Archive for January, 2008

Water woes

January 29, 2008

There’s more in this morning’s paper about the water restrictions in Melbourne at the moment:

Mebourne faces strict water restrictions for at least another two years unless there are some rains “of biblical proportions”, the managing director of Yarra Valley Water has warned.

There’s a simple answer to restrictions, one which most city people wont contemplate and that’s to put in a tank to catch and store rainwater.

Last summer when it was so dry, a friend ordered a tank and was told there was a long waiting list. Suddenly within a short time, he had his tank. “How come”, I asked. “It rained”, he said, “and the supplier told me everyone cancelled their orders.” <Sigh> Some people just don’t get it.

In the long run, people will do what they want to do. They’ll water illegally if they can get away with it. Does a hose connected to an inside tap and running out the window constitute water used “inside the house”? I’ve got a hose connected to the washing machine’s cold water inlet at the moment. It’s part of our summer fire-protection plan because we’re in a bushfire zone. It’d be easy to squirt it out the door onto the garden on the pretext of ‘regular system checks’.

Ultimately the fairest way is to allocate each household a certain quantity of water and let people decide how they want to use it.

Until there’s no energy to pump it and no water in the dams to pump. That’s when life will really start to get interesting.

Little duckas

January 29, 2008

One of the benefits of having a bush block is the wildlife you get to share it with. We dug out 3 largish pools down the back to take the overflow from the water tank, and since then, over the years, we’ve had a number of Pacific Black Ducks as part of the family. They tend to adapt to people very well; the Wood Ducks and the little Chestnut Teal which also visit are more wary and won’t let anyone near them.

Although it’s very late in the season for breeding, this not-to-be-deterred Mum turned up yesterday with 6 little duckas in tow.


She’d probably laid over a dozen eggs initially and these are the survivors. Sadly, most years we see their numbers eventually whittled down to nothing by (presumably) fox predation. It takes 10 – 12 weeks before they’re able to fly and that’s a long time to survive in an area where the water bodies are generally small and rapidly drying out as well.

There’s a larger pool across the road from us and she’s probably had them in there, hidden under the water lilies. I generally feed all the ducks a couple of times a day with rolled oats in a dish of water. Often the female will make the young ones stay put while she comes over for a quick feed. Amazing that they know not to follow when Mum says so.

I marvel at the way they learn about predators. They can all be eating quite happily when Mum will look up, give a short sharp quack and they all head for the nearest cover or flatten themselves against the ground. I look up and it often takes me quite a while to pick up the tiny black spot of the hawk slowly circling far above. But they never bother about aeroplanes.

Drying time

January 29, 2008

Summer is sun-drying time; the time when I haul out the drying frames from under the house, dust them off and fill them with goodies to preserve.

It’s easy to make a few drying frames. Some cheap pine timber (42 x 19 mm is a good size) and a roll of flywire mesh will do it. Use the metal mesh as it’s more rigid; the plastic stuff will soften in the sun and the food will flop all over the place. You’ll need a pair of frames—one to hold the produce and one to put over the top to keep out bugs and sticky-beaking birds.

Those good hot days when the temperature climbs into the 30’s are ideal. Be wary of sudden cool snaps (remember what they say about Melbourne—4 seasons in one day) and check the food for mould growth. Finishing off in a slightly warm oven might be necessary.

Here’s a selection of cherry tomatoes drying:


I also dry herbs, especially those that die off through the winter and this year I’m drying purple amaranth leaves for adding to winter soups and casseroles.

Bean tepee

January 26, 2008


I grow climbing beans; the variety Purple King is our favourite. I grow them on a ‘tepee’ and they do very well. Because the tepees are not permanent structures I can rotate the bean beds as much as desired. Instructions for making a tepee are as follows:

Purchase a roll of wire mesh, 25mm (1″) openings. I get mine at Bunnings (if you’re not in Australia, substitute your local big-box hardware franchise). It’s normally 36″ wide. Cut off a 250 cm length (since the opening size is 1″ this will be exactly 100 squares long. Easy to count. You’re going to form this length into a circle, which will end up about 80 cm in diameter. You will get 2 or more circles out of each length, depending on the height you make the circles. We have wild rabbits (they love beans) so I need to make my circles 18″ high to keep them out, so I get 2 out of each length. If you haven’t got rabbits or similar critters, you only need to make the circles 6″ high, in which case you’ll get 5 or 6. Place the circle on the ground and add a good layer of rich soil or compost. Put a tall stake in the middle. Before hammering in the stake, drill a hole in the centre top big enough to loosely hold a decent sized nail and once the stake’s in the ground, slip the nail into the hole.

Tie some string to the nail and stretch it down to the wire, through the back and out the front and along 5 squares, in the front and out the back and up to the top of the stake and around the nail. Back down again and keep going till you get back to where you started (“rinse, lather, repeat” as a friend of mine would say). I usually sow 100 beans inside the ring in 2 rows around the perimeter. As they grow they climb the strings and violà, a bean tepee.

