Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Cover for the Polytunnel

The Polytunnel / Hothouse has been a long time in the making. At last the paths are laid, the beds raised, the polypipe hoops up and the doorway framed. It is time for a cover.  

It was one thing to find a website where I could order a piece of plastic seven and half metres wide and ten metres long but I wasn't sure how I would get it to our far-flung corner of the country. "No worries", the manager said, "We can send it by Australia Post." So a few days later a box arrived at the nearest Post Office with a pile of folded plastic in it. The only way to get it ready was to spread it all out. It needy a still day, a dry lawn and a few blocks of wood to get it laid out.

The next challenge was to get it rolled up so that it could be unrolled over the top of the hoops. After a few abortive attempts I remembered that I had some two metre lengths of conduit pipe that I could join together and wrap the plastic around. With four of these in place I could make a roll the full length of the frame.

Now for the tricky bit - attaching it to the frame. First I stapled it round some lengths of sheep shed grating - about 2.5 by 2 cms. Then I had to balance the roll on a table and a couple of chairs so that I could dangle the end alongside the bottom plate and screw the grating onto it.
Then I could gently lower the roll to the ground. All set and as far as I could go by myself. Time for some reinforcements to help unroll the plastic and secure it.

The First New Chicks

Last year I incubated three lots of eggs - 27 with 21 hatching. Amazingly only 5 roosters and 16 hens. I kept four hens and two roosters and the rest were sold or bartered. Word got around that we were breeding Light Sussex hens and now I have pre-orders.
This year I will probably end up with lots of roosters so the process may take a while. Especially with Light Sussex it takes a long time to be sure of their sex. 
Our best layers are the Isa Browns and they are getting a little on the old side so I started with a clutch of their eggs. Their rooster has a fair bit of Barnevelder in him but I think they will lay well.

So I cleaned out the incubator, added the eggs and 200ml of water and waited. On Day 18 when I turned off the turning device and went to increase the humidity I had a scare. There was almost no water. I thought that I had not checked it often enough and that none would hatch or if they did they would be deformed. So I was very pleased when on Day 20 the first chicks emerged looking happy and healthy. Over the next 24 hours another four followed. While the smallest succumbed to a leg injury, possibly sustained by being bullied by its bigger brood mates, the other five are growing fast. They will have to mature quick enough to move out of the brooder when the next batch - this time some Light Sussex - crack out in another week.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


During the long winter feed has become scarce. This has been further stretched by the arrival of Blitz - a very large and hungry thoroughbred horse. So we needed to destock a little.
A planned outing down the coast seemed a good opportunity to offload some excess sheep and goats.
First we delivered two ewes to a couple who are slowly building up a flock of Wiltshire Horns and find them ideal grass munchers. They certainly enjoy not crutching or shearing. We had a lamb that was supposed to have become a wether but ended up a ram, so he is off to replace an older ram that has already bred himself out of a job. Our final drop off was two goats to be used as weed eradicators or suppressants. So five animals down - ready for the kids and lambs to boost the numbers up again.

New Kids on the Block

Spring has arrived with the first kids. Posy the four year old poddy Toggenburg doe has produced two bucks. No fuss or alarm - she just took herself off to the highest point in the paddock and by the next morning these two little fellas were part of the establishment. They have been named Peter and Pan by our children even though they realize that they will probably end up as Roast and Chops.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Concreting the Hothouse Entrance


Despite having the bags of concrete mix for many months we hadn't got round to laying a small slab for the entrance to the Hothouse. This will allow for a wheelbarrow to be parked if we need to bring one in. Michelle has concreting in her background so she is assigned the finishing. The tricky part is to put in a gradual slope from one end and to one side so that the water runs off.
My job was to mix up the concrete in the barrow and place it wherever Michelle wanted it. Seven bags later the space was filled. There will be a small sloping part needed to complete the job to connect with the angled slab outside the door.

The original plan was to lay a weed mat on the rest of the path and top with gravel. Then Michelle had the cunning plan of running the guinea pigs on the paths between the raised beds. This would be a safe place for them as well as a warmer one. The deep frosts of the past few days have not been kind to the latest guinea pig babies with one succumbing to the cold. A hothouse may be just what they need.

