Chook Garden

I have started to establish our food gardens on the farm, mostly in raised beds. But I found myself with a small stretch of soil which was right next to the new chook yard which was just begging to be planted up. I edged it with some left over bricks donated by a friend of mine for just such a purpose, piled it with pea straw and left it alone for several weeks to allow the bugs and worms to inhabit the safe haven under the mulch and begin to turn the soil.

Only recently did I plant the bed after we’d had a good couple of rainfall events – with herbs and chicken-friendly plantings that will benefit them if they peck at them through the wire – which I fully expect that they will – the plants will also attract bees and other beneficial insects to the garden.

I’ve planted two varieties of sage – green and purple, geranium – mainly because I had it, it’s hardy and it will flower and feed the bees, fennel which is great for chooks – it supports their reproductive health and lets face it – it’s all about the eggs for me! I also planted tansy which keeps blow flies at bay (they are attracted to all that chicken poo), thyme which promotes respiratory health,  acts as an antioxidant, has antibacterial properties, and helps control parasites. I also planted perlagonium because it smells really nice and will hopefully help to mask any chicken poo smells which might arise. I also inter-planted a few iris bulbs, simply because I have plenty, gifted to me from my mother-in-law and they will provide spots of colour and delight in spring.


Of course I was duly supervised by the beneficiaries of my gardening efforts – the chickens …

It always an act of hope and faith, planting a new garden, not only for the benefit of the humans that pass by and through it, but for the chickens on the other side of the wire.


Finally we can begin!

The shed I wrote about here is finally nearing completion and we are currently using it as our main accommodation while we prepare to build our house. It is a year since I blogged – I can’t believe its been that long – and a lot has happened in that year. In that time we had our house on and off the market for 15 months and finally someone came along who loved it and bought it – we hope they will be as happy there as we were. It was a great house and we loved bringing her back to life, but it was time for “Clara’s Cottage” to go to someone else who would enjoy the fruits of our labour.

“Clara’s Cottage”

We also needed to get our efforts focused on one thing – the farm and living the life we set out to create when we started on this journey back in 2009 (I think it was around then, but when you have a life changing epiphany you don’t stop to think to mark the date – or at least I didn’t).

We made the decision to move into the shed once it was nearing completion, before we had sold the house – it’s amazing how once you make a decision, things seem to fall into place. Within 3 months of that decision we’d sold our house and were living on the farm again.

It is so nice to wake up to the sound of birds not trucks, to walk to the dam not the shops, to be surrounded by scrub and wildlife instead of houses and footpaths. It is so nice to be living “off the grid” using mostly only the sun for our power needs.

Those six black panels and the sun run our fridge, washing machine, laptops, the tv (not that we make much time for watching tv these days – too much fun to be had outside), charge phones and provide light to us once the sun goes down. It is nice to know that my footprint just got smaller and recently I paid my last ever power bill for the old house. It was an amazing feeling when I rang the power company and told them we were moving out and they asked if we wanted to connect at our new residence. When I responded that we were going off-grid, the girl on the other end of the phone really didn’t have anything in her script for that one!

So I finally feel that we are now beginning to live the life that we have dreamed about, talked about and planned for, for so long. At times when our house wasn’t selling and there was not much progress on the completing the shed, I wondered if we would ever get here. But we did – my husband did an amazing job building this shed and fitting it out – I will blog more on that another day. We got here – and when people hear we are living in a shed they sort of look at us as if to say “and that makes you happy??” – darn right it does – we are on the farm, we are building our food systems, we are living among nature and we are doing it! I am getting my gardening mojo back in full swing!

We still have so much to do, but at least we can now begin!


A second generation

When we first bought our Suffolk ewes back in 2012, we purchased them from a local Suffolk stud. We purchased experienced ewes as we were inexperienced farmers and we wanted to give everyone the best chance at a healthy life. This meant our first ewes were a little older. Last year when our lambs were born, we ended up with 4 girls and 1 boy, so we decided to keep our farm bred girls and breed from them this year. Last year we moved 3 of the older girls onto another hobby farmer for them to have at least a couple of years more breeding from these lovely ewes.  Our old ram was ready for retirement so we invested in a lovely stud ram from another local stud.  We started this year with 5 new sheep and 2 of our original girls so we weren’t too sure what might happen!

But it turns out they knew what they were doing … so far we have had two sets of twins from our first-time mums and they are just perfect!  Here they are being closely guarded by Bill and Ben the watchful alpacas:

Lambs1

Lambs2

It is another step towards being self-sufficient when we know we can breed good lambs which can, in turn, produce good lambs … We still have two of our maiden ewes that are pregnant, so it looks like it will be a good year for lambs!

 


Beekeeping – How not to …

Beekeeping Safety

If you’re a bee keeper, either for fun or profit, you will know the joy of seeing a healthy hive and harvesting some of the liquid gold we call honey.  But beekeeping is not without its risks and there are some basic things you can do to ensure your safety.

