Friday, April 3, 2015

G is for Garlic

Well it's been quite a while since my last post. I've had endless colds or so it seems, and last weekend was Rose's 2nd birthday party, so that has kept me fairly busy baking a giant Peppa Pig cake.

Now that summer is officially over and indeed, the weather is cooling quite a lot, it's time to plant garlic. The last 2 years' garlic crops have been very disappointing, with either the plants being  decimated by aphids, or the garlic bulbs being very small on harvest. Perhaps with last year's lot, it was harvested a bit too early hence was a bit small.

For this year I've decided to reinvest with new varieties. I've got 3 different ones from the Digger's Club: Korean red, early white, and glamour.  And I'll put in a few bulbs from last year's miniature harvest.  

I've prepared the bed with mushroom compost and cow manure, and as usual I'll be cramming in more than is probably recommended. But we'll see how it goes come the December solstice and the next harvest.

p.s. it turns out that whilst the bulbs from last year's harvest were small, the actual cloves were a reasonable size.  So hopefully some good will come of those.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

F is for Flock Block

There are lots of recipes for these around the web - the Flock Block, otherwise known as a bird seed cone.  I decided to adapt recipes I found online to suit what I had to hand. You can use anything really, the only required ingredients being some eggs and an oil of some sort to act as a binder.  This is a baked flock block, hence the inclusion of eggs.  I did see quite a few recipes that used an animal fat (such as lard or other fat that's solid at room temperature) but whilst these might suit a climate with cold winters below zero, that would just fall apart in our much milder Australian weather, particularly when it gets over 40C here in summer!

So here is what I used, mainly as this is what I had to hand:

  • 2 cups mixed grain
  • 1 cup crushed egg shells (I like to recycle, but shell grit would do just as well)
  • 1 cup pellets
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup barley
  • 5-6 bantam eggs (or 4 standard eggs), lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup treacle (or molasses, honey or similar)
  • 1/2 - 1 cup vegetable oil

Mix together all the the dry ingredients in a bowl.  Mix together all the wet ingredients except for the vegetable oil.  Add wet ingredients to dry, mixing well, and then gradually add in the vegetable oil until you get a mix that's wet enough to stick together well when a handful in squeezed into a ball.  The amount of vegetable oil you need will obviously depend on the dryness of your mix ingredients.

Put into a lined tin - I used two loaf tins, and this produced blocks about 2-3 cm deep.  Use a chopstick or similar to poke a hole in the mix to use for hanging it later. Bake at 200C for about 20 minutes until starting to brown.  Cool, attach string, and hang for your chickens to enjoy! 

Other suggestions to add:

  • Meal worms
  • Peanut butter
  • Wheat germ
  • Any other seeds you have
Our chooks took a day or two to figure out what to do with it, but once they got the idea, the entire thing was demolished within about 2 days!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

E is for egg tracking: Eggspense review

Usually I just get a pen and put a few marks on my wall calendar to track how many eggs the girls lay each day, but I've long had it in the back of my mind to look into writing an app to do it.  Of course it's been done already!

I was after something that would record how many eggs we got each day so I could look at totals and patterns over the year, and maybe put in extra things that it would be nice to track, such as when I worm them (and be able to set reminders).

I'm notoriously cheap when it comes to buying software but I thought it would be nice to have something on my phone, so after a little bit of searching backyard chicken and egg forums, I decided to give eggspense a try, as it works on Android.  I think it only cost me a couple of dollars.  It doesn't allow me to put in reminders, but it does record the expenses of keeping chickens so you can work out how much it costs per egg!  This is a constant refrain of Mr Potter, who insists that the chickens aren't earning their keep.  Well of course not, they're pets as well as egg producers - the whippets certainly aren't a cost neutral exercise either!  But seriously, I've been a bit concerned about the egg quota lately - it seems to me that with 5 young chickens we should be getting more than 2 eggs per day on average in the laying season.  It's been a bit hot lately, and they do tend to lay a bit less when things are scorching, but overall its's been a mild summer and not unbearable like the summer before Rose was born.

So here's the first two weeks of egg tallying.   I haven't bought any feed lately, so there's nothing under expenses as yet.

