Monday, 26 September 2016

Consider the wombat

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link: Sep 26 - Consider the wombat.mp3

Wombats are sensible nocturnal creatures. A wombat could be defined as: “a burrowing plant-eating Australian marsupial which resembles a small bear with short legs and cute little pink feet and ears”. Wombats are sensible creatures because they stay in their burrows when it is raining, just like a proper little hobbit. Here is a photo of a wombat at the farm:
Wombat with a wallaby friend at Fernglade Farm enjoying the grass and herbage
Unlike the rather pleasant fictional hobbits of Tolkien’s imagination, wombats are rarely friendly, and they mostly keep to themselves as they go about their wombat like business at night on the farm. The dogs as well as the editor and I are all beneath a wombats contempt and they simply ignore us. To be honest though, having wombats in your orchard is like having an armoured tank ploughing its way through whatever obstacles it encounters. If a wombat encounters steel fencing, no worries, it just squashes the fencing to get at whatever tasty morsel of food was behind the fence. And if a wombat has had to wait out the rain in its burrow for a few nights, then I’d have to suggest that their demeanour is not improved with hunger.

There are upsides to having wombats roaming through an orchard at night. The wombats constantly graze all of the grass and herbage and convert it into manure. That wombat manure is then consumed by the birds and soil life and it all helps build fertility in the soil. Well, the soil life and birds don’t quite get all of the wombat manure because I’ve caught the dogs snacking on what can only be described in polite company as: “steaming vegetarian samosas! At least the dogs have the common decency to look ashamed of their horrid choice of food – when they are caught in the act. What was I writing about, oh that’s right, grazing. So the grazing efforts of the wombats save me the hassle of mowing which is something I only have to do once per year.

So, if the wombats suddenly disappeared, I’d miss them. Plus, they’re really cute, when they’re not destroying the infrastructure here. Wombats actually could disappear. You see, wombats live in burrows located in the forest, but there are many large trees competing for sunlight so at ground level there isn’t much in the way of grass and herbage for wombats to eat. So every night, wombats head out of the forest from their burrows in search of their favourite forest clearings. This farm is located in a forest clearing and there are no fences to inhibit the movement of the wombats so I get to enjoy the company of wombats most nights of the year.

People may believe that there are a lot of wombats in the forests in this corner of the world. That impression may possibly have been formed because you inevitably see a lot of wombats dead by the side of the road. Wombats are akin to an armoured tank, but they generally come off second best when they meet a speeding vehicle on a country road at night. And the reason the wombats are anywhere near the country roads at all, is because the sides of roads through forests are to the mind of a wombat just another forest clearing full of fresh green grass and herbage. Better yet, country roadsides are often regularly mown by the local authorities or landowners. Regular mowing is merely a mechanical way to replicate the grazing activities of herbivores. So instead of having manure being deposited onto the soil surface by herbivores you use fossil fuels and end up with chipped and mulched plant material, all of which is food for the soil life. It is a fair thing to say that either side of a road through a forest or rural area can contain a surprising diversity of plants and high levels of soil fertility.

If you are ever lucky enough to ask a wombat as to its preferred landscape, the wombat would look you right in the eye and say: “Mate. I want diversity in the landscape (and just because the average wombat is a grumpy beast), now piss off!” The Aboriginals used to maintain the entire continent as a patchwork of diverse ecosystems and this work benefited them as the ecosystem as a whole became exceedingly fertile and full of life.

Of course in such enlightened times as these, we are far more cleverer (sic), because we prefer to kill wombats with our vehicles whilst simultaneously pursuing forest strategies which starve the wombats of food. Well done us! Earlier this week, I was considering the wombat because the sheer strangeness of beliefs centred around forests and trees was rudely thrust into my awareness. I innocently happened to mention to someone else that I use local trees from the forest in which I live to provide firewood to heat my house. Apparently, because of that act I’m a very bad person / not an environmentalist / and an environmental rapist. I was surprised to learn that I was viewed that way.

