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!

 

What seeds work best?

Growing something from a seed always gives us a sense of achievement. It’s amazing how something so tiny can hold enough information in it to grow something unique. Related plant species all have seeds that look identical. Ever looked at a cauliflower seed, cabbage seed and kohl rabi seed next to each other? They look identical!

When planting anything from seed, there are several factors involved to ensure you get the best results. Here is a short rundown of what we look at in our seeds to get the best results…

1) Fresh is best

Seeds have a shelf life. As they age, they dry out. Some seeds have a harder outer coating and can survive for years or even decades before successfully germinating, while others can only survive until the next growing season.

Because each plant is different, to ensure you have the best germination rate, have the freshest seeds possible. There is nothing wrong with older seed, as long as you realise that you may need to plant more seeds than normal to ensure that enough plants germinate.

2) Open pollinated

When plants flower, they pollinate each other. There are different ways that plants can be pollinated; by wind, insects (not just bees either), self-pollinated or manually.

Open-pollinated essentially means that pollination has occurred naturally and not been interveened with by us well-meaning humans. There are some risks with open-pollination though, namely the fact that related plants may actually contribute pollen to other plants and thus produce a cross breed. Anyone who normally saves seed, needs to ensure that there are no similar plants in the vicinity that will proceed a cross breed.

Some large seed companies purposefully produce cross breeds in their seeds. Corn is the easiest example to find in any seed catalogue. Any seed packet with an “F1” or “F2” label on it means that the seed was produced from a cross breeding of two varieties. If the resulting plant is then left to seed, the seed produced will NOT grow to be exactly like its parent. This means that the seed is not “True to Type”

3) True to Type

This essentially means that the seed will grow to be like its parent. Having cross-pollinated seed is a fun way of having surprises. But if you want to grow something specific, it is a nightmare.

If you are purchasing open-pollinated seeds that are marketed as true to type, the producers have probably gone to extreme lengths to ensure that this is true. Looking at corn again, it is a wind pollinated plant. This means that to have open pollinated corn, you must be confident that there is no corn growing within 1-2km radius. We are lucky enough to be able to do this, which is a bonus!

4) Locally Sourced

A plant that has successfully produced seed in your local area is more likely to produce very hardy offspring that are well suited to your conditions. It may not seem like a significant concern, but it can make a load of difference.

We tend to be a little brutal on the plants that we want to get seeds from. Generally, we grow a crop (usually vegetable, flower or grain crop), and subject it to ideal growth conditions. If a plant is not performing well, it gets culled and the chooks get a feed. Once the seed is starting to set, we then slowly withdraw regular watering from the plant and start to stress the plant a bit. We have found that this technique, while producing fewer seeds than a well tended plant (around 40% of normal) … these seeds will pack a serious punch. Here is a visual example below…

Seedlings - beets Seedlings - brassica

In the seedling trays above, there are two types of seedlings. The first are all beetroot and the second are all broccoli. In the first image, the second row of seedling is far out performing the rest, whereas in the second image, the third and fifth row are outperforming the rest. These rows were grown from seeds that we have produced ourselves and purposefully stressed to local conditions. Need we say more!

What is a dwarf apple?

Apples - Jonathan

Apple trees are pretty amazing. They have been part of the diet of nearly every nation since pre-history. Why? Because they are absolutely delicious … well … the one’s we eat that is.

If you grow an apple tree from seed, you might be disappointed. Firstly, it will take around 8-10 years until it fruits and secondly it will probably taste nothing like the apple it came from. This is because nearly every apple needs to be cross pollinated with the pollen of a completely different variety of apple tree. This is why apple trees you buy are grafted.

There are two parts to a grafted tree: the Rootstock (the part that grows in the ground) and the Scion (the variety you want to grow).

When you want to create another apple tree, lets say a Granny Smith, you need to not only find a scion of Granny Smith to use, but you also need to determine what rootstock you want to graft it to.

