Monday, December 20, 2010

How to plan for a tsunami

I chose to title this post, "how to plan for a tsunami", but please understand I'm using artistic license here. This is merely a metaphor for how you plan for an outright calamity. I use the term tsunami, as a representative of big water events. They don't have to be sea related - just water and elements of the earth in general.

Anyone living in the South-East Queensland region of Australia, would know that on Thursday 16 December, there was an enormous thunderstorm event. A huge amount of lightning strikes were recorded, and roads were flooded - or at least in our parts they were. Especially at our house. We had a mini water event which caused a lot of damage to our front retaining wall.

This was not only the result of the huge rain event, dumping large volumes of water in our area, it was also the result of the driveway across the street from us overflowing the council spoon drains. I will discuss the council drains a little later, but first I want to say my intention is not to lay blame at anyone. This is nature and it's what is meant to happen. A lot of people will blame the greenhouse effect. I'm not going to argue - I'm not even going to agree, but I will say nature has been with mankind since we were around. It should come as no surprise when major elemental events take place.

I was going to give a detailed explanation of what happened here on Thursday 16 December 2010, but that moment has now passed. I want to focus on how to plan for a tsunami instead. Not as to prevent it from happening again, but to prepare ones self for the eventuality. Many will suggest having an emergency kit (I am not advising against this) but from what I experienced in our region, the battle was just getting out. I will explain only a little, but more so with pictures. There was water flooding the front of the house.

Water entering property from the street above

Water rapids flowing down the ramp

The strip in front of the house was flooded

There was water flooding one side of the house, and I have no picture for the torrent of water that was cutting us off from the other hill of our property, out back.

The clothesline and Middle Ridge chicken coop being inundated
~ all chickens alive and counted for ~

There was only one side of the house to escape and once I got up the driveway in my car and travelled the streets where I lived, there were flooded roads everywhere - houses very close to flooding and dams threatening to break across the very streets I was travelling on. I make no exaggeration. It was only that the rain stopped, that the approaching tsunami eased.

One thing which occurred to me in the days afterwards, was that I was probably safer in my house than I was on the streets - and what if I travelled them and found the roads cut off elsewhere? Rising flood waters? Where to escape to then? How do you escape an elemental force which is so much bigger than you?

Well, I want to start with a very well known story. It's an old one. It's about a man called Noah. Perhaps you're not into bible stories, but stay with me here. Noah was a guy who built an ark. We know that much. He also built his ark to accommodate a lot of animals - so it was a stupidly big boat for anyone watching from the sidelines. Let's not forget the fact he was also building such an enormous vessel on dry land, without semi trailers to move it. How was he going to get to the water?

What can I say, Noah planned for a tsunami and he lived. He didn't go through the process however, without being mocked for his insight - ridiculed by modern wisdom that water just didn't come to boats. It was supposed to the be other way around.

Do I have plans to build an ark now? Well, not in the same fashion, but I've got to tell you something because we didn't listen to a lot of advice given to us, when we built our front retaining wall. I think that's why it survived it's battering at all. We were told drainage pipes weren't really necessary, considering we never get a lot of water in Australia. We were told not to fuss on the drainage layer (or the footings) the first course of bricks would sit on - as it never rains either. I hurt my back "fussing" over the depth of our footings, and I even didn't mind when they went slightly deeper in places.

Basically we were given a lot of advice on the way to building our retaining wall, which was aimed at "best case" eventualities. I'm glad we chose to over engineer and fuss. We wanted to plan for the tsunami on dry land. That's not to say our wall escaped completely unharmed though. The force of the water coming down from the street above, had to go somewhere. It came down our ramp like a rapid, and ripped out the blue-metal back-fill at the end of the ramp.

Blue metal back-fill, dislodged & dumped

The forced of the water flicked it out like grains of sand and dumped it at the bottom. Needless to say we have some cleaning up to do, but we have learned the importance of over engineering. We also have new plans to help secure our wall better. Not just our wall though - our entire property. And with an ample measure of persistence, we may just convince a few neighbours to join in fortifying their property the same way.

First I need to show you in a photo taken the day after, where the influx of water originated from.