There be worms!

January 14, 2008

Today I emptied the bin from the composting toilet. Nothing remarkable in that—I do it once a month. What was remarkable was that there were worms in it. How they got there is a mystery. They were doing a good job though. Already part of the contents was nice and friable.

I should digress here to explain the operation of the system. The composting toilet is a RotaLoo.  It sits below the bathroom floor directly under the toilet. A 10″ diameter pipe (yes, I know we’re metric, but I grew up with feet and inches and I like them) leads from the toilet pedestal into the fully enclosed chamber in which sit, on a rotating turntable, 6 triangular bins, each holding about 30 litres (I know, I know, but I like them better than gallons). As a bin is filled it is covered with organic material, in this case mulched bracken fern, and rotated to the left, thus bringing the next bin into use. The solid material stays in the bin; the liquid filters through holes in the bottom of the bin and into the bottom of the outer chamber. A fan drags air over the system (providing aerobic bacterial breakdown) and evaporates the liquid, leaving a crystalline deposit of urea on the bottom (more on that later). A door on the side of the chamber provides access for changing bins.

The upshot of all this is that it’s physically impossible for any worm to enter the chamber and the bins.

It takes the two of us about a month to fill a bin. The full bin is rotated to the left. Next month, same again. So each full bin stays in the system until it comes round to number one position again, a period of about 6 months, at which time it’s emptied and the empty bin re-enters the system. By that time the contents have composted and the volume has dropped to about 60% of the original. Still doesn’t explain the worms.

In the bathroom, we keep a bowl of organic material with which to cover each ‘deposit’, mainly to provide aeration of the contents. Initially a bale of wood shavings was purchased to do this job. In keeping with the desire to be self-sufficient, I began using mulched bracken fern which grows on the property. It is stored in a large outdoor open bin which also contains compost …….and worms. The bracken sits on top of the compost, acting as a mulch to stop it drying out. There are never any actual worms in the bracken—it’s too dry and open-textured, but there could be worm eggs. That’s the only explanation I can think of. The eggs hatched in the bin and……….there be worms.

On one occasion I actually considered adding worms to a bin as I close it up to be rotated. But I wasn’t sure if they’d survive the contents (pH could be a problem) or the heat that must be produced as breakdown proceeds. I was also worried that they’d get through into the large chamber, drown in the liquid and block up the plastic tube which I use to drain out the liquid.

And this is where I explain “more on that later”. Initially we used the fan all the time. It soon became obvious that it wasn’t evaporating the liquid as fast as we were producing it (probably because the air being dragged over the bins wasn’t warm enough) and liquid was building up in the bottom. So I drilled a small hole in the side of the main chamber and inserted a 5mm plastic tube. I now run off the liquid (nice rich nitrogen fertiliser) and use it diluted 1:10 to water the vegies. (You’ve never seen such green lettuce).  It’s stored in an open bin out in full sunlight. I reckon the UV will dispense with any problematic bacteria. And all the vegies are thoroughly washed before being used.

And the worms seem happy.

Tomato time

January 6, 2008


 Tomato ripening time is upon us—enjoyable all the more because we don’t buy the tasteless, skin-like-rhinoceros-hide specimens that pass for off-season tomatoes in this part of the world. The first ones to ripen this year are two of the cherry types—Yellow Pear and Green Grape, seeds courtesy of Diggers.

This is the first time I’ve grown them so was interested in the results. The Yellow Pear are a good size (3-4 cm long on average) and a tad larger than the red pear type I’ve been growing for some years. The flesh is dense, like a Roma tomato and the flavour tomato-ish but not all that intense.

The Green Grape variety are 2-3 cm in diameter and change colour from the usual unripe dull green to a yellowish-green with darker green areas. Flavour is surprisingly sweet. I’ve been slicing both types into halves for salads and will sun-dry any excess. I’ll definitely be growing these two types again.

Too much sun?

January 3, 2008

The weather gurus are saying that 2007 was the hottest year on record for Victoria and it ended with the hottest day of the year—41 deg celsius. Plants just can’t stand these temperatures; even though the soil is moist, the tender top leaves wilt and shrivel, crumbling into dry flakes when touched. The vegetable garden, which looked so good a few weeks ago, is looking decidedly tired; likewise the gardener.

So I need to rethink the old idea that vegetables need to be grown in full sun and provide some sort of dappled shade for them, preferably in the form of deciduous fruit trees which will provide an edible resource rather than some artificial structure which wont. At the moment, the fruit trees are separate from the main garden. The idea of a ‘food forest’ which mimics a natural forest with its layered vegetation structure, has a lot of merit. The taller trees provide shelter and shade for the smaller shrubs and ground layer.

In winter though, full sun is needed, so it means having an open sunny area for winter vegetables and another, more shaded site for summer. 

A new plan is needed. Something to think about when I lie awake at night.