Fire storm

P1030857In mid-January temperatures in South Australia ran to daily maximums of 46 C (115 F) for most of the week; by week’s end a huge lightning storm and awful winds set parts of the tinder-dry grasslands of the state afire.


imageIn the Eden Valley fire, an area of almost 25000 hectares was burnt out, wiping out sheds, farm and wild animals,a number of houses and countless trees and wild flowers.

The CFS (Country Fire Service) held the fire line at the foot of the ranges along Three Chain Road, preventing it jumping across to the cropping and grazing country between Sanderston to the south and Truro to the north.

Properties in the foothills burnt so fiercely that the fire-fighters could not get in to contain the fire; Pine Hut Knob burnt down to blackened dirt and bare rocks, destroying our shed, our first vehicle – a 1969 FJ40 Land Cruiser - and years of effort planting native trees.

All gone, though trees over a decade old appear to have survived.

P1040021Up on the peak, our weather station also survived, recording the leap in wind speed and the sharp shift in wind direction that caught fire-fighters by surprise.

Wind change at 7pm on 17th Jan 2014


Now we await the autumn rains that will tinge the earth green with new grass and give the remaining trees a much-needed boost.

So not much comfort anywhere, except perhaps in the words of one of Australia’s great poets, Dorothea Mckellar, in her most famous piece “My Country”, contrasting the gentle lands of Europe with the harsh and ancient wild Australian landscape

P1030889My Country

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

P1030891I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!

P1030899A stark white ring-barked forest
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon.
Green tangle of the brushes,
Where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops
And ferns the warm dark soil.

P1030905Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die -
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.

P1030924Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold -
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.

P1030956An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land -
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand -
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968)



Housing chickens

P1030819The family Christmas wound up as a family project; moving the ‘chicken tractor’ to a new home. Chicken tractor? Well, these four hens roam the garden all year round, scratching, fertilizing, weeding, breaking down old mulch, destroying pests, supplementing their own food supply with their own efforts, eating greens as needed, staying fit, laying eggs and generally providing good service for a few handfuls of grain each week. They get themselves out of bed, put themselves back there at the end of each day, and seem to live contentedly within this year-round routine with fairly minimal effort by cook and gardener.

P1030815Nevertheless, the old chicken shed – built way back when our grown sons were just small boys – had gradually deteriorated to the point where the rats were able to get in under the walls and the pigeons were forming flocks around the feed trays and getting trapped inside. Something had to be done, so chicken shed #2 was formally proposed and constructed through the Christmas-New Year break into early 2014.

P1030825Metal walls are fully sealed by cementing them at ground level. Ventilation is provided by wire mesh so small that not even a sparrow can get in, and the bottom edge of this wire too is buried below ground level so that rats can’t dig their way underneath it.

Metal grain bins – sealed with close-fitting lids – were moved inside to make ingress by vermin just that much harder. Perches – essential to chicken peace-of-mind by being above fox height – were built at two levels because chickens ‘leap’ rather than fly upwards and need a system of steps to get to the top.

P1030827The water dish needs to be out of the direct sunlight else it grows a coating of algae that can’t contribute much to the taste, and it needs to stay cool and fresh for healthy hens.

The bottom of the hen house is covered in deep straw to simplify cleaning but also to capture night-time chicken poop below the perches; this mixture of manure and old straw makes the best compost. It will eventually end up in potting mix or on garden beds as a natural fertilizer after composting. Straw is changed regularly.

A hanging feeder keeps the open-grain tray above mouse height, should one ever get in there.

The roof overhang makes sure that rain falls away from the walls. The floor is total sealed and the door is a really strong welded metal construction covered with small mesh wire. A cement step keeps the cook’s feet dry as she goes in and out. The egg boxes are sturdy old beehive box sections filled with straw and easy for the hens to enter.

P1030821Finally, the hens do need to be able to pop in and and out at any time of the day for feeding, drinking and egg laying; this necessary aperture is one point at which rats and pigeons could potentially breech the other security measures. So the opening is set well above ground level and accessed by a stepped ramp that the chooks can climb – even in wet weather. We’ve found though that pigeons finally figure out how to fly through such an opening to the food inside. So we used the ‘delicatessen method’ of keeping birds out; colourful plastic strips form a curtain across this entrance and the chooks have learnt to push through this as they enter and exit. The strips flap about in any small breeze and scare off even the most courageous of birds.

P1030822This hatchway is built from a hinged steel ‘cat door’; a tough hardwood wedge is used each night to lock this door against foxes and to hold the door open during the day for regular chicken activities.

So it all gets done, the chooks get moved across with some little persuasion and after much forlorn hanging-about at the entrance to the old shed. With luck this shed should last for the next twenty years.

