Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Our Yule

This Christmas would have to be the best we've ever had. We didn't spend money on a lot of plastic decorations or presents, but what we purchased instead were long term investments. The food on the table this year was exceptional too! Maybe it's because Dave had more time off (actually getting Christmas and Boxing Day off) which is unheard of in his industry. He's always had to cook other people's festive meals, but this year he had the time to spend at our table.


Dave Don's the festive uniform

And this is where it starts to get wonderful - when little gestures go a long way. We had most of the meals arranged between Christmas Eve and Christmas day, but we decided to ask mum to make the dessert. She always made a terrific Trifle (or a cold cake, jelly, custard, cream and fruit pudding). Unfortunately she ran out of time and was only able to make the jelly part and brought along the custard in a tetra pack. So on Christmas Eve, Dave had to pick up a new gas bottle for the barbecue anyway, and decided to ask at the local bakery, if they had any off-cuts of sponge cake. The owner popped his head around the corner and said he'd cut some off one of the sponges in the fridge. Fresh sponge! When Dave went to pay for it though, the owner said it was free. That was the best tasting Trifle I think we've ever had - made with a pinch of community generosity.

Later that afternoon, Mum helped put the Trifle together. Dave is not adverse to having too many chefs in his kitchen, LOL. We swapped stories about Christmas Trifle and all the one's mum made in the past when she worked as a cook. We had so much ingredients for Trifle in fact, that we made up a main pudding, and made a little extra one for mum to take home the next day.

I could on and on about the food, but that would take forever, LOL. But it was all fresh food, with the only sugar contribution being a bowl of chocolate coated sultanas and nuts. That went a long way - we still have some left over! When there's prawn kebabs with garlic sauce to eat, freshly cracked nuts and sweet nectarines also, who wants sweets? Dave and I simply loved spending time in the kitchen together: he cooked and I baked. I made fresh dinner rolls, lunch rolls and a seeded sourdough loaf.


Huge pot with free plants

And then there were other Christmas surprises to be had! On his way to collect the gas bottle and sponge cake, Dave dropped some recyclables into the local rubbish tip. He spotted the huge pot plant being thrown away and asked if he could take it. This one was in perfect condition, but it had a twin that was broken. Dave took both, complete with free plants and free potting mix! I was only thinking recently I needed to buy some potting mix, and the ones in these pots was fresh. I've got about 4 bags worth of potting mix. There's more about these pots to tell, but on to community spirit first. Two local blokes, also making drop-offs at the tip, were happy to volunteer and help him lift the huge pots into the back of his station wagon.


Philodendron

I'm sooo happy, I got a free philodendron, complete with it's own pot and base. How could anyone throw this away? I was so thrilled to give it a new home though - along with another plant, I'm not sure the name of.


Mystery plant

When I started collecting pot plants to put inside, I looked at a few I wanted to buy (philodendron being one of them) but decided to leave it until Dave goes back to work in late January. So imagine my ultimate surprise when Dave brought one home from the tip. Not only that, but those large pots I mentioned - well, mum was looking for a couple of big ones to go on her back veranda. Now for Christmas we had gotten her a wind-up torch, but when she opened it we found out she already had one. She hinted about taking the broken pot instead, as she's fixed these sucessfully before, but we insisted she take the pair. Mum, being mum though, insisted she pay for the good one. We said she could have both as a gift, and we wouldn't take any money. She insisted, we denied, but before she left on Christmas Day, she tucked some money under a place mat, LOL.


Stoked!

Our daughter was stoked with her gifts. We had looked at several different options and had debated about whether we should buy a Nintendo Wii. Dave didn't need any convincing though, LOL, it was me! This wasn't a gift we bought at the last minute, we really did weigh up the pros and cons. I'm really happy to say, Sarah enjoyed the Mouse Trap board game (we also bought for the family) just as much as her Wii. We sat around the table on Christmas Eve night, playing Mouse Trap! It was great fun.


What Christmas tree?

I didn't really notice the Christmas tree this year. Dave and Sarah put it up, but much of the focus about this year's celebration wasn't what the tree was meant to represent. Instead, we found it spending time doing quality activities together. Dave and I enjoyed preparing the Christmas feast, and we even enjoyed tidying the house together. Because everything we did, didn't feel like work or getting the next thing done. Maybe it also had to do with the fact we decided not to travel around this Christmas either. It's not unusual to visit two households in Brisbane, after a small gathering at our house (with mum) on Christmas eve.


Hand made, has stood the test of time

There were a few small things I did notice about the tree this year however. The first (above) were the hand-made decorations my mum made. These were sewn many years ago, when I was a teenager and still living at home. They've always been my favourite tree decorations, that is, until this year...


Jingle Bells ~ jingle bells ~ jingle all the way...

Sarah had made a bell for my Christmas present this year. They were made at school and I really, really love it! She's so clever and I'm really proud of her effort.

At the end of the day, when I put my head down on my pillow, I couldn't believe how wonderful this year's celebration had been. Peace filled, wonderfully, at last. :)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Healthy Food

Twas the night before, the night before, Christmas and Dave whipped up the most excellent dinner. It was so nice, in fact, that I asked him for the recipe - as my friend LindaM had recently discovered she had to change her diet for health reasons. I hope it has all the right ingredients. So this one is going out to you Linda! I had already eaten half way through my meal before I took the photo, so ignore the presentation.




