Ants are highway makers … just on a different scale.

Have you ever stopped to wonder at the different little insects around you. There are just so many with a huge variety of niches that they fill. For us, ants have always been a fascination, none more so than meat eating ants.

We have several different colonies of ants on our property. Meat, nectar and plant eaters alike. Whenever we have a chook die (this happens occasionally), we make an offering to the meat ant nest for a day and then bury the carcass at nightfall. It is amazing how quickly they can strip the meat off a chicken to the bone (or near enough)! Within a couple of hours, most of the visceral area is gone and you end up only needing to dispose of bone and feathers. The perfect little recyclers from our point of view!

But one of the most amazing skills that these little guys have, is their ability to transform their environment at will. A trail of meat ants on the move can easily create a visible path in only 2 days! These little guys, by sheer numbers, tread down a swathe in grass that would put weed killer to shame. For those of you who have never witnessed this, here is a pic of the little guys on the move… at the end of their trail was a wild bird. Pretty impressive!

A trail of meat ants has trodden this path in only 2 days!
A trail of meat ants has trodden this path in only 2 days!

Go you little good things!

Apple varieties we have available

We constantly get asked what apple varieties we have available on our farm. So, for those who are not feint hearted, here is a list of all the domestic varieties we have available for cultivation (currently 73 to save you from counting). If you want any scions for grafting, let us know and we will let you know if there are some available and when we can ship them. Alternatively, contact us and we can custom grow an apple tree for you on either a super dwarf (2m), dwarf (3-4m) or large (9m) rootstock. Continue reading

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.