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.

 

Farm Update

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I’ve been finding it hard to find time to write over the past few months, and the simple explanation for that is that I have been working more hours. My job had got to the point where I just couldn’t keep up with everything I had to do in the time I had available, and since so much of what I do is time-critical I spent most of my time feeling like I was chasing my tail. So I put my hand up to do more hours.

This has meant that while work is less stressful because I actually have time to get everything done on time, I have less time at home and I have to go to bed earlier so that I can get up earlier. The rest of the family have had to learn to do more around the house and since I no longer have time to do everything I am also no longer the default person to look after everyone else. We look after each other, we all pitch in, and we all benefit from mum bringing home a bit more money each month.

I took a break from soapmaking and writing just to let everything settle down. Like anything else, it comes down to priorities. You make time for the things that make the most noise. But you also need to make time for the things that you get the most value from, and value can definitely include enjoyment.

When I found myself home alone on Sunday with the sun shining and the birds singing I was almost overwhelmed with excitement and an urge to get as much done as possible while I could. I popped out at 9am to do the milking and ended up having ‘breakfast’ at about 2pm.

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Hanging out with my farmyard friends

I sent Maia and her kids out into the world for the first time. Those babies got to feel the sun on their backs and the dirt under their feet, as well as meeting the rest of their family. This was especially sweet since little Gaia had been treated for sepsis two days earlier, and the vet had warned me that he did not expect her to live.

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Maia and her kids, Gaia and Reuben

Moving in and out of the house and between the shed and the garden, I got the milking done, cleaned the goat pens and delivered some straw to the garden beds. I did some weeding, thinned the silverbeet, cleared the dead tomato plants from the small greenhouse, baked the sourdough, did four loads of washing, replanted some strawberries, pruned the apple trees and cleaned out the cat litter. It was glorious.

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Yay! Sourdough. My lunch for the next fortnight.

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The food garden, with the berry nets up to allow for weeding, pruning and planting the strawberries.

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None of my winter vegetables sprouted last year, so I cheated this year and used the greenhouse. So far so good, cauliflower, beetroot, cabbage, broccoli and lettuce.

I sat down for a bit around 3pm and ventured out again an hour later when Leo the Italian Greyhound started complaining that it was getting cold and he wanted his coat back on. This seemed like a good time to go around closing up the windows and the big greenhouse door, and put the blanket back on Stella the old Thoroughbred who also got to get her kit off for the day. I was wondering what feat of culinary genius to make for dinner when I found that old Rianna, my boss doe, was about to have her kids.

I popped her in the kidding pen I had prepared earlier and set off to get the furthest away tasks done, which meant wandering down the paddock carrying a Weatherbeeta horse rug trying to find two full-size Thoroughbreds who seemed to have disappeared into the 10 acre paddock. I found them in the back corner behind the dam wall, re-clothed old Stella, took some pictures of the impressively full dams, and headed casually back up to the shed.

Where I found this…

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First kid out, nothing to do but keep on with my to-do list and check on Rianna occasionally. I got the goatlings and bucks in the small paddocks fed, put the poultry away, fed the cat and put out the call to Matt to pick up some dinner on his way home from work.

We ended up with a small but nice set of twins from Rianna. They were a little slow to get going, the buck was frustratingly resistant to feeding from his mother, but they are doing well now and feeding themselves.

After such a long dry Autumn, the recent rain has been very welcome, but it is much wetter here than we have seen it previously. The main dam is at its highest level since we moved in after almost drying up completely a few months ago. The interesting bit of earthworks described by the real estate agent as a second dam actually looks like how I imagine the previous owner had intended the water trap on his golf course to look.

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The main dam

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The back dam, aka hole 3

Days like this give me the enthusiasm to press on through the cold and wet, to make plans for the spring and start thinking about what to plant where. I’m hoping to do a lot more seed propagation this year, rather than buying seedlings, so I’ve got some equipment to use the small greenhouse to start seeds. I’ve started mulching and weeding the vegetable garden and ordered some seeds for the spring and summer crops. I hope to get some peas and beans planted next weekend, and I’m thinking about where I might be able to plant some hazelnut trees.

The daffodils and wattle trees are blooming, the geese are getting aggressive, the ducks are laying and the pregnant does are expanding alarmingly. Spring is on its slow march toward us and will be here before we know it.

