Sunday, May 31, 2015

What I've been doing

I haven't been writing much on my blog because I've been sick. It's the kind of unrelenting illness that turns you into a zombie, and leaves a tissue box permanently grafted to your waist.

While at the library the other day however, my husband found a Jackie French book for me to read. He knows she is one of my favourite authors, and I haven't read, "Let the Land Speak," before.

If you're interested in predictions about the future, by understanding our Australian past, then you have to read this book. It's all about the Australian landscape, and how its been speaking to us since the First Fleet of convicts arrived. We didn't understand then, and we probably don't understand much more now - not the way the land has been speaking to us, that is.

 Not our property

This book was a little heavy on details for me in the beginning. Jackie French is normally such an easy author to read, but to give the land "a voice", she had to include all those details from history. I saw parallels between what spurred the Eureka Stockade, to the current mining operations for every mineral under the sun, since. Lots of money goes in (generally other people's) with only a few making it rich. Then the government wants their share and if you're a little guy, you start living in squalor just to follow your dream of striking it rich, or at least just to eat. The environment always gets trashed in the process.

It spoke volumes about our present economic predicament and how we haven't really ventured far from the kind of policies, which led to the Eureka Stockade. Only we're trashing the environment on a much larger scale now, and making a lot more people sick and desperate in the process.

Its not all doom and gloom, though it does touch on a lot of our natural disasters and war history. What was so fascinating for me to read as a gardener though, is how normal it is for the Australian landscape to be a melee of environmental extremes. If you read enough permaculture books, you get the impression, by just implementing the correct "design", you too can live in natural abundance.

 Not our property either

I know as a gardener though, the world essentially stop for me, when the rain doesn't come. Everything moves slower and things planted with the promise of abundance, often withers and dies. That's not to say a good permaculture design won't build in some resilience, but it was a novel idea for French to talk about those harsh extremes, not as an abnormality - but rather, very normal and to be planned for. Especially as Climate Change bights down harder.

It made me feel terribly unprepared, but also gave me the resolve, to return to our swale and pond digging when my health returns.

It may seem like a contradiction, but it also made me consider I didn't have to transform the landscape in order to get a good crop. Or rather, I started to accept the problem wasn't necessarily that I lacked the special gardener's secret to success, it was the backdrop I was gardening in. I wanted a European garden, not an exclusive bush-tucker one - and yet that is what has sustained the original inhabitants for up to 60,000 years.

No matter how much compost and mulch I lay down, no matter how many swales are dug - without regular moisture, the organisms in the soil, required for living things to grow, won't reproduce. It will happen in good rain years, but there will also be many bad rain years as well. Decades without substantial rain, has happened before.

Oh yes, I do feel terribly unprepared.

Wicking beds, started to look a lot more necessary into the future. Permaculture design, still has an important part to play as well, as it helps manage what natural resources there are, more efficiently.

The final chapter was the hardest for me to read though, because it spoke about predictions for our future. They were confronting. Now I didn't agree with everything I read, especially about the part where we will come together in hard times and look after one another - as we have always done as a Nation, in the past. I think most of us will want to help each other, and will reach out, but to compare the capabilities of a generation that allowed their children to work hard as soon as they were old enough to, and today's children/adults - we will be very lacking in the same skill set.

It was easier to help a neighbour when you were all living on the land, and made not only to trust in your capabilities, but often had to rely on them for survival. No excuses. When "the majority" don't know how to do for themselves, outside of centralised living however, there will be a lot more needing help than those with resources and capabilities to do so.

I think it was worth writing what she did though, as its a reminder we have come together in the past, and it should be considered something we are capable of in the future. It's that old herd instinct. We might be under attack, but the more we stick together, the harder we are to take down as a group.

"Let the Land Speak," is really about all the cues we have been missing from the start. We may have come here with designs on what we wanted to do, but in the background, the environment was changing and because it changed, we were consistently forced into situations of peril. We keep thinking if we come up with better designs, we'll escape the peril, and yet all we have managed to do thus far, is make the environment even more hostile towards us.

That is probably due to political policy, being designed around cost effectiveness, opinion polls and a lack of research. As individuals (even on a community level) I got the impression from the book, the more we can decentralise our lives, the easier it will be to adapt in the future. That means, not relying on the centralised model of things like power, food and petrol. I know that goes without saying, if you're up on climate change, but it was interesting to see this lens reflecting as far back as the First Fleet.

Those who first came here, to build a colony, had to do so relying completely on each other. Those who fort in Gallipoli and on the Kokoda track too, did so and won (with heavy casualties) due to Australians looking after one another. It was said that no man died alone on the battlefield, because he always had his mate by his side.

We live in a very different society today, more afraid of each other than not. Which is why I loved when Jackie suggested, to be wary of anyone who tries to make you angry. Referring to how leaders have gained power in the past, by rallying anger in the community against others. She suggested to use kindness as a substitute for anger instead.

Jackie also coined the most interesting word: "terrapath". Suggesting it is like a psychopath with no feelings towards the planet. They know what they are doing is causing damage, but they simply don't care.

There is plenty to get from reading this book. Especially a different way of seeing how the first Indigenous Australians learned to adapt. It demonstrates how the land shaped their societies and how we got them wrong, on so many occasions. It's not surprising though, since we got the land so wrong too. I was especially touched by the story of Yarri, of the Wiradjuri people.

Overall, the book is a fascinating read. Have you read this book before?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Officially a tott!

 Back from the markets

Someone turned two this weekend. They went to the local markets with dad to buy some yummy fruit, and picked out a handmade wooden train, made from a local craftsman.

9" cake (made gluten free)

The night before, I was busy making New York Baked Cheesecake, adding the black cherry topping this morning. Which made this little Mister, quite a happy chappy!

Someone likes cake

Given that his sister's birthday was a few weeks earlier, he seemed to know what blowing out the candle was, without needing any prompting from us. Even before we got the candles on, he was practicing his blowing at the cake. But it was more fun when everyone joined in!

Make a wish

Then it was time to taste the cake. We think our little Mister liked it. Frankly, so did we! Second helpings anyone?


Still, there was plenty of leftovers for tomorrow, and probably the next day, and the day after that!

Never mind the mess!

It was a quiet day, with no special activities except the local markets, but we have been a busy family lately.  We still had a delicious cake though, blew out candles and even got a round of block playing (and demolishing) in with Dad.

My birthday is the last in the family, but thankfully still a few months away! No more cake!

UPDATE: I have a link to the cheesecake recipe. I tweaked it a little, by adding an extra 1/4 cup of crushed biscuits to the base, as well as another tablespoon of butter. For the cherry topping, I added an extra tablespoon of sugar, as well as 2 teaspoons of arrowroot flour to the cherry syrup, and simmered for a minute, before removing from the heat and gently stirring the cherries back in. That's because I couldn't find "cherry pie" filling, only black cherries in syrup.

When it baked, it rose over the tin but didn't spill over. Once it cooled a little out of the oven I was able to gently push the "muffin top" back into the tin. If I made this again, I would put a strip of oiled baking paper, around the edge of the springform pan, to hold it all in.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Harvesting bananas

Our Dwarf Ducasse banana tree has produced its second bunch of bananas. It went in ground November 2011, so its about three and a bit years old.

We cut the bananas from the tree when still green, and ripen them inside (in this case, the laundry floor). We have another bunch producing on another tree, which is even smaller than this bunch!

It has been proven, bananas don't like being starved or made thirsty. So we either improve these conditions for the bananas, or we live with such tiny hands of bananas.

This variety of banana is not meant to be long, like Cavendish, but it should be at least double its present size. Neglecting bananas reduces cropping, but we also allowed too many suckers to grow from the mother plant. You're only meant to allow two suckers per mother to grow, but we allowed four! Only because growing season is also snake season, and we get nervous around the long grass that grows near the bananas!

Neglecting proper maintenance, will always lead to smaller fruit production though. Some fruit is better than none at all. We have found with this variety (Dwarf Ducasse) we have to wait a good while before the bitterness leaves them. So the skin is covered in dark splotches and would look unappealing if you were going to buy them at the shops.

For home use and consumption however, aesthetics doesn't really matter. Its the taste we're after.

They're pretty darn tasty for tiny, neglected hands of bananas though. They're also the perfect toddler size. When they're ready, they should taste creamy, not bitter or gummy on the lips.

The Lady finger variety we planted at the same time as "Ducca", has yet to produce anything! It struggled right from the start, and hasn't really improved when we relocated it. I'll keep it so long as it lives, in hope it might produce something, but its three (and a bit) years old now, and has only managed to throw one sucker from the mother plant. Maybe next year it will surprise us?

We certainly have to consider the system we have around these bananas, if we want a more reliable harvest. It's been nice not having to buy bananas, and I like having them in my backyard.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A new cheat!

Okay, so my husband doesn't have many vices - he's not a drinker, smoker or addicted to 4WD'ing! So I don't like to request his remaining vices be curtailed. They're honestly pretty tame, but can sometimes be expensive for our one income family. I'm always trying to find ways to save money.

A necessary evil

My husband IS a coffee drinker though, and not an ordinary one - he likes Mocha's, which is coffee, plus drinking chocolate. He actually has two different varieties of chocolate powder in his Mocha's. First is, Milo, made from barley, so is more a chocolate malt powder - its cheaper per gram though, because we can buy in bulk. His second powder however, is Cadbury's drinking chocolate, derived from cocoa powder, and decidedly more expensive per gram.

I was filling up the glass jars, near the coffee station recently (from the main tub above) and I thought to myself - there HAS to be a cheaper way. There just has to be! So I looked at the list of ingredients and realised, I could make it cheaper.

New mix

You may be grossed out by this, so please turn away if you are allergic to sugar (fake sugar, at that) as these were the list of ingredients I came up with. It fills that little 400g tub I normally buy from $5 to$7 (or $3 on special, if I'm lucky).

*2 cups of icing sugar mixture to 1 cup cocoa powder*
Whiz around in a food processor then store.

Crazy right? But now affordable and no worse than the name-brand variety. David tasted it and said it was just as good! When I buy Cadbury's on sale, its 75 cents per 100g. Using normal prices for the other two ingredients, it works out to around 36 cents per 100g. That's saving more than half price. Why normal prices compared to sale prices? Well, I buy a no-name brand for the other two ingredients listed, which never goes on sale, because its the lowest price all the time.

Best thing is though, I don't have to wait for his name-brand drinking chocolate, to go on sale any more. I can always stock those other ingredients in the pantry. Plus I'm re-purposing the old tub to hold my new premix, making it easier to see what it was.

 Coffee station with teaspoons a permanent feature
 ~ because I can save opening drawers

I like to decanter all my coffee brewhaha (Muh-ha-ha) into small repurposed Moccona coffee jars, which take up considerably less room on the kitchen bench, than most specialty storage jars would. And its obvious why. Yes, all those containers are for one cup of Mocha. He likes two teaspoons of coffee too, so we buy decafe to reduce the amount of caffeine he has per cup (smallest container on the end).

The way I look at it though, he has very few vices and I'm proud he'd rather a nice cuppa than a coldie (beer) after work. But I've managed to save just that little bit extra in our food budget too.

PS: if you don't have a food processor, or don't want to use the electricity, grab a plain old sieve and bowl instead, mix with a spoon, then store in your favourite jar.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Almost a teen

A certain young lass, celebrated her 12th birthday, yesterday! She got to select her own cake from the Cheesecake shop (Cookies & Cream torte...shhh) and it was delissimo! She received a Manga comic book and Bobble-head figure, from one of her favourite Anime series (at least I think its Anime) from us.

At one point, both our kids were sitting on the couch reading their favourite books, and we had to pinch ourselves. Two readers! Ten years apart and still able to share something special.

The whole day was incredibly special, in fact. We immersed ourselves in family time (a rarity) even grabbing an afternoon stroll between lunch and cake!

Our little man's birthday, is just a few weeks away now. Our two treasures, both born in May.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Water mitigation

The last few days, its been wet, wet, WET! While grateful for the rain, it will be nice for it to start clearing by tomorrow, as the forecasters predict. Mostly because I had such a wonderful time in the garden previously, moving dirt, planting seeds and basically getting stuff done, I would love to be out there again.

Now is a good time though to see how all that water is moving around the property. There's no better place to start than the new swale I was digging recently, near the bush orchard. But first, lets take a trip back to 2013, when I proposed my initial plan for swales in this area...

The plan

Back in 2013, I wrote about the progress on the lower of the two swales, just within view of the picture above. It was a nice start, but recently I decided to expand the lower swale and start the upper one. I wasn't going to write about it until I had at lease ONE of the two, finished.

However, the recent rain has shown me how effective, even these half finished swales are. Here is the upper swale...

Newly dug, upper swale

It's completely full now and in stark contrast to the lower swale. Please excuse the grey-water hose below...

Expanded, lower swale

The reason the upper swale is full in comparison, is because the water coming off the concrete slab we initially laid for the driveway, is filling it. The location of the upper swale is positioned such as to catch this trickle of water, high on the slope.

 Concrete driveway, right.

Depending how heavy the rain is, the water gradually sheds onto the grass and trickles down into the newly dug swale.

Catching water

The water is entering just above the swale, where there is no grass. That's where I was digging recently, and actually wanted to know if the water would indeed follow this path. It seems the theory is sound in practice.

Upper and lower swales

The beauty is, these two swales will be joined at some point, so when the upper swale fills to capacity, it will flow into the lower swale. It's amazing to see that small trickle of water from the driveway, can actually be caught and stored in such a way.

The design of the driveway, may have started with a concrete slab, but I'm glad we decided to finish the driveway to the bottom, with concrete grid pavers instead.

Stopping the water down slope

You can see the cells are filling with water, but not making the water run. Some of the cells overflow into the lower ones, but we certainly don't get the kind of water shed we get from the concrete slab above the grids.

It has meant the water which collects at the bottom of the driveway, is lessened to such a degree, we don't have big mud puddles. Those particular delicacies are reserved for other parts of the property now, just not at the bottom of the driveway so much!

It's good to see some of our ideas in water management, actually work in practice.

PS: Do any of the locals know where I can find a Davidson Plum tree, to collect seed from? I would like to replace the ones which died in the Bush Orchard.