Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Outhouse from on High

We have a long drop on the farm, near the old bach.  It's been here for quite a while, since 1982.  (The  heap of small branches behind is some of leftovers from my tree felling,  mentioned below.)

We recently had a visit from old friends of ours, Colin and Jeni Bell, who used to live on a small farm up the Orinioco Valley,  several kilometres south of us.  Our outhouse came from their place, offered when our old one was past repair and they didn't need theirs any more as they now had an inside toilet!

Jeni has recently written a history of their time in the Orinoco, and we learned  that the humble outhouse has a pedigree.  It used to be the outhouse for Flora Hut, the first hut on the trail in Kahurangi National Park which starts in the mountains to the west of us.  In fact we can drive up there in about 40 minutes and it's perhaps a 30 minute walk to Flora Hut.
A former tenant on the Bell's property was a worker in the then Forest Park.  The long drop was being upgraded and he spoke up at the right time to have the outhouse hooked up below a helicopter and brought down to the Orinoco.  From there it has been over 30 years on our farm, providing a useful service to friends and family staying in the bach.

The little tin building is getting tired and the floor needs work.  I was thinking of disposing of it but with that lofty history I might have to reconsider!

Update:  I remembered this old and rather poor photo.  It shows my brother-in-law, Bill, with the help of our Jaimie and his Jamie, digging the long drop hole all those years ago!  Nice one, Bill!

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Chipping Away

There was a big tree near the house, overhanging the roof, at the north-west corner.

 It had some virtues.  It gave shade and coolness on a hot day.  And a tree, a good-sized tree, is a fine thing.  This box elder though had become too large for its position and was shading out garden areas and needing regular attention to keep its branches off the roof and its leaves out of the gutters. Time to remove it, we decided.

It was quite a challenging task.  The box elder was perhaps twenty metres high and close to the house and other small buildings, fruit trees and gardens.  Its spread was substantial and it could not be dropped entire without rearranging its surroundings a little more than would be comfortable.  I have felled quite a few big trees and cut them up but this was not straightforward.

The only option was to take it down, piece by piece, and that's what I set out to do.  Anne wasn't sure and wanted to get a man in to do the job.  "I am that man!" I said, and got into it. It's one of the pleasures of living on a small farm that you get opportunities to take on meaty projects that demand some thought, planning and physical application to achieve.  If you chip away and don't be in a rush, you can usually work your way through things (or at least muddle your way through!)

What tools did I have to use?  I had a long handled, telescopic in fact, pruning saw that extended out to around 4 metres.  I had a good medium-sized Stihl chainsaw.  I had a variety of ladders. With some cunning and care I thought I could remove the tree without damaging the house and surrounds or myself.

The first effort was to clear the branches over the house and lighter branches around the tree.  The pole saw was useful, sometimes from the ground and often several metres up the extension ladder.  Tedious, quite tiring at times working above your head, but gradually the worst were removed.  

Now it got interesting.  Those big branches that forked out some way off the ground had to be cut while up the ladder, and that's always a touch edgy.  It was difficult to get in a comfortable, reasonably safe position for some cuts. I put a tensioned wire on several to make sure they fell in the right direction but that wasn't effective.  As the branches fell, slowly at first, the tension dissipated before the line of fall was definite, causing some excitement.  One headed for the house, ("...Oh, dash it all!" I said ) but only flicked the guttering,  bouncing it around but doing no major harm.  That got Anne out of her seat inside, wide-eyed, checking things out from the back door.  Another rather vertical one teetered for some time and needed me to hop off the ladder and go  and pull on the wire a few times before it veered right, startling and brushing the garden shed and grape fence,  but fortunately doing no damage.

Each branch required thought and planning.  Sometimes I had to get the pole saw out again to change the loading of smaller branches so I could drop the limb where I wanted.   The last one I needed to cut this way was high and over the roof.  I ended up on a step ladder to get a working angle.  Interestingly, this branch didn't just fold down once I cut through enough, but the twiggy end seemed to catch for a moment and the butt pendulumed back past the trunk and banged aside the extension ladder leaning there to end up a couple of metres past the base.  I had tried to cut from that extension ladder before moving out to the stepladder to get a better angle. There are always risks and surprises when cutting things down. 

But I worked my way through the last branches until yesterday I dropped the last one and  here we are now.

I still have some cutting and processing to do, but the challenging stuff is done.  We have a good heap of firewood, some large piles of prunings to munt up in a chipper soon for good mulch and more space and light in a strategic place.  It does feel good to get to this point!   I'm pleased.
I'm also removing some chook pens and have opened up some more space in behind for garden and fruit trees. More on that later.  Meanwhile the stump has a sculptural value, I'm sure you'll agree.  ;)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Best Small Hand Tools for the Garden

If I had to choose one tool to work with in the garden, it would be a Niwashi.  This is a small Japanese hand tool that is versatile and effective for weeding, cultivating and planting seedlings.  Here it is:

The tool is well made and durable with good steel in the blade and a strong handle.  The blade is angled back and very useful for weeding by drawing it back towards you through the soil.  If you have tough weeds the heel of the blade in line with the handle provides a powerful attack - I remove big docks and similar plants with it.  It will also cope with dry, hard ground.