Neighbours driveway (left) our property (right)

It came from this driveway (as seen by the silt) and spanned across the road, into our front yard. Many of you may assume we have an issue to take up with council, and this neighbour, and we will perhaps - but in our own way. There are many areas the council has designed poorly, but if we were to tell them straight out - without a discussion- to rectify it, they would simply implement more of the faulty measures that cause these problems in the first place. What's more, they would also make the rate-payer, pay for it.

They cannot help it, they are bound by modern convention and what's deemed best practice.

I'm interested in a more radical solution however. People need to understand they have the power to fortify their properties. They merely have to approach council for permission to plant out their verges. Everyone has grass growing on their verge here, which is really quite dangerous considering some people have to mow on a slope. Dave gets out with the brush cutter - other guys with properties above us, sometimes burn theirs. While I can understand their desire to protect themselves from not having to mow dangerous slopes, what it does is merely cause soil erosion for the properties down hill. The exposed soil is swept off their property, into council spoon drains, sending water (and silt) to escape downhill, wherever it can.

I want to show people that plants actually work. First I have to show you the damage the water caused to our wall. These plantings really finished towards the end of winter - so only a few months growth.

Monstera deliciosa
or Split Leaf Philodendron

Look at this Philodendron, with a pumpkin vine which sprouted from the compost we added to the initial planting hole. Look how the water escaped around the plant, and exposed only those patches of ground around it with nothing growing. Even so, look at the monstera plants roots exposed.

Roots beginning to search for soil to cling to

This is a baby plant, it will probably grow to eight to ten times this size. Which is why we haven't planted a lot around it. We wanted it to have room to grow. But we certainly selected this plant to hold the corner of this wall together. In a few more years, these roots will have weaved an intricate web to bind the soil. Just what you want on a slope! But the proof is already there. Plants help to disperse water (reduce the energy with which its flowing) so it has a much harder time finding its way downhill.

In fact the whole of this wall which got battered with water, didn't loose a single plant. There was only two plants that had some of the debris taken out of their hole, but like I said, there hasn't been much opportunity for these particular plants to grow. They're still in their first year establishing.

Care required

If anything like this happens to your plants, make sure to fill the hole again with good compost and re-mulch as we did. The sun would've cooked these tender roots, as it probably hasn't formed a deep tap root yet. This is a weeping Lilly Pilly, and we hope it does well on our wall in years to come.

The real damage happened to this side of the wall, which was directly underneath where the influx of water came down from the street. It has been denuded of it's mulch.

I love how cleanly the debris has been swept aside. Nature is methodical in her destructive forces, and we ought to observe and duplicate where the least damages are experienced.

Here is a matter of water just merely escaping. It went underneath our little log retaining wall, and carved an erosion gully straight down. I'm not going to lie to you. I cried when I watched our wall being pummeled with all that water. I was in shock at how much water was suddenly flooding the front of the house, and I was saying goodbye to two years labour in one thunderstorm.

Yet to look at it in perspective, it was two years spent building the wall. That part held up. The plants were only babies, and is really the sinew that will hold what's above the wall, in place. Even so, we always knew the street verge (that part of the street council owns, yet charges the property owner with responsibility to maintain) has been our most vulnerable point. If we can plant that full of lomandra grass, which never needs cutting - plus feeds birds with the seeds and bees with the flowers' nectar, we'll have halved our workload mowing and made the verge more like a bushland habitable by all. Not to mention it will slow and disperse the water.

I cannot stress enough to home owners, concrete solutions should be the bones, but not the layer that covers the soil. Plants are made for the soil. They are its natural ally. We could get council to put in guttering, but I have to say, I've seen for myself how it only speeds up the velocity of water traveling down hill. When you live on slopes, you don't want fast water.

This problem will not be solved by merely giving council another wad of paper to stamp. This is about developing dialogue. If we do not take responsibility for that relationship, we just become part of the concrete problem - rigid and just plain toxic to the environment. This problem originated by council planning and developers with no empathy for the unique erosion problems this region encounters. The solution is not to be the same or to blame - adaptation instead.

So strive to be informed, be observational and then be pro-active.

The problem is, we've accepted that things come and go via mechanical means. Someone else deals with the business we pay them to deal with. Yet we are the ones closest to the problem and those most inconvenienced when things go wrong.

