Gardening in Winter

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The Permaculture Design Course ended just in time for the Ballarat winter to put an end to much in the way of gardening. What is still growing grows slowly. I got a few leafy plants in the ground that are growing at around the same rate that the slugs and birds are eating them and will hopefully take off once the ground heats up. But for the most part I have just been putting sticks in the ground and hoping they start doing something come the spring.

I bought a hazlenut duo and some apple trees in the family’s favourite varieties (which also happen to be pollinators, luckily) and planted these in the food forest. Being bare rooted they look a lot like sticks. We impulse bought a mulberry tree as well, which has gone on the southern side of the main food garden, alongside the two plum trees we put in two winters ago and the apricot tree that I relocated from the old orchard where it wasn’t very happy.

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Hazelnut duo, Ennis and Cassia

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Close up on the hazelnut.

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Apple trees – we got Fuji, Pink Lady and Red Delicious.

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Apple tree.

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Mulberry tree, also looks like a stick at the moment.

I also have big plans for these sticks, planted in terra cotta pots on the Eastern verandah. They will grow to be leafy grapevines in three different colours and shade the house from the morning sun in summer. I haven’t put the climbing frames up for them yet, but I think I’ve got a bit of time before I need to do that.

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Look at my stick! Look at it!

And possibly the most ambitious stick of all is this tiny twig which claims to be the beginning of a black Walnut tree. The silver birches in the central driveway garden have died and I want a feature tree to take over from them. The walnut will have the added advantage of suppressing grass growth under it and eventually it will bear walnuts, which I love.

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Where’s the walnut tree?

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There it is!

Fortunately for me, being an impatient gardener who wants to watch things growing NOW, I have my little greenhouse which is producing some rather slow lettuce and some beetroot for my next round of beetroot relish.

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Lettuce in the front, beetroot in the back.

I also have the warmhouse which is slightly more gratifying, although still only requiring a weekly visit for watering. The fish and water plants are doing well, and the basil mint looks like it could get comfortable in here.

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Super stylish fishpond, clearly used to live at number 5.

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Basil mint – is it basil? Is it mint? It’s healthy appearance at this time of year suggests that it is definitely not really basil.

The fish pond and blue tubs filled with water create a thermal mass that hold warmth and helps keep the temperature above zero during the freezing nights we have been having. It gets quite warm in the warmhouse during the day, pushing 20* on sunny days even when it is well below 10* outside.

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Three dollars at Bunnings. Super useful for learning about the temperature ranges in your growing structures.

I’ve popped a little Washington Navel in here, along with the avocados who look like they could do with a holiday in Queensland but are hanging in there. A friend has entrusted her potted orange tree known as ‘Grandad’ to me. Grandad had lived on the south side of a house in Geelong and seems to be pretty tough. He will hopefully do well in the warmhouse.

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The tea plants in here are surviving and even putting out a few new shoots. The wormwood cuttings have all struck and are turning into actual plants. They will be planted in the farmyard in a protected spot and also in the new chicken yard when it is built.

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The wormwood cuttings worked! Hooray for making new plants from old.

Winter gardening is kind of slow paced, but I’ve got heaps of ideas and plans for spring. My order of seeds and seedling pots has arrived from Diggers, and I’ll be getting a new bigger greenhouse for my birthday where I can grow all my tomatoes and capsicums and maybe even some basil. I’ve got plans for a herb bed along the side of the new greenhouse as well. I’ve never been one for growing flowers, but I’ll be experimenting with those this year to define the edges of the circular gardens and fill in the gaps that the grass currently likes to take over. And hopefully some of the herby and shrubby plants in the food forest will begin to thrive between the trees and start to out-compete the grasses in there too.

A few of the bulbs are starting to form flowers, including the ones we planted on Ripley’s grave, so soon we’ll start to see a little bit of colour in the garden again. Then the wattles will bloom, the nuts and stonefruit will blossom, the deciduous trees will start to turn green again, and next thing we know it will be spring. Then I’ll really have my work cut out for me.

I can’t wait.

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Permaculture Design Course

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It’s time for me to write about my PDC experience.

I’ve been putting it off for a while, mostly due to the fact that for a number of reasons that are complex and fairly personal I did not actually finish the course. I attended all but the last three weekends, and while my inability to complete the course still weighs heavily on me, I made my decision and there’s no going back now.