Harvesting ‘bamboo’ for use in the garden

P1030808Giant Cane’ – Arundo Donax – is an ornamental plant that lives life on the edge of being declared a noxious weed because of its invasive habits along disturbed riparian (riverside) environments as far afield as Europe and California. While its origins are obscure, some claim that it comes from India or perhaps from Mediterranean regions.

In South Australia ‘giant cane’ is just called ‘bamboo’, because that’s what it looks like. It has been cultivated here for many decades by the old Italian market gardeners who grew it for use as tomato stakes and bean poles, among other things. Many of the old homes that had big gardens out the back – including this one – had this cane growing in some obscure corner of the yard from where it was cut at intervals.

P1030789In our garden it has grown for the past twenty years behind the old chicken shed; here it has formed an impenetrable thicket growing out of a woody invasive root system that seems impossible to dig out or kill off. The only way to get at the canes is to cut them at the base with the electric chainsaw and drag the long strong hollow poles out of there to be processed somewhere where there is more room.

P1030802These poles are 2-3 cms in diameter, light, smooth, strong and up to 3m tall. At the end of each summer they produce feathery flower heads high up, though growth always seems to be via the root system.

The leafy tops  are cut off with heavy-duty loppers and any remaining stray side leaves are pulled off by hand. This pile of leaves and twiggy or broken malformed canes is put through the shredder to be recycled as mulch. The mulch goes back under the fruit trees, as it’s splintery stuff and not much fun to walk on.

Arundo donax canes don’t last as long as real bamboo staves but will be good for a year or two before they become too brittle and liable to split when handled. Canes are stored by standing them on end in a corner out of direct sunlight. Leaving them on the ground over winter hastens rotting.P1030794






The poles themselves are cable-tied to steel droppers to form a smooth ‘tomato wall’ along either side of my young tomato plants. For many years I built tepee trellis’ or tied tomato plants onto individual jarrah stakes, nipping and pruning the tomato vines in the hope of greater yields. I’ve become convinced however that simply touching tomato plants starts the diseases off that they seem so prone to. These smooth cane fences minimize friction while preventing the vines sprawling into the mulch, while saving much labour in tying and training.


Saving broad bean (fava bean) seed

P1030475Broad beans – Vicia faba –  are also known as fava beans, horse beans, English beans, European beans, Windsor beans, field beans and tick beans. Broad beans are one of the oldest legumes in cultivation and have been an important crop since the stone age. They were well known in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, Italy and many Middle Eastern countries. They have rigid stems and an upright growth habit. (Source: ‘Seed to Seed’ – Susan Ashworth)

P1030313This hardy lot were planted in blocks back in May 2013, consisting of both a short and tall variety – ‘Coles Prolific’ and ‘Aquadulce’ respectively. Although broad beans are self-pollinated, bees are attracted to the large flowers and can cause a good deal of cross-pollination. So rather than attempting to keep these two varieties pure by separating or bagging them I plant and store seed from both, including the crosses. Very few gardeners are managing to develop new varieties of vegetables, and my hope is that I will eventually be able to find plants that still carry the long bean of the Aquadulce but on the shorter stalks of the Coles Prolific. Perhaps that way they won’t get blown over so readily in Spring!

P1030614Because broad beans are a member of the Leguminosae family they play an important role in organic gardens in storing nitrogen in the soil via nodules on their root systems. Planted out between late autumn and mid-winter, they do well as a cover crop that provides delicious fresh large-podded beans to the table in early Spring when not much else is available from the cold ground. We cook ours in olive oil with finely-chopped onion. The cook collects pods from higher up the plant, knowing full well the gardener’s stern injunctions about leaving the lower (early) beans on the plant for next year’s seeds.

P1030770By summer these broad bean plants have died off into black sticks with just the hard bean cases attached. Some of the pods burst open and spill the dried bean seed onto the ground, but this can’t be helped. These spilt beans will germinate in the beds and make attractive plants during summer, but aren’t much use so are weeded out. The dried pods are picked off and stored in open trays in the shed awaiting processing, and the dried stalks are knocked over to be shredded as mulch or until the bed is needed.

P1030777When seed-saving day arrives for the broad beans, the dried pods are simply placed in an old onion bag and banged on the cement path to release the bean seed. This mixture is then sieved and rocked to lift the broken shells to the surface where they can be picked off and tossed onto the compost heap.

P1030780The bean seed is placed back into trays until I get a further minute to pick out the misshapen and miscoloured seeds and throw these away, retaining only the best for planting out in six months time. These selected seeds will spend a few days in the freezer to kill off any bean weevil eggs in residence.  Each year I manage to save a few more tins of these wonderfully large seeds so that I might extend the areas of the garden where winter crops of broad beans create natural fertilizer in the soil to boost my summer vegetable crops.