Beef Strip Salad



Ingredients:

250g rump steak (cooked medium-well)
handful of cashews
sprinkle of sesame seeds
vermicelli (rice/glass noodles)
cos lettuce
dark mushroom soy
fish sauce

Dave left the cooked rump in the fridge overnight, which makes it easier to carve in to thin strips the next day. He marinated the strips in a mix of soy and fish sauce (make up your own ratio to taste). It only marinated for 5 minutes but you can leave longer.

Cook rice noodles, drain and rinse then break up your cos lettuce into a separate big bowl. You need the room for tossing everything together, so make sure it's a big bowl. Next, in a hot pan, drizzle a little olive oil then roast the cashews until lightly golden. Add the sesame seeds (again, to taste) and cook a further minute. Remove off the heat. Now it's assembly time!

Toss the still warm vermicelli into the cos first, so the leaves will wilt a little. This is one of those recipes where the tougher outer leaves can be used, as they won't go all limpy when they wilt slightly. Use a pair of tongs to turn the noodles through the lettuce. Next toss in your roasted nuts/seeds and finally add the room temperature marinated beef strips.

Toss, serve and enjoy!

I was really surprised with this dish. So very light and yet I spent as much time eating it, as I did the night before, when we had rump steak and three veg. Awesomely delish and a meal in itself!

Monday, December 19, 2011

When you can't go outside

I've made a realisation recently - I feel 99% better whenever I can go outside and potter around the garden. It doesn't matter what is on my plate, any particular worries or stresses can be taken outside and worked out amongst the greenery. I can't explain why, it just works for me. My garden is my therapy.

But what happens when you can't go outside because of bad weather or you're feeling sick? It's taken me far too long to realise the remedy, and that is to bring the outside, indoors. Of course I don't want to spend a lot of money in the process, so I started looking around the house for containers I could use. Here's an old vase or Saki bottle (I'm not sure which) with an unusual plant saved from a garden clean-up at Sarah's school.



All I've done is fill the bottle with water and the plant's roots are growing inside. Not very difficult to maintain either. I've grown many plants successfully like this before. I will have to find the name of this plant as it's very beautiful and loves the light position next to the window.



I also have another plant I've given similar treatment too, only this one is green. It was also rescued from a garden clean-up effort and quite likes the light it has in this position. Summer brings wonderful light into the house.



It sits in another rustic bottle - oh dear, I have to admit to collecting quite a few (bottles that is) and you can even see more in the background. But I'm happy to have found a lovely use for them. All you need is a plant that will strike roots in water and doesn't mind low nutrients. It's embarrassing how simple it is. But I also had a few other plants I wanted to find new homes for. Again, I consulted my brick-a-brac tucked away in the cupboards and stumbled across a dainty ceramic container.



Do you think I could find a plastic pot small enough to sit in it though? I didn't want to plant straight into the ceramic dish, as it didn't have any drainage holes - solution, put one inside that does have them. I searched all my containers outside but everything was either too tall or too wide. I even resorted to searching my daughter's room, as she's known to use old yogurt containers for storage. Anything I did find however, didn't fit either. As you can see in the picture above, I found the solution inside my kitchen pantry - the plastic container our muffin cases come in. A few holes poked in the base, and it was ready to go!



I planted a fern in it, rescued from the renovations at my husband's work place. The roof and gutters were being replaced, and when the workmen lifted the old gutters down, there were ferns growing happily inside them. Dave rescued some and they're now living on my kitchen bench - along with another plant I collected from our garden: Hostas. I had to cut them back because they were leggy being in a shaded position outside. They should re shoot fairly quickly though. I didn't even have to buy the ceramic pot plant for the Hostas either - that came with a free cutting I received from my mum. The saucer was from a promotional cup and saucer I rarely use.

Gosh, I'm starting to sound like an old plant lady I remember visiting when I was growing up. She had plants in everything from metal cans to old tea pots with broken handles. All these indoor plants have actually brought back a lot of memories from my childhood. We used to live in flats growing up and when it was too wet or cold to go play outside, I remember playing with my mother's pot plants. She use to have palms with little ornaments adorning a few. I would use them to play under the palms, imagining I was outside playing in a jungle.


Would you believe I still have one of those wonderful ornaments? Of course, it's a frog, what else? My mum gave it to me one day and it's come on many adventures with me since. Even my own daughter has been known to play with old froggy. Boy that little ornament has been very adventurous - I think I'll resume frog back to pot plant duty, as was his original calling.



My favourite arrangement at the moment would have to be these native gingers and a little ground cover I don't know the name of. It's very prolific around Brisbane and other parts of South-East Queensland. I think Dave grabbed a handful from his sister's place (in Brisbane) and it loves the shady places in our garden - spreading well and covering the soil.

I did buy the native gingers, but they were actually destined for the garden. I hadn't managed to get them all planted however, and thought why not try them indoors instead? They're actually growing bigger inside than outside.

What I like about bringing all these new plants in doors, is they can help purify the air. I don't have many plants at this stage and many of them are still small, but I've enjoyed the process of recycling storage containers and propagating plants in a new way. It's not that hard, it's relatively cheap and there are plants that don't need much attention at all. I did buy a bag of potting mix to do much of this, but I also added some home grown compost to make it go further.

Do you like bringing plants indoors and have you used some unusual containers to plant them in?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hatching new life

It's that time of year again, when the Hoverbator gets switched on and a new clutch of eggs are set. I tried an unsuccessful batch much earlier, but our new rooster hadn't quite reached maturity to fertilise the eggs. About a month later we collected a new batch of eggs to set. I still wasn't sure if he was doing the job properly, but we had seen him in the "act" with his lady hens. There was about four days to go until they were meant to hatch, and a storm took out the power for ten hours. I covered the Hoverbator with a blanket but the temperature went right down to 22 degrees Celsius.

