Monday, December 31, 2012

Bring On 2013!

Well! The holidays are almost over, and here, on New Years Eve, I am left trying to find the words to write up a newsletter for everyone. I guess the best I can do is tell it like it is. :)

The best Christmas present I could have ever asked for was given to me with out any real fuss: my permanent partner visa has been granted! The next step in my immigrants journey is getting my dual citizenship set up. I look forward to an even more secure future now. :)

I achieved a few goals in 2012, and have more planned for 2013.

2012 was many things: it marked our second anniversary, my second year living in Australia, a three week long trip to visit home to see all my wonderful friends and family again, my goal of achieving at least some SS values. It was success in my garden, it was a renewal of old skills, and the learning of new skills. I had succeeded in sourcing suppliers of free range eggs and chicken, grass fed beef and, most recently, fresh milk. I had finally made some efforts at coming out of my usual seclusion to meet people and make new friends in the area.

I have all of these successes now to help me further build my confidence for the new year.

My goals for 2013 include building my much wanted cold smoker, building and establishing a top bar hive, increasing my garden yields even further (and perhaps finding more customers), finish my hand pieced, hand sewn quilt, finish sewing the doonas for winter bedding, make more friends and connections and, of course, continue learning all that I can. We also look forward to another trip home in September, assuming everything goes to plan, and we think it will.

I am happy. I have a loving husband who I'd do anything for and who I love with every fiber of my being, I have great friends, new and old, and I have great things to look forward to.

Here's hoping you all have a fantastic new year!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Don't Be Wasteful

Hey folks, Living and Learning here again, and I just want to point out some interesting facts to you about using off cuts. Off cuts being, of course, the pieces of an animal we don't normally think about using, what's often processed for you, so you never even get the chance to think about using them.

For instance, chickens don't just consist of wings, legs and breasts. They have necks, backs and feet (and, of course, organs), all of which are just as good for cooking as the other parts they market. You can simmer them for broth, soup, stock, the meat shreds easily for meals, sandwiches and snacks, the bones can be boiled until soft and then crushed and dried in the sun to be used as a garden additive, the feet are used to make broth as well, and the organs can be used in numerous recipes for extra yummy nutrition.

Here's what I did the other day. I had the wings, necks and backs left over from from those two roosters I slaughtered in my yard. I bunged them in Hal, my new stainless steel slow cooker with some hot water, and simmered them until the meat was falling off the bones. Then i pulled the meat chunks out, strained the broth, and while the onions, carrots, garlic, and herbs that I added to it gently stewed into a fragrant broth, I stripped the meat off the bones. Check it out:

All the stuff on the left is skin and bones. And on the right? That's all meat. You see that? There's a load of meat there. There's like, a meal for four. Sandwiches for lunch. Snack time heaven. And all that you can usually get for way cheaper at a store than you can buy a whole chicken for. Pressed for cash? Get the cheap cuts like this. (Granted, I did get these for free, but I did have to kill and process them on my own as well.)

Food for thought.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Gearing Up To Grow

Time for me to catch you all up on what I'm doing here. :)

Re: Snow Peas

I'd put up stakes around the raised box when I'd first sowed the combination of "Alderman" and "Mammoth Melting" peas wholesale. My reasoning was, well, this is an older packet of seeds and a new packet of seeds, so what grows, grows, what doesn't won't matter. The plants that are there now are about 12-18 inches high, and it helps that I tied bean netting to the stakes so they can climb on it. They are loving it.

Re: Nasturtiums and Calendula

All the nasturtiums and the one calendula plant I had planted in the garden box (with the peas) have over wintered splendidly, and I've got yellow flower heads already, and soon will have the orange, red and magenta blooms from the nasturtium. I've also started more calendula in the greenhouse, and more nasturtiums will follow. I'll attempt to sell the extra plants.

Re: Spinach and Silverbeet

The spinach is out of control. I don't have a row of spinach anymore, I have a freaking HEDGE. I'm going to let it go to seed, collect the seeds, and then grow more later.

The silverbeet has performed admirably for a plant that was strictly a volunteer. I'll be removing it though and growing it in rows instead, probably around the house.

Re: Garden Allotments

I am over run by weeds! Luckily, the ground is still soft, and they are relatively easy to pull. I think I'm going to do battle with the weeds by using black weed cloth to block them. Just weed the areas I want to cover, till them over with sheep poo or whatever, rake into mounds/rows, cover with the weed cloth and stake it down. Cut X's in wherever I want an opening for a plant, and away we go. Maybe cover with a bit of mulch.

Re: The seeds I planted before I left for holiday

They failed. Every single one. No chives, no chamomile, no red silverbeet. I was very disappointed. I am over it now, and plan to grown other stuff.

And, last but not least, I got more seeds!

Radish, Daikon-Miyashige
Silverbeet, Fordhook Giant
Silverbeet, Rainbow Chard
Capsicum, Purple Beauty
Chili, Hungarian Yellow Wax
Bush Bean, Borlotti
Bush Bean, Cherokee Wax
Runner Bean, Scarlet Emperor
Tomato, Hillbilly
Tomato, Cherokee Purple

I look forward to this new growing season. :)


Saturday, September 8, 2012

How to Prune a Grapevine

My grapevine. It's about 25 years old, according to my husband, and as you can see, I haven't yet pruned it. Since it's still looking pretty dormant (no signs of swelling buds or other life) it's still safe for me to prune it back.

Pruning in the commercial sense basically "stresses" the vine, and encourages it to produce a larger yielding of fruit. Great if you are a vineyard owner, or wanting t
o make your own home wines.

Pruning in my case, though, means keeping the vine in a manageable state; grape vines especially are notorious for growing wildly in all directions in a huge mess, and since I am trying to train it on the fence to keep it tidy, this means I'm going to spend some time picking and choosing the direction I want it to grow in.

