Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A week in New Zealand

We spent a lovely week in New Zealand.  It was green and cool, with a few rainy days (a novelty for us at the moment).  We spent most of our time around Tauranga, with trips to Whakatane, Rotorua and north of Auckland to Whangarie and Dargaville.  Here's some photos from our holiday.

Fishing in Tauranga habour

Pete with mum in her vege garden (can't believe how big everything grows!)

selfie at Rotorua

Te Puia geyser at Rotorua

grass, green, green, grass

babies at the dairy farm we stayed at (we always find a dairy farm stay!)

East coast surf beach at Mangawhai

rough surf at Baylys Beach

steam train ride at MOTAT

Monday, November 24, 2014

Does growing vegetables save you money?

What do you think, does growing vegetables save you money?

It can, but not necessarily. Of course its possible to overspend and try to grow inappropriate plants that fail. I read a very negative article a while ago (and lucky for you I can’t find it again, so you don’t have to suffer through it too), it was written by a person who had spent a ridiculous amount of money buying pots and potting mix and trying to grow tomatoes on an apartment balcony. They worked out how much it cost and how few tomatoes they harvested and concluded that there was no point growing anything. I found it very frustrating because they had really just set themselves up to fail and it wasn’t fair to conclude that gardening is not worthwhile.

Start small and don’t spend a lot to get started
If you are completely new to gardening, don’t jump in and buy six raised beds, soil, seedlings and an irrigation system. Just get a pot, possibly from your local dump shop, and some potting mix, and some herbs for a few dollars from your local market and see how that goes for you. Then you can expand gradually as you find out what you can grow, and how much time and resources you have to spare on gardening.

When you want to expand, try to source free or cheap supplies. Look for options to collect manure and organic matter to improve your soil. Large containers from the dump shop can be used instead of expensive raised beds. Join in seed swaps and start to save your own. Gardening does not have to cost you a huge amount if you are willing to be creative.

Choose your crops carefully
There are essentially three options for deciding what to focus on growing. This concept is explained brilliantly in the book One Magic Square, which is about just marking out one square metre (about a yard) and focusing on growing certain groups of vegetables, so that you don’t get overwhelmed by doing too much at once.
  • Staple crops that you usually buy in bulk – if you have space, you might consider trying to grow potatoes, carrots and onions (or whatever you buy most) so that you don’t have to buy them anymore
  • Vegetables that you use that are usually expensive – things like herbs, eggplant, chokos, turnips and peas, that are usually relatively expensive, will save you money if you grow them instead (if you would have normally bought them)
  • Vegetables that produce the most food – vegetables that just keep cropping, such as zucchini, tomatoes, beans and kale, will continue to produce for long periods (compared to single crops like carrots or corn) and could save more money for the space they take up
The main thing is to choose vegetables that will grow easily in your climate (don’t make life hard for yourself) and make sure that they are foods that you and your family eat or will learn to eat, so that you cut down what you have to buy. If you get used to eating in season from what is growing in the garden, rather than buying what you want when you want it, you will save. Join a gardening group or forum and find out what will grow well where you are. For example, I have had little success growing potatoes, but sweet potatoes do better. Likewise, I find spring onions grow better than bulb onions.

Money isn’t everything
Even the best gardeners will have a bad year and not produce as much as they would have liked. Fortunately, most gardeners have other reasons for growing, apart from just saving money. For me, being prepared, knowing how to grow the food that we need and supplement as much of our diet as possible, is more important that saving money every year (although generally, the garden doesn’t cost us much at all). The other benefit of gardening is stress-relief and I know many gardeners just really enjoy spending time in their gardens, whether or not they produce a massive harvest.

I couldn't find that negative article, but I found a positive one instead

Friday, November 21, 2014

Basic water quality testing

When buying a property is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that any water is good water. Unfortunately we learnt this the hard way. When we bought our property at Nanango, we thought the dam looked good and we would have plenty of water for the cattle, chooks and garden. The day we moved in with all our animals, our neighbour dropped by to tell us that our dam was saline. According to our neighbour, the previous owner had nearly ended up with two dead horses as they had refused to drink from the dam.

