Friday, April 22, 2016

Our reservoir starts to fill

We're using a hose and gravity to move water from our Jojo rainwater tank to our reservoir, so it's taking a lot of time (this is almost 24 hours' worth of water in the picture), but with the waterproofing paint it seems to be staying in rather than leaking out. Now to add plants.

Our boys trying out their boats on this freezing cold day. We had a fire indoors, the wind was fierce enough that our roof started to come apart (that story is for another day, when the crisis feels less fresh!), yet they were in the reservoir playing...

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Reeds and revelations

So these people were looking for a place to dump reeds. Like, 8ft long reeds. I said sure, thinking it would be maybe a bakkie load. No. So far, 3 (smallish) truckloads. Maybe more coming. Each load must contain at least a ton of reads. They can't just be dumped near where we need them, because you can't just drive across our plot. I can carry about 25kg across the plot at a time, and so I've been carrying about 20 loads across our plot every evening for the past few evenings, somewhere between evening cleanup and sun set, while Eug puts the ducks and chickens to bed.

In the beginning, I was thinking about writing about how great it is that we're willing to do what nobody does. Like, nobody else wanted three tons of reeds. How awesome is it that we did, because now we have all this free biomass and our trees are mulched. And I'm no doubt glad we do have this biomass, but I'm also a bit more cautious about how we go about our homesteading mission.

I'm talking about this because I saw Eug sitting drinking coffee and drawing out on the verandah while the boys were nearby playing with water and the ducks. It was beautiful. My first response, to my shame, was not, "LIFE IS AWESOME ISN'T IT!" I noticed in my gut my first reaction was "WHY IS EUG DRAWING WHEN THERE IS DRY LAUNDRY RIGHT NEXT TO HIM CAN'T HE SEE THE DRY LAUNDRY THAT NEEDS TO BE FOLDED AND THE NEW LOAD THAT NEEDS TO GO IN THE WASHING MACHINE." Yes, I was thinking in caps. Because, see, if there's a moment when the boys are playing happily and Hana is sleeping and Eug is working, you can be pretty sure I'm rushing around trying to clean or cook the next meal or somehow feel like I'm ahead.

We're super into this lifestyle because we say it gives us time: we get to choose our time and so on, we're not slave to our employer or to schools or something like that. Right now, the truth is our lifestyle doesn't really give us time. I think we are very productive with our days, and our current lifestyle gives us many good things, but the choices over how to spend each moment are still there, and the choices of how to be in that moment-- how to spend time with the kids, how to do our work, and how to navigate the seemingly infinite work that is before us. The orientation I have towards my time is still pretty frantic. So I guess my point is, I'll haul reeds when I enjoy it, and recognise that some other stuff might not get done if I do. Our life is not all work, and that time spent with my kids and doing chores can be fun and enjoyable and not part of the endless list of things that we need to accomplish.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Ok, so we thought we'd go away for a couple of days. Originally it was so that my dad could have a retreat at our house, but then he didn't have house guests so he didn't really need a retreat. And last time he had a "retreat" at our house we didn't have 2 guinea pigs, 6 ducks and 6 chickens. So mainly we were just grateful. Anyway, there were several reasons that this holiday was not the greatest idea: #1 When we go away, we usually do some work. #2 Our oldest child hates change. #3 Our youngest child hates sitting in a car and is in that stage where we think we may have turned all of our kids into non-sleepers. #4 It costs money. So Eug said we shouldn't say we're going on holiday. We should call it something else, or stay home. Better the farm you know than the farm you don't.

On the other hand, I scored 12 fruit trees, 3 blackberries, and 1 banana palm-- AND I managed to fit them all in the boot of our car. Yeah. We only go to a farm that is in the town of the best garden nursery in the Western Cape. I'm a bit too strategic.

My dad managed to get the chickens to lay some eggs-- literally hours after we left the farm. 11 eggs, 3 days.