Easter 2016… and an Update on my Resolutions.

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Easter is always a big weekend on the farm and in the kitchen, and this year was no exception.

It began on Thursday evening, when I retrieved the frame of the Christmas turkey from the freezer and set it to boil down into stock. I also got the first cheese of the weekend, an 8lt Gouda, made and in the press.

Friday was a whirlwind of pumpkin soup, halloumi, zucchini muffins, iced tea, chocolate ice cream and a chicken pie for dinner. The halloumi was kind of a flop, I’m pretty sure it didn’t turn out how it was supposed to,  but it tasted pretty good. The soup, made with a home-grown pumpkin that had split and needed to be used up and stock made from the frame from the Christmas turkey, was really tasty. The rest of the family kindly did the afternoon milking and feeding, allowing me to have the pie made by about 8.30pm. It was a long day.

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This was after three runs of the dishwasher…

Saturday had been earmarked as the day to butcher the excess ducklings. After two weeks in small pens for fattening, the eight birds were left for 12 hours with only fresh water. We went out to buy a machete with which to do the beheading, and after visiting about four different stores we finally got one from Ray’s Outdoors.

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Muscovy drakes in their fattening pen.

The longer blade made for a more accurate cut, and each bird was neatly dispatched with one hit. We did the first two, plucked them, then the second two, starting with the big Muscovy drakes. Then the Pekin drake. Then two excess Muscovy hens.

This left two Pekin hens. By this stage I had hit my limit, and I opted to let the last two Pekin hens run free. I’m sure I’ll be cursing that decision come July when I’m drowning in duck eggs, but six birds in one day was more than enough killing for me.

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Ducks hung on the washing line for plucking.

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I can only handle so much blood on my boots in one day.

Due to the age of the birds, most had lots of pin feathers, making it impossible for me to pluck them cleanly. We ended up with two nice clean roasting birds and I decided to skin and fillet the other four. I took as much skin as I could and rendered the fat from it.

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I wish that I had duck feet…

I had been told that Muscovy hens are not worth killing because they are too small. The birds I was able to keep whole for roasting were a Muscovy drake and a Muscovy hen. They dressed out at 1550g and 1300g, with the female being smaller but still a decent size. From the other four birds I got over 2kg total in breast and thigh fillets. It took ages, I was on my feet for hours, but now I have a freezer loaded with duck meat.

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All cleaned and ready for the freezer.

Sunday was another big day, with a trip to Tatura to visit family. I drove one half of the six-hour round trip while my sister drove the other. It was a very nice afternoon with good food and wine and lots of dog stories.

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Off the visit the cousins, equipped with the three most important food groups – cider, goat cheese and sweet chilli sauce.

Sunday night I made the sourdough, which meant no cheesemaking as the sourdough can contaminate the cheese and ruin it. The milk was piling up. I baked the sourdough on Monday morning then lounged around for a bit. I took a gamble and made chevre on Monday night, which worked out pretty well and used up four litres.

So that was Easter. A bit less dramatic than previous years, but it got the fridge and freezer filled with bread and meat and cheese.

As for my goals for the new year… it is now April and I have exercised about five times. I have managed to get back into yoga over the past couple of weeks after avoiding it for six months, so that is something. I know I need to exercise more, and I will. When I find something that is not uncomfortable and doesn’t injure me.

Reducing food packaging has been a challenge too, but somehow I have managed to stay fairly dedicated to it. I have had to give up some things, like corn chips, that are simply unavailable in recyclable or biodegradable packaging. I have discovered Mountain Bread, which I can cut and bake into crunchy thin crackers, perfect for serving with cheese. This comes in a recyclable packet. I have found a brand of oats that is not only Australian grown, but comes in cardboard with no plastic inner.

Recyclable plastic food containers have become one of my favourite things. They can be washed in the dishwasher, frozen, re-used and when they start to crack and break down they go in the recycling. I use them for everything. I’ve been taking my own bags to to supermarket and fruit shop. I buy meat wrapped in a thin bag and paper, rather than on a plastic tray. Everything we buy is compared and considered and where a recyclable or degradable packet is available we take that option. Otherwise we replace that product with something else that will do the job, or go without. We haven’t been able to eliminate packaging waste, but we have certainly reduced it.

What I found particularly interesting is that when I bought my new laptop it came in 100% recyclable packaging. I thought, if they can package a laptop in recyclable packaging, why can’t they package corn chips in something similar? Or frozen berries? It is as though food companies just don’t care.

One friend pointed out that it is hardly fair that consumers have to make sacrifices, buy more expensive options and put in a conscious effort to reduce packaging waste while big food companies and supermarkets go gaily about their production and sale of packets that can only end up in landfill. The amount of fresh food that now comes pre-packaged in plastic is criminal. Things like bananas – organic bananas no less – presented for sale wrapped and on a tray. Grapes pre-portioned into throwaway bags. All sorts of fruits and vegetables on trays and in packets.

Where previously I was determined to buy Australian made or grown products, I found myself having to weigh up between food miles and throwaway packaging. I found bulk rice in a cloth bag, but it had come all the way from Sri Lanka. I opted for Australian-grown rice in a large plastic bag instead, choosing one large packet over several smaller ones as the lesser of the evils. And considering the popularity of bacon, I discovered that there is no way of purchasing Australian grown free-range bacon from Woolworths that didn’t boil down to a big fat throwaway packet wrapped around a relatively small amount of meat.

Growing food at home, buying in bulk and getting as much else as you can from small local outlets seem to be the best ways to keep packaging waste down. We bake a lot, store food in re-usable containers at home and rely heavily on home-made food. It is healthier all-round. And I will continue to work to reduce our reliance on plastic and the amount of rubbish we produce.

 

Summer Garden Tour – Many Photos Within!

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With summer in full swing, and time to kill while I wait for my cheese curds to set up, I thought I would give my readers a virtual tour of my garden.

We’ve only been here a year, and as it turns out I’ve set up the vegie garden right on top of the old driveway. It’s going to take a few years of adding manure to get the garden into full swing, but if there’s one thing we have plenty of around here, it’s manure.

In the dry weather I get an accumulation of dessicated goat and poultry manure where the animals camp in front of the pens in the barn. As it turns out, this dried manure, which has been thoroughly scratched through by the poultry and contains much-trampled straw and lucerne leftovers, can hold a lot of moisture and readily re-hydrates. I shoveled up a trailer load the other day and used the duck muck (or goose juice) from the duck pond to rehydrate it. It held seven buckets of duck muck without much effort. I unloaded it on the next garden bed to be planted out, and put a couple of shovels full around the roots of the fruit trees.

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Duck muck (or is that goose juice?).

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Duck muck plus dessicated manure.

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Makes an excellent growing medium.

This dessicated manure plus duck muck concoction is loaded with nutrients, and holds water like a sponge. On a hot day the top layer will dry out, but it remains damp underneath, keeping the roots of the plants cool. I’ll be collecting up a bit more of this over the summer months.

The new greenhouse is going really well, with tomatoes, capsicum, corn and chickpeas growing. I’ve also got some watermelons in there, and I am very excited to have my first melon growing! I’ve got some varieties of capsicum and tomato that I haven’t tried before, so it will be interesting to see how these go. Hopefully I’ll get a good yield of both and be able to put away lots of jars of salsa for the winter.

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At the end of Greenhouse Lane…

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An actual watermelon! So far it’s the size of a duck egg…

I’ve had a lot of trouble with birds getting into the fruit and pulling up seedlings, so I’ve had to resort to netting a few parts of the garden. The climbing frame sat waiting for a job to do for ages, before I added netting to it and made a magpie-proof seedling frame. I’ve added a couple of slug traps to my bag of tricks, and finally I’ve got lettuce surviving long enough to be edible. I’ve got celery and some tomatoes that I don’t remember planting under the dome as well.

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Upcycled vegie dome.

Elsewhere I have outdoor corn and chickpeas, five zucchini plants (will I ever learn, two would have been plenty), QLD Blue and butternut pumpkins and snow peas. I’ve just planted some lettuce from a variety I really like that I saved seeds from, a few miscellaneous free herb seeds from Diggers and some climbing peas that I saved from a previous crop.

The strawberries in the centre are growing like mad, and trying to put out runners all over the place. I’ve had to net these to stop the blackbirds from taking all the fruit, but I still find plenty of half-mauled ones which the residents of the SilkieDome are happy to finish off.

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Strawberries, lavender and a lemon tree.