At this point however, I don't advise people run around planting at their own discretion to deal with water run off. Observation is required first, plus there is a legal requirement not to divert water onto neighbouring properties - in case it causes damage.

Our first port of call will be speaking with the Environmental Officer of our local council. When we were building, we already did this. The guy we spoke to was very intuitive and read many signs in the land we were just learning about. It was disappointing to discover later he was no longer Environmental Officer. We don't even know if the position still applies - maybe they've given it another name, we hope not. We hope when we contact them again, we will be met with enthusiasm towards mutual solutions. It's in all our interests.

Because if home owners lose their homes, council lose their rate payers and its a big expensive exercise for everyone to repair the damage. But out of all these endeavours towards change, do you want to know who really stands to benefit though?

Our kids...

This is a picture taken of our daughter, the day after the storm. After we walked around the property, counted the damage and made sure she still had tad-poles surviving in her pond, there was time for running in the wet grass. Kids are so resilient to these things and so innocent. They don't have to bear the responsibility of the decisions we make for their future today. Yet they have to live with the solutions we come up with.

Have you thought about plants as a solution on your property? Have you needed to? Will you work with your local council to find better solutions to old problems?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

All about the dough

I've been fortunate in the past to work as a bakery assistant. I was often left in charge of baking the morning bread. My only regret was I didn't stay long enough to learn many of the "reasonings" behind certain practices. I was told to add so many bags of flour, per litres of water, oil and grams of fresh yeast. I followed the program without having to understand the measures, or why it had to be "this" much.

But during that time I was exposed to the texture of bread dough, how it should feel when it's ready, and even the subtle change in smell. You simply knew when it was ready, even if it was a big commercial piece of equipment that "buzzed" in first. The finished product was ready when you pressed the dough, and it quickly pushed its way back as if you never touched it.

Without a formula to follow however, or machines to buzz in, it was a whole new experience learning how to read sourdough. I have news for you too; learning how to read your sourdough will be nothing like your experiences with commercial yeasts either. Every loaf that touches your hands will be a living leaven. You will feel (and know) the air bubbles and gauge the correct crumb, rather than counting the clock for kneading times.

I use to time myself for 10 minutes with the first knead, but now I gauge by the texture of the bread and that subtle sweet change, which immediately fills the nostrils. When the leavens have been feed and massaged by nurturing hands for just the right amount of time, you too will experience that sweetness dance around your nostrils. It's incredibly euphoric, but oh so subtle you could almost miss it.

This is what commercial equipment and bread machines have taken away from the baker. Don't get me wrong, those machines definitely have their place but when you become dependent on them before learning the beauty of living bread, it's any wonder people become intimidated by how to experience bread making with their bare fingertips.

Trust yourself though and persist. It's incredibly rewarding.

I want to show you the differences between tacky doughs and wet ones. Tacky is what you want to achieve, but you may have to add more flour if your dough is too wet. First of all, this is what a wet dough looks like.

It sticks to the bench with ease (and your hands) plus it won't let go without leaving some of itself behind. If you've used all the flour your recipe asked for, keep incorporating a handful of flour at a time, until the right consistency is achieved. You want to incorporate it for a few minutes though, to see if you need more. The next picture is where "tacky" stage is almost achieved.

It won't leave residue on you or the bench. I'm actually peeling back the dough in this picture and its coming away cleanly from the bench. But to my mind, this tacky is still not quite ready. This last picture is what I would consider appropriate for what you want to achieve.

It still sticks, but not much. I like to aim for just past tacky, because the firmer the dough, the more the gluten will be massaged out during your kneading time. It takes me a good 5 minutes to gauge if I've incorporated enough flour, then it's on to the 10 (or so) minutes continuous kneading.

Don't underestimate the power of drinking a hot beverage before embarking on kneading your dough either. Especially if you're one of those people who tend to have cold fingers and toes. Wrap your hands around a warm cup of coffee or tea first (this is what I always do) as it gives you a good body temperature to start massaging the glutens.

How does a person actually knead dough though? I prefer the envelop method. Once you're happy with the consistency of your dough, roll it into a ball, then you push down on it with the palm of your hand.



