their own space. This time I've cut down to 2 rows of Lettuces, a row each of the Rocket and Red Mustard, and put the Radishes into the middle row. We should get a better Lettuce/Rocket/Mustard ration that way, and the Radishes should just be separate enough. We're trying a Black Radish brought back from France by my parents... can't wait to taste it!

The Onions came out of their seed-tray just in time! I've only planted 3 rows so far, and put in another row each of shelling Peas ("Greenfeast") and yellow Snow Peas. The Peas should be long gone by the time the Onions want more space, and hopefully the Onions will be able to steal a little N from the Peas in their early days. It's a good theory anyway...

Its good to have some moisture on the ground again! Let's hope this is not just a flash in the pan.

09 April 2009

Running on Empty

 Not much to write, here. Nothing's going on. Still no water/rain. Forecasts for the next week still say "dry".

I should be planting Winter crops -- grains, (hi Patrick! ;-) Brassicas, Chickpeas (hi Telsing! ;-) and Broad Beans, Buckwheat to crowd out some Kikuyu grass, Onions and Leeks... but there's no point. Not until we start getting something resembling regular rain again.

It's got so bad that I went and bought a watering can for watering the seed trays. I keep planting trays of seedlings, and then ditching them when they get past their Plant By Dates, in the hope that rain will come again in time for them. Up to now I;ve been watering seed-trays from the Dam, but there is now so little water left that evaporation might yet kill of the remaining tadpoles! If I try to pump water from it, all I get is mud. So, for now, seed-tray water has to come  from the house drinking-water tanks. It's little enough that we can manage it. Our roof is super-efficient at catching rainwater (and even heavy dews make their contribution to the house-water supply) so we have no problem for drinking/washing water, and can easily last out another 6 months or so without a drop of rain. But the soil is like iron: dry, dusty, hard as concrete. Mature trees wilting. I'm afraid to go into the forest for fear of what I might encounter.

If we don't get rain within then next 2 or 3 weeks we'll have no Winter crops to harvest next Spring. Difficult to be even slightly self-sufficient, then...

The spiritual and emotional impacts are the hard ones to write about. I rarely venture into the veggie garden any more, except to fetch herbs for my First Thing In The Morning Herb Tea each day, and to water the futile, doomed seed-trays. And to bucket washing-machine water to the handful of remaining Tomatoes and Chillis. The spirit -- the enthusiasm -- for tending the plants is suppressed by the knowledge that all that effort would be futile. So I focus on some software projects instead.

Local farmers have organised a couple of "Prayer Meeting for Rain" events. I guess that, in the long run, they're assured of success. Sooner or later the rain has to return, and then their efforts will be rewarded. Of course the rain will return anyway... ;-)

29 March 2009

Drought Update

What can I say? Still no rain. I'm just back from a week in Cape Town teaching a programming course, and still in recovery. Business trips to CT seem to knock me out totally for about 2 days after I return... I've hardly even looked at the veggie garden since I returned -- just been out there to take a look and water the seed trays.

It's disheartening, to say the least. I estimate about 4kl of water left in the dam -- just enough to keep the tadpoles and Chillis alive. The Brandywine tomatoes are dead, along with Lime Green Salad, all the green-beans, and the Galapagos Orange and Resi Gold are on their last legs. I'll try and keep the Resi Gold going awhile longer if I can -- perhaps with the bathwater. Plants that I've watered with washing-machine water have not fared well. I think the surfactants and shit in the detergents are just too harsh for most veggie plants. The fruit trees seem to handle it better.

Right now I should be planting seed trays of Onions and Cabbage Tribe, and direct sowing Peas, Chickpeas and Broad Beans, and preparing Winter beds. There's no point. The weather forecast for the coming week predicts a 20% possibility of Trace Amounts of rain on Wednesday. Or, in other words, an 80% of sweet Fanny Adams.

So Thank You All, those of you who have been so kind as to send me wonderful new Chickpea seed, new Brassica varieties, Wonderful Winter Grains,... you're stars! But it may be a while before I get to grow them... I'm not prepared to squander these gifts unless they stand at least some small chance of success. I keep planting seed-trays for Winter, using varieties where I have a plentitude of seed, in the vain hope that the drought may break by the time they need to be transplanted. No such luck, so far; I've tossed any number of seed-trays of otherwise-thriving seedlings that don't stand a chance.