A classmate just published a blog post that included her experience of the course, and I have to say that mine was very different.

My motivations for enrolling were probably different. I had dabbled in reading permaculture publications, done the introduction to permaculture weekend, and attended several workshops on various topics. Circumstances had prevented me from doing the PDC as it had been offered in previous formats, from two-week intensive courses to every Friday for two terms. So when the course was offered as one weekend every three or four weeks, and nearly all of those weekends we ones when my children were not at home, it was the perfect opportunity.

Like everything I do, I bellyached for a while before paying the deposit. How would I cope with the time commitment required and the early starts on weekends? How would I cope with the social aspect of spending entire weekends with strangers?

In the end it was my desire to learn that got me over the line. I’ve been growing food for a few years now, in a very hit and miss fashion, and I wanted to learn how to be more efficient and more effective at it. The idea of a set of principles and design methods that could be applied to life in general, leading to a more sustainable way of living, appealed to me greatly.

So I steeled myself and embarked on the journey. And there was so much to learn! Not just with regard to gardening, but also things like patterns and land usage and living spaces and community. I made pages of notes at each session, including lists of things I wanted to implement at home.

I also found myself getting involved in discussions about topics like food miles and parenting and sexism and body image. After a while, I found a confidence in speaking to my classmates that came from a knowledge that this was a group of people with respect for diverse opinions and who were all a little bit radical in their own way.

They say that doing a PDC changes your life. And for a little while, in a lot of ways, it did. Knowing that I had a lot to get through, that I was going to be super busy for several months, I was very proactive and organised. I made sure I went to bed early and got plenty of sleep. I drank lots of water. I made sure to eat well and keep the pantry and fridge well stocked with easy dinners for times when I had no motivation for cooking.

There were times when I got overwhelmed. Mornings when I found it hard to get moving, through tiredness or anxiety, and desperately wanted to just stay home. Knowing that one of my classmates relied on me for transport was what got me up and moving on a lot of weekends. And every time I got to class I was rewarded with a welcoming group and plenty of interesting content.

I learned a lot about my own property by visiting others and applying what we were taught. I came to recognise the genius of the previous owner of my place in how he set up the drainage system around the house and in the paddocks. I realised the value of the concrete slab under my wood heater and the large solid wall behind it as thermal mass. I even discovered an olive tree that has been only a few metres away from my house the whole time I have lived here and never noticed before. I began to see a wealth of opportunities that exist within my own back yard.

And as soon as I could I began implementing my ideas. I bought a worm farm and stocked it with worms. I started planting flowers to attract bees and other beneficial insects to my garden. I had a go at implementing a grey water system before realising how very, very flat the area around the house is, meaning that there is no scope for runoff from the laundry or bathrooms.

I got the confidence to do things like buy avocado plants and attempt to fertilise the blueberry bushes that have sat in suspended animation behind the greenhouse for nearly two years. I learned that the Washington Navel is one of the best orange varieties to grow around Ballarat. I bought an awful lot of plants. I began creating a food forest based in the dappled shade of a big honey locust next to my vegie patch. I created new wormwood plants from cuttings that I will put in the new poultry enclosure in the spring.

My garden is currently full of a lot of bare sticks poking out of the ground, but even these are exciting in their own way. Things like hazelnuts, three varieties of apple, a mulberry tree, a strategically placed black walnut, and a series of grapes along the eastern verandah. I have a box full of flower and vegetable seeds, a new greenhouse on its way for my birthday that will house my tomatoes and capsicums, and plans for a herb garden.

As well as embracing plants like borage, comfrey and tagasaste, I’ve taken a look at the environmental impact of my household. We’ve switched to a greener power company, with the intention of learning about and reducing our usage before we have our solar power system installed shortly. After Joel Meadows’ teachings about fire, I am getting much more warmth and efficiency out of our wood fire and looking to make it our main source of winter heating for the future.

I feel like I am treading water a little during these cold months with little growth, but I’ve got crops of garlic and onions in, as well as beetroot and lettuce in the small greenhouse. I am itching for the spring, when I can get back into the garden with gusto and start to make some real change and hopefully produce some real results.

My hope is that now I know a little, I can look to learn more. While I had no intentions of becoming a permaculture designer, learning the principles and applying them has implications for the future of everything I do on my property and beyond.