Turning the tool so the tip points down lets you cultivate the ground down 10 or 15 cms deep and is useful to create planting holes for small plants.  I haven't used a trowel for this for years.

In fact, I don't use any other small tool in the garden and if I'm wandering out to check things, do a little light weeding or preparing a small area to plant I grab the niwashi and I'm good to go.

I also have a long-handled version which is very useful for weeding and cultivating.  The handle is not very long  (about 107 cms ) and I need to stoop a bit when using it so it's not great for hours of work but within that limitation it's a fine tool and one of my staples.  

Conveniently, these tools are imported from Japan and sold in New Zealand here:  Niwashi
They are also now sold through a number of retailers but I've found Yurika's direct service very good.

A second tool that Yurika sells is the Shark.  This is also an impressively powerful tool for something so small!  It's about 34 cms long in all and the serrated blade is perhaps 17 cms.  

The teeth angle backwards so the shark is used by grabbing a handful of some vegetation you want to trim and drawing the blade back to cut it.  It is not a sickle or used as a chopper.  With this little tool you can cut very tough, fibrous plants.  Flax is easy.  I cut dried off grasses, pampas grass, brambles, corn stalks, brassica stems and other heavy vegetation.  It is surprising how much you can clear with the shark.  I use it quite a lot and my one is showing some wear and tear.  I've lost a tooth or two, usually by hitting metal or wire in the middle of the "jungle".  The tool still does the job well but I'll have to treat myself to a new one soon!  There are some other interesting tools on Yurika's site - the small grubber looks good.  Here are my own much-used, well-worn niwashi tools. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Clever Tools

Tools are important when you live on and tend a piece of land.  I've been interested in powerful, clever hand tools for a long time.

But tools can be much more than a hoe or a shovel.  One trigger to my concepts of tools for living a sustainable life goes back to meeting a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog for the first time, back in the early 1970's.  That was a exciting experience. I sat in a friend's place and read that copy for hours, absorbed.  If you're not familiar with the Whole Earth Catalog it was a large volume that devoted a couple of pages each to many different aspects of living and thinking.
 It provided an intelligently curated selection of tools in the widest sense, including books and good sources of information as well as actual tools and equipment.  Useful detail, pages, contacts were provided and   The catalogue was an education in itself but also an excellent guide to the best gear for an extensive range of activities. Looking back, it was a antecedent of the internet. Steve Jobs said, ""When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation.... It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions."  If you're curious you can see some samples here:  Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools and Ideas

My bookshelves still contain books bought from reading of them in the Whole Earth Catalogue.  The fact I was working in a university bookshop at the time helped! Books are seminal tools of course, and I have personally gained much from acquiring and reading key texts on gardening and farming in "organic" modes.  These days the text is likely to be an ebook as much as  an actual volume but it is still a deep truth for me that sharing the experience, knowledge and wisdom of other people from around the world is a joy.  I hope to share some of the books and sources that I have found valuable through this blog.

For now, let's go back to hand tools.  You know, you can do lots of things with simple, basic tools. My father was a gardener ( he was a market gardener for many years and I grew up on that market garden in Heathcote Valley, near Christchurch) and his favourite tool was a push hoe that had been used and sharpened so much the blade was only 8 or 10 cms  long.  Here is an example of a push hoe to make sure you know what I'm referring to.
 That tool was used for weeding and light cultivating all around his garden.  In the 1970's I spent a year working as a jobbing gardener in Christchurch, visiting both grand and humble gardens and keeping things looking good.  The tool I used mostly was that same type of push hoe and I learned to use it in different ways, sometimes turning it over and using the blade at an angle to shape beds into neat mounds and curves.

Because I started my "back to the land' action as gardener in city sections, I have always valued  good hand tools.  Since I've had a wider scope here on the Pear Tree Ridge farm I've used larger equipment but my fascination with small scale tools remains.  The best of them are effective and satisfying to use.  Their origins are often traditional, reflecting practical design by people who used them in their work.  Other examples are more recent but still are the result of people who apply their experience to develop a better way to do a job.  I've imported a number of hand tools that are not easily available here in New Zealand, usually from the United States, and I'd like to share my thoughts on some of those in a series of posts.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Look who gatecrashed for a free breakfast

 This is a wild rabbit that has made itself at home in the orchard area that also holds most of my chooks and ducks.  It has been around since it was quite small but scooted off rapidly when I was feeding out -  until recently.
 I was impressed to see it happily come and feed among the birds a few days ago but the camera didn't cooperate that time.  I thought I would see it again and this morning it hopped up and started to enjoy the wheat.
 It is quite comfortable in the midst of the poultry.  It was bumped by a hen at one stage and lurched a little, adjusted and carried on nibbling.
 Needless to say it wasn't too scared of me as I moved around doing the chores.  It continued to feed happily a couple of metres away.
I don't want a tribe of rabbits in the orchard but this gate-crasher can carry on for now - one of the charming surprises that come when you live in the country.  It's also evidence of the power of food!

