Wednesday, July 27, 2016

How I use herbs - coriander (or cilantro)

Its winter and coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is coming up in my garden.  Outside of the sub-tropics, coriander is a spring/summer annual, but it quickly bolts in hot weather, so it grows better here in winter.  This herbs is known by its Spanish name, cilantro, in the US (and obviously in countries that speak Spanish).  Coriander is an ancient herb and spice, that is used in cuisines as varied as Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Egyptian and Mediterranean.

eight acres: growing and using coriander (cilantro)

How I grow coriander
You can get coriander as seedlings, but I usually plant it from seed.  When it goes to seed in my garden, I scatter the seeds and they come up the next year.  I also throw a few extra saved seeds around the garden in early in winter, to make sure I get plenty of coriander.  It does grow better here in the colder months, and quickly bolts to seed when the weather warms up or if the soil dries out.  The flowers are popular with bees and other pollinators, also resulting in plenty of seeds for next year's crop and for use as a spice.

eight acres: growing and using coriander (cilantro)
This is my garden at the moment!

How I use coriander
Both the leaves and seeds of coriander can be eaten (also the roots apparently, but I haven't tried them).

- the leaves are good for digestion, and add a fresh taste to spicy dishes, best added as a garnish.

- the seeds chewed whole are good for breath freshener, but are also added ground, as part of a spice mix to many different dishes.

In particular, I use ground coriander seed in my spicy Mexican mince recipe.

As I only have coriander for a short period when its cool enough to grow here, I always look forward to it and treasure it while its fresh.  I haven't found a good way to preserve the leaves so far.

eight acres: growing and using coriander (cilantro)
My facourite use of coriander is in guacamole! 

Do you grow coriander?  How do you use it?  Do you call it cilantro?

How I use herbs - Mint, Peppermint and Spearmint

How I use herbs - Aloe Vera

How I use herbs - Basil

How I use herbs - Ginger, galangal and turmeric

How I use herbs - Marigold, calendula and winter taragon

How I use herbs - Soapwort

How I use herbs - Comfrey

How I use herbs - Nasturtium

How I use herbs - Parsley

How I use herbs - Borage

How I use herbs - Herb Robert

How I use herbs - Purslane

How I use herbs - Chickweed

How I use herbs - Neem oil

How I use herbs - Rue, tansy and wormwood

How I use herbs - Brahmi

How I use herbs - Yarrow

How I use herbs - Arrowroot

How I use herbs - Lucerne (afalfa)

How I use herbs - Lavender

How I use herbs - Rosemary and Thyme

How I use herbs - Oregano or Marjoram

How I use herbs - Sweet Violet

How I use herbs - Gotu Kola

How I use herbs - Lemongrass

Monday, July 25, 2016

Holistic management - part 2: four key insights

The book Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making (affiliate link) introduces four key insights that underpin the concept of Holistic Management.  (See my introduction to Holistic Management here)

1) The Whole is Greater that the Sum of the Parts
Hence the reason for the word "holistic".  Every landscape is part of a broader ecosystem.  If we make a small change on our property, say clearing trees or building a dam, it will have an impact on the wider system.  Every action we take, we must consider the holistic effect.  Later in the book, there is a chapter on forming a holistic goal for your farm, so that you can ensure that everything you do moves you towards the holistic outcome that you want, and doesn't do unexpected damage.

eight acres: holistic management - four key insights

2) Brittle vs Non-brittle Landscapes
Landscapes respond to influences depending on where they sit on a brittleness scale.  Non-brittle landscapes have frequent rainfall, a fairly constant growing season and constant decay of biomass.  Brittle landscapes, on the other hand, have infrequent rainfall (it can be relatively a lot of rain, but only at certain times of year), a particular/short growing season and decay only occurs when conditions are humid, otherwise biomass tends to oxidise.  See more about brittleness here.