Even just flicking through my course notes, I am reminded of so much of the information that I had already forgotten, that I hope to return to when the weather warms up. In the mean time I can read and plan as I sit by my roaring wood fire which is drying the laundry as it warms the house.

Maybe I will even find it within me to push my social boundaries and attend some permaculture-related short courses or other events in the future.

Staring Down the Barrel

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Sienna, Maia and Meredith, expanding rapidly.

Three weeks until the first does are due to kid.

I haven’t had does due this early before. It feels like it is still Autumn, with a whole winter to get through before Spring returns. Spring didn’t really start until November last year, when the rain finally stopped after a miserable two and a half months, so based on that, we have a long, cold, wet half a year ahead of us.

And kids due in three weeks. The first to kid will be the older does in the quarantine paddock. Sienna was bred on consecutive days before Australia day and didn’t come back into season. Meredith seemed to miss on the first cycle and was bred three weeks later, but she showed heat on and off for a couple of months so could be due any time. She is the size of a house, though, so no doubt about her.

Maia seemed to be doing nothing for a very long time, but recently it became apparent that she is already in kid. The only time this could have happened would have been when the bucks first came in rut and Fitz broke the gate latch and got in with the does. Making Maia due a day or two after Sienna.

Sienna and Meredith will both be 7yo this year, and it is my intention that this be their last lactation. They are both residents of the quarantine paddock, so their kids will be hand raised as a biosecurity measure to give them the best chance of not contracting cheesy gland. The plan is to milk them both for a full 365 days and get the highest herd recording result possible for them, as well as a Q* 24 hour production award for Sienna, who has proved her ability to get the butterfat and volume required during previous lactations. Maia is only a fairly young doe, who lacks the production capacity of the other two but has a really nice udder. She had really lovely twins last year, but the doe was lost to joint ill, so another daughter from her would be wonderful.

There are still a few things to do before kidding. The gutters have been installed on the shed, which should solve the problem of water running off the roof and coming in under the back wall during wet weather. The feed area has been cleared out and will be used for raising kids. I’ll need to get a lamb bar or similar for feeding multiple kids.

I’m in the process of acquiring a milking machine. With two high-volume does to milk, and a history of carpal tunnel issues, I’ve had to admit that hand milking more than one or two does is more than I can cope with. I’ve found the make and model I want, now it’s just a matter of having it delivered and figuring out how to work it.

After last year, I am pretty apprehensive about facing another kidding season. After the three older girls kid I’ll get a bit of a break before the other five younger does are due, spread over September and October. Hand raising kids is a lot of work, and very time consuming, even when everything goes well.

For me kidding season is about late nights and early mornings. It’s about the moment when you realise that even if the doe kids right now and with no problems you are still going to be up most of the night. It is huddling under the heat lamp, staring at a glassy-eyed goat who could give birth at literally any moment yet manages to hang on for hours. It is the accumulation of straw on the carpet due to all the washing that has to be dried in front of the fire, and all the straw your clothes pick up from the pens while you are on your knees trying to get frustrating newborns to feed. It is dry, cracked hands, the smell of amniotic fluid and colostrum on the cuffs of your coat, and endless trips back and forth to the shed in the dark.

It’s the feeling of relief when all the kids are out, even if they haven’t all made it. It’s the difficult decision of when to wait and watch and when to help a doe to deliver.

I don’t know how many kids we will get this season. Between none and 24 is the reality of it. Somewhere around 16 is likely if things go well. Inevitably we will lose some, but all I can do is hope that the 50% losses we experienced last year were a one-off.

For now I will enjoy the good nights of sleep and the relatively quick morning and evening routines milking just one doe. The calm before the storm. But before long I’ll be under pressure to get up at 6am, fit in feeding kids three times a day and go to bed early. I’ll be working out how to fit in evening milking with footy training. Checking the online camera every hour when there are does in the kidding pen.

There is no going back now. This will happen, soon.

Making Progress in the Garden

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I’ve got three weekends left of the Permaculture Design Certificate course being run by Ballarat Permaculture Guild. I have learned so much, and having found some time lately I have been rediscovering my garden and coming up with ideas to make it more productive. Not only has my motivation to make changes and investments in time and money around the yard increased, I’ve gained a better understanding of why to do some things as well as how.

