The earthbag chook house- rubble stem wall

I know… I haven’t finished the bathroom walls yet. It has been years since I had any time or energy to attack the building of the bathroom. We have showered outdoors through another two Winter’s of cold wind and frosty toes. However… the chook house needs to be built, and I really want to build some fire resistant animal shelters. Once it is rendered, earthbag walls are fire proof and roof structures can be made fire safe (if not totally fire proof), so I decided to build with earthbags again.

The basic chook house design criteria is as small a building as I can make and still be functional (I only want to keep a few chooks now we are using fewer eggs). I decided on a curved shape (like half an egg) with a high ‘window’ for the chooks to get in and out of, and a small, tight fitting door on the Southern side (facing the humpy) made from thick, solid wood. I will probably make a space in the wall that can be accessed from the outside as nesting boxes (with a solid wood, tight fitting hatch) and include some pipes near the ceiling with wire mesh covers to act as ventilation. This will be a fairly dark, dim space for the chooks to sleep in and lay their eggs, which is what they prefer anyway, there should be enough light to see when dawn comes though.

I decided to use a rubble/rock stem wall, just because I wanted to see how it will perform with earthbags stacked on top. I spent a few days collecting rocks from our property, then my daughter and I dug a shallow trench in the shape we wanted the chook house to be.

The start of the trench
Loads of rocks on the farm ute
Waiting to become a wall
My daughter has a talent for building rock walls it seems
The trench for the rest of the walls was dug slowly
Ready for walls
Nearly there
Stage one complete

Hopefully the earthbags will lay on the top of the wall, this should be high enough to keep the rain water off the earth rendered walls. The gaps between the rocks will allow mice and snakes to get into the chook house (to be avoided if possible), so I am planning on rendering over the rocks with something that will seal the gaps, maybe a cement based render?

The floor of the house will probably be an earth floor, similar to what we will have in the house. It will give me a chance to play with the concept and learn how to make a good, hardwearing floor.

I am planning on a living roof on the chook house, this will hopefully insulate the chooks inside from heat and cold, be more fire proof and will allow me space to plant pumpkins. I will have to find a way to seal the eaves of the roof so they are less likely to burn, but that problem is in the future. For now, I have finished the stem wall, the bags for the wall come next, then I have to think about how to frame a door, an access window and nest boxes.

Aggressive rooster – Pickett

Baby Pickett

Pickett, our current flock rooster, started life as a struggling chick hatched by the school chooks. His mother had abandoned him in the nest and he was in danger of freezing to death. I picked him up and popped him into my pocket for the day while I taught maths and science. He came home with me and was raised by himself in the humpy.

Adult Pickett

He eventually became a beautiful rooster and we decided to make him the flock rooster after Big (our previous rooster) died. He has always been a friendly rooster who takes his job seriously. Recently we have raised two more roosters who have been released into the flock, which seems to have changed the dynamic a little.

Daffy, one of the newer roosters

Now Pickett has begun to be really defensive of his girls, even with me. He has developed some long spurs and is not afraid to use them. He recently attacked my legs while I was feeding the animals outside and did some damage to me.

In response to this, once the blood was cleaned up, we caught him and trimmed the ends of his spurs so he can’t do so much actual damage. I am also trying what my daughter calls ‘cuddle therapy’ with him; essentially, when he approaches me in an aggressive way I simply pick him up and give him a cuddle. He sees this as me asserting my dominance over him (which is nothing but the truth) and it helps me to still see him as the appealing little fuzz ball he was as a chick. We will see if this helps to retrain his brain.

You can see his spurs in this photo

Roosters are naturally protective of the flock (after all, they have to prove their worth to the hens) and this can easily turn to aggressive behaviours towards humans. There is little that can be done to calm an angry rooster, and I have found the best strategy is to try to pick them up and hold them until the storm passes. Running away only makes them worse, as does hitting or kicking them. I have heard some really horrifying stories about roosters; from putting a bucket over them to kicking them to death, and I can’t help but feel sad for both the rooster and the human involved. The rooster is obeying an instict to protect himself and his family and the human is obeying the same instinct. Once a rooster sees you as a threat, it is very hard to win him over again, but we can at least try.

Sadly, the fact that Pickett is aggressive now means that we may not be able to allow him to breed another generation of chicks as aggression tends to run in blood lines. We try to keep only gentle souls here, but we always give everyone plenty of chances to turn their behaviour around.