We (Eug) managed to take some pictures that remind us (me) that the kids have changed and grown a lot in the past few months, and not to be too grumpy about being needed.

have my book so I don't go off script on my tree purchases. Trying to figure out how to fit trees given boys taking up space...

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Coppicing Port Jackson and thinking about our reservoir

The rain has come! Woohoo!! I'm not sure how much growing the trees will get in before winter, but I'm hoping that with a huge amount of mulching, the summers will get progressively easier and more productive. This was a tough summer, and watering was very time-consuming and exhausting, and we watered barely enough to keep everything alive.

With the rain, we knew it was time to coppice our invasive Port Jackson, Acacia saligna, before it went to seed and we earned the hatred of all our neighbours. We cleared it last year, and it came back with a vengeance, but with more rust fungus than previously. This year, we've coppiced the hundreds of trees at waist height- we expect them to be back, but hope that their strength will gradually be weakened as we add other trees, improve the soil, and cut them back more aggressively (and the rust fungus spreads). To my knowledge the rust fungus attacks these wattle/acacias specifically. For this year, I'm so grateful for the mulch and biomass provided by the Port Jackson, as well as the wind break they provided to our apricot and guava trees, which did pretty well this, their first year (one guava is even bearing fruit at the moment!).

Let's talk practicality: Finding time to coppice three hundred trees with three kids and jobs? I've had to do it in the evening, holding Hana in the carrier, often breastfeeding while choppingYeah. She's gotten so used to it she doesn't like me just walking around with her to get her to sleep-- she wants to feel the jerkiness and the occasional branch landing on her head. Lest you think Eug is slacking off, I think I may have the easier task. While I'm cutting, Eug is busy cleaning and putting the animals to bed, and making sure the boys don't do anything too crazy. At the moment the boys are into playing in the sand of our driveway, which they bring into the house right after Eug finishes cleaning. Aah, to have it all. (that's sarcasm, but only partly, because what kind of person has an acre of land and a red tiny house and three great kids and then whines about it? Yeah. I guess I do.)

Here you can kindof see that there are a lot of cut trees on the left. I think there must be about 300 trees cut.

It's hard to tell from the picture, but midsummer our plot was covered in high port Jackson-- this is when we were close to finishing the coppicing. I think (hope) our plot looks greener than the vacant plot next to us-- in the top left corner.

Chicken catches a baby snake... I am utterly terrified of Cape cobras, and yet I still only wear sandals. I can't bring myself to wear gumboots on the farm. They're so cumbersome. I try to remember how irrational I am when I'm busy making public health recommendations on what other people should be doing.
Hana tries bread baked on an outdoor fire. Eli mentions casually that he dropped it on the chicken poopy verandah before giving it to her. Yup, those black things are flies.
Hana connects with the guinea pigs in our sunroom. As in, she's actually trying to crawl into the guinea pig area, while completely naked. They live under the table, at least at night...  In the sunroom, we're extending the growing season for some young pawpaws (papaya, not American Pawpaw), persimmon, and moringa in here. That's all we have space for... I may have made some promise to Eug about keeping things limited to the table... We're growing sunflower sprouts for the guinea pigs and chickens in the container to the top right. Those don't count.

Eug saying goodnight to the ducks.

This is our thriving swarm of bees-- our other swarm seems to have already died-- cold, wind, American foul brood?? My dad will check it out next week. Hoping for another swarm to take it's place on one of the remaining hot days of the season.

Protea bush.

Guavas have thrived in the shade of the port jackson. Doesn't look like much but this healthy looking, if small, tree is nothing short of miraculous in the past year's drought.
Another tree, with small guavas beginning to form. So we have 2 living guava trees, 2 that are close to dead but not quite. The main difference seems to be the wind break supplied by the port Jackson.

