Monday, 31 December 2012

A tour of my back yard!

As I'm wandering around in Blogland I see glimpses of peoples backyard and wonder what other fascinating things they have or do. Some of you are on suburban blocks and grow the most amazing quantities of food, others are on rural properties living in sheds, some in big houses, some in small - I'm curious to see what others have crammed into their yards, what projects are on the go, what green and frugal things happen on your back door step. So I thought I'd take you on a tour of my back yard and talk you through our hopes, dreams, failures and success and invite you to create a post of your back yard and pop a link in the comments so we can all come and have a look around.

And so, please, follow me as we step out the back door (watch out for chook poo) and come wander with me!

Bit of a mud map to guide you - bigger one at the end of the post!

First stop is the top chook pen with all the new chooks in it. The husband has built the U-Beaut Chook house (thats Australian for very good!) especially for our tropical conditions. It big and breezy inside and has waterproof space underneath for them to scratch around in on those weeks that it rains and rains and rains. The feeders are made from drainage pipes and have covers so we can stop the possums and rats from feasting on the chook food all night. The nesting boxes are at the side and are accessible from outside the pen and high enough to not hurt your back getting  the eggs. The new native bee hive of Trigona Hockingsii are in the white box above the nesting box under cover and facing east.
The isolation pen has been moved close to the big chooks so wee Autumn isn't lonely but not so close she cant pass on any bugs or diseases that she may have arrived with.
This all sits beside the pergola so that we can have all the fun of watching the chooks while eating our dinner (scraps just get thrown over the top) or reading a book.

Near the house, we also have our citrus trees. In that clump is a lemon, grapefruit, kumquat  and kaffier lime leaf bush. In hindsight, they are way too close together. We have been battling a stinkbug problem (link to solution here) for a few years and this year there is actually new green growth on the trees. The lemons aren't the best - on my to do list is to see what the citrus's need and to give it to them. The lime leaves are the only real thing we harvest off here in any quantity. The grey water from the shower comes out onto these plants or the lawn if its really brown...

See the neighbours? We are so lucky to have such fantastic people living next door. We are definitely in suburbia and on a main road although these pictures dont show that very well.

From the pergola looking down the garden is this view. Living in Sunny Queensland means that we can hang washing on the line at any time of the night or day and have it dried in 15 - 20 minutes! We have two lines that go the length of the yard that can be put up or taken down depending on the amount of washing or the activities taking place in the garden. Its the area that gets the most "discussion" as I want to have as much "no mow" as possible and he wants to have a glorious green vista (a hangover from his English heritage).

Further down the garden is this arch. Its just out of shot in the above picture. We have just finished killing off the huge bourganvillia that grew over the arch and through the macadamia on the right. It was going to take over the canopy of trees and even though in full flower it was spectacular, it had to go as no one could prune anything due to the thorns. The hole in the ground in this photo is from the hangi. I'm going to get the husband to put the picnic table top over the top of this and I will practice my yoga on it and we still have the hole for the next Hangi. This area I want to plant out in edible shrubs this year to make it low maintenance but to still give us some return.

Behind the lattice that you can just see in the above photo is the gates into our two of the neighbours back yards. We have five neighbours and get on so well with four of them that we have gates between all the back yards. One neighbour brings her grandchildren over to feed the chooks, another as a shortcut to visit our other neighbour instead of shouting across our yard. Its a wonderful feeling of community! Neighbours often arrive at the pergola and not the front door!

When you pop out of that lattice tunnel that leads to the neighbours, you enter the vege garden - currently draped in various palm fronds to protect the seedlings from the harsh midday sun. Not attractive but practical. Any one invited here is definitely a friend as this is not the part of the garden that impresses people; not with its aesthetics nor its productivity! This year I'm aiming for salad greens rather than every night veges. Its not big enough to produce the variety and quanity required and I have spent about $300 on possum proofing and don't want to extend the garden and the cost - as my husband has pointed out, How many nights veges could I have bought with $300??