The plot that I've shown here I've actually recoloured in Irfanview (best freebie imaging editor around for quick and dirty fixes and ease of use!). So here's my first bit of feedback for the developers: what's with the dark blue dots on black background for your charts?  And the tiny tiny font on the chart?

And I couldn't manage to share this chart directly with blogger, but it was easy enough to download and save, which I need to do so I could edit the colours!

On the plus side, the app's pretty easy to use, and I generally remember to put the egg numbers in straightaway as I'm rarely without my phone, which couldn't be said for the old method of writing it down on the calendar in my study.  It would be great to also be able to set reminders of things such as worming though, or just log other things of note, such as when they moult or when a broody hen might affect the egg numbers.

After six months or so, when I've averaged out the expenses over a decent length of time, I'll post an update on how much it really is costing me to produce eggs!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

D is for Dried apricots

After our recent apricot harvest, we got a bit sick of eating them.  By we, I mean Rose (who didn't seem to like them much) and me, since Dad doesn't eat fruit.  Plus some of them were a bit overripe and squishy for my taste.  So I decided to dehydrate them in the oven.

First, halve the apricots and remove the stones, plus any squished or bruised bits.  You can treat them with ascorbic acid supposedly to stop them going brown when they dry - I had ok results, but didn't really try to improve things.  I found a great article online which covered all the detail.

Anyway, I crushed 500mg of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) tablets using a mortar and pestle, and dissolved the powder in 1 litre of water.  Soak your prepared apricots for 5 minutes or so and then drain and dry well.

Spread out to dry - I used a pizza tray as it had holes on the bottom to help with the drying. Leave the oven on the lowest setting possible (mine goes down to 50C) for as long as it takes.  I left mine in for 24 hours, but they probably could have done with a bit longer.  I used the fan forced option on my oven, as I think that ideally the temperature should be as uniform as possible.  I didn't leave the door ajar, but did crack it open fairly frequently to let the steam escape.

You can see the results in the photo - they do taste good!  As they don't have any preservatives, the article above recommends freezing or vacuum packing to prevent mould growth.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

C is for cucumbers

Cucumbers are one of the few vegetables (along with peas and possibly cauliflower) that Rose will actually eat.  So this year I planted 3 Lebanese mini munchers, from Diggers' Club.  I chose these ones as the actual cucumbers are quite small, to suit my small plots, and I've trained them over the wire that encloses each plot.  As my plots aren't that big, I'm always looking for ways to increase how much I can cram into them, so training them seemed like a good idea.  They have tendrils to climb with, but don't seem to climb without some help, being happier to sprawl over the ground.

After a slow start, they're cropping really well.  I get maybe a half dozen each week now, with plenty on the way.  They're lovely and crunchy.  But it looks like the natives (mice?) have found them too. Fortunately, I think there's enough to go around, although I have been picking them a bit earlier than I would ideally like to make sure we don't lose too many.

While I'm here, seems like a good time for a panorama update. We've just done a top up of all the mulch in the backyard (six cubic metres of pine bark) as it was wearing very thin with the whippets doing laps down the bottom and then up over the lawn.  I'm forever trying to repair the lawn, although summer is probably not the best time for it.  Amazing how much greener everything looks with a dark base to set it off.

Monday, January 26, 2015

B is for Broody hens

Of our 5 chooks, we have two culprits that seem to recurrently go broody - Henny (Light Sussex) and Caramel (Wyandotte).  It's only those two usually, but when they hog the nesting boxes, no-one else seems to feel like laying either and egg production goes right down!  This may have something to do with the fact that Caramel in particular gets rather nasty and pecks and fluffs up her feathers when anyone comes near.  After all, she's just protecting her eggs, and she's not to know that they'll never hatch! Henny is much more complacent, but then the Light Sussexes seem calmer all round anyway.