One idea I had was to put some fish and plants in the water trough in the farmyard. After researching plants that would not harm any of the animals, I set up some refuges for the fish and left it to see what would happen. It was going pretty well for a while, although one of the goats developed a taste for water ribbons. After a few weeks, though, a couple of the ducks discovered that the trough had edible plants in it, as well as being a nice place to have a wash. So the plants and fish had to find a new home, so that the trough could be cleaned out and hopefully not continue to attract ducks.

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The fish tub. I expect frogs will move in too.

I had been intending to add a water container to the large greenhouse, know referred to as the warmhouse, so having to move the fish and water plants forced this idea to come to life. But first I had to remove all the freeloading tomatoes.

After last year’s successful tomato yield I had big plans for the tomato crop this year. I collected passata jars with the goal of filling all of them with home made passata and bottled tomatoes, enough to get us through the year until the next tomato season. Last year’s bottled tomatoes lasted us six months. So, armed with seeds from the varieties that had yielded best, I managed to start some tomato plants from seed for the first time ever.

This early success looked like it was going to bear fruit. Once the plants were moved to the large greenhouse they grew and grew, before long they were taller than me. They looked great. But the season was not kind. I harvested maybe 5kg of tomatoes this year, a big drop from last year when I was bringing in buckets full of tomatoes every few days.

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Looks like I’ll be making green tomato relish…

So what went wrong? I had the right varieties, the right growing conditions and plenty of water. I think the issues were a combination of too many plants, not enough support and too much watering. The plants grew so thickly that the lower parts got no light, and the wet earth led to mould, fungus and rotten fruit. The huge plants fell over with insufficient support, leaving fruit sitting on wet ground and rotting leaves. Then I noticed something had been eating the fruit. I didn’t think it was birds, but it wasn’t until I found the entry hole that I realised the problem was rodents. Having the bottom half chewed out of what would have been a 500g tomato was very disappointing. Lots of the bigger fruit was damaged.

For next year we should have a new sturdy greenhouse for the tomatoes, like the small greenhouse but with more floor space. This time I will not get greedy and plant too many plants. I will stick with the Oxheart tomatoes, which ripen early, have more flesh and less seeds, and due their large size are easy to peel.

I was looking for a place to site the new greenhouse, when I stumbled across a large raised garden bed that had lost a lot of its larger plants. These had presumably died in last summer’s big dry. This bed features a big Honey Locust tree on the eastern end, a tree often used to base a plant guild around due to it’s deep root system and ability to bring nutrients up from deep in the soil and make them available for more shallow-rooted plants. I had found the perfect place to start a food forest.

I had a dream a couple of months ago that I had found an area of my garden that I had never been in before, and it was full of food plants including trees that grew pineapples. To then stumble across this garden bed that had been right in my face for the last two and a bit years and see it in a completely different light was surreal. Not only that, but this garden bed has an olive tree still living that is visible from the house, that I have walked past hundreds of times, but never seen until now.

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Definitely an olive tree – even has an olive!

So far my food forest contains it’s feature Honey Locust, an olive tree and a few nectarine seeds that I have popped in the ground. I have also added a feijoa to help get things started. Next I’ll need some smaller shrubs and groundcovers to complete the plant guild. I’ve started some comfrey seeds, so with a bit of luck these will sprout and I can add them too.

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The epic Honey Locust, perfect mainstay for a plant guild

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It doesn’t look like much, but I’m going to reclaim this big raised area for growing food.

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Beginning with this little feijoa tree.

In the latest Diggers Club order, with the feijoa, I bought a couple of tea plants. I’ve started growing and collecting a few tea additives, like peppermint, chamomile and rosehips, so adding the base tea to my garden seemed like the next step. Upon reading that the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, likes similar conditions to blueberries, I decided to plant them in the blueberry patch. I’ve been afraid to do anything to the blueberries, which have been in for nearly two years, as they represent my fourth attempt at growing blueberries and I am afraid of doing something that will kill them. But in planting the tea plants I had to take a deep breath and apply some manure and mulch. Fingers crossed!

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Tea and blueberries, with a couple of rogue Sweetie tomatoes, behind the small greenhouse.