Just up from the veges in the shade of a huge apple gum is the bottom chook pen (through the gate), compost heaps and worm farm. This was a smart move. You read over and over to put these things together near your garden and when it finally happens, it works! It really, really works. For years it was more about how it looked rather than if it were practical and since I have been drawn away from "Home and Garden" decor towards "Earth Garden and Permaculture" principals, what it looks like matters less. We have decided that we probably need three compost heaps. One to fill, one to mature and one to use... So soon, we shall relocate the ginger and put in another compost bay.

With the worms, chooks and compost right next to each other its easy to throw the greens to the chooks, the slops to the worms and the citrus, onions and potatoes to the compost. Also great for when the compost is ready as the garden is only a hop skip and jump away. Chookies LOVE the compost heap when its being emptied!

Ten years ago we wanted to open our garden in the "Open Garden" scheme and so made all these wonderful "rooms" in our garden. The swing seat is great fun to sit in (right at the back of the vista almost hidden by the tree in the pot) and the arches lovely - but these days I'm trying to grow beans and other practical things on them rather than exotic flowering vines, and fill the beds with fruit trees or food for the bees.

Looking back up the yard from the hangi hole is the back of the house and the pergola that we spend a huge amount of time in.We have put in a kitchen sink, power, lights and a sound system as we almost live in it for three seasons a year. In high summer we tend to hide inside with the air con on snap freeze as the Husband's English blood cant handle the heat and humidity of an Australian heat wave.

We have a high set wooden house on the edges of suburban Brisbane that is about fifty years old. The house is set to the front of a 1/3 of an acre giving us a huge back yard in suburbia. We don't use it as well as we know we could. We have room to grow more food but because we are in transition from a display garden mentality to a more practical and productive one, the changes are slow. Its hard to take out a pretty flowering bush and replace it with an apple tree - if you could get it to live through a drought. But as things succumb to the weather and father time, we are making decisions that will lead to a more productive garden in the long term.

Our main produce from our garden is eggs, a bit of salad, some herbs, the odd lemon, water (harvested from the roof) great relationships with the neighbours and a place to relax. We are pretty much chemical free, have plenty of wildlife visiting and enjoy our time spent in and around our backyard.

Over to you! Can we come and visit?

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Which came first? The chicken or the egg?!

Just before Christmas I got a call saying my wee Barnevelder chick was ready to pick up and so we made the hours drove out to the breeder and picked up wee Autumn. Once I got her home I realised just how big her sister was compared to her. In fact we were still calling Dusk "bubbychook" when it turns out she is the second biggest chook in the pen!

Dusk at about 5 months is going to be a beautiful large soft feather chookie.

Not the best comparisum - but she is bigger than the bantam and the arucana as well.

And this is her wee sister, Autumn! Recently arrived and ensconced in the isolation pen close enough to see the big chooks but not close enough to share any illnesses!

And then on the Friday after Christmas when I was at work - the teenager called to say that there was something wrong with one of the chooks and I had to come home and see if it needed to go to the vet.

When I got home (I was more or less on my way anyway) He presented me with this!

No cause for alarm - Just my first green/blue egg from one of my 'Carna's!

I think the egg is out of Misty (left) rather than Breeze (right) as she is bigger, mature enough and been playing house more often... When we get two green eggs, it might be clearer, who is laying what! 

So many eggs - so many colours!

A storm outside, pretty eggs and a camera inside and so much fun to be had!

The answer to the question? - Why the chicken of course, by six days!

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Helping hanging pots retain water in hot weather...

I love my hanging baskets. In the Brisbane winters (which are beautiful by the way - best time to visit) My baskets bask in the warm sunny weather and produce lots of wonderful flowers.

In the summer they curl up their toes and simply die. I put some water crystal things into the soil and had a reasonable rate of success with them but the Queensland Summer sun is simply too much most of the time for the plant and its game over too quickly.

I'm still game for one more round with Mother Nature this summer - Here's what I did...

 I pulled all the baskets down and pulled out any dead or almost dead plants.

Then I put them up on the edge of the veranda on top of some empty pots to stablise them- dug out the plants and soil...

And lined all the baskets with all those pesky plastic bags you get from the shops at this time of the year.

Then I put the soil back in with a dollop of compost and some worm wee - gave 'em a decent water...

And hung them back up.

