August, 2018

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August has been a shit month.

July was bad enough. End of financial year in a growing business with financials to prepare for five different countries and deadline after deadline looming was a living hell that almost broke me.

But July was nothing compared to August.

On August 1st I went outside to find one of my young does in labour, four weeks early. She had been at it for a while. I tried to help her deliver the dead kids, but had no luck. At that stage I still thought I had a viable herd of goats, so my intention was to save her and breed her again next year.

At the same time, one of my doe kids, Poppy, began gasping for breath and crying out. I left the aborting doe, put Poppy in the front footwell of my car, and rushed her into the vets. She had been treated a couple of weeks earlier for pneumonia, but clearly treatment had not worked.

Ultrasound revealed that Poppy’s lungs were full of fibrous, infected tissue. She just could not get enough air in. The gravity of the situation struck me as I realised that the bug we thought we had beaten the year before was back, seemingly more deadly than ever.

Poppy was euthanised on the table, and samples taken for testing as part of a Significant Disease Investigation. At that point, although we had lost Poppy, I was optimistic that her death would lead to the identification of exactly what disease was attacking my kids and how we could cure it.

At home, reeling from the loss of Poppy and the threat still looming over her three siblings, I was still unable to deliver Cookie’s dead kids. So Cookie went in for a cesarean. The operation went well, with three dead kids found and one removed alive. That evening I took home Cookie, my poor dead Poppy, and a four-week premature doe kid named Tinkerbell whose eyes were not even open yet.

I nursed Tinkerbell through two days, sleeping with her on my chest after the heat lamp globe blew on the first night. I took her to work on the first day so that I could monitor her temperature and tube feed her at regular intervals, and worked from home on the second day. And when she took her last breath she was in my arms, and I cried my heart out for the little baby who never stood a chance.

Cookie’s dead quads brought the number of kids lost to 11, all by the same buck. A second Significant Disease Investigation was submitted, although no infectious cause was found. I have a theory, but I can only really guess at what the cause was.

It took weeks for the testing to be completed on the tissue and fluid samples from
Poppy. Her three siblings were still coughing and sounding congested, although still bright and hungry. On August 8th Elaine, the first doe due to kid, gave birth to a perfect big, red doe kid, who we named Selena. Selena was self-sufficient within 24 hrs and I thought perhaps my luck was about to change.

The night of August 18th was freezing, wet and wild. The next morning I found my poor old New Forest Pony mare, River Valley Starbelle, standing in a puddle with mud on every inch of her. She was unable to walk, had a temperature below 34*, and even had mud on her eyeballs. Clearly she had been down during the night. It took two and a half hours to get her to walk the 100m to the shed. The vet came and gave her some painkillers, warning me that Starbelle would probably not survive, but that her best chance would be if we could get her to the equine clinic where she could be put in a crush and examined more thoroughly.

Not only did I have no means of transporting her, I didn’t think I would be able to coax her into a horse float if we could even borrow one. Not only that, but it had taken me months to get Starbelle back from a lease home, and she had been with me again only 8 weeks. She was 24yo and probably going to die. I wanted her to die at home, not in a horse float or in a horse clinic dedicated to animals of higher economic value. We managed to get her into a pen with some straw and hay and water and waited for her to warm up.

Around 10pm, just as her body temperature was nearing normal, Starbelle lay down and died. The cause was most likely a twisted gut, twisted uterus or intestinal impaction. She had come home in foal, which was unplanned but seemed like a fitting finale to her career as a broodmare. Unfortunately it was not to be. Instead we had the logistical difficulty of removing a large dead mare from the shed, through the muddy yard, to a place where the livestock removal truck could safely pick her up. It was a daunting task that went a lot more smoothly than we anticipated.

That was Monday. On Tuesday I called the vet clinic again to see if there were any results available from the tests done on Poppy or on Cookie’s kids. Finally I got some information.

No infectious cause was found for Cookie’s dead kids, it was simply dismissed as one fetus not being viable and affecting the others, eventually taking out the whole pregnancy. No consideration was made for this being the fifth similar loss of kids.

No bacterial cause was found for Poppy’s pneumonia. There was one test pending, that being for an organism called mycoplasma. I had heard of mycoplasma and knew it to be a disease that was incurable and could only be eradicated from your herd by snatching newborn kids and destroying all the adult goats. It was the worst case scenario. The vet seemed to think that mycoplasma fit the profile of the problems I was experiencing. I started doing some research.

If I was going to snatch kids I had to act quickly. I had a doe already past her due date, and three more soon to kid. I got in contact with a breeder in Queensland who had dealt with mycoplasma in her goats. We talked on the phone for an hour. She mentioned the things she noticed in her herd before her kids started getting sick. Problems with the milk. High cell counts, but no bacterial cause detected upon testing. A high incidence of mastitis that did not always respond to treatment. These were all things I had also noticed in my milkers.

