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!

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.

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

Hawk Moths can be huge in a good year

There are some seriously strange insets in our world, and when they get to the size of this SPHINGIDAE Coequosa australasiae, they can inspire awe or dread. This is a species of Hawk Moth whose caterpillars feed on select species of Eucalypts. Here, we occasionally find them crawling up a tree after they have finished pupating and are on the hunt for a mate.

Hawk moth

This female was rescued from one of our cats. Her wings were scratched up so she has not been able to fly away. This year, we have had plenty of rainfall and the Eucalypts have had a huge growth spurt. Given such a great diet, we believe this is why this female is as large as she is. We measured her wingspan at an astonishing 13.8cm! Normally, they measure around 12cm.

After a couple of days rest, this huge girl was released in the early evening to climb up the tree she was found under. Hopefully next season there will be some of her offspring in the trees above us!