Not for the faint-hearted or chicken!

Breeding chickens inevitably leads to excess roosters. While I was lucky enough to have only four males from eighteen chicks they joined the ranks of other five roosters I already had. So it was time to take the chook by the feet and learn how to process excess cockerels into frozen chook.
After twenty seven years of vegetarianism I realised that producing my own food required me to eat some of the many animals that have been living a happy life on Opportunity Farm. While reducing the food miles significantly it led to the necessity of butchering. So far I had only managed to despatch one bantam rooster. I was not confident I could repeat the process unsupervised so I called up a friend who was happy to help me in exchange for a chook to take home.
We calmed the birds by hanging them upside down until they settled, thanked them for what they were to become and then opted for the neck wringing option. This had worked easily on a bantam but it seemed a different prospect on a large young Light Sussex. Without going into the gory details we either needed to adopt the cone method or use a broom handle under our feet to be able to complete the hardest part in the most humane way.
That done we hung them in the shed to drip and started to pluck. We had a water boiler going but while we waited for it to reach about 70 degrees Celsius (160 F) we pulled away at the feathers. I was a bit enthusiastic and ripped the skin in a couple of places. When we did dip the birds in the water it certainly made removing the feathers very much easier, especially the large wing feathers.

With the feathers removed the next step was to remove the head. We found our knives not sharp enough so I resorted to the chopping block and a tomahawk. It was not so confronting to do this when the bird was featherless and the blood already drained. We then cut around the anus and pulled out the insides. I am sure that an expert can make this look easy but suffice to say the job was completed.

The feet were then removed with the knife. Both birds weighed in at 1.7kg. They were then bagged up. Michelle suggested that it seems an appropriate contribution to go in the haybox next weekend when we attend a bonfire party.

The new Brassica House

During the disastrous goat escape they ripped the bird netting and trashed all the brassicas and bok choi in the caged garden. So a redesign and a rebuild was required. It made sense to make this garden bigger and to protect the plants from animals by a half metre of corrugated iron around the base. This will also do some frost and wind protection. The cage is now high enough to walk around in and the structure is much more solid and as level and square as a garden which slopes two ways can be. The old screen door from the house that was a pain every time you went in or out now has a more useful home.
I searched online for some netting that would keep the birds and cabbage moths out while letting enough light in and was available in Australia. I finally found Grow Cover which is imported from Italy by a WA company Jenny's Garden. $90 for enough to cover this garden seemed a decent price.

It has arrived and so my next job is to brace up the spaces and secure the netting. Then I will need to cover all the extra spaces particularly where the cage meets a weatherboard shed. Hopefully it will prove a much better place for all the beans, peas, broccoli, caulis and lettuce.

Liming and Manuring the Gardens

With the hothouse nearing completion it is time to cover the soil with manure from the goat shed and plenty of lime. After the goats escaped and ate what winter greens were growing there was an opportunity to set the space up properly for the summer plants and seedlings. All it needs now is mulch, a plastic cover and some seeds!
The root crop bed is also getting a makeover prior to planting onions, carrots, parsnip and beets.

This year we are planting potatoes in the space between the chook pens and around the raspberry patch. Trenches were dug to a spade's depth and then well-rotted sheep manure and lime was strewn in the bottom. This will be left to seep in for a while before the potatoes are planted next month.

The old raspberry canes have been cut back and this year's have been tied together in clumps and plenty of manure and lime added.

Planting the Onion Sets

July is time for onion planting. I have never had much success growing them from seed so I buy seedlings in punnets from a nursery. The lady there reckoned there was up to 140 seedlings in each punnet so the outlay of $5 for two seems pretty fair. So one of red onions and one brown.