We promptly tested the water with an electrical conductivity (EC) meter that we already owned from back when we grew hydroponic tomatoes (pre-blog days) and found that the water was indeed saline. It was OK for the cattle water, but no good for the chooks or garden. The most annoying thing was that we already owned the EC meter and hadn't thought to use it to test the water because we had no idea that dam water could be salty. Since then we have used it on several properties that we were considering buying. Even if you still go ahead and buy the property, at least you know what you're getting.

my helpful lab assistance

The other basic test for water quality that can be useful is pH. I bought the pH meter to use for soil pH, but when I was struggling to calibrate it using our tank water, I realised that the rainwater in our new plastic tanks was actually very low pH due to our proximity to a power station which effectively generates acid rain. We have had to add limestone to the water to increase the pH, which I explained back here.

Our EC meter and pH meter have proved to be very useful in testing water. We regularly test water from our dams, bores and tanks and for other people. You can buy a conductivity meter for around $200, and a pH meter for less than $100. These two meters can tell you an awful lot about your water quality, preferably before you make the mistake of buying a property with poor water quality! If you need to know exactly what is in your water, you can also send a water sample to a laboratory for around $50-200 depending on the tests that you request, they will also be able to advise suitable applications for the water. Other tests can be used to further assess water quality - summaryof water testing.

a pH meter (that's our rainwater!)
a conductivity meter (again, on rainwater)

Ideally good quality water will have low salinity (less than 500 ppm) and pH around 7. Typically rainwater can end up with a pH well below 7, and this can cause corrosion in metal plumbing fittings, as I discussed previously. If pH is higher, you may find that you have dissolved calcium and magnesium, known as “hard water”, which causes soap to form a scum rather than suds (more on soap chemistry and how soap works). For household water, its possible to use a water softener to remove these minerals, but this is impractical for larger applications (stock water or irrigation) (see options for softening water and maintaining a cation exchange resin water softener). As salinity increases, the water becomes unsuitable for irrigation (and this link) and for stock water. It is usually restrictively expensive to remove minerals from water on a large scale, so its best to test your water sources before buying a property, so that you know the water quality and its suitability for various applications.

I recently wrote an article for FarmStyle which gets into more detail on testing for water quality.

What is your experience with water quality on your property?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Hand sewing - replacing a button

A couple of weeks ago I shared some tips for adjusting (or mending) a hem on a skirt or trousers. It seems like hems come apart very easily on most bought clothes these days. The other thing that I seem to be constantly mending is buttons. My sewing machine sews buttons and I guess that industrial clothing manufacturers use something similar. The problem is that the ends of the thread are left lose, so as soon as one end starts to pull, it doesn’t take long to unravel the whole button. I prefer to hand-sew replacement buttons for a more permanent solution. I’m pretty sure that I learnt to do this for a girl guide sewing badge a long long time ago, and I have sewn many buttons since then, so its a pretty useful skill to have!

eight acres: replacing buttons
my button collection

First find a button. If you’re lucky, you will still have the button that fell off.  Sometimes you can move a decorative button to replace a useful button, and in fancy shirts a spare button is usually sewn into a tab in the seam.  If not, try to find a matching button in your button collection. Everyone has a button collection right? At the least, you should keep all the buttons that come with your clothes when you buy them. Just toss them all in a jar so you can find them when you need them. And that is how a button collection starts.... I pick up buttons I see on the ground and I buy bags of buttons from op shops, I also borrowed a few from my mum’s button collection at one stage (apparently this is heritable trait). Sometimes I even buy clothes from op shops just because they have nice buttons that I want to use for something else.... but I digress. Find a suitable button, find thread that matches you button and fabric, find a needle, and you’re ready to start.