I wasn’t able to get avocado trees from Diggers because I hesitated and they sold out. I was fortunate that a local nursery had some Hass avocado trees in stock, which were reportedly a lot more advanced than the ones available by mail order from Diggers. Avocados are something else I have wanted to try growing for ages, but had put off due to being afraid of killing a fairly expensive tree. Turning over the large greenhouse to become a warmhouse presented a good opportunity to get some avocado trees going in a sheltered environment, so I took the plunge. Again, fingers crossed!

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Avocados in the ‘warmhouse’. I hope to add a few more plants that will appreciate the frost-free zone.

Something else I am trying that I have never done before is striking cuttings. I want to plant some wormwood in the chook pen, and we have heaps of mature plants in the yard, so I’m attempting to grow some new plants from cuttings.

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The potting table, with wormwood cuttings.

My renewed enthusiasm for growing things and my confidence to try something new when it comes to gardening are a direct result of what I have learned in the PDC. There is so much more to growing things that putting plants in the ground and watering them. Soil health is a huge thing, as well as keeping the soil covered with plants to prevent weeds from inviting themselves. Another thing I have learned is to worry more about what the garden is doing than how it looks.

The growing season is slowing down, the garlic is in the ground, the pumpkin vines are dying off, some plants have packed it in for the winter and others are settling into their spots in the greenhouses. I’ve got a few jars of pickles and relish in the cupboard, and I am hopeful that a few more figs will ripen before time runs out and winter hits. Then we get a couple of months of relative peace before kidding begins and all my outside time is dedicated to goats again.

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Yay! Figs!

It will be interesting to see how my efforts manifest when spring comes back and the growing season starts again. But I feel like production is definitely set to increase.

 

What’s The Alternative?

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There are so many products on the market for making people feel clean and smell nice. Most of them are overcomplicated, overpriced and kind of superfluous. But making the switch to more natural and simpler bath and body products can be a bit of a minefield.

Even for those of us who don’t get into perfumes and cosmetics, or who know better than to use a shower gel or antibacterial soap, it can be hard to know where to start or which alternatives actually work. Luckily for you I have tried a few. So here are my experiences, the products I use or buy and why, and a few examples of things that didn’t work for me.

In the Laundry

For years I found that regular washing powder made me itch. Growing up we had whatever was cheapest to wash our clothes in, which was usually some kind of concentrated powder. We never had fabric softener, and to this day the smell of fabric softener is so foreign to me that I can recognise it on a person from metres away.

After becoming the mother of a child with sensitive skin, I started looking for alternatives. We tried Lux soap flakes, which helped but were a pain to use because they had to be dissolved in hot water before use and can create a build-up of soap in your washing machine. I eventually settled on ionic laundry balls, which change the pH of the water in a similar way to which soap does. I have now been using laundry balls for something like ten years.

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You don’t get whiter whites and brighter colours, but you get clean clothes. I use a stain remover for grease stains that don’t shift on the first wash. For extra dirty things I dissolve home-made soap shavings in water and let it sit for a couple of days until it forms a sort of gel, then add this to the wash.

Between this sort of washing and hanging wet clothes out to dry in the sun you get clothes that remain fresh for years even if worn very often.

In the Shower

As you will already know, I make my own soap and use this in place of shampoo as well. It is not uncommon for us to have up to ten different soaps in use around the house, between all the hand-washing stations and the showers.

Recent studies have shown that antibacterial detergents and hand-washing products (I won’t call them soap because they are far from it) can cause skin problems and leave us susceptible to infection as they kill the microbes in our skin. The skin microbiome is a relatively new discovery, and is considered to be as important to our health as the gut microbiome. Antibacterial products kill protective microbes and there is currently a push to discourage people from using them on their skin.

Real soap, made using the natural process of saponification rather than slapping together some sudsy chemical by-products, does not kill off your beneficial skin microbes. Real soap is slippery by nature of its alkalinity, and this causes germs and bacteria to be rinsed off or rubbed off when you dry your skin after using soap. Alkaline substances will cause your skin to become dry, which is why soap is made with a lelve of what is called a ‘superfat’. Superfatting soap ensures that even after the sodium hydroxide used to create the chemical reaction with the oils is all consumed, there is enough oil left in the soap to moisturise the skin. This is where skin-loving oils like olive oil, avocado oil and cocoa butter produce a soap that moisturises as it cleans. Natural ingredients like honey, tea, milk and oatmeal, as well as clays, botanicals and essential oils, can be added to real soap for extra healing, soothing and nourishing of the skin while you wash.

