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.

The funeral forest – sort of gardening

In the front yard of the humpy is my funeral forest. This is the place we keep the memories of our lost family members close. When a family member dies, we either bury them directly into a pot with a memory plant in it or we send them off for cremation and bury the ashes into a pot (in the case of large family members). For example; Sid the sheep weighed in at 71kg when he died, too big to put in a pot, so we sent him off to be cremated and when he returned we planted him in a big pot with a dwarf mandarine tree. All our lost family are here in these pots, and I love to sit at my little table, light a fire in the fire pit and visit with them.

This little oasis of green is sanity for me. There is a sprinkler on a pole in the middle of these pots. It is designed to spray water over the walls of the humpy and the garden beds and pots if a fire is close. We have set aside a 24000 litre tank to spray the humpy and animal shelters, which leaves us a little short of water for day to day living, but it may help when the next fire threatens.

As you may have guessed (or possibly hoped), the family members we bury in our funeral forest are our feathered, furred and scaled members. I wish we could include the human members as well (not right now, but in time), but there are rules about where humans can be buried.

In Western Australia there is a new innovation; a memorial forest where you can bury your human family’s ashes under a tree. This seems like a great idea to me; these funeral forests will be considered sacred by just about everyone, the trees will never be cut down for timber or dozed out because they drop limbs or to build a house. They will provide homes for a multitude of native animals and a seed bank for local plant species. Why don’t we have one of these in every council area? I would love to be buried under a tree, to become part of that tree and it’s ecosystem.

Planting potatoes – sort of gardening

It is now the full moon in August, which is my signal from the planet to plant potatoes. Since the fires six months ago I have lost a lot of my incentive to garden, but I am feeling the Springtime urge to get my hands dirty again. I have been maintaining the tiny patch of potted green in our front yard for a few months and it is planted out to the full extent of possibility, so potatoes will not fit.

Since the fire, (a lot of sentences start with that phrase now) I have become very aware of flammable material close to the humpy and gardens need a lot of flammable material to be fertile. To answer the conflicting urges to be fire safe and to grow some food, I decided to start planting staple crops out on the edge of the fire break in a little fenced off area with it’s own water supply (to be wet down in the event of a fire coming close). The fenced off area is yet to happen, but potato planting time is here, so I just ignored the lack of a fence and planted.

This year, I am trying the Ruth Stout method (sort of) and planting in hay mulch. As I am incapable of following any sort of instructions without modification (oppositional child here), I used the hay cleaned out of the animal pens to plant into.

The hay for planting is well traveled; it starts life here at the humpy as sheep fodder, we keep a round bale in the sheep night pen for midnight snacking purposes (which is why the vet says our sheep are heart attack risks). Once the sheep have eaten the bits of it they like, and pooped and peed into the other bits on the ground, the hay is raked up and used as bedding for rabbits, chooks, geese and the sheep. Once it is raked out of the pens (every two weeks or so), it is piled up to be used as mulch. This hay is now damp (with spilled water pots and pee) and filled with a variety of fertility boosting poops. It is also starting to break down into compost.

A random potato planting.

I began the potato planting with a little row of eight tubers in the designated area for planting staple crops; near our new cardboard/mulch hole. More potatoes will join these ones in a mulched field around the compost hole. My partner is going to move one of the fire fighting tank units up to this patch so that the hole and the mulched garden can be wet down really well when a fire threatens.

Yes, it looks like a dump.

The compost hole is huge; at least five metres across and about two metres deep. The purpose of this hole is to hold (and compost) any materials that are waste from the humpy, but will break down into nutrient rich compost (eventually). In there are broken furniture, cardboard, floor sweepings, paper (from cage cleaning, so covered in poop), natural fibre clothes, old or damaged fleece, hair clippings, etc. All the things we used to dump in the chook pen to be turned into compost are now thrown into the hole. The idea is that eventually (in a few years time) we will have a huge ‘pot’ of compost to plant fruit trees into. I don’t know if this will work, but I am willing to give it a go.

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

The fire wood cycle at the humpy

Our cooking stove and house and water heater.

Sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night is so pleasant isn’t it? I love to sit and knit or spin by the fire when the day’s work is done. Our stove is a third hand wood heater we inherited from my partner’s parents during a shed clean up. It had fallen off the back of a truck (literally, not figuratively) and had a crack in the corner. We took it home, got a new flue piece made up (by a local engineering genius) and put it in the humpy. That was five or six years ago, it has never given us any trouble and if fed right stays alight from about June until September.

The fire gives us heat for our home, hot water from the eternal boiler on the top of it and a stove to cook on. All it asks in return is a steady flow of wood. We are lucky to own enough land to supply our firewood needs, in fact harvesting wood in the form of fallen branches and logs is part of our fire safety plan.

Fallen branches and dead trees are a bit of a fire hazard close to the humpy. Sparks from piles of burning wood can drift into the humpy via a multitude of gaps and holes, setting the whole place alight. The usual solution is to burn off; set sections of land alight and control the burn, removing fuel from the area. To me it always seemed sort of counter-intuitive to say to yourself “Hmm, that looks like it might burn….could be dangerous….I’d better set it alight”, not to mention the multitude of small reptiles coming out of torpor and the tiny birds with nests in the grass who have their first batch of babies for the year in the early spring (when most people burn off). Our solution is to collect as much of this fuel as we can as fire wood within a 50 meter (about 50 meter) radius of the humpy. We don’t collect wood from the whole property as a lot of birds and animals use fallen branches and logs as homes. In fact the Bush Stone Curlew has been driven almost to extinction by people who are too neat as they use tangles of fallen branches to nest in and their breeding has dropped due to lack of nesting sites and cover for foraging.

Anyone who lives in the bush will tell you that wood lying on the ground will absorb water and not burn well and that a lot of types of wood (tree species) are no good for firewood. This is unfortunately true, the usual solution is to fell a standing dead tree. Large dead trees, and sometimes small ones too, are generally homes to possums, gliders, birds and insects so we try not to cut down standing trees very often. However, because the wood we gather from the ground is sometimes damp or does not burn hot enough, we sometimes cut down small standing dead trees to mix with it. We choose very small standing trees and check them for life as best we can before cutting them down.

Cutting down a small dead tree

Cutting the tree up into chunks or rounds

We bring it all home in the trusty farm trailer

Then wheelbarrow it to the house

and stack it by the fire

All to keep the dogs warm

While collecting firewood may seem like a simple weekly task, it actually has a lot of considerations attached to it (for us at least). We try not to disrupt the ecosystem of our property while carrying out our daily life, we try to minimise the dangers inherent in living in the bush and we try to make the best use of our resources. These concerns are sometimes in conflict and compromises have to be made. Do you collect firewood? What are your considerations?