The choice of rootstock used will determine a number of factors of the resulting tree. Some f these factors are:

  • Overall tree height
  • Tree vigour (how quickly it grows)
  • Disease tolerance or resistance
  • Drought tolerance
  • … etc.

In Australia, there are a number of rootstocks that are better for the home garden. For example, common rootstock names are MM102, MM106, M26, M27, MM111 and B9. One of the best websites for all things apples is www.orangepippin.com

Courtesy of the rootstock we have chosen for our Super Dwarf Apple Trees (M27), each apple tree will:

  • grow to around 2 metres tall and 1 metre wide
  • mature in 2-3 years rather than 4-5 years
  • grow between 3-5 kg of apples per tree when mature
  • can be planted as close as 1 metre apart to create a hedge
  • can be grown in large containers

The main drawback to using this rootstock is that it has a shallow roots system (which is why its good for pots) so needs lots of regular water and a stake to hold it up.

Creating a new apple tree requires that the grafting be done during the Winter using dormant wood or in Summer using budding techniques (more on these in another post later). Here is a series of images we took during last Winters’ grafting session…

Collect your scion wood and store it

Our scion wood is collected once trees are dormant. That is when all the leaves have naturally dropped form the tree. We collect short lengths of around 20-30cm of pencil thickness. These are bundled, labelled, wrapped in moist paper towel and then refrigerated (in plastic bags) until they are needed.

Scion wood

Store your rootstock correctly

When your order of rootstock arrives, unpack it as soon as possible and put it in a medium that keeps the roots moist but not wet. We use moist wood shavings.

Grafting rootstock

 

Graft, tape and label your trees

There are different ways to create a grafting union. You can use a knife or specialised grafting tool. The following images show a grafting tool which uses an Omega cut. You can see how the rootstock and scion meet almost perfectly.

Grafting notch with tool Graft unionGrafted, tied and labelled

Here are two boxes of trees grafted and ready to be planted out.

Newly grafted trees

So the next time you nibble on an apple, think about all the research that has gone into creating the wonderful fruit you are eating.

Busy building large scale chicken tractors

The last couple of weeks, we have been planning and building our next phase in on farm equipment … our Joel Salatin style Chicken Tractors!

We have owned chickens for many years and the eggs produced by home flocks are far superior to store bought ones. So our challenge has been to find a way to provide fresh pasture, insects and quality feed to a commercial number of chickens with a low carbon footprint and a superior predator protection. A pretty hefty list of requirements by any standard!

A few years ago, we fell in love with Joel Salatin and his farming methods. Since then, we have been visiting other farms nearby who have been trying to take the same problems as us. By far, most have adopted Joel’s methods too. So this month, our target was to build our first pastured poultry run … and so far, it’s a resounding success!

Based on Joel’s book, we created a series of panels that we joined together to make a pen. Let me describe it in photo’s for you.

After creating a rough drawing, we set to work measuring, cutting and painting the timber. We decided to paint it to involve the kids and also protect the timber from the elements.

Next, we created a series of frames and double covered them in wire mesh, leaving a long skirt hanging off the external frames as fox protection. In the past, the foxes here have managed to pull wire off to get to our birds and also dig under our fences, hence the skirt.

We used 1800 bird wire, doubled over and tacked every 15cm. If a fox is determined enough to get through that … then he can take all the birds he wants.

Next we connected all the frames together and built the doors. Because it is very hot here, we decided to provide a larger connected shade area for our chickens. This is why half the door is covered in ours rather than having one fully covered and the other just mesh as per Joel’s design.

The bird mesh provided great friction in keeping the doors in place. We then connected a rope and pipe as a handle at the front and used our trusty hardware trolley as the fulcrum at the back.

Here it is in situ, awaiting the new girls.

We peg the skirt down at the edges for extra security. We will keep you posted on how it works out!

Now just to build a few more for the meat birds!

Cider Season … It’s here and we’ve started processing!

There are two things we are seriously passionate about … chickens and apples.

Now while I could talk about either topic for hours, today was all about the amazing bounty of fresh Summer apples … and turning those little gems into cider!