I found this concept made sense to me as soon as I heard it.  I grew up in a non-brittle landscape (New Zealand), which has rain all year round, and constant decay was obvious to me (i.e. mould in student flats).  Coming to Australia I knew that something felt different, but I thought it was just the warmer sub-tropical climate.  Actually, the further you go from the coast, the more brittle the landscape becomes. In our current location we get most of our rain in summer, it can be 200-300 mm, but in winter and spring we may get no rain for several weeks.  The grass will dry out and go brown or grey (oxidised) and we will find fossilised cow manure completely undecayed.  I think when you've experiences both types of landscape first-hand its easy to see the difference.

eight acres: holistic management - four key insights

Brittleness is a very important concept and explains why some farming practices that work in other places are not appropriate here in Australia (later chapters of the book discuss this in more detail).  When considering permaculture and farming techniques that I read about, I now ask myself, how brittle is their landscape?  Will it work here?

This also explains why its so important for us to hold water in the landscape.  As detailed in Peter Andrew's books on Natural Sequence Farming.  We get infrequent rain events, so we can't afford to lose the water to run-off.

3) The Predator-Prey Connection
If you are familiar with Joel Salatin's theories on beef cattle "mob stocking" you will have heard this one before (I'm not sure who came up with it first).  

Grazing animals in the wild tend to bunch together as protection against predators.  They also tend to move through the landscape, rather than staying in one place.  In a mob, these animals cause a short term disturbance of the land by eating and trampling vegetation, dropping dung and urine and scuffing any bare ground with their hoofs.  After they move on, the land has time to recover and regrow. 

eight acres: holistic management - four key insights

This is the opposite to what we do with extensive livestock, often keeping only a few animals on hundreds of acres.  And when we see the resulting damage, we try to rest the land, which only makes the situation worse, as is explained in further chapters.

4) Timing is Everything
This relates to the third insight, in that timing of the animals in the landscape is important.  The landscape must be exposed to grazing animals for long enough to cause disturbance without damage, and then rested enough to allow recovery, without over-rest.

Allan argues that this is why holistic management is so necessary.  It is very difficult to get this timing right without a plan for your entire farming operation.  Figuring out your holistic goal is first and then planning grazing, including developing new fencing and watering points to further improve your operation.

Managing grazing is an entire subject on its own.  Personally I admire the writings of Throwback at Trapper Creek on the subject of grass and rotational grazing.  But I think she is probably in a less brittle landscape (I'm guessing from the green green grass), as is Joel Salatin.  I'm not sure I know of any information about rotational grazing in brittle landscapes.  This just means extra observation and interaction is required (permaculture principle: observe and interact) to get this right.

eight acres: holistic management - four key insights

What do you think?  Are you in a brittle environment?  Have you tried mob-stocking or rotational grazing?

Below are some Amazon affiliate links to books related to Holistic Management.  If you would like to read my reviews of these books, see the following links:

Joel Salatin's books

Peter Andrew's books on Natural Sequence Farming

Permaculture Principles


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

What breed of chicken should I get?

When we first got chickens we thought pure-bred chickens were the best option.  We soon found out that they don't lay as many eggs as they used to (thanks to being bred for looks rather than egg-laying abilities) and so we got some hybrid hens.  The hybrids lay well, too well, and are not great for eating as they don't get very big.  Now we have a bit of a mixture of Rhode Island Reds, White Leghorns and commercial laying hens, which we cross-breed to create our own breed of dual purpose (laying and table birds) for eggs and eating.

eight acres: What breed of chicken should I get?

If you're wondering what breed of chickens you should get, I've developed a fun flow chart to help you decide.  Pop over to my chicken tractor ebook blog to take a look.  What type of chickens do you keep?

By the way, my chicken eBook is now available if you want to know more about backyard chickens and using chicken tractors.  More information over at the chicken tractor ebook blog.  Or you can get it directly from my shop on Etsy (.pdf format), or Amazon Kindle or just send me an email eight.acres.liz {at}

What's the eBook about?
Chickens in a confined coop can end up living in an unpleasant dust-bowl, but allowing chickens to free-range can result in chickens getting into gardens and expose them to predators.

