Monday, 23 January 2017

Scritchy dog, storm detective

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link:

Who doesn’t love low tech solutions to modern problems? And sometimes low tech solutions have unexpected benefits. On the farm I have a very low tech storm early warning device otherwise known as: Scritchy the boss dog.

Scitchy is infallible in her role of low tech storm warning device. If there is a storm anywhere within a thousand kilometres (about 600 miles) radius of the farm, Scritchy is well onto that business. It is uncanny just how well Scritchy can communicate that storm early warning! And how does Scritchy achieve this feat of accurate weather prediction? Scritchy hides under the bed whenever a storm threatens.
Scritchy hides under the bed whenever a storm threatens anywhere in the Southern hemisphere!
Meanwhile, away from the safety of the hiding space underneath the bed, the setting sun put on a spectacular show as storm clouds built up over this part of the world. A storm certainly did threaten.
The setting sun put on a spectacular show as storm clouds built up over this part of the world
Earlier that day was very hot at 39’C (102’F). In those hot weather conditions, Scritchy would have shown no sign of her storm early warning alert as she would have much preferred to be out in the hot summer sunshine performing her other trick of: “cooking her brain”. I’ve read that zombies are rather fascinated with the fine art of consuming brains and for them this activity may be a good thing, who really knows but I for one would not stop to ask them? However, if they were to attempt to consume Scritchy’s brain after a day of “cooking her brain” in the sun, well, they may find that her brain was somewhat curdled, and really, who knows whether zombies would even appreciate consuming “cooked” brains?

Anyway, that night was very hot and I slept fitfully knowing that Scritchy (as well as the more reliable Bureau of Meteorology) had predicted heavy rain and localised storms. It was the lightning flashes which proceeded the storm that woke me up at the ungodly hour of 2am. I then lay in bed watching the lightning flashes and waiting on the thunder (Bob Seeger fans around the world one and all rejoice!). And then I enjoyed listening to the rain falling. What a beautiful sound rain makes when it falls on an roof during the summer months.

By 3am the heavy rain continued and in my half drowsy state of mind I’d concluded that there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about and so I went back to sleep.

By 4am, Scritchy had come to the same conclusion as I about the storm, and instead of quietly exiting the bedroom where she had hiding after having been kicked out earlier that evening, she decided that it would be best if she shook her head rather vigorously and bang various body parts on the bed so as to alert me to the fact that the storm wasn’t as severe as she had initially predicted. It was very thoughtful of Scritchy to do that and I wished her well on her way back to her usual sleeping spot with the delightful epitah: “Get the f… (a naughty word that rhymes with the word “truck”) out!” Scritchy obliged me by rapidly trundling off to her usual bed spot.

The next morning I woke up feeling like a zombie. Fortunately the best cure for an infection of the zombie kind is a quality coffee from a proper espresso machine and so in the early wee hours of the morning I toddled off to the local General Store under the guise of collecting the mail, but really I was after a large cappuccino to cure my zombie like state of mind. The cure worked and I recommend it!

It is interesting because I’m not the only person this week to have used naughty words that rhyme with “truck”. The editor was in a car park in Melbourne the other day. It is a nice car park and has a very well laid concrete slab. I like concrete as a material and can respect good concrete work when I see it. And that car park certainly had a good concrete slab laid at some time in the past.

Interestingly enough, a couple of late teenagers also understood the benefits to be had from a good quality concrete slab. Of course earlier that day the editor had parked the little “Dirt Mouse” vehicle which is a 2008 Suzuki Swift on that same concrete slab. As a side story, we call the car a “Dirt Mouse” because the car is small and we live on a dirt road. The dirt road makes it impossible to keep the outside of the car clean and so many long years ago we simply gave up and just accepted the coating of dirt and mud. Despite being really grotty, the car is very well maintained and most excellent.

The late teenagers were using that smooth concrete slab as a skate park. By all accounts the late teenagers were very talented and were jumping fences whilst on their skateboards and zipping around the parked vehicles at high speed. I’m in awe of their skills as to be honest I used to fall off skateboards after only a few seconds!

