Monday, March 28, 2011

Tomatoes: from Seeds to Soup

I finally have enough red tomatoes to make soup!  I'm not even sure which variety I've grown as I used seeds that someone else had saved, they look like Ox Heart and Beef Steak.  The Ox Heart tomatoes are very fleshy and a rosy pink colour.

Ox Heart tomato
I even grew a GIANT one, nearly 500 g!


GIANT tomato - 499 g
When I first started with tomatoes, I had trouble getting them started and with transplanting, they always seem so fragile!  So now I transplant them from the seedling trays into individual small pots and get them to a nice size before planting them in the garden.  I would usually start growing them at the end of winter, so they are ready to plant out as soon as they're big enough, but this season we were busy in October, so I didn't get to plant until November and we only had time for one crop this summer.  Here's some photos of them from seeds to picking stage:
End of Nov 2010: I start tomatoes in small pots to give them longer
 to grow strong before I plant them in the garden
(the tray has water in the bottom to keep the soil moist on hot summer days)

End of Dec 2010: the tomatoes are big enough to plant in the garden
next to stakes, ready for when they get bigger
When flowers start to form, I sprinkle potassium sulphate around the base of the plants to support flowering and fruiting.  I also collected lots of manure from our paddocks and spread that around the base of the plants to give some extra nutrition.  
End of Feb 2011: the first tomatoes start to turn red!
As soon as the tomatoes start to turn red, I pick them to save them from the caterpillars and the fruit flies!  No vine ripened tomatoes here!  I put them in a bowl in the kitchen until they're fully ripe and then I put them in a container in the fridge.  

We used them in cooking and for breakfast, but when I get too many, I make soup. Here is a quick description of my tomato soup recipe:

1. Fry onion and garlic


2. Chop up tomatoes and add them to the pot




3. Add stock and let the mixture simmer for a while (I don't add any water, the tomatoes are usually juicy enough).

4. After the soup has simmered for about an hour or two, I take it off the heat and whiz it up with my blending stick.  I also add some shredding basil at this stage and blend that in too.  Any herb could be added at this stage, oregano and parsley are also nice, I just had heaps of basil in the garden.


fresh basil

5. Then I spoon it all into containers, whatever we don't eat over the next couple of days will go into the freezer to take for work lunches in winter.

ready for the freezer

Do you grow tomatoes?  Do you make soup?  What else do you use them for?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mobile chicken tractors vs fixed pen

See also How to use a chicken tractor and How to build a chicken tractor and chicken tractor guest post.

When we first started with chickens, we had an old stable with a tack room, and converted that into a chicken coop, with long star-pickets and chicken mesh used to make a run.  As we got more chickens, we kept having to make the run bigger so they would have somewhere the scratch.  Its amazing how quickly a few chickens can demolish a run full of grass.  We used to let them out before we went to work, but then a few things happened.  First the dog started helping herself to chickens (we’d come home to find a very “sorry” dog and a chicken is varying stages of being eaten).  Then the chickens started crossing the road and scuffing up the neighbour’s garden.  So from then on we had to keep the chickens locked up to protect them from the “killer Kelpie” and threats to “call the council”.  Then we started to notice mice around the chicken coop.  The mice were not only eating the chickens’ food, but potentially attracting snakes to the area, and as the chickens were stuck in their run and creating a dustbowl, we started looking for another solution.

The original chicken coop was a extended several times
before we decided to use chicken tractors
My husband had already built a couple of smaller chicken tractors for our baby chickens to live in until they were big enough to live with the big chickens, and for fattening roosters for the pot.  If we were to get rid of our permanent chicken coop, we were going to need some bigger versions of these tractors to keep 6-8 chickens in each.  Luckily my husband decided to size them to fit on the car trailer, because almost as soon as we finished them, we had to move them to Nanango!  It was nice to know when we were looking at houses that we had accommodation for our chickens organised already, and wouldn’t have to rush to build something for them after we moved.  Actually the property that we moved into had a very messy chicken area in the house yard that we couldn’t wait to demolish in case it was a sanctuary for snakes. 