I believe that our societies relationship to forests and the trees is dysfunctional and I’d be happy to take criticism from anyone who was living in an un-heated house made from any material other than timber (unlike the person I was speaking with). Regular readers will recall that from time to time on the blog, I’ll show the digital weather station and anyone can see that on some winter mornings, when the snow is falling thickly and the air itself feels frozen, despite the massive insulation in the walls, floor, and ceiling, the inside temperature of the house is about 11.5’C (52.7’F) so as you can see, I’m not over using the local firewood resource. The hypocrisy of the situation would not be lost on the average wombat either, as that intelligent creature would know that the people making the judgement about my behaviour are generally heating their houses with electricity generated from brown coal in one of the dirtiest power stations on the planet. And the grumpy wombat would then probably try and bite their ankles just because it felt good… Ah, I feel much better now!

Enough ranting!

In between the bouts of rain, the sun shone strongly and the editor and I were able to work outside. The excavations for the new garden terrace continued. And we dug and moved a huge quantity of clay by hand.
The excavations for the new garden terrace continued
As the terrace (a fancy name for flat land cut into the side of a hill) appeared, we decided to increase the size of the new berry enclosure. And the next day, we cemented in the various treated pine posts which the steel fencing will be attached too, and constructed the final cement step leading up to the new garden terrace.
The berry enclosure was enlarged and the final cement step in the staircase leading up to the new terrace was completed
We’d already moved about thirty thornless blackberry cultivars into the new berry enclosure last week. Now that the enclosure itself was much bigger than previously anticipated, we decided to relocate the many raspberries and marionberries which had become established in the tomato enclosure and had to be moved. I had no idea how prolific these plants were… Fortunately, Scritchy the boss dog was there to assist me in that task.
I removed about fifty raspberry cultivars from the tomato enclosure this week whilst Scritchy the boss dog assisted
The Curse of Cherokee struck yet again and as I was moving one cubic metre (1.3 cubic yards) of manure into the new berry enclosure, the heavens opened and it began to rain. What a surprise! After walking all of that manure up the stairs in crates and being rained on, I looked filthy! But at least, the raspberries were all planted out. Unfortunately the marionberries are still in the tomato enclosure.
Moving a huge quantity of manure combined with heavy rain left the author looking rather dirty
The next day, the sun shone strongly again. The cement surface of the final concrete step had hardened whilst the berries were happily enjoying a combination of the sun, the water and a solid feed from the manure. We’d also finalised the locations for two of the three very large round steel rings which were filled with local soil, manure and seed potatoes. Very observant readers will note that the berries plants have been enclosed with a temporary fence of chicken wire. That temporary fence is not wombat proof (a tough ask of any fence), but it should keep the nosy wallabies off the berries.
The sun shone on the raspberries and potatoes on the newly excavated garden terrace
Everyone here pitched in on this week’s work. Even Scritchy the boss dog lent a paw with the digging!
Scritchy the boss dog lent a paw with the excavations this week – and is proud of her efforts
The far side of the berry enclosure requires a gate and over the past few days we cut the steel out of various bits of scrap that we had lying about the place. I hope to be able to weld the gate together over the next few days (if the rain stops and we can capture some electricity via the sun).
The scrap steel which will end up being turned into a gate for the far end of the new berry enclosure was cut this week
A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was considering writing about some of the products that fail here. I’m not sure whether the wombats are working too hard here or the products are just rubbish… Anyway, this week a tyre on an old but favourite wheelbarrow finally failed…
This week a tyre on one of the wheelbarrows finally failed
I have a special place in my heart for that wheelbarrow as it has faced so much punishment here and still it keeps going. This wheelbarrow is where I mix all of the cement and I have been doing so for over a decade. Yes, it is an unnatural attachment! Did I also mention that the tyre in the above photo was about one year old which is a total product disgrace. Anyway, after a bit of research (i.e. eBay) I found out that for about $10 more than what I paid for the one year old tyre (4 ply) which blew up, I could obtain a 6 ply tyre which will be much stronger.
A new 6 ply tyre was fitted to my trusty old wheelbarrow this week. Happy times. This must be wheelbarrow love!
Replacing tyres takes about fifteen minutes, but the difference between the old tyre and the new tyre is marked and I expect a lot longer life from this new wheelbarrow tyre.