There are plenty of online sites out there that describe the ins-and-outs of making cider. So we won’t do that, rather, lets see how we go about making our cider. Here is a rough summary…

  1. Collect apples
  2. Clean apples
  3. Cut and juice apples
  4. Pasteurise the juice
  5. Clean and dry the vat
  6. Mix in the yeast
  7. Ferment (stage 1)
  8. Siphon and bottle
  9. Ferment (stage 2)
  10. Drink and enjoy!

Collect apples

There are a lot of different aspects you need to consider when choosing apples for cider. For us, we use a juicy fruit which has a nice crisp flavour but not too sweet. We have visited hundreds of feral apple trees and found some favourites. The fruit from this tree is no exception. It is a small tree, standing only 3.5-4m tall with an upright habit, but every year, it is laden with so much fruit that the branches are always bent under the weight of them. The fruit with a red blush was on the outer branches, exposed to sunlight, whereas the green ones were well covered with leaves and did not receive any direct light.

This year, we collected around 30kg from this one tree. Not bad for a freebie!

Clean apples

We always give our apples a good wash before juicing them. We fill a tub with water and add around one cup of vinegar. When we put the apples in, we remove any leaves and ensure that there are no seriously damaged fruit. This little tree has never had any fruit fly or codling moth in all the years we have visited it. We can only dream of having such luck on our new farm! *sigh*

Cut and juice apples

To make sure that there are no wriggling surprises in the apples, we slice them through once. After going through around 10kg of the apples, there was not a single insect larvae found! So we stopped that and just juiced the whole fruit for the last 20kg. We use a regular juicer, which means that there is a foam created on top of the extracted juice due to the aeration produced by the spinning juicing disk. You can use a pressure juicer if you want, and this won’t produce the foam like ours.

 

Some common fruit problems.

Apples, like all fruit, are not always perfect straight from the tree. When fruit growers harvest their own fruit, they have to grade them. The best fruit is sold as fresh edible produce and the rest are either fed to animals or juiced. As we harvested our fruit from a feral tree, the only care taker was Mother Nature … and while She can create some amazing things, Her idea of pretty is not the same as ours. Here are a couple of ailments you might find on feral fruit…

Bird or Fruit Bat Damage

Feral apples are a great food source for wild animals. Even in managed fruit crops, orchard growers need to ensure that their fruit is protected from all sorts of critters and insects alike. In our up-coming orchard, we need to contend with protecting our crop from rabbits, wombats, kangaroos, fruit bats, possums, fruit fly, coddling moth and birds (especially cockatoos) to name the worst offenders. It’s a delicate balance. But fruit that has been attacked by animals is still salvageable for cider as long as the fruit flesh has not been damaged. Simply cut off the affected area and juice away. The following images are examples of bird damage (note the pitting) and  of fruit bat damage (note the smooth scrapped sections) respectively.

Fungus and bruising

Some fungus is only skin deep. This particular fungus is a dry rot. It sets in under specific conditions and creates small indentations in the skin of the affected fruit, covered with a dark scab like substance. Although it looks horrible, this is a purely an aesthetic issue. When you cut through the flesh, only the bruising affects anything below the skin. You can remove these parts of the apple, but as we pasteurise our juice, we leave it on.

Scab and bruising

One the fruit below, you can see a bump with a scabby section on it. This is a form of apple scab, a fungus that again affects the skin of fruit under certain conditions. You can also see bruising under the skin from when we picked the fruit (we were not delicate in the process and had some throwing competitions at some points … great memories but not too good for the fruit!). In the second image, you can see how, on cutting the apple directly through the scab, there is no imperfection in the flesh except the bruising.

 

Pasteurise the juice

Once the juice is in the pot, we move the pot to a stove and bring it to the boil for several minutes. This ensures that the correct temperature is reached to kill off any bacteria from the apples. While you can simply use unpasteurised juice, we are aiming for a consistent flavour. That and the fact that the fruit came from a feral tree on the roadside of a major highway means that we would rather be safe than sorry!