This requires clipping back last years growth.
As you can see here, this vine has grown in tandem with a honeysuckle, which, for the majority of it's years, was not to it's advantage. I cut the honeysuckle back severely about two years ago, and the vine has been doing much better. The honeysuckle seems to be doing just fine as well.

So! Here's what to look for when you're pruning.

The section of the trunk of the vine with all the stringy gray-brown bark is the older wood, usually two or more years old. Generally, this won't bear fruit, or even sprout much, though if you have a lot of grapes, you will encounter vines that throw out suckers like there is no tomorrow. Just scrape those off before they lignify (harden into proper fruit wood).

The brown lengths of stem are the fruiting wood. They are last years growth. Every nodule (seen as the slightly swollen "knuckles" along the length of the stem) is a bud. Now, I won't go into all the details about the buds, but what you really need to know is that if these are viable, they will sprout more greenery and stems.

You can control how the vine grows by choosing the buds you want to stay and cutting out the rest. This not only directs the vine, but gets rid of anything that would create much more tangled growth. (Another good idea is to have twine or green gardeners tape handy to secure the vine to your trellis/fence/stake and support it, while training it to grow in that particular direction).

 I'll use this section as an example.

What I have here is a forked section of old wood.

One section (seen growing off the bottom of the picture) peters out into a dead branch, has one small (less than a pencils thickness) stem which is sickly looking, and no other viable options.

The other fork is a short spur with two nice looking stems (look for ones about as thick as a pencil or a little more; they are generally going to give good results).

One stem is right at the end of the spur (you can just about see the dead, dry remnants of last years pruning), but the other is in a bad spot: too close to the branch and growing back on itself.

 So, that one that's growing close to the fork? Just cut it off as close to the old wood as you can.

 And, because the other branch of the fork ended in dead material and had only a sickly looking stem, just cut that section off too.

Prune your chose stem them to give it two or three buds, and then secure the branch of the vine where you want it. Continue with this process all over the vine until it's all pruned.

 You now have a vine that will grow relatively neatly, and still put on quite a bit of fruit if the season is good. I'll get a kilo or two of grapes off this skinny old vine.

 The pile of grape cuttings, reading for grafting or sprouting as you see fit.

Because I want have more grapevines growing along the fence in future years, I'm going to attempt to plant some of the stronger stems and see if they will sprout. If they do, I'll plant them along the fence and train them as I do the old vine.

Happy pruning, and have a great weekend!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Safe and Sound At Home

Arrived home safely! Well, actually, we arrived home safely yesterday, getting in the house at about 3:30pm Thursday. The flights were much better; in all three planes we had the third seat to ourselves, so we had space to move about and put stuff, the planes were cooler, and I was actually able to get some sleep. All our baggage came through without much issue, just the usual charges for being overweight (you're only allowed 23kg of baggage total, and each bag we had was near or well over that limit; tis just a fact of moving house). I have more of my clothing now, my precious belongings, various cosmetics and, best yet, my jewelry! I can be blingin' once more. :D

First thing upon entering home that I notice is how skanky the house smells. I know we've been gone for three weeks, but that particular smell is one I associate closely with rotting vegetation. Sure enough, not one but TWO of the squashes I had stored in the kitchen cabinet had decided to liquify. The sheer audacity of them! :P I spent my first hour home cleaning up a huge mess, because they had liquified, and the watery stuff resulting of that had seeped underneath the bag of rice (thankfully it missed the paper flour and sugar bags), all along the front of the cabinet under the drinking glasses and mugs and plastic storage containers, and dripped out onto the floor. Good times! (A good excuse to look into buying flour and sugar canisters, instead of leaving them in their paper bags...)

I managed to stay awake long enough last night to eat and watch a show, and went to bed promptly at 8pm. I was asleep before hubs even made it to bed. So, this morning I get up first thing at 7am (the sky is so bright now at that time!) and go for a shower. I'm nude, standing in the cold morning air, in the shower cubicle, and I literally think "It'll be so nice to have a shower... WTF is wrong with the shower head?"

The washers had apparently dried out and shrunk enough over the last three weeks that they no longer were holding the shower head in the right position, so it just drooped sadly. I had to jury rig it (still naked, lol) so that me and hubs could shower without incident, lol. So, I went into town this morning to Charles St Hardware, bought a Fix-a-Tap universal shower washers kit, and fixed it. My name is Mrs. Plumber.

While in town I hit the library, and found several books in the returns section that appealed, and learned my library card had expired. :P That was an easy enough fix, at least. I got books on growing fruit, raising goats, first aid for horses, growing herbs in Australia and a cook and freeze recipe book. Which leads to the next piece of delightful news: We now have a stand alone mini freezer, which is going in right next to the washing machine, and will be the home of extra home grown produce, and any extra meat the fridge/freezer can't hold. It'll be especially useful if I decide to buy a 1/4 lamb carcass again, or help Zara cut up another steer. :P

Last but not least in this series of unfortunate and yet hilarious events (you can tell I'm in a damn good mood, lol), before we left for California, our washing machine stopped working. We just thought it was a loose connection somewhere, but we didn't have time to worry about it, so we had left it, and the full load of washing, until we got back. Well, we just got around to investigating it's issues, and have decided that our faithful old washing machine has croaked. Ian is doing our laundry at FILs house, and we'll go shopping for another machine tomorrow. Not bad for a machine that was already second hand (third hand?) when hubs got a hold of it.

So, that's my update for now, letting everyone know that we're well and safe, and settling back in at home. :)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Trials and Tribulations of the Tasmanian Clothesline

I don't know about you guys, but we only have a washing machine here, so we have to hang our clothes to dry. Now, there are numerous of reasons for hanging your clothes on the line: less electricity used by dryer appliances, the fresh clean smell of air dried laundry (and no need for expensive and overly perfumed dryer sheets), no static electricity involved, and the sun acts a natural disinfectant of a sort. I'm sure everyone has other reasons for choosing to line dry their clothes. Those are certainly mine. 