If you’ve ever been stung by a bee you will know it is not pleasant and while they will generally only sting you if they feel threatened, that sting can be nasty.  For some people it can be life threatening and generally the more stings you get the worse your reaction will be.

Recently while opening one of our hives I was stung by at least 28 bees and ended up in hospital! So I am writing this blog partly so I can work out what went wrong and partly so that I can warn you before you perhaps make the same mistake. While in hospital I had enjoyed a cocktail of drugs to keep my airways open and the full-torso rash at bay, and since then I have had some time to reflect on how we could have done things better.

cropped-bees.jpg

So what happened? We didn’t smoke the hive before opening it – the smoke calms the bees down. We assessed the need for smoking and decided that as we were just putting a super box on top of the brood box, we could be in and out in a couple of minutes, not disturb the bees too much and we would be okay. Once we got the box open, I just couldn’t resist the urge to pull a couple of frames and check the health of the brood. By the time we were pulling the second frame up, I was bitten on the neck, through my suit!

Beekeeper

Me on a good beekeeping day

I stepped away from the hive, telling my husband that I had been stung and then realised the bee was inside my suit! As I walked away from the hive, I undid the zip of my hood to release the bee – not thinking about the multitude of bees which had swarmed onto the outside of my hood when we opened the hive – essentially I panicked.  And then it really began in earnest – more bees flocked inside the hood and got caught in my hair.  Finding themselves struggling to get out of my hair, they reacted as bees do – by stinging! My quick thinking husband handed me the hive brush to knock them out of my hair but it took a few minutes to get rid of them all and by then the damage was done.  As I had never been stung by so many bees before (prior to this I had only been stung by 8 bees in one hit), I did not know how I would react physically. We called 000.

Shortly thereafter, I was given a chauffeur driven ride to the nearest rural hospital courtesy of our Ambulance service. On route, the Ambo’s gave me antihistamine to slow the reaction and loaded me up with a cannula so that they had direct access to my veins for the administration of emergency drugs if they were needed. Upon arrival they administered pain killers and adrenaline to stop any potential throat swelling which can block breathing. Within an hour I had a full-torso, angry, red rash and cortisone was administered to deal with that (I wasn’t taking photos at that stage, so I can’t show you the damage).  Although I have never had a generalised reaction to bee stings before, the number of stings I had endured was obviously more than my system was happy with, hence the rash and generalised reaction.

Eventually I was released from hospital without the need for an overnight stay and I went home to sleep and heal.

So what went wrong?

Firstly, we didn’t check each other’s suits were correctly fastened before approaching the hive.  A quick check would have shown that the Velcro at the neck of my suit was not correctly done up and would have prevented that first bee getting in.

Secondly, we approached the hive with one plan and then we ignored our plan and did something else! Plan the hive visit, and then follow your plan – don’t decide to do something else without re-planning your approach.

Thirdly, we didn’t smoke the bees before we opened the hive – no wonder they were angry with us. No matter how placid you think your bees are, administer some smoke before removing the hive lid and checking the frames – it makes the bees a little more docile and less likely to sting!

Hive

Lastly, when I realised there was a bee in my suit, I should have realised there were hundreds more outside – if you’re not allergic to bees, one sting won’t kill you – even if it is on your face – sit out the one sting to avoid multiple stings. Don’t remove or undo your suit until someone else has confirmed that there are no bees on your suit. I panicked at the thought of that one bee stinging me on the face and then lost my ability to think calmly and rationally about the situation and how to respond to it.

We’ve now implemented a safety check before we approach the hive. This includes checking that every fastener is done up correctly and there are no potential entry holes for the bees. Secondly we will “Plan the hive visit and visit the hive as per the plan”- we won’t be changing the plan mid-visit without re-assessing the dangers and risks. When the bees started getting overly aggressive, I should have aborted the hive visit, but we pushed on – if you don’t feel comfortable and safe – don’t proceed with going into the hive. Even bees have bad days.

So now, under doctor’s orders, I now have to carry a pair of epi-pens in case I get stung at any time. Not a bad outcome considering it could have been a lot worse, or even deadly. I will continue to keep bees, but with a new found respect for them and for my safety.

IMG_0002

So remember, if you are visiting a hive, you are entering the bees’ territory and it needs to be done in a manner which is safe for everybody – bees and humans included. And when that happens, you can enjoy the fruits of their labour with toast and tea instead of with adrenaline and cortisone!