Once the juice has been pasteurised, we skim off the frothy layer and let it cool a bit. The froth will float to the surface and congeal as it cools (apples are high in pectin, which is used as a jam setting agent). Once it has congealed, it is easy to skim off the top with a ladle.

Clean and dry the vat

While the juice is cooling, we clean out the fermenting vat and sterilise it. We are using a 30L vat available from your local brewers shop. We then pour the juice in and wait for it to cool. We supplemented our juice with that from our local orchard, Cedar Creek Orchard, who do amazing apple juice from their trees.

Mix in the yeast

Once the temperature has dropped down, we add the least. We are using a champagne yeast, 10g to the whole vat. This is enough to kick start the fermentation process. Simply add the yeast to the warm juice, stir it through, seal it with a lid and airlock, then let it do its thing for a few weeks.

Ferment (stage 1)

Fermenting is the process of converting the sugars in the juice using microbial activity into either an acid a gas and/or alcohol. There are lots of natural yeasts but we find that using a specific strain is best to ensure you get consistent results. During the fermentation process, the vat will give off lots and lots of gas. We need to monitor the airlock regularly to ensure that there is enough fluid in the S-bend to ensure that no oxygen gets into the vat.

This stage of the fermentation cycle is always good for laughs as, when all is quite in our house, there are random gurgles and bubbles heard from the air lock of the cider vat. We keep the vat in our laundry where the temperature is the most stable and it is well ventilated too. We managed to get a photo of some gas escaping. You can just see it in the image below on the right hand side of the S-bend in the air lock.

Siphon and bottle

(to be updated in late February)

Ferment (stage 2)

(to be updated in March)

Drink and enjoy!

(to be updated in March)

 

 

How do you know your eggs are fresh?

Not all eggs are equal. The nutritional value of an egg is very different based on the diet of the bird that they come from. The size of an egg differs based on both the age and the breed of the chicken that laid it. Plus the freshness of the egg is dependant on how long ago it was laid.

Lets start with egg size…

I’ve touched on this in an earlier post (https://littlefieldmice.com.au/blogs/all-things-chicken/18495555-eggs-are-truly-amazing). The first eggs that a bird lays are called “pullet eggs”. They are smaller than “normal” and are more yolk than white to begin with. Here is a size comparison for you against a 50c piece…

The light blue egg is a pullet egg from our Araucana breed. In a few weeks time, she will be laying eggs similar in size to the buff coloured egg in the middle. The blue egg only weighs 35g. It is still perfectly good to eat but if you are using it in a recipe, you would need to use 2 of this size to make up a “standard” egg size.

The buff coloured egg was laid by one of our smaller Plymouth Rock girls. The larger the bird generally the larger the egg. This egg weighs 50 grams.

The brown egg is a “normal” supermarket weight at 61 grams. It was laid by one of our Barnevelder girls.

But what about egg colour? …

I’m not concerned here about egg shell colour. The colour of the shell is strictly based on the breed of the bird. I am more concerned about the colour of the yolk.

Generally, store bought eggs have a yellow yolk and a slightly cloudy white. To us, this is an indication of a poorly cared for bird. A yolk should be almost orange in colour, indicating that the bird had access to excellent feed. This could be in the form of a balanced grain diet, access to pasture and/or vegetable matter or even access to foraged protein such as insects.

Believe it or not, but chickens are NOT vegetarian. Given the choice between insects and grain, chickens will take insects any day! Slugs, crickets, caterpillars, moths, mice … anything that is not quick enough to get past the quick dart of a chickens’ head is immediately dinner. It is amazing to watch a chicken corner a mouse … they are quicker than cats once they have a taste for the little critters.

Finally, freshness…

Those of you who poach eggs, may notice that some eggs simply fall apart when you poach them directly into boiling water. This is because the egg is older than 7 days from being laid. The internal membrane that protects any potential embryo in fertile eggs, is present in normal store bought eggs. This membrane breaks down and stops the egg being able to “stick together” when poached.