However, I live in Tasmania. Normally that would be a proud statement, but they have a saying here: "If you don't like the weather, wait 20 minutes".

For the line dryer, that's a MAJOR pain in the rear. 

I am forever looking at the sky thinking "Hm, clouds... do I risk the washing, or should I wait for it to clear?"

This can go one of several ways: 

-The sky stays cloudy, and I decide not to wash, and then the weather is bad for the rest of the week/end. 
-The sky clears, I do the washing, and the moment the machine starts the final spin cycle, the clouds come back and stay in for the day, extending their drying time. 
-It'll be breezy in the moment I decide to start the machine (the ideal condition) and then go utterly still by the time I get everything hung out, and be that way for the rest of the day, regardless of whether or not it's sunny.
-It'll be brilliantly sunny outside, I hang the washing, it stays brilliantly sunny for an hour, then the clouds blow in in an instant and it pours down rain, soaking my laundry if I don't catch it in time.

My world is filled with cries of frustration over the weather! Winter is simply the worst time to have to dry laundry, especially since we're trying to have key items clean, dry, folded and packed for our trip to California, coming up in a week.

I can't wait for summer; the best drying weather is when the sun is blazing, the wind blowing, and the paving stoves under the clothesline are baking hot and radiating that heat upwards into the clothes. They will usually dry in the few hours then.

Until then though, I will just have to persevere through the funky weather. :P

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Processing Poultry: Where Your Chicken Comes From

Warning: This blog contains pictures of what some would consider a "graphic" nature. If you can't handle blood, guts, the learning of new skills and experience, self sufficiency, or just want to keep your head in the sand regarding the origins of your food, move along now. There's nothing to see here.

On Friday, July 20, I killed and processed two chickens for our freezer. I had never, until that point, dispatched an animal, though I have been present and watching closely while others did. Chickens were also a new type of animal processing for me; I had watched and assisted with deer, pigs and rabbits, but not poultry.

After much time spent studying and researching, I knew that my next step was to 'do'.

This is my processing area: A melamine topped board on two portable sawhorses, a gut bucket (red) with a hefty bag in it, and a scalding bucket, filled with water that's been heated to around 75C.

As you can tell by all the feathers, I had already scalded and plucked the birds.

Now for the birds themselves. I'm rather sorry I hadn't gotten a picture of the living animals, as they were very pretty birds, but that's the way of things.

The plucking was mostly easy, except for the pinion feathers at the wing tips. Those were quite hard, and I opted to cut the wing tips off one bird, while their owner, Monique, helped to pluck them from the other bird.

You may wonder how I dispatched the birds. It was a method I'd seen and heard described by various sources. I chose to hold them by their feet until they went still (they go to sleep if held upside down) and then snapped their necks with a quick jerk of my other hand. I then wrapped them in a raggy towel, held them over the gut bucket, and cut the veins in their necks to let them bleed out, which took a couple minutes. After their throes finished, I set them on the table, ready to scald.

Other methods include using a killing cone, a hatchet and a chopping block, and simply bleeding the chicken out before snapping it's neck, but I thought that these might be a little more messy and traumatic than I was willing to handle.

Bird #1: I know, not a brilliant plucking job, but I made it better later.
Bird #2: Better plucked than the last one.

The next step is the real processing.

I cut off the heads, removed the skin, esophagus, wind pipe and other associated parts of the neck until I had just the column of bone and muscle, removed the wingtips (of this bird) and cut off the feet at the ankles (those would be saved for later).

Now, of course, comes the job of gutting the bird. It's very hard to make me squeamish, but I wasn't sure how this would have me feeling. Turns out, it doesn't smell near as bad as people might have you believe. Yes, it's a bit smelly, and I can't really describe the smell (as Monique said, it smells like dead chicken), but if you don't work with the bird directly under your nose, you'll be just fine.

The trick though is to make an opening big enough to get your hand inside, because you have to scoop around with your fingers to sever the thin transparent membranes that hold all the organs and fat in place. Remember to also loosen the trachea and esophagus from the neck hole, so you can pull the lot out when you've got it free.

I must admit I was probably very slow at this step, as I was afraid to accidentally cut the the guts, which would spill their contents and contaminate the meat and make, generally, a nasty mess. Turns out I need not have worried too much, as they proved tougher than I thought.

Once you've freed the innards, cut free the anus and remove the lot.

As you can also see, I am wearing latex gloves. This made the ick factor much, much less, and went a long way to making me feel more comfortable with this process. I used three pairs, one pair for the dispatching and bleeding, one pair for the scalding and plucking, and one pair for the gutting. I highly recommend them for first timers.

As you can see here, these are the chicken innards. I tried to respect the animals as much as possible by using as much of it as I could, so I saved the hearts, livers, gizzards and feet (seen the background).

To process chicken feet: Pour scalding water (I used freshly boiled) over the feet, and let sit a moment or two. When you can peel the yellow outer skin off, they're ready. Peel off the skin, give the toenails a twist (they come right off) and rinse well in cold water. Use to make chicken stock (I'm told it makes a great stock that, when cold, can actually be sliced; that's how much gelatin the feet impart to the stock).

Also note that these animals were very healthy indeed. Just look at those livers! Not a scrap of fat on them. Monique told me they were free range, grass fed (you could tell by the contents in their crops), and were given the occasional handful of wheat, as well as some oats they've eaten out of her guinea pig feed, and perhaps a few seeds from here and there.

In contrast, corn fed chickens (as many often are) usually have grossly swollen and anemic looking livers coated with fat, as well as a huge amount of body fat. Ew. :/

Because these chickens are male (roosters) these are their testicles. We remarked on them, because we hadn't realized they were so far up in the body cavity. We had both heard of capons, which are neutered roosters, and we figured that you had to come in from the side to remove the testicles.