After the fire

It has been almost a year since the fires that roared through our area forced us to evacuate (and burned down many houses). Today I drove through the worst effected area on my way to the vet, I can see the bush is struggling to heal and grow strong again, but it is going to take more than a few years.

The green is trying to take over again, but the blackened skeletons of dead trees still poke through the green carpet and the sun beats down on paths that were previously shaded year round by those trees.

One of my friends attended the fire that burned all this land, she rang me the next day to share her grief. What she told me still brings me nightmares in the middle of the night; she had to drive a vehicle through burned and burning ground, watching animals stagger into the road edge and die. Everyone in this area is scarred from last year’s fires, especially those who lost their homes and those who no longer feel safe living here. Many have moved away.

Those fires can happen again; there is still fuel on the ground, despite the hot burn last year. The soil is twice as hot this year because the shade is gone now. The extended dry of a drought never really broken has baked the flush of growth that comes after a fire and all it needs is for someone to drop a match on one of the numerous hot, dry, windy days we have in Spring, Summer and Autumn, then we will be on fire again.

Plants in the garden- port wine magnolia

We have a single Port wine magnolia in the garden. Of course it has a story attached; if the plants in your garden don’t have a story, you are missing an essential element of gardens. My eldest daughter loves the smell of Port wine magnolia (as do we all here), when she was young she called them bubblegum trees and would go looking for the source of the delightful smell if we happened to be near one in Spring. A friend started some from cuttings for me many years ago and I bought them home and looked for places to plant them.

My daughter wanted to plant them outside her bedroom window so the smell would blow into the room on hot Spring nights. I wanted to plant them near the gate so I could smell them as I went in and out of the yard. In the end, we planted one under the window and one by the gate. Of course, the one by the gate was eaten by a passing sheep, but the under window shrub is still going strong.

It began to flower this year, while my daughter was at home (luckily)

The poor little thing has managed to live with ducks and chooks running loose under it. The base is mulched with rocks and the position means that any left over shower water goes to it.

This is an example of a shrub we have planted purely for pleasure. In the garden, as in life, pleasure is important to add flavour to life; without things that give us pleasure, life is fairly boring.

An imposter in the garden- blue passionflower

When we planted our passiofruit it had a volunteer seedling in the pot. Of course I left it there and planted them both on the transpiration pit for the biogas system. They both grew strongly and eventually one started flowering. The flower looked like a passiofruit flower to me, so I eagerly awaited some fruit forming; this never happened, the flowers just withered and fell off.

After a lot of googling and reading in my library, I discovered the blue passionflower; a weed in Australia. My flowers look just like the photos, and I was disappointed.

The flowers are beautiful, but the vine is very invasive and the leaves and unripe fruit are poisonous. So the vine has to go. We cut the stem at the ground and pulled down as much of it as we could. The vine was stuffed into garbage bags and left in the sun to die. I plan to empty the lot into the mulch pit eventually, but I want to be sure it’s dead first.

It looks like we have a few years of pulling up seedlings in front of us as it is a very invasive weed. On the positive side, the actual passionfruit vine is getting buds on it now.

Raw, vegan cheesecakes… yum

This weekend, I decided to make some cheesecake to go with our usual Friday night indulgence of pizza, bought from the local cafe. I love pizza night; I don’t have to cook (not that I do very often anyway), and we have a really yummy meal of gourmet pizza. So this Friday afternoon, I whipped up some individual desserts for us all to share after our pizza.

I used the Blueberry cheesecake and avocado chocolate tart recipes I found here to give myself an idea to start from.

First I blended all the ingredients for the base together;

Base ingredients

1/2 cup raw almonds

1/2 cup raw walnuts

1 cup dates pitted

1/4 cup coconut oil melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

pinch sea salt

Then I greased up a muffin pan, put strips of grease proof paper across the cups and squished a desert spoon of the base into each pan. Next time I think I will make sure the coconut oil is fully melted and drop the dates into the blender one at a time because the resulting base is a bit chunky for my partner’s liking.

Then, while the bases set in the freezer, I blended up the avocado and chocolate filling.