You can also check how fresh an egg is by submerging it in water. Inside each egg is an air sac. As the egg gets older, the air sack gets bigger as the yolk and egg white shrink as they deteriorate. When submerged, a fresh egg will lay down flat on its side. If an egg starts to lift up and stand on one end, it is still edible but not very fresh. NEVER try to eat an egg that floats. The air sac in a floating egg is essentially filled with “rotten egg gas” … get rid of it!

Creating your own home made sultanas is easier than you think.

As a child, I used to always get confused between the difference of raisins and sultanas. They are essentially made form the same fruit (white grapes) but it is the process that changes the end result.

There is always conjecture around what makes the difference between a raisin and a sultana. The answer really depends on where you come from. I was taught that sultanas are made from seedless grapes and raisins made from non-seedless varieties and take longer to dry out. I’m not going to argue the naming convention differences in this post but I am going to show you how to create these tasty morsels at home, with little more than what you find in your own kitchen.

From the middle of Summer, grapes are abundant and cheep as they are in peak season. This is the best time to buy them. They are sweet and delicious. But we always tend to have a few bunches too many. When this happens, we dry them out. You can use a dehydrator, but with Sydney Summer weather being what it is, we sun dry ours. The method is quite simple…

Tools needed: Grapes (obviously), sharp knife, plate or platter, netted food cover, insect surface spray (optional).

Method:

1) Clean your grapes and let them dry. We fill a small tub or sink then add a splash of vinegar to the water before submerging the grapes for 10 mins. Vinegar acts as a fungicide, killing off those nasty moulds.

2) Pick your grapes off the vine

3) Cut each grape in half. If you are using a seeded variety, you can remove the seeds at this point too.

4) Arrange the grapes fleshy side up on a plate or platter. Ensure that they are closely packed but not stacked on each other. The grapes will shrink when drying to about a third of their original size.

5) Find a sunny position and if you have ants nearby, spray a small area with surface spray. Place the plate/platter on the sprayed surface then put the netted food cover over the plate/platter. The net is to ensure that no insects can access the fruit while drying and the surface spray stops crawling insects from accessing under the netting. Keep an eye on the plate/platter throughout the day and move it if it gets shaded.

On a 35 degree day, it should take about one to one and a half days to dry out the grapes. Longer if it is colder.

You can also use a dehydrator, but why use electricity when the sun can do the work for you!

Enjoy your sultanas!

Too many roosters mean numerous weekend roasts.

When you hatch your own chickens, you get a roughly 50/50 ratio of males to females … so what do we do with all our roosters? We grow them on and then turn them into a weekend roast!

(The images in this post do not depict anything that you would not normally see as part of preparing meat for a meal. If you are so inclined that images of this form offend you, please do not read this post)

As is the way with living on our farm, we let these boys grow up alongside their sisters, but when puberty kicks in and they start to fight, then we intervene by scheduling their booking at out kitchen table.

Before we select our bird(s), we ensure that we have a clean table and board to cut on, sharp knives for butchering, a bucket for plucked feathers and entrails and plenty of hot water (in a tub preferably) to assist with plucking.

We do not take the decision to slaughter our birds lightly. While our roosters are not pets, we have still grown them from little chicks, so we make sure that they are relaxed and comfortable beforehand. As all our birds are accustomed to being handled, they think nothing of being caught and carried away.

Once we have collected our bird, we tie up his feet and then place an old sock over his head. Once he relaxes, we lay him down and remove his head. We hold him as still as possible at this point until he relaxes and then start to clean him up.

As we pluck manually, it takes about 10-15 mins to process each bird. They go from this…

 to this … 

They are very big birds, as you can see by comparing the bird size to the paring knife in the image above.

The meat from this chicken (Plymouth Rock), is much darker than what you find in the supermarket. It is more red than white and has a layer of chicken fat on it that makes for an amazing flavour when cooked. It is a heritage breed chicken and was actually bred to be used as a dual purpose bird … for both meat bird and egg production. This carcass dressed up to 2.1kg for your reference and was a 23 week old rooster. Much older (and larger) than store bought meat chickens which are usually around 8-10 weeks old.