I've heard it said that done right, you'd have a capon, done wrong, you'd have dinner.

You can see the vas deferens tubes there by my fingers (the thin white lines).

We are still puzzling over why we couldn't find the kidneys or lungs. After further study, i realized that what I was previously thinking of chest wall was really the backs of the lungs. It's a simple matter to scoop them out with your fingers. They are light, fluffy, pink organs, and are deeply grooved to fit the ribs. The kidneys are also located tight to the back as well, on either side of the back bone. left in, they become that yummy dark, rich meat you get in the store bought roast chickens. I chose to leave them in, because I love those.

This is the gizzard. It's basically a large muscle, and great for use in stocks. The chicken will swallow small hard objects (I say objects, because it could be anything it thinks suitable, including pebbles, pieces of plastic, and even bits of safety glass!) and stores those objects in it's gizzard. When they eat, the food enters the gizzard, the organ contracts, and uses those items to grind and crush their food. It's a good way to see what the birds have been eating: in this case, there was some well ground grass and perhaps a sunflower seed or two.

The gizzard has a yellow lining. If you want to use the gizzard for cooking, once you've sliced it open, all you have to do is peel the thin membrane away from the muscled part, and discard it. Then rinse the organ well and use immediately, or freeze it. As you can see here: the peeled gizzard, and the yellow lining (and a couple testicles too).

The processed carcasses. They aren't the prettiest looking jobs, but I cleaned them up a bit, and they look good. One of my books said that poultry should be chilled in the fridge for at least 12 hours to ensure maximum tenderness, so these (this was taken last night) are going straight into the fridge.

When I had finished gutting them and everything, I had taken them in and rinsed them well with cold water, and removed the last stubborn feathers, the thin hairs, and any remaining congealed blood.

One thing you will notice about these birds that's different from the pictures of the store bought chicken I cut up later in the album, is these birds are very yellow. They have yellow skin, they have rich yellow fat, and, in my opinion, this is how chickens should look. It's perfectly natural and normal.

You'll also notice that these birds have very little breast meat, and very large legs. They were free range animals, not barn raised or factory farmed, and not pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. Suits me fine anyway; I'll always choose the leg over the breast.

So, overall, that experience wasn't nearly as bad as I might have thought it would be. I'm glad that I got to learn something new. And now, tonight? Chicken is on the menu.

Have a great evening folks!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Little Update

Went to the beekeeping meeting last night. We're getting pretty close to crunch time I think. The beekeeping thing may not work out this year. We'd only have the rest of June and all of July to get our gear and hives together before ordering our bees in September or so, and because I'll be gone most of August, that cuts into our prep time severely. Things will start to speed up too once the solstice passes us by. Apparently the bees know when the days are getting longer, and the queen will start laying eggs. I don't think we have enough time to manage this for this year.
As disappointing as that is, I think I've got Z interested in going to the meetings. The next one is July 16, so we've marked our calenders, I've put my name down to get some info on those who may be selling gear, bees or both, and I hope that maybe we can go on some of the field days with the more expert beekeepers. I've also sent Z on a mission: she's going to ask her Dad about his beekeeping days, and what he knows may help us even more, though she suspects he's sold off all his own equipment years ago. Still, any help is good help.

It gives us time to save up as well, especially if we end up paying for Langstroth type hives. Or any hives really I guess. We'd still have to get the plans and build from scratch the top bar hives, and I personally would like to try out the Warre hives too (somewhere down the line; I think different hives for caparison would be good). Especially as it seems like everybody here pretty much sticks to a form of the Langstroth hive, which as you may already know, I don't necessarily like the idea of (it's more work!)

I'm going to go start a money jar now. :P

Friday, June 15, 2012

Home Preserving with Fowlers-Vacola

I've been living here for almost two years now, and have had two excellent go-'rounds with the garden. The best thing that ever happened to me was those allotments, I think. 

Well, as I did last year, I had managed to grow and obscene amount of tomatoes. Unfortunately, our summer was a little strange, and a many of the last ones did get to ripen, so I had a ton of green tomatoes. Well, I still had green tomato chutney from LAST year, so I wasn't too crazy to make more of it. I had enough red fruit left, however, to make spaghetti sauce (mm, sauce). 

So I just threw all the tomatoes (red, green, the whole lot) into the stock pot, and cooked them down. They were sieved, and the pulpy juice was strained again for extra smoothness, and I cooked up some onions, garlic, and home grown herbs, and added the sauce back in. It bubbled away, infusing happily, and when I finally got around to bottling it, I used those stainless steel lids the MIL had gifted me with at Christmas.

Delicious red sauce. Mm, so fragrant.
There's the pot! And I raise thee six jars, lids, rings and clips to store it all in:

The stainless stock pot, six rubber rings, six preserving clips, six stainless steel lids, and six washed No. 14 Fowlers jars, being kept hot with boiling water.
Last year I only had enough sauce to fill four of the small jars, so I washed sure how many I'd fill this time. I had extras ready just in case. Turns out, I'd guessed perfectly. I almost thought I wouldn't have the room, but I squeaked by with the bare minimum of head space for each jar, as you'll observe in the next picture:

Filled jars with seals in place
Now, I grew up knowing the Ball canning method, but instead of a flat metal lid with sealant and a metal ring, you have a rubber seal ring, a metal lid, and a clip the hold the lot together when you go to process them.

After you understand the process is pretty much the same as far as sealing goes, it's a breeze, as you can see in the following photos:

Stainless steel lids, because you need them for very acidic things like tomato sauce.

Lids have been firmly secured with the clips.

Close up of the lid and clip. It just snaps right onto the lip of the jar, no hassles.