Her goats had suffered from a strain of mycoplasma that causes arthritis in kids. Another strain causes pneumonia that does not respond to antibiotic treatment. That would certainly explain the respiratory issues in my kids that were not resolved by antibiotics. That strain also causes eye infections, sore joints in adult goats, and mastitis, problems that had also occurred in my herd. It seemed more and more likely that mycoplasma would be discovered as the culprit, and I realised that the only way to save my herd was to snatch the new kids and sacrifice the rest.

I don’t think I have ever felt such a sense of loss. It was like a darkness had descended over me. For two days all I did was cry. Mostly in bed. I would wake up and remember what was going on and wonder how I could possibly get through it. I formulated a plan, talked about it with my family, and resolved to try to save the kids due to be born over the next week. But even as I tried to come up with a solution I could live with, I found myself spiralling ever deeper into hopelessness. I felt that the time had come to give up goats altogether.

 

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Crossroads

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I’m going to publish this in a few sections, not only because it is an ongoing saga, but also because it is a harrowing tale.

I have heard of dairy goat breeders giving up breeding due to the relentless nature of the challenges that breeding dairy goats has a way of throwing at you. Some breeders have bravely fought on in the face of tragedy, while for others the shine has faded over time with burgeoning herds reduced to a handful of animals to reduce the physical and emotional burden.

Over the years I have occasionally paused to wonder what level of disaster would motivate me to give it all up. And while I am not there yet, there is definitely the possibility that I will reach that point at some time in the next year or so.

As it stands the future is uncertain. At least, it is certain for the majority of my goats. But before we get to the details of the story, I want you all to understand why I have made the decisions that I have made.

Before kidding started this year, I had about 23 goats. I never intended to run that many, or to kid as many does as I have been for the last few years. But some things have been going on in the herd that have prevented me from selling more than a couple of kids each year. And so numbers have grown. With animals in quarantine due to CLA (cheesy gland) infection, I couldn’t use my paddocks the way I wanted to. With the majority of milkers living with my goatlings and kids, I couldn’t feed them the way I wanted to. It was reactive, not proactive, management. I kept the ones that lived, buried the ones that didn’t, bred the does that howled when they came in season, and wondered when I would get some answers as to where all these problems were coming from.

Each time it seemed like I was about to have one issue beaten, another would show its head. I don’t like to think about how much money I have spent trying to keep my goats healthy. Every staff member at the vet clinic knows me by name and all the vets know my address. When I think about how four years ago I didn’t have access to a vet who would treat small ruminants I try not to think about what I would have done if these new vets hadn’t moved to town and opened their clinic when they did. I probably would have given up already.

While vaccination and quarantining was getting on top of the CLA infection, more and more other problems were popping up. As my skills and experience with birthing goats and giving newborn kids the best chance at survival grew, I was faced with things I could do nothing about. In 2016 I lost half of my kids due to does aborting or kids being born that did not survive more than a day or two. We never found out the cause of this. In 2017 we were hit with respiratory disease in the kids and antibiotic resistant pneumonia. We managed to save all the infected kids, and with the help of an off-label vaccine we thought we had this beaten. But then six months later my out-of-season quads got sick, and that was when the situation quickly came to a head.

Along with sick kids, I had lame does, eye infections, and a high rate of mastitis. Sometimes treatment worked, but more often than not it didn’t. Milk cultures performed on does with obviously infected udders came back with no infective agent detected. Cell counts at herd recording time were often high with no obvious explanation. Then my raw milk cheeses stopped working. I attributed the lameness in the does to overfeeding, the mastitis to bad luck and maybe the dirty ground, and the problems with the cheese as an error on my part. The eye infections were just a coincidence. But when the vet suggested that the respiratory disease in the kids might be caused by an organism called mycoplasma, all the pieces began to fall into place.

Mycoplasma is incurable. Animals can be asymptomatic while shedding the organism intermittently. Infected animals can test negative. The only way to eradicate it from a group of goats, without wiping out the whole herd, is to snatch kids at birth and dispose of all the adult animals and any youngsters who have been exposed.

To be clear, we have not been able to confirm the presence of mycoplasma in the herd. The doe kid who died, the catalytic event, had many tissue and fluid samples taken for testing. No infectious agent was found. But this kid had lungs that were almost completely solid from infection. Something caused that. Something that did not respond to the sorts of antibiotics that can usually be relied upon to clear up bacterial infections in the lungs. Suspicion is that the antibiotics in this kid’s system prevented any bacteria or other organisms from being cultured in the lab. Her illness was not caused by nothing. The mastitis and the problems with the milk in the does were not caused by nothing. The abortions, the lameness, the eye infections, were not caused by nothing. And whatever ‘it’ is, I don’t want it in my herd and I don’t want to risk passing it on to anyone elses animals.

