Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Winter Woodfires: Cooking in a woodstove

Did you know what you can get woodstoves that are designed for both heating your house and cooking?  We've owned two woodstoves now, both with ovens under the fire box for cooking.  I hardly ever use our electric oven in winter (and in summer we tend to use the BBQ or the slow cooker because its too hot in the house).  Cooking in a woodstove is easy and convenient.  If you are considering installing a woodstove for heating, you should consider the cooking option too, as it doesn't cost much more and you will be able to cook all your meals for free while your heating the house anyway.

The kelpies enjoying the heat from the woodfire

The first woodstove that we tried was a Nectre Bakers Oven.  It was a lovely little oven, that heated up quickly.  But it has a tiny firebox and doesn't stay warm overnight (important in a drafty old Queenslander!). We cooked many roasts, loaves of bread, cakes and roast potatoes in the oven.  In fact, because the electric oven in that house was terrible, I baked and cooked more in the woodstove than the electric oven.  And we used the top of the woodstove to boil and simmer pot roasts, veges, soups and sauces, and to fry steak and sausages.  In winter we hardly used the electric oven and we were always warm and cosy (except early morning, when the fire burnt out).


The bakers oven was great for bread.....
.....and muffins.  All baking and cooking actually!
When we moved to Eight Acres, we decided to try a different woodstove.  This time we wanted something that would stay warm overnight, so we chose a Scandia Cuisine.  This is a much larger and heavier model, with some extra features. It has an ash tray under the firebox, so its very easy to clean.  The oven and firebox are larger and the doors seal very well, so its easier to keep a large log burning overnight.  The larger bulk of cast iron means that it stays warm overnight, even after the fire burns out.  The large oven fits our large roasting dish, with plenty of room for roast veges as well.  And the top is just as useful for boiling and frying.  We have a nicer electric oven in this house, so the woodstove hasn't been used as much, but we are looking forward to endless roast potatoes again (we are usually too stingy to use the electric oven just for roast potatoes, but if the fire is on anyway, why not?).


Some general tips for woodfire cooking:
  • The temperature on the door is about 50degC cooler than the temperature in the oven itself, so keep an eye on your baking to learn the ideal door temperature for each dish.  If the oven gets too hot, just crack the door open.
  • When the top gets too hot you can raise pots and pans up on metal racks trivets.  We have a couple of different heights so you can always adjust to the right temperature.
  • If the fire's on anyway, you may as well pop something on top to cook.  Take the opportunity to cook soups, stocks, jams, pot roasts, anything that needs to sit on the heat for a while, it saves using electricity or gas.
For more information about woodstoves see installing a woodstove, preparing firewood, and lighting the fire.




Do you cook on a woodstove?  Any tips?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Using mulch in your organic garden

Not only does mulch help to suppress weeds in the garden, it also adds organic matter to feed the soil microbes and retain water.  I also use mulch on the paths to stop them getting muddy.  As more worms have started to make their home in my garden, I find that I regularly have to top up the mulch around my garden (the worms pull is down into their burrows).  Luckily I have a few sources on our property and rarely have to specifically buy anything to use as mulch.  Here's a few ideas for using mulch in your organic garden.



Some of the types of mulch that I use in the garden:
  • Sugar cane mulch sold in the produce (although this gets expensive)
  • Bales of mulch hay, which is really just good hay that's been out in the weather too long, most hay farmers will have a few bales of mulch hay that they can sell cheaply, although this is difficult to collect if you don't have a ute and can contain seeds (I usually have a lovely crop of oats in my garden from using oat hay at some stage, however that's all good green manure)
  • The dregs of rounds bales of good hay for the cattle - anyone who keeps animals will know that they never eat all of the hay, but at least I can find a good use to anything that doesn't get eaten.
  • Grass clippings (again it can have seeds, but I grow so many weeds in the garden anyway, I don't care!)
  • Chicken laying box wood shavings (infused with chicken poo fertiliser)
  • Chicken feathers from when we butcher roosters - this is a recent experiment and is quite alarming at first when you walk into the garden and see feathers everywhere!
  • Wood chips - If we need to clear small sapplings, or trees branches, we usually chip them using a mulcher we bought on ebay.