Henny and Caramel share the chicken prison under the coop.
Jenny is in the main run area.
There's a plethora of advice and cures for broodiness out there, but the only one that works for me is to put them into "chicken prison".  The basic idea is that by getting them off the nest and putting somewhere they can (literally) cool down, they hormonal drive to nest eventually settles down. This takes anywhere from a few days (for Caramel) to up to a week (for Henny).  I've tried cooling them using the oft talked about cures like putting ice cubes in the nesting boxes, but all that seems to happen is that I get wet shredded paper in the boxes.  Similarly, returning them to the run just results in a temporary break (when they might have a bit of a forage for some food and a drink) and then a rapid return to the nesting boxes.

So I invested in the "chicken prison" which is just a dog crate (bought off ebay for $26) which conveniently sits underneath the coop in the run, and has two doors on the front and side for easy access.  Although the crate came with a solid, removable plastic tray for the bottom, I took it out and just put in some finer aviary wire for a base (the crate wires are too far apart for the chooks to stand comfortably), so the droppings go through into the run.  I prop it up on a few big blocks of wood to help with this, and also to aid the cooling effect.  I put water and a little feeder inside, plus 1-2 broody chickens and leave them to it.  They stay in there, day and night.  As the prison is undercover, being underneath our elevated coop, they're protected from the direct sun and rain.

After a few days, the chickens have usually been "punished" enough and I'll let them out.  Usually, they go straight back to the flock, relieved to not have to watch the others enjoy the kitchen scraps while they miss out.  Occasionally, Henny in particular will go back on the nest, in which case it's back in prison for another few days!  More often than not though, they seem to be "cured".  At least for a few weeks, when the cycle starts all over again.....

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pottering alphabet - A is for Automatic watering system

Inspired by this blog's alphabet of poulty tobacco cards, I've decided to do an alphabet of what's happening in the Potter garden.

Naturally enough, we'll start with A - for Automatic Watering System.

Timer setup for
watering system
A bit prosaic, I know, but that's what I happened to be doing this week.  At the bottom of the back garden (and top of the front garden, as it happens) we have a very old oak tree - at least around the same age as the house I think, or perhaps when the second owners bought the house (we are the third) which still puts the trees at somewhere between 70 and 100 years old.  They're impressively big, and provide lots of shade, but they also shade everything underneath from getting any water. The soil underneath is like concrete.

Consequently everything underneath the tree, which was supposed to screen us from the neighbors behind (and vice versa) is very stunted compared to the exact same species of plants on the other boundaries. I've been adding soil conditioner and handwatering, but progress is slow. So I finally got around to putting dripline under the oak tree and also around the fruit trees.  The water supply is our rain water tank, and there's a timer so they all get a regular drink once a week, at least during the hotter months.  We'll see in a couple of months if that helps the plants under to oak catch up a bit.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Van Gogh sunflowers

Our first sunflowers are flowering!  They're about 1.1m tall, which is a bit shorter than I was expecting as the packets said 1.5m but they're in a spot with pretty poor soil, right next to the chicken coop.  I'm growing these partly to bring some bright colour to the garden (with a bit of fun for Rose) and also for seeds for the chooks to eat.  I've just bought some exclusion bags from Green Harvest to hopefully stop the possums and mice getting all the seeds.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Possums 1, Humans 0.5

Ok, I officially surrender! After taking perhaps half a dozen apricots each night for a few nights, the possums invited all their friends over for a party and decimated the crop.  Tying the net up around the trunk only put them off for a night and then the little buggers managed to get back in by chewing holes in the net.  The moth balls didn't seem much of a deterrent,  and I was trying blood and bone until I saw just how many they'd chewed and gave up. But somehow I doubt it would have made much difference. I was just contemplating shelling out some big bucks to get an ultrasonic repeller, but it doesn't seem that clear that they work either.  This weekend I'll be building wire cages for the strawberries.

So I decided to harvest the lot while there were still some left.  Most are close to fully ripe anyway.  I estimate it at 45% to the possums,  45% to the humans and maybe 10% to worms or caterpillars.  We got just under 70 apricots unscathed.  A taste test and final weigh in will be done later.

Friday, January 2, 2015

New Year update

Happy new year!