Needless to say, I had low expectations of anything hatching on the 21st day - but then...


Twelve little chicks

Twelve little miracles later! We have mostly Australorps with some crosses with Australorp to New Hampshire and Isa Browns hens. Quite a lovely mixed bag and I was surprised to have any hatch at all. In fact, we had eight eggs which failed to hatch, although we did see them rocking on hatching day. I had written those eggs off by the morning of the 22nd day, but had kept the incubator on because I kept the last 3 chicks to dry off in there overnight. I hadn't even expected those three to live because they weren't very active and I had to help them out of their shells before they dried out.

To my surprise, they were darling little bundles of fluff by the next morning, zipping around the Hoverbator looking for attention. At this point I noticed another egg had pipped. I wasn't expecting it to hatch successfully, as the last three struggled to get out on their own. Truly, I must be an optimist when I decided to leave the incubator on to see what happened during the day. I monitored the situation for a few more hours, noticing the little beak inside was chipping away more shell. But I knew if they didn't get out soon, it would probably start drying to the shell. So by the afternoon (with a little help from me) we had another chick hatch. I didn't need to give them too much help, as they were bursting to get out!


Plus one more!

We named the chick, Omega 13, as it was the last to hatch out of thirteen chicks. I was right too, the drying process had begun, as the umbilical chord on the abdomen didn't come away. It was dry and withered, so I had to snip it off with sharp scissors. Little Omega was just happy to get out of the shell, I don't think they noticed! Not only were we surprised to get any successful hatchlings after the power outage, but we were even more surprised the very last chick to hatch came nearly a day late. Little miracles can happen every day!

As I experienced new life coming into the world against the odds, it got me thinking about my own life and how it always seems to throw up the unexpected. Life at the Grove has certainly been more than I expected. Take the floods in late 2010 and early 2011 for example. We had been building a wall for two years prior and just planted our first seedlings - mulching too, it was fantastic! Our efforts held so much promise of what was to come, only it didn't happen how we expected. We had imagined we would relax afterwards, and drink in the pleasure of watching the garden grow. Instead, a few weeks after our enormous project came to an end, a massive amount of water destroyed most of the garden and to this day, we are still clearing the silt which got dumped at the base of the wall.

Some things just don't happen according to plan. It's nothing personal, life is just a mixed bag of consequences we often find ourselves having to negotiate. There are so many things which can go wrong, and yet something good always comes out of it.


Bonding

There is a new Chicken Mama in the making here. Our daughter simply loves having little chicks to take care of. She has the knack too - her skills are developing so she feels more confident around the chicks, and they see her as the new Chicken Mama. With 13 chicks to play with however, it's a virtual family daycare centre. Sometimes when we sit down to watch a show, we'll each take a chick to nurse. It's very cathartic holding a little ball of fluff to your chest and watching them slowly close their little eyes, until they fall asleep. Sometimes we'll just be talking to each other and one by one, we'll pluck a chick from the brood and hold them while we chat.

I'm sometimes tempted to say no when Sarah asks to hold a chick. I'll know she hasn't cleaned her room or even put her breakfast bowl on the sink. But somehow the excitement and anticipation in her eyes is contagious. I forget we have a messy house too, and I'll race her to pick up a chick!

Sometimes you plant a garden and it gets washed away. Sometimes you forget about the mess and learn to love the ride. Everything has a place in this mixed bag of life, and we don't have to feel out of place because of it. Sometimes there are just new challenges to negotiate. I like that I still have choices, even if things don't always go to plan. It teaches me to open my eyes more, to engage and be vital as much as I am capable. Life happens and that isn't so bad. Even when it's not exactly what we were expecting.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mountains of...

The mountains I am talking about are made of paper! Don't you hate those growing mounds of paperwork, which seem to multiply when your back is turned? They grow and expand and when they can't get any taller, they move to another part of the house! This is the mound I was tackling recently...


Using the sofa for sorting through

There's school related papers which I can clear now the school year has ended. Also some superannuation paperwork Dave and I need to go through, roll over, and what have you. Lots of miscellaneous pieces which seemed important to keep at the time too, but when it's been sitting in the same pile for years (how embarrassing) you know they probably won't have any value in the future. If they're only fit for a pile and not to be acted upon, then they must not be that important.

But I'm not the only person guilty of such wayward paperwork habits however - Dave and our daughter are forever bringing home piles of their own. Sarah loves to draw, so there are many experimentation's lining the table and even the floor! Dave, well, he must be the largest paperwork magnet there is. It all ends up living on the food table (even on the chairs we don't use) and makes for a very cluttered home base.


Using the table for storage - hoping to tackle this habit

With the wet weather content on keeping us indoors, I figured it was time to really take a different attitude to how I file my paperwork. What did I really need to store and what was just clutter? I do have a four-drawer filing cabinet to keep all our important stuff in, but I must admit, it's starting to look like a woman about to birth her baby: so very ready to drop a bundle. The second last drawer from the bottom, has files so thick, I have to be particularly persistent in rolling it closed. The bunched up files are scraping the top of the unit and won't let it close easily.