Then push down with your palm again.

Feel free to use your other hand for turning, while the opposite hand folds and pushes down. I only omitted my other hand for the purposes of taking photos, LOL. So the kneading process is fairly straight forward - push, turn, fold, push down again, until your 10 minute kneading time has expired. Or as I like to do, read the dough's texture.

A better way to demonstrate this is by comparison pictures. The first picture represents the dough prior to commencing kneading, the second represents the correct texture you're looking for. First picture.

Folds and creases, are still very obvious. In the second picture however, the correct dough qualities are apparent when its finished.

Once the folds and creases start to amalgamate, the dough has become more elastic. Still a bit confused? It's important to see what I mean by reaching the correct elasticity. First picture.

Absolutely no elasticity, in fact the dough is breaking away with the weight of the dough in my hand. Second picture (after 10 minutes kneading).

The finished dough will bend to the contours of your hand and hang without breaking its fibre. Now let's see how the dough holds its form on its own. First picture is the ball of dough before kneading.

Notice the uneven surface and how rough it looks? All those ingredients haven't been massaged together. Now for the second picture.

Notice how the dough ball is smooth and wants to hold it's round form. If you pat or press it, the dough wants to resume its uniform texture and pushes itself out again. This is a correctly worked dough which will be happy to expand and grow if you let it.

I suggest if you want Swiss cheese type holes in your sourdough, form this ball into the desired shape you want now, place it on a greased tray (Vienna or Cobb loaf style) and don't do the second knead. I only knead again if I want a finer crumb for my sandwich loaves.

Of course, there are all sorts of shapes you can form bread in to. I hope to write a post later on, demonstrating all the ones I've used.

Loaf pan sizes

All the excitement of making bread, took me away from recognising the means which it gets baked. The actual tin - or loaf pan!

Thanks to a great comment I realised I have changed to a new tin recently. It was bought in a moment of opportunity, as I wanted two tins in-case I should need to bake two loaves at a time. It wasn't the same brand as my first one, it was slightly different too. Can you spot the difference?

Although the one on the right with the silicon handles, looks bigger, both tins have the same width and length in volume (13 cm x 24 cm). In fact, the one on the left was actually 13.5 cm! So where's the difference then?

It's all in the depth! The newer tin was 1 cm taller at 7cm (the other, 6cm). Do you want to know the really amazing bit. The one with the silicon handles cost three times as much as the other one. It doesn't get used for baking bread much nowadays, because it's shallowness did produce a denser loaf. Still used for cakes though.

So to answer your comment about size difference when it comes to baking (or rather, rising) bread; I'd have to say it all depends on the depth! The volume of the new tin actually holds more than the old one, so technically it should take more ingredients to fill. But it also has an extra centimeter of height in which it can climb without spilling over the sides.

I hope a new (deeper) pan, helps you rise to new heights too, LOL.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The sourdough bread

If you thought the sourdough starter and sponge was complicated, get ready to make the actual loaf. Each step is not particularly difficult, it's just learning to read when the dough is ready. For a more visual explanation, see, All about the dough.

This is a recipe I have adapted to my own tastes. All sourdoughs are individual to the area you live. It's determined by the naturally occurring yeasts in the air and even what's in your skin. Every sourdough loaf should be all about it's maker. Don't be limited by this recipe. Sourdough is an incredibly forgiving medium which adapts to many ingredients, well.

This is the loaf I make for our daily bread, so the recipe is designed around subtle flavour and fine crumb. There are quite a few photos, so just be aware if you're on dial-up internet speed.

You've made the sourdough sponge (a minimum of 2 hours beforehand or up to 8 hours overnight) You really only have to wait for the sponge to double in size before using.

Add to the sponge:

1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon full cream milk powder (optional)
2 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil

*** *** ***
2-3 cups unbleached bakers flour

Only add the ingredients above the asterisk (***) to the sponge. Stir these ingredients in with a plastic scraper until well combined. Then incorporate 1 cup of the flour. Stir again until combined.

After the first cup has been incorporated - still gluggy

Add another cup of flour (cup 2) and stir until combined - or until it becomes too uncomfortable to incorporate. You never know if you can fully incorporate that second cup - it changes, so be kind to your scraper and your wrists.