Anyway, the editor spoke to one of the late teenagers and advised them that she would be reversing the little “Dirt Mouse” and was concerned that she did not want to injure any of them in that process. The late teenager replied by saying: “F…… (a naughty word that rhymes with the word “Trucking”), S… (another naughty word that rhymes with the word “Sit”) car, lady”. When I heard the editor’s account of that colourful interaction many hours later, my heart was genuinely warmed because the late teenagers understood that the editor was a "lady" of distinction and quality, albeit with a dirty car.

Sometimes though, like Scritchy’s early storm warnings, a potty mouthed quip from late teenagers can reveal a much larger truth hidden within their words. Basically, the late teenagers were saying that they wouldn’t steal the “Dirt Mouse” even if they felt so inclined. It is an interesting thing to hear because in Melbourne there has been a recent and very noticeable increase in the incidence of car jackings. A car jacking is the situation where criminals violently steal an occupied car. That is a traumatic situation that I hope all of the readers here are never involved in.

Recently, I read a very thoughtful article written by the veteran crime reporter and author of many books, John Silvester, who suggested that the best way to avoid being car jacked was to own a vehicle with a manual gearbox (that is referred to as a stick shift for people in the US). The logic behind the veteran crime reporters suggestion was that the criminals were basically incapable of driving a vehicle with a manual gearbox! It is perhaps important to note that in Australia, 80% of vehicles are supplied with an automatic gearbox. Perhaps the editor and I are contrarians, but we have never owned a vehicle with an automatic gearbox. The much larger question that John Silvester almost touched upon was: that if most people are following a certain path that leads to increased personal risk, perhaps it may be worth considering taking the less popular path (the path less travelled??)?

Heating one’s home with locally harvested firewood is certainly a less popular path. Scritchy has been warning the editor and I about increasing storm activity of late and we hear her! With those warnings in mind, we have decided to begin bringing in the winter’s store of firewood now. Bringing in locally sourced firewood is hard work under the best conditions, but when the hot summer sun is beating down on your head it feels even harder. And this week, my big shiny new electric log splitter died. Fortunately, I have another and much older, electric log splitter, which is still working well and so we could continue splitting and storing the firewood.
The seasons firewood is being brought in and stacked on one side of the firewood shed
The other side of the firewood shed has also begun to be filled this week
The new adventures in brewing have also continued! The Australian millet beer has really enjoyed the hot weather this week and it is producing copious amounts of a beer like liquid. In all honesty it tastes to me like a sweet beer, which is quite nice. Perhaps with the addition of vanilla extract it may become a magical millet unicorn!
The millet beer has continued to produce copious amounts of beer like liquid this week
Scritchy may like hot weather, but the tomato plants like that hot weather even more! I spotted a few green tomatoes today:
The tomatoes have produced a few green tomatoes this week
Some of the heritage tomatoes have quite strange shapes, but the real test will be: How do they taste?
The triffid like zucchini (courgette) plants have produced the first of this year’s zucchini monsters! I hope they don’t come and get me, whilst my back is turned…
The first of the seasons zucchini / courgette appeared this week
We’re also trialing mini capsicum (peppers) and mini eggplant varieties that hopefully get enough summer heat to fully develop. If either variety produces fruit we’ll definitely save some seeds and sow them next summer.
We’re trialing mini capsicum (pepper) varieties this summer
Mini eggplant varieties are also being trialed this summer
The Sweet Siberian melon that was accidentally grown last summer is starting to produce trailing vines. We collected the seeds from that one melon that did grow and have planted them out this season. Observant readers will notice in the next photo that there are several yellow flowers bearing what looks like tiny melons! Yay!
Sweet Siberian melons are producing good trailing vines despite the unfavourable summer conditions
The blackberries are only about two weeks away from being ready to harvest. The local wild varieties of blackberries also appear to be at about the same stage of ripeness. It should be a bumper season for blackberries.
The blackberries are only about two weeks away from being ready to harvest
I’ve often written about the stainless steel bushfire shutters protecting the windows but I don’t believe I’ve ever shown a photo of them actually covering the windows before. The shutters are very strong stainless steel mesh and they really protect the windows from transferring heat to the insides of the house. The windows are double glazed with 10mm (0.4 inches) of toughened glass. We usually have the shutters covering the windows during the months of January through to early March because of the bushfire risk.
The bushfire shutters cover the windows here from about January to early March
In breaking plant news, the ferns that were planted into the steep garden bed where the landslide happened a few weeks ago, have all grown prolifically and produced new fronds despite the heat and lack of shade.
The ferns planted into the repaired landslide area are growing very nicely despite the heat
And I like to end the blog at this time of the year with some nice flower photos from around the garden:
Fennel plants produce a good quantity of flowers and a great bee attractant
I can’t remember whether this is an orange or a red yarrow!
Californian poppy plants love the heat of summers down under
Globe artichokes have the most vivid purple flowers but behind those showy plants is a stunning red, pink and white geranium flower
But the bush rose produces more showy flowers than any other plant here
The temperature outside now at about 8.00pm is 27’C (81’F). So far this year there has been 35.6mm (1.4 inches) which is up from last week’s total of 11.6mm (0.5 inches).

