Another Hugelkultur-like bed on the go

It has been a while since I posted…life gets in the way. I have been hard at work learning to be a ‘real’ teacher (as one of my students stated), and have had not much time for anything at home besides simple maintenance. I have managed (or we have managed, as my daughter has helped a lot) to start and gradually work on one project; a new Hugelkultur bed.

We have an old chicken tractor made from PVC pipe (electrical conduit) and chicken wire, it is so old that it can’t be moved anymore. We decided it would make a good vegetable bed as it is covered and secure and has a decent amount of space inside.

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Before we started working on the bed. The tin thing is a chicken roost.

We removed everything from the cage, leaving only a weedy, unpromising space. Then we began to gather mulching material (otherwise known as organic rubbish); we found some old rags (cotton and wool), newspaper and cardboard. We also started to gather sticks and wood for the Hugel building.

First we spread the rags, newspaper and cardboard over the grass; there wasn’t enough to cover it all so we are working in sections. Then we piled the sticks and some larger branches where we wanted the beds to be. On top of this we piled the contents of the bottom of the rabbit cage; poop and newspaper litter soaked in pee. We are in the process of collecting manure to add to the beds and a neighbor has offered to bring home some composted pig manure from her work for us (thank you L). Once the bed is piled up with sticks, manure and other compostables we will cover it all  with a layer of straw mulch and leave it to compost for a few weeks. I am looking forward to planting out another low water use bed…more broccoli, here we come.

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There will be a thin path from the door to the middle of the bed, the rest will be planted out with vegetables

making little fulled knitting bags

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I have been spinning a lot lately (whenever there is time), mostly from a coloured merino fleece I picked up  somewhere. The yarn is lovely and fine, but what to do with it all? So I decided to make some little knitting bags; the kind you can hang over your wrist and knit from, or stick your needles into and shove in your handbag when you realise the bus is pulling over at your stop (or is that just me?). I will spin the yarn, knit and full the bags then pop a ball of my yarn and some knitting needles into it and sell my ‘knitting starter kits’ at the markets (offering a free knitting lesson at point of purchase). I don’t know if anyone will take me up on it given the heat at the moment, but we will see.

My little bags don’t really have a pattern, it’s more of a knit-by-feel affair, but I will try to explain the process (with photos of course). First I find some spare homespun wool that I have been wanting to use for something and turn it into a neat little ball by putting it on my yarn swift and winding it off with the ball maker thing.

 

 

I then cast on some stitches, enough to make a decent square. For this bag I used 20 stitches and knitted a square base using garter stitch (knit every row). The square has to be big enough to fit a ball of wool on plus about 40% (to allow for shrinkage when fulling).

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A knitted square. I just love this yarn; caramel alpaca plied with gold thread

I pick up stitches around the sides of the square, trying to pick up the same number as my cast on side. The number of stitches on each side is not really crucial to success, but it does make things neater and easier to finish.

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I knit in rounds to make the sides until the bag is deep enough to hold a ball of wool, bearing in mind that fulling (or felting) makes the piece shrink, so adding about 40% to all measurements.

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My bag is coming together

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Now comes the tricky bit; handles. I have just discovered the Japanese knot bag design, and it suits the knitting bag design I have in mind. All I need to do is knit handles with one being shorter than the other…right?

This photo from the internet shows the design I mean

My little bag is a mini version of the one in the photo (knitted rather than cloth too), so the longer handle only needs to be long enough to loop around the wrist. I knit the handles by casting off until I reach a corner, knit some handle stitches (in this one I made them six stitches wide) then slip those stitches onto a stitch holder. Now I continue casting off until I reach the next corner. I do this all the way around until there are four sets of handle stitches (on stitch holders). Then I knit back and forward on one set of stitches using garter stitch until it is long enough to loop over to the handle stitch set beside it (that is the next set along tracing around the perimeter). I graft the handle onto the handle stitches using the three needle cast off. The other two handle stitch sets are done the same way but this handle is long enough to go over a wrist (plus 40%).

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Now the knitted part of the bag is finished, it is time to full or felt it.