Your next decision is whether to double over the thread. If I am sewing a large button on thick fabric I prefer to use double thread, otherwise smaller buttons are ok with a single thread. You will just have to use personal judgement on this one. Thread your needle and tie a knot. I finally found an example of the knot that I do in the fabric to start most mending, if you don’t like that knot, you can just tie a few granny knots until you have a big knot in the end of your thread. Position your button on the right side of the fabric and start sewing from the wrong side. I will admit that it can be tricky to get the needle through the holes in the button at first, sometimes it helps to poke the needle through the fabric and then line up the holes. For a two hole button you just go in one hole and out the other a few times, maybe six or so, you don’t want to overdo it, try to match the other buttons on the garment. For a four hole button you can either do parallel lines or crosses, you might want to match the other buttons though. Either way, you should complete one set of two holes and then move to the next set. You don’t need to pull it very tight, in fact some people use a toothpick or similar to keep the stitches lose enough to complete the final step.

eight acres: replacing buttons
replacing a button on an op shop find,
I will just move the top button to replace the missing button in the middle

To finish off, you keep the thread on the right side, put the needle through the button hole, but not through the fabric and wind the thread around the stitches (between the button and the fabric) a few times to create a “shank”. This helps the button to sit better in the button hole. This step does not occur when buttons are sewn using a sewing machine, and that is part of the reason why can sit funny, as they are too tight on the fabric.

You may also have a button with a shank rather than with holes. This is much simpler to sew, just start the same way, and create a number of stitches through the loop (shank) in the back of the button.

Finally, slip the needle to the back of the fabric and use a similar knot to complete the button.

Here’s some nice photos and instructions to help you step by step.

Do you sew buttons?  Or do other hand sewing mending to make clothes last longer?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Are you prepared?

I guess there’s something about this time of year that gets me thinking about disaster preparation, because I wrote about it last year in November too.  In summer in QLD we either have hot dry weather, perfect for bushfires, or wet weather, storms and floods. Either way, we are at risk of losing power for up to a week, being isolated, or being forced to evacuate. No wonder being prepared is on my mind as we come into summer!

The most important to thing is to be aware of your risk. I grew up in New Zealand, and I was very aware of the risk of earthquake, and most people there will be prepared with food, water and supplies to survive weeks without services. We don’t have an earthquake risk here, so our needs are different. Know what could happen in your area, and when it is likely, and from there you can figure out what you might need. This also dictates whether you would need to shelter in place or evacuate, or if both are a possibility for you.  Our state has a website called "Get Ready Queensland" which explains how to prepare for the main risks in our area.  Check if your state or local council has similar information available.

Next you need to gather supplies in an “emergency kit”. The amount that you need will depend on how long you may be isolated or away from home. I have seen three day’s supply recommended, but that is really a minimum, particularly in a rural area, where help may take some time to arrive. I would think aiming for enough to last a week or two would safer. Start by stockpiling water in large bottles, and collecting non-perishable food. Remember that you may not have electricity to heat up food, so unless you have access to gas or can light a fire outside, you will need to plan to eat cold food.

A first aid kit is essential, for everyday use, not just for disasters! I have a kit in each car and one in the house. The main thing is to remember to refill as you use things out of it. I also include matches, a small torch, and a pencil and paper in our car kits. It would be a good idea if at least one person in your household has basic first aid training. Although most of it is common sense, in an emergency, it helps to have some training to help you respond appropriately.

You will also need a number of torches for the house, and know where they are. The last you thing you want when the power goes out in the middle of a storm is everyone crashing around in the dark looking for torches. Candles are a good idea too. A battery powered radio will help you keep you updated with the situation. Remember in a disaster you may not be able to use your mobile phone (and the battery won’t last long either). Speaking of batteries, make sure you have a stockpile to keep the torches and radios going.

Cash is an important item that is often overlooked and many people I know don’t carry cash at all. In a disaster, the ATM won’t work and neither will EFTPOS or Paywave. You will have to pay cash, so it will help to have some tucked away with your emergency kit, just in case. Last time our power went out and we drove in to the service station to get more fuel for the generator, I was able to pay in cash because we always have cash in my bag (its more common to use it in rural areas) and other people had to keep driving because they only had cards. Of course, it would have been better to have the fuel prepared as well, that is something we need to work on! If you had a generator or know that you may need to evacuate, keep your car topped up (don’t drive until the empty light comes on!!) and keep fuel cans full as well.

This is the absolute basics, if you have particular medication needs, young children or elderly family members, you will need to consider additional items in your kit. You may also need to consider how you would care for animals. We had to plug the incubator into the inverter on our campervan solar panels to keep it running one night when we lost power. You need to have a back-up plan for all eventualities!