Postscript: Scritchy is currently hiding under the bed as storm clouds threaten!

Monday, 16 January 2017

Life, the Universe, and Yeast

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link:

Life always presents mysteries. Like, the other night Scritchy (the boss dog) and I were walking around the house and I noticed that a tree frog was living under the house. The little eyes of the tree frog were staring at us both from behind the safety of the other side of some seriously tough stainless steel mesh. Alas, for poor Scritchy who has discerning tastes and would have enjoyed eating the tree frog! And after that initial tree frog discovery, I noticed that there was more than just one tree frog living under the house. It was a real mystery to me because the tree frogs were all on the other side of a 23mm (almost one inch thick) fire rated wall. And the tree frog looked to me as if it had been enjoying both second helpings and dessert!
A Southern Brown Tree Frog is sitting on the inside and looking out
And whilst we are discussing mysteries, the other evening I heard grunting and rustling sounds just outside the house. What could those noises possibly be? Two wallabies were having a punch up. That is what that sound was! I have seen larger marsupials such as the grey forest kangaroos having a punch up but I have never seen wallabies doing that silly business.

Grey Forest Kangaroos are very social creatures who normally live in large mobs and so the social hierarchy for them is a complex business and fights are a natural part of life in a mob. Wallabies are usually very independent creatures who travel alone and no doubt, the wallabies in this instance were fighting for access to the feed and territory here.
Two wallabies had a massive punch up just outside the house
The victor of that wallaby punch up took a minor break to lick its wounds and catch a deep breath. Meanwhile the editor and I got closer to the victorious wallaby so as to take a photo (for research purposes for the blog, of course).
The victorious wallaby took a minor break to lick its wounds and catch a deep breath
The victorious wallaby kept a close eye on the editor and I. And whilst the victorious wallaby was suitably distracted, the other wallaby saw opportunity and bounced out of the forest at high speed and jumped onto the victorious wallaby. It was total marsupial mayhem that evening! That also goes to prove that even marsupials adhere to the Klingon saying that: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”.

Unlike the two brawling wallabies I can alter the environment here in various ways so that nature produces different outputs from the outputs of the surrounding forest. And those two wallabies understood that the outputs here were worth fighting over.

Outputs are all well and good, but the question remains as to: How much output are you expecting nature to provide?

What I have realised about outputs from nature is that in order to obtain a reliable output from nature you have to consider the very worst case scenario that nature can throw at you. For example, I like apples, and who doesn’t like apples? Imagine for a second if I had only grown a single apple tree here at the farm and those two brawling wallabies crashed into that single apple tree and destroyed that single apple tree. In order to grow apples again, I would then have to wait many long years until a replacement apple tree had grown old enough before it then produced an adequate amount of apples for my consumption.
And I've discovered that every single system that relies on outputs supplied by nature works exactly like that! If you want to grow apple trees because you like eating home grown apples, don’t grow a single apple tree, instead grow as many apple trees as you can physically plant, otherwise sooner or later something will go wrong.