I was left with a couple of options. I could do nothing. I could just let my animals live out their days, knowing they were infected, not breed or milk any more and never let any of them leave the property. That seemed like a good idea for a while. But I had five does in kid at that time. And doing nothing was probably going to lead to all of their kids getting sick and dying. So I couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t sit back and watch my kids get sick and die.

I entertained the idea of snatching the kids at birth, milking the does, feeding the kids pasteurised milk and trying to get milk awards for my does. But the sheer workload promised by the process of milking, pasteurising milk and feeding kids was beyond overwhelming. I would be setting myself up to fail. The main flaw in that plan was that by going between the infected milkers and the healthy kids I would be risking transferring infection to the clean animals, which would render the whole exercise a waste of time. It was just not a workable option.

I was very fortunate to be put in contact with a breeder in QLD who had managed to save her herd after a confirmed diagnosis of mycoplasma in all of her milkers. She talked me through her methods and left me in awe at how she kidded her does in the paddock, snatched their kids and managed to salvage her stud all on her own. Her recommendation was to snatch the kids and have all the adults put down and disposed of. She also suggested that if I had a suitable place to isolate them, I could run on a couple of special goatlings for another year in an attempt to get kids from them.

And so, with all this to consider, and the shock and grief of the situation still very near the surface, I gradually formulated a plan.

I have snatched nine kids from four does who all kidded in the past week. Eight are doing well, and the ninth is making slow progress but I am hopeful for her. These kids are made up of six buck kids and three does. They are being raised on milk replacer.

Two goatlings, a buck and a wether will be housed in the small paddocks. These are all apparently healthy animals, but must still be treated as infectious due to the fact that they were born and raised with the main herd. The wether is to keep the buck company. The goatlings are both daughters of 5lt+ milkers, by my foundation buck. Their bloodlines are important, but with only three doe kids this year and one of those not yet out of the woods, they are also a degree of insurance. There is still the possibility that our kid-snatching methods have not been successful and our current babies will still get sick, so those last two young does will give us another chance if our first attempt fails.

Maybe you would have done things differently. Maybe you would have wanted to save as many animals as you could, whatever the cost. Maybe you would have just shot them all and been done with it. But due to the suffering I have seen and endured through the course of these events, my primary motivators are that I don’t want any other breeders to go through this and I don’t want to watch any more of my goats suffer. I want a clean, healthy, small herd.

When you are so hurt and so emotional due to facing the reality of losing not just valuable, productive animals but friends and pets who have given you so much, it is hard to put the welfare of the animal first. But I had to separate not just my pain, but also my ambition, from the needs of my animals. And in this, come up with a plan that would leave me functional for my family, my work and my remaining animals of all varieties. It really is not just about my needs. Gaining milk awards and bringing home show sashes have been big motivators for me in my dairy goat journey, but the goats don’t care about that. They care about having shelter, knowing where their next meal is coming from, and having their family around them. They don’t care how many Q* points they earn, how many Australian Champion points they have, or what their classification score is. They just want to eat and stay dry and hang out with their mothers, sisters and daughters. They don’t like being sick or lame or having sore udders.

At the end of the day, I can live with losing most of my goats if it means that it will mitigate most of the risk of infection for other breeders and for my hopefully clean kids. Maybe my snatched kids will still get sick at 10-14 weeks, at which point I will have to decide whether I try again, whether we look harder for a definitive cause or whether that is my cue to give up goats altogether. Either way, I’ll never show again. If it all goes to plan I’ll breed my does sparingly, and I will source any future bucks under strict biosecurity protocols.

There is still a hard road ahead. But I can see a way forward now, where ten days ago I could not. Nothing is certain, but we can try.

 

 

Going For Gold

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After losing most of my Silkies in the great poultry slaughters of 2017, I was left with a pair of buff chicks. These are descended from the first buff hen I bred a few years earlier. Buffs have always been my favourite colour of Silkie, but I hadn’t been able to get very many, so I had previously concentrated on blacks and blues.

Most Silkies in Australia are not bantams at all, they are in fact a standard breed. Bantam Silkies are rare in Australia and you would know if you saw one because they are tiny.

In their pure state, all Silkies are white, and the best birds you will find are bred entirely from white stock. In order to introduce colour, white Silkies were bred with other breeds, mostly Pekins, to get the range of colours we are used to seeing in Silkies today. But since white is recessive, it will pop up in a population even after generations of breeding for colour.

Of course when you contaminate the gene pool by adding in colour, you then have to work hard to get the important Silkie characteristics back into your birds. Things like proper pillow or button combs, black or very dark faces, 5th toes and of course Silkie feathering. Silkie feathering is also recessive, so your first generation of crossbred birds will all have regular feathers, so to get the Silkie feathering back and retain the colour you have to breed first-cross birds together and from there start selecting for Silkie feathering and fancy colours.

In Australia we have been breeding coloured Silkies for many years, so there are a lot of birds to choose from with Silkie feathering, fun colours and varying degrees of authentic Silkie characteristics.