To process the jars you just place them in a pan (I use a metal roasting pan, and place a folded paper towel in the bottom), place the jars in the tray, fill with hot water, and place in an oven about 170C. Let it run for an hour, shut the lot down and let it cool. Then remove and label. 

Jars placed in the pan, waiting for hot water and the oven.
Ready for processing!
Now, this processing method is okay when you have no other choice. The jars seal, I've experienced no incidents with failure or breakage (yet), and my own real cautionary statement is beware: the stainless steel lids I have are quite sharp around the edges, and I managed to slice my finger on it. Other than that, they're fine. However, the Fowlers-Vacola system has an expensive start up cost, unless you can find a lot of cast off jars, lids and other supplies in the city missions, as I have managed (for some, at least). I also cannot vouch for them when it comes to pressure canning, when you are wanting to bottle low acid foods. Other than that, it seems to work well enough for the time being. And I now have sauce!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fall/Winter Gardening: Making Progress

Well, today I was at the garden and I planted a row each of wild rocket, watermelon radishes, and all seasons carrots. I sowed thickly, to ensure at least something comes up.

At the house, I harvested and removed all but one of the tomato plants planted out front. The exception has at least five very large green tomatoes on it, and since the plant still looks relatively fresh and lively, I'll leave it to attempt to ripen the fruit. All the remains now is for me to harvest and remove the tomatoes that are living in the containers right now.

Those containers I have plans for.

I have cut back the herbs for winter as well. The common culinary sage has been allowed to go hog wild for nearly two years, so I've cut it back and down. Hopefully it'll be encouraged to put up fresh growth next year. The purple sage has done similar, despite being the younger plant; I gave it the same treatment. Now though, I have a huge wad of sage that I don't know what to do with. I gave some to the neighbors (along with rosemary and thyme), and I have a full container of it dried on the kitchen shelf, and a airing cupboard with tons of it hanging inside as well. Oh well.

The thyme plant has actually taken root in the little pot of soil my MIL set out with it, so I now have a baby thyme plant growing in a pot. It'll live in my mini greenhouse until spring.

The marjoram and oregano both have been cut back to their "mother" plant; they apparently set out long shoots to flower with.

The only thing I haven't removed yet is the spent purple coneflower. I need to research what it's seeds look like, so I can save some for next year.

Tomorrow I will attempt to scrape back and relocate the wood chips in that space, peel back the weed cloth, and start turning the dirt over. I plan on seeding a section of chives to the herb garden, and a small border of German chamomile, and a number of other things, which I'm still trying to work out in my head.

It's also probably a good idea to give the compost a turn as well.

So, I'm making progress at least. That's encouraging. :)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

It's Not Summer Anymore

WHY? Why have you left her? She WORSHIPED you! She is rarely happy without you! Time passes so slowly and meaninglessly without you!  Neko-Chan is a  very SAD PANDA!

*let the wailing ensue*

In case you are wondering, summer is over. I have thus taken up the chaise lounge of the drama queen, and bemoan the loss of the sun. As well as referring to myself in the third person. Because I am weird like that.

It's autumn now. For one who loves summer gardening, that's just slightly depressing. Granted, not all days are gray, gloomy and rainy. The last couple have been quite nice. But today well... today sucks. Rain. Cloud. Grayness. Cold. 


But wait! When one is house bound in bad weather, one likes to surf the net! And what should one find? Oh.... oh, the wonderful recipes that exist in the cloud.

*evil laugh*

Tonight I am "inflicting" upon us a recipe from this lady.

Specifically, Honey Ginger Apple Shredded Pork.

Mops and drool buckets are located in the corner closet. Help yourselves.

I am off to make gravy now. And enjoy the awesome smelling FOOD in the crock pot.


Monday, April 9, 2012

Survival Gardening

First off, I'd like to congratulate my friend and her husband, who grew the winning giant pumpkin for a local contest. It weighed in at 276.5kg (something like 607.something lbs). Good job!

Now, I'd like to discuss something I've been studying up on lately: survival gardening. Before you look at me askance and ask how many guns I have, I'll tell you this: I'm not crazy (and I don't own any guns). In fact, you'd have to be pretty foolish to NOT consider survival gardening. I'll lay out my reasons:

1. Food prices are approaching the realms of outer space. Seriously, some things are not worth buying anymore, they're just so expensive.

2. Surely you've all seen the poo-flinging going on about pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs. Though I hate to go into the politics of Monsanto and all, there's no doubt that it's all bad news. Not only do pesticides kill off the pests, but they also kill off the beneficial insects: the predator wasps, the humble honeybees. You also end up with things like Round-up resistant canola oil crops, and GMO corn that kills off everything that takes a bite out of it...and is then processed into just about EVERYTHING.

3. Organic vs Non-organic. Yeah okay, so the actual organic label is starting to mean nothing fast. Right now though organic is super expensive; why buy organic when, for hardly any cost to you, you can have your own organic produce growing with relatively few issues?

4. Big Farma (haha, yeah...) has been buying up the little seed companies, and Monsanto for instance, is putting patents on whole crops. HUH? Yeah, if they think you've got their strain of seed growing, they can sue you to a pile of dust. You're thinking "Holy Crap" about now, but there's more: Most hybrids don't have viable seeds that you can save, and if they sprout at all, won't breed true to type. I'm not a plant scientist, but I think the second generation will grow, and the third generation will be sterile, or something like that. When buying seed, always go heirloom or open pollinated.

I'm sure there are other reasons, but those are some big ones to consider. So, if you're a beginner gardener, like I was when I first moved to Tasmania, I'll give you some ideas as to how to start your "survival garden".

A good place to start is with culinary herbs.They smell great, make great borders in urban and rural environments, can be grown in pots, and can be planted at vacation homes and bug out locations alike.  Woody shrubs like rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, and marjoram are hardy and need little water, except to get them established. You can grow them from seed, but I prefer to buy the started plants. I have planted them as a border in front of our house.