The same rule applies to electricity. If for example, you wanted to power your household using only the sun and photovoltaic (PV) panels, you have to have enough PV panels to get you through the cloudiest, rainiest, snowiest of the worst depths of winter, otherwise you are going to run out of electricity.

Another example is if you wanted to capture and store enough rainwater to supply all of your drinking water, household and garden requirements, then you have to have enough capture and storage to get you through the very hottest, most revolting, and sweatiest drought that you can imagine, otherwise you will eventually be thirsty and smelly.

Of course when I lived in the city, none of that was obvious to me. This may possibly have been because there were no brawling wallabies bouncing through my city garden! However, in the city if I was hungry I could easily walk down to the shops and purchase something to eat. If I wanted light switched on to brighten up a room, all I had to do was flick a switch and then the light switched on. If I felt thirsty and wanted to enjoy a drink of water all I had to do was turn the water tap on and out flowed quality drinking water.

What I have learned from living here is that nature works in ways that are inconceivable to people not used to supplying basic natural outputs for themselves.

The other thing to remember when outputs are limited, is that you don’t want to waste any of them. Indeed most outputs simply don’t go to waste here. Those outputs are generally the inputs for other projects or systems.

This week, the editor and I decided to remove some of the rocks in the paddock below the house that were sticking up out of the ground. What to do with the unwanted rocks?
Some of the large rocks sticking up out of the ground in the paddock below the house
It turns out that rocks are rather handy when they are used to fill up the new rock gabion project. Regular readers will recall that this project has been ongoing for the past few weeks. And since the farm has long since passed Peak Rocks (the point where all of the easy to obtain rocks have been reallocated and used in various projects) and we have to go further afield now to obtain new rocks, we thought to ourselves that we can take on these rocks in the paddock!

Six hours of work later involving the electric (solar powered) jackhammer and a rock breaking tip, we managed to remove all of the large rocks in the paddock below the house. Honestly using a jackhammer to break up solid rocks is very hard work (which is probably why rock breaking was used as penance in times past) and for the rest of the afternoon following that work I could still feel the jackhammer pulsing away – like a ghost feeling – in my arms.
Six hours of work removed all of the large rocks sticking out of the ground in the paddock below the house
The jackhammer was used to split the rocks into smaller and more manageable sized rocks. We then used a 6 foot long steel house wrecking bar to lever the now smaller rocks out of the ground. Even then some of the rocks were absolutely huge and weighed more than I do.
The author leans on the jackhammer and surveys some of the large rocks removed from the paddock
Observant readers will note that I am wearing a bee hat in the above photo. The purpose of that bee hat is not to keep bees off my face, but instead the broad brim of the hat assists with keeping the sun off my face whilst the mesh does the same thing for the pesky flies. It is a well known fact that a person cannot wield a jackhammer and swish flies away from their face at the same time!

The following day, we drove the little dirt rat of a Suzuki and the bright yellow trailer down the hill and into the paddock and used mushroom compost to fill up all of the holes left behind where the rocks once were. All of the rocks were then loaded onto the bright yellow trailer.

At that point we decided to drive the little dirt rat of a Suzuki back up the steep hill only to find that despite four wheel drive and low range gearing, the grass contained so much moisture that the little dirt rat of a Suzuki couldn’t make it back up the hill. The wheels spun on the damp green grass. Two of the largest rocks which we’d valiantly managed to load onto the bright yellow trailer had to be rolled back off the bright yellow trailer. In a pique of unhappiness, we rolled those two large rocks off and away down the hill. Alas poor rocks, I knew them well, but for a brief time.

