14 April 2018

Destiny's Fork

A Fork in our Path
After 25 years of daily use, I suppose it's inevitable. Entropy takes its toll. My much-loved and trusted Garden Fork finally reached it's End of Life. Tines worn to a barefoot-hazardly needle-sharpness from use, the wooden hand-grip finally splintered into three and fell to the Earth. I'd try and repair it, but even the metal bits are rusted to the point where they're likely to part ways with the rest of the implement at any moment. 

It was a blow, I can tell you, but worse shocks lay in wait... 

Searching around for a new garden fork, I was confronted with the nastiest exemplars of ironmongrel crapware imaginable. Worst of all, nowhere in the country could I find a fork with a wooden hand-grip. Any regular user of garden implements will testify that a wooden grip is infinitely superior to those molded-in-China bits of plastic trash that adorn the cheaper tools -- and that means pretty-well all garden tools available in South Africa. Here, where labour is cheap and most people hire a day-labourer to perform the heavier gardening tasks, price takes overriding precedence and the quality of the tool considered irrelevant. A wooden grip is soft, forgiving in the hand. It provides texture and assurance in the gardener's sweaty, soil-filmed hand in a way that plastic never can.

Certified Crapmongery
After much effort and travail I managed to obtain the only locally-available garden-fork sporting a wooden shaft and handle. I'll not insult the good people who were so kind in helping me to eventually obtain this implement by mentioning brand names. Suffice to say, it's as much a piece of crap as the all-steel versions.

Heavy, unwieldy, lacking any semblance of sharpness of the tine-tips, and rusting in under three months, we found ourselves still using the old fork, despite its handicap. 

Then I found a fork that looked like The Real Deal. Stainless-steel tines. Split Ash handle and shaft. Made with an attention to detail that speak of generations of gardeners who have contributed to the design of the thing. A joy to behold and at a price that puts South Africa's garden-tool importers and manufacturers to shame. This stainless-steel marvel was cheaper than I would be forced to pay for some pressed-steel, rust-in-six-weeks piece of shit sold locally. 

The only catch was that this Fork Of Great Awesomeness was only available in the UK. Shipping would have cost more than the Object Of Desire itself. 
Last week Number Two Son and Partner came to visit for a few days. They live in the Wild and Snowy (recently, anyway) Southern parts of England, so spending some time with them after almost a year apart was an especial treat. Not only did they trouble to bring themselves, they came bearing A Gift. Oh yes! A Spear and Jackson Digging Fork

It'sss My Treasurrre...
I will hear nothing but praise for this Instrument of Gardening Harmony. Light in the hand and perfectly balanced. The stainless-steel bits slide into my heavy, clayish soil with no noticeable effort. The wooden shaft provides a springiness... a subtle but commanding leverage that aids in the lifting and turning of soil, making the gardener's work just that little bit easier. The attention to every detail speaks volumes for the proud workmanship: the notches in the handle that ensure it will never twist or turn in the hand, the snug rebate in the shaft ensuring that no water will find its way between wood and steel, the right and proper asymmetric taper to the sharp ends of the tines... Words are barely adequate to describe the sheer pleasure and joy in using so well designed and superbly crafted an implement as this. And for some inexplicable reason, my lower back feels none of the fatigue usual after a digging session.  I'm pretty sure this thing will last longer than I will. 

My deepest thanks go to my son for this superb gift, and for the trouble taken to get it here. 

I do feel, though, that I might be forced to take a look at a new spade, too...

03 October 2017

Pasture Rehab

Oats (top), Japanese Radish (white flowers)
and Vetch (purple)
I dream, once more, of Chickens... While wandering around my pasture rehab project, I noticed an area of ground that has quite clearly been dug by some animal or other, and wondered what had been there for someone to want to dig it up.

There are lots of possibilities. It might have been Lillies, which the Bushpigs love to root up around this time of year. It always looks like the Lillies have been quite destroyed, but it turns out to be an essential part of their lifecycle. Without the help of the Bushpigs to break up and distribute the root fragments, the Lillies will, in time, die out. But I'm pretty sure there were no Lillies growing in that part of the field, and Bushpig diggings are generally much deeper, more emphatic, than what I was seeing. So not Bushpigs.

Then it dawned on me. This was the patch where I threw out a batch of spent brewing grains a week or two back. The local Pigeons have been foraging them intensively, and they've scratched the ground clear, eliminating the Buffalo grass in this limited area. Just what I want, and exactly the same thing Chickens do, given the opportunity.

The pasture is just reaching a point in its rehabilitation where it wants to become productive. Beneath the ever-deepening layers of organic matter, the soil is moist, still quite sticky and gluey, but slowly gaining structure, slowly coming back to life. We see it in the ever increasing variety of plant species growing in amongst the Buffalo and Kikuyu grasses that once dominated the field, suffocating all other plant-life. There are the Vetches and Mustards, the Japanese Radish and Oats and Millets we have sown, but there are also the "weeds" -- tall grasses that make so much useful strawey mulch when cut down, another unnamed weed with soft, sticky, stinky leaves that blanket the grass, denying it light, Dandelions, with their long taproot that opens up the soil to admit new air and life. The bees are certainly making good use of the flowering Vetches.