I’ve had people complain to me that they use body washes and hand washing detergents because they don’t like the slippery feeling that soap leaves. But this slippery feeling is what lets you know that you are getting clean without losing all your natural skin flora and moisture.

So now that you know a bit about real soap, you can understand why we use it so extensively. For hand washing, body washing and hair washing, even sometimes laundry use. You can use pretty much any soap to wash your hair, but things like avocado oil might leave it a bit greasy. We mostly use plain soap for hair washing, but the varieties with Rhassoul clay are a nice alternative.

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Here is the shelf in my shower. It generally contains a hair soap as well as whatever varieties Matt and myself have in use at the time. Also note the apple cider vinegar. Those of us with longer hair use this to reduce tangles. It removes some of the fat from your hair and neutralises the alkalinity of the soap. And once it is dry I guarantee that you don’t smell like old apples.

I have tried bicarb and vinegar for hair washing, as well as just rinsing, but using soap works for me. And the rest of the family have adopted it as well. I have a few people who buy my soap specifically for washing hair, including one woman who says that it is the best thing she has ever used for washing her dreadlocks.

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We are still using regular toothpaste, but for antiperspirant we have settled on alum stones. I tried a natural paste deodorant, which while not preventing perspiration at all did completely eliminate the subsequent odour. Unfortunately I developed a reaction to it after a couple of weeks so had to try something else.

I had been uncomfortable using commercial antiperspirants for a while. Roll-ons only really work for bare armpits, and the spray options caused an alarming stinging sensation that made me feel like my pores were shrinking away in terror. I believe that antiperspirants cause your pores to pucker up so that you don’t actually sweat, which can’t be good for you. Also, despite all the claims of offering ’48 hour protection’, not one antiperspirant I tried was able to keep me dry for much more than a few hours. Add to that my increasing distaste for the marketing around these products – I once found myself having to choose between two varieties named ‘Sexy’ and ‘Invisible’ and the irony struck a little too close to the bone.

We tried naturally formed alum stones, but these tended to erode, break and leave sharp edges. More recently I bought a stone from eBay, which you can see in the picture. It is dense and carved to a useful shape and it has been really great to use, as well as durable.

When I am at home working around the farm and garden I don’t use any form of antiperspirant or deodorant, I just sweat freely and rinse it off later. Often I can go a whole day without applying anything to my armpits and as long as I wear something well-ventilated, like a singlet, I don’t even smell at the end of the day. I think having actual armpit hair might work in my favour in this regard. Let the body do what the body does.

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Some other products I use are made by friends with goats. Both the Glenafton Goat Milk and Alpine Goatsmilk moisturisers are beautifully light and last for ages. Which one I buy basically comes down to who I see at a show when I need to stock up. I leave lotions to the experts and stick to basic soapmaking, because these producers make great quality and excellent value products. I also have arnica salves from Glenafton and Alpine that I use on my frequent bruises.

You will see also in this photo that I use a body spray. I have a bit of a paranoia about people finding me smelly, so I still use a body spray in social and work situations. Many body sprays have dodgy names and creepy themes (like ‘Temptation’, ‘Tease’ and ‘Instant Crush’…), but I found one called ‘So…?’ which sounds like an awkward silence or an expression of ambivalence, and decided that was the one for me.

Due to the way I live and present myself there are a lot of things other people buy and use that I just don’t. Things like disposable razors or make-up removal products or protection for heat-treated hair. I don’t have a complicated personal maintenance routine, I just wash with soap, condition my hair with cider vinegar, apply some goat milk moisturiser and run a comb through my hair. It’s pretty minimalist, but it saves me heaps of time and money, and I’m not unnecessarily applying chemicals to my body.

 

The Only Way Is Forward

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Tomatoes are late this year. But it’s still Autumn.

So it’s March. March. How did this happen?

Anyway, I am pleased to report that my resolve to not spend another year treading water and being miserable has held and I am Getting Shit Done and Making Progress as fast as our dodgy wireless NBN will let me.