After the second cup has been incorporated - getting firmer

Save your very last cup of flour for the bench. Sprinkle a little, but not the whole cup at once.

Portioning out the third cup of flour

Turning the dough onto the floured bench, start kneading until it takes up the flour. Once it starts sticking to the bench again, add more flour. In most cases I incorporate the whole cup with a few handfuls of flour to get the right consistency.

The consistency of the dough you're looking for is "tacky", but not sticking to your hands or the bench, like glue either. Basically, the dough has enough flour, when it comes away from your hands or bench, without leaving residue.

When you're happy your dough has enough flour, knead for 10 minutes. There's a subtle change to the dough after this time. It goes from being limp to elastic - it seems to bounce back from every push and it will be smoother. Roll into a ball and then place into the same glass bowl, after it has been cleaned and smeared with oil. Cover and leave anywhere between 2-6 hours, depending what the temperature, inside your house is.

I borrow a lid from a large plastic container. A large ice-cream lid would do the job too. It's a lot easier to handle than cling wrap or a wet tea towel, and it cleans very easily. Your rising dough should touch the top of the lid after 2-6 hours.

This time will allow the dough to roughly doubled in size, then it's ready to be punched down. "Punch" does not mean with force. You just use the ball of your fist to push down gently into centre of the dough. This releases the air bubbles.

You then take it out of the bowl and knead lightly for about another minute or two. You'll feel the bubbles escaping. This is what I want for a sandwich loaf. It makes the crumb a lot lighter, rather than having Swiss-cheese holes which is more common with your traditional sourdough loaves.

After squeezing out enough bubbles, roll the dough into a cigar shape. It should fit the size of your bread tin, which has been lightly oiled too.

You can see in the above picture, the seam of the roll is facing upwards. That's because it gets laid on the bottom of the tin - smooth side facing up.

Some people like to make a longer sausage and fold the edges under too, but I like the no fuss approach myself. The dough gets placed in the tin and scored three times with a sharp, thin knife.

Why the scores? You'll see later, but they're about 2cms deep, crossing diagonally over the loaf. (Update: 1cm depth is better, causing less spread).

Leave in the tin again, for 50-60 minutes. I like to put my oven on for 10 minutes at 50 degrees Celsius - don't put the bread in until you switch the oven off again. You also want to place a shallow bowl of boiling water at the very bottom of your oven. Once the loaf is in, close the door for enough warmth and humid conditions, to avoid a skin forming.

Notice how the scores have widened? You will soon see why these scores are important. With the oven empty now, crank it up to 200-210 degrees Celsius (fan forced oven) and 220 for a standard convection oven. This is the temp you'll cook your loaf in for 25-30 minutes. Once the oven has heated, put the loaf in. Bake for 15 minutes and then turn the loaf around in the oven.  

After the allotted time (check at 25 minutes) it should come out looking golden brown. You'll know it's cooked when you tap the loaf on the bottom and hear a hollow sound. Which you would test with oven gloves or a tea towel. I have a fan-forced oven, you may have to experiment with other sorts (re: times and temps).

Notice how the scores have filled out again? The scores are not really there for decorative purposes. They are to stop the loaf from cracking on the sides, as the heat from the oven makes it rise.

It's important when you take your loaf out of the oven, to remove it from the tin immediately, and lie it on it's side. If you don't, you risk getting a soggy bottom, which can make slicing more difficult. Use oven mitts to protect your hands, while turning out of the tin.

I want to show you why the scores are so important to my sandwich loaves. I'm going to show you a picture of the other side - compare it with the former side in the picture above.

This side is always the one facing the back of the oven. It rises the quickest because it's facing the hottest point of the oven. The other side has time to rise gradually. But this is where the scores help. It allows the bread to expand through the middle of the scores, rather than have one side bulging and the other side perfect.

It's also the reason you need to turn your loaf at the halfway point of cooking. Try never to leave the door open for too long while you're turning it. You want to keep that heat in.

Now the fun part - the autopsy! Whenever cutting a freshly baked loaf, make sure it's been cooling from the oven at least 30 minutes to an hour. If you don't, you'll have an irrevocably limp loaf.