 A movable cage or “chicken tractor” is the best of both options – the chickens are safe, have access to clean grass, fresh air and bugs. Feed costs are reduced, chickens are happier, and egg production increases. 

 But how do you build a chicken tractor? What aspects should be considered in designing and using a chicken tractor effectively? In this eBook I aim to explain how to make a chicken tractor work for you in your environment to meet your goals for keeping chickens. 

I also list what I have learnt over 10 years of keeping chickens in tractors of various designs and sizes, from hatching chicks, through to butchering roosters.

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Monday, July 18, 2016

Simplifying soapmaking - guest post

I know a lot of people would like to try making soap, but are put off by the cost of ingredients and equipment, the perceived danger of using caustic or the complexity of the recipes. Soap making does not have to be expensive, dangerous or complex. I want to share a few tips to get you started with simple soap making, and demystify the process to make it more accessible to everyone who would like to give it a try. You can start with a simple soap and add more ingredients as you get more comfortable with the process.

I wrote a guest post for Say Little Hen, pop over there to find out how simple soapmaking can be.

eight acres: simplifying soapmaking - a guest post

Here's a few links to my previous soapmaking posts.

Why use natural soaps and salves?
I prefer to use natural products, rather than commercial soaps and lotions with unknown and unnecessary ingredients.

Making tallow soap 
This is my first post about soapmaking, and I used tallow right from the start because we have so much leftover from butchering our own beef.  Its very cheap to buy from the butcher, and its a sustainable ingredient (especially if you eat beef anyway).  It makes great soap too!

Its very easy to render tallow from beef fat.  The kidney fat makes the best soap as its hard and white.

Here's a couple of basic recipes for tallow soap - a bath soap and a cleaning soap.

I was very happy to finally master a 100% tallow recipe (the other recipes had 50% tallow, with coconut and olive oil making up the rest of the oils).

I started to have more fun with my soap here, and learnt how to add other natural ingredients for colour and texture.

Shaving soap and A sustainable shave?
I made Pete shaving soap in little tins.  You can use that with a shaving brush instead of shaving cream.

Coffee grounds help to remove dirt and odours, great for hard workers!
Neem oil is a healing oil for the skin, as well as an insect repellent.  It can be used as a pet soap, for kids with knits or adults with damaged skin.
My latest recipe for a lovely black soap with detoxifying properties.

It hasn't all gone to plan - this batch never set due to not using enough lye, but I rebatched using the hot process method.
And salt soap needs to be cut while its still hot, I had to rebatch this one too.  The photo above is a more successful attempt at salt soap.

What do you think? Do you make soap? Is it simpler than it sounds?

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Things to consider before you get bees

A beehive (or two) is an excellent addition to a homestead, even in an urban area, as they don’t take up much space. Bees not only provide honey, but also pollination services and beeswax. Since we’ve had a couple of beehives near our vegetable garden I’ve had the best crop of pumpkins and capsicums since I started growing vegetables, which I am sure is due to flowers being pollinated more effectively. I also use the beeswax to make salves and we sell the excess honey.

Bees have worked out really well so far, however, getting bees is a big decision and there’s a few things that you should consider first.  I've written a guest post over at Imperfectly Happy, so you can pop over there to read about what I think you should consider before getting bees.

Read my other posts about bees here:

Eight Acres: Guest Post: Bee-Keeping and Happy Neighbours

Eight Acres: Buying honey bees

Eight Acres: Getting started with beekeeping - with Vickie from ...

Eight Acres: Beginner beekeepers - wiring frames and foundation

Eight Acres: Getting started with beekeeping - with Leigh from 5 ...

Eight Acres: Getting started with beekeeping - Erik and Kelly from ...