The garden has been prepared so that we can plant the onions in a mound so the ground drains well. Onions are not so keen on lots of nitrogen but love the effect of lime in the soil. The space between the rows helps for pathways and for ease of hoeing. Each plant is dropped into a hole poked into the mound so that all the white lower part of the plant is buried and only the green leafy part is above the surface. With more lime scattered and the plants well watered in, the onions are ready to grow.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Indoor Winter Activities

It's raining again and not worth heading outside. Time to try something new - soap making. The first step was to make some 'lye'. This is potassium hydroxide and it can be made from wood ash. The ash is placed in a bucket with a small nail hole about an inch from the base and blocked with the nail. The base of the bucket is covered with gravel or something similar that acts as a filter. Some recommend straw but we used part of an old fly screen. Then hot water is poured onto the ash and it is left to seep through. This liquid is poured back through a second time. To gain a suitable strength for soap making the liquid need to be boiled until it reaches a density at which a fresh egg will float about 80% under water.
The photo below shows the lye water on the stove with the egg and the glove ready. Being so caustic you don't want to touch the stuff. Once it reached the suitable concentration we added mutton fat at a ratio of 1kg to 4l of lye. By adding a tsp of salt for each kg it was meant to make the soap harden.
The bucket of ash gently dripping into the lye bucket.
The experiment worked to some degree but some of the soap mixture separated into harder fat and lye water. We will try again sometime with whiter ash, more care over using hot water and draining the lye and more time to mix the fat and salt together.
Michelle is proud of these socks. The wool for these was shorn from our own sheep on Australia Day.  She has then carded the fleece and spun it, plied it and made into a ball and then knitted a pair of socks. I can vouch for the fact that they are the warmest and most comfortable pair I have ever worn and as homemade as you can get.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Outside Winter Activities

Winter is the time for doing those shit jobs. All the animal sheds need the manure layer to be dug out and collected into bags or barrows. This are to be used in the gardens so that there are lots of nutrients ready for the Spring plantings. You can never have enough shit.

Another job is to weed around plants to give them more light and remove competitive weeds. The cleared space can be filled with manure for greater vigour. This is one of the dwarf apples planted a season ago but damaged by an escaped goat. While horses and sheep might be put off by a homemade tree guard, Curly our buck enjoys the challenge and the tasty leaves. Another lesson learnt - make all valuable trees goat proof

Saturday, June 25, 2016


A leather sheep's hide tanned some time ago has had many uses. A hatchet resurrected with a new handle and a sharp blade needs a cover. Michelle sets to work with the leather punch, strong cotton and a pair of sharp scissors. A few minutes later the cover is done - tight enough to stay on and loose enough to be removed easily.
There is not much leather left among the scraps but Michelle makes a knife cover to go on a belt with one of the remaining scraps. Practical, real and truly homemade.

The Northern Hemisphere Spring

For three weeks in May I was in England - twelve thousand miles away on the opposite side of the world. Leaving a climate with decreasing daylight and temperatures we arrived to see people walking about outside in shorts eating ice creams at 9.30pm in daylight. Even though the English start to celebrate when they actually see some sunlight cast on the ground and throw all their clothes off when the mercury hits 15 degrees the difference was marked.
The other main difference was the profusion of growth. The soil is more fertile than southern Australia and the growing season short so the plants go crazy. The constant drizzle that clouds the days was surprisingly absent while we were visiting but the rainfall before and after was sufficient to give the plants enough to boom. The trees had just come out in full leaf (except for the tardy ash trees) and there were flowers everywhere. If, like two of my daughters, this was the only time you visited England you would be forgiven for thinking that it was a very pleasant and abundant place. We saw it at its best.  
Returning to a Snowy Mountains winter was quite a shock. However it didn't take long to get used to it and enjoy the sunshine in the middle of the day that was still not much colder than all but the warmest that England had to offer.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Extending the tomato harvest

Despite a couple of months of frost and cold we are still getting ripe tomatoes. These were removed from the bushes as trusses after the first light frost tipped the leaves. They have been sitting on trays in a darkened hanging shed since then. Once the tomatoes gain a tinge of orange they are brought in the house and put up on the windowsill to ripen fully.
These tomatoes are to be cooked up with some pumpkin and zucchini, onion and garlic to make a spaghetti sauce. A couple of the nicest looking will be kept aside for a salad.