Purchasing property and the importance of having active warrens on it.

It has taken us many years to find the right property for our next adventure, and one of the keys things we looked for every time was warrens … wombat and rabbit warrens.

Most people think that these animals are pests … yes and no. They are destructive to crops if you don’t protect your crops correctly, but they can tell you an amazing amount about your soil without having to do any serious soil testing up front. Here is an example wombat hole.

Large wombat hole displaying soil profile.
Large wombat hole displaying soil profile.

This hole clearly gives a snapshot of the soil profile in this area of scrub. The top 20 cm of soil, is a dark brown sandy topsoil. This is known as sandy loam. It is very easy to work with and provides for excellent drainage.

The next layer is a yellowish sandy substrate for about 60 cm. This substrate was laid down in this region around 20,000 years ago. Doing a little geological research, it was most likely blown onto the slopes when the lower area was infact an inland lake during the last ice age. This sandy substrate allows for easy drainage and will ensure that the soil is not water logged.

Finally, at the bottom of the wombat hole, there is evidence of pebbles of a gravel-like consistency. This gravel has a brownish-red colouration, indicative of high iron. There are also obvious chunks of quartz-like rock with inclusions of granite an glassy sandstone. This indicates that this level of the soil profile is close to bedrock, probably volcanic in nature as the quartz with inclusions can only occur at high temperature.

So, what does this tell us? This region can be used for shallow rooted trees, as evidenced by the dwarfed eucalyptus on the slopes behind. You can also put a structure here quite easily by cutting out and creating a solid packed base or by dropping piers directly to the bedrock. You can also improve the top soil using bio char before adding compost to make a very fertile garden bed for veggies. All this info from a simple wombat hole!

Lazy composting with potatoes

Every now and then, when we open up one of our compost piles after they’ve been sitting for several months doing their thing, we uncover a pile which hasn’t quite broken down everything the way we want or we find lots of plastic strips that were not removed from boxes. Sometimes the odd cake box wasn’t waxed like we thought but rather plastic coated and causes issues in the composting process.

While our wonderful composting organisms try their darnedest to break down the plastics, it’s evident that the plastic short circuited the decomposition on the underside of the deposit. When these frustrations arise, we rise to the challenge and create our spud-compost-mansion.

“What on earth are you on about?!?!” you say. Put simply, it is a chicken wire basket that is lined with mulch on the bottom, composted straw around the sides, half finished compost on the core and spuds all around!
Here is one we started today…

IMG_2504
Create a round wire basket and anchor it with stakes. We used chicken wire offcuts and bamboo stakes. The bamboo stakes are smooth and can be woven through the wire. Chicken inspection is optional.

The wire basket is held in place by bamboo stakes and since we were being lazy, we used our electric mulcher to break down some weeds into a fresh mulch bed.
I’d like to say that our logic is based on scientific fact… Rather it’s based on observation. We need to ensure that the too much moisture doesn’t leach out  from the pile, and anyone who’s mown a lawn before and left a pile of clippings on the garden can attest to the fact that, fresh lawn clippings create a dense also impenetrable layer. So this is our retention mulch.

The next layer is rotten straw. We place a good wad of it on top of the mulch in the wire basket, then start lining the sides of the basket with it. Here is a pic of just that.

Wire basket with mulch base and rotten straw lining.
Wire basket with mulch base and rotten straw lining.

Next, we shovel in a layer of partially finished compost and add our chitted potatoes around the straw edges and back fill it with more compost.
Voilla! You very own compost-potato-mansion.

Top view.
Top view.

Once the spuds have sprouted, be prepared to keep adding straw lined walls and compost backfill all the way to the top of the wire basket. We wished we had a photo of last years’ one. It was awesome!

This design tends to keep possums away from you spuds too, which is handy in an urban setting, and then when it’s time to harvest the potatoes, you don’t need to do anything special than pull apart the wire mesh, harvest and spread out the spent compost on your garden. Almost no work at all!

We have started setting up a few of these baskets all around our garden so that when we are weeding, we slowly fill the basket and it composts away. Then we can use it straight in the garden without having to use a wheel barrow to cart it around. Win-win!

What’s the name of that apple?!?! A Peasgood Nonsuch?

We love heritage apples and all this simply means is that the apple in question is no longer grown commercially for the mainstream market. There is nothing wrong with these apples … in fact, most heritage apples have superior flavour and texture over the regular apples you find at the grocer. The reason they are not stocked? Because they don’t last as long in the refrigerator!

“Regular” store bought apples.

When you go to a store today, you will always find apples on the shelves. Fresh and sometimes not so crunchy apples are a staple in our society. But in reality, to ensure that there are apples available all year round, they need to be kept in storage for a VERY long time.