After the two largest rocks were removed, the little dirt rat of a Suzuki managed to climb back up the hill without further incident. The output from that paddock clearing project (i.e. the rocks) then became the input for the rock gabion wall project.
The rocks which were removed from the paddock were then placed in the new rock gabion walls
The ground was quite damp on Friday as a slow storm had rolled over this corner of the continent and dumped some rain. During the storm we had the opportunity to observe how the drains which collect water from the many roofs for storage in water tanks were working. The drain which collects water off the firewood shed roof was allowing some water to fall onto the ground behind the firewood shed. This water was then slowly seeping into the firewood shed. That drain was repaired so that it now functions correctly.
The drain which collects water from the roof of the firewood shed was repaired
That firewood shed had been slowly emptied over the previous winter. We observed that the surface that the firewood sat on had also compacted over the past twelve months, possibly also contributing to the water flowing into the firewood shed. If that surface height was increased, it would be less likely that water would enter the firewood shed. We therefore added another half cubic metre (0.4 cubic yards) of the local crushed rock with lime to the surface.
Inside the firewood shed with the compacted surface prior to additional material being added so that the height would be increased
Once all of the minor alterations to the firewood shed were complete, we were then able to begin filling that shed with dried and seasoned firewood! One bright yellow trailer load of firewood later and the shed looks like this:
The firewood shed has now begun to be filled with summer dried and seasoned firewood
And just in case anyone was concerned, the wood ash from burning the firewood in the future will be added back onto the soil in the orchards (as a form of fertiliser).

I have a new hobby! I am slowly exploring the world of beer making from its very basics. And don’t let anyone tell you that making beer is a complex process because it is a very simple process which has been done by humans for many millennia. One of our first experiments is to make a version of millet beer known in Asia as Tongba!
We have begun making millet beer this week which is known in Asia as Tongba
The ongoing humid weather is clearly making the wallabies a bit grumpy, but the berry season has been better than I can recall and so this week we made a couple of demijohns of Strawberry wine. Strawberry wine is superb. Nuff said!
Strawberry wine is superb! Nuff said! So is pizza.
With country wines it is always interesting to see the yeasts irrupting (that is a fancy name for yeasts going on a massive sugar binge party) in the first day or so of the wine making process. The strawberry base made that yeast mess look like a strawberry meringue. I wouldn’t advise consuming it though, as that output is a job for the worms in the worm farm!
The yeasts in strawberry wine go feral and have a massive sugar rave/dance off
Oh, speaking of feral partying, the carrots have gone completely feral. Many years ago I let a carrot go to seed and now carrots turn up everywhere.
Carrots have gone completely feral
Pentstemon’s are producing beautiful flowers and the native blue banded bees and the honeyeaters really appreciate the nectar contained in the flowers.
Pentstemon’s are also going feral and producing beautiful flowers
The soapwort herb has just begun producing flowers over the past few days. In the photo below you can also see the white yarrow flowers which are to the left of the soapwort flowers:
The soapwort herb has just begun producing flowers over the past few days
Who doesn’t love foxglove flowers? I found this plant somewhere on a get rid of these plants table for a throw out price. Their outputs are my inputs and aren’t the colours superb too?
Who doesn’t love foxglove flowers?
The very first of the mint family plants to flower are oregano, and those plants flower their purple flowers for months. Plus the fresh leaves are excellent on pizza. Yum!
Oregano is now flowering this week
The award for the most pugnacious thing here at the farm doesn’t go to brawling wallabies, it actually goes to the zucchini / courgette plants who also take out the "Fernglade Farm Annual Triffid Award" (otherwise known as FATA) as they have doubled in size in just one week. Don’t turn your back on those plants or you may become the inputs to stuffed zucchini flowers!
zucchini / courgette plants who also take out the "Fernglade Farm Annual Triffid Award" (otherwise known as FATA)
The temperature outside now at about 8.00pm is 27’C (81’F). So far this year there has been 11.6mm (0.5 inches) which is up from last week’s total of 3.8mm (0.1 inches).