The monster mulcher
We bought the mulcher when we moved to Eight Acres and had hundreds of small wattle trees to cut down to grow better pasture for our cattle. With all the trees pushed over we didn’t want to light a huge fire and decided that mulching would be a better option. We bought a large, petrol-motor powered mulcher off ebay and waited impatiently for it to arrive (we always worry with ebay that it won't turn up at all!).  This was an excellent supply of mulch while we were clearing the trees. 

If you have the space, and plenty of trees, a mulcher is a great option for both keeping the block tidy and  providing a nice supply of mulch.  If you don't want to buy one, you could look at hiring one.  Make sure its large enough to take big branches though, so you don't have to cut them as much.
 

Our mulcher

There's a car trailer under that pile of sapplings!

A pile of mulch ready to spread on the garden

Using mulch in the garden
I find that I have to spread mulch fairly regularly, every couple of months at least, as it breaks down and gets consumed by the worms and microbes in the soil.  It does really help to have a bulk source of mulch available, I will often just fill a wheel barrow with hay or wood chips and spread them around the garden over a few days as I get the time.  I find that seedlings will still come up through mulch, so while it does help to suppress weeds, you need to keep weeding and re-applying mulch, however, this also means that my self-seeded veges get a chance too.


Do you use mulch? What kind do you use?


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Growing and using celery

Celery is one vegetable that I never used to like before I grew it myself.  Silverbeet is the other one.  Celery from the supermarket is usually stringy and tasteless, and depending how old it is, may also be a bit limp.  Homegrown celery is crunchy and tasty.  Here's how I grow and use celery.



How to grow celery
I have had no luck growing celery from seed that I planted, and resorted to buying seedlings, however, celery that then went to seed seems to have now produced more celery seedlings.  I still don't know how to get celery seeds to germinate, so if you're new to gardening I recommend buying seedlings to avoid disappointment.  Celery needs plenty of moisture and I have observed that it will not grow well when we get very hot and dry conditions.  It does grow through winter here though (surviving light frosts) and thrives any time we have warm and wet conditions.  If you keep it growing long enough it will eventually go to seed and die off, however it seems to keep growing for several months, nearly a year, in my garden.

Traditionally celery is "blanched" by mounding up or putting covers over the stalks to blanch them white.  Personally I can't be bothered with this and I like the flavour of green stalks, so I just let my celery grow free.  I don't harvest entire plants, rather just picking a few stalks as I need them.



How to use celery
Celery is a surprisingly versatile and useful vegetable.  It is a key ingredient for homemade stock, many soups, a component of a mirepoix casserole base, a vege to add to the evening meal or just a crunchy fresh vege to dip into something tasty.  I generally chop off the leaves and put them in a bag in the freezer for my next batch of stock.  And then depending on how I want to use the stalks, I'll chop them too.


Do you grow celery?  How do you use it?


Monday, September 19, 2016

Holistic management - part 4: ecosystem processes

The book Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making (affiliate link) sets out a guide to developing a holistic goal for your farm or business.  (See my introduction to Holistic Management here, and part 2: four key insights for the reasons why holistic management is important and part 3: holistic goal for understand what you are managing and what you want from it).

eight acres: Holistic management - part 4: ecosystem Processes


Holistic management considers four fundamental and interelated processes that function within our ecosystem/environment:
  • Water cycle
  • Mineral cycle
  • Energy cycle 
  • Community dynamics
These processes are the foundation on which we can build our holistic goals.  The holistic goal should be formulated around how we want to influence these processes, as any improvement in one will result in an overall improvement in productivity of the land.  I will use this post to discuss the processes and further develop the holistic goal that I drafted previously.