This is what I consider a perfect crumb - what I'm aiming for. It's sweet, light and just the right amount of holes. I don't want Swiss cheese holes in the bread I make sandwiches with. It has just a light sprinkling, through the loaf.

Notice also, how the top crust is thicker than the bottom and sides? If the bottom crust is too thick, you've cooked it in the oven too long, or had it on too low a shelf in the oven. Aim to place your bread in the middle of the oven, if it's possible. That way you'll get the heat at the top of your oven, giving that lovely thick crust at the top.

The only thing left to do, is sit back with a chunky slice of your own home made sourdough, and live like a peasant for a day. All that hard work, but so much reward!

My favourite way to eat sourdough is toasted with lashings of real butter and marmalade. Home made Kumquat marmalade is the best!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The sourdough sponge

It's about time I updated the rest of my sourdough making process - or at least the next stage of it. By now, you would've gotten a sourdough starter activated. It's alive and kicking and you're wondering what to do with it next?

If it hasn't been in the fridge, you can use it straight away. If it has been in the fridge, take it out a few hours before making your sponge. Room temperature allows the natural leavens to multiply more readily in what you're about to feed it. The sponge should look like this when it's ready to use.

Basically the sponge recipe is:

*1 cup starter or half your jar
1 cup unbleached bakers flour
1 cup water

Mix together in a glass or ceramic bowl, cover and leave at least 2-4 hours at room temperature.

Why do I have two bowls in the above picture? While making my sponge, I'm also feeding my starter at the same time. So I use the above recipe, in each bowl, separately. One, becomes my sponge (for making the dough with) and the other is put back in my original jar, to be stored in the fridge.

If I didn't do this, I wouldn't have enough starter for my NEXT loaf. Doing both at the same time, ensures I never run out of starter.

I use the larger bowl for the sponge, so it has room to rise. The smaller bowl is only needed to feed and mix the starter - then it's returned to it's original jar. It's important to leave your starter jar out of the fridge for at least 10-15 minutes after feeding, if you're planning to bake the next day. This gives the leavens time to feast before being slowed down again, by the cooler temperature. This is not so important during summer, however, or if you plan to leave it longer than 3 days, in the fridge.

You might be wondering, why it's necessary to make the sponge, before making your dough? Well, it's similar to a body-builder attempting to pump iron. Only the sponge is for pumping leavens instead, to build the bulk in your loaf. If you skip the sponge stage, your loaf may be too dense or not rise very well.

After waiting 2-4 hours, for your leavens to pump the sponge, you're now ready to make the dough.

*Note: 1 cup of starter is the minimum amount, but if you're using half your jar, it may be up to 1 and a half cups. As the starter, often rises and falls, depending how active it is. So keep to the 1 cup as a minimum rule, but it won't hurt to go slightly over.

Monday, December 6, 2010

When it rains...and rains...

For as long as I can remember now, rain is something I've always wished for. When we first moved here (nearly four years ago) we were still experiencing the longest drought of our lives. Rain never came. In our first year we had to get a delivery of water to fill our tank.

For the past 7 days however, we could have filled our tank at least 20 times! I'm not complaining; except maybe for a lack of tanks, LOL. But it's just amazing how the seasons have changed.

This time last year, I would've walked along the verandah searching the blue skies for signs of rain. Would there be a cloud in the distance with a tinge of grey? Much to our disappointment, any cloud that was on the horizon, looking like that, tended to go around us. Rain, just never seemed to arrive.

But when it did though, oh boy!

December 2007

I went searching our old photos for this one - our first summer storm season. It was the first time I was left alone at the house (Dave was at work) and the heavens opened up on our property. It was relentless. I was terrified. Not only was the deluge on the colourbond roof, deafening, but the pooling water couldn't escape fast enough.

December 2007

At one point, it threatened to lap at the edge of the verandah and all I could do was grab the camera and tremble, as I took these photos. Please note: this is where the front retaining wall currently stands, December 2010!

The kind of rain we're experiencing three years later, is completely different. It's not heavy rain but it's set in for at least 2-3 weeks now. The sunshine rarely comes out and the rain stops every now and then. In fact, there were signs of hope yesterday. I nearly did a happy dance when the sun pierced through the clouds as it set in the west. Don't go, I thought. I wondered if the sun would be there to greet me in the morning.