It's not the most attractive hanging basket I've ever seen but I'm hoping that the ability to retain water in the basket will lead to lots of bushy leaves and then you wont be able to see the plastic. I like the coconut coir that the baskets are lined with but they simply don't retain any water and in the baking 35 degree heat - the dirt becomes as hard as rock and the plant just gives up the ghost.

I'm hoping that the water will pool at the bottom of the basket and be accessible to the plant. Before I did this, watering the basket made the dirt damp, then it drained out the bottom and simply evaporated into thin air. The plants were out of water by lunch time and I was at work unable to help them. Watering them twice a day was starting to get a bit silly - Of course its rained practically every day since I did this so I'm not sure if its the plastic or the fact that they are getting water and the sun is behind the clouds that is leading to the plants looking so much healthier today!

I'm not sure what I will do if this doesn't work. Both sets of hanging pots only get 1/2 a day of sun - but that's probably enough to bake them to a crisp most days. Maybe I'll have to move 'em to a spot that gets even less direct sun in the summer...

Score card:
Green-ness: 4/5 for finding a use for a plastic bag - 2/5 for having it in the house in the first place!
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for not spending a cent!
Time cost: Probably about 1/2 an hour to repot 6 baskets
Skill level: Digging and balancing!!
Fun-ness: If they manage to live - it will be great fun!

Monday, 24 December 2012

Merry Christmas!

Quick Christmas Eve post to wish you all a wonderful Christmas!

We went to look at Christmas lights last night with three students from Belguim, Switzerland and Spain - It was definitely an experiance for them!
No Snow, no carol singers and sooooo many colours!!!

Enjoy the Festive season! - be well, be happy and stay safe! - Kara xxx

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Splitting our native bee hive - for the first time!

One year for my birthday I received a hive of Trigona Carbonari - Australian native bee's! They are so much fun to watch zooming in and out, arriving in with their bags of pollen and leaving to find more. It can be quite meditative and calming to sit and watch them with a cup of tea.

Australia has about 1500 species of native bee's. Of them, only two types swarm and live in a colony. The rest appear to be solitary and only hang out with each other to mate. They lay their eggs in a hole, river bank, under a leaf, and then they buzz of their mortal coil and die. Many native bee's only live for a year or so. There are some really cool native Australian bees - the teddy bear  bee, the blue banded bee, carpenter bee's and many more. Have a look at the Aussie bee website for lots of pictures and videos.

Our first hive died. We have no idea why. When we opened it up it was like the Mary Celeste. Brood, honey and fortifications but no bee's. The supplier replaced them and this lot of bee's managed to stay alive for the last 18 months and thrive! Out of the blue some friends asked if we would like to split and swap hives. (Which just goes to show, you just never know which of your friends are clandestine bee keepers). We have Trigona Carbonaria and they have a hive of Trigiona Hockingsii and so we were super keen to get a hive of the only other native swarming stingless bee's in Australia.

*Warning - bit of a long technical post. If you are not into bee's this may not be your cup of tea - but check out the pictures anyway!

Here's what I did...

First weigh you hive. They are meant to be over 3kg in order to split them. Ours was 2.7kg so we decided to take the risk.

Prepare you spare hive. We poured boiling water over our spare hive several times in order to get the gums and resins to melt, scrubbed it a lot (no detergents, just water and elbow grease) and then left it in the sun to dry and disinfect naturally.

Then we taped up the bottom with masking tape that had been stuck together, sticky sides together. We didn't want to have any bee's get stuck on the tape and die. What you are doing is preparing the box so that the top half that will be filled has a structure to sit on when you put it on the bottom half. What we are going to do is put the top half of the full hive on to the bottom of the empty hive. And then the bottom of the full hive under the top of the empty hive. Thus each half of the two new hives will be half empty and half full.

About 4pm is the best time to split the hive. You want them to have the maximum amount of pollen on board, most of their foragers back and all night to settle and figure out what happened. With long sleeves and a calm manner, slice open the hive with a large knife. We had to use a hammer on the back of the knife to get it started. It was a LOT tougher than we had imagined it would be.

The hive just cracked in half one we got the knife a third of the way in. Moving quickly, place the top half of the full hive on to the bottom half of the empty hive. The bee's will be buzzing everywhere. Remember they don't sting and as long as you don't panic and start slapping at them they wont bite either. Of the three of us there for the operation only one of us got bitten. They certainly know who to blame and even when we walked off down the garden, they followed.