So now it is time. The field is well on its way to recovery, well enough able that adding light livestock will be beneficial to all parties, will accelerate the soil building, the nutrient/energy flows, and the diversity.

Time for me to get on with building a new Chicken run and housing...

22 September 2017

Spring 2017

Spring has sprung and the weather's a-warming. The flowering fruit trees are telling me it's time and past to be planting...
Should be a good fruit year, if the damn Baboons will leave us any. I do have a cunning plan involving electric fencing to discourage them a bit, but they're cunning devils and persistent.

After last Summer's disastrous yields I'm keeping the veggie planting quite limited this year, aiming to concentrate my efforts on a more manageable area, with some notion of caging a part of the veggie garden to keep all the wildlife out and hopefully manage some yield this season.

07 August 2017


It's been almost ten years since we first began trying to catch a swarm of bees to live with us. Look back on the blog, and you'll find some of the close encounters we've had -- catching a swarm and then losing it. Eventually, disheartened, one gives up, despite the fact that we live directly in a "bee path" -- a route they use year after year after year in their migrations. Even the local bee guru, Owen, has described us as "the unluckiest bee catchers in history" after he has generously helped us out -- on several occasions -- preparing and siting some catch-boxes -- and still coming-up dry.

The hive-stand - repairs and mods in progress
About a year ago, I decided to try once more, and built a mobile stand so that we could experiment with placing catch-boxes in different places around the farm. It's a lightweight structure that is not intended to hold a fully-laden brood box, but it is easy to move around and useful as a temporary support. I duly set up a catch-box -- a smaller brood box than usual, holding only five frames, and, in theory, easier for a small, juvenile swarm to manage and defend. The catch box was well cleaned and prepared, with freshly-waxed frames and liberal quantities of propolis applied to its walls and floor to make it fragrantly alluring to bees. Months went by, and still no bees settled in. Eventually I lost hope and my visits to the box grew further and further apart. And then stopped altogether.

Then, just the other day, I decided that the mobile stand was just the thing I needed for another project, so I wandered down into the wild part of the plot where I'd left it.
There I found the stand, collapsed, maybe broken, lying on the ground. The catch-box lay forlornly upside down, lid stuck in the mud. Well, nothing really new for me where bees are concerned, and, anyway, it was the stand I wanted. I briskly turned the box right side up on the grass, and tugged at the lid -- with a certain caution in case a snake had decided, as they often do, that a catch-box would make a fine winter home. It wouldn't budge. Well, it always did get a bit stuck. Catch-boxes rarely have a lot of effort put in to their construction quality. Tugged the lid again and it finally came free, only to reveal,... a LOT of bees!

Now I'm standing there in jeans and T-shirt and no protective gear to be had. And these bees are Apis scutellata capensis -- those ones everybody hysterically labels "Killer Bees". I quickly shove the lid back onto the box and beat a hasty retreat. The stand will have to wait for another day, since the catch-box -- now upright, at least -- is still settled quite squarely atop the stand.

Fast forward a couple of days to today. It's time to get the bees out of the mud, at least, and retrieve the stand so it can be repaired and beefed up a bit. Suitably armoured in my bee outfit, hive tool and smoker in hand, I traipsed down to the wild side once again. It was late morning, and a fine, warm winter's day. The hum of bees foraging in the flowering shrubs is loud, and a sure indication that most of the workers will be out of the hive and hard at work. The best circumstances for opening the hive up for a look.

Catch-box, now lifted up off the ground, and less vulnerable
to ants and other pests. Trust me that it's full of bees!
The first thing I did was lift the box up off the ground and onto a couple of logs, being careful not to alter the direction it's oriented -- bees don't like that much. I was probably being over-cautious. This swarm has already had their house turned completely upside-down at least once already. There's not much that's going to phase them.

With the box no longer atop the stand, I retrieved that and moved it out of the way. Then it was back to the box to take a wee look at what we have in there...

After a bit of smoke, I lifted the lid. It's full of bees. They're making a most peculiar noise, something like a dog, half growling in the back of its throat with warning. The feeling I get from them is that it's simply a warning -- "There's smoke about" -- but not any sense of anger or panic.

They've emphatically welded all the frames to the box with copious quantities of propolis, to the point where I fear breaking the frames if I apply too much force trying to break them free of the box with my hive tool (a suitably modified horseshoe, really). Not wanting to disturb them too much -- after all, how many swarms have we already lost? Don't want to take any chances pissing this one off! -- I replace the lid and leave them to their own devices.

I did get a sense that it's getting slightly crowded in there, but, as I didn't actually lift the frames out to check I'm not sure... In a month or so, as Spring weather begins to get a proper grip, I'll rehouse them in a full-size brood box. I'd do it now, but there's cold weather predicted for next weekend, and I'd not like to put them in a situation where they abscond because I put them in a box bigger than they can warm.