It was bleak skies and more rain though, LOL. This is entirely a new experience in my adult life. I remember rain in my youth, which would spoil a picnic or a day at the beach, but I cannot remember weeks upon weeks of rain.

Today though, all the plans we had for digging better drainage trenches, has turned to mush now, literally! We got a good start on it, and then the rain set in. There were a few days in between (where it didn't rain) but the sun couldn't possibly manage to dry the mud before the rain arrived again. I wouldn't say it's entirely frustrating, as we've accepted this is the way it must be for now. But it has made us realise how much life depends on sunshine as well as rain.

Since we've been here, 90% of our spare time has been spent outside: working the soil, making compost, feeding the chickens, planting seeds and trees, reapplying mulch, moving rocks, building chicken coops - we LOVE being outside. Instinctively we know it's summertime but where's the sun to embrace us outside?

On the plus side though, when it rains...and rains...

It's the best year for establishing trees. Especially fruit trees! All the previous summers, we've had to cart water by hand - which was okay when we only had 6 citrus trees to begin with. Once the pears went in and the extra citrus though, plus the natives we wanted to grow in exposed clay soils, it became a monotonous chore just getting water to them. This is the first year we've not had to water establishing plants. Good old rain, the ultimate natural water source!

It's also an opportunity to test the drainage trenches we've put in place. This kind of consistent but mostly gentle rain, ensures all the trenches are filled to maximum capacity without the force of deluge water, cutting new tracks or breaking banks. As you can see in the picture below:

This is the pond we're attempting to turn into a water source for bees, birds (woodland ducks nest in the area) and for frogs to breed. This kind of rain is excellent for frogs! You should hear them out here. They sing you to sleep at night. Our daughter thoroughly enjoys visiting the pond to catch a tadpole too, and see what stage of development they're at. No legs yet, but hopefully soon! The slightly narrower pond (in the background) is actually a drainage trench we tried widening before the rain put a stop to it.

The drainage trenches are meant for when the pond overflows, or to carry any water that comes down from the slope above. One day, fingers crossed, we'll get this project finished. A week of sunshine would just about make it possible to start digging again.

Another bonus to all this rain is seeing what kind of microscopic life lives in the soil too. In conditions such as these, fungi and mushroom spores start growing, leaving their bright orange or pale caps dotted across the landscape. Look at this amazing example below:

We noticed how the fungi only developed on the southern side of the log, that receives very little sunshine in these overcast days. As has happened with these gorgeous orange caps below. They sprung up in the soil, only on the southern side of a large lantana bush.

Is it any wonder people imagined fairies lived at the bottom of gardens, when in a matter of days, these little magic tops would spring up from nowhere? I'm always amazed at the things which spring up after a good dose of rain here.

It's nice to know however, the galahs and cockatoos are still getting a good feed - even if it is our lovely sunflowers!

We counted five large cockatoos perching on (or near) the sunflower patch this morning, and one even perched on Middle-Ridge chicken coop. The chickens were none too happy! I don't mind the cockatoos eating our sunflowers, but we didn't appreciate their hawk-like impersonations perched on the roof. We shooed them away to spare the poor chooks.

One of the last advantages I can think of, for all this rain - apart from breaking the drought - is how vastly superior photos can be taken when everything is wet. I've decided the best time for photos is after a healthy dose of rain, with light overcast conditions. Here are a few I've taken this morning, of our front retaining wall. Not doing too badly considering what 2007 looked like!

Notice the slight erosion (picture above) that has stopped the drainage trench, draining the water away properly. It's caused the water to pool in front of the wall. This needs to drain away completely so it doesn't keep the wall footings wet. We have moved the excess dirt now, but the problem which needs addressing permanently (the erosion) is found much further up. Fine weather only project though, I'm afraid.

This last picture however, shows the very end of our retaining wall - where all the water at the front of the house ends up, on it's way down the slopes, to the back of our house. It's funny to see the rocks we've collected for our dry river creek bed, swimming in the water. Like many things around here, it's just another project waiting to be finished.

When it rains and rains however, everything must come to a stop.