As with all natural things, there is a season for apples. Apples flower from early Spring to mid Summer (late August to December here in Sydney regions). So depending on the variety of apple, you can have fresh fruit from as early as mid Summer through to mid Winter (late December to mid July here). So what about the other months?

This is where the genetics of an apple are very important. Early fruiting varieties (such as the Israeli variety ‘Anna’), mature early in the season but in doing so sacrifice their ability to be stored long term. But is their flavour affected? No way!

Generally speaking, if an apple is ripened on a tree before it is harvested, it is capable of developing mind blowing flavour. But to store an apple long term, certain characteristics need to be taken into account. Mainly the acidity of the fruit and its sugar level.

If the sugar level in a fruit is too high, it ripens quickly. When you buy a “floury” apple from a store, this texture is due to the apple being stored with a higher than normal sugar content and then while in storage, the sugars get converted into fibre too quickly … hence the “floury” texture.

But a fruit with too high an acidity, generally produces a tartness which most customers find unpalatable. So there is a fine balance between when to pick and how to store. Actually, there is a real science behind it as apples need to be stored in a climate controlled environment to ensure peak condition.

Heritage apples

In today’s economy where we have grown accustomed to having everything we want when we want it, eating in season foods has fallen by the wayside. This means that anything that cannot be stored and transported long distances falls out of flavour. Most restaurants and food businesses don’t change their menu based on the season, which means that only food which can be sourced all year round are available. But if you are so inclined, there are some small operators (ourselves included) who are dedicated in ensuring that some of the most flavoursome apples are available to farmers markets in season.

At this time of year, some of the larger varieties are ready to harvest. These are the mid season fruits. The likes of Red Delicious, Pink Lady and Granny Smith are no where near being mature enough to harvest in our region; this means that these varieties on shelves are almost 12 months old.

When it comes to flavour, two of our all time favourites ripening now are the Gravenstein and the Peasgood Nonsuch (yes this mouthful is its real name!). The Gravenstein is an old European apple variety which originated in Denmark. It has a beautiful rich red skin with little spots all over it, white flesh and tastes nothing short of divine. It has a slight tartness (indicative of high acidity) but is complemented with a good deal of sweetness when tree ripened. It is great fresh and is excellent for cooking as it keeps it shape well.

Similarly, the Peasgood Nonsuch is a great cooking apple but is better known as a saucing apple, creating a really smooth puree that complements soooo many dishes! This one though is a bit of a giant in the apple world, regularly 50% larger in size than a red delicious, meaning it is around double the weight too! We have included one in the photo above.

So next time you buy an apple, have a think about what it took to get to your table. Visit your local farmers market to find someone nearby who grows fruit in season … you will never regret the flavour. Ask to try something you don’t know. Remember, local farmers (generally) enjoy their job and would love to talk to someone who appreciates the effort they put into providing quality produce.

Being the accountant, the marketing manager, the supervisor and the labourer all at once!

When people think of farming, they think of wonderful farmers markets, great produce and friendly people. Very few consider what goes on behind the scenes to get the produce to them.

This week was a hectic once for us with lots of milestones achieved, but it meant that we had to wear the hat of accountant, marketing manager, supervisor and labourer all in one week!

So here is a run down of our mad-cap week…

We got our logo revamped!

Our little mouse needed some inspiration, so we took her to our local graphic design studio and the guys at Avenue de Flaunt came up with some awesome ideas. So bye-bye little blind mouse and hello cute little field mouse. Pity we didn’t have three blind mice to work with!

Little Field Mice Pty Ltd logo
Our old logo. We didn’t realise it looked blind without the pupil!
littlefieldmice
Our new logo. We love it!

 

 

We started prepping our beds for Winter

The start of Autumn sees us clearing out all our old and tired tomato plants and their trellises. We burn all the dried up plants to reduce fungal disease in future crops, a job that Master 7 truly enjoys (there must be a little pyromaniac in every child as Miss 5 is now wanting to learn how to help with this).

Once the beds are cleared, we add wheel barrow loads of fresh compost straight from one of our compost bins, some ash, trace elements, rock dust, chicken manure and plenty of dried lawn clippings …. then its dig, Dig, DIG!

*Phew, glad its not high Summer*

We started planting our beds for winter crops.

Once all the digging is done, We form up our beds and lay down irrigation pipe. This then gets turned on for a test run and to both moisten and settle the soil before planting.

Where the water drips out is where we plant our new seedlings. All plants can’t stand oxygen at their root zone … this causes them to die back. We always ensure that our new seedlings go into moist ground and then get watered in afterwards as well. This helps settle them into the soil and removes any air holes in the soil surrounding the roots.