 

 

Fulling is easy; just throw the bag in the washing machine with some detergent (I use shampoo actually) and let it wash for a few minutes. Fibre felts at different rates, so the fulling process may be really fast (if I used Icelandic wool yarn), or it may be very slow (if I used Suffolk wool yarn), but it will felt (as long as the fibre is wool and is not super wash treated). Alpaca is a medium speed felter, so it took about 15 minutes.

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The bags I have made so far in the washing machine ready to felt

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The finished bbag with a ball of wool and needles inside, ready to go. As you can see the bag shrunk quite a bit.

So now it’s back to spinning more wool from that merino fleece.

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Sourdough chocolate zucchini muffins

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My zucchini patch

Having stated that I really don’t like to cook, I thought I would do another post on how I use left over sourdough starter. While I don’t enjoy cooking and spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen grumbling in a very unbecoming manner and wishing I was outside, I do like to eat and if I don’t make it I won’t eat. Also I hate to throw out that magic starter, it seems truly amazing to me that you can mix flour and water together and end up with bread (after a bit of neglect). I have a fair few zucchini plants busily producing the famed glut in the garden, so what better way to use up spare sourdough starter and too many zucchini than to turn them into chocolate.

I found the original recipe for these muffins here. I found a recipe for zucchini brownies while I was searching that looked good too.

 

Sourdough chocolate zucchini muffins (makes about 12)

3/4 cup honey

Sourdough starter

1/3 cup of vegetable oil (the original recipe calls for butter but I couldn’t find any)

2 eggs (or 4 bantam eggs in my case)

1 tablespoon of vanilla

a pinch of salt

1 1/3 cups of plain flour

1/3 cup cocoa

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 grated zucchini (it doesn’t matter too much whether it’s a big one or a little one)

Method

Mix all the liquids together until the sourdough starter is combined then add the dry ingredients slowly until they are combined. Add the zucchini and mix through well. Spoon into muffin cases or a tray then pop into the oven at 180-200 degrees Celsius for about 20 minutes.

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The wet ingredients

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Mixing the wet ingredients together

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The dry ingredients

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Mixing the dry ingredients in

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The daily zucchini harvest

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One grated zucchini

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The mix ready to bake

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When you run out of muffin papers half way through…just make some from baking paper and keep on spooning

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They came out OK

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Even the ones in make-shift papers

I am sure this cooking thing is just a passing phase born from having so much produce in the garden, bear with me, it will be over soon.

Making pesto

I don’t usually post about cooking or food preparation. The reason is really simple; I’m a TERRIBLE cook. I don’t enjoy cooking and I avoid it as much as possible, but I have had a few successes in the kitchen lately and I like to document my wins so here is my latest triumph.

While I was messing around in the garden I picked a bunch of basil that is starting to flower. When you pick basil, you have to make pesto…it’s in the rule book. I didn’t have pine nuts or olive oil (or fresh garlic) but I made pesto anyway.

My modified pesto recipe

2 cups basil leaves (about)

1/2 cup rice bran oil

1/2 cup roasted macadamia nuts

2 teaspoons powdered garlic

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My bunch of fresh basil

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The ingredients I managed to find to make impromptu pesto

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Basil, oil and garlic in the bullet blender

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After the first blending of the basil and oil mix I added the macadamias

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I love the texture of this pesto

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It turned out really yummy

Tomato supports made from sticks

The tomatoes are getting tall, they have needed something to support (and cage) them for a long time. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to put cages over them (which makes them hard to pick, but is quick and easy) or tie them to stakes (which is a lot of work and needs constant pruning and tying, but does allow access and looks really professional), so of course I did nothing. Until I happened to visit some friends last week; they had built a tomato support out of sticks and it looked really pretty, made picking easy and was quick and cheap to put together. I didn’t take a photo of theirs, but trust me it looks whimsical and natural. So…armed with a vague idea and some zip ties I ventured out to the garden. I  found some long sticks in the tree line around the humpy and dragged them into the garden.

