Our newest arrival

We are thrilled to announce the arrival of Holly Elizabeth Monks! Our newest farm worker was born on Wednesday the 30th of May at 10:18pm weighing just 1212 grams (about 2.5 pounds for the imperial types).

Holly and Karen are recovering well, although Holly has quite a few weeks ahead of her in the Neonatal ICU (NICU) as she was only 30 weeks along when born.

Making compost lasagne

One of the key principles of both organic and permaculture farming is to minimise external inputs to your farming system. Given how important soil is to farming and gardening, growing your own soil is a great strategy. Autumn is an ideal time to get some compost put away for the coming Spring. Whether it’s to top up the garden, or to fill up new garden beds, there’s no such thing as having too much compost under construction. At its simplest, a compost pile uses the same processes as nature to break down organic matter; Bacteria and small critters digest the organic matter, leaving behind rich soil.

Almost any organic matter can be composted, but a few ingredients make the whole process of creating soil that much faster. You can get also get technical with the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in your compost, but experience (and your nose) are really all you need to perfect your technique.

Carbon sources are things like leaves, dried grass or hay, wood chips, or even paper. Nitrogen tends to come from fresh green matter like plants, or animal manures. My favourite ingredients (and what we have to hand) are horse manure from the paddock or stable, old hay, straw from the chicken house, and soil from the last batch of compost as a starter.

We spread the ingredients in fine layers, just like making a lasagne. In the early stages, most of the bacterial activity will happen at the edges of the layers, where the different ingredients meet, so lots of thin layers will compost quicker than a few thick ones. The layers of previous compost act as a starter – providing lots of bacteria to kick-start the composting process.

Here are our latest farm helpers Tanya and Andy, layering up the lasagne. It’s a pleasant morning’s work, building the pile. The individual ingredients don’t smell, and as long as there’s plenty of air getting to the pile, it won’t either.

You can use almost any system to contain the compost. We use some spare boards and some old bits of warratah to retain them. The pile can be open to the weather, but if you’re expecting torrential rain it might pay to cover it with some old carpet. You want the pile moist to do its job, but not soaked.

The chickens quite like helping and will gladly spread the new compost everywhere in search of tasty bugs. I don’t want to deprive them, but that’s why we use the boards – to keep everything in place long enough for it to compost.

After a few days, the pile will start to heat up. That’s a good sign that the compost heap is getting into action. You should be able to put your hand right into the centre without it getting burned (seriously, it can get that hot). If the pile is too hot you’ve probably got too much nitrogenous matter in there, so ease back on the animal manure next time, or add more carbon to the mix. Ideally the pile will get up to 65 degrees C to kill any pathogens or weed seeds in the mix.

In about a month we’ll turn the compost to help aerate it and by Spring there should be a few cubic metres of rich, dark soil to fill up  new garden beds or spread on the pasture – all home grown.

Crusty sourdough loaf

This is one of my favourite home made breads. It’s a crusty sourdough made from our own sourdough starter.

Crusty Sourdough Loaf
2 cups of lukewarm water
1 cup of sourdough starter
1 teaspoon of active dry yeast or fresh yeast
5 cups of high grade flour
1 tablespoon of salt

There’s not much to it. Just mix the water, starter and yeast together and then add the flour and salt. Mix by hand for about five minutes or put everything in your bread machine and use the dough setting to mix it for you.

The dough should be quite wet and have a shaggy appearance. Put it in a bowl and cover with cling film, or inside a shopping bag to rise until it doubles in size. Leave the bowl somewhere warm for about two hours or somewhere cool overnight. The longer you take to rise the dough, the stronger the flavour will be.

When you are ready to bake the bread, split the dough in two and knead well to restart rising then put the two doughs into loaf tins. Alternatively, you can make the bread any shape you want and just put it on an oven tray. Loosely cover the dough with plastic again.

Let the dough rise again for about 45 minutes while you heat up the oven to 200-220 degrees C.

Bake for 15-25 minutes, depending on what shape your dough is (flat, wide bread will cook quicker than a taller loaf) and how crusty you want the top to be. It helps to mist the top of the dough with water just before you put it in the oven.

The crusty top and chewy, tangy sourdough flavour of this bread make it a great any-occasion snack. It toasts well too!

A wee flood

This is our neighbour’s place in the midst of the so-called “weather bomb”. Their usually small, tranquil stream had grown considerably.

Our sourdough starter

I’ve tried a few sourdough bread starters over the years but this one has been the easiest to start and produces a great sourdough bread. The only reason I’m starting it again is that I managed to kill my last one. As it turns out, sourdough starters that contain dairy don’t like to be left out of the fridge long term.