Ingredients

medium avocados

1/2 cup maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup melted coconut oil

1/3 cup cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon (scant) salt

I blended all this together into a thick sauce kind of consistency and plopped it into the muffin pan. There was enough to half fill nine of the 12 cups. Then I whipped up the cashew cheesecake mix…

Ingredients

1 cup soaked cashews

1 cup soy milk

1/3 cup maple syrup

2 tablespoons frozen lemon juice

2 tablespoons coconut oil

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

I blended this mixture for a long time, then used it to top up some of the muffin cups. Then I dumped a half cup of blueberries into the mix and blended them in until the mixture was a lovely purple. This purple goop was spooned into the muffin cups that were left, then the whole tray was dumped (carefully) into the freezer for 3 hours to set while my partner went to fetch the pizza.

plain avocado chocolate
avocado chocolate and cashew cheesecake
Plain blueberry
avocado chocolate and blueberry

In the end, I had eight left over cheesecakes to freeze for a later dessert.

Give these easy vegan desserts a go. They are so easy and so yummy (not to mention the slightly healthier nutrients).

Making vinegar

I have always had a habit of wondering how random common household items are made, it drives my partner nuts. I will stop doing something to wonder (sometimes out loud) how something is made and if we can make it too. Sometimes I wonder how the process was discovered in the first place. In the kitchen, it is amazing how many everyday items can be made by neglecting them. It leads me to think that the greatest discoveries in culinary arts were probably made by very bad housekeepers. Vinegar is one of those things.

My home made vinegars, made from home brewed wines

Vinegar is a double fermented product that uses yeasts to make alcohol then bacteria to turn the alcohol into vinegar. Apparently the process can be completed in the same container by adding dried fruit and water to a bucket or jar, stirring it every day and keeping it covered with an air permeable cover (like a cloth). The acetobacter in the air will turn any alcohol into vinegar. It can most usefully be used to turn bad wine into good vinegar.

Vinegar has been made and used for about 5000 years in most parts of the world (maybe longer). It has been used to disinfect and preserve food (the original use of marinade was not to improve taste, it was to make old meat safer to eat), it has been used to clean wounds and treat digestive complaints (and as a base for delivering medicine). It has been used as a cleaning and disinfecting agent in household cleaning and to preserve specimens in the lab. Here at the humpy, we use it for all the above uses (well… not too many specimens preserved). I buy a 15 litre tub of white vinegar twice a year and many bottles of apple cider, balsamic and specialty vinegars as well. If I can make my own, there is one less thing I need to buy, as well as the satisfaction gained by knowing how to make something myself.

My vinegar shelf

For my vinegar experiments I used some of my home made wines that didn’t taste very good. I had a batch of mead (honey wine) that tasted harsh and had a faintly musty flavour, so I knew I wasn’t going to drink it. Instead of wasting the hours of work that went into making it, I decided to have a play at making vinegar.

The collection of recycled wine bottles I use for brewing

The mead was poured into a smallish kombucha brewing jar that I had spare. Then I added a bottle of apple cider vinegar I picked up at the local Co Op to the jar and put a cloth cover on it. The apple cider vinegar was raw, meaning it had living bacteria colonies in it. That is it really, I put the jar up on a shelf and left it for two months.

The vinegar grew it’s own Mother… just like kombucha does

When I had a minute, I just poured the vinegar through a filter and bottled up the results. It tastes mild and smooth; I think this would make a great vinegar for shrubs. It is good as a salad dressing and in marinades too.

The vinegar Mother from the top

The Mother was left in the sieve, so I poured a new batch of old wine into the brewer and added the Mother to it. This should get the vinegar making off to a good start again.

Filtering out the yeast lees and the Mother
The Mother ready to go to a new home
The vinegar brewer ready for new wine
This is a batch of blueberry wine that went a bit musty, now it will be blueberry vinegar

Now I know how to make basic vinegar, I think I will branch out to making fruit vinegars too. For me, the vinegar making answers a question I had about how the product is made, and it allowed me to use a product that had no other use. I will continue to make vinegars at home and eventually I would like to make enough to use for cleaning too.

Everyday life holds so many small but important mysteries; how is vinegar made? How was it discovered? What can be added to vinegars? What can I make from my vinegar? These are just the questions I had about vinegar, I have many more questions to be answered and each day brings new wonderings. There is no room or time for boredom or stagnation of the mind… life is just too interesting.

Preparing for the fire season

Yes, that is smoke all around the humpy

This year is supposed to be wetter than usual, but so far we haven’t seen much rain. It is dry and dusty, we are getting low on water and there is a lot of smoke on the horizon. In response, we are doing our yearly clean up and fire safe activities.

The hay pile

The round bale we have kept for the sheep has been the source of all our bedding hay for the Winter. The sheep pull the bale apart and eat what they want from it, then we rake up some of the fallen hay to change the animal bedding. This is part of our mulch creation process; every scrap of hay is used three times, as food, as bedding then as mulch. Now fire season is here, it is time to rake up the fallen hay and take it straight to the potato patch.

Cleaning out animal pens

The animal pens are more comfortable with hay in them as bedding and in Winter we make sure everyone has a deep covering of hay to snuggle into at night. The bedding is changed monthly (or more often) and used to mulch our new and growing potato bed. Now it is getting hotter and smokier it is time to go back to bare earth.

The mulch pile

The hay that is cleaned from the animal pens doesn’t make it up to the potato patch straight away, it is dumped over the fence into a pile and left to sit until someone gets around to taking it up to where it needs to go. Now the ground has become dust it is time to tidy that pile back to nothing.

Raking up fallen leaves

As usual, the leaves and bark build up against fence lines and walls. The work of clearing them away goes on throughout the fire season.

Moving flammable things away from the humpy

Anything that looks like it will burn has to be moved to a safe distance. That includes anything plastic or wood and anything that could have a pile of leaves hiding behind it.

Putting the tank and pump on the ute

The ute we bought last year as a fire fighter has been fitted with it’s tank and a pump. We have all had a go at starting the pump and filling the tank (although I hope I don’t ever have to do it alone). It will be a mobile fire fighting unit for ourselves and our neighbors.

Wetting down the mulched areas

There are two mulched areas around the humpy; one is the front garden (where I have two small beds) and the other is the potato patch. The beds in the front garden get regular small amounts of water from the washing and the animal water pots, that means they are fairly damp all the time and they are also under the humpy sprinklers.

The potato patch doesn’t get as much water, so we have started using the water from the ute tank to water the potatoes on a weekly basis. That means that the mulch is damp underneath (and less likely to burn) and that the potatoes get regular water. It also gives us a chance to test the pump on the all important mobile fire fighting unit. My partner usually pumps the water into the ute and waters the potatoes, because he’s good like that.

We also wet down the mulch pit while we are there.

Filling spare tanks

There are several small tanks stationed around the humpy with pumps and hoses attached, they are there to provide a second line of defense if the fire starts to send off embers and sparks in the direction of the humpy. We have checked and filled them all from the dam.

Setting up spot fire stations

In addition to the tank and pump set ups, we have a small bin on each side of the humpy. These are filled with water and an old towel or two placed nearby. These are for close spot fires and to provide a wet towel to fire fighters (aka; us) if things get too hot.

There is always more to be done, and we hope that the humpy will get more fire safe each year. We plan to clear the fallen branches inside the fire break area next year and the sheep will be fenced into the fire break zone to keep the vegetation low. More tanks are in the pipeline too (there is never enough water).

We are mostly ready just in time; the RFS site ‘Fires Near Me‘ has posted up the fire that has been burning slowly behind our property. It looks to be under control for the moment, but is only 1 km away from the humpy. This fire is probably safe, but this is just the beginning of fire season.

The blue dot on the map is us.

Note: this fire was bought under control after a few days. I left this bit in the post to illustrate the tension involved in fire season for everyone in our area (and many others). Every year the fire seasons seem to get worse and the preparations more extreme. The rainfall is less, the Summer heatwaves are longer and hotter and the fires (when they start) are fiercer. We do our part to mitigate climate change here in our humpy, but it is too late and too little to prevent a huge change in our world. The best we can do is to plan for the worst, but expect the best.

Making incense cones with common ingredients

I don’t know about you, but I love incense (it hides a multitude of house wifely sins). We have many, many animals living in our humpy, both by invitation and without; we have the chooks and ducks in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) who are inside while being healed from various bodily woes, or are long term guests because of an injury or birth defect, we also have an indoor aviary that houses many small birds (rescued and found) who can’t be released for one reason or another and we have three dogs who are no longer young, we have skinks, geckos, mice and the odd snake, finally we have three humans (who may be the smelliest of all). Although the animal enclosures are cleaned regularly (daily for the messier ones) and we do our best to keep our own mess under control, the humpy still smells like a zoo (naturally). So, every now and then I like to burn a heap of incense to lighten the mood.