And more posts about bees here

Monday, July 11, 2016

Soap making - how much water to use

For all of my soap recipes I use 1 kg of oils (including tallow), the amount of caustic to react with the oils (a little less to allow for "superfat") and about 330 mL of water.  Someone asked me recently why I don't specify an exact amount of water.  I had to go back to my soap-making book (Soap Naturally - affiliate link) to check where that ratio came from.

eight acres: soap making - how much water to use
honey and oatmeal soap (tallow base)

The water in soap making isn't actually part of the reaction.  The soap reaction is between the oils and the caustic soda (sodium hydroxide).  As the caustic soda is solid, it wouldn't disperse well and react evenly if we just added caustic soda granules to the oil.  We dissolve the caustic soda in water so that we can easily mix the caustic soda with the oil to facilitate an even reaction.  This is why measuring the exact amount of water to the mL is not important.

However, you do need to know approximately how much water to use.  If you use too much water, the soap will be gluggy and take a long time to dry out and set completely.  It will also lose a lot of weight as it cures, because all that extra water will evaporate.  If you don't use enough water, then the caustic solution will be strong and the mixture will thicken very quickly, which can make it difficult to get into fancy moulds or do clever swirls and patterns before it sets (not to mention the danger of working with concentrated caustic solutions).

eight acres: soap making - how much water to use
pink clay soap, coffee grounds soap and honey oatmeal soap (recipe coming soon)

Sometimes soapers will intentionally reduce the amount of water, which is called "water discounting".  This is done to produce a harder bar more quickly (less water to evaporate), if other ingredients contain water (for example when adding purees) or to ensure that the soap gets hot enough to reach gel phase, and to prevent soda ash formation.  Water discounting should be avoided when using ingredients that are known to produce hot mixtures, such as milk or honey.

So how much water should we use?
There is no rule for the perfect amount of water to use in soap, suggestions from various sources:

  • 27% caustic soda to 73% water by weight
  • water (g) = (caustic soda (g))*2 + 2
  • 33% caustic soda in water for hard fats, up to 48% caustic soda in water for oils
  • 300-330g water for every 1 kg of oil/fat
Generally these ratios are a good starting point.  You may want to increase the water content slightly if the soap reaches trace too quickly or gets too hot.  If you find that it doesn't get to gel phase (and you want gel phase, which is another discussion!) or its just a simple recipe that you want to cure quickly, then you might consider reducing the water content slightly.  The maximum recommended concentration is 50% caustic soda to water by weight, however this is a very strong solution and anything strong will not dissolve all of the caustic soda.

For less experienced soapers, its best to stick to the recipe and get some practice before experimenting with water discounting.

How much water do you use in your soap recipes?  Have you tried experimenting with water discounting?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Plastic Free July

Has everyone signed up for Plastic Free July?  The idea of Plastic Free July is to try for a month to actively avoid single-use plastic.  You can sign up for the whole month, or just a week, and you can avoid all single-use plastic or just the TOP 4 challenge (plastic bags, bottles, takeaway coffee cups & straws).

This post contain affiliate links from Biome and Rad Pads, as well as advice from my personal experience.  You don't need to buy a whole lot of things to reduce your plastic consumption, there are many things that you can make yourself, I just suggest a few of the items that have helped us and may help you too.

Why?  Plastic is designed to last forever, but when we use it for "disposable" items they do not biodegrade and end up polluting waterways or filling landfills.  Each of us can make a difference by just reducing (or aiming to eliminate) single-use plastic.

Don't know where to start?  Here's a few posts I prepared earlier, and see below for my pinterest board of plastic free and zero waste ideas (click over to my blog if you're reading in email or Bloglovin)

Plastic Free - cleaning products

Plastic Free - Food shopping and food storage

I also wanted to share with you three things that we have changed permanently since I first participated in Plastic Free July in 2011.

1. Replacing plastic bin liners with newspaper
We have not used plastic bin liners for 5 years.  I didn't think this habit would stick, but it has.  We line our bin with newspaper and we take the whole bin out to the wheelie bin each week.  We don't put "wet" items in the bin as all veges and fruit scraps go in the compost.  Anything really gross goes straight out to the wheelie bin, which is less stinky anyway.

eight acres: plastic free July tips, tricks and tools

2. Replace plastic food and drink containers with glass, ceramic and metal
We still use a few tuperware containers for storing fruit and veges, but all hot food goes into glass containers.  We've had pyrex dishes for a while, and I recently got a set of Glasslock containers from Biome (affiliate link) and a Klean Kanteen bottle each (affiliate link).  As well as reducing waste (and not buying Gladwrap for 5 years!), this reduces our exposure to plastic additives which are known hormone disruptors.  Its taken a while to get to this stage, because the glass containers are expensive, but I've gradually built up enough to keep most food in glass (and the other option is ceramic bowls with a plate on top, but then I forget what's in them!).

eight acres: plastic free July tips, tricks and tools

eight acres: plastic free July tips, tricks and tools

3. Replace plastic shopping bags with reusable fabric bags
We have made a real effort to take our own bags and to refuse plastic bags (this is half the battle, saying "I don't need a bag" in time!).  Our reusable bags live in the cars, in my handbag and by the front door, there is no excuse!  They are cheap, and also easy to make, so make sure you have plenty and make an effort to remember them.  Apart from the larger bags to hold shopping, I also have a set of mesh produce bags (affiliate link).

Things to help with the TOP 4 challenge (affiliate links)

- Replace plastic bags reusable bags
- Replace plastic bottles plastic free water bottles
- Replace takeaway coffee cups with reusable options
- Replace plastic straws with metal, glass or silicon straws (or go without)

An finally, for the ladies, did you know there are reusable menstrual options?  Check out Rad Pads here (affiliate links) or read more about my experience here.

Are you doing Plastic Free July?  Do you have any tip, tricks or tools to share?

Monday, July 4, 2016

Farm update - July 2016

This month it rained for the first time in about 6 weeks.  We had two weekends of "east coast lows" drop about 50 mm in total on both properties.  The grass is green and the garden is sprouting.

The dogs wouldn't stay out of the rain, they were having so much fun playing.  Gus is now 22 kg and taller than Taz, so we are watching to see if the dynamic between them changes.  Gus is still a laid-back loving dog, he will come for cuddles while Taz is barking at us to throw her ball.

Is everyone signed up for Plastic Free July?  I'll post more about our plastic-free efforts in July. Here's what we've done in previous years.

Gus in the shed after playing the in mud

Food and cooking
Winter weather brings out the slow cooker and I make my all-purpose casserole.  We love Y-bones and you don't ever had to chop up the meat, just put them in whole and pick out the bones later (bones = flavour!).  I add onion, carrot, any other tired veges from the fridge/garden, stock (beef or chicken) sometimes a can of tomatoes, red wine, bay leaves, dried herbs (oregano and rosemary usually). This time I had some left over coconut milk to use up as well.  And a turnip.

Land and farming
We spent several weekends building a fence - 500 m, 4 posts with stays, 100 star pickets (knocked in by Peter, I did 3-4), 4 and a bit rolls of barbed wire and 400 wire ties.  This makes about a 50 acre paddock for our Angus cows and little bull to enjoy.  They were very pleased to move into this paddock as they were running low on grass in their previous paddock.  Winter is the best time of year to be outside building things, so I'm really not complaining, in fact I hardly broke a sweat, it was actually quite pleasant out there!

One strand done, three to go!

Taz helping
The hens are all looking very plump having regrown their feathers and no doubt stored some fat for winter.  Eggs production is 2-4 per day from 20 hens.  The young hens and roosters hatched in February are growing fast.  Mornings are a cacophony of immature crowing.  They are nearly big enough to butcher, but I want to just do 6 at a time or its will be an all day job.

one plump hen

Cows and cattle
The neighbour who had three of our yearlings on his eight acre property asked us to remove them so that he could burn the grass (grrr, this is what I think about burning grass), which was our cue to move those three out to Cheslyn Rise, where they seem very happy mowing our improved perennial pasture.  Bella and Molly have been separated from their calves, and are in a small paddock with a bale of sorghum hay.  When we are happy that they are both dry (no more milk :( ), we will move them also.  That will leave us with only our two baby house cows (Rosey and Charlotte) and Molly's calf Chubby on Eight Acres, which is a more sensible stocking ratio.  This also means we won't be milking again until we live at Cheslyn Rise, so that's another incentive to get this house finished!