Meanwhile I shall construct a permanent, Baboon-resistant, Ratel-proof stand nearby , and rehouse the swarm into a full-sized brood-box. I figure that if they're happy in that place, who am I to argue?

Mood: Ecstatically happy!

14 March 2017

Planning the Winter Field

This will be the third season of cover-/smother-cropping the Top Field -- the third pass at trying to smother out the grass (mostly Buffalo, some Kikuyu) and "weeds" that are growing there, but mostly aimed at creating bulk organic matter to compost in place as soil improver. And it's working! Already we see big improvements in water retention, soil texture and organic matter, nutrition, and species diversity.

The ultimate goal for the Top Field system is to build a permanent pasture system for rotation-feeding Chickens in an avenue-cropping scheme, with fruit trees and edible/fruiting shrub, herb, subterranean and climbing layers on contour. The entire field area is about 90x30m (on average), and so far I have only been working on reviving the 20x20m block closest to the house, so it's going to take some time. Part of the reason for starting so "small and slow" is to gain practical experience with different cover-crop mixes and with planting timing and sequencing, but now it's time to start expanding our efforts a bit.

The basic sequence is to broadcast a mix of season-appropriate seeds -- the greater the variety, the better! -- directly into the tall (knee-high) standing grasses and "weeds", and then to follow up by slashing down all the tall growth to cover the seed and compost in place. This has been a bit hit-and-miss. Some plant varieties have performed quite well, while others clearly expect some gentler TLC and have failed to live up to our hopes.(Reminder to self: A good topic for another blog-post sometime...)

For each season, I want a mix of plants that includes at least:

  • a legume or two for nitrogen-fixing
  • a root crop capable of opening-up the upper layers of the soil and
  • a deep-rooted variety that will create channels for water and nutrients all the way down to the underlying clay base, and will also dredge up nutrients from those deeper layers
  • tall, leafy crops that will shade out the grass and eventually create a great bulk of organic mulch when I cut them down

If some of these are edibles, so much the better, but at this stage it's not a priority.

So, for the coming Winter, I have this list so far:

  • White Mustard -- soil fumigant, good leaf bulk, bird forage and has done well in the field in the past.
  • Oats -- a tall variety for shading and straw-bulk. Grains generally have done quite well, though by themselves they cannot produce enough shade.
  • Sweet Lupin -- N-fixer, legume, strong taproot and well suited to our heavy soil.
  • Rape or a large Kale -- leafy, quick to decompose and good through Winter around here.
  • Fodder Radish/Turnip/Beet -- for those big roots to drill open the soil!
  • Grazing Vetch/Purple Vetch -- Grazing Vetch is my first choice for its creeping growth habit which, I am hoping, will form a good live cover beneath the other crops, helping to smother grasses. Purple Vetch has a more upright growth habit, but is in there as a fallback option.
  • Wheat/Rye/Barley/Barley-Wheat/Triticale -- any grain, really, mainly to feed the wildlife and Chickens if we get around to building the infrastructure we need in time.
  • Cowpeas -- because legumes! Also, I have a bag handy that needs to be used before the seed gets too old.

The larger-seeded varieties will probably have to be drilled in after I have slashed down the Summer growth, so that's quite a lot of work, but the others should be quite quick and easy.

08 January 2017

Baboon Assault Troops

What happens when a Doggie tangles too closely with a Baboon...
Scyla, just returned from the vet's. Many thanks to Mark at Knysna Veterinary Clinic for fixing her -- sorry we had to spoil your Sunday!

16 December 2016

Aerodrone Season

It is Aircraft Season.

What is it about this town? Most of the year things are pretty peaceful around here. Skies are clear and free of noise aside from the occasional commercial aircraft flying in over the mountains from Parts North, settling in for final approach to George Airfield. As they pass over our heads they'll be just at that stage after, "Please ensure that your tray-tables are stowed, your window-blinds are fully open, and your seat-back is in the locked, upright position for landing." The stewardess has is making her way up the aisle checking that everyone is in full compliance with the safety regulations, and is on her way to her little fold-down seat to strap herself in for the landing. The plane is still so high in the sky that we seldom hear them. The only sign that they're passing is the straight, white contrail they leave across the deep blue.

No, the commercial flights are not a problem aside from the normal concerns one might have around petrochemical pollution and dumping CO2 into the atmosphere. The problem planes are the small, private aircraft.

The problem is noise. For the main part of the year, we get an occasionally light plane passing by, or, once in a while, a helicopter. The really noisy helicopter is one that the National Parks people use once or twice a year for training exercises for the Fire Fighting teams. That thing is awesomely noisy. A hard, hammering sound slaps down out of the sky like something out of a Vietnam War movie, and you'd be easily excused for thinking you were in a war-zone when you hear it coming as much as ten minutes before it lumbers into view. But that only happens a couple of times a year.

Then there are the microlights. A neighbouring farmer has a small, informal airstrip on his farm, built when he owned his own microlