Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Alpaca fleece and sprouting peas

After two weeks, I couldn't wait to see what was sprouting in the garden!  While not all the seedlings have survived, the bulk of them have so far, and the peas are even starting to flower.  The only sprouting seeds I could find under the straw were also peas.  We've had a lot of rain since the garden went in, which is great, but it will be nice when it gets some sunshine on it!

One of the initial goals of owning land is to have a few sheep to give fleece.  I'm hoping to be able to offer yarn and roving which has been hand spun and dyed with plant dyes grown organically on the farm.  Of course, to do that, I better learn to spin!  I've previously processed a sheep fleece, from cleaning raw wool to spinning it into yarn using a hand made drop spindle.

The last time I visited Nana, she gave me an alpaca fleece which had been given to her.  It's stayed in a vacuum space saving bag ever since.  I pulled it out over the weekend and have started working through it.  I'm going to share the method I use to turn it into yarn over the next couple of weeks.

So far, I'm about halfway through the fleece, sorting through it to remove second cuts (where the shearer has had to cut the same are twice, producing short locks which aren't suitable for spinning), and pulling out grass seeds and, on occasion, dead bugs.  Once this is done, the locks go I into netting bags and washed.  Washing the fleece is done by soaking it and then rinsing it until it's clean.  It's imperative that the fleece isn't agitated or rubbed at all while it's wet, as this will cause it to felt.
I was fleece by half filling the washing machine with the hottest water possible, and add a generous amount of a gentle detergent.  Then, when the machine has finished filling, put the bags of fleece gently into the water and use a wooden spoon or similar to gently press down, allowing all of the fleece to be submerged.  Leave to soak for 45 minutes to an hour, then run the spin cycle only to drain the dirty water.  Remove the bags from the washing machine and repeat again, but without the detergent (if the fleece is particularly dirty or greasy, you may need to use the detergent again).  Repeat the process without detergent a couple of times to make sure any residual detergent and dirt is rinsed away.  Place the netting bags outside to dry, either laying them flat on a clothes aired or pegging them up to your clothes line.  Remember to move the contents around regularly until it's all dry.

The next step is to 'card' or comb the fleece.  I'll cover that in the next post, once I get finished sorting and washing the fleece.

There are plenty of great resources online which helped me learn this process and also gave me ideas for making my own tools for the process for a lot less than you would ordinarily pay for them (although I suspect a lot of the quality of the properly made tools is sacrificed).  Putting the search term 'washing fleece' or 'scouring fleece' into YouTube will give you heaps of how-to videos for cleaning both sheep and alpaca fleece.

If you have any questions as this how-to series continues, feel free to post a comment, or email me.

Good luck with your springtime craft and DIY projects!

Monday, 4 November 2013

Book review: The Dirty Chef

(Disclaimer: this is not a paid endorsement or critique of this book.  It is my own point of view.  I am not connected in any way to the author or anyone associated with this publication.  Although, I did get my copy of the Gourmet Farmer Deli book signed by all three authors at their launch at Fullers.  It was pretty cool, but doesn't constitute any bias!)

I bought this book as we have been watching Matthew Evans in his guise as The Gourmet Farmer on the popular SBS tv series' of the same name, and greatly enjoyed seeing Tasmania presented in such a warm way.  His ability to make connections with local producers, to learn from them and present their contributions to the culture of this lovely state made us a bit proud of our island home.  More than that, it made what we want to achieve seem, well, achievable.  Surely if this city boy with, seemingly at times, more enthusiasm than acumen, could make a small farm work here, then surely two locals, who had grown up in regional Tassie could too!

The book is an accompaniment to the TV series, in that it expands on the premise and philosophy behind it, as well as giving a great insight into the true chronology of events happening behind the scenes.  Due to the magic of editing, the show made it seem like Evans was embarking on slightly disorganised chaos, with something resembling a plan.  The book makes it plain that there was a bit more chaos at times, and a lot less plan at others!

Setting out the book according to ingredients ties it back to the central philosophy of all Evan's work, which is to celebrate good, locally produced food and ingredients, and the closing of chapters with a related recipe makes the philosophy a practical undertaking.  In between are anecdotes of humour, poignancy, frustration, wonderment and the reality of farming.  Evans doesn't shy away from the role of death in the cycles of farm life and the challenges of raising livestock.  The story of the passing of Maggie the house cow, the challenges of birth and the devastation caused by native wildlife to stock makes someone like myself, who wishes to walk this path, question whether I could handle these challenges, and where to seek practical information about dealing with them.
By the same token, there are tales of the beauty of his adopted home, and his wonder at the fact that fresh food of high quality is so abundant here.  He speaks affectionately of the nature of rural communities and their ability to set aside differences to lend a hand where they think one might be required.

While The Dirty Chef is basically a memoir of Evans journey from foodie to farmer, it's also a nod to all the people he has met along the way, and who have supported him and his family in their endeavours.  It is a great reminder to anyone who may wish to follow him in the same adventure that there will be good times, successes and great food, if the wallabies don't get it first.  But, there will also be pathos, death, really bad weather and incredibly stupid turkeys.  And for those times, you need friends, neighbours and anyone else you can rope in to get through it.  If living on the land is about nothing else, it is about people.

Have you read this book?  Or any of Matthew Evans other books?  What did you think of it?  Do you like The Gourmet Farmer?  Let us know in the comments below!


Sunday, 27 October 2013

New soil

Today we built our first garden in the raised row style. The black plastic we put down to suppress the weeds did a fairly good job and the clothes hanger staples helped a little. Taking it up revealed rotted straw from last years' unsuccessful attempt at a garden and the yellow sprouts of an unidentified weed.
The first job was to get rid of the old dog kennel in the back corner.  Once that was gone, I got started with building the rows while Daddy dragon increased the compost heap threefold with grass from a recent lawn mowing job.
The rows are started with straw, loosened from the bale and piled about 6inches or 15cm deep.  Then topsoil is added on top to the same depth.  We used half a cubic metre of a 50/50 mix of commercial topsoil and compost.  Little Dragon gave it the obligatory taste test, but decided it was better to dig in than eat.

Two and a half straw bales and many wheelbarrow trips later, we have three rows along the length of the fenced off garden and a shorter row along the back of the shed.

Then we went a four year old's birthday party for some well deserved cake. (Thank you Heather!)

We've focused on only a few veggies, mostly to make pasta sauce.  In one row is corn, peas and potatoes, the second has tomatoes, shallots and basil, the third has capsicum and carrots.  In the bed next the shed is pumpkin and two varieties of cucumber.  The seedlings we've grown inside we're planted directly in their newspaper pots.  Next time, I'm going to make the pots deeper.  The roots of the peas and corn had grown out through the bottom of their pots looking for more soil before they were planted in the garden.  Seeds were sewn with compost for a backfill.
Straw was put over the top of the rows as a light mulch, and some bark from this winters' wood supply was used on a thick mat of straw to create the working rows.

The outcome looks pretty much like a patch of ground covered with straw, but hopefully over the next month or two, we'll have a productive kitchen garden. Good luck with your gardening endeavours!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Sprouts and Staples

I'm hoping to not have huge gaps between posts here, certainly not the two weeks which seem to have flown by since the previous post!

Since then, our seeds have sprouted, with all but the corn and capsicum actually showing above the soil.

It's very exciting to see them just growing right in front of you every day!  We're planning to build the beds in early November, as we'll likely still have frosts until then.  Given some of the strong winds that we've had recently, it's hard to keep the builders plastic in place to kill off the weeds in the future vegie patch.  I was going to get some tent pegs to  keep them in place, but thought of a cheaper way which repurposes a common household item.
Coat hangers cut and bent with a pair of pliers make big staples to push through the plastic and into the soil underneath.  I'm hoping this will work, and will post how effective it is.  Spring is generally fairly windy here, so there will be lots of opportunity to put it to the test.  It may be hard to see, but this is what a staple looks like when in place.
When we're ready to build the beds, the plastic will be removed.  This should be the only time we need to do this in this spot, but the plastic will be saved for use in other locations.  The area will then be covered in straw and then rows of topsoil and compost will be built on them and more straw over for mulch.  We don't have the topsoil yet, but the beautiful straw bales are already here, being guarded by Nicky dog!

We're needing to renovate our current house in order to sell it and purchase land for the homestead. The wood heater is in need of replacing, and I'd like a heat pump. I'm trying to decide, from a resale point of view, whether it would be more worthwhile to get a slightly underpowered heat pump and a new wood heater, or just get a heat pump by itself. There are a few pros and cons with either idea, but what do you think? Leave a message below about whether the type of heating in a house would make a difference to whether or not you would buy it and how much you'd pay.
Cheers, Emma

Sunday, 1 September 2013

First seeds

Yesterday we planted the first seeds of our vegie patch. We're starting them off in newspaper pots and in 4-6 weeks will build raised rows to transplant them into. We'll also plant seeds directly into the rows at the same time to give us a staggered harvest. Making newspaper pots means that our pots are free, recycled and we can plant them directly into the ground with the seedlings. There are many different ways to make the pots, and YouTube has videos for all of them. This is the one we used

We've planted tomatoes, basil, peas, corn, shallots and capsicum. This should give us a good start on salsa's and pasta sauces, plus some fresh veggies in the summer.

We also planted some seedlings of Italian parsley and spearmint in a soup pot which lost some of it's enamel in dramatic fashion. They will stay as inside plants, providing fresh parsley for cooking and lovely fresh mint to flavour water or make tea.