The filing cabinet can wait for now however, as I spent most of the day sorting through random piles of paperwork instead. I was amazed at how much I really DIDN'T need. I was also amazed how all our take-away menus had so many different locations around the house. We don't eat out much (maybe 4 times a year) and generally only because we ran out of time to cook. We have special take away joints that make great tasting food - a real pizzeria for example, not a franchise. So I collected all the different menus and put them in one place. I also put all our superannuation paperwork in one place so Dave and I can tackle it.


Organised!

I also went through the various surfaces in my office and gave them a good sorting as well. Above is after I cleared away a whole stack of stuff. The pile of letters is meant for the compost bin. Which brings me to my Christmas present this year! It's sitting under the Christmas tree as I type. With all this paperwork to get through, can you guess what it is? Okay, I'll tell you...


A ... P A P E R ... S H R E D D E R ! ! !


I've always wanted an electronic shredder, because I've manually cut (or tore) paperwork destined for the compost. Which is fine when you only have a few pieces to dispose of, but when you're about to embark on tackling years of paperwork hoarding, it would require more shredding than my poor hands (and scissors) could manage. I could've bought the big whopper shredder, but when I looked at the mechanised head compared to the smaller model I realised they had very similar designs. One let you shred 5 pieces of paper at a time, the other let you shred 8.

For the extra $20-30 I would have spent on the whopper shredder, I would've been able to shred 2 extra pieces and store it in a bigger bucket underneath. These were not important features to me, because while I can store paperwork for years, when it comes to disposing it in the compost, that gets done twice a week! The smaller bucket on the smaller shredder would serve me just fine.

Not all our paperwork finds it's way to landfill though. I suppose it does eventually, but we have a scrap-paper pile to write on the blank side (or in our daughter's case) she likes to draw on them so we aren't buying fresh paper all the time. I write my shopping lists on the scrap paper too. In the picture above, you'll notice a little plastic note caddy that I cut scrap paper to fill. I use a cutting board, ruler, pencil and a sharp blade. They make great little notes to keep beside the telephone to jot down messages.

While paperwork can be quite a chore to keep on top of, I know I am capable of designing a better system. My old nemesis (time) is the only thing standing in my way, LOL. I'll get there eventually, especially if the rainy weather hangs around some more. ;)

What's your worst paperwork habit and what's your best tip at organising it?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

All I want...



All I want for Christmas this year, is to put my boots up! I caught myself in a rare moment of reclining upon the couch, after mad dashing here there and everywhere. Organising food for the Dr Who Toowoomba local group break-up party, decorating the cake after taxing daughter to her dance rehearsals yesterday, before the big concert tonight! It will be her first stage performance, but Dave and I felt like we've been in the spotlight all week. The above photo was taken today, after we returned from our Dr Who Club Christmas party. What a lovely group of people we have to celebrate with, but it was sure nice to get home and put my feet up again.



I'm not sure how much more my poor boots can take! Okay, they can probably handle another outing today (and they will) as there's still another marathon effort to get Sarah to the concert on time. Tick-tock goes the clock, and after the concert we'll watch the last episode of Doc Martin before heading to bed.

Does domestic bliss get any more wonderful than this? I swear, at the beginning of the week I was pulling my hair out with worry at how much had to be achieved, but now the end is almost in sight, I think how much HAS been achieved. Family life, social outings, running the supermarket gauntlet, watching cheezy British sitcoms - this is my wonderful life, and my little secret is I love it!

Boots, Christmas and Chaos, I can create domestic harmony out of anything you hand me. Isn't that what a Domestic Goddess is for? ;)

I will reply to comments in the next few days. I've read them but I want to take my time in replying, because I want to enjoy deliberating them when life slows down to normal soon. Thank you for taking the time to comment (everyone) as I know this is a funny time of year with funny goings on.

Tell me, do you have any madness you wish to share, about juggling so much at this crazy time of year?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Question time


Heart shaped flower head

I'm really amazed by this artichoke flower. We harvested about four artichokes, cooked three but but this one was a little too mature. We half expected it to shrivel and die, but to our surprise it took several days to open into this lovely, heart-shaped bloom.

My question is do all artichokes bloom this way (for those who've grown them before) or is this a unique surprise adorning our dinning table? EDITED TO ADD: the heart shaped bloom more specifically, has anyone else noticed their artichokes flowering with a heart shape?

By the way, the artichokes we cooked were beautiful! We spread them with butter and honey mustard. Think I'm off to do a google search now. :)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hedgerows

When you live on slopes, fencing isn't a perfect system. In fact, once constructed you could be replacing the fence again in your lifetime. It won't be for over a decade or so, but during that time many fence repairs could be in order too. Persistent animals like to find weak spots in fencing and work on that area until it becomes the main access point. This exercise of repairing access holes (with new ones re-appearing elsewhere) can be tiresome.

We've had problems with our fencing on the side with neighbours who had dogs. They don't have them any more, but at the time it truly did demonstrate how fencing on slopes doesn't work as effectively as you'd hope it would. With every problem presented however, there's usually a more ingenious solution waiting to be discovered. Enter hedgerows!

So what is a hedgerow? Basically it's an old world technology - mostly adopted in European countries as a way of dividing pastures, and providing windbreaks. They also doubled as livestock food during winter, when the grass was often frost bitten. Hedgerows use to be all over Britain, until modernization came with the promise of forever fertilisers found in a chemical factory. Such a shame, because hedgerows were a permanent source of fertility already - given they attracted numerous colonies of small nesting birds every year, dumping their free fertility within the long expanse of hedgerows. Planted on slopes, gravity did the rest for spreading that fertility to the pastures.

Hedgerows, just seemed like the perfect option for fencing on our slopes - but we also wanted a thorny one to discourage persistent animals. I've done quite a bit of research, but eventually decided on (of all things) a rose!



This is a Tiger rose, we purchased from Brindabella Gardens. I originally wanted to go with a Rugosa Rose having read about their fearsome and hardy reputation, but after talking to the local rose expert who has been growing and supplying roses, specifically for humid climates for decades, we went with their recommendation of Tiger. You can read more about it here.



Just to show you how different each flower can be, here is one that looks more white, than yellow. Apparently heat is the factor which determines the degree of stripes - so the hotter the climate, the more stripes appear! I think this is a most excellent indicator to watch every growing season. Now originally, I wasn't looking for blooms. I didn't go looking for a pretty hedge. I even told the Nurseryman at Brindabella, this hedge will most likely be awfully abused. We may get to prune it back, once a year (maybe) and we won't be running water to it beyond the initial settling in period. He said the Tiger Rose is very much one of those plants that won't die if it's abused.



So we purchased five specimens and planted them one metre apart. This is on the property line of our other side neighbours, who don't seem to access their front yard very much - other than to enter their driveway. There's about forty metres between our property line and their driveway. We'd never plant a thorny hedge where we thought it would harm our neighbours. This is more for keeping the stray neighbourhood dogs out of our yard, and hopefully the hares. We're even going to put an access fence between the two yards, so our neighbour can still come through without being injured by the hedge, and also so we can tend the hedge on their side of the fence too.

The benefits of this hedgerow for our neighbour will be a gorgeous view when they enter their driveway, free roses (and hips) if they want to pick them, plus it will also serve as a windbreak for their two citrus trees. What's more, no cost to fence or periodic maintenance. This will be a much prettier divide of our yards, plus any fertility gathered will benefit both sides equally.

This fence won't be completely maintenance free, as we hope to give it a prune once a year - during winter, so we can see where all those thorns are! It also wasn't particularly cheap - for 5 metres of hedge we spent $150. We do have the option for propagating free specimens, which I'm already attempting, but the biggest bonus for spending around $30 a metre for fencing is that it will be a living fence. Without too much effort from us, it will maintain itself over time. I also wouldn't mind trying rose hip tea (which I hear is packed full of vitamin C) but I'd also like to try making rose hip jam too.

So much more fun planning for (and planting) a hedge, than it is to manually construct a fence and see how it stands over time. I won't be visiting this fence with a wrench to re-tension it, I'll take the pruners and basket to collect flowers and hips instead.

My recommendation if you're looking for a plant to use as a hedgerow, is hardiness for your climatic conditions. Speak to local nurseries for what particular plants have the least pest and disease problems too. You may not want a thorny hedgerow and you may want one for different reasons (maybe an edible fence) either way, I think hedgerows have many more purposes than the mere obvious ones and are worth investigating further. Our Tiger Rose hedge won't be the only plants we use for hedgerows here.

Has anyone else experimented with planting hedges, or lucky enough to have inherited a hedgerow themselves? What plants have worked and what hasn't?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Spring rain

It's only a hop, skip and jump away from summer, but when the spring rains arrived this made me hop, skip and jump through some rather wet puddles in our yard too! I was hoping it would rain soon as many of my citrus trees needed a healthy drink. But with the rain, came some rather sharp memory-pegs from last storm season. I found myself pacing the house this morning, looking out the window - looking, looking, looking.

Well I decided I probably needed some new memories, ones associated to fun and beauty. This is my walk through the yard in thongs (or flip-flops) and a camera I tried protecting from the drizzle. With all it's sophisticated appeal, here is our makeshift bridge we use to cross the spoon drain. Nothing but the best at Gully Grove!



Okay, so it's not much to look at, but the design is absolutely faultless. Whenever a surge of water comes through, we simply remove the planks until it passes. Here is part of the spoon drain which ends up channelling water to the bridge - I mean, planks.



It could well be a swale too (spoon drain for trade talk) complete with rogue pumpkins which always take advantage of good water supply. These guys survived last years flood, and are already setting new fruit. Pumpkins are as tough as old gumboots - which I clearly needed today. Trudging on with my heavy-duty thongs instead, I arrived at our upper swale in full action...



We've worked on these since the last storm season, but they still need more tweaking. The improved design however, has already helped prevent large sheets of water flowing down to the lower sections of the garden. Not far from this swale though, I noticed some Canna Lilies flowering.



It's hard to feel the rainy day blues, with such beauty to observe through the drizzle. I love flowers in spring and especially when they pop up regardless of the weather! A lovely treasure to stumble upon, it made me smile. And those weren't the only petals prepared to venture into the wet this morning. Take this Luffa vine which has defied drought, flood and a broken trellis...



You can just see the snapped branch (of the trellis) at the bottom of the picture - but vines have ways of clinging on and just hanging around any old place. Thank you Luffa for hanging around our place, and just giving this growing season one more hurrah! I'm glad we didn't pull you out because you didn't look your best. How you've aged beautifully though.



And globe artichokes galore! What a bizarre looking flower and now that it's blooming, I'm going to have to look for recipes. Thank you Emily from Little Farm in the City, for giving us this plant. After contemplating if it would die last year, it suddenly decided to come back with a vengeance! I still can't get over how bizarre (yet quaintly enchanting) these flowers are. They're leaning towards their absent neighbour, Charlie the banana plant. He didn't die, we just relocated him on the weekend.