Ohio Farmgirl has some really good tips on her blog, mostly around storm preparation, but that it pretty extreme and can be adapted to most other natural disasters. And there some good information on Modern Homesteading too.

So are you prepared? What are you prepared for?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Three simple ideas: Eat local and seasonal

I have a few more simple ideas to share with you to help with getting started with simple living.  As many of us have discovered, simple living isn't simple, certainly when you're getting started, there are lots of new skills to learn and its important to find a routine that works.  I've already shared simple ideas for growing your own food, for saving money on groceries, and cooking from scratch. If you do want to cook from scratch, the cheapest option is to supplement what you can't grow yourself with local and seasonal produce.

eight acres: ideas for buying local and in-season

Simple: buy bulk meat directly from a farmer
I can't offer much advice with this one, as we kill our own animals for meat.  You will have to look in the paper or online to find a local farmer that sells bulk amounts.  And then you will need a large freezer!  A side of beef is around 150 kg (depending on the animal of course) and a lamb is only around 20 kg.  If you have the space for it, this is the cheapest way to buy meat, and you will end up with some interesting and unusual cuts so use as well.  For tips on packing the meat see my post about homekill meat.

eight acres: ideas for buying local and in-season

Simpler: buy real free-range eggs from a farmer
Again, we grow our own, but if you look around you can probably find someone at your work or in your local area who keeps chickens and has excess eggs.  They will usually be cheaper than eggs from the supermarket, and taste better too.

eight acres: ideas for buying local and in-season

Simplest: go to a farmer's market and buy lots of things!
We visit our local farmer's market once a month, but you might be lucky to have access to one that's more frequent.  We usually stock up on bananas and apples direct from farmers.  Throughout the year we have access to citrus, pineapples, potatoes, strawberries, mangos, a huge ranges of vegetables, as well as meat (lately a guy with goat meat has been coming, which is something different for us!).  This is wonderful because our local supermarket does not stock good quality fruit and vegetables, so we buy enough to last the month.  Just remember to ask stall-holders if they are local and if they grew their produce themselves, some people buy from the wholesalers and bring up a load of all sorts of things, so you're not really getting it any fresher than the supermarket (but sometimes its cheaper).

What do you think?  Do you buy local and in-season produce?  Where do you get it?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The history of heirloom vegetables

Heirloom vegetables are the old varieties that have been passed down through generations.  Some vegetables have a history spanning thousands of years.  Heirloom vegetables are open pollinated, which means we can continue to save seeds and develop new species adapted to our individual climate.  Unlike the modern hybrid vegetables, that have been bred to comply with the requirements of an industrial agriculture system, heirloom vegetables are bred to taste good!  And best of all, they are open-source, not owned by anyone and can't be patented, we need to keep them alive to ensure food freedom for all.

eight acres: review of Heirloom Vegetables, by Simon Rickard

Penguin sent me Simon Rickad's latest book Heirloom Vegetables: A guide to their history and varieties to review (see detail here).  Simon write that the main purpose of the book is to tell the stories of heirloom vegetables family by family.  The book itself if a lovely hardcover, nearly 350 glossy pages, with plenty of photos.  I would never had expected that reading about vegetables could be so interesting!

I like to grow a few heirlooms myself, including tromboncinos, spaghetti squash, chokos and most vegetables in my garden self-seed.  I definitely see the value in maintaining and enhancing these older varieties by saving seeds.  I really didn't realise how old some of the vegetables really are, and it was amazing to learn that closely related vegetables originated in different parts of the world.

eight acres: review of Heirloom Vegetables, by Simon Rickard

Here's a list of some of the interesting facts I picked out from the book:
  1. Peas were originally grown to be dried and were eaten as a pea mush, fresh peas is a relatively recent innovation
  2. Before potatoes were brought to Europe from the Americas, turnips and parsnips were the staple root crops
  3. Carrots were originally purple and yellow before an orange variety was developed
  4. After peanut flowers are pollinated, the stem turns downward and burrows into the ground to grow into a peanut
  5. Bok choy, Chinese cabbage, swede and canola are closely related
  6. The oldest known vegetable is the gourd, at 10000 years old, and originally grown as a vessel rather than for eating
  7. Eggplants are originally from the India/Burma region and were white, hence the name
  8. Quinoa, beets and spinach are closely related
  9. Rhubarb was originally highly valued for the laxative properties of its root
  10. Warrigal greens are native to Australia and widely cultivated in Europe
  11. Lettuce, artichokes and thistles are closely related
  12. Garlic is over 6000 years old and is so altered by human cultivation it cannot breed in the wild
  13. Vegetables native to the Americas include beans, pumpkins, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, yacon, Jerusalem artichoke and sweet potato, but not watermelon