The bottom of both hives - see the pools of honey? The brood stucture in the middle grows as a sprial up the hive.

The bit hanging down is the brood where they have the eggs and raise their babies. The honey is the dark pools of sticky-ness and the yellow we think is pollen storage. We didnt spend much time looking, the bee's were not happy with us!

The hives are quite small as you can see and the wood really thick. Its all about insulation from the heat and cold and maintaining an even tempreture inside no matter what tempreture it is outside.

Then carefully place the empty half on top of the full bottom. Then put them back where they came from, on top of each other and retire inside for 20 minutes until they settle down.

Top full half on empty bottom half. Full bottom half awaiting its empty top half.

They seem to put resins in any gaps to seal up the hive. Much easier to see whats what in the photo than it was at the time!

The idea of putting them back where they were for the rest of the day is that the bee's all have natural GPS's and go back to the hive automatically. If you move it more than a metre, they will hover where the hive was until they die. They rely heavily on their inbuilt GPS and not thier eyes and common sense.
Tape up the hives to make them ant protected - the ants will come for the spilt honey and if you are transporting the hive any distance, use a wire strap around it to keep it tight. Transport the half with the full bottom so that you minimise the damage to the brood (egg structure) inside. There is a chance that if you transport the full top half that you may unsettle the structure and it may crash to the bottom and with only half the amount of bee's they may not be able to repair it quickly enough and replace themselves before they die. I have an idea these little fella's only live for a few months.

The masking tape was used to seal the hive temporaily from an ant invasion. The bee's seem to be able to keep them out of the entrance but not through all the cracks and gaps in the wood. The lure of spilt honey will be too much for the local ant population
 Use a piece of gauze taped to the outside of the entrance hole once it is dark and all the foragers have returned to block up the hole. If you use masking tape, stick it sticky side to sticky side so that the bee's trying to get out don't get stuck to it and die. Poke a few holes in it with a needle so they have air.

Get them to where they need to be over night and have them set up so that they have a new home first thing in the morning. Bee wisdom says that their entrance needs to be facing between the north and east quadrant of the compass. They shouldn't have sun on the hive after 10am or it can melt their internal structures.
They need shelter from the worst of the weather and so pergola's and verandas are perfect. Not too close to the door though, unsuspecting visitors may swat and kill many of your curious bees while waiting for you to answer the door! We have ours in the pergola and they often fly down and read a book and have a cuppa with me. We have never been bitten by them.

The new hive is a totally different shape and we ended up putting it on the side of the new chicken coop where we will see it every morning, it will be protected from the weather and I can see it every morning when I collect the eggs. The T. Hockingsii seem to have blue heads and be slightly bigger than our T. Carbonaria.
The half on the left is the new half. The door on the right has been blocked up so that they have to  go through the new half to get in and out. That should encourage them to build in there as well.
 The original hive seems to be buzzing away. Lots of coming and going - a good sign I think. And there is activity in the new hive which is also a good sign. We don't know how active the Hockingsii's were in the first place so its hard for us to judge whether the comings and goings are normal or not. But we live in hope. There are lots of native flowers around. The weather is good and they came from a good, un-diseased healthy nest - so all we can do is wait.

The first bee's braving my paparazzi imatation and coming out to have a look at their new home lands! The hole on the left is the screw hole that held their travelling entrance cover in place, nothing more sinister!.
 Next year instead of splitting them, we will put honey supers on them and see if we can get honey from them! We will only get a kilo a year from each hive - but if the taste we got off the knife when we cut up the hive is anything to go by, it will be wonderful!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for encouraging the proliferation of native bees!
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for getting another hive for nix!
Time cost: About 10 minutes to split it plus drive time to deliver and pick up the new hive. An hour to argue about where the new hive should go and 10 minutes to install it!
Skill level: More confidence and the right conditions than skill.
Fun-ness: Awesome amount of fun to see whats in a hive!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Making my Christmas cards go further!

One of my frugal habits is to wait until January to grab my Christmas cards! Cards that were $5 for 5 will be 50c and so on and so forth. I simply pop them in with the Christmas decoration when I'm putting them away and then when Christmas rolls around - there they are waiting for me at an inth of the price and none of the hassle!