This week we planted out…

  • Lettuce (red, green and bronze oak leaf; endive; mini cos; red and green coral; red romaine)
  • Fennel
  • Sorrel (green and red veined)
  • Basil (sweet and mini greek)
  • Brassicas (broccoli; broccolini; cauliflower; pak choi; red russian kale; tuscan kale)
  • Carrots (purple; white; yellow and orange)
  • Parsnips
  • Strawberries
  • Garlic (Monaro purple; Italian purple; Italian white)
  • Herbs (curled and flat leaf parsley; sage; rosemary; thyme; lemon thyme; oregano; garlic chives; nasturtium;
  • Onions (red)

We got some new hens delivered to our farm.

We are very strict with bio-security and only source our new breeding stock from eggs which we incubate and grow on ourselves. Our only exception to this is our meat birds, which are grown in a climate controlled and sterile environment then shipped straight to us within 24-48 hours of being born.

Since the devastation of a lot of our breeders due to the local fox population, we have decided to introduce ten new hens to our flock. They have been treated for external and internal parasites so that they do not pass any untoward problems onto our stock. These girls will be placed into their breeding pens shortly.

We started building chicken tractors 3, 4 and 5.

As the breeding season will be coming around soon, we have started to build some new Joel Salatin style chicken tractors. It will start looking like a fleet soon. Can’t wait till they are finished.

We will have one breeding pen each of Plymouth Rock, Araucana and Barnevelder. There will also be a meat bird pen and then a growing pen for all the chicks we hatch older than 6 weeks. Then with our move to our new farm on the horizon, the chicken tractor fleet is set to boom!

We introduced our resident hen to the garden

When our hens go “clucky” (that is they want to sit on and hatch eggs), we schedule their hatch with one of our incubators. That way she can adopt a few extras for us.

Hens are natural Mum’s and they make the funniest noises. Now that her little ones are more than 2 weeks old, they are smart enough to listen o their Mum (mostly) and are at a lower risk of falling down a crack in the ground and dying (yes, this happens).

On the first day out in the garden, the hen only ranged around 3m from the shed she calls home. But once she saw us pulling up the tomato trellises, her curiosity was obvious … and calculated. As soon as we sat down for lunch …. she had called her brood over and was happily showing them how to scratch out bugs and insects from the soil. A few times knocking a chick over in the process due to her enthusiasm.

She makes a different noise for her chicks for different reasons; when intruders approach (like us or the cats), when there is a predator spotted, when there is a nice tidbit of food, when its time for a nap or sleep (yes, chicks sleep during the day just like all babies). It’s quite entertaining to listen to.

Here is a picture of her in the garden near our sweet potato and berry patch.

Hen and chicks free range
Plymouth Rock hen free-ranging with twelve two week old chicks

 

… then we did some tractor shopping.

We have been on the look out for a small tractor for our new farm for the last few months. Now that the land has settled, we can start looking in earnest as we have somewhere to store it now. 🙂

Checking out tractors is like checking out cars … if you don’t know what you want to begin with, you’ll only be attracted to the new and shiny gadgets.

Quince … the chameleon of the fruit world.

There are so many different fruits out there that are just waiting to be tried. We always eat in season foods here on our farm and Autumn is harvest time! It’s full steam ahead here with plenty of different fruits coming into the kitchen. For us, nothing is better that fresh quince with vanilla ice-cream! Yum!

Quince is a pome fruit. This means it is closely related to the likes of pears and apples. It is used extensively as a dwarfing rootstock for pears and can be seem on roadsides growing wild.

Quince are an interesting fruit as it feels rock hard even when ripe, but undergoes the most amazing transformation once cooked correctly. It has a furry outer coating which rubs off easily once the fruit is ripened on the tree.

To tell if a quince is ready to pick, you need to take note of its colour and texture. It will changed from green to yellow over the course of around one week (each variety is slightly different, but you get the idea). Then, when you gently rub the fuzzy coating and it comes away in your hand … its quince time!

Here is a yummy bowl of freshly poached quince and vanilla ice-cream!

Quince with vanilla ice-cream.
Quince with vanilla ice-cream, drizzled with quince syrup.

Poaching Quince

Here are some simple instructional images on how to poach quinces to use at home.