Monday, November 10, 2014

The story of our cows - Part 2

As I started explaining back in Part 1, our cows are drama queens, but we love them anyway.  Owning the cows has been a huge learning experience for us.  I wrote my ebook "Our Experience with House Cows" to try to help other cow owners get started, and it took me so long to publish it because we seemed to have a new issue to deal with every time I thought I had finally recorded everything we knew!  Here's part 2 of the story of our cows...

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy

Friday, November 7, 2014

How I use herbs - Borage

Borage (Borago officinalis L, not to be confused with broage) is a herbaceous annual leafy herb, native of the Mediterranean region. While borage is a very old garden plant, more recently is has been cultivated to harvest the seed oil, which is apparently high in gamma-linolenic acid. I grow borage to attract bees, to make herbal tea from the leaves and to occasionally surprise Pete with flowers in his work lunch.

eight acres: how to grow and use borage

How I grow borage

Borage grows VERY easily. I planted seeds by scattering them around the garden once, a couple of years ago, and now I just pull out unwanted borage plants and leave a few to prosper in different areas of the garden. I have harvested seeds to send to people for seed swaps, and I cannot imagine how they are harvested on an industrial scale. The seeds are tiny, four per flower, and they dislodge very easily! In some climates borage doesn’t grow and flower through winter, but I can grow it all year in the sub-tropics as long as it has enough water in dry periods.

How I use borage

All parts of the borage plant can be used, including the leaves, flowers and seeds. I dry leaves and flowers to add to herbal tea mixtures (Borage tea is said to help induce psychic powers, although I can’t confirm this claim!). I also pick fresh leaves (the smaller ones are less prickly) to chop and add to salads (and the flowers can be scattered on top, they are slightly sweet). It can also be cooked.

Medicinally, borage is used for gastrointestinal, respiratory and car diovascular disorders. It is also used for skin conditions, and I use it to make an infused oil for salves and soap making. It can also be used to make tinctures. I am interested in the seed oil, but I think you would have to eat an awful lots of seeds to get any benefit!

In the garden, borage is a companion plant to legumes, spinach, brassicas, strawberries and tomatoes (although I just let it come up everywhere).

Bees love borage because it produces so much nectar, in fact it is rated as one of the top plants for producing nectar and pollen throughout the year

Do you grow borage?  Do you use borage?  What about borage seed oil?

See my other herb posts: mintaloe verabasilginger, galangal and turmericcalendula, marigold and winter tarragonsoapwortcomfreynasturtium, and parsley.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Slow Living Farm Update - November 2014

Once again, its time for the Slow Living Monthly Nine, started by Christine at Slow Living Essentials and currently hosted by Linda at Greenhaven.

We currently have 20 hens, half we hatched this year, so we get 15-16 eggs a day.  I have been selling most of them at work, but its also nice to occasionally cook up a giant quiche!  This one was filled with ham, onion, kale, mushroom and topped off with tomato and cheese, yum!  Other options that I've see recently include dehydrating the eggs and freezing eggs, I haven't tried these as we usually has enough eggs over winter.

We have been waiting and waiting for a roofer to be available to work on our house, but this month he told us we are next in line!  We are very excited!  The roof did not have to be replaced for us to get council approval, but it won't last much longer, so we wanted to get it done before we started working on the rest of the house.  Soon it will change from rusty red to Colourbond Evening Haze, which should be a nice cool colour for summer heat.  Then we just have to start the rest of the painting....

I hand-sewed the hem on a pair of trousers that I bought from the op shop, and I sewed a few buttons back on to a jacket and a top.  Its good to be able to mend clothes and make them last a bit longer.