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This is the unruly tomatoes, busy crowding out basil and bush beans

As you can see in the photos I just stuck some sticks into the ground and zip tied yet more sticks to them to create a fairly sturdy support for the tomato plants and allow the beans some room to grow. This was so quick and easy to do I even had time to harvest some basil and make pesto before the day got too hot to work.

It doesn’t look as pretty as my friend’s version, but it will do the trick. It will hold the plant and fruit off the ground and allow air flow to lessen mould problems, it will keep the tomatoes off the beans and semi confined and it will be easy to pick fruit from the vines. What do you think?

Use gum leaves in the garden- part two

The gum leaves on the path idea seems to be working so far; my plants are still growing and the weeds on the path are mostly suppressed. I have been slowly raking up leaves from around the humpy and spreading them on the path over old newspapers and cardboard boxes. The weeds at the unfinished end of the path have grown to be the same height as the plants in the bed, but I am making progress slowly. I start by slashing the tallest weeds down with a shovel then lay newspaper over them as thickly as possible. Finally the raked up gum leaves are dumped onto the top and spread out with the shovel.

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You can see where the path ends at the moment and the height of the weeds in the remaining bit of path. This photo was taken from the doorway to the garden.

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This photo was taken from the other door (to the north)

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A close up of where the leaves end and the weeds begin

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It’s hard to tell, but there are vegetables in there; tomato, beans and basil

Despite the messy looking garden, I am still picking food from the space. The gum leaves seem to be slowing down the weeds enough for me to stay ahead of them on the path I have already covered. It isn’t really clear whether the leaves are allelopathic or not because the weeds are suppressed by being covered (no light) and having restricted water (the leaves make a water resistant mat) as well as any possible allelopathic effect.

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Walking onion, basil, silver beet and zucchini from my messy garden

My seedling raising area is powering along too. Initially I didn’t cover the seedling with a sheet, but I  soon found out that wet sand, hot sun and no shade led to cooked seeds and no seedlings. Now I have an old sheet draped over the whole thing the seedlings are just jumping up.

 

 

Making sourdough bread

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The starter is finally ready to make bread. Sourdough starters take time and feeding to grow a strong and healthy community of yeasts.  Pancakes, muffins, doughnuts and crumpets are all possible before the starter is mature but you have to wait a while before making bread or it simply won’t rise,

I went looking for a simple and (relatively) quick method this time, as part of the reason I don’t make a lot of bread is the time factor, especially while I am working. I found this You Tube video and it is amazingly easy to follow.

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Day seven starter, ready to make bread

The basic recipe

3 cups of flour (plain flour, bread flour, spelt, rye, it doesn’t seem to matter)

1 cup water (plus a little dash more sometimes)

1/2 a teaspoon of salt

Sourdough starter

Just mix the flour, water and salt together into a dough. Watch the You Tube video to get the knead-in-the-bowl technique, it does make things less messy. When the dough is a sticky mass that sort of sticks together cover it and leave sitting on the bench (or in an esky with cooler bricks like she does on the video).

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My sticky mess….er…mass of dough

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Covered over and left on the bench while I go out and rake leaves

After the bread has risen to about double the size of the original lump it is time to knead it a little bit more. Once again I used the knead-in-the-bowl method. It is also time to find a Dutch oven or a big baking dish with a lid (a camp oven would be ideal), you could also use a bread tin for the second rise.

I kneaded the dough for about two minutes then I plonked it out onto a piece of baking paper that had been sprayed with water and lifted it into a bowl to rise…again.

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The big yellow thing is an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, it’s a heavy piece of equipment

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My dough on wet baking paper rising in its bowl

After a few more hours sitting on the bench (covered of course), the dough had risen to roughly double the original size again. I preheated the Dutch oven to about 200 degrees Celsius then put the dough into it, still on the baking paper. I baked the dough for 30 minutes with the lid on the Dutch oven then took the lid off and baked it for another 15 minutes to get a brown crust.

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The final loaf

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Close up of the final loaf

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It made a fine textured, very flavourful bread

Making bread takes time, but not a lot of effort. Most of the action happens in the quiet bowl lurking in the dark corner of the bench. This is one of the easiest methods I have found so far. I think this will be my go-to recipe for this cycle of bread eating at least. Hopefully I can find time to make bread during the working week as it makes lunches so much easier to organise.