Update:  This afternoon I was feeding some pullets (around 16 weeks old).  they are a nervy group of pure heritage birds.  I was watching them eat and discouraging the swarms of sparrows trying to pinch their food.  Then the chooks started to cluck nervously and shy away from the area behind the water tank where I couldn't see.  A few moments later Rabbit appeared and calmly nibbled some pellets.  the young birds were quite non-plussed, and kept a watchful distance in a circle around Rabbit.  No photos of that but shortly later, back in the orchard, who should appear but....

Thursday, April 17, 2014

All Bright and Shining.

This fellow popped up a couple of days ago. He was wandering along the road as I turned in the gate to the sheds with a load of firewood. After I had driven in, backed the trailer and parked he was in the driveway, eating fallen pears. He was not at all nervous about me being nearby.

A few minutes later he was strolling by the house and I snapped him wandering around the garden. His lack of fear is a worry - I suspect he has been recently released.

We see a few pheasants around here (they are released for hunting but also just to have them about, I think) but not ones as unafraid as this one.  

"I hope it doesn't sting!"

I spotted this interesting critter on the kitchen window a couple of weeks ago.  Here it is:

I hadn't seen this insect before and it got my attention - the body and "tail" are around 10cm long.  Some searching revealed it is a giant ichneumon wasp, introduced here in the sixties to help control another wasp, Sirex noctilio, that is a pest in forests. 

That long "tail" is an ovipostitor to lay eggs in the grubs of its host species deep in trees and dead logs. 

There is a good discussion here:

Halfway down the comments,  Fallon says this: "I just smashed one of these evil-looking bastards with a hammer. It did not look harmless and was sure that "tail" was some kind of needle. And I live on the south island of New Zealand! Invasive? Thanks for the info. Will not kill the next one I see."

They certainly look a touch menacing but no need to smash them!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cutting Corners in the Garden

It's been wet here lately.  The rain is still welcome after a long dry spell but the last week has been persistently wet and grey, with the prospect of considerable rain to come over the next few days.  Today was a reprieve though and the sun even shone for a time.  It was a chance to get into the garden.

Several weeks ago I planted a bed of winter things, mostly lettuce, various quick growing leafy brassicas and a few carrots and beetroot to shape up for spring eating.  The leafy plants were just broadcast on the bed and raked in.  This can work well but I expect to do one thorough hand weed to favour the small vegetables.  The trick is to get it done at the right time - when the weeds are big enough to grab but not too large and shading out the delicate vegetables.  It's cutting corners, I suppose.

Yes, I missed the timing and then it started to rain.  The weeds took over and most of the leafy veges were buried, weak and battered, underneath the dominating weeds.  It was time now to cut my losses and clean out most of the bed and replant.  The shortcut of broadcasting has failed me this time.
In the photo the bed on the left is the one I had to half-clear, and this time I planted in short rows across the bed - easier to weed later!  I have to net because feeding quite a few chooks here encourages a fine flock of sparrows who rip into leafy plants, even cabbages and large brassica.  Silverbeet is shredded.

I also carefully prepared a second bed - the soil is wet - and planted more winter leafy greens.  My method here was to carefully cultivate with a long-handled Niwashi to break and loosen the soil and then rake a little to even the bed. A light dusting of my general organic and mineral fertiliser was added to augment the overall fertility of the beds, on top of earlier composting and fertilising.

It's latish here to plant (although I do have frost cloth to use on the frames to extend the season) so what did I plant?  Lettuce, Red Russian kale, misome, mizuna, mibuna, minutia, red chicory, corn salad, tatsoi, pak choi, miners lettuce were the main varieties.  Many of these are quick growing and hardy and make good winter salads.  If you're not familiar with some of these, useful details can be gleaned at  Kings Seeds  .

Another trick of timing was the mild temperatures that the wet weather brings.  The ground is still warm and rainy weather here in the Motueka area is not usually cold.  The other factor is that I knew lots more rain was to come and germination should be quick.  Most of the seeds were not covered as the rain will do that.  We'll see how it goes.

A corner cutting exercise was also carried out in my bigger Pear Orchard garden.
As we finished a double row of corn, the tops were chopped down and put on a compost heap.  Again, it was wettish and I didn't have long to work.  I planted broccoli and cabbage seedlings in the quickly weeded and lightly worked space between the stubs of the corn plants.  I've done this before and it works quite well.  The corn roots gradually rot and don't seem to affect the growing brassicas.  I will weed more outside this double row and will net it also.

Update:  It has indeed rained lots since I planted and remained quite warm.  I expect to see plants emerge quite quickly, including weeds!
It has been stormy and windy in areas around us, doing plenty of damage but we have had no wind to speak of here.  Weather can be quirky!