I know that sooner or later this drought has to break. (Or does it? Says who?) But right now it's depressing. And I'm bored! No beds to dig -- the ground's too hard. Not much to harvest -- the drought's killed the fucking lot! The best I can do is try to mulch the few empty beds that remain un-mulched (for lack of mulching materiel.)

The only bright light in all of this is that it's a great time to weed and hoe!

07 March 2009

More Drought

Despite a brief respite in February, the drought continues in full force. Total rainfall for Feb was 63.5mm -- just about bang on average for February (as if the weather takes any notice of our arbitrary calendrical fantasies!) But this doesn't tell the full story...

Most of that most-welcome rain fell in a single week-long wet, with a few additional useless dots of rain spread through the remainder of the month; rainfalls of 2, 3 and 4mm, which simply cause more harm than good.

None of the rain was sufficient to begin recharging the dams or the soil in any meaningful way, but it does mean that the house-water tanks got topped-up, so we're quite relaxed about our domestic water. Even so, we're very conservative in our water use... baths are ankle-deep, and we all bath in the same water, and then use that water to fill the toilet. (I keep flirting with the idea of a composting toilet setup a la the Humanure Book, but haven't quite got there yet.)

To compound the problems, we're in the middle of the hottest days we've experienced in a very long time: Temperatures up into the high 30's, and even into the 40's in some places. (That's Celsius degrees for the unmetricated.) The Brandywines don't like it and are dying. Some Rattlesnake Bean plants simply burned to a crisp the other day, as if they'd been blasted by a blowtorch.

It is interesting to see, though, which plants show greater drought-resistance. All of the Tomato varieties we're growing have cracking fruits due the irregular and inadequate water supply, and in the excessive heat I'm losing a wholte lot of Tomato fruits to sun-scald. And there are not a whole lot to begine with, since they were so short of water during their flowering that many of the flowers aborted. I just noticed this morning, as I was watering them by hand, that the Tomato varieties that seem to be fairing best are the dark ones -- Russian Purple, Black Cherry, and Cherokee Purple. Very interesting! It would seem that the genes that impart the dark colour may also be tangled-up in imparting some degree of water-stress resistance. More thinking on this needed...

Ruminating on this for a bit led me to the stray thought: I wonder if I could breed/select/test for some varieties that would perform better for me into Winter, since we don't have to worry about frost in Winter, but we do have to worry about the very fierce UV conditions we experience in mid- to late-Summer (i.e. Right Now.)

For example, I seldom get a really good performance from Tigerella (which I love for their prettiness and flavour.) If it comes to harvest early -- say late-Jan or Feb -- it tends to get attacked by blight, since that is usually a very humid and hot time of year. March harvest sees the fruit blasted by the Sun, as the foliage is not very lush and shade-making. Perhaps if I could get it fruiting in May or June I might get luckier. Maybe it's not too late to give it a try this year, already.

Assuming the water situation improves and I can keep enough water to get seedlings established!

28 February 2009

Random Tomato

Here's an interesting mystery... a half-dozen tomato plants from seed that, somewhere along the line last year, lost their labelling, but were compelling enough to keep. They are finally ripening, and quite a nice tomato it is, too.Trouble is, I've never grown anything like it at all. Ever.

As you can see, the fruit is about 40-45mm across. The colour-balance in the picture is a little off -- the true colour is more of a peachy-orange shade, and very uniform through the fruit. Flavour is good -- fruity rather than tangy, and the tomatoes are nice and juicy. Their skin is quite tough -- almost like commercial tomatoes. I'd place them as a pretty-good (not spectacular) salad tomato, and they should be good for roasting or sauce. The bushes are smallish -- about 30-45cm tall, indeterminate, and quite sparse. Fruit set in trusses of about 6. They're not massively prolific, but not bad either, and one of the earlier tomatoes in the garden this year. Fruit are splitting quite badly, but then so are all the tomatoes! (It's the damn drought and resulting irregular and inadequate water.)

I think that this is a random cross of some sort, so I'm growing the F1 hybrid. My guess is that one of the parents -- most likely the mother -- was Moneymaker, which I grew last year (and swore never to bother with again, as the flavour was just so lackluster compared to everything else.) The other parent? We can only speculate. (Taxi? Ida Gold? Gold Nugget? Those would be the only yellow tomatoes I was growing last year, but my records are not good enough to have recorded what varieties were growing close to each other.)