Quince - whole
Pick your quince and bring them into the kitchen. Make sure when you pick them to be gentle. They may feel rock hard, but they bruise VERY easily.
Quince - peeled
Peel the skin off all your quince. Quince flesh oxidises (goes brown) very quickly once cut. There is no need to worry about that though.
Quince - quartered
Quarter and core your quince, then place them in a large pot. Add enough water so that the quince start to float and then stir half a cup of sugar per kilo of quince.
Quince - colour change
Bring slowly to the boil. Keep boiling for anywhere between two to three hours. The quinces will stat to change colour when nearing completion.
Quince - cooked
Quince is cooked when a fork or skewer can be easily inserted in to the flesh. Leave it to stand and soak up some of the syrup. The quince can be stored in the fridge in an airtight container for a few days. The syrup can be bottled and stored as per a normal preserve. Enjoy!

Raising meat chickens … they’re not a dumb as you might think!

We have started growing pasture raised meat birds. Essentially, they are a commercial breed of meat chicken which we get as day old chicks. They come specially “packaged” and shipped to us within 24 hours of hatching. Here is what they look like in their little shipping box on arrival. A whole box of cuteness if you ask us!

Chicks - day old in box
50 one day old chicks in delivery box

We then introduce them into our brooder. It is a fully enclosed box which rats and other nasties cannot get into. They have a heat lamp, light, plenty of litter  (added to every second day to reduce smells), two feeding stations and two watering stations. There are no draughts and we control the temperature daily, slowing ‘hardening’ them down to be accustomed to lower temperatures. Here is a pic of them in their little brooder…

Chicks - day old in brooder
Day old chicks in brooder box. Protected from predators and draughts with plenty of access to feed and water.

Because these little guys are near our home, they get used to noisy children always handling them and learn quickly that if you approach an extended hand you usually get some nice tidbits. Unlike meat birds raised in sheds that run away from people, these little critters come up to you.

Here is one of our hand fed stars. You can already see good breast development on her. She is very inquisitive and loves being handled … mostly because she knows there is always a treat (or six) involved.

Chicken - 5 week old meat bird
Our children learn how to safely handle chickens. Even the chicken learn that it is OK to be held, just as this 5 week old meat chicken is being done. No running away from these capable little hands.

At the end of their second week, they graduate to our large brooder. It gives them more space to move around with a heated bench at the back under cover and a sunny lounging area at the front where they can eat or just lay down in the sun.

Here are some of our 5 week old chicks (combination of meat birds, plymouth rocks and mixed breed egg layers) snacking on some azolla  which we grow for them.

5 week old chicks snacking on Azolla. They love it!
5 week old chicks snacking on Azolla. They love it!

Once they reach 5 weeks, they are put onto pasture in our Joel Salatin inspired chicken tractors. We have modified the design slightly by adding some skis to the bottom plate to make it easier for us to pull along the ground rather than use a dolly system. It works a treat! Here are the cheeky little ones at 6 weeks of age. They were just moved to fresh pasture. Look at how much more feathered and chunky they are since the last photo. Only 8 days difference in these images!

Chicken - 6 week old meat bird
6 week old meat birds in chicken tractor

There are only 20 birds in this tractor. It is one of our future breeding pens so is smaller than most. We will be stocking these pens with 12 chickens and one very lucky rooster in the next breeding season!

So remember, when you buy your next chook for dinner, have a think about how they were grown and if they were happy. We know ours are. And while it is sad to say farewell to them once they reach eight and a half weeks, we know that they have been fed the BEST diet with a variety of insects, grain and fresh grass. Go you little chooks!

Kids are capable of the most amazing things.

Earlier this weekend, we posted about a sad day where our breeder chicken flock was slaughtered by foxes (see here for details). But what has kept us smiling through the whole ordeal, is the heart melting kindness shown to me by Master 7.

We recently set up a workbench for Master 7. And while initially we thought it was an awesome idea that he was outside always building something, the constant hammering for a good hour does tend to make the nerves a tad raw!

…. but that’s off topic. Master 7 decided to make a memorial plaque for all the chickens so that they can be remembered … unknown to us at this time. So, there came a point where all the hammering stopped and a Master 7 asked if he could be taught how to use a jigsaw. Teaching children the proper and safe way to use power tools are important lessons. Master 7 knows he is not allowed to use anything powered unless he is supervised, so we thought “sure”. And off he went with Daddy and learned a new skill.

Thirty minutes later, this is what he produced … complete with claws, tail and moving legs. This will be one of those things that will be hanging up in our barn when we’re in our 80’s, covered in dust and a few cob webs and people will look at it and say …. “What is that?”. *sigh*

So proud of you our Little Man!

 

IMG_2388

Warre Bee keeping

A little over a year ago, we got together with a group of friends and constructed our first Warre Bee Hive. It was an interesting exercise in communication with Electrical Engineers, IT specialists, Project Managers and noisy children thrown in for fun. It was an awesome day where some creating swear words were unearthed and curious children learnt how to apply wood glue without sticking things to themselves.