Goodbye Astrid and Bella …

When we first dreamed of owning our own farm, one of our objectives was that we would breed and sell heritage breed animals- those animals which are rare or endangered because they don’t necessarily fit the goals of large commercial production farms, which are still worth having.  We chose Dexter cattle, partly for this reason.  They are a small Irish breed, with a reputation for being quite docile, easy to handle, easy birthers and good mothers. Dexters have been in Australia since the late 1800’s but overall herd numbers remain low across Australia. They are considered a ‘dual-purpose’ breed. If we want or need to milk them in future, we will be able to do that. But for now we will enjoy breeding them, sharing them with others and, yes eating their meat when the time comes. They have less impact on the soil as their feet are much smaller than their commercial cousins and two Dexters can be raised and maintained on the same amount of land that would be required for one standard breed of cattle.

When we first embarked on our journey towards living a more sustainable life and considered the impact we had been having on the planet, we spent a lot of time discussing whether we could become vegetarians or whether, for us, meat is an important part of our diet. I fully respect those who make the decision to go without meat, for ethical or personal reasons. We, however decided that meat was a part of our diet we both valued, and so we knew that we needed to produce our meat as sustainably as possible, with as little impact on the planet as we could.

So we grass feed our small herd and don’t supplement with any grains or other mixes.  The cattle free range and self-wean their off-spring to keep them as close to their natural state as possible.  We try to give them a relaxed, cattle-friendly life for however long they are with us and we only keep as many as we need.

Our breeding plan was subverted last year when we realised some of the cows we had purchased earlier in the year were already pregnant. You can read about the surprises they gave us here.

One of our objectives is to breed and share our Dexters with others and so on the weekend, we sold 2 of our lovely girls to a friend. They were our first sale and while we were a bit sad to see them go, it is nice to know they are going to a farm where they will be appreciated and well cared for. And it gave us both a sense of achievement that we have started to sell these wonderful animals for others to enjoy as well.

Arrabella and Bonnie

So we said good-bye to Astrid and Bella, her calf  – we loved having you on our farm!


A new garden

One of the challenges I have faced since moving to the farm is that I have had to start from scratch with my veggie garden. Instead of benefiting from the previous year’s soil conditioning, chook manure and green growth dug through the soil making friable black dirt, I have started with a heavy clay soil. I decided to create raised garden beds, partly to counter the heavy clay with some soil that might be slightly easier on my plants, but also to make gardening easier on my back. Inspired by the German “Hugelkultur”, some no dig gardening techniques and “lasagna beds”, I created layered beds in what was a paddock from bottom to top like this:

  • I let the chooks dig over the ground and fertilise for around a week (or sometimes two weeks if I forgot to move them)
  • a layer of thick cardboard – a good way to reuse the packing boxes
  • a layer of acacia branches which had been pruned off the bushes – they are prickly and not very nice to walk around, so they had to go. I am hoping they will add nitrogen to the soil from their green branches
  • a layer of clay soil we dug up from our shed pad
  • a layer of compost
  • a layer of straw
  • a layer of mixed soil and compost which I bought in (and is proving to have lots of weeds in it – not something I had really wanted)

Here’s the process in photos:

Chooks have finished, cardboard is put in place

Chooks have finished working over the area, cardboard is put in place

The prickly Acacia is added

The prickly Acacia is added

Clay soil is layered on top - hopefully this will help with water retention in the bed

Clay soil is layered on top of the prickly Acacia – hopefully this will help with water retention in the bed

Bed with all layers ready for planting

Bed with all layers except the final layer of soil/compost mix, almost ready for planting

Several of my friends joked that, before they were planted, they looked like freshly dug graves.  But from these funny looking garden beds, we will raise life and food! This year I have grown all my seedlings from seeds. Most years I buy seedlings and take advantage of someone else’s early work to push my garden along, but this year I decided I would grow everything I could from seed – a cheaper option which also provided me with a much wider range of heritage varieties to choose from, rather than just growing those varieties which are sold in the mainstream garden centres.

Into these long piles of promising dirt and compost, I have planted three varieties of heritage potatoes, climbing snow peas, 3 varieties of zucchinis, 2 varieties of pumpkins, tomatoes including a few which have self propogated from the compost which was their growing medium, celery given to me by a friend, beans and lettuces (some of my lettuces came from seedlings which I obtained at the local food swap,the others have been grown from seed).

Veggie Progress, December 2013

Veggie Progress, December 2013

It has taken a little longer for our food garden to become productive this year, in part because I had to start with building the beds and in part because I have chosen to grow from seed. We are now just beginning to harvest our crop, with plenty of lettuce and tomatoes for our salads, and peas, punpkins and zucchinis are beginning to flower, meaning less we need to buy from the markets, a step towards self-sufficiency and the undeniable pleasure and taste of home grown produce.

First Tomatoes of the Season

First Tomatoes of the Season


Permaculture Principles Page Updated

I’ve changed the structure of the Permaculture Principles pages to make it easier to find things. Why not have a look at these pages and hopefully get some ideas for how we can all apply the principles in our every day lives?

Got ideas? Feel free to add them in the comments and I will incorporate them into the pages (and give you credit for your ideas!) so we can all learn from each other.