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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Blacksmithing Practice

Michelle's turn to have a go with the forge. She wanted to make a camping tool - one of those devices for lifting pots out of fires. It was to be a present for a friend. We cranked up the blower and heaped up the charcoal.
I decided to see what I could do with a 100mm nail. By holding the nail in a pair of tongs I could heat up the end and then shape or bend it.
Michelle hammering on the anvil. We alternated between the forge and the anvil and had to be careful to follow the same path between the two to avoid hot metal singing soft flesh.

The result of playing with nails and making swirls and 'koru' shapes. It was very satisfying to transform the utilitarian nail to an aesthetic hook. All good practice.

Samhain Pumpkin Feast

Samhain in the Northern Hemisphere has become identified with Hallowe'en - the evening before All Souls day. It has always seemed strange in Australia to follow the same calendar. Last year at school they carved pumpkins in October and the local supermarket had to order some in especially as no one had any left in Spring.
So we like to celebrate Samhain - the Celtic festival that marks the end of summer and the start of winter - at the end of April.
At our local show in March my youngest child won the largest pumpkin. It seemed fitting to use this for a family carving and the centrepiece of a homegrown meal.

The kids took to the pumpkin with knives and spoons and each carved their own design. With tea lights inside and the light off it looked pretty amazing!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

First-time Firing of the Forge

My Christmas present was an anvil and a forge. It may have taken four months to get these items set up in their own dedicated space, but there was no shortage of enthusiasm to get the forge fired up. First I needed some charcoal. I sourced this from a forest coupe that had recently been burnt. This seems to work well and saves a lot of hassle than trying to create charcoal myself.
The anvil is sitting on a wattle stump with a piece of recycled workbench top nailed level. As the anvil weighs many kgs it was a slow job to lift it up there using stacks of concrete bags as steps.
The forge is a 44 gallon drum with a bowl in the centre. Air is blown up through holes in the base of the bowl by an electric blower powered by a battery charger. The blower is situated to the left so that the coals fall straight down and not into the blower. The circle cut to fit the bowl is ready as a lid to restrict air to the charcoal when you finish. All homemade by Michelle's son and passed on to me. 

A small fire is lit in the centre of the bowl and charcoal heaped on slowly. Once well alight the blower was turned on and the heat started to roar.

I started with a simple rod offcut and heated it in the bowl.


Lot of hammering the end to a point and then I started to put a bend in it.

A nice curve to make a hook. The coals certainly seemed to be hot enough to make the steel glow.

Once I was happy with the hook at the end I cooled off the rod and could work on the other end.


A very satisfying start to my blacksmithing. Lots of possibilities and lots of questions to be answered.

Garlic Planting

Our tradition is to plant the garlic as close to Anzac Day (25th April) as possible. So this year on the 26th it is time to clear the bed of its assortment of lanky tomatoes, overgrown radishes and beetroots and a weed or two and ready it for the garlic.
After weeding and forking the bed, my daughter (who miraculously decided to be helpful) separated the cloves. Lines were raked and the garlic placed carefully and regularly.

Five rows with a path down the middle should be enough for this bed. A similar amount planted at our other property should provide us with enough garlic for the next season. This variety is an early one which means we can pick it in November when the bed can be used for some later summer crops.

Ear Tagging the Pigs

The pigs are getting fat and the weather is turning cold. Time to take them for their one bad day. In order to identify them they need to be eartagged and branded.
The ear tagger is a simple device that locks a plastic tag through the ear making the hole with the connector. It is a swift procedure once the ear is in place.

Having missed the first time the pigs were not that keen on having their ears held for long enough for a sharp plastic tag to cut through their lobes. BoBo was definitely unwilling and is seen here backing away squealing. It took a few minutes being patient to find the right moment and the deed was done.

Food is always a good distracted for pigs. I have parked the trailer in their pen and begun to put some food on it. The pigs are learning to leap on which will make it much easier for loading them up. It is always sad to say goodbye to the pigs as they are such characters with very knowing eyes but it would be hard to feed them through the winter. At last measure they are about 65kg each so there should be plenty of pork about in a couple of weeks.