Rosemary and lavender, two highly aromatic herbs, that put on growth fast. I chose a rosemary that didn't need a lot of watering to survive, and the lavender proved to need just as little.
Another great herb to grow is chives; they germinate well from seed, and grow in large clumps which can be divided and planted again as the plant grows bigger. Basil is another plant that grows wells from seed, and although it's a tender annual, you can collect seeds from it, and I have seen it reseed.

Other herbs you might consider are medicinal herbs. Try varieties like German chamomile, purple coneflower, and lavender. I've had success with all of them.

I'll suggest some easy to grow veggies here.

You can't go wrong with green beans and swiss chard.
Green Beans: This includes bush beans and pole beans, although I've had better luck with the pole beans so far. You can't go wrong with green beans. Stick the seeds in the ground, give them something to climb, and depending on long your rows are, you'll have them coming out of your ears in almost no time at all.

Zucchini/Summer Squash: Most summer squashes will grow prolifically, and you can do just about anything with them. You do have to make sure they are watered well, placed in a sunny location, and they can grow to be large plants. Some of you may also have to be on the lookout for squash beetles as well. Otherwise, get em in the ground, and you will be rewarded.

Spinach/Swiss Chard: Perfect dark leafy greens. I had a variety of spinach called "perpetual", and I've got more than I can eat growing (indeed, more than four adults can eat!) And my Swiss chard is completely voluntary. I swear, it's like outer space chard, because the plants are enormous. Large, paddle shaped green leaves, thick white stalks. Either way, you can't beat it as a leafy green veg.

Fruits are a little harder to manage, as many don't have room for the majority of tree fruits (apples, pears, peaches, etc). There are dwarf varieties of tree fruits, and you're welcome to investigate them, but I'm going to take you a slightly easier route, and suggest bush and low growing fruits.

Strawberries: You really can't beat a fresh strawberry. Good soil, water, but not to much, and sunshine is about all you need. They grow very well in pots.

Bush berries: Some of you may have room for blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and currants, and if you do, I say grow them. Brambles can be planted just about anywhere and will grow with little attention. Blueberries, though needing acidic soil and a few years to get established, are prolific bearers of fruit. Currants are also heavy fruiting.

Grapes; once you have them, you almost can't get rid of them.
Grapes: Last but not least. If you can get some grape vines, you'll have yourself a good source of fruit, juice, and even wine. They also take a few years to establish, but some varieties bear heavily, and everyone is sure to enjoy them.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Where's My Stitches?

Checked out the most fun looking book from the library yesterday: 200 Stitch Patterns for Baby Blankets, written by Jan Eaton.

Though I am only crude and boring at knitting, I am more than happy to throw my efforts at crochet patterns of all kinds, which this book has plenty of.

One of the first real projects I made for myself: a Ruffled Scarf
Years ago a kindly grade school teacher taught me how to finger crochet the basic chain. It took me just as many years to actually pick up a hook and some yarn and learn to go beyond that simple chain. 

I started with the simple things: Blankets mostly, flat pieces that needed no pattern other than going back and forth. Then I hit the net to look up videos, and learned the basic stitches. And, finally, it occurred to me to look in the library catalog for pattern books.

A soft baby blanket I made with chenille yarn
Once I got those books into my grubby little paws, it was party time.

I made ruffled scarves, fancy baby blankets, attempted a stuffed animal (failed), played with the stitch patterns off a very cute little number that would never look good on me (I am, at least, realistic), and a tote bag, which is now being cannibalized for another project I'm making.

The center square of my most recent project, a sofa throw

I figure hey, if I get any good, maybe I can make some cash off of it. Especially as my quilting skills are rubbish right now (I had a great-aunt who made brilliant quilts, Christmas stockings, Christmas tree blankets to cover the floor under the tree, etc. Great stuff.)

Doubtless I'll be back all excited about a new pattern I've learned. Meanwhile, I'll keep plugging away.

Monday, March 19, 2012

On Bees

Aha! Here is what I should have been doing today: writing the follow up post to my last blog entry. I thought that maybe I should have been doing something, just couldn't remember what it was. A senior moment, for a not-so-senior person. Scary.

Leatherwood blooms

 So, for those of you who don't know, Tasmania is pretty famous for it's Leatherwood honey. It's apparently quite common for local beekeepers to be up in the wee hours loading up hives to take advantage of the opportunity to collect that rich, floral smelling treat. Eucryphia Lucida, otherwise known as the leatherwood tree, grows in the the temperate rainforests on the west side of the state, and flowers December to January. Beekeepers have said to have hives stacked nine boxes high in this season. Ironically, the local market for this famous honey is pretty weak; beekeepers would have to export it to make any real cash.

Capeweed is a notorious plant pest
 So, from there, I shall segue into pollen, an important source of proteins for the bees. Interestingly, the pollen from the leatherwood tree has only a moderate ranking when it comes to general "goodness" for the bees. Brassica pollens apparently offer a whole lot more in protein, so if you are thinking of raising bees, perhaps you might think of custom seed mixes to sow in fields (if you've got them of course. Fields, that is.) Strangely enough, capeweed, an almost impossible to eradicate weed pest in this state, is the Rolls Royce of all pollens.

Now, pollen isn't the only thing bees collect. Field bees (the bees that leave the hive to go foraging) will collect four things: nectar, pollen, water, and propolis (plant resins). Pollen and nectar are used to feed the bees, and propolis is used to sticky up any cracks or crevices that the bees don't want in their hive (and boy, can they gum things up). Water is stored in cells and is used to keep the hive cool in the summer time. Seeing as the average hive temperature is about 37 degrees Celsius, on a hot summers day they can go through 4 liters of water to keep everything cool.