This recipe is from one of our favourite bread books – Beth Hensperger’s The Bread Bible. It’s definitely in the “if you only buy one…” category.

Sourdough Starter

2 cups of lukewarm water
1 teaspoon of active dry yeast or fresh yeast
1 tablespoon of sugar or honey
1/4 cup of nonfat dry milk powder
1/3 cup of plain yoghurt
2 cups of bread flour

Feed for the starter

1/4 cup of water
1/3 cup of bread flour

You’ll need a medium sized glass bowl with a loose-fitting glass lid (or gladwrap is fine). Pour the warm water into the bowl and sprinkle the yeast, sugar and milk powder over the surface. Stir with a whisk until dissolved then stir in the flour and mix until well blended.

Loosely cover with a glass lid, gladwrap or a double layer of cheesecloth and let stand at room temperature for at least 48 hours, whisking the mixture twice a day. You can leave it for up to four days, depending on how sour you want the starter to be. The mixture will start to ferment and bubble with a clear liquid forming on top – just stir that back in.

On day two to four (depending on when you want to stop) it’s time to feed the starter. Mix in 1/4 cup of water and 1/3 cup of bread flour, cover again and let it stand overnight. Store it in the fridge, loosely covered and feed it again every two weeks.

Using the starter

Bring it to room temperature before using.  Remove the amount of starter you need then add one cup of flour and 1/2 cup of non-fat milk to the remaining starter. Mix well and let stand at room temperature for a day to start fermenting again, then refrigerate. I’ve found that if you are using and replacing the starter regularly (once a week or more) you don’t need to feed it as well, unless you want to grow the starter to the point you can split it in half and give some away to another keen baker.

The starter will improve with age (my last one was nearly a year old when I killed it). It should smell of pleasant fermentation – yeast and alcohol. If it starts to smell foul or develops a pink colour it has probably succumbed to an airborne pathogen – discard it immediately and start again.

It helps to leave yourself a note for the first few days’ activities so you don’t have to keep diving back to the recipe.

A bucket of mushrooms

We recently bought a bucket of mushroom starter from local outfit, Parkvale mushrooms. It’s currently living in our firewood box outside the back door in the relative cool and dark. We’ve harvested over a kilo of mushrooms from it so far, and more keep coming up. At the current price of mushrooms it’s already paid for itself! Aside from the economy, the taste of just-picked mushrooms in our salads and on pizzas can’t be beaten. They’re easy to look after, don’t take up much space, and start producing immediately – ideal for the kitchen gardener.

Busy bees

I was just up at the hay paddock and was struck by the loud buzzing coming from all around me. We’ve had a bumper season for clover this year and now it’s all coming into flower, the bees are making the most of it. Having bees definitely helps the clover grow. White clover propagates by seed or creeping stolons, so even if the flowers don’t get pollinated, it can still spread (although slowly). When you pollinate flowers and they drop viable seed, you get so much more growing, assuming the weather is clover-friendly.

More clover means more clover flowers, which makes the bees very happy – they help each other.

Back at the hives, on a hot, humid and very still day, the bees are going nuts. Here’s the traffic jam outside the larger of the two hives.

3D Printing Fly Traps

This is the third in what has turned into a three-part series on organic pest control (it’s just that time of year). The previous two posts were on organic wood lice control and white butterfly decoys.

Like most rural dwellers, we accept flies as part of life. Some years are worse than others but wet summers (like this one so far) seem to be very favourable to fly breeding.

We’ve had a few big fly traps over the years like the plastic lids you put on buckets and fill with bait. They work well, but can be a bit big and smelly to use too close to the house. I wanted to design a trap that was smaller, could be deployed nearer the house in larger numbers, and that used recycled materials if possible. It needed to be 3D printable and fit within the constraints of the build platform – 10x10x10cm.

After some messing about with various ideas, The bean can fly trap was born. In a nutshell, flies smell whatever bait and water you put in the can (a small piece of liver, or any offal works well), go in for a closer look, then find themselves trapped. They drown in the can and they in turn, become bait for more flies. The principle of fly behaviour the traps exploit is their drive to fly upwards to fresh air and light; they’ll just keep bumping up against the lid of the trap until they are exhausted and fall in the water.

The two parts of the trap are the lid that allows the flies to enter but not get out again, and a base that can be attached to the top of a fence post. Both parts friction-fit to the can. Most tin cans like this are the same dimensions the world over so it should work with almost any can.