Water Cycle
Most of us would have learnt about the water cycle in school.  Water is evaporated from water bodies and land, it forms clouds, which result in rain or precipitation (including snow).  This then flows through creeks and rivers (and underground) to the sea.  The important concept here is that all water is eventually going to move under gravity towards the sea, but we want to get as much use out of that water as possible, and the most efficient way to do that is to hold water in our soil, but no so much that we have waterlogging.  An effective water cycle is one that keeps the right amount of water in the soil, with enough catchment and enough drainage.




I know that we can sometimes have 50 mm of rain and I can dig in my garden and find that only the surface is wet.  We have erosion on our property from water run-off during high rainfall events.  Although we do catch water in dams, it would be more effective in our soil.  Most of that rain has run off, and that is not an effective water cycle.  That just results in floods and droughts.  The things that help the soil to absorb water are ground cover, organic matter content, aeration and drainage.  Bare soil tends to form an impermeable layer that does not allow water to soak into the soil.  This is part of the reason why we are trying to develop a perennial pasture rather than cultivating our soil regularly, as that constant cover will help create an effective water cycle.  Management practices such as tilling, fire, overgrazing, undergrazing and extensive use of herbicides will all reduce ground cover and therefore create an ineffective water cycle.

Holistic goal: An effective water cycle with water captured in high organic matter soil, available year-round to our pasture, and not causing erosion problems and leaching (clear silt-free dams for swimming).


image source: http://www.grazingdays.com/


Mineral Cycle
Minerals move through the environment just as water does, and most of the drivers for an effective water cycle are common to the mineral cycle.  "A good mineral cycle implies a biologically active living soil, with adequate aeration and energy underground to sustain an abundance of organisms that are in continuous contact with nitrogen, oxygen and carbon from the atmosphere".  The key word is living - microbes are part of the cycle, fertilisers and chemicals that kill microbes also destroy the mineral cycle and microbes need biological matter from plants.  Therefore bare ground will not support an effective mineral cycle.  In addition, plants are the main agents for bringing minerals to the surface.  For those minerals to continue in the cycle, they must be decomposed by microbes.

Some minerals come from decomposing rock, others from the atmosphere via rain.  Like the water cycle, the most effective mineral cycle will keep minerals in the system as long as possible and avoid problems like leaching and run-off of minerals.  Fire and oxidation will also cause many minerals to be lost as gases rather than incorporated in soil.  In brittle environments, infrequent rainfall reduces the tendency of trees to rot and dead trees can stand for decades (we have a few on our property, and while they make great bird nesting trees, they are not currently contributing to the mineral cycle).  This is also the case with grass that overgrows, dies off in winter (becoming unpalatable) and then inhibits the growth of new shoots if the grass is not trimmed short again.




Holistic goal: An effective mineral cycle, retaining minerals in the soil by encouraging microbial life and minimising leaching and run-off through optimal groundcover. (no more ploughing!)

Energy Flow
"The natural living world runs on solar power and our management decisions drastically affect how much is captured and put to use".  This is the only process that is not a cycle, but rather a one-way flow of energy from the sun, via plants, to create the carbohydrates that sustain all living things, from microbes to humans.  This is described by the energy pyramid shown below.  The only ways to increase the amount of energy flow to a property is 1) encourage growth of more solar-converting plants or 2) external input of fossil fuels.  From a sustainability and input cost perspective, the first option is preferable.  Biomass can be increased by increasing plant density and/or the size of the leaves.