Seems a good time to do a garden update, which I've not been keeping up with at all.  Lots happening in the vegie beds, from left to right now filled with:
  • tomatoes and zucchini
  • onions and carrots (plus nasturtiums).  Chilli seedlings squeezed in.
  • beans and cucumbers, pumpkins seeds just germinated.

First harvest of zucchinis, beans and cucumbers already done and eaten, tomatoes just flowering.

The apricot tree is also doing well, with lots of fruit shaping up well, but the possums have been getting into the net.  Can't work out for the life of me how they got in last night - previously there was a hole chewed in the bottom, but I blocked that up, so they must be sneaking in underneath where it's a bit loose perhaps?  It was just touching the ground and weighted down with some bits of wood around the edges.  I heard that hanging mothballs around was supposed to deter them so I scattered a few around, but can't saw it slowed them down at all. Next step is to tie the net more firmly around the trunk of the tree above the ground.  If all else fails, I'm going to pick them early and let them ripen on the windowsill. Last year they decimated the tomatoes, this year the apricots..... fat lot of good the guarddogs (ha ha ha) are doing.

Pavlova quest

I'm constantly trying to make the perfect pavlova, and maybe I'm getting closer.  No matter how many times I try though it's never absolutely right - I'm still trying to get it snowy white without too many cracks.  There's a plethora of advice out there - but maybe it's just practice makes perfect.  And forget chocolate and other variations, I just can't get seem to get both the extras plus a good rise in mine.

Today's Xmas effort is actually my second attempt - I tried to do a raspberry one first and it ended up a flat meringue pancake with dessicated raspberry jam on top (see previous paragraph).  It tasted just fine but looked terrible.

Not too bad.  But still too browned.  And its fallen quite a lot (more so than previous efforts) - I think this time I might have had the oven a little low but I was trying to avoid it browning.  Do they just photoshop the ones in mags so they all look snowy white???

So here's my recipe, which is a combination of lots of others and adjusted for my particular hardware (Ilve 90cm oven and kitchenaid mixer).

6 egg whites or 9 bantam egg whites, at room temperature 
Pinch salt
200g caster sugar
1 tsp cream of tartar or white vinegar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cornflour

Preheat oven to 180C, NOT fan forced.  Prepare a tray with a 20cm circle marked on the underside of some baking paper.

The cornflour and salt are supposed to help stabilise the meringue.  I've tried it with and without the cornflour and not sure I notice much difference, but I've not experimented with leaving the salt out.

Beat eggs whites and salt with wire whisk on speed 4 (low-medium) until soft peaks form.  This takes a while but does seem to make for better aeration (a kitchenaid tip).

Add sugar in 3rds beating at speed 6 and scraping down bowl each time.  With the last third add the vanilla, cornflour and cream of tartar.  A lot of recipes say to fold these in these (or white vinegar instead of cream of tartar) right at the end of all beating, but I find the folding deflates the meringue too much.

Turn speed up to high (10) and beat for 6 minutes.  The whole beating process takes me about 8 minutes.  The sugar should be well and truly dissolved - test by rubbing between your fingers and there should be not gritty feeling.

The meringue is now quite stiff and is really quite resistant when you try to make a mound with it.  If you over eat it, it becomes (relatively) floppy again.  I don't find the description of "glossy stiff peaks" very helpful as it's pretty glossy from about 2 minutes in as far as I can tell, and I have never noticed it losing its shine and going dull, which is supposed to be a sign of overbeating.  I used to beat it for more like 10 minutes, just by setting the timer and letting the mixer go for it, and it was only by accident that I discovered the meringue was actually a lot stiffer if I stopped earlier than that.

Mound onto your baking tray in a circle, trying to mess with it as little as possible.  I pull up the sides to make vertical ridges as that's supposed to help it keep its shape better.

Put in oven on low shelf and turn down immediately to 125C.  Bake for 90 minutes.  Leave to cool in oven for as long as possible.  I leave the door shut.

I think next time I'll revert to the temps that Stephanie Alexander uses (150 for 30 mins and then turn down to 120 for the rest) or try preheating to 150 and then turning down to 100 for baking (last time I tried this I got sugar syrup weeping, which is supposed to be a sign of undercooking).  And I need to keep experimenting with the shelf height.