All of this makes them quite interesting and fun to breed.

I started working towards my ideal of buff Silkies with a clear gold colour, good Silkie characteristics including dark faces and five toes, good vision (eyes not obscured by their fluffy heads), with good fertility. Bonus traits will be maintenance of good body condition (Silkies tend to run a bit skinny), and laying for longer before going broody.

My foundation birds are Prince Harry the rooster and Citrine the hen. I also purchased Fanta, an unrelated hen.

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Prince Harry – a nice looking little bird with good colour and no breed faults, but he is kind of aggressive which is not ideal.

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Citrine with her current chicks. Note the white chick – we have had one white chick in each of the three hatches this season. Citrine is a robust hen and good mother, with no breed faults.

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Fanta with her current clutch. She has lovely feathering and a nice dark face, but I keep having to trim the feathers around her face so she can see. She is also quite flighty.

Too many feathers around the face can obscure a bird’s vision, and while this is not a problem in exhibition stock it is a definite handicap for farmyard birds in mixed flocks. The feathers make it difficult for them to find food, find each other, find safety and avoid bigger, bossy birds. Birds who are feather blind tend to be thinner because they are less efficient at free ranging. They run into things and freak out when anything touches them. It does make them easier to catch because they can’t see you sneaking up behind them, but this also means they are more likely to be taken by predators.

Our oldest chicks are almost mature and they show a good contrast of good and bad. Normally I might keep one chick from a clutch and either sell or eat the others (hence why I want birds who are easy to fatten).

Rose and Redboy are the two I’ll be retaining from this group.

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Rose is a classic fluffball with excellent Silkie feathering.

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She has a nice dark face and button comb and an upright pompom.

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Redboy has a bit of excess feathering in front of his eyes, but he has good feathering and a great deep red colour.

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He has a classic pillow comb and dark features.

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Check out those excellent blue earlobes!

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Nice neat 5th toe and lots of feathers on the middle toe. His toes are straight and his feet are strong.

The other real plus that Redboy has is a great temperament. He is not at all aggressive and he is relaxed to handle, making trimming his face feathers less of an issue.

The younger chicks are still to young to sex, but their other characteristics are becoming visible.

This little one has a nice flat comb, but a look at its feet shows an extra toe. Most chickens have four toes – three main ones at the front and a smaller one at the back. Silkies’ fifth toe is due to polydactyly, a genetic condition which gives extra digits. In line-bred birds you can get even more toes, and while some breeders don’t mind this, I prefer to select away from it.

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This is a healthy six-week-old chick with a nice button comb. Still too young to tell the sex, but if it is a pullet she will make a nice little backyard bird.

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Note the extra toe visible, coming off to the right of what should be the last toe. This will not affect this bird adversely, but it’s not something I want to perpetuate in my flock.

If you want a bad example, check out this guy. He is from the same hatch as Rose and Redboy and shows how even full siblings whose parents are also full siblings can inherit very different genes.

This bird has excellent Silkie feathering, despite not being the colour I was after, and he is a good size, but look at that upright comb – a complete no-no in Silkie breeding.

white rooster

I’m always happy to rehome pullets with breed faults because at the end of the day a chicken is a chicken and no matter what colour she is she still lays eggs and can lead a productive life. I won’t pass on a faulty rooster, however, because I feel that I have some responsibility to the breed and I’m not keen to send faulty roosters out into the world to produce more faulty birds. Fortunately, Silkies taste like chicken, which is why birds that are easy to fatten are important to the process. I can’t keep them all, and I certainly won’t breed them all, but in the end they all contribute in one way or another.

 

How I Make Passata

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This is going to be a pictorial post about how I make passata. There are probably more correct or more traditional methods, but with the resources I have available this is the way I do it.

As you will see, I peel my tomatoes, but that part is optional. I think it makes for a better texture to not have tomato peel in my cooking. You can also skip the reducing stage and process your jars straight from cold, but you will end up with a lot of water in your jars this way.

As well as plenty of ripe tomatoes  and some salt, you will need:

Two large saucepans

A couple of large bowls

Sharp knife

Cutting board

Food processor or blender

Slotted spoon

Wooden spoon

Ladle

Funnel – a regular funnel is fine, but a wide-mouthed canning funnel will make life a bit easier

Empty jars – about one per kg of unprocessed tomatoes, plus a spare just in case

Stovetop of countertop preserving unit

 

 

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Step 1 – Source your tomatoes. Bigger fruit are better as they are quicker and more efficient to skin. Saucing varieties with fewer seeds are ideal. I used a mix of Hungarian Heart and Amish Paste, with a couple of rogue San Marzanos.

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Step 2 – Slice their bottoms. This makes them easier to peel as the skin will split where the slice is.

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Step 3 – drop tomatoes a few at a time into boiling water. Leave them for a few seconds – the exact time depends on the size and variety of tomato, but about 10 seconds is a rough guide.