Charlie is already unfurling new leafs and at a quicker rate, than when he was next to the metal garden shed. He now has a lovely pigeon pea tree and sweet potatoes as neighbours. I've also mulched him with some casuarina leafs, which should add some potash as they break down. Wonderful healthy new leafs, compared to the poor shrivelled old ones. Way to go Charlie! You'll be standing tall in no time. Not too far away though...



When they said Dwarf Ducasse, was a vigorous grower, I had no idea! The size difference is astronomical, compared to photos taken last week. With such a healthy dose of spring rain too, I'll be dunking banana's in my coffee in no time. I spotted another fruit tree in the distance on my way back to the house.



Our mango is getting bigger with it's Canna Lily minions, standing tall in front. I planted these here so I could directly mulch the mango once a year. It's been such a good system that apart from the initial watering period after planting our mango, I haven't had to water much (if at all) since. With many of these garden delights however, it involves a lot of waiting. Nature won't be rushed and it's probably a good thing too.

Taking the time to observe your garden, has to be one of the joys of planting one. You may not be eating delicious sweet fruit straight away, but that doesn't mean nature is standing idle or there isn't joy to be found in a young garden. In terms of heavy feeding annuals, our track record is pretty poor. We kill those like plastic toys from China. We don't mean to, they just don't like the conditions we have. Fruit trees, vines and perennials however, well they seem to be finding their place with enough time. Slow gardeners with a slow garden, that's what we are. And it's probably a good thing too.

One more image from my garden before I go - I was really excited about the leafs emerging from this one. Does anybody recognise the plant?



It's a pecan tree and I thought I'd killed it. We purchased it last Spring with the intention of finding a place to plant it. Only the rain didn't stop long enough to give us a chance to. Between repairing retaining walls washed away by the flood and relocating all that silt, the poor pecan just sat in it's black plastic pot. In winter it lost it's leafs, being deciduous and all, but I wasn't quite sure if I killed it either. A new flush of leafs came with the warmer weather, which inexplicably led to losing them promptly too. I thought that was that - he'd carked it. Could I blame the poor pecan, when we gave it the most inhospitable conditions possible?

True to the wonders of nature however, it didn't take long to recover once I finally put it in the ground. This new flush of leafs say there is always time to recover, even when life provides some pretty inhospitable conditions. I walked around my garden today, and I saw some impressive signs of life.

I hope the spring rains are welcoming your gardens to life too, and if not, I can only hope nature shows you her good side when the challenges pass. There is so much to be had from a garden. I am so lucky to have one.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Making mulch

One of the many issues we struggle with growing plants in the hills of the Lockyer Valley, is retaining nutrients where we want them. This is natural sandstone country, so we don't always have a thick layer of topsoil. In fact if you're not careful, it can suck the moisture out of the soil very quickly. Without a plentiful supply of mulch it would be RIP for our garden!

There are many plants you can grow for mulch purposes, but we have a few outstanding performers worth noting. Two in particular were gifted to us as "cuttings", so what better way to start than with free plants. At the time they were given, we had no idea how useful they would become.

I wrote about mulching our new banana plants with lemon grass recently, which happens to be one of our favourite plants to use for mulching. It grows in a big clump which you can divide every year if you want to - but let me warn you, they're neither easy to dig up or to divide!


Lemon grass and an artichoke!

Here is one of our lemon grass clumps, a few days after a hair cut. Look at that new growth reaching for the sky. Lemon grass really loves this kind of treatment - they languish slowly, looking all the more dishevelled when their brown skirts don't get trimmed. We tend to cut ours in late spring (after they've flowered) mostly because the leaves are partially dry, but also because the seed heads make good mulch also. To date, none of our clumps have reseeded themselves.

What I particularly love about using lemon grass as a mulch however, is the lovely fragrance they give off once they're freshly cut in the late afternoon. They've had all day to warm up the lemony scent and once cut and laid, you'll walk past them again and again just to catch a whiff! But that's not the only wonderful performer we use as a mulch...


Re shooting!

This is a Cana Lily and is easily divided by the underground rhizome. The one above was recently cut for mulch and is already growing more leaves. I have found the more you cut them back, the fatter the stem you get! These really grow very quickly and it's just as well too, because once you cut them, they break down very quickly. In fact, you better like where you plant your Cana Lilies because they're very difficult to remove permanently, short of using chemicals that is.


Young Papaya or otherwise known as Paw-paw
planted this year

They will pop up from the smallest amount of rhizome left in the soil afterwards, like what happened when I thought I had cleared a spot for a much anticipated Paw-Paw (above) but then the Cana's started to rise from the ground. I tried cutting them back continually, but the more I did the fatter the stalks got. Here is a better picture of how close the Cana Lily's are growing to the Paw-Paw.


Surrounded by Cana Lilies

These were a little too close for comfort, as they were impeding air flow and with the rising temperatures it caused mould to form on the Paw-Paw leaves. Not a problem though, as I couldn't have a closer supply of mulch (ready to chop and drop) if I tried! You can see some of the leaves on the ground already and how they've browned. This Paw-Paw will need more than that to keep it happy though. If you want to know more about growing Paw-Paws, try visiting Tropical Permaculture Gardens on growing Papayas.

This is the first time I've tried growing Paw-paws (or papayas) and I'm told this particular variety it's a hermaphrodite, meaning it is self-fertile. Most Paw-paws grow separate male and female trees, so we'll have to see how mine performs.