I have had ants invading our whole house for months now and I've tried various natural strategies because I didn't want to use chemicals.  Finally I tried neem oil - 5% in water, with a squirt of detergent, in a spray bottle.  I have been spraying ants whenever I see them, and so far its keeping them out of the house.  (Here's a post about using neem oil more generally).

The garden is growing despite a lack of rain, here's the full update....

Earlier this year, when we still had 25 or so cows on our property and not much water left, we had a successful bore drilled and bought a solar pump system.  We were able to the cows shortly afterwards (huge relief!), before we had a chance to equip the bore, and we've only just had time to start working on it again recently.  After much deliberation and careful planning we bought all the materials and Pete started fabricating a stand for the solar panels.  One weekend I was given the job of making a "pipe wrap" so that Pete could cut the pipe for the stand at a 27 degree angle to match our latitude.  It was quite fun doing a bit of "tech drawing" to develop the angle into a wrap for the pipe, especially when we couldn't find a compass or a protractor!

This may be stretching it a little, but I think I'm doing a public service by taking my eggs to sell at work in Brisbane.  Not only are my work colleagues able to enjoy farm fresh free-range eggs, but they also have the opportunity to learn about farm life.  We have some great discussions about chickens, gardens, cows and freezers full of beef.  I like to think that I am educating them gradually about where their food comes from.  It can be hard to have these discussions, as many people would rather not know, but the eggs are a good starting point and I've seen many people thinking more about their food after I've explained more about how its grown.

Pete and I went over to Gympie for a bee-keeping open day with Valley Bees.  It was a great day, we talked to lots of people and bought a couple of books.  Since then we've both been trying to find out as much as we can about how to get started with bees.  We also walked around our property and looked for native stingless bees, but they seem to be good at hiding!

Sometimes its hard to enjoy these hot dry months (and Cheryl finds them tough too), but it helps to focus on the small things that make me smile, like our funny little puppy Taz who will hop into her dog box to nap even after we took the bed off her (she started chewing the corner) and time spent fussing around in the garden picking herbs and smelling the flowers.  We had a nice dinner together at home for our wedding anniversary too.  In November we are off to NZ for a week, so that will be a well-earned holiday and we are lucky to have family who can look after all the animals while we are away.  (Here's photos from our last couple of holidays there)

Here's a few blogs that you might enjoy:

Living the good life

Merryn's menu

How was your October?  What do you have planned for November?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Garden Share - November 2014

October was hot and dry, apart from a few storms that brought about 15 mm of rain.  We had temperatures close to 40degC on our veranda (see evidence below).  Fortunately we got a chance early in the month to add more shadecloth to the garden.  In previous years I have grown beans up the north side of the garden to shade it, but lately its been too dry to even get the beans started, so this year we have put up shadecloth all along the north side and its making a huge difference to the garden, the plants are not looking as wilted by the end of the day anyway!  I have also been adding manure and mulch by the wheelbarrow load.

eight acres: November 2014 garden share

My other big project was digging a trench the centre of the garden for the herbs.  The pots kept drying out to the point that water ran right through them.  I dug the trench, lined it with newspaper (to make it drain more slowly), and packed around the pots with mulch.  I am hoping that this keeps the pots cooler, and more water is available to the roots in a kind of a quick and cheap wicking bed type system.

I am still harvesting mostly silverbeet, kale and herbs, but I've been able to gradually "pot up" seedlings (ie transplant into larger pots) from my own seeds, a few seedlings I bought, until they are big and strong enough to move outside.  Last year I planted seedlings out right away and they just withered.  I can see the bush beans and button squash are SO close!  Also cherry tomatoes.  And lots and the garden is full of seeds and flowers....

This month I just have to keep mulching and watering and planting out the seedlings as they are big enough.

How was your garden in October?  What are you up to in November?

eight acres: November 2014 garden share
Taz actually chased her tail until she caught it!

eight acres: November 2014 garden share
thermometer on our veranda (in degC)
more shade

borage flowers

broccoli seeds nearly ready to harvest

spring onion seeds

native stingless bees enjoying the garlic chive flowers

lemon flowers

Herb Robert

my sunken herb garden

the choko vine is looking good!

Join in the Garden Share Collective, link up here and link back to Lizzie at Strayed from the Table.

Never miss a post! Sign up here for our weekly email...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Suggested Reading