Another reason to believe I'm dealing with an F1 hybrid is that the fruit are very uniform in size, shape, colour and flavour.

I still have plenty of the seed that produced this oddity, so I can grow them again for some years to come. I'm also saving seed from at least one fruit from each of the bushes for growing out next year to see what comes out in the next generation.

Unless I'm completely wrong in my guesses... ;-) (And that's not unlikely! I'm a complete n00b to the whole breeding thing, and finding the genetics and theoretical side of it quite difficult to wrap my head around.)

Hmmmm... this plant-breeding lark is quite exciting!

15 February 2009

Braamekraal Farm Wiki Updates

I've been updating/adding info on the Farm Wiki... mainly info on various Veg Varieties and how they perform in our particular circumstances.

I'm finding the wiki more and more useful as my repository of gardening records; it has so much flexibility in terms of recording different aspects separately but still keeping them woven intertwingly. For example, I've been writing up my notes on Red Russian Kale, but in the next breath I can also record notes about my treatment of the garden-bed it's been growing in, as well as general observations about the particular growing season.

Other things I've written-up include French Oakleaf Lettuce, Ida Gold Tomato and
Resi Gold Tomato as well as various garden-bed notes. If you're interested, you can see exactly what pages I've been fiddling with via the "Recent Changes" link.

The wiki also has RSS feeds if anyone cares to follow along.

Originally I put the wiki together to tell our self-sufficiency story in an ever-evolving way, but it has become an indispensable record-keeping tool. I think I've finally figured out the best ways to make it work for me, so there are some work-in-progress structural changes underway, and you're almost certain to trip across broken links and missing pages... be warned!

14 February 2009

First Fruit

Hooray! First Brandywine Tomato of the season! In fact, the first "real" Tomato for the year -- we've been eating quite a few Gold Nugget and Red Cherry Tomatoes, one or two of the (new to us) Resi Gold (which are outstandingly delicious!) but in my mind they're all just "salad"... all those subminiatures. This particular Brandywine is a bit smaller than average, and not quite ripe yet, but, given our luck so far this Summer, I wanted to get it out of the beady gaze of the rapacious Mousebirds! They've been feasting on anything and everything that even hints at turning red, pink, orange or yellow.

Finally some rain!

Some half-decent rains, at last! 36mm so far this month (and its rained some more this morning since I emptied the rain guage) with more rain likely in the coming week. That's already more rain than we had in December and January put together! The soil is looking less parched, though the water has not had a chance to move deep into the ground yet. We plant in hope!

Time to start planning the Winter growing season...

08 February 2009

Death Grip: The Lesson for Climate Change

My last couple of posts about The Drought probably sounded like whining. They were. To some extent, anyway. But beneath that there's a lesson.

So many people -- the world around -- are hoping... waiting... assuming... praying... that there'll be some sort of Return To Normal.

There won't be. Get over it!

I well know that we cannot ascribe directly the current weather conditions to GCC (Global Climate Change a.k.a. Global Warming) -- that's just not how this thing works. After all,"climate" itself is nothing more than a mathematical fiction. An average of weather conditions over some short spane of recent decades. But the climate models -- no matter how deficient they may or may not be -- do predict a greater number of more-extreme weather events than we've historically seen. Still, whilst it is scientifically incorrect to connect our current drought conditions (or any of the other extreme or unusual weather events happening in the world) to GCC, there is one consequence we can note... one realisation that comes out of this drought...

Climate change screws up our ability to predict. For the farmer, the gardener, the self-sufficient, it is impossible to over-emphasize the impact this unpredictability has. Forever... for as long as we've been cultivators... we've pretty-much been able to predict.

"If I plant Beans now, I should see enough rain to get them growing, and in about 4 moons from now, I should be harvesting the next year's Bean Stew suppers."

But now, something seems to have slipped. Take our (anecdotal) local case: We had the Humid Season back in December, instead of now (February) as is "normally" the case. Our Windy Season -- normally September and October -- is still on-going. The Once A Week Rain that characterised the region 15 years ago is clearly now a part of History. Our Spring was long, exceptionally cool, and characterised by almost 2 months of permanent overcast, resulting in very slow Spring growth from most plants. It's as though the "seasons" have slipped forward by about 6 weeks.