Incense is expensive and I am never sure what it is made from, so I guess it is time to find out how to make my own. I have been making loose incense for many years, but that requires a charcoal block to burn it on. Charcoal blocks can be hard to find in our area and tend to absorb moisture from the air and be hard to light. Incense cones seem like the obvious solution, and they can just be set on a plate and lit, so are convenient too.

I found this easy to adjust recipe at Permacrafters.com and decided to give it a go as it uses easy to find in my kitchen/garden ingredients.

Traditionally, incense is made by mixing herbs, resins and oils with a powder called makko (which is made from the bark of several trees). I haven’t got any makko as it isn’t used in making loose incense, but I feel that the ingredients need a bulking and binding agent to help make my cones. This is (of course) different from the recipe. The principle attribute of makko powder is that it is made from an easily combustible bark that does not smell strongly when burned. I reasoned that gum tree bark is also very combustible (as the annual bushfires prove) and the smoke has a pleasant smell. I trotted off outside and picked up some shed gum tree bark.

This bark was popped into my trusty coffee grinder (which needed a good scrub after the ordeal) and ground into powder. Ta Da!!!, true Australian makko.

Next I ground up my incense in the coffee grinder;

5 tspn makko

1 tspn frankincense gum

1/2 tspn acacia gum

1 tspn cinnamon powder

1 tspn cloves

2 tspn dried rosemary leaves

Then I added;

2 tspn raw honey

3 tspn water (I added the water a tspn at a time and mix until I could see the consistency)

The mixture was kneaded in the little bowl until it could be formed into cone shapes that stick together well. This lot made 12 cones of fairly large size.

I left the little cones on a tray to dry out in the kitchen. They apparently take a week to dry enough to use and need to dry very slowly to avoid crumbling.

They smell like honey and cinnamon sitting on their tray, a not unpleasant smell to have hanging around the kitchen. I hope they smell as nice when they are burned.

I know the recipe is different from the one I found, I really just used that as a guide to make my own recipe.

I will post a note here to let you know what the results are…

I couldn’t wait, after just one night I decided to try out the incense. It took a long time to light up (probably because it’s not fully dry yet) and had to be relit twice. The smell is really pleasant, weirdly it smells sort of vanilla like, I really like it. The gum tree bark doesn’t add a bushfire smell to the incense, so I think that is a success. I guess I will have to wait a few more days to see if the extra drying time will make it easier to light.

Raw vegan carrot cake

While I’m not going to go on a completely raw food diet, I do love the raw food desserts I have made so far. I’m trying to use a lot more fruit and veg and feed my family a lot more too. This carrot cake takes no time at all to make (the longest bit is grating the carrots.

I used this recipe, and followed it closely this time. The only difference I made was to freeze the cake in muffin pans, which is how I am making desserts and sweets now in an attempt to limit how much I eat.

Ingredients

Carrot Cake

2 1/2 cup shredded carrots

1 1/2 cup raw walnuts

1 cup dates

1 cup shredded coconut

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground nutmeg

pinch of salt

Cashew Cream Frosting

1 cup raw cashews

1/4 cup water

3 tbsp maple syrup

1 tsp vanilla extract

juice of 1/2 lemon

pinch of salt

1/3 cup coconut oil, melted

Instructions

  1. Grease a 12 muffin pan tray with olive oil
  2. Grate the carrots and add all other cake ingredients to the carrot bowl and mix up well. Put this mix in a food processor and grind it all up until it looks like a dry cake mix.
  3. Press the cake into the prepared muffin pan, smooth over the top, and place in the freezer while making the cream cheese frosting.
  4. To make the cream cheese frosting, combine cashews, water, maple syrup, vanilla, salt, and lemon juice in a blender. Blend until silky smooth. Add coconut oil and blend to combine. Pour onto the chilled cake and smooth the top. Freeze for at least 2 hours.
  5. When ready to serve, remove the cake from the freezer. To release it from the pans, force a knife down one side of each cup and lever the cake out. Top with walnuts and dust with cinnamon. Let it thaw 10 minutes at room temperature.

I do love making these little raw vegan desserts in muffin trays; they are so easy to pop out into bags and store in the freezer until we feel like a treat, and everyone can have something different if they want to.