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Step 4 – scoop your tomatoes out of the boiling water and into a bowl of cold water.

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The skins should slide right off.

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This will leave you with a bowl of skinned tomatoes and a bowl of skins in water.

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Worms love tomato skins, so if you have a worm farm you can tip the skins, water and all, into your worm farm.

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Step 5 – chop your tomatoes into pieces if they are very big and discard any hard green cores. Put your chopped tomatoes into the blender.

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Chickens, ducks and geese love bits of tomato. Cats not so much.

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Step 6 – process the tomatoes until most of the lumps are gone. This may be the point at which you realise you have put too many tomatoes in the food processor, so make your next batch a little smaller if this is the case.

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Once processed the tomatoes will look pale and be thin and frothy.

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Step 7 – reduce the tomato puree. You may want to add salt at this stage, the information I was able to find said 1tsp of salt per kg of tomatoes.

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Simmer until the tomatoes have reduced in volume by about half and started to thicken.

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Taking a ‘before’ photo can help you know when you have got the level of the tomatoes in the pot down to about half. This takes about an hour, depending on how many tomatoes you are processing and the peculiarities of your stove.

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Step 8 – pour the passata into jars (recycled passata jars are ideal). There are a few ways to process from here, but I do a hot water bath because I need to keep my jars in the cupboard for up to several months.

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Follow the instructions on your preserving kit.

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Once the jars have cooled make sure that all the seals on the lids have popped down. If any have not store those jars in the fridge and use them first. The others can go into your storage space.

Half-Time Garden Update – Part 2

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It’s amazing how many things you can do in a garden that I didn’t know about before. Solutions to problems, opportunities to grow things that would not normally grow in this part of the world, and tricks to make your soil healthy. I’ve discovered the joys of composting, worm farms and mulching, and started experimenting with a whole lot of plants I never bothered with before.

In The Greenhouse

I had a very poor tomato harvest last year, which came down to a combination of overcrowded and poorly supported plants, and invasion by rats. What fruit didn’t rot on the floor was munched by rats as it became ripe. The plant supports were not sufficient to hold the plants up, so they collapsed and lay on the ground, creating a steamy jungle of tomatoes that the light and air could not penetrate.

So this year, with the flash new greenhouse and sturdy supports in place, I was determined that my tomatoes not suffer the same fate. I started Hungarian Heart and Amish Paste from seed, and planted one variety along each side of the greenhouse, leaving room for my tropical fruits and capsicum plants in the back. I put in quite a few alyssum seeds to bring bees and outcompete weeds, and added a few cosmos and calendula along the front of the beds for good measure.

The tomato plants grew well, and as they got taller and started to set fruit I found myself obsessively removing the non-bearing laterals to keep the air circulation and light through the lower reaches of the plants. Sometimes I brought out great armfuls of snapped-off branches. I wasn’t completely sure that it was the right thing to do, as some studies show that you get more fruit from not removing branches, but it seemed to fit with my understanding of why the previous crop failed.

It seems to be working. The low fruit are starting to ripen and they are looking good. I have several plants along the Amish Paste side that definitely do not look like Amish Paste, one in particular has nice round red fruit more like a Grosse Lisse. A couple of plants on this side have suffered from blossom end rot, which may be related to the heat. Hungarians are my tomato of choice for bottling, as they are easy to peel due to their size, and I was mainly growing Amish Paste to prove that it could, having had trouble with them previously.

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Hungarian Heart tomatoes turning red in the spacious lower parts of the greenhouse.

In the greenhouse I have also grown basil successfully for the first time, and my capsicums are starting to fruit. This is the first time I have grown California Wonder from seed as well.

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Happy little capsicums, on a bed of alyssum, with basil in the background.

Fruitful Endeavours

The succulent Dragonfruit is growing like crazy, and its neighbour the Brazilian custard apple remains cheerful it its pot.

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Dragonfruit climbing up its support.

Over in the warmhouse, the avocados are putting out lots of new growth in response to more regular watering, and threatening to collapse under their own weight. I will keep an eye on them and possibly prune the crowns back in winter if they don’t become strong enough to stand on their own.

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Young avocado tree working hard.

My citrus have also expressed a liking for plenty of water, showing a real possibility of growing some fruit to maturity. The little potted orange tree I look after has several developing fruit, and the Tahitian lime on the front porch looks like it may bear again if I look after it. My lemon tree seems to have finally recovered from the -7* frost-nuking it got a few years ago, and the front porch Valencia is putting out lots of new growth.

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Developing oranges on ‘Granddad’ the orange tree.

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My lemon tree is beginning to flourish again.

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The Valencia on the front porch, showing lots of new growth.

Elsewhere, my figs have recovered from a sneaky late frost that took all of their early leaves and the Preston Prolific is living up to its name. The Mariposa plum tree has about half a dozen fruit ripening under its net, and the little Elder tree is starting to show signs of putting in some growth.