At least these birds had a longer life than most of their counterparts.

NB: The birds we slaughter are for our own consumption only. These are not for sale to the public. When our meat birds are available for purchase, they will be managed through a local poultry processing plant nearby.

Eggs are truly amazing!

Have you ever taken the time to think about the humble egg? It is a naturally packaged bundle of deliciousness that gets laid by a chicken nearly every day of its short life.

From the time that a chicken hatches, depending on the breed, it takes anywhere from 18 weeks to 32 weeks to lay its first egg. So on average, your humble chicken starts laying at around 5 – 6 months of age. Once they start laying, they produce eggs nearly every day for around 8 months, then their bodies take a break (wouldn’t you?).

Given the people population (not chicken population!), most eggs that we consume, are laid by girls that are between 5 and 18 months old. After this, they are replaced by most egg farmers with a new batch of birds. The “old” birds are then processed into many of the foods we eat (e.g. nuggets). This is egg production on an industrial scale.

Here on our farm, we let all our girls live a regular long life. They live to around 6 years of age (on average), and their egg production slowly tapers off with age (a bit like humans). Near the end of their life, they stop laying all together and then one day we find them curled up under a tree, in their favourite dust bath or under their favourite perch, dead, having lived a happy chooky life. All our girls that get to this age, have been a “Mum” several times over too. While we incubate most of our eggs, if a hatch coincides with one of our girls turning “clucky”, we place the eggs under her and she gets to be a Mum (and does a much better job than a heat lamp can!)

The chickens we hatched at the end of August are now starting to lay their first eggs. As a chicken starts laying, they usually lay tiny eggs, starting with ones that only have a yolk. In the image below, you can see a pale blue egg which is tiny compared to a “normal” sized egg. This little one was layer today by one of our Araucana girls. The blue colouring will become more prominent in the next few weeks.

As their body gets more accustomed to laying, they get bigger but are still smaller than your “normal” egg. There are two slightly smaller eggs in the image below that were laid by a Plymouth Rock girl that started laying last week.

Finally, after about 4-6 weeks, the eggs are more “normal” in size. The two pictured were laid by different breeds. The light one by our Plymouth Rocks and the Brown ones are laid by our Barnevelders. No blue or green shelled eggs ATM as our hens are sitting on the next clutch of eggs.

So, the next time you use an egg, have a thought about how long it took to get to your table. Also, think about how that chook has been treated. Our eggs will be on sale at the end of January.

Cucuzza for lunch?

There are lots of vegetables around that most people have never heard of, let alone see. “Cucuzza” is one of those.

A rarely known vegetable, this one goes by several names; “Cucuzza”, “Kudu” and “New Guinea Bean” are some.

This is an annual gourd which grows in the same manner as a climbing cucumber or pumpkin. It grows to around 2m (6 foot) when mature, but it is best picked when it is around 60cm in length. It tastes similar to a zucchini and can be used in a similar manner.  As this is a Summer vegetable only and we love to make this with pasta.

If you can get your hands on one, here is what you can do.

During Summer, we sell ours, so check out our store for details. Here is the product page … Cucuzza, Kudu or New Guinea Bean

 

Cucuzza with Pasta Recipe

Ingredients: One onion, 1 garlic clove, 500mL tomato sauce, one cucuzza, 500g of your favourite pasta and salt/pepper to taste.

Method:
1) Chop and fry your onion in a large pot until soft. While this is cooking, peel then cube the cucuzza.
2) Add the cucuzza to the fried onions and cook for 10 mins. Stirring occasionally so the cucuzza does not stick to the pot.
3) Crush your garlic clove and add it to the onion and cucuzza. Fry for one minute
4) Pour in the tomato sauce and add some salt and pepper to taste. Add as much water as directed for your chosen pasta
5) Bring to the boil. Add your pasta and boil as directed on your packed
6) Turn off and serve with grated hard cheese (our favourite is Pecorino)

Enjoy!