My recent water woes have been addressed this week too. Regular readers may recall, that a recent failure in the water pipes (somewhere?) caused one of the water pumps to become damaged and fail and wasted a whole lot of stored water in the process. The part on the pump that became damaged and failed was the pressure switch. Fortunately, I keep a few spares for some important things and that pressure switch was a spare part that I had readily to hand. I replaced the pressure switch on the water pump and for some reason, the water pump then produced a lot of water hammer in the water pipes. Water hammer is a fancy name for the pipes making a sort of continuously banging sound. The reason for the water hammer was user error, because I had not calibrated the pressure switch so that it worked properly. Calibrated is a fancy name for just tightening a screw on the pressure switch until the water pump works properly…
I re-calibrated the pressure switch one of the faulty water pumps this week and the system now works perfectly
Ooo, I better rush… The garden bed behind the kitchen now has dozens of species enjoying the rain and spring sun. The very lush patch of bright green near the top of the garden bed which looks like grass is actually all poppies and it should look pretty cool in a month or two.
The garden bed behind the kitchen is looking very lush and green and contains dozens of species
We ate out first home grown Swiss brown mushrooms this week on a pizza:
We ate out first home grown Swiss brown mushrooms this week on a pizza
The tomato seedlings have germinated this week and the tub on the very left is our tomato seeds from last season. The next tub along is commercial tomato seeds. And the other seeds for other plants have not yet germinated.
The tomato seedlings have germinated this week and the tub on the very left is our tomato seeds from last season
I spotted the first of the blueberry flowers this week:
I spotted the first of the blueberry flowers this week
The peaches and nectarines have produced blossoms this week:
The peaches and nectarines have produced blossoms this week
The apricots are appearing to be showing signs of stress from too much water due to the rain…
All of the apricots are appearing to be showing signs of stress from too much water due to the rain
But the almonds have gone feral and the trees are covered in almond nuts. I may net this particular tree:
The almonds have gone feral and the trees are covered in almond nuts
And speaking of nuts, Toothy the long haired dachshund assisted me the other day to plant this native nut bearing tree – A bunya nut. It is a very close relative of the Monkey Puzzle tree from South America which were in fashion early last century.
Toothy the long haired dachshund assisted me the other day to plant this native bunya nut tree
The temperature outside now at about 9.45pm is 3.7’C (38.7’F). So far this year there has been 909.0mm (35.8 inches) which is up from last week’s total of 894.6mm (35.2 inches).

Monday, 19 September 2016

The Curse of Cherokee

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link: Sep 19 - The Curse of Cherokee.mp3

The Curse of Cherokee is a thing to be feared. It seems as if every time I utilise the bright yellow trailer to bring a full load of composted woody mulch back to the farm with the intent to use it later in the day, the Curse of Cherokee strikes. It appears to me that the combination of 1: a load of composted woody mulch and 2: the intention to use it later; are the triggers for the curse. And when the dreaded curse strikes, the consequences can be as extreme as an unanticipated natural disaster, or as simple as a project mysteriously taking far longer than I had originally anticipated.

This week was no exception because that composted woody mulch sat in the bright yellow trailer teasing me because it must have known that it was waiting to be used later that day, and then the clouds began to slowly deliver epic amounts of rain. And just for good measure, it then rained some more over the next day or so and that composted woody mulch happily sat in the bright yellow trailer staring at me and reminding me as to who had the upper hand here! The Curse of Cherokee had struck yet again!
A cubic metre (1.3 cubic yards) of composted woody mulch sits in the bright yellow trailer waiting to be used on the farm
The composted woody mulch had been purchased locally and brought back up the hill to the farm so as to provide a solid covering of organic matter for the recent excavations on the new garden terrace. Composted woody mulch is the fancy name for composted green waste which is collected by all the local councils in Melbourne from householders. The collected green waste is then processed at a huge composting facility and at a much later date, resold to the public.