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Happy fig tree with its young fruit.

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The Mariposa plums are starting to ripen.

A Forest of Food

What relative newcomer to Permaculture is not inspired by the idea of a food forest? A collection of interconnected plant guilds, set up for minimal maintenance to produce all sorts of edible goodies.

I was struck by the idea to turn a big neglected raised bed into such a space. With a big Honey Locust at one end, and a previously undiscovered olive tree at the other, I embarked on the huge job of clearing all the weeds and grass and filling in the gaps with desirable species.

The bed is probably 15m long and a good six or seven wide at the broad end. Among all the lost and dead things are a giant flax plant and along the way I also found a couple of seedling plum trees and a large silvery bush that smells like curry. I pulled several trailer loads of weeds from this garden, starting at the narrow end nearest the house, and set about filling in the gaps.

I started with three small apple trees and a pair of hazelnut bushes, and built around these, adding sages, flowers, aromatic plants and herbs. Species include the ever-reliable alyssum, more calendula, borage and nasturtium, a stevia plant, pineapple sage, the Permie’s friend comfrey, lemon and lime balm, a Balm of Gilead grown from a stem picked at Chestnut Farm, and a small but determined feijoa tree. I also have yarrow, rosemary and something called pizza thyme that I could not resist.

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The front section of the food forest.

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Balm of Gilead claiming its place.

Having lost several young stone fruit to leaf curl, I learned that you can grow them from seed, and that although they take a few years longer to fruit, the resulting plants are much hardier than grafted trees. Since a dead tree is never going to fruit, I decided to give it a go. I saved pits from a few nectarines and peaches and much to my surprise, in the spring some little trees emerged. These are now growing under the Honey Locust.

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White nectarine, grown from seed, with no sign of leaf curl.

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This olive tree stood unnoticed in this garden for two and a half years. Now it has become the inspiration for my food forest.

Free Plants

As well as stonefruit trees grown from pits, and vegetables grown from saved seeds, I had a go at propagating wormwood from cuttings. A few have already made it to the farmyard where they are surviving despite a few raids from determined goat kids, but this one took a bit longer so has grown to quite a size in its pot. It will join the others once the weather cools down a bit.

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Wormwood, struck from a cutting in a re-used pot.

Pond!

I’ve wanted a pond for ages. Inspired by a work colleague’s garden ponds, I bought a simple black pond liner, dug it in a few inches, and built around it with rocks and soil. Then I added some plants to the outside and situated a magnolia next to it that I had found languishing in another garden. The magnolia is happy for the water, the little creepy plants around the edges are doing quite well, and the collection of plants in the water are growing rapidly in the warm weather. I’ve had a few transient Eastern Banjo frogs pop in, and the local birds love having a good spot to get a drink. I am looking forward to the pond lillies blooming and hope that the system will work without a pump once the plants start to cover the surface more.

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My pond. Yes, those rocks were heavy.

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The magnolia was not too bothered by being uprooted in summer, it is very grateful for all the water it gets now.

What’s Next?

From here there will be many weeks of watering, weeding and the harvesting will start to ramp up. As harvest time hits high gear, preserving becomes a high priority. The tomatoes are about to take off, which will mean many afternoons of skinning and bottling fruit, making salsa and passata. The zucchinis are also gearing up for their high-yield time, meaning lots of zucchini pickles, zucchini slice and zucchini chocolate muffins.

Many of my plants are a few years off producing much, especially my little fruit trees, but they still need to be maintained and cared for.

I’m not into ‘low maintenance gardening’, I love to spend hours working in the garden, connecting with the earth, getting my hands dirty and marvelling at how things grow, the amazing variety of food I can produce, and the hundreds of things I can do with that food. But the more that the design reduces the workload, the more things I can add to my garden. The more I learn, the easier things get and the more surprises and miracles I can work in my yard.

Half-Time Garden Update – Part 1

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So here we are at about the halfway point of the summer vegetable growing season, and things are going pretty well. After spending many weekends during the first half of last year studying permaculture and taking pages of notes on tips and things to do in the garden, I was absolutely raring to go when the growing season began.

Armed with a whole lot of new information and a big, flash new greenhouse, I started making some plans. I sorted my seed collection and purchased what I needed to fill in the gaps.

Start With Seeds

I’m a bit of a sucker for the instant gratification that comes from buying seedlings, but I decided to put more of an effort this year into growing plants from seeds. So I gathered up some of the many punnets kept from bought seedlings, bought some seed raising mix, and got to work.

With the pumpkins I planted a combination of bought and saved seeds. I had never successfully grown pumpkins from seed before, so I wanted to maximise my chance of success.

