Sunday, February 15, 2009

February Dragon

I've had some stuff to write here recently, but I just haven't felt like it.

Bushfires are one of those things that we accept as part of Australian life. We learned all about them at our parents' knees, as we learned the other hows and whys of survival: stay with the car if you breakdown in the bush, clean your fish well back from the riverbank in crocodile country, and how to distill radiator fluid, seawater and urine with a plastic bag and a twig if we're ever stranded without water. We read February Dragon and Ash Road, we helped burn and clear fire breaks on family properties, and once we sat in the car, giggling with half-terror, as Mum drove through a National Park where a controlled burn was getting a bit carried away.

These days we make our plans, we switch on the fire wireless every morning and keep one eye on the horizon for smoke, especially on those 40+ days when there's a total vehicle movement ban and the only things moving across the paddocks are the willy willies and the wind.

Fires happen, and usually they're cause for brief concern. There's a flurry of activity from the local volunteer brigade (and their wives: "Zulu Base, Zulu Base, this is Maureen- the ham and beef sandwiches are on their way, but there's a delay with the egg. Norma is running to the co-op for more mayonnaise!"), and with remarkable efficiency they get things under control. They always get things under control.

Last week in Victoria, hell came to earth.
There's not much else I can say, except that every time I pick up the newspaper, listen to the radio or sit down to type on this computer, I think about those fathers and mothers driving blindly in the smoke dark, holding their children tightly as death thundered in. Nobody had any control.

Dorothea MacKellar has been part-quoted and misquoted repeatedly in the last week or so.
It's understandable.

My Country
© 1904 Dorothea MacKellar

The love of field and coppice, of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance, brown streams and soft, dim skies-
I know but cannot share it, my love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror- the wide brown land for me!

The stark white ring-barked forests, all tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains, the hot gold hush of noon,
Green tangle of the brushes where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops, and ferns the warm dark soil.

Core of my heart, my country! Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us we see the cattle die -
But then the grey clouds gather, and we can bless again
The drumming of an army, the steady soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country! Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine she pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks, watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness that thickens as we gaze.

An opal-hearted country, a wilful, lavish land -
All you who have not loved her, you will not understand -
Though earth holds many splendours, wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country my homing thoughts will fly.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Esme is a Four Letter Word

Let's just say one of the new chooks (Henny, I think) has significantly less feathers than she did yesterday.

My boots are a bit stiff and sometimes uncomfortable, but I can't say that they fit any better after a good chewing, having their insoles removed and torn into shreds, and being left on the lawn overnight to soak up the dew.

And if I'd wanted to gather about a dozen big strong PD rams as a souvenir of our walk this morning and take them home with us across a couple of paddocks, then I would have been well chuffed with Esme's efforts earlier today.

But I didn't. And I'm not.

My older dogs have learned a new command recently though: "ESME!!!!" apparently means "make yourselves extremely scarce".

And I dropped the camera on the stone verandah this morning, totally smashed the casing, so no more photos on this little blog for the forseeable future. Esme, esme, esme.

The Greening of the Thumbs

I grew up with a green-thumbed mother, a biochemist whose knowledge of plants native and otherwise is exceeded only by her love for them. She can take an apparently sickly specimen of any species, and with the touch of her fingers, the odd repotting and some peaceful neglect, it will be flourishing and producing seedlings by the crateload within weeks. My parents' inner-suburban block is so thick with a tangle of fascinating vegetation that it's known locally as "the jungle house" and tour buses have been known to stop at their driveway for photo opportunities.

So people always expect that I'd share my mother's magical horticultural abilities, and I find myself tucking my thumbs into my fists when discussing gardening, so no-one will see how black they really are. Love of plants has never been an issue: one of the classic family stories involves my toddler self "helping" Mum in the garden, following her along as she weeded a garden bed, happily and carefully replanting every uprooted weed, and then dissolving into tears when she tried to undo my work and explain the purpose of weeding. The idea of these glossy healthy plants (and aren't weeds always glossy and healthy, despite the conditions?) being killed through no fault of their own was too much to bear. As a teenager, I used to "rescue" those poor, terminal potted specimens on the supermarket "discount" racks, bringing them home where I would nurture them until they either died or were taken to my mother with pleas to save them. And she would.

But my love for plants never really translated into gardening skill- most of my attempts ended in sad, wilting failure. At regular intervals I'd cart my leafy victims down to Mum's place for first aid, and usually felt so guilty that I'd leave them there to live out their lives in happiness. When I had my own place in town, I did manage to establish a little veggie garden, which survived against the odds and even provided me with enough tomatoes, capsicums and herbs to keep my hopes alive, if not my crisper full. It also taught me a few of the practicalities of organic veggie gardening, companion planting, composting and garden pests, although the tiny area, squeezed on the edge of a bricked-over backyard and the proximity of herbicidal neighbours were as limiting as my own lack of skill.

