Monday, 27 March 2017

Attack of the killer tomatoes

This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link:
Just under a week ago, the editor and I looked at each other across the divide of the kitchen bench and exchanged a meaningful glance. That glance conveyed so much information, even though words were not spoken. And the message was clear that we had been struck yet again by the pesky “Laser Printer” problem.

Eight years ago now, the editor and I constructed the house here. Construction of the house was a very complex job and we undertook most aspects of construction ourselves excluding the mains electrical and plumbing works. Mains voltage electrical and plumbing works in Australia are legally required to be performed by licensed trades people.

During those heady days the editor and I also started our own accounting/tax business. I have heard people claim that they are busy, and I have wondered what that term means to those people, but way back then, we actually were very busy!

It is no great secret that in an accounting business, most new work comes via way of referral from existing customers. The fancy name for that referral activity is: Word of mouth. The way that “word of mouth” operates is that somebody recommends to someone else that Chris and the Editor are top people and did a great job for them and they’ll look after you too. And more often than not, that “word of mouth” activity results in new client for our accounting business.

However, you never really know when this will happen. So imagine for a moment that:
·         you are in the midst of constructing a house yourself and it is not yet sealed to the outside weather;
·         winter is fast approaching;
·         the landlord for the house that you are renting is messing you around and threatening to kick you out so that they can put that rental house on the market for sale; and
·         you are suddenly faced with an influx of unexpected and brand new accounting work.

As a spoiler alert, we managed to address all of those competing matters and moved into the unfinished (and barely weather sealed) house early that Spring. However, one of the new accounting jobs required us to do a considerable amount of printing and scanning. At the time we had a dinky little colour inkjet printer and scanner, which despite being very slow, still works well after a decade of solid service. So, in order to complete the new accounting job quickly we decided to purchase a high speed laser printer and scanner.

The new laser printer and scanner allowed that new job to be completed quickly, however the simple purchase of that laser printer set off a chain of events that boggles the imagination. Without going into detail, that single new item of technology changed every aspect of the way we conducted and ordered our accounting business. Everything changed, from the layout of the office to the quality control systems and filing. It was surreal because we had to adapt ourselves and our practices to the new technology and not the other way around. I also learned that growth tends to not be a smooth trajectory, but rather a series of steps.

Working with nature reminds me of the exact same feeling of the Laser Printer problem. Nature rarely provides consistently. Instead, nature provides in great big splats and then not much. One such great big splat has been the huge load of tomatoes that we have been flooded with over the past few weeks. There sure have been a lot of tomatoes produced by the plants!

The March weather has been far hotter than the long term average and that has been awesome for beach goers and tomatoes. And the well above average heat followed on from a very damp and cool summer. The weather statistics for March taken from the Australian weatherzone website today is as follows:
Weather statistics for March for Melbourne
Observant readers will note that so far for this month, the maximum temperature has been +3.7’C greater than the long term average (and the minimum has been higher again). And the tomatoes are loving the heat.

Last week I noticed that the forthcoming week (which is now) was going to be not only hot, but also rather damp and cloudy. With that weather forecast in mind we undertook a Hurculean effort and completed retrieving, splitting and storing the final load of firewood for the year. But at the same time, we also we continued processing the tomatoes using the electric dehydrator.

Unfortunately, the damp, cloudy and warm weather meant that on most days of the past week we generated very little solar electricity. Sometimes the clouds were spectacularly thick and at a lower altitude than the farm!
The thick clouds hung in the valley below the farm leaving us in bright sunshine
At other times during the week the clouds descended (or is that technically ascended upon?) the farm and the air was thick with moisture:
It has been a very foggy and damp week
On the Wednesday the 5kW solar panels managed to generate a rather sad 2.3kWh (63Ah x 36V) for an entire day. As an interesting side story, in my wanderings on foot through the streets of Melbourne and the (trendy and affluent) inner Northern suburbs I often see placards on the front of houses proclaiming the imminent shift to renewable energy sources. The placards are very nicely printed indeed and they usually have abstract drawings of very attractive looking solar panels on free standing mounts. Those abstract drawings look uncannily like the ones that serve me so well in the paddock below the house. And at those times I consider the very uncomfortable question as to whether that particular household would be able to adapt to an energy availability of only 2.3kWh for an entire day? How long would a plasma TV run on this generation? An hour perhaps?
Wednesdays solar energy production was very sad at only 2.3kWh (63Ah x 36V) for the whole day
Strange renewable energy belief systems aside, the editor and I were faced with the incompatible problems of inconsistent electricity generation and truck loads of tomatoes. In such a situation, you make passata. Passata is an Italian style tomato and vegetable sauce which can be stored in glass jars and used in cooking throughout the year. And making passata uses far less electrical energy than using an electrically powered dehydrator. And this is what about half a year’s worth of stored passata looks like (ignoring the chutney on the extreme right of the photo):
This is what half a year’s worth of passata looks like
And that was when the recurring Laser Printer problem struck. The passata recipe uses far less electricity than dehydrating tomatoes. However, making passata takes about ten times as long to produce for a given volume of tomatoes than simply dehydrating tomatoes. Astute readers will realise that we had simply swapped our time for electrical energy. We had never produced passata in such volumes before and we were basically unprepared for the time that the whole process took. I can write this with a clear conscience because it was not I that cracked the sads in this particular instance…