Holistic goal: Long growth seasons and high growth rates, maximum vegetation coverage, and therefore, high energy flow - through effective water and mineral cycles and biodiversity.  





image source: http://www.ianmitchell-innes.com/


Community Dynamics
Communities of living things are always dynamic, from establishment to a stable population, they change constantly in response to external influences.  We cannot begin to understand the complex dynamics of the communities on our property.  From the billions of microbes in the soil, to the insects, small animals, various plants and our introduced farm animals.  They all work together to make the other processes - water cycle, mineral cycle and energy flow - happen on small and large scales.  This chapter covers several concepts, which I will attempt to summarise.  Many are similar to permaculture principles.
  • There are no hardy species - every species is adapted to specific conditions.
  • Non-native species have their place - while some non-natives can cause a lot of damage, some can be beneficial.  Especially considering that some ground cover is better than none, its more effective to keep non-native weeds than to spray them and have nothing.  This reminds me of Peter Andrew's work where he slashed weeds to improve the mineral cycle, rather than spraying them.
  • Stability tends to increase with increasing complexity - this includes species at all levels, and means that established and diverse communities are less like to experience plagues or or one species taking over completely, as they naturally balance each other.
  • Most of nature's wholes function at the community level - members of any one species exist as part of a community, not as a separate population (one of the problems with the way we try to "save" certain species but forget the overall environment that they live in).
  • Most biological activity occurs underground - the soil beneath a healthy pasture may contain double the weight of microbe below ground as cattle above ground.  This biological activity also includes plant roots, which are continually exuding chemicals to feed microbes.  This is why we need to value soil as an extension of the biological system that we can see above ground.
  • Change generally occurs in successional stages - this is related to the first point.  Biological communities will tend to progress as the conditions become suitable for different species.  For example, grass and weeds growing on bare ground create an environment that supports small shrubs and gradually trees then shade out the grass.  This concept is used widely in permaculture design.  In brittle environments succession may be slow or non-existent, as the conditions for the next level of species are never achieved.
How to use a knowledge of community dynamics - generally in farming we want to encourage one species of farm animal or crop to thrive, however by developing monocultures we ignore many of the concepts discussed above and create difficulties such as pests and diseases that just require more work.  Alan says "In seeking to increase or to decrease certain species, you must not fall in the trap of seeking a monoculture of whatever plant appears most beneficial".  Understanding the dynamic communities on our property and managing them using the concepts above will be critical to achieving our holistic goal.  For example we have a species of grass called African Love Grass (ALG), which is considered a weed and most farmers will spray or burn it, with little success in eradicating the grass.  It is low protein, but cattle will eat it when its short and green.  Importantly, we have observed that when we increase soil fertility, other more desirable grasses will take over (succeed) from the ALG.  Our management technique is therefore, keep the grass short and desirable to cattle, improve soil fertility to that other grasses can thrive and succeed.




Holistic goal: Biodiversity in natural and farmed plants and animals for maximum resilience and stability.  Harness succession principles to develop productive palatable perennial pastures without the use of chemicals, fire or excessive mechanical intervention (the goal is not supposed to include "how", but I don't want to lose that sentence, it might end up in the plan somewhere else)


What do you think?  How do you think the water and mineral cycles, the energy flow and community dynamics are functioning on your property?  How do you (or will you) work to improve these processes?



Below are some Amazon affiliate links to books related to Holistic Management.  If you would like to read my reviews of these books, see the following links:

Joel Salatin's books

Peter Andrew's books on Natural Sequence Farming

Permaculture Principles



     
   



Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The story of our turkeys - from eggs to roast

The turkeys arrived at our property as 12 eggs, bursting out of an egg cartoon (being larger than chicken eggs), towards the end of June 2010.  We put them all straight into the incubator and 28 days later 4 chicks hatched.  They were just like chicken chicks, maybe a little bigger, but just as cute.

Turkey chicks look like chicken chicks - very cute!
The turkeys got bigger quickly and soon stopping looking like chickens.  They started to get their weird turkey features and we could see that we had 2 hens and 2 gobblers.  Speaking of gobblers, there's some wonderful terminology for turkeys, which has been a source of much amusement since they arrived here.
Caruncle - brightly colored growths on the throat region.  Turns bright red when the turkey is upset or during courtship.
Snood - the flap of skin that hangs over the turkey's beak.  Turns bright red when the turkey is upset or during courtship.
Wattle - the flap of skin under the turkey's chin. Turns bright red when the turkey is upset or during courtship.