These bees are fanning at the entrance of the hive; air circulation is key to keeping the hive at the optimum temperature
Another interesting bee fact that I didn't know till a few weeks ago is that bees have five eyes. Count em, five! Two large compound eyes, and three small simple eyes, called ocelli, which are used for the poor light conditions within the hive. Bees are also unable to see the color red- no old fashioned roses for them, I guess. The three castes of bees can also be identified by their eyes. The drones (male bees) have enormous wrap around compound eyes. The workers (infertile female bees) have smaller eyes on the sides of their heads, and the queen, well, she's a little near sighted I guess; her eyes are slightly smaller than those of the workers.

I'll wrap this up for this evening, as it's time I started our supper. But I'll be back later in the week to share more brilliance on bees.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

These Days of Learning

So, yesterday I went to my first beekeeping class! I came home so excited I couldn't actually bring myself to settle down and write, especially since I was barely contained from bouncing all over the room and the internet as I bragged about making my very own hive frame (all by myself!)

Look at what I made, Ma!

I was there for six hours, and although the official "teaching" only amounted to about 5 hours, I counted chatted with the other beeks and newbees as a learning experience as well. I remember walking in when I first arrived, seeing a load of old men, and thinking "Oh boy, I'm out of my league here", but it got better once I signed in and sat down. There were two other women, one learning about bees and the other with a proper bee addiction. The rest were men with gray hair. I was easily the youngest person in the room.

Now, normally I am shy to the extreme around strangers. It takes me a long time to warm up to people I don't know. The only person I recognized I didn't really know at all; he was the guy I was chatting to at the Launceston Show about beekeeping, and where I'd signed up for more information. But I realized that if I was to make any sort of connection with these people, I was going to have to play bold. So *gasp!* I introduced myself to the people sitting around me. All nice, interesting people. Throughout the class I even learned were many of them lived, and that two were near me, and one lived about ten minutes away from my friend. I even managed to arrange rides to and from the next classes. Go me!

Anyway. Not bad for a first class, lots of stuff to absorb for sure, but I feel that I probably would have had a harder time absorbing it if I hadn't been reading about it for a few weeks already. I think I did right to check out all those books from the library! At least I didn't' feel completely clueless when the words of trade started rolling off their tongues.

It was all basic stuff, but I learned that Australia is indeed still free of the Varroa mite, although Apis cerana (the Asian Honeybee) is now an epidemic in the country because of a sampling that came in on the mast of a yacht. Because A. cerana is the natural vector for the Varroa mite, they're really going to have to be on the look out for it, especially as they're considering allowing queen importation. I honestly hope they are extremely stringent in their quarantines. The most popular bee "breed" seems to be A. mellifera, the European Honeybee. (There are a few other species, but the three names I've heard and read about are from Russia, the Caucasian mountains, and the aggressive African bees.)

There's a hopping mouse that can squeeze through 10mm spaces. Some Tassie beekeepers will make their hive entrances 9mm just to eliminate the chances of these little guys getting in.
I also learned that Tasmania has a hopping mouse that can squeeze through 10mm spaces to get into hives, that a hive on a hot summer day will go through 4 liters of water, that the bees will allow the invasion of a bumble bee into the hive just so they can kill it and strip the hairs off it's body to mix with their capping wax, and that you should never put your hand under a hive until you've rattled a stick under it, just in case a snake was hanging out in the warmth (and sometimes the snakes get in the hive too... so watch out!)

Since this is becoming a long post, I think I shall end it here, and come back with more later in a new post. It also means I've got the intro stuff out of the way and can focus on more specific things.

Friday, March 16, 2012

I Wanna Be A Beek!

My most favorite treat in the world is the raw honeycomb, liberally oozing with tasty, sweet honey, and chewy wax. It's like natural, honey flavored chewing gum.

Mmm, yummy honeycomb, the perfect snack
 Not too long ago, I asked a friend what she thought about about beekeeping. She seemed to think it was a great idea, because she and her man go through a lot of honey. Since we're pretty much in the same boat, I decided that beekeeping would be an interesting hobby to start (and it sounds like my friend has already picked out a spot for a hive!)

So I signed up for beekeeping courses. Well, a course. A three day course, to be exact, that starts on Saturday. Woohoo! I start officially learning about bees on the morrow! I'm so excited.

For the last couple weeks I was reading and researching anything involving bees. I've been learning primarily about the Langstroth hive, which is the typical square stacked box you think about when beekeeping is mentioned. I've also learned that the traditional idea of a beehive is a skep (basically a straw basket), and that another way is called the top bar hive, which seems to be a little easier than the Langstroth.

Kenyan Top Bar Hive
I've been learning about the structure of the hive, what bees eat, and the pests and diseases that bother them. Most of this info has come out of the For Dummies book on the subject, I admit, but it's a good start. I've joined groups on Facebook regarding beekeeping, and I've been trumpeting to the sky the fact that I'm ready, willing and SO EXCITED TO LEARN. 

Langstroth Hives
Believe me, you'll be hearing plenty more on THIS subject!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Down the Drain

Some of us may have experienced the event of losing something down the bathroom drain. A favorite earring usually is the case (for women, at least; no idea about you blokes). Mine wasn't so much a favorite, as it was one of my functional ones: A stainless steel stud. While washing up at the sink last night (well, this morning, at 2am), it decided to jump, and no, I have no idea how I managed to encourage it to do that. Zombie-ing around at 2am will do that to you.

So, well, bummer. Especially considering that I've managed to NOT lose anything down the drain since I was like, four. (I used to lose whole toothbrushes down the drain when I was four. That's something only a four-year-old can manage I think.)

My first thought, at 2 am: Dammit! Well, maybe I can get it with a magnet on a string.

My second thought: Um... stainless steel doesn't stick to magnets.

My third thought: I'll ask hubs to help tomorrow.

Then, as I went back to bed, I thought "You know, I really don't need to ask hubs for help, it's just a case of taking off the U-bend and retrieving the earring. It's not going anywhere, it can wait. How hard can it be?"