With the copious mulch produced by the port jackson and the advent of rainy season, we're heading into planting and mulching season. I love mulching. It's addictive. some places where I mulched well last year have really been transformed. Mulching right before winter, so that mulch gets wet and starts to decompose, seems to work very well. I have a lot of plans for planting trees, and I just have to be a bit cautious because we're limited by the amount of free manure we can bring in-- otherwise watering will become an almost impossible chore in summer (on the list of projects is drip irrigation-- a project for late 2018?). This year, I'm committed to preparing for summer so that the trees thrive rather than just survive, as was the case this summer. That said, our list of trees is long (40 plus fruit and nut trees) and growing, and we've only been living here for about seven months. Our major successes have been in the greywater systems-- with plentiful water the reed bed (kitchen and washing machine water) and the moringa trees (bathroom water) have thrived. We now have a legitimate crop of moringa-- our first. So maybe that's actually a bit of a caution if you're trying to grow moringa in the western Cape. We have a short growing season for this tree, and it helped a lot to start the moringa in our sun room. If you're struggling to get them going (and they're great once they're going!) consider starting them indoors in the late winter, and keeping them indoors until temperatures reach around 19C consistently.

Enough moringa to eat-- and big enough to grow really large next summer. There are 5 in the greywater system.
As we head into winter, another project is our reservoir. It doesn't currently hold water-- possibly due to a crack or because it was never really finished with a waterproof material. Anyway, we bought some concrete pond paint that we're going to cover the crack, then try it out. Watch this space to see if we poison ourselves. Don't worry, we're not drinking the reservoir water. We'd be poisoning ourselves second-hand. secondarily? We're planning to put some tilapia in the pond, and making a really nice habitat for our ducks to enjoy. I figure that-- at least in three years' time-- about 3 meals of meat per week would be sustainable, with minimal outside feed, on this plot of land. With 6 chickens and 6 ducks, we go through 25kg of feed in about 10-12 weeks. They forage for the rest of their food. At R200 for a bag, the cost amounts to maximum R20 (US$1.25) per week for 12 birds. Once we have regular eggs, we'll know the cost of the eggs. Ducks don't start to lay until around 10 months. So the cost of feed has to somehow factor in those nine months of feeding between when we got them and when we start eating eggs. The good news?: No eating duck this round. By some miracle, we seem to have 5 females and just one male muscovy. Given that we're struggling to kill rats humanely (wack! wack! Woops! AERK It ran away! How is it fine after being wacked on the head with a hammer!?), I'm so glad we're not killing ducks. So anyway, we're not winning any awards for growing our own calories. Give us a bit of time.
Anyway, back to the mythical three meals of meat in three years time and how the planning works, at least theoretically: If we eat 1 chicken every two weeks, one duck every two weeks, and fish every week and stretch the chicken and duck meals so that 1 life=2 meals for the 5 of us. This should be easy with the ducks-- they're huge at just 3 months of age-- but maybe a bit more of a stretch with the chickens who grow more slowly and are smaller. We'll see. Anyway, back to the fish. One meal would likely be 2-3 tilapia. Meaning we'd need to grow about 100-150 fish per year in our reservoir, which holds about 30000 L. The catch is that we don't want to have a pump to aerate the water or pump water out. We don't have enough electricity capacity with our solar system. I'll write more about design and thoughts as we start to fill the reservoir. Basically we want to get the maximum number of fish that can live happily eating duck poop, algae and floating plants without overloading the pond. And in the winter, when rain is plentiful, we'd harvest the nutrient-rich water. When I look at the state-of-the-art tilapia growing operations with pumps and feed, they produce about double our needs in about 1/2 of our space. So I'm hoping with no input, and being completely not state of the art, we could be 1/4 as efficient (can you plan inefficiency?) and produce enough for our needs, ideally allowing them to reproduce and grow the next generation with some genius setup that allows baby tilapia to hide or be separated from their cannibalistic parents. When I say genius, I mean we're just going to wait for Eug to have an idea. Eug's ideas are usually awesome.

(Sorry about weird formatting-- internet is having trouble.)