Although I have been slowed down by scheduling clashes with pay day, I have begun taking art classes every second Wednesday. This has been great fun, and rewarding. I have bought some paints and I’ll soon be receiving my grandfather’s pastels (he is going back to focusing on oils), so I’ll be able to do some art at home, but in the classes I have been learning all sorts of tricks and techniques, so I’ll stick with them for a while.

I’ve stuck to my bike riding so far, going out at least four times a week and now doing a 9km circuit. Winter is going to be hard, and fitting in around all the after school stuff is already a challenge, but I hope to keep going and keep improving my fitness. I’ve recently added a weekly yoga class back into the mix, which takes away a bike riding night but definitely has its own benefits that make it worthwhile.

I’m almost half way through the Permaculture Design Course, and so far this has been a real emotional rollercoaster and massive learning experience. Permaculture is a way of life, a sound theory of all things, that aims to create efficient, sustainable ways to satisfy the needs of people, animals and the Earth. Not only have I encountered a hundred tips and ideas for things to do in my home and garden, I have also learned philosophies for a more constructive and authentic inner life and better relationships with others. As a process it has been devastating and enlightening. A restructuring of my priorities and the way I see things. Not to mention an amazing connection with people on a similar journey with similar goals. It has pushed me beyond my comfort zone and along a path that will hopefully take me to a more prominent place with my activism and allow me to do more good both at home and in the world at large.

A course like this was the logical next step in Getting Out Of The House. I have also been doing a few social things and actually looking forward to them and enjoying them. I am generally feeling more grounded, more stable, more supported and better able to cope with the swings and roundabouts of life. I’ve been eating better, sleeping better, drinking more water. As a family we are better organised, sharing the load, and somewhat more relaxed. I might go weeks on end without half an unscheduled day, but I pace myself and take care of the details and it is mostly going pretty well.

So from here I intend to make more regular posts, not random stuff like this but posts with a topic. About the garden and the goats, about the things I learn and try, and how it all fits into the permaculture principles. I have many ideas of things to experiment with, ways to make the garden more productive, ways to make more of an impact on the world around me, and ways to enrich my life and further broaden my horizons.

I’m even actually setting goals. I’ve written down a few goals for the garden and farm for the next six months and I’m in the early stages of planning a particular challenge for the rest of this year and into 2018, which I should be able to announce in a few weeks. In the meantime I am gently ramping up my social media communication and profile in the hope that I can get all of you on board in some small way to support my efforts.

I’ve had a few moments where everything looks scary and like an awful lot of work and I wonder if I really have what it takes to push through that fear and face the experience head-on. Sometimes all that keeps me going is the thought that I would never forgive myself for giving up. Sometimes I just want to stay in bed where everything is safe and familiar and there are no risks. But I know that the only way is forward. So that is where I am going.

 

Seriously, This Feeder is the Greatest Thing…

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Anyone who knows me also knows that my goats are my life. If you want an indication of how my life is going, ask me how my goats are. When they are well, life is good. When they are sick or having problems, things are less rosy. So anything that helps keep my goats healthy also improves my life in general.

I had a specific goal in mind when I set out to acquire a feeder from Advantage Feeders – to resolve the annual issue of newly-kidded does going off their feed and becoming unwell due to the compounding effects of kidding, milking and insufficient feed intake. Kidding time is stressful enough without having to worry about does who turn their noses up at their feed, or get acidosis or scours post-kidding or succumb to worm burdens due to the huge drain on their physical resources.

Saving time, reducing waste and saving money were handy side-effects. I just wanted a way to ease my does through that transition from pregnant to milking, keep them eating and keep them happy and healthy. I rationalised that to save one doe or one kid per year, or even just avoid some of the inevitable vet bills, would give me value from the feeder purchase.

The feeder did all these things. And so much more.

The premise of the three-way feed restriction system employed and created by Advantage Feeders is that consumption is limited by the amount of feed the animal can get to stick to its tongue before it runs of saliva and has to take a break from eating and let the saliva build up again. The amount the animal can eat in a session is limited by the two adjusters and the Adjuster Guard, which control the amount of individual grains or pellets the animal can access in any one mouthful of feed.

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Imagine eating crackers – you don’t get through many before you need a drink. Now imagine if you had to pick up little bits of cracker with your tongue, and could only lick a few bits at a time in order to pick them up. Before long you would run out of saliva and the cracker pieces wouldn’t stick to your tongue any more.  You would go and do something else and get back to eating crackers later.