Apparently not hard at all. In fact, it was easy as pie. Hell, it was much easier than pie, because pie actually takes some skill and effort to make (whoever came up with the phrase easy as pie clearly had no idea what they were talking about).

Now, I've never done it before. I'm by no means any sort of plumber. I knew how to do it in theory, so I hit Google. A quick link later, and I had instructions (gotta love the internet). Turns out I hardly needed those, as when I finally got under the bathroom sink to take a look (and moved all the stuff.... and found a pan to catch the water that actually fit under the sink), I learned that I only had to twist off two PVC rings and out came the U-bend in the pipe, with a surge of nasty smelling water.

I shook the earring out into the pan, retrieved it, and took the section of pipe to the kitchen sink.

It was RANK. And coated with gunk. It was NASTY. Baking soda, vinegar, hot water, and liberal application of an old toothbrush took care of that though. Even got rid of almost all the smell. After that, it was merely a moment spent to slap it back into place and tighten the rings up again.

Voila! I didn't even need a pipe wrench. Go me!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dirty Treasures

Few things are better than a baked potato topped with sour cream, shredded cheese, bacon, and chopped chives or onions. For me at least. I love baked potatoes, and down here, the Aussies have shops that will make them. Often they're called jacket potatoes, and they'll be piled high with sour cream, cheese, chopped onion, bacon, even pineapple, corn, or marinara sauce, depending on where you go and what you ask for. They are seriously hard to beat when you've got a rumble in your belly, and are seriously addictive (well, for at least a week or two).

So that brings me down to the actual subject: the humble potato. 

What would we do without the potato? I personally would be an unhappy camper if I had to go without (though they say you can't miss what you've never had... or something like that). Without the potatoes we wouldn't have oh... potato chips (crisps), fries (chips), hash browns, potato noodles (otherwise known as glass noodles, they are made with potato flour or starch or something and they are translucent and jelly like and although they look like alien brains, they are freaking awesome in stir fries!) We wouldn't have potatoes to go with the roast beast for Christmas, or mashed potatoes to put beside the turkey at Thanksgiving, or home fries to have at breakfast on the weekends. You'd have to find something else to make that beef stew tasty, and there would be no shepherds pie without the mashed potato topping.

So, early on in the planning stages of my gardening adventures (or fiascoes) I decided that we should attempt to grow potatoes. This was encouraged by the first really big investment in gardening: the renting of two plots in the local community garden. They're each about 12x18, and they provide plenty of space for three adults to grow plenty of food for themselves throughout the spring, summer and fall. My plan was that these gardening spaces would be supplemented by what I could grow around the house, so between the three spaces, I should have plenty to store for the cold seasons.

So, if you don't know much about growing potatoes, it's pretty simple. The tuber (the part you eat) is what you plant. You leave the tuber in a dry, warm place without light to "chit" (sprout from the eyes). All potatoes, when left in our larder, will sprout, even the ones from the store, so I bought two sacks of seed potatoes (Dutch Creams and Kennebecs), and left them to chit in the kitchen. I think I had covered them with some paper just to eliminate the light, and I then let them be for a few weeks.

The potato, now, is in the same family as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers (capsicums). They're all nightshades, so that means those who are allergic to or sensitive to nightshades should avoid them. It also means the plants are somewhat toxic (but, they are perfectly safe to throw on the compost pile.) Also, you should never eat the little fruits the potato plants bear. I dunno what they'll do to you, but if you eat them and die, I'll only say "I told ya so!" Only eat the potato part.

Now that your potatoes have little sprouts on them, you can plant them. Plant them in well turned earth (makes it easier for them to grow, and make sure it's well fertilized. Well rotted animal poo that was turned in at the end of last season should do the trick. Rake up some hills and trenches. Swear at yourself when you accidentally step in the middle of one as you work and have to rake it up again. Then, when you've got all that finished, in however many rows you want to plant in, fetch your spuds and plant them.

Now, I planted mine in the hills, and let them grow in the loose earth I had raked up. Others reckon you should plant in the trenches, and pull the dirt over the plants as they grow. Whichever way you choose, you'll still get potatoes growing. Throw your spuds in the ground and cover them up with a few inches of soil, water them, and walk away.

Okay, so occasionally you go back and water them. Once or twice a week maybe. For the most part, they take care of themselves. It won't take long for them to grow into impressive looking, dark green plants. They've got oblong leaves, and some even bear flowers. I've had some white and blue flowers on my plants. They're quite pretty in their own right.

As they develop though, they'll start to look pretty sad, disreputable almost, as their green fades into yellow and brown. But that's okay! Because it means harvest time is nearly upon you!

When you do finally get around to harvesting your taters, don't water them for a couple days. I find that's the best, less messy way to do things, because then you're not digging in mud and getting everything gummed up. Start by pulling the plants gently but firmly, straight upward. This usually will dislodge the potatoes, and make them easy to dig up. More often than not though, you'll just pull the green bit off and will be left to dig with your hands. No worries though, it's just dirt.

Now, some people will say to use a garden fork to turn the potatoes out of the ground. Although that is an effective method that doesn't require you getting down on your knees (too often) you also greatly increase your chance of spearing the spuds, thus opening up avenues through which they can go bad, very quickly in some cases, and since most people want to store their potatoes, we'd like to avoid that.

Once you've harvested your potatoes, throw the plants on the compost, let the potatoes out in a single layer to dry in the sun for a bit, and then back into paper bags or cardboard boxes, and store in cool dry places. Don't worry about washing them; just knock the worst of the dirt off, and by "knock" I mean with the gentlest touch, to avoid bruising the tubers. Then, whenever you want them, you'll have potatoes, fresh from your garden, totally organic, UN-sprayed, UN-poisoned, and otherwise wonderfully tasty. :)

Enjoy your dirty treasures!