Moving on … A few days later, the sun shone very strongly and strangely enough, we were just shy of breaking the record here for electricity generation in a single day. That means 20.3kWh (563Ah x 36V) on Saturday. Incidentally, for those who are numerically inclined, the record was 566Ah.
The solar power system almost achieved a record breaking day of production on Saturday
As I have heard said down here on occasion: “Go hard, or go home!” Usually people saying such comments are referring to drinking alcohol, but we chose instead to “go hard” and put through another six trays of tomatoes to dehydrate in the electric dehydrator.
Another six trays of tomatoes were dehydrated in the Fowlers Vacola 4000 Ultimate Dehydrator unit this week
My little red Honda push mower arrived back home from the local mower doctor this week and so I put it to good use and spent an entire day pushing it around the farm and covered a couple of acres. This is what the paddock looked like before mowing.
The paddock below the house before mowing
And this is what the paddock below the house looked like after mowing.
The paddock below the house after mowing
Observant readers will note in the photo above a very frisky looking Scritchy and Toothy frolicking about in the now mown herbage!

Just in case we hadn’t done enough work which may be disturbing for long term readers, we cut back all of the plant growth which had recently taken over all of the access stairs about the farm. In the photo below observant readers will note a sugar maple on the left and a tulip tree on the right. None of the six chock full wheelbarrow loads of cut plant growth goes to waste as we throw it on top of new garden beds as a form of fertiliser and simply let nature sort it all out over time.
Plant growth which had recently taken over the access stairs about the farm was cut back
This week I have also begun removing the steel cages from a few of the taller fruit trees. The steel cages are in place to protect the fruit trees from the unrelenting wallaby activities. The wallabies (a smaller and solitary form of forest dwelling kangaroo) are right little vandals who will happily destroy a fruit tree by pulling it over and snapping the trunk. However once fruit trees are about 5m (16 foot) tall, the trees are fairly impervious to the loving ministrations of the ever helpful and unrelenting wallabies.
A Green Gage Prune was removed from its steel cage this week
The warm and very humid weather has also been paradise for insects and the other evening I spotted this crawling mass of Portuguese millipedes and Slaters (wood lice). Seriously, the ground was oozing with insect activity…
The ground oozed with activity as there was a crawling mass of Portuguese millipedes and Slaters (wood lice)
Fortunately, the insect predators who are the good guys of any orchard were up to the task of sorting out that swarming mass of insects. Praying mantises are one of the good guys in an orchard and I spotted this one:
A praying mantis takes a break from the task of consuming masses of insects
Oh, I have mentioned before that I have continuing problems with the delaminating steel on the wood heater and was sort of hoping that if there were any metallurgists reading the blog (or anyone in the know about steel really) could identify why my wood heater shows signs of a white salt looking product in an amongst the rust. The deterioration of the wood heater is a sad tale and I’m hoping to learn something from that sad story so that I don’t repeat the same mistake with the next expensive replacement wood heater. Anyway, don’t be shy and please posit an opinion on the matter!
Strange white salts are developing in the rust on the top of wood heater. If anyone has any ideas about it, please speak up!
And as is now usual I’ll chuck in some nice flower photos to brighten up the day of anyone living in a cold northern hemisphere climate:
The perennial rocket produces masses of flowers during late summer / early autumn which the bees adore

The Jerusalem artichokes have continued to flower this week and the plants are unable to out-compete the geraniums despite the artichokes ferocious reputation
And I believe these are some sort of African daisy which look superb
The temperature outside now at about 9.45pm is 12’C (53’F). So far this year there has been 120.4mm (4.7 inches) which is more than last week’s total of 93.8mm (3.7 inches).