Moving down here permanently has involved a good deal of sacrifice on my part: proximity to my family and friends, my career, sport, shopping and general services. But the rewards have been greater, and one of them has been the chance to establish the garden of my dreams. Even with my horticultural disability, I believe it's possible for us to supply a decent amount of our food from our own land. I don't imagine we'll get anywhere near self-sufficiency; I don't have the time or the inclination to be growing and milling our own wheat flour, and baking is purely recreational here. We won't be producing our own fabrics and paper, or our own fuel and power. But fruit, veggies, meat and eggs we can do.

I did inherit an existing veggie garden with this house, out behind the laundry. It had largely gone to seed, and I couldn't bring myself to rip out the old stringy broccoli, silverbeet and unidentified cruciferous vegetables that MIL must have planted 5 years ago, so I just chucked my own seedlings into the barest garden beds without much preparation. It wasn't a great success. I did get a fair crop of tomatoes, enough to keep us in salads and tomato sauce for months, but blossom end rot kicked in and the insects had a field day. The lettuces all bolted to seed in a burst of hot weather; this turned out okay in the end because I let them self seed and we had a thousand lovely gourmet lettuces just a couple of months later. My best crops were the zucchini which came up on its own down by the septic drain and produced a bumper harvest, and the peas which germinated from the pea straw I mulched with. Everything else was a bit of a flop.

This year I'm doing things a little bit more right (how's THAT grammar?).

We started late, but went back to basics and put some effort into soil preparation. A few trips to and from the shearing shed gave me half a tonne of sheep shit to dig into the soil, layer into the compost heaps, and mulch on directly.

R picked up a trailer load of pea straw, which again mulched up the garden beds and went into the compost.

And the compost: finally we got around to chucking up some stalls for free standing compost heaps, and resurrecting my plastic compost bin from the city. I cleared out the roller bin and used the rotting scraps to start the other heaps, and freshened it up with some grass clippings and straw.

I fenced off the garden beds against marauding pests, and finally took a deep breath and pulled out all the old vegetables and potted up some inconveniently placed herbs.

Then I got planting.

We currently have lots of tomatoes, interspersed with basil and marigolds, corn and sunflowers with rockmelons (aka cantaloupes) below, lots of self-sown peas, an established rhubarb, some healthy silverbeet from seed I'd saved last year, eggplants and capsicums, jerusalem artichokes (yum!) from my mother's garden, and spring onions, a few leeks and a couple of beans that survived from last year. Last year's passionfruit is still alive, but looking rather moth-eaten and seedy, so I've planted another one.

Corn before:

Corn now:

There's a cucumber just getting going, and a couple of something leafy that have come up on their own in the tomato beds- maybe pumpkins or zucchini? I know they may be sterile, but they are so healthy and vigorous I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. If nothing else, they keep the weeds down.

My undoubted favourites are the watermelons. I'm already drooling over the tiny green fruit buds, and cheering on the fuzzy Triffid tendrils. My first lot were commercial seedlings, and they're doing okay, but I have high hopes for my new heritage variety.

The herbs have been released from their pot bound verandah existence to take their chances in the circular garden bed just outside the house gate, beneath a rose bush. Some are doing well, others not so much, but there has to be an element of survival of the fittest in my garden.

I've even chucked some potatoes into the soil, using the "old tyre" method. I planted some seed spuds (well, sprouting spuds from from the back of the pantry) in a bed of straw and manure in the tyre, covered with dirt, and as they sprout we'll add more tyres and more dirt/straw/manure.

My next project will be the orchard. We already had a row of young olive trees, a couple of grape vines, an ex-espaliered apple, prolific orange and lemon trees and a nectarine, multi-variety grafted plum and an apricot, but the stonefruits and apple are attacked by parrots every year, leaving nothing to ripen. We did get a bucket full of yellow fruit from one branch of the plum that hung down beside the puppy pen, so presumably the pups kept the birds at bay. It's heartbreaking to see hundreds of green fruit littering the ground beneath the fruit trees. Next year they'll all be pruned and netted.

Mum had given me a few young trees she'd potted up at her place, and they'd survived in our yard for a year or so. But they'd started to suffer this summer, and although the heat made it a poor time to transplant, they had to go. So I put a couple of jacarandahs and mulberries beside the gate to the training paddock where we need shade, and a couple of Illawarra flame trees in the front garden.

One of the mulberries by the training paddock gate:

A very pot-bound fig tree is beside the existing stonefruits, and a Brazilian cherry went near the compost heaps. All of them are still alive, and some are even starting to shoot. We already have a huge fruiting mulberry, and the Pine Tree paddock by the house has a couple of enormous ancient figs which produce so much fruit that we happily share with the birds and have some left over.

Brazilian cherry and the training paddock:

Only my trusty miniature peach is left in a pot, and one day I'll give that its freedom too.

Best of all, when Nan came over to train on Friday she brought with her four additions to our family: Henny, Penny, Jenny and Nan. They're apparently Araucana crosses, a little on the elderly side, and BabyJ just loves them. Eventually we hope they'll free range by day, and we'll have a sturdier, more fox-proof enclosure for them, maybe around the orchard so they can clean up the fruit trees. But for now they're chook tractoring around the veggie patch, and have already rewarded us with some pretty blue eggs. BabyJ is in love!