The original of the small tractors being used for the baby turkeys
The tractors measure about 2m wide by 3m long by 1m high.  The frame is made from box section, with corrugated iron over the roost and nesting boxes to provide shelter and shade, and chicken mesh welded to the rest of the frame.  The nest box is folded up from a sheet of galvanised iron, which means its easy to keep clean and free from mites/lice.  The front has handles, and the back has large wheels, for moving it around.  They turned out to be a bit heavy for me to move on my own, but then we tried our trusty SuperCheapAuto trolley under the front and I have no trouble at all!  We painted them with old green house paint, so that they blend in the scenery.  You can buy something similar from a few difference places (for example), but I think we saved about half the price or more by making them ourselves (again, my contribution was limited to passing tools and cutting box section, my husband did all the hard work!). 

One of the large chicken tractors - sized to fit on the car trailer.
Inside the large chicken tractor
The side door of the large tractor
The back of the tractor has wheels for easy moving
and a back door to collect the eggs
Having the tractors means that we’re able to keep a number of roosters separated from each other, or rest hens that are looking scruffy, which we couldn’t do with only one pen.  Also we can move then around onto long grass or paddocks that need some extra fertiliser.  We still let them out when we are home, but the tractors are suitably dog-proof to keep out the “killer Kelpie” and any wild dogs or foxes that take an interest overnight.

Do you use chicken tractors or a fixed pen?  Any suggestions or questions?

Monday, March 7, 2011

You can never have enough kelpie dogs!

My former flatmate has asked us to look after her kelpie, Chime, while she's overseas with her partner for several months.  Of course we couldn't say "no" when we have so much space for her to play!  I lived with both of them for about 3 years, so I'm quite attached to Chime and hate the thought of her in a small city block when she could be living here.  Chime is 10 years old, and Cheryl is 8, so they have similar energy levels, although they both act like puppies at times!  I hope they will enjoy each other's company, at the moment they are just getting used to each other, which is hard for both of them as they are both only children!

Seeing double?  Cheryl and Chime sit obediently for treats.

Climate confusion - knowing when to plant

When I started trying to plant seeds, I would look at the climate map and wonder exactly what zone we lived in.  In the Lockyer Valley, just west of Brisbane, we were either sub-tropical or temperate.  The only problem was that these have almost exactly opposite planting times!  And now in Nanango, we are still in an ambiguous area of the map, on the each of these two zones. 



We do have a very hot and humid summer in Nanango, but the winters can get very cold due to our proximity to the Bunya Mountains.  We can get frosts, but even this depends on exactly where you are, as properties on the top of hills generally don’t suffer as badly as those in the valleys (and this is a hilly area). 

Fortunately, at the local farmers markets a couple of weeks ago a lady was selling seeds (Forget-me-not heritage seeds) and I had a chat to her about when to plant.  It turned out that she lived just up the road from us and could give us some good local advice.  She said to follow the subtropical guide through summer, but as soon the weather gets colder, you need to be prepared to switch to the temperate guide.  I had never thought of using both zones in that way! 

We have only had one winter at the Nanango house and only suffered a couple of minor frosts.  Originally, my techniques for protecting the garden from frost were limited to putting old net curtains over venerable plants, such as silverbeet, so that dew wouldn’t form on them, this seems to work, but I only have a limited supply of netting and it is labour intensive!  However, one frosty morning, I noticed that we didn’t have any frost around the water tanks.  This is because the large volume of water in the tank stays warmer overnight compared to the air temperature and provides a little pocket of warmer air to protect the surrounding grass from frost.  This made me think of replicating the effect on a smaller scale in the garden by putting buckets of water around the garden to protect silverbeet and seedlings.  We’re also lucky that the garden itself is close to the tanks, so probably has a little protection from cold air. 

This is a technique that was used by Bolivians for centuries to raise the local temperature and boost their productivity (more here).  It seems that you just have to work out over time which plants will grow well in your garden, in your micro-climate, in your soil, especially when a neighbour just up the hill may have a completely difference climate and geology to your own.  For example, I found out the hard way that peas will not grow here in the summer, its just too hot, but they didn’t do well in winter either (too cold!), they seemed to thrive in spring, when the temperature and sunlight hours in my garden were just right.  I don’t think that follows any planting guide!  So it looks like I will just have to figure it out for myself.

What's your climate like?  Does it show up on the climate map?

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