Maybe so. Maybe not. That's not the point.

The point is that the weather has become just that much less predictable.

Until last year, I would have planted Maize in the 1st or 2nd week of January1. This year the dry conditions stopped me. Perhaps fortuitously! Perhaps I should now plant Maize in mid-February... (If we get some rain.) But I don't know.

And next year? I won't know!

It's all gone Random. That's the real consequence of Climate Change.

[1] In most parts of SA, people would plant Maize much earlier in the Spring and/or spray the plants with some Toxic Cocktail. Around here, early-to-mid-Jan is the Right Time for "organic" growers to plant Maize whilst avoiding the worst depredations of Corn Ear Worm.

Death Grip

Drought continues. Fruit trees are losing their leaves in mid-Summer, not bothering to wait for the Autumn. I think (hope!) there's another week's water in the dam, and hope further that some rain falls before it is exhausted. And would that be enough rain? I doubt it.

Frightening times. Already I've written-off all the easily-replanted crops -- lettuce, (whether for seed or for eating) beet, swiss-chard, the Tomatillos, green-beans, Squashes,... they're all toast. Or at least left to fend for themselves. A hardy few survive... the Swiss Chard in particular comes up as champ in the survival stakes: Abandoned as just-emerged seedlings, they grow on, cheerfully green despite the dry.

The remaining irrigation water is reserved for the well-established high-value crops: the Tomatoes and Chillis. At that, they've been reduced to water every 5 days. It's not enough, but it keeps them going. So far. I've gone so far as to use the waste-water from the washing machine... being careful to use clean water in between... but it's desperation times, here! At least we use a "green", "micro" washing powder (though who can trust the claims made for it?) and tiny quantities of it, since our clothes are seldom dirty beyond a little sweat and dust.

Kale, wilted and stressed.Whilst England gets smothered in snow... Whilst southern Australia roasts and burns... Whilst the rest of South Africa drowns in too much rain... we're dry. Dry, dry, dry.

Our house-water supply is still OK -- the water tanks are at about -4000litres (out of 15kl total.) At our normal rate of water-use we'll be the last family left in the region... but the ground is parched beyond anything we've seen in 13+ years here. Even the ever-hardy Kale is struggling!

Update -- Sunday morning: Unbelievable! Rain! a whole 12mm last night in a spectacular thunderstorm. Completely unpredicted by the SA Weather Service, but welcome nonetheless. This morning the top 3 or 4cm of the soil is moist, but below that is still bone dry. So, while it helps, and is a huge relief, it might well end up causing more damage than good, as plants' roots grown towards the soil-surface seeking the moisture, only to get blasted by the sun when that thin layer of water dries out. We can only hope for some follow-up rain in the coming week...

31 January 2009

"First" SA CSA: Nonsense in the Blogosphere

sa's first community supported agriculture (CSA) project reports the urban sprout blog.

What utter nonsense! I've known of several CSAs run in places ranging from Knysna to the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town since as far back as the mid-90's. Hell, I've run one! (Was very small scale, but still...)

Of course I would have noted this as a comment on the urban sprout blog, but their comment form is broken -- one of those "answer the simple math problem" anti-spam measures that always reports "wrong answer" (though I'm reasonably sure that 2+2 adds up to 4, even in South Africa.) Trying to report the fault through their "contact" form also fails to work... the contact form reports a "validation error", so no way to even contact them.

Perhaps they're afraid of comments? Might there be some unfavourable comments that call bullshit on lies about the "first CSA in SA" or similar? ;-)

28 January 2009

Drought: Climate Change Shows Its Face

We're in the midst of the most serious drought we can remember since moving to Braamekraal some 13-and-a-bit years ago. So far, here at near the end of January, we've had only 10.5mm of rain this month, with little prospect of any more. "Normal" for January would be between 60 and 70mm. The last decent rain we've had -- any single fall of over 10mm qualifies as "decent" -- was in mid-November. The neighbouring town of Sedgefield has run out of water and the municipality is having to truck in drinking water for the town's residents.

Triage Time

I've written-off the contents of a couple of beds full of seedlings. They're easily replaced if/when rain returns.