There is another mulch plant we grow here, and that's a Pigeon pea Tree. It has the benefit of sequestering nitrogen from the air and does absolute wonders for poor soil. Most of the trees we have, we plant near fruit trees and do an annual chop and drop. But with a little strategic planning, nature can do the work for you!


Pigeon Pea (left) Persimmon (right)

This one was planted next to a Persimmon, to be a wind break, but we weren't expecting it to droop over the retaining wall the way it has. It drops it's leaves right on top of the garden we have underneath.


growing under the retaining wall

This is a Dwarf Bamboo and it doesn't seem to mind the dappled shade the pigeon tree provides during the day, or the mulch it drops. Quite an accidental arrangement but gives us plenty of ideas for the rest of our slopes!

The Pigeon Pea in the photo is actually getting a little old and probably could use a heavy cut back. Pruning encourages leaf growth which means extra mulch, but you should plan to replace your trees after a few years. You won't have a problem with seeds as they are prolific producers of them. Which reminds me, I need to plant a few more this year.

Now as I mentioned at the very beginning, there are many plants you can grow for the purposes of producing mulch. I thought Permaculture Pathways (or Sonya more specifically) did an excellent job describing other varieties and the benefits of growing your own mulch.

Nutrient cycling with mulch

Growing your own mulch

It should bear mentioning that the Cana Lily Sonya refers to (or the Arrowroot) is a different variety to the one I have. In fact, mine is the flowering variety and while the bright orange flowers are very pretty, they're quite poisonous. Not a problem if you're just using them for mulching purposes though.

Does anyone else have success growing their own mulch?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

I've got a lovely bunch of...

...bananas!! Actually, I lied - I don't have a lovely bunch of bananas to call my very own. Not yet. That's why I went out to buy a banana plant (or two). Of course, if you live in some parts of Queensland, you cannot simply pop into your local nursery and ask for a banana plant. As I discovered, myself - I knew about requiring a permit before obtaining a plant, but I wasn't sure if we fell into the zone of restriction.

I received quite a few looks of surprise however, as I asked the Queensland nurseryman's most ta bu question: do you sell banana plants? Of course, they know what banana plants are, they're just not allowed to sell them.

If you live in a restricted zone, there's only one place in Queensland to buy your banana tissue plant culture, and they are Blue Sky Backyard Banana's. I dealt with Sue through emails, and she was very patient and helpful during the process, as there were a few formalities we had to attend before plants could be supplied.

Here enters the Queensland Government's Department of Primary industries and fisheries. What a mouthful! Okay so they handle biosecurity issues in Queensland. Because the commercial banana industry is heavily based on a single variety of banana (the Cavendish) the Queensland government seeks to protect them from backyard growers. The culprit is the Bunchy Top disease, which is why a permit is now required to grow a banana in your backyard. If you need a permit then you cannot grow the popular Cavendish variety either - some areas cannot even grow the Ladyfinger variety. It all depends on your location to commercial crops.


Bunchy Top infected banana plant

If knowing this hasn't put you off, then please do take the necessary steps to obtain a permit. There are still some lovely banana varieties you can grow. I'll introduce you to mine very shortly. To start the ball rolling though, you'll have to call the Queensland Biosecurity department on: 132523 and answer a few questions. They don't bight, in fact they were really nice. Based on the information you give them however, they will let you know what you can and cannot grow in your backyard.

Here is where it gets a little tricky though. Firstly, they have to issue you with some paperwork. This is to register the property you hold the permit with, so you can plant the bananas on that property alone. Secondly, they will give you the contact information of Blue Sky Tissue Culture, who you're supposed to contact before filling in the paperwork. This is just to ensure they have the stock you wish to register. Once that's done, send the paperwork off in the envelop supplied, or you can fax it directly. Once Biosecurity Queensland approves your permit, they'll fax a copy to Blue Sky, while posting the original back to you.

Confused much? I swear, from that point onwards it shouldn't be a drama to receive your plants. So let me introduce you to my two varieties: Ducca and Charlie. Okay, that's not their official names, just the ones I gave them!


Ducca, mulched with lemon grass

The first cab off the rank is Ducca, or otherwise known as Dwarf Ducasse. It shouldn't grow more than 4 metres high, and the fruit isn't particularly large. Not that I know that yet, as he's still such a baby. A fast grower though...you can see him virtually growing through the day. New leaves unfurl and he shoots up a little higher.

Compare that to another variety: or as we like to say, "Charlie", and there's a marked difference.


Ladyfinger variety, also mulched with lemon grass

Would you believe Charlie went into the ground a month before Ducca? He's not a very happy plant. We may have to relocate him if he doesn't start unfurling quicker. We suspect his position isn't ideal, lots of little things really - moisture loss, heat deflected from the metal shed nearby and despite the addition of compost material, we think he's not getting the right amount of nutrients.

Fingers crossed for Charlie, we may try to relocate him on the weekend. Other happening news on the garden front is more pineappley propagation. Can I say that: pineappley? Okay, grammar aside, I finally got around to propagating the sucker from Bluey. Here's a comparison photo of the difference between a sucker and a crown:


Bluey's babies

These both came from Bluey our pineapple: on the left is the sucker (taken from the side of the original plant) and on the right is the crown from the pineapple top we ate. Big size difference! It's no wonder they say pineapples grown from suckers, fruit much quicker. I pretty much treated the sucker how I plant the crowns. Peel the lower leaves off until you have a stub you can immerse in soil. Leave a few days to dry off first, to avoid disease when you plant into the pot.