As the turkey got bigger they started to grow their weird turkey features
We were worried about having the two gobblers together, as we didn't know if they would fight.  We have found that our roosters tend to fight, aggressively and with a dedication that suggests they would fight to the death if we didn't intervene.  However, unlike the flapping and kicking rooster fights, turkey fights are more like wrestling!  One gobbler would bite onto the other gobblers' snood (te he) and they would wrestle until the second rooster could get hold of the other gobblers' snood.  It seemed to go on for ages, in silent, slow motion, with little result.  They also seemed to grow out of it, because we didn't see any wrestling when they got bigger.  In general, the adult gobblers are quite ridiculous to watch.  They try to impress the hens by puffing up their feathers, sticking their tail in the air and holding their wings by their sides.  They walk around the pen slowly, like blimps, then they shake their feathers back down and go back to normal.

Full sized turkey are funny-looking
When we put the turkeys in a larger pen we thought it was time to give them a go at free-ranging.  All our chickens free-range, we let them out of their cages when we're home (to keep an eye on the killer kelpie dogs) and they can wander around where-ever they want (although we have chicken mesh to separate the two roosters, and they still try to fight through the mesh).  They go to bed by themselves around dusk and we just have to remember to close the door of their cage to keep out any foxes or feral cats.  I thought the turkeys could do the same thing, so I opened the door one afternoon.  It took the hens about 10 minutes to figure out how to get out.  The gobblers got really excited when they saw that the hens were out, but they took a further 30 minutes to work it out (I'll let you draw your own conclusions from that one).  They then walked around in formation, 2 by 2, when they got to something high, like their cage, they flew up onto it.  This is when I realised that maybe free-ranging wasn't such a great idea.  If they could get up onto their cage, they could get into my garden.....then one of the gobblers got a fright (this is the story of their lives, they are VERY easily frightened) and flew over the chicken wire fence and into the paddock with the white rooster.  The white rooster came to see what the intruder was, so did Bruce the steer, this gave the gobbler ANOTHER fright and he flew back over the fence.  The situation was getting out of control, so I decided it was time that the turkeys went back home.

When we want to get the chickens to go home, we just throw some grain into their cage, or just ahead of them, and they usually run in the right direction.  Turkeys are very different, if you throw grain ahead of them they just get a fright and run in the other direction!  Eventually I succeeded by walking behind their formation and 'steering' towards their cage.  I think Cheryl the kelpie can take some credit for herding as she happened to stand on the other side of the door of the cage and they ran in.  There ended a very stressful afternoon of turkey free-ranging, and we never let them out again, as they were considered a 'flight risk" (te he).  Since then, the gobblers have developed an alarming habit of charging at us when we go near the cage (they haven't worked out that they are surrounded by mesh, so they charge, hit the mesh and bounce back), so I haven't liked to try any further free-ranging experiments.  

video


Turkeys make a variety of different noises. You can hear in the video the constant 'peep peep' noise and a bit of 'gobbling'.  They all gobble together in response to loud noises, including, the dog barking, the steers mooing, the rooster crowing, thunder and loud swearing.  This can be great entertainment.  The gobblers also make a deep booming noise.  When I caught one of the gobblers recently he growled at me, which was quite off-putting!  

After nearly a year, we found that the turkeys were eating too much food (and the peeping noise was really irritating me), so we decided it was time to try roast turkey!  We were going to keep one gobbler to breed with the hens, but decided that they were both too aggressive, and we'll buy another, nice one for spring if we like the roast.

I'll explain in another post the details of how to kill, pluck, gut and cook poultry, but I can tell you that the first gobbler cooked up beautifully, weighing in at 6 kg, so we'll be eating turkey for the rest of the week!  And we're keen to keep breeding them, now we have got used to their crazy behaviour!  They are not like chickens at all.  I'd love to hear if anyone has successfully let turkeys free-range - I think we will try again with the hens, they seem to be a bit smarter.....