In a ruminant, this ‘little and often’ style of feeding is the sort of thing these highly-efficient systems of digestion evolved to thrive on. Feeding every couple of days, or even twice a day, is not good for the rumen and its community of microbes that convert what the animal eats into digestible nutrients. The rumen works best when the optimal pH level is maintained. Under these conditions the animal feels well, has a good appetite, and makes the most of the food it consumes.

The feeder itself doubles as bulk storage. There is no moving of feed from storage vessels to feed bins for the stock to then eat. This saves time. Having feed constantly available makes the animals much more relaxed – there is no feeding frenzy to deal with, no shy or anxious animals, everyone gets their fair share.

The feed is kept clean, dry and fresh in the feeder.  This reduces waste, which in turn saves money. I suspect that it also reduces the amount of worm larva the animals ingest, and I certainly had less trouble with internal parasites last winter than in previous years. Buying feed in bulk rather than by the bag is also a huge money-saver for the smallholder like myself. I am currently saving $300 per month on grain by buying in bulk. I buy grain every 4-5 weeks, where buying by the bag had me in at the produce store at least twice a week. More time savings.

But my observations in the behaviour, health and development of my stock go way beyond the basic economic benefits.  Animals who know where their next meal is coming from are much more content and relaxed. There is less competition, less bullying. Even the littlest members of the group get plenty of opportunity to feed. Dams are less cranky and possessive of their offspring, the group is more like a village than a series of separate nuclear families. Everyone is more tolerant and gets along better. This makes my life a lot easier and safer.

The does coped much better with kidding, even with the horrendous wet conditions that prevailed for weeks on end during kidding season. They maintained their appetites due to their rumens functioning efficiently, ate well, came into milk, fed their kids and didn’t get acidosis or suffer from internal parasites post-kidding. This was a major win in solving what had been an ongoing problem.

Rather than milking off all their condition, even the heaviest milkers remained well-covered as they approached peak lactation at 8-12 weeks. The goatlings have grown on well in preparation for the coming breeding season. At shows, judges and other breeders have commented on the improvement in condition and development throughout my herd this year. My kids breezed through weaning without stress, due to their interest in the feeder from a young age leading to earlier rumen development and an easy transition from milk to grazing and supplemental grain.

So everyone looks and feels good. And the flow-on effect is an increase in production. Butterfat levels are up. Milk volumes are up. All without increasing cost or input.

The really exciting part is that these gains will only increase with the generations. As kids raised on the feeder get to breeding age, and their kids are then raised on the feeder, we will start to see the full effects of allowing stock to reach their potential and then pass those gains on to their offspring. All while the feeder sits as a sort of maternal metal monolith, providing consistent nutrition to the herd in all weathers, without asking for anything other than the occasional refill.

No, they are not cheap, but the quality is excellent, the after-sales service is excellent and once you buy a feeder you really don’t need to spend any more on it. It will just work tirelessly to save you money and time, and increase the production of your livestock. Although you may find that once you have one, you can find ways to use two – or several. I honestly think that, in time, it should become at the very least frowned upon to grain feed ruminants without an Advantage Feeders feeder. Feeding any other way is just throwing money away and denying your stock the opportunity to make the most of their feed in the way their bodies were designed to.

Dairy goats, especially those which are intensively managed, are high-performance animals. Even an average milker makes her own weight in milk over a three week period. So the changes I have seen in my dairy animals may be compounded compared to what you might see in meat animals due to the high metabolic rate of dairy goats. But for larger scale farms, and ‘real farmers’, any observable gain converts to dollars. More milk or more meat or more lambs without more work or more expense is a win on any scale. All the ways that Advantage Feeders can improve life for farmers as well as their livestock add up to big benefits.

They say there is no advert like a convert. And this convert is keen to tell you that if you have high-performance ruminants – be they goats, sheep, cattle or deer – you need Advantage Feeders.

** Disclaimer – Yes, I am employed by Advantage Feeders. But when I worked for Major Discount Department Store I used to tell people not to buy the bikes there because they were crap. I certainly wouldn’t have bought one myself. I think you get what I am saying here…

** Footnote – I now have two feeders, one for my big milkers and one for the rest of the girls. And a mineral attachment which allows me to feed free-choice loose minerals without the poultry or horses getting into it.

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