house cows Molly and Bella

Bees and beekeeping
We haven't been checking the bees regularly since the weather got cooler (apart from just stopping in front of the hives and checking the traffic in and out), but we really wanted to remove the queen excluders.  And one hive at Eight Acres had NO traffic, so we were a bit worried.  That hive was alive, but had little honey or brood left, so we fed some raw sugar solution and moved the frames into a nuc box to help them keep warm.  The next weekend we moved the nuc box out to Cheslyn Rise, and while we were removing the queen excluders we put a frame of brood and pollen into the nuc to give it a boost.  The queen excluders are supposed to stop the queen from laying the honey supers, so you get pure honey with no brood in those frames, but they also seem to restrict the hive, so we have removed them for winter and will see if we want to put them back when we get the next honey flow.

This year I have grown the most capsicums EVER and I think its because we have two hives near the garden.  It is definitely worth encouraging pollinators in your garden (either a honeybee or native bee hive, or solitary bee/wasp habitat).  Apart from still harvesting capsicums in winter, I also have peas and silverbeet growing, and lots of asian greens and celery to harvest.  I really need to plant some broad beans.  Carrot, radish, turnip and herbs have sprouted in the recent rain.

This the year of the capsicum
Progress on the house was slow due the fence building, however we have finished all the sanding inside the house (WOO HOO!) - still some to do outside and in the laundry.  Now we just have to crack on with the painting so that we can get our hardwood floor laid and install the kitchen.  Its getting closer!

Last I wrote about the final of the twelve permaculture principles (see a summary post here), but don't worry, there's plenty more to discuss.  I am going to move on to permaculture ethics and then Bill Mollison's Permaculture Principles from Permaculture, a Designers' Manual.

The permaculture ethics are earth care, people care, fair share.  They are inter-related so its not possible to discuss one without the others.  Earth care can be taken literally to mean caring for the soil, or more broadly, the environment and all living things.  This recognises the intrinsic value of all forms of life and their importance to healthy ecosystems and life-support systems (clean air, clean water etc).  People care starts with each person and then more widely, entire communities, where increasing self-reliance and self-responsibility help us to use resources wisely and look after each other.  Fair share is about distributing surplus so that everyone has enough.

In mid-June we had our second Nanango Home Produce Share, which we intentionally branded as a share rather than a swap.  We encouraged people to come and share what they had to spare.  Again it was a lovely vibe, with everyone working hard to make sure that everyone took home something they could use.  This was a beautiful example of permaculture ethics in practice.  People who grow things and care for the soil, came together to talk and support each other, and share their surplus harvest.

Lately I've been crocheting a hat for a friend as a baby shower present, so I have to wait a few months before I can share it!  In the meantime, I also made another ear-warmer, this time using crochet and a new stitch - front post treble.  And now I'm working on my alpaca lace knit scarf, I don't really need another scarf, but working with alpaca yarn is so lovely, its so soft and warm.  I am wearing my alpaca crochet scarf a lot, and my crochet wool socks are great bed socks.

I've also been trying to fix my salt soap fails and rendering more tallow so I can refill soap I've sold and try some soap with honey (what could go wrong!!).

More neem oil soap and black magic

Support me
I have a few blogs to share this month:

From Soil to Sky - found this one via Instagram, proving that its not a complete waste of time!

Our Permaculture Life - how did I not know about this blog before??

Mista homemaker - a new Aussie blog, with a rare male author

Say! Little Hen - another one I can't believe I didn't know about!  I shared a guest post last week.

I have some new affiliate partners, which I've listed on my "Support me" page, and I'll introduce them with relevant product links in posts over the next few months.

How was your June?  What are you plans for July?

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