The first gobbler was cooked as a delicious roast

2016 update: we ate the two turkey hens as well.  The problem with turkeys is that 6kg of meat is just too much for two people.  Also their drumsticks are full of small bones, so its really hard to eat or cut them up for mince.  We really just decided that we didn't like turkey meat enough to keep them, even though they were hilarious.  As we found with the guinea fowl that we tried a few years later, its easier to specialise in one poultry and chickens suit us perfectly.  I can definitely see the benefits of turkeys if you were feeding a larger number of people.

Affiliate links to get you started:


OzFarmer - 12 egg incubator

Monday, September 12, 2016

My top five veges for beginner gardeners in the sub-tropics

I wrote this post when I had only been gardening for about 3 years, but these are still my favourite vegetables to grow.  They are easy to grow and produce a good crop.  This is a list of my top 5 favourites for beginners in a sub-tropical climate:




1. Silverbeet
This is a surprising one, as I never ate it before I had a garden, but it was the thing I missed the most when we first moved house and I had no garden for a few months.  Once established, silverbeet keeps going for months (in this climate anyway).  We usually have about six mature plants in the garden at a time, which provides a couple of leaves for our dinner each night and extra as a treat for the chickens.  Even when veges in the supermarket are between seasons and expensive, we can always top up a meal with a few leaves of silverbeet.

This cherry tomato is growing
out of my compost bin

2. Cherry Tomatoes
While the large tomatoes have proven to be delicate, disease-prone and attacked by fruit fly, the little cherry tomatoes have had no such trouble.  They just keep going no matter what!  In the last garden we had one large rambling plant that I tried to contain in a circle of mesh, but it was always escaping.  Now I have a small, well-controlled plant in a pot and get heaps of tiny tomatoes from it all year.  The extras go into the freezer whole and get thrown into stews and pasta sauces.  In the last garden I had cherry tomatoes coming up all around the garden from the rotten fruit that I didn't get a chance to pick, so they are very easy to cultivate.


Poor Man's Beans can grow up to 10cm long if you don't find them in time!
Poor Man's Beans are easy to grow and produce lots of beans.
3. Poor Man's Beans (Dolichos Lablab)
I don't think you can even buy this one in the shops.  Its a large climbing bean that seems to keep growing for years, dying back in winter and returning in spring.  Mine is currently covered in beans.  The string beans growing next to the Poor Man's are in poor condition this year, destroyed by slugs, but the Poor Man's seems more hardy.  The current plant was grown from seeds saved from the last garden, so its easy to cultivate too.  Between the beans and the sliver beet, we always have something green for dinner!


Spring onions are planted between other veges,
the lettuce is the in background (starting to seed)
4. Spring Onions
I have tried and failed to grow normal onions, however I have never had any trouble with spring onions.  We have them in the garden all year and pick as needed.  When they get big they grow seed heads, which I just cut off when they are ready and the onion is still ok to eat later.  The next crop is then easily grown from this seed, so you have onions forever!

5 Cos-type Lettuce
My mother-in-law gave me some lettuce seeds for our first garden, so I don't even know exactly what type they are, but they are perfectly suited to hot and humid conditions.  They are a non-hearting Cos-type lettuce. The best part is that the seedlings some up within a couple of days of planting and you literally get hundreds in a pot, so they are very easy to cultivate and there's plenty for the chickens too, this is very encouraging for the beginner!  They go to seed after a while, but that's just more seed for the next crop.

Any suggestions for other fail-save crops for beginners?  The ones I have chosen are disease resistant, easy to cultivate and cheap as you can save seeds from each crop (except my silver beet has never gone to seed!).

eight acres: top five vegetables for beginner gardeners in the sub-tropics


2016 update: I have to add kale to the list.  It is about the only vegetable that will grow through heat-waves and frost conditions.  I have several plants that have been in the garden for years.  I sometimes flowers and seeds, but always regrows more leaves.  Its great cooked and can be used raw in salad as well.

More on seed-saving and my garden.

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