The House Dam is almost empty -- I have at most two more waterings for the veggie garden. At that I am only watering the well-established Tomatoes, Chillis and Squashes. Everything else must fend for itself.

The house water tanks are fine -- we still have around 12kl in the storage tanks (out of 15kl capacity) which would last us (I guess) 8 or 9 months. By the time things got that serious we'd probably be the last people left alive in the region. ;-) But the garden is suffering, as is the forest.

The New Normal

This, I have no doubt, is the bare face of Climate Change. For the past 10 years we've seen the weather patterns steadily change -- always towards the more extreme... always towards dry...

Why, then, are the local government bureaucrats and politicians running about crying about a "crisis"? Crises are ephemeral in nature! This is the new reality: Less rain. Less frequent rain. Less reliable rain. More extreme weather events. More frequent extreme weather.

And it looks like it is too late to do anything about it.

In Consequence?

I guess we're going to be selecting seed on the basis of Drought Resistance this year.

11 January 2009

Summer's Sweet Harvest

Well, its not full-on serious harvest time. Not yet. But at least a few things are happening to feed us!

Baby Marrows (Courgettes: Casserta -- drop me a line if you want some seed!) and Yellow Crookneck Squash are... abundant. Not yet at that stage where we're crying "Oh Fuck! Not More Squash!" Still enjoying them. Actually, a great number of the Yellow Crooknecks are mostly there for seed anyway. You see, I inherited a great deal of Yellow Crookneck seed from a kind neighbour earlier in the year, and was very happy! Some years ago I was happily growing this variety of Summer squash, and then I lost them completely -- all the fruits I kept for seed, carefully pollinating by hand, were stung by Pumkpin Fly and vrotted1 on the vine! So you will understand my great joy at being gifted several packets of Yellow Crookneck seed... until I discovered that the seed was quite old. Six years and more. :-(

I planted a whole lot (perhaps 2-dozen?) in the hope that 2 or 3 plants would emerge, and I got 8. They're just at the stage where the early fruits are forming, but their flowers haven't opened yet, so, this morning, I ran about wrapping masking-tape over the unopened flowers so that they can't open until I want them to! Tomorrow or the next day. I'll remove the tape, the flowers should spring open, and I'll pollinate them by hand, using male flowers from different plants, and then taping them shut again so that Bees can't accidentally violate the flowers with other pollen. (It is possible; I have another variety of Summer squash in close proximity.)

Actually it was quite fun2 with one... As I was looking for flowers at exactly the right stage of development, I watched one of our Bees gathering nectar in the bottom of a male Yellow Crookneck Squash, and then, immediately after, moving directly to a female flower on the next-door Yellow Crookneck plant. Bingo! Job done, I just taped the female flower shut. :-D

Other than Squash, we're eating Chillis off the one plant that made it through Winter, but eagerly awating the new season's offering. Same with Tomatoes. It is a very late season this year! The Brandywines are finally forming fruit -- about 3cm across at this stage. The only fruiting Tomatoes are the Red Cherries and a couple (TomatoR1 and TomatoR2) of weird volunteers that we're unable to identify -- so we'll be propogating them forward next year to try and figure out what's going on.

We harvested the Dragon's Lingerie Beans a couple of weeks ago, and left the last few pods to dry-off. Threshed them out today, and the yield is not as bad as it might have been. Notwithstanding that they were badly whacked by rats, we harvested 732g of dry beans from 10m2. That equates to 732kg/hA -- not great, but better than many commercial harvests! I was planning to harvest the Hopi Black today, but vistis from neighbours put paid to that...mebbe tomorrow, eh?

Amongst the Dragon's Lingerie Beans that we threshed out I notice a couple of oddities (BeanR3 and BeanR4) that I kept aside to grow separately so that we can find out if they're genuinely something different or merely the result of some environmental factors.

An Odd Thought

If this were a more "industrial" setup... if we were not a handraulic self-sufficiency operation... there is absolutely no chance that we would have noticed some different few beans in amogst the harvest. They may turn out to be nothing more than aberations brought on by disease, too much sun, or poor placement in the garden.

But, if we were not processing them by hand we would never have the chance to find out!

[1] Just remove the "v"...[2] OK, so I have a peculiar and probably perverse notion of "fun".

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