Without any more advertising than a link on my Facebook, this little blog has already gained 130 page views! It's very exciting. However, it would be a lot more fun if someone would leave a comment! So let us know, are you starting on the path to self-sufficiency? Did you just get your spring planting started? What are your projects for summer? We'd love to hear from you!

Cheers, Emma

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

How we begin

It will be a while before we can get the land we need to make Little Dragon Homestead a reality.  In the meantime we've started on a few ways to work up to it.  Probably the easiest thing is the compost heap.  By saving our veggie peelings, coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells and other organic kitchen waste, and then dumping it in a pile in the backyard, not only do we save it from going to landfill, but can use it on the garden when it breaks down.  The heap may need to be moved, as it doesn't get much sun, so doesn't get very warm.  Also we haven't had much access to 'brown matter,' like dried leaves or straw, so far.  This sort of organic matter would be great for keeping the heap from becoming too damp.  This is good stuff to learn before going to a larger scale or when designing the layout of the homestead later.  The next step is to make an inexpensive worm farm!  There was a great segment on this on ABC's Gardening Australia episode this week.  See the transcript here.

This year will be our first go at a veggie patch.  We're going to use the raised row method as described by Old World Garden Farms in their fantastic blog.  The soil where we are is practically non-existent.  Rocks, sand and weeds is a pretty apt description of the backyard (despite the apparent health of the apricot tree).  The method described above is like building a raised bed, except that it's a bit cheaper because you don't need edges, and you only need enough topsoil to make the mounds.  I'm planning to only try growing a few varieties, as we haven't set out a lot of room for the veggie patch at this stage.  Mostly there will be tomatoes, basil, onions, garlic, corn, carrots, potatoes and pumpkins.  The pic below shows the first stage of preparation which is basically to cover the area with black builders plastic to kill any grass/ weeds before building the rows and planting straight into them in spring.  I'm hoping to have enough of most of the above to can lots of pasta sauce, as pasta is a staple at our place.

Working with what you've already got is probably the easiest way to garden.  We're lucky to already have an apricot tree well established in the yard when this house was purchased.  In the last couple of years I've learned how to make jam with the apricots.  It's an incredibly rewarding thing to do.  Last year I tried to oven- dry some apricot halves, but it didn't work particularly well.  Maybe the next project should be a solar dryer?

Good luck with your self-sufficiency projects!


Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Guidance and Inspiration

I'd like to use this blog to occasionally highlight books, magazines, web sites, people and other blogs which inspire us on our journey.  Today, I'm going to start by featuring some of the first books we bought and which have helped plant the seeds of what will one day be Little Dragon Homestead.

Practical Self-Sufficiency, by Dick and James Strawbridge is a great all-round reference for off-the-grid living in Australia.  Besides the seed planting guide being geared towards the Southern Hemisphere, the book is also a useful reference for almost any region.  It features chapters on growing, harvesting and preserving food,  cheese making, winemaking and other culinary crafts.  Animal husbandry, including humane ways of dispatching livestock is also covered, along with ways of harnessing natural resources for producing energy.  On this, the Strawbridges come into their own as their engineering background has them approaching bio-diesel distilling and methane gas production using an anaerobic digester.  Very practical, clear writing style and plenty of photos and drawings to illustrate each project.

The second book featured here, Build Your Straw Bale Home, by Brian Hodge, is again an Australian reference, but would also give some ideas for potential Balers in other countries.  We're planning to build our main house and perhaps some of our outbuildings in straw bale and this book offers lots of practical advice on how to approach it, right from choosing the site, designing the building and owner-building it to completion.  With the information presented in clear, sometimes humorous, language it really does foster a confidence in the reader that they can be the site manager of the building of their own home in a way which conventional building methods may not allow.  We're even hoping to grow our own straw depending on the land we end up purchasing.  Can't wait for Bale Raising Day!

Finally, the third book here is one the adherents of Permaculture would be familiar with.  Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway, is one of the most well-known and recommended books detailing the practical application of Permaculture principles.  His language is accessible and the information is brilliant.  From extensive lists of plants and their attributes, to how they fit together into guilds and the beneficial insects they attract, it's a great way to understand, without doing a practical course, how guilds work within a food forest.  Soil health, composting methods, garden design and water management are all covered amongst many other topics. A great in-depth reference, and one I know I'll turn to many times in the coming years.

At the moment, I'm anxiously waiting for the arrival of my newest book, The Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery.  Almost every homesteading blog and web site I've encountered has endorsed this tome, and I'm very much looking forward to curling up with it!

In future posts, I'll cover some of the magazines which I find interesting and inspiring, as well as favoured blogs, Facebook feeds and web sites.  In the meantime, some inspirational and useful links will be added to the sidebar here.