Last night, we got a message from a friend saying that they had a swarm in their front garden … Awesome! was our first reaction. “Can we come over and collect it?” was our second.

With a maniacal giggle upon hearing “Yeah sure, come on over.”, we started prepping our hive.

Wild bee swarm, swarming in Christmas Bush shrub.
Wild bee swarm, swarming in Christmas Bush shrub.

We pulled apart all our boxes and re-waxed our frames, re-stuffed the mattress and checked that all the potential wasp entrances were secured.

Packing the mattress of a Warre Bee Hive using saw dust.
Packing the mattress of a Warre Bee Hive using saw dust.

We were finalising the net we were going to drape over the Christmas Bush, when we got the sad news that the swarm had moved on. 😦

Oh well … till the next time we get informed about a swarm. But since we had the hive apart, we decided to give it a nice new coat of paint. At least it will weather a few more seasons now.

Warre bee hive drying after applying new coat of paint.
Warre bee hive drying after applying new coat of paint. And yes, the kids thought that blue frames would make all the difference to bees looking for a new home – because decor is important! LOL!

Got a swarm you want to re-home? Let us know and we should be able to help if we are nearby.

Foxes and the devastation they can cause.

Running a farm, there are always ups and downs and what keeps us going is focusing on the good things that happen; new additions to the farm, fruit harvests, new buildings (you get the idea)! What we cannot stand is waste … senseless waste due to excess.

Sadly, this post is about the only wild animal we have no respect for … the fox. An introduced species, while beautiful to look at and clever to boot, if this little critter behaved more like a hungry animal than a rabid human … the farming world would be a happier place. If you are queasy … please do not read on as there is an image of the outcome at the end.

It is unfortunate for us, that a fox (or more than one for that matter) managed to get into our breeding chicken coup and decimated the entire flock! This is what angers us! We’re OK with the local wedge tailed eagle pair that occasionally take a chook, they only ever take one and we’ll admit look majestic doing it. We’re OK with the occasional fruit bat nibbling at some of the apples, its usually only the top tree fruit they take. We’re even OK with occasionally having to loose a bed of tomatoes to fruit flies if it has been a particularly wet and humid year. Them’s the breaks. But when an animal like a fox gets access to chickens … nothing short of hell breaking loose is the best description of the aftermath.

We found 31 beautiful birds scattered and dead one morning. It was heart breaking. All those friendly chooks and roosters senselessly killed. Necks snapped and left intact for most too. We don’t like to write about the sad things that happen around here, but sometimes we need to remember them to ensure we learn from them. One thing is for certain, we have finally invested in a trap and we’re looking into getting a dog or two from the local animal shelter sooner rather than later.

We can definitely say that electrified chicken fences work wonders. Also having a wire skirt or mesh around a fence also stops foxes from digging, but NEVER let anyone tell you that a pen is fox proof at 1.8m (6 foot) because the little blighters can still climb over if they put their mind to it!!!

Rest in peace our little flock. We’re sorry that we couldn’t keep you safe.

Chicken masacre by foxes

(Not all animals are pictured as their carcasses were not in a condition we believed people would be comfortable viewing).

Figs and memories

Very few things excite us more than the harvest of fruit from our trees. Most people don’t realise the amount of care and attention a tree needs before it can bear fruit … let alone fruit of sufficient quality that can be sold to market!

Most trees require years of growth before they fruit. Apples, pears, peaches … all take 3 years or more to produce fruit. But then some, like the humble fig, can start producing from as young as 2 years of age.

We grow four varieties of fig here; Black Genova, White Genova, White Adriatic … and a special fig from our grandparents farm in Sicily. These little trees (for some of them are only in their second season) have come into their own with the awesome weather we have been having this year. Figs produce two harvest each year: One in February and then another in April. This year the harvest is shaping up to be brilliant.

As children, we couldn’t wait for the figs to ripen and be ready to eat … many times being told off for squeezing the fruit too hard and bruising it. But our little monkeys are now doing the same thing we did … and why? Because they are simply copying us … every morning, when we go out to check the ripeness of the fruit. We know which ones to gently touch to determine if it is ready today or if it needs to wait until tomorrow … because a day can make a huge difference in flavour! It is humbling teaching our children the the correct technique and they learn so fast!

So here’s a shout out to all the amazing people who had the courage to leave their homes overseas, brought their culture with them and truly believed that they were doing the best for their families. For us, the humble fig represents that move; bring on the fig jam, dried figs and fig cookies this season.

Fig bowl