Here are a few prototype traps in testing on top of one of our big traps. I played with various shapes and sizes of entry tunnels, and different vent slot sizes. Getting the flies into a trap was fairly easy if the bait was smelly enough. The harder part was keeping them in there. While we use wet bait to catch and kill the flies, I’ve heard from another user that they use dry bait to catch live flies to give to their pet frog. Either way, I’m happy with less flies in the world.

The plan now is to deploy these traps on fence posts all around the house to reduce the fly population through the Summer.


White butterfly decoys

The previous post about organic woodlice control touched on a couple of elements of pest control: trapping and physical separation of pest and plant. Another strategy that can work quite well is using environmental elements to confuse or deter pests. You can apply the principle to planting technique, by mixing up your plants to confuse pests (they don’t have to be too smart to find an acre of one crop). In this case I wanted to deter white butterflies from laying their eggs on our brassicas.

It turns out, white butterflies are quite territorial (or at least smart enough to know when to cut their losses). If a white butterfly sees other butterflies hovering around a target plant, they will move on to somewhere else to lay their eggs. You can use this behaviour to make decoy butterflies repellent to the real ones. People have used egg shells, white pebbles and even bread tags as decoys with mixed success.

My friend Vik had already created a model of a white butterfly and put it up on Thingiverse. All I had to do was download it and print one out.

While it was still hot from the printer I bent the wings up at a more realistic angle. A spare bit of filament melted and stuck to the bottom made a handy stalk to poke into the garden bed.

I printed a bunch (flock?) of butterflies and gave them some anatomical detail with a vivid marker before deploying them to the garden.

The stalks are quite flexible so the butterflies bob about in the wind. They look pretty realistic to me, but more importantly I’ve seen white butterflies hovering around, then leaving without touching down, all this week. Time will tell if any have the courage to sneak in to lay eggs.

If you don’t have a 3D printer, you could probably cut the same shape out of white plastic containers for much the same effect.

Organic woodlice control

For the most part, our small greenhouse has done a great job of keeping bugs off the veges (at least, the flying ones). Of all the plants you’d think bugs wouldn’t eat, chili peppers must be top of the list. Given we’ve just planted some Bhut Jolokia chili peppers, otherwise known as Ghost Chilis (the world’s hottest), we thought they would be pretty safe from predation.

The woodlice (or slaters as we call them in NZ) living in the greenhouse had other ideas. They had nibbled the leaves of the seedlings on the first night after we planted them. Organic growing is often just as easy as conventional with planning and time to prepare for setbacks, but in this case we didn’t have much time before the chili seedlings would be too far gone to save. To the internet for inspiration!

Plan A: Physical barrier

You can physically stop the woodlice getting to your plants by using almost anything as a collar around them. A few plastic bottles and jars cut up worked nicely. I removed the top layer of mulch and compost from around the plants first to remove most or all of the woodlice first (no point in trapping them in there with their dinner).

This has worked pretty well; after a few days, no new woodlice have gotten to the plants, and by the time they outgrow the collars (they can be cut off later), the leaves and stems should be tough enough that the woodlice no longer try to eat them. But we still wanted to reduce the numbers of woodlice in the greenhouse, to protect other plants. So on to;

Plan B: Traps

The most effective of the traps we tried was the half-citrus trap. It’s really simple, just put a half orange (or grapefruit in this case) face down on the soil. You can juice it first if you don’t want to waste it.

The next day, turn it over and scoop up all the little buggers. I call the chickens over (yes they know to come for food) and throw the handful of woodlice on the ground for them. I’d been getting a couple of hundred woodlice a day from two citrus traps this week, but the numbers are starting to drop off now – a good sign.

The other trap we tried was a plant pot filled with damp newspaper. The woodlice will nest in it overnight, but this didn’t work quite as well as the citrus trap, possibly because the grapefruit skin was too hard to resist. If you’re squeamish about touching the woodlice, this trap is good as you can just take out the paper in the morning and throw it away.

Plan C: Diatomaceous Earth

We didn’t go this far, but I’d read that diatomaceous earth is a good mechanical insecticide. From the WikiPedia article:

Diatomaceous earth consists of fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of hard-shelled algae. Diatomite is used as an insecticide, due to its physico-sorptive properties. The fine powder absorbs lipids from the waxy outer layer of insects’ exoskeletons, causing them to dehydrate. Arthropods die as a result of the water pressure deficiency, based on Fick’s law of diffusion. This also works against gastropods and is commonly employed in gardening to defeat slugs.

Presumably you could spread it around your plants to be picked up by the woodlice.

No doubt there are lots of other treatments, schemes and devices to thwart woodlice, but we seem to have a handle on the problem now with a few simple interventions.