This time I thought I was being clever and used some of the envelopes in the new packs to return last years card in (see my post on adding depth to Christmas card giving!) and then of course I ran out of last years cards and needed to use the new ones - but I had run out of envelopes that fitted them... What to do? Run to the shops? More cards? More envelopes? More money?

Then I had a better idea - why didn't I just cut the card to fit the envelope I had?

Here's what I did...

Cleared some space on my Christmas card writing space!!!

Extracted the new cards from their packs on a cleared space

Found enough envelopes to do the last 6 cards - even though they are too small for the card.

Held the envelope over the card to see where I needed to cut the card in order not to ruin the image but to still get it into the envelope.

And then simply cut the edges of the card off to fit!

Just like a bought one! And I didn't have to go to the shops just for 6 cards or 6 envelopes!

I have done this in the past with birthday cards that get separated from their envelopes for various reasons! Most random patterns work well. Most pictures don't. The printers have already centred them and cutting them up can make it look a bit "butchered". The idea is to be subtle enough that people don't realise that they are holding a card that has been altered!

When I recycle cards that have no usable envelope or are a weird shape and wont fit into a standard envelop, I make one out of a piece of A4 printer paper and a bit of sellotape (sticky tape). It always fits perfectly and takes only a few seconds to make a new envelope for the card. If you wanted to you could always use decorated paper to make your envelopes even more special!

Merry Christmas! May all your cards fit your envelopes! 
Score card:
Green-ness: 4/5 Pretty green to use up old supplies of Christmas Cards
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for not spending more than a few $ on cards each year (postage not included!!)
Time cost: Probably a bit more than usual as I have to muck around with each card to make an envelope or to make the card fit the envelope...
Skill level: Cutting and pasting - my favourite!
Fun-ness: Always great fun to spend a few hours cutting and pasting

Friday, 14 December 2012

Shading seedlings from the hot summer sun!

I'm fairly new to the vege gardening thing - actually I'm fairly new to the almost successful vege gardening thing!

Back in NZ (as Ive said before) it was a darn sight easier to grow things. Here is Queensland, most seedlings have turned to dust by lunchtime. I grow wilted spinach - I don't have to wilt in in a pan in the kitchen. It arrives in the kitchen pre-wilted so to speak!

During spring, I had moderate success with lettuces, spring onions and parsley. There are some capsicums and aubergines that might just make it to maturity (fingers crossed, knock on wood) but as Summer is starting up with a fairly impressive 35 degrees over the weekend and we are all melting or are responsible for global warming by running 4 air conditioners, a fan or three and sitting in the fridge with the door open!

My baby lettuces and other bits and pieces just turned up their toes over the weekend and even the rhubarb and asparagus (that are both big plants but yet to produce something I can eat!) were definitely looking on the sad side.

I remember helping my grandad put cardboard covers over his lettuces in the morning after we watered them and the going back in the afternoon and taking them off again. I get that they need to be in the sun but certainly not at high noon, or the three hours either side of it at this time of the year. I'm not the "go and put teepee's on lettuce and take 'em off at the end of the day" type of girl so I had to come up with something else...

Here's what I did...

Because I have to fortify my garden against possums that visit thinking I'm growing a green buffet for them to dine at every evening - this is so much easier for me to do than for people with a conventional garden.

I have taken to putting fallen palm fronds across the top of the cages. This gives a filtered light all day without shading them out too much. It cuts the overhead hottest part of the day down by a watt or two and the plants seem to responding well to it. Although, if the days stay at 35 degrees for the next three months (we are only day eight into summer) its not going to work as eight hours of indirect heat will dry the plants out as much as a few hours of direct sunlight...

After surviving a round of white cabbage butterfly caterpillar attacks, my kale managed to live through the grasshopper assault but may not make it through the heat and a onslaught by a wierd looking caterpillar that not even the chookies will eat. I was so looking forward to trying kale after reading about it for so long....

In the meantime its mostly working for me!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for using found items in the backyard
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for not spending a cent on shade cloth
Time cost: Two to three minutes!
Skill level: There isn't one... really!
Fun -ness: More fun for the plants than me!
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