Things to do with sourdough starter

I don’t eat a lot of bread, because the rest of my family prefer that foam rubber white stuff. I really don’t like the flavour or texture of white bread so I just do without most of the time. I do like the flavour and texture of sour dough bread and it is really easy to make too. When I am in the mood for bread I make myself a sour dough starter and make bread every few days. I am usually the only one who eats it (besides the chooks that is) but it is still worth the effort. My starters tend to go great for a few months then die from neglect in the back of the fridge when my bread craving passes. I thought I would do a post documenting the process of making a bread starter and making bread using it so the life and inevitable death of yet another starter isn’t in vain.

Making a starter

It’s as easy as mixing up a half cup of bread flour with a half cup of warmish water and leaving it on a kitchen bench (away from insects and critters) covered with a damp tea towel. If you need precise measurements you can find them here, but they really don’t have to be precise. I can see that the discovery of bread came from a happy accident made by a less than fastidious cook at some point in human history; maybe someone left flat bread dough out and forgot about it, decided to use it anyway and discovered that it tastes better that way. So much of our staple foods seem to be created by being left to their own devices.

I have read a few posts about starting the yeast with pineapple juice to kick start the yeast production (something about acidic conditions and extra sugar); I don’t have pineapple, but I do have apple so here we go on another experiment (I just can’t follow a recipe to the letter can I?). Apple juice isn’t particularly acidic but it is sugary, so to counter that I decided to add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar (that was sitting in the pantry).

So the starter recipe is;

1/2 cup organic plain flour

1/2 cup apple juice

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

Dump it all into a seal-able jar and mix it up well. Leave it on the kitchen bench covered with something.

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Ingredients collected

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The starter all mixed up and ready to go

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Day one

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It can sit up on a shelf away from animals (maybe not flying ones though) next to my sprout jar

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Day three

On day three I start to see bubbles in the mix so I fed it with a quarter of a cup of flour and a dash of water (just enough to keep it liquid). Then back on the shelf it goes. Maybe on day four I can divide the starter and use it to make something (it’s not bubbly enough to make bread yet but maybe some pancakes?).

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Day five…yes, I forgot to take a photo when I fed the starter on day four

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This is a photo of the side of the jar (badly lit), you can see the bubbles go right through the starter

On day five I decide it is time to make the baby starter work for a living (and I hate throwing away half the mix every time I feed it), I decided to make sour dough doughnuts. I have made these from spare starter for a few years now, I  don’t make them often, but often enough to be considered a staple recipe. I use the recipe I found here.

The recipe is in two parts; the first afternoon you mix the basic dough and leave it overnight. The recipe says leave it on the counter, but since one of the ingredients is milk the fridge is a better place for the covered bowl in our hot Australian climate.

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This is the dough mix after sitting in the fridge overnight. You can see that the yeast has done a great job starting the rising process

I totally forgot to take photos of the doughnut making; all I did was spoon the mix into oiled doughnut pans and bake them at about 200 degrees Celsius (the recipe is in Fahrenheit). Then I rolled the little darlings in cinnamon sugar and left them to cool. They didn’t rise as much as I had hoped, but they taste really good.

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Next time I make them I think I will leave them to rise a little in the doughnut pans before cooking. The starter can be moved to the fridge and only taken out to feed it or make something. Bread is the next thing on the menu…..next post.

 

Craft room cleaning challenge

I’m not a hoarder, I just need a bigger craft room.

This holidays I am setting myself the challenge of cleaning out and organising my craft room. At the moment there is so much stuff stacked in there that I literally can’t get into it. So while the family is away I am going to take everything out, sort it and re-organise it all. This will take days and I may need to go to the dump once or twice as a result. So here we go;

First  of all I emptied out the wardrobe affectionately known as ‘The wool cupboard’. I had no idea I had amassed this much fleece…remind me of that when I am tempted to say yes to further offers. There is enough raw wool here to keep me washing and spinning for a couple of years (full time). I want to re-purpose the wool cupboard to hold my market stock and gear, reasoning that there is about the same amount of space in it as there is in my car so if it won’t fit in the cupboard, it won’t fit in the car. Also I won’t be tripping over the market stuff blocking my entrance to the craft room any more.