Add Some Flowers

Another thing that I did this year that was different from previous years was grow flowers. I had always been of the opinion that it was a waste of water to grow things you can’t eat, but I have since learned of the importance of flowers to bring bees and other beneficial insects to the garden. I set about creating floral borders and flowering understoreys, as well as using them to fill in areas that would otherwise be overtaken by weeds and grass. Borage, alyssum, and calendula, as well as a few cosmos and nasturtiums, have started to take hold around the garden, some happily self seeding, and providing a range of benefits. I am particularly keen to expand my use of calendula, which I initially grew to put in tea, but now hope to infuse in oil to use in soap, as it is great for your skin.

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Establishing a border of calendula (with a couple of marigolds) around the garden beds.

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Chamomile

I have also grown a heap of chamomile, hopefully enough to keep me in tea through the winter.

Berry Time

My three year old blueberry bushes produced their first fruit this year. After a few failed attempts at growing blueberries, I have managed to keep these plants alive for three whole years, and they are growing slowly and starting to bear. It’s a humble beginning, but it’s a reward for years of persistence.

I’ve also had my best ever crop of raspberries so far, having discovered that raspberry canes like a good prune, lots of water and not too much competition. Most of the raspberries have not made it into the house, as I tend to eat them straight off the bush, but I did manage to collect enough to make some banana and raspberry muffins.

I managed to beat the slugs to a few strawberries as well, and eventually I learned that watering in the morning can help deter the slimy thieves. I’ve started a new strawberry bed in the berry nets, filling in the space that had been occupied by a patch of amaranth taller than myself. Turns out the goats quite like amaranth, so I was able to repurpose it as a goat treat.

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Strawberries staring to spread themselves out. There are a couple of open pollinated fancy varieties in the baskets.

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Berries for my smoothie 🙂

Vegetable Medley

My pumpkin seed all sprouted, which was amazing, but once planted out they were easy prey for slugs and I lost most of the first lot. So I took the slower seedlings and transplanted them into bigger pots so they could grow bigger before I sent them out into the world. This worked quite well, and I was able to establish about half a dozen plants in a recently-mulched bed in the mandala garden.

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A few fruit set early in January, and the plants seemed to be sprawling and doing well. I read that watering in the morning was better and more efficient than watering in the evening, so I took up getting up early to water in the morning. The pumpkins soon let me know that they wanted to be watered twice a day, and I lost several young fruit before I noticed this. But in the last few days, with plenty of water, we have set several new fruit that seem to be growing well.

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The corn was another challenge, and after the seeds I sowed direct into the bed proceeded to do pretty much nothing, I tried a different approach and started some more seeds in punnets. I covered these babies in cloches made from cut-off soft drink bottles to protect them from blackbirds who love to dig in the mulch and knock little plants over. As a result, I have a thriving little patch of sweetcorn.

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The onions went in as seedlings back in Autumn, and seemed to take forever. For a while I was concerned that I had bought the wrong kind. But eventually they grew plump and I was able to harvest them. They are now nearly cured and ready to store.

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Another new trick I picked up was using sheepyard mesh to support plants. This was very useful for my tomatoes, and also for my climbing beans and peas. The shape of the mesh also made it possible to grow peas and beans over a path, rather than having the void underneath take up space in a garden bed.

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I’m not a huge fan of beans, I find them rather bitter, but these Australian Butter beans are not bad. They have yielded very well and been part of several dinners. I started these from seed in punnets as well, and once they grabbed hold of the mesh, they took off. Very rewarding to grow.

Defying the Laws of Nature

I did that thing everyone says not to do and grew a whole lot of cool season plants in summer. Usually you end up with your plants being mercilessly devoured by white cabbage moth larvae. I planted kale, cauliflower, turnips and broccoli, and while I did a few rounds of physically removing little green caterpillars, the plants did not get as damaged as I expected. In particular, I had the best broccoli crop I have had since the year I first grew vegetables, and I even grew them in the small greenhouse. The plants should have been chewed to bits and bolted in the heat, but I am still harvesting shoots. I wonder what part the resident frogs have played in keeping caterpillar numbers down.

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This mess has yielded my best broccoli crop to date.

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Lots of broccoli, and even a bit of cauli for dinner. With cheese sauce – yum!

Celebrate Diversity

I’ve also attempted to get away from single crops in garden beds. This bed got a nice purple alyssum border and was the home of my amazing beetroot crop as well as a couple of zucchini, kale, cauli and turnips, and now the lettuce which is filling in the gaps left by the vegetables that have been harvested. All of my beds contain multiple plants, even if it is just a few rogue potatoes popping up between the main crop.

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I’ll follow this up with another report on my fruit, greenhouse and food forest adventures, as well as the installation of my new pond.

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Biggie surveys the mandala garden.

Restocking

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When you get used to having 30+ birds in your flock, being brought back down to less than ten is quite a shock. In some ways there is relief at having less beaks to feed and less birds underfoot. It solved the ongoing problem of ducks bathing in the back troughs. But it also puts gaps in the group, and this absence of birds and the gaps it creates lead to new problems.