My blueberries are still alive (touch wood!) and have a few fruit. They have also been netted. I know you aren’t meant to let them fruit for the first couple of seasons, but my blueberry bushes don’t tend to live long enough to get to a second season, so I figured a few berries wouldn’t be a matter of life and death.

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Blueberries – not dead yet.

I’m very reluctant to leave citrus trees to the elements, after losing all my half-grown lemons to a -5.7* frost last winter. I have espaliered my new orange and lime trees, which gives them support and allows me to keep them on the north wall of the porch. The orange blossom smelled just divine in the spring, and now I have tiny oranges growing. I’m hoping the lime tree will happily yield too.

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Espaliered trees on the north verandah.

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Tiny oranges!

And finally, my fig tree is having a great time and looks like it is actually starting to fruit. I love figs, and you can’t get them at the shops, so I am really looking forward to eating these.

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Happy fig tree, now with leaves.

So that’s the garden update for Summer. The forecast is for warm and wet over the next few months, so hopefully that bodes well for big yields.

Anyway, back to my cheese…

Make Friends With Pizza

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Pizza is awesome.

When I was little, my parents would get pizza from the shop down the road and I would get a big bag of soggy chips because I didn’t like pizza.

I don’t remember a specific, catalytic event that changed all that, but by the time I was in high school I had developed what I called a ‘pizza stomach’ that allowed me to eat much more pizza than I could of any other food.

The Pizza Hut ‘five-buck chuck’ became my special occasion dinner of choice, their Super Supreme my favourite flavour.

More recently, with my migration to healthier eating, I developed a taste for ‘gourmet’ pizzas. Smoked salmon in particular.

As I get ever further into my home-grown journey, I have started to appreciate pizza as a medium for showcasing my produce.

My kids love what we call the Barbecue Pig Lovers’. This is much like a barbecue meat lovers’, except that all the meat is derived from pigs. Bacon, ham and salami are the staples.

The Elcarim Farm Special was created from all family-favourite toppings. Ham, pineapple, capsicum, salami and later things like sweet chilli sauce, chopped tomato and baby spinach.

Barbecue Pig Lovers' and Elcarim Farm Special

Barbecue Pig Lovers’ and Elcarim Farm Special

This evolved into the Harvest Special, with as many home-grown toppings as possible. Things like yellow tomatoes, greenhouse capsicum, silverbeet and zucchini. And don’t forget the goat milk mozzarella.

Tonight we have a twist on the ‘surf’n’turf’. Smoked salmon, roast beef, silverbeet and four (yes, count them, four) different home-made cheeses.

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Sure, it’s a vanity pizza, but so what? It was really yum and just a bit decadent.

The base is almost as versatile as the topping. Actually, that’s a lie, but you do have a lot of options when it comes to pizza bases. I usually go a scone dough base, as it is quick and easy. Sometimes I make a yeast dough base in the bread maker. You can also use flour tortillas, mountain bread or sourdough.

You can put pretty much anything on a pizza. No more boring ham and pineapple for me. I am looking forward to experimenting with other toppings.

Curam Hircus

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So I have a bit on my plate, what with all that saving the world and empowering women to be done.  But first, let me talk about goats.

There is a lot of misinformation about goats. That they eat everything, that they smell, that their milk tastes nasty. Some people think that they are wary of humans, like sheep tend to be. Many visitors to my place are surprised when my goats come up complete strangers looking for cuddles. Very few are prepared for the level of intelligence that goats display.

Goats do not eat everything. There have been times when I have wished I could get one of my goats to eat at all. Many times when their dinner has been sniffed at suspiciously and left untouched for no discernible reason. They will make a mess of your fruit trees, roses, jasmine, herbs or vegetable crops. Some of mine will nibble on your clothing as a means of getting attention. As browsers, they will try pretty much anything green and if they like it they will keep eating it. Due to the high nutrient requirements of breeding or milking goats they cannot be sustained on grass alone and will eat more slow-growing, nutrient-dense plants when they can get to them. They love soft young trees.

Billy goats do indeed stink very badly in the breeding season. This is not ideal when they also want scratches and pats. But does hardly smell at all. As for the milk, goat milk is the most consumed milk in the world. It is different to cows milk, and tastes much better fresh and raw than from a carton. I find that fresh goat milk is sweeter and richer than cow milk from a carton. In summer I find few things more refreshing than a big glass of cold goat milk.