It doesn't look like much, but the economy of nature can be quite generous. We only planted one pineapple crown, to receive two more plants and a delicious fruit! The compounding interest over time will be a glut of pineapples. I think I can live with that kind of stress in my life.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Best solar around

We had a visit from a friendly solar salesperson yesterday. It was a big day for us, as we had avoided taking steps towards investigating solar for so long. I had read many websites and the official Consumer Guide to Solar PV from the Clean Energy Council (CEC) but a lot of the information felt like gobbledygook until we spoke to a real person face to face.

It was an enlightening discussion in many ways. I finally understood what STC's (Small Technology Credits) were and why they were so important for reducing the cost of installing solar. I also discovered how grid-connected solar is meant to reduce your electricity bills. I was glad to have the information explained with diagrams so I could ask questions. All the information I read previously started to make sense.


Yarrow

With the price they were offering (a saving of about $1200 AUD for a cash sale) anyone would think it a perfect opportunity to jump at. I must say, we are dearly tempted and still undecided. But there are still two areas I have not reconciled yet. Firstly, is value - what exactly are we buying and how do we reduce our electricity bills. Lastly, does it really meet the need intended?

Let's start with value: it's simply the best offer around. But in that offer comes two possible inverters, made by two different companies (one Asian and one Australian). I've done my research and the Asian made inverter has a reputation for breaking down. The Australian inverter does not. I discovered later (after more research) the man I was talking to was only a sales person, not the accredited solar installer that would have to design the placing of the panels on our roof, and what pieces of equipment were required. He informed me, they may need extra things that didn't end up being quoted in the price.

So what I got was a piece of paper stating what equipment would be installed, labor included, but still had no idea of the final price or what equipment would ultimately be needed. There's a vast difference between quoted offers and and paying for an operational solar system. Once you've signed that piece of paper and put down your deposit, that's it - you're committed. I would go with them if only they'd been more precise with details, and sent an accredited professional to tell me exactly how my system was going to fit on the roof. He didn't even get up on the roof.

In all fairness to solar installers though, a lot of different factors determine whether you get the value from your system or not. You could have the best equipment, skilled installers, a roof plastered with as many panels as could fit - and if your outside temperature is constantly above 30 degrees Celsius, with little wind to cool the units down, those panels won't work effectively as in ideal conditions. Same amount of money invested, but less efficiency produced.


Flander's Poppy

A lot of people shrug it off and assume that's just the price of renewable energy. I guess it is too. However it's also a bit of a design flaw. Especially in the advertising of what could "possibly" be saved on electricity bills. Apparently, the best way to reduce your electricity bill is NOT to use your household electricity during the day. Because that's when the panels will be at maximum production and can feed back to the electricity grid.

I've read a little about power travelling along cables (whether it's generated from solar or fossil fuels) losing a certain percentage to entropy. So more power has to be generated to replace the loss. It's not a huge amount compared to what power makes it through, but entropy does add up. I would think, efficient use of resources would encourage maximum electricity being used, closest to the source generating them. It's not like grid connected solar is the same as stand alone solar - where you may need to charge your batteries during the day so you have electricity at night. We have an electricity grid to plug into any time.

Less waste to entropy, would mean less demand to generate more electricity, because you're not losing entropy when the sun is feeding power directly to your house. But I gather there isn't a lot of money to be made from efficiency. The more I investigate grid connected solar, the more I realise it's about complementing fossil fuels and our existing economy - not standing apart at all. It seems consumers go to the expense of buying solar panels, taking all the financial risks that involves - only for the purpose of sending power back to the grid so we can buy it back.

My brain is still trying to rationalise that one aspect alone, LOL.

Which brings me to my second irreconcilable issue: the ideology behind grid connected solar. Does it really meet the need? We're told the need is two-fold, to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and to save the planet. In it's current form however, renewable energy seems very dubious. The same wasteful fossil fuel system designed for profit, has been given a new logo called Green Energy, thanks to renewable energy input. Some might suppose, what then is a better system?

I will never claim to be a genius or a scholar, but as a gardener, I've observed the best solar around! Have you noticed all the pictures of flowers in this post? They've been directly powered by the sun too.


Day Lilly

Above is a Day Lilly. A very beautiful flower - but only opens for one day and then dies. The power of the sun makes it bloom, but it also kills it. Maybe there's a lesson to be had in that too? Everything lives and dies under the sun for a purpose. We may have more opportunities than a Day Lilly, but I wonder how many of us appreciate the wonders that come down from the sky, has more value than a dollar sign?

I've been observing my Day Lillies opening and closing for the past week, each one unique and beautiful. No-one paid me for that privilege either. Maybe I'm onto something? ;)


PS: I know there will be some people reading who have grid connected solar. Bear in mind, this post is not a reflection on your individual choices but rather my coming to terms with understanding the process. I keep looking for that golden nugget of truth, but all I see is a lot money used towards generating the same old problem. For anyone who has grid connected solar, does it feel weird sending solar power to the grid only to get mostly coal power back again?

Has anyone chosen not to make the savings on their electricity bills, to use their grid connected solar more efficiently (ie: use it during the day when the sun is available?)

Also, before all the jokes start about powering my house with flowers (that thought even amuses me, LOL) it's really a metaphorical example of how far we've moved away from the natural solutions we supposed.