I was left with no mature rooster, no drake and no gander. And four flighty Muscovy hens, very keen to sit on eggs. At entirely the wrong time of year for purchasing a new drake. Most breeders either had their main working drakes who they did not want to part with, or recently hatched boys a long way off being able to work. I advertised a few times, scoured the poultry sales pages, and nothing came up. Meanwhile I was having to evict cranky Muscovy hens from beautifully crafted nests to save them the bother of sitting on eggs that would never hatch.

While Debussy the gander was not particularly aggressive as far as ganders go, his presence did lead to Agnes the goose displaying a dogged determination to create a nest, lay some eggs in it and defend it, which was a nuisance. But without her mate, Agnes was clearly lonely, and took up attempting to mate with the Muscovy ducks, who were unfortunately happy to let her. A goose has a serrated beak, and a longer neck than a duck. Agnes’ misplaced breeding instincts led to ducks being bitten around the head by that serrated beak. They lost skin and feathers, and one duck nearly lost her eye.

I tried keeping the goose separate from the ducks, but the ducks would fly into the pen with the goose. I had decided to replace the gander with another female goose to avoid the problems associated with a breeding pair of geese, and as my poor ducks were repeatedly mauled, this became more and more urgent. Again, wrong time of year, most female geese were sat on eggs or raising goslings, and I could not find any for sale.

We took a trailer load of goats the Bendigo Show, where Titania was awarded Champion goatling and received a cash prize. After the judging was completed, we went for a walk around the show and wandered into a shed full of poultry accessories and various birds for sale, including a pen of young female geese. So that is the story of how Titania the goat bought a goose.

I selected a bird, and after a bit of a fuss where a couple of bantam pullets escaped and had to be retrieved from under tables of bird cages, Matt carried our new goose to the goat trailer, where she traveled home in the kid cage. Gertrude, aka Gertie Goose, soon became friends with Agnes and within a few days the duck maulings ceased and my goose quota was back in balance.

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Matt carrying Gertrude through the Bendigo Showgrounds.

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Agnes and Gertrude

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Don’t mess with Gertie Goose.

After some months of asking around and searching sale pages, I finally stumbled on a Muscovy drake. I was willing to travel up to 90 minutes to buy one, so insistent were my ducks that it was hatching season, but in the end I only had to travel to the next town. I picked up a scruffy two-year-old drake from a fairly large flock. He had no name, so in keeping with the M names for Muscovies, I named him Murray.

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Murray the Muscovy

I have heard repeatedly that Muscovy drakes are aggressive, and always thought I had hit the jackpot with my old drake Muscles, who had been hand raised and was a wonderfully friendly bird. But after a little over a month, Murray has proven also to be quiet and friendly, and while he is not quite confident to eat out of my hand, he does follow me quite closely to make sure I am bringing the food and to see if I have anything edible about my person.

Once Murray had arrived, my black and white duck Moana was quick to set herself up with a nest and start putting eggs in it. I had to take the first few because it takes about a week for a duck to lay fertile eggs once you introduce a drake to the flock, and she ended up sitting on only two. They have both hatched, and are perfect. I have another duck sat on 13 eggs, tucked securely behind several pieces of wire mesh, and these are due to hatch in about a fortnight.

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Murray’s first ducklings, hatched by Moana.

But from loss there can also be opportunities. Through pure chance, I was left with only a pair of related buff Silkies. I have always wanted to breed buff Silkies, but only ever had the occasional one pop up in a clutch. So with no mature rooster, Prince Harry the buff Silkie was allowed to grow up into the position of boss chook. I bought an unrelated buff hen, which gave me a buff trio consisting of Prince Harry, his sister Citrine, and the new hen Fanta. Citrine soon got to laying, and I let her sit on six eggs, of which five were fertile and hatched. Of those chicks four were buff (the other is white), and it looks like I will have two buff pullets to run on. This gives me a fairly stable little family of buff Silkies to breed on with.

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Prince Harry

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New girl Fanta, with her epic pompom.

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Citrine with some of her chicks.

I also picked up a couple more red laying hens to back up old Josie whose eggs have poor shell quality these days and don’t make it back to the house without breaking. One hen, Summer, lays an egg every day in a well-concealed abandoned duck nest. The other hen, Sandy, is suspected of stashing her eggs out behind the shed somewhere and while we found one nest a little while ago, I have not been able to find where she is laying now.

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Sandy’s nest is in there… somewhere.

There is one vacancy I would still like to fill, and that is a friend for dear old Ramona the Silver Appleyard, whose sister was killed. Ramona is going on six years old and is currently our only quacky duck. She doesn’t fit in with the Muscovies, and doesn’t fit in with the geese. Although she does seem quite happy, I hope to find her a quacky duck friend.

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Ramona Appleyard, all alone in the middle of the flock.