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This is the pile of feed bags holding raw fleece from my wool cupboard.

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This is the pile of market gear and stock which blocks my entrance to the craft room (yes…the junk in the middle of the room) and results in me putting everything on the pile as I can’t get to the shelves to put it away.

My first move was to hang an old bed base from the ceiling by chains. This creates a rigid hanging shelf to store a lot of stuff (just think about how much stuff you can pile on your bed). The bed base is a single, but it fit really nicely in the space and it’s hung just high enough for me not to bump my head.

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The majority of the raw wool is now in containers on my suspended shelf.

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With the market stuff in the former wool cupboard there is now some floor space to work in.

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Now to start going through the boxes of stray crafting stuff and making use of everything

Cleaning out the craft room is going to be an ongoing project (just like the shed). Given the huge amount of fleece I have unsuspectingly amassed, I think my focus for the near future will be on spinning as much as possible. I can see a huge yarn sale in my future.

Using gum leaves in the garden

It is really hot at the moment, so the fire danger level is high. I am raking up leaves from around the house at a rate of one or two 20 litre buckets a day (and fighting a losing battle). Summer solstice (or Litha) is when gum trees drop a lot of leaves and shed their bark like a Hollywood actress shrugging out of her overcoat to reveal she is naked underneath. All that newborn bark is exceedingly beautiful to look at and I love walking  in the bush and letting the cicada song wash over me like a sound ocean, but…extra fuel on the ground leads to extra fire danger.

Common knowledge says that gum leaves are no good for compost; they are allelopathic (don’t play well with other plants), highly acidic, slow to compost and hydrophobic (don’t soak up water). In fact the only thing they have in their favour is we have a lot of them, but what to do with them?. I always struggle with where to put leaves once they are raked up from the constant drifts around the house. I usually rake them away from the house and leave it at that. This year I thought I’d try something different.

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The path in my Hugelkultur bed area is constantly sprouting weed seedlings, which I try to keep up with by pulling a handful or two as mulch  every time I go in there (not a very effective method) but missing one day means the big weeds are taller and harder to pull out and there are just too many of them. Every year I try to cover the path with cardboard as boxes come into the house, then I cover the path with something; wood chip, sand, mulch hay, etc, anything that will keep the cardboard down and can be shoveled onto the beds the following winter. This year I have decided to try gum leaves and bark.

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You can see the multitude of weed seedlings on the path in this photo

My reasoning is that most people say the leaves will break down eventually, given a year on the ground and it is best to have the allelopathic qualities of the leaves spent on the path where I don’t want plants. Also the leaves will be broken up by the mechanical action of me walking on them often which will speed up their decomposition somewhat. I can add a high nitrogen source like urine to the path to further speed decomposition (pardon the indelicate reference) and dampness provided by the infrequent watering of the garden and rain will also speed the process. When I add the resulting leaf mold to my garden beds I will have to remember to add some lime with it to counteract the acidity of the gum leaf mold. This is an experiment to see if gum leaves can be useful in soil building, I am not sure whether it will work out well or be a failure, but we will see in six months or so.

In other news;

My Hugelkultur beds are growing well. Here are some photos to prove  it.

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The zucchini are flowering

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The tree tomato is growing new leaves (it isn’t really this pale, it’s just the camera)

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The chia is growing so fast you can see it

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I am picking lettuce and a tiny bit of silverbeet from this bed

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The beans are up at last and the tomato is ready to be tied up (I’m not sure I will do it though)

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I  have continued to build up the beds that were very low on organic matter by adding anything that comes to hand; horse and cow manure collected from beside the road, the contents of the rabbit litter box and any weeds I pull from the garden.

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Building up the bed ready for planting…probably in winter now, unless I can get some late corn in soon

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The rabbit litter tray; the litter is compressed paper pellets which soak up water and break down very fast, also rabbit poop, pee and hair