I intended to utilise the mulch by placing it in a thick layer over the exposed clay of any new excavations or garden beds. Eventually the mulch would form a rich black loam soil. That mulch will also slow down the movement of water across the soil surface whenever it rains. If water ever moves across bare soil surfaces, then erosion can occur as it takes the clay particles along with it for the ride. When you live on the side of a mountain and there is a heavy rainfall, erosion can be a serious problem!

This week it rained a lot over the farm, but that rain was gently persistent and over a long period of time, rather than a very heavy rainfall. Regular readers will recall that it has been a very wet winter here already and as such the groundwater table is quite high. Also the water tanks were already full well before this rain. All of that water had to go somewhere and the swale was where all of that excess water ended up here.
The swale has been full of water here for several days
The purpose of the swale is to collect any excess water and allow it to slowly absorb into the groundwater table rather than simply running across the surface and possibly causing erosion. Observant readers will notice the very healthy looking willows enjoying a nice drink. There is also a sugar maple and a ficus planted into that swale.

For only the second time in about ten years, several natural springs began unexpectedly releasing huge quantities of flowing water as if someone had turned on a tap! And crystal clear water flowed out of those springs for days afterwards.
Cherokee Mineral Springs - One of a few natural springs began flowing crystal clear water this week as if someone had turned on a tap
Local lore has it that water cannot be held above the ground here in farm dams or ponds because the area is too well drained. Well, for a few days after the rainfall, there were actually pools of water in depressions in the ground. But the interesting thing was that not all depressions in the ground held water, but where it did, the water was again crystal clear.
One of the depressions in the ground near the orchard which held crystal clear water
The ground must be wet as I even observed this poor earthworm whom had clearly dug its way out of the ground just to get some fresh air!
This poor earthworm had clearly dug its way out of the ground just to get some fresh air
After a few days of continual rain, I started to regret purchasing that mulch before I was ready to place it over the new excavations (which incidentally had become a mud pit). The Curse of Cherokee had struck again.

Mind you, there were no major disasters here and all of the plants received a good drink and everything is now looking very green and healthy. Unfortunately, all of that rainfall ended up flooding the local Macedon River / Riddell’s Creek (it has two different names for some strange reason) in the valley below. And this is what I could see from my Eagles Eyrie:
Flooding in Macedon River / Riddell’s Creek in the valley below the mountain range
The flooding was quite extensive, but it must be noted that no houses were inundated  as nobody has ever built in low lying areas, and also the livestock had been moved to higher ground before the rains arrived. Looking back from the floods towards the mountain range provides a good glimpse of how much rainfall in that catchment area the river has to occasionally accommodate:
Looking back from the flood to the Macedon Ranges
The flood waters were not very far below the main road and/or the bridge deck over the river which leads out of this part of the mountain range. In 2010 during a particularly wet five days (250mm or 10 inches of rainfall) I have seen that main road underwater:
The floodwaters were not far below the level of the road surface and bridge deck
After a couple of days the floodwaters receded and the paddocks looked very damp indeed. Fortunately for those readers that were concerned about this situation, it will rain again tomorrow night and again next weekend!

One of the strangest things that I observed this week during the recent heavy rain was in the chicken run. The chickens here lead a charmed life as their hen house and attached run is not only completely vermin proof, but it is also covered over completely by a solid steel sheet roof. Don’t ever feel remotely concerned for the welfare of the spoilt chickens here! As the chicken run is an all-weather run, the chickens socialise and get up to their chicken mischief all day long in the deep litter in the chicken run despite the outside conditions. The deep litter is composed of their used sugar cane straw bedding mixed in with their manure. This deep litter is usually dry, but the rain was so heavy and persistent that a bit of rain entered the chicken run and made the deep litter mildly damp. Don’t feel bad for the chickens as this turn of events was barely even noticed by them! However, the combination of a bit of moisture, used bedding straw, and chicken manure increased the bacterial action in that deep litter and the mass soon became warm to the touch. It is worthwhile mentioning that occasionally the chickens will lay an egg into that deep litter. Well here is an egg that I uncovered in the depths of that warm deep litter:
An egg was hard boiled this week in the chicken run due to the heat from bacterial action
The outside of the egg was quite dirty as it had been buried in the deep litter, so I had decided to feed the egg to the dogs. It was a complete surprise to me to find that the egg had become almost fully hard boiled in the chicken run… I thought at the time that the egg was strangely warm to touch.