Goat milk is a superfood. Sometimes referred to as ‘universal donor’, it can be used to feed baby mammals of almost any species. It is better for you than cow milk, and is less likely to cause adverse reactions. So if it tastes ‘different’ to the heat treated, homogenised milk you are used to, bear in mind how much better it is for you. Especially raw, with all those beneficial bacteria and enzymes. Just being around goats has been shown to reduce skin allergies and even asthma.

In the quest for a more sustainable existence, the milking goat is a great ally. She can convert forage into a versatile protein source. She produces an ideal amount of milk for a household. She is also a very lovable family member.

Anyone who has spends a bit of time with goats soon realises how good they are for the soul. And anyone who regards goats with contempt will find them impossible to deal with. I have spent hours in the barn or in the farmyard with my goats. With four or five of them all clamouring for scratches at the same time. With bottle-raised kids in my lap, chewing my hair or climbing on my back. Attempting to get jobs done in the farmyard or paddocks with a mob of helpers demanding attention, getting in the way or knocking things over. During the high-stress kidding season ‘just popping out to the barn’ to check does close to kidding or their delicate newborns can turn into a 45 minute odyssey of watching kids play or comforting over-ripe does.

As you become a ‘goat person’ you realise that the real value in them is in their character. They are complex people. Some are easygoing, others frustratingly determined. On the whole, I find the bucks much less bossy than the does. The buck hierarchy is a simple one, based on size, age, and seniority. With the does, it is much more complex. My ‘alpha’ doe is a tiny, delicate, but rather fierce girl. She has also been here the longest. She has stood up to much bigger does. Her daughter never challenges her, and her grandchildren know that being in Grandma’s favour gets you a good spot at the feeder, even if you are just as likely as anyone else to get headbutted by her.

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Elcarim Sienna, my best milker.

 

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Rianna with her 2012 triplets, Venus, Kevin and Bacchus.

 

They are all very different in personality, as diverse as us humans. From non-confrontational Sienna, a somewhat sensitive, short fat lady who doesn’t expend any more energy than necessary, to the slightly ditzy and very glamorous Meredith with her slender neck,  long ears, and even longer legs. From the sad poet Jupiter who cries forlornly (and loudly, and at length) to his lost loves on the other side of the property, to gutsy little Ambika, who doesn’t let being the smallest and youngest doe or being a ring-in from another farm mean that anyone can push her around.

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Ambika and Thumper, bottle-fed kids.

 

My goats are part of my family. From kidding, which can start as early as the end of June, through the spring shows and into the summer when the kids have been weaned, necessitating twice-daily milking, they are a huge part of my daily life. Whether they are pointedly positioning themself so that my hand rests on their head, calling out from the barn for more hay so that they don’t have to go out grazing in bad weather, or loudly announcing their willingness to breed, they are constantly demanding my attention. The farm can never be unattended, even in the quiet time between drying-off and kidding, when keeping up the hay and grain to rapidly-expanding bellies is crucial.

I love my little herd, and I am incredibly proud of them. They are a lot of work, but I could not imagine life without them. I know that tragedies are inevitable, but I hope the rewards will be worth it.

And now, with the support of my goats, I will get back to saving the world.

PS With kidding to start in three weeks, and my plans to exhibit at the Royal Melbourne Show this year, expect to hear more about my floppy-eared crew in the next few months.

An Unconventional Easter

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It would be fair to say that I didn’t have a typical Christian Easter weekend.

Now, my neo-pagan self and my proud atheist partner saw great value in four days off, whatever the reason, and we had a heap of stuff to get done. We started off with a Good Friday family barbecue, complete with plenty of meat. We spent Saturday moving furniture. Then came Sunday…

I don’t think it mentions slaughtering geese anywhere in the Bible. I don’t know for sure, because I’ve never read it. But that was what I did on Easter Sunday. No chocolate eggs, or buns. Just a feather-plucking extravaganza that involved my whole hand inside a goose.

Killing does not agree with me. I can’t really bring myself to eat on a day where I have butchered poultry. And the smell of bird gets in my nostrils and won’t leave. But after a couple of days when I was able to try it, the goose soup was really good. We’ve got a nice 1.8kg bird in the freezer to roast at some point too.