Monday, 20 March 2017


This blog is now available as an mp3 podcast through the link:

I've waited here for you
I throw myself into
And out of the red
Out of her head she sang”

When I was a kid, I used to believe that summer was a never ending, lazy time, chock full of long hot days. When I think upon summer thoughts, my memories drift back to long hot days spent down at the local swimming pool, mucking around with friends. My mother purchased me an annual pass to the local swimming pool, and most of my friends had one as well, so we could all come and go as we pleased. It was a lot of fun.

The local swimming pool was an outdoor Olympic sized pool at 50m / 164 foot long. They also had a separate and much deeper swimming pool for diving. That deeper pool had two very high 3m / 10 foot diving boards. As a young kid, I was terrified of heights, so the two high diving boards were a source of fear and fascination. In the end I overcame my fear of the high diving boards by simply falling off one of them. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and after noisily splashing into the deep swimming pool, I thought to myself that that wasn’t so bad! And then proceeded to go back for seconds, but with marginally more grace the second time around.

Once I became comfortable with the gentle art of falling off the high diving board, the next challenge became: Could I touch the bottom of the deep swimming pool? For the record, I’m tempted to lie and say that I could touch the bottom of the deep swimming pool, but to be honest: why they constructed a swimming that deep is well beyond me! Back in the day, tall tales were told of people touching the bottom of that deep swimming pool, or someone knew someone who could easily do that. But really I couldn’t personally test the veracity of their claims, so who really knows whether they achieved that awesome feat or not?

As a kid I was a mercenary little capitalist who was up well before the sun had even risen above the horizon. I delivered newspapers to houses who subscribed to that service. And then in the afternoons I delivered the afternoon newspapers. That was until the afternoon newspaper ceased production and I was out of an afternoon job.  Fortunately, I lucked into an afternoon chemist round delivering prescription medications to the elderly folk in the suburb. What simple days they were when the local Pharmicist trusted me as a very young child to deliver prescription medications! If only I had known the street value of opiates I would have had even more mad cash.

Anyway, being a mercenary little capitalist meant that after lazy summer days at the local swimming pool ceased to be entertaining, my mates and I would hit the streets on our pushbikes looking for trouble. Now as an interesting side story, it would have been a walk of shame to be driven to the local swimming pool by your mother, so pushbikes were the only acceptable source of transport for young kids and it didn’t matter if there was a 10km / 6 mile pushbike ride just to get from your house via a detour to your mates house and then onto the local swimming pool. No problem.

As a correction to my earlier claim, my friends and I were all dorks so, we weren’t really looking for trouble on our pushbikes, we were actually looking for the local arcade game parlour where much of my hard earned mad cash was spent on Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. Those arcade games were way hard and if you failed in the game you lost your hard earned twenty cents. Not fair!

“Come down
And waste away with me
Down with me
Slow how
You wanted it to be
I'm over my head
Out of her head she sang”

Yup, those summers and their lazy long hot days spent down at the local swimming pool with friends seemed to go on and on forever.

Time marches on though, and lazy long hot days spent at the local swimming pool are now well into the far and distant past. Nowadays I spend most of the summer trying to preserve the summers bounty for use when the winter inevitably arrives.

“And I wonder
When I sing along with you
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I'll ever ask of you
You gotta promise not to stop when I say when she sang”

Despite it being apparently autumn here, the farm is in the midst of an “Indian Summer”. Most days this March, the skies have been blue and clear. The winds have been still and whilst the sun has been hot, it does not feel as fierce as it does in summer. And the daily temperatures have been hovering around the 30’C / 86’F mark. It has been very pleasant really. And those conditions let you know that sooner rather than later, the weather will change to much cooler winter conditions.

With that in mind, over the past month or so, the editor and I have been busily squirrelling away firewood for use over the winter. Firewood is used here to heat the house and hot water and it also provides an option for cooking in the attached wood heated oven. Firewood is a pretty crucial resource for us, as we have no other way of heating up the house during winter. And a day or so ago, we processed the final load of firewood for the year! Yay!

Using firewood for heating and cooking requires a person to consider that resource for many years into the future. The local trees (Eucalyptus Obliqua) cannot simply be cut down and burnt, because they will not burn (the fancy word for that is “green”). Once a local trees is cut down, it then has to age as logs on the ground for at least two years (and possibly more) so as to “season” correctly (otherwise it will not burn). 