We’re tough here at Fernglade farm, however we don’t really like getting wet whilst working in the rain. Finally it stopped raining and in a fit of pent up energy, we decided to bring some very heavy rocks up the hill in the wheelbarrow for the new rock wall near the chicken enclosure. That is some hard work. However that rock wall is now almost complete!
Some large rocks were brought up the hill in a wheelbarrow for the new rock wall near the chicken enclosure
And yet we still hadn’t managed to get enough of a break in the rain to empty the bright yellow trailer of that load of mulch! So instead we decided to start germinating the summer crops of seedlings. Tomatoes, Capsicum (peppers), Zucchini (courgettes), and Melons were all started inside the house this week.
The summer crops of seedlings including: Tomatoes; Capsicum (peppers); Zucchini (courgettes); and Melons were started inside the house this week
Even the Swiss Brown mushrooms started producing some fruiting bodies this week.
The Swiss Brown mushrooms started to produce some fruiting bodies this week
Finally a day dawned when no rain was predicted and the sun shone. Ah, bliss! The excavations for the new garden terrace were then able to be continued and the new terrace has now almost doubled in size. The vision for the blackberry and raspberry bed has also changed and we are going to almost double its current size!
The rain stopped and we were able to continue excavations on the new terrace for the berry beds
Observant readers may notice how muddy that new garden terrace was. Honestly, we only had to walk a couple of metres in order to gain several inches of height due to all of the muddy clay stuck to our work boots… And the curse hadn’t been lifted yet as the mulch was still sitting in the bright yellow trailer. Oh, that rotten curse and the mulch!

The concrete staircase leading up to that new garden terrace also had two additional steps added this week. A bit of quick thinking meant that we placed a rain shield over the top most step just before the rain drops began to pock mark the not as yet dry cement surface.
Two new steps were added to the concrete staircase leading up to the new garden terrace
Finally, the Curse of Cherokee was lifted as there was enough of a break in the rain for us to empty the bright yellow trailer of composted woody mulch and place it all on the new terrace. 
A cubic metre (1.3 cubic yards) of composted woody mulch was placed over the newly excavated terrace
Most of the plants have enjoyed the heavy rains. I recently moved an Avocado seedling to a new and much sunnier location and it has produced new growth in only a few days.
An avocado seedling was moved to a sunnier spot and with the rain it has produced new growth
The local ferns which give this farm its name have gone feral with so much rain. This mother shield fern has produced many new fronds:
A mother shield fern has produced many new fronds with the heavy rain
The broad beans have also enjoyed the rain, and despite being planted almost two months late they are now looking quite good:
The broad beans which were planted two months late are looking very healthy
The ornamental cherry trees have started to produce blossoms well before the fruiting tree cherry trees. Those ornamental cherry trees are some of the hardiest trees around and the weeping example in the next photo has been moved almost four times in its life. It is also producing many cherry tree seedlings around it. That tree may well be a Triffid in disguise?
This ornamental cherry tree is tough as to heat, rain and drought
And I added the next photograph just because I thought the combination of super tough Echium’s, Leucadendron's, and Irish Strawberry Tree looked good…
This combination of super tough Echium’s, Leucadenron's, and Irish Strawberry Tree looks good
The temperature outside now at about 9.30pm is 4.7’C (40.5’F). So far this year there has been 894.6mm (35.2 inches) which is up from last week’s total of 808.8mm (31.8 inches).