It’s the time between catching the bird and it being definitely dead that I find the hardest. In those short minutes, restraining, positioning and dispatching the bird, it is an animal welfare issue. You must not hesitate, you must keep going until the bird is properly dead. Do it quickly and cleanly. This is most difficult when you haven’t done many, and you don’t know what it will feel like, or how badly your hands will shake. But once that bird is dead I can relax.

The geese ideally should have been done a couple of weeks earlier. One was full of pin feathers (beginnings of new feathers, still forming inside the skin) and impossible to pluck cleanly. So with some help from a YouTube video, I skinned him instead. Later I filleted him and made him into soup. The other goose was easier to pluck, with very few pin feathers, and looked very nice with his skin still on. A quick going-over with the chef’s blowtorch (usually used for the tops of creme brulee) got rid of the last of the down and the strange hairs that they also have.

So two excess ganders became a nice big roast and 1kg of lean meat. The frame of the filleted bird became stock. They turned out to be surprisingly lean. The meat is slightly gamey, somewhere between free-range chicken and beef. You can’t buy that stuff in the shops.

Geese 'before' - with feathers but without heads

Geese ‘before’ – with feathers but without heads

Geese 'after' - a neat roasting bird and bowl of meat.

Geese ‘after’ – a neat roasting bird and bowl of meat.

Onto Easter Monday, when I found my dear Lucy goat looking pretty sad. I had been nursing her for just over a week with what started off as scours and changed into something else. She was off her food, hardly pooping and generally not her boisterous self. When the others went off down the paddock she would park herself in the shed. I treated her with a course of antibiotics and some pain meds, but when she began to pass the lining of her digestive tract, I knew it was game over. Intestinal accident, impaction, one of those things.

I made the call to the vet clinic and arranged to meet the vets there later in the day. My big, stoic girl stood up all the way there in the float and didn’t flinch when the vet clipped her neck. I brought her home to bury her. A giant doe needs a very big hole, and we were digging until well after dark. But Monday finally ended with Lucy neatly buried and her purple collar passed onto her daughter Meredith. Oh, how the farmyard is empty without my great spotty girl. And how I miss her big head appearing under my arm, her neck stretching up and eyes half closed in anticipation of the scratches she so politely demanded from anybody who stood still long enough. Safe journey, Tarra Bulga Lucinda, and thank you for your milk, your lovely daughter and granddaughter, and your kind and gentle presence over the past four years.

Lucy in her trademark position, asking for scratches

Lucy in her trademark position, asking for scratches

On Tuesday, with all of these events still pretty raw, I walked into what would be another fairly crappy day at work. My New Forest Pony mare, Starbelle, was close to foaling and I was trying not to think about that too much. I sold my stallion last year and my two younger mares who I bred to him both lost their foals. Starbelle had run with him in the off-season, leading to what felt like the longest equine pregnancy ever, but which I couldn’t attach a due date to. I have never had a foal born this late in the season. Until now Rusty was the latest, born on January 11th.

I wasn’t worried about Starbelle foaling while I was at work. She has had eight foals before this one, all born in the dark except for Zanzibharr who was born at dusk in November, so about 8pm. I left work at 4pm, made a couple of stops on the way home, and pulled up to the house to find a mare whose water had just broken…

I had just enough time to change into farm clothes and grab my phone. When I got back to the foaling yard there were front feet and a head clearly visible. I gave a little bit of assistance with the shoulders, as these babies do tend to get their front ends jammed up on the way out. Out came a bay foal with not a white hair on it. The pretty face suggested filly, but I had to be sure. Once the mare had got up I checked and found… girl parts! A nuggety plain bay filly, the image of her sire, right down to the whorl of hair on her neck. Being Easter (or at least close enough) I chose Ostara for her registered name, to be known as Zara. She follows siblings Tess, Ziggy, Zena, Zebadee, Zev and Zanzibharr. And Lola the hermaphrodite. My five remaining pure Forest ponies are Starbelle and four of her offspring. I need to get them out there doing something.

Elcarim Ostara, with mum River Valley Starbelle

Elcarim Ostara, with mum River Valley Starbelle

After losing the other two foals, it was such a relief to see this little one come out as she should. She will most likely be the last foal I breed, and will hopefully find a home where she can contribute to the breed in the future. She is the filly foal I always wanted from my best mare, and has cemented within me the fact that I am no longer dedicated to ponies.

That was my Easter 2013.