Once seasoned, those logs then have to be dried, cut, split, hauled, and stored for use over the winter. It goes without saying that damp or wet firewood does not burn very well and so the process of storing that firewood away during the summer is as important as any other part in the process. And the hot summer sun is the most effective energy source to ensure that all of the firewood is crispy dry. Sourcing firewood in the depths of winter when it is very damp and humid is a foolish idea as that firewood will not burn well.
The second firewood shed is now completely full
The firewood storage area next to the house is also completely full (and overflowing)
 “Breathe out
So I can breathe you in
Hold you in
And now
I know you've always been
Out of your head
Out of my head I sang”

Not many plants will grow under a pile of logs ageing for a couple of years. Today, I repaired the area where the logs had been stored for this season. Repairing land refers chopping and dropping any organic matter in that area using my little Honda push mower, and then to spreading around compost over the affected area. Within a year, the land will recover and plants will thrive in that heady mix of organic matter!
The author repairs the area where the logs were stored and processed for this seasons firewood
The ongoing “Indian summer” has meant that the tomatoes have been prolific and this week is no exception. Every single day we have been harvesting containers full of ripe and tasty tomatoes. Preserving the tomato harvest has been a major effort and at present we dehydrate all of the crop (that we can’t consume fresh). Once dehydrated, we store the dried tomato chips in quality olive oil for consumption over the winter.
Tomatoes are continuing to be dehydrated this week
The electric food dehydrator which runs all day long is powered by the off grid solar power system and the other day we almost broke the record for power consumption. 505 amp-hours at about 36V equals 18.2kWh used that day. During that day, we also baked two batches of dog biscuits, a loaf of bread, ran a load of washing, and processed two trailer loads of firewood using the excellent electric log splitter. Plus there was all the usual pumps, refrigeration, lights, computers etc. It was an epic day of power consumption!
This readout says that 505Ah / 18kWh during one day was an epic day of power consumption
My arrangement with a cafe business in Melbourne which involves me taking quantities of their used coffee grounds has meant that the soil in the orchard is now benefitting from being fed used coffee grounds as well as the more usual manure. The fruit trees love the additional feed and have been growing strongly this season. In return for the couple of buckets of coffee grounds they will receive some fresh lemons and ripe Black Russian tomatoes.
The containers used to provide the soil in the orchard with its caffeine hit
All those coffee grounds sometimes means that there is the occasional dry patty of used coffee grounds littered about the orchard. The rain will wash them into the soil. Observant readers will note that in the photo below there are a few spots of mould or fungus on the dry patty.
There is now the occasional dry patty of used coffee grounds littered about the orchard
Over the past week I have been busy removing any grass from around the trunks of some of the fruit trees and then feeding those fruit trees with a good quantity of manure. That should make them grow faster! I reckon I’m about 40% of the way through that job and will continue it over the next few weeks as the weather permits.
Grass has been removed from around the trunks of the fruit trees and the trees were then fed with a good quantity of manure
Well, yeah, the little dirt mouse Suzuki could use a dip in the local swimming pool – although I’m unsure that it would recover from that dip – because the dry March has meant that it is living up to its name of a dirt mouse. Life is too short to spend cleaning cars that will only get dirty again a few minutes later. Plus the sheer volume of dirt scares the folks in Melbourne!
The little dirt mouse Suzuki is living up to its name!
I harvested some Asian nashi pears today and they taste of the summer sun. In the orchard I also discovered a couple of corella (cocktail) pears which I also harvested.
I harvested some Asian nashi pears today
The miniature purple eggplants are putting on some size in the ongoing heat.
The miniature purple eggplants are putting on some size in the ongoing heat
The various olives about the place are also starting to put on some size.
The various olives about the place are also starting to put on some size
In breaking chicken news… The three new silky chickens have more or less forged a place for themselves at the bottom of the pecking order. However, they are also now enjoying the perquisites of the rest of the flock and they enjoy a good run in the orchard most evenings.
The three new silky chickens have more or less forged a place for themselves at the bottom of the pecking order
The rest of the chicken collective are busy most evenings assisting with the gardening efforts. I just wished they wouldn't dig quite so many holes in the soil in the new garden bed…
The rest of the chicken collective are busy most evenings assisting with the gardening efforts
And is my usual style, I now present some of the flowering plants for the enjoyment of people living in the cold northern hemisphere:
Jerusalem artichokes have begun to flower this week
The geraniums are really putting on a good show in the continuing heat
The geraniums are really putting on a good show in the continuing heat
I keep the nasturtiums as summer greens for the chickens
I spotted a passionfruit flower today and it looks great
The Californian poppies always put on a good show in the heat
The citrus trees have begun flowering which is a good sign for the winter fruit crop
“And I wonder
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
The only thing I'll ever ask of you
You've got to promise not to stop when I say when”

With respect to the Foo Fighters for their excellent song: Everlong

The temperature outside now at about 5.00pm is 27’C (81’F). So far this year there has been 93.8mm (3.7 inches) which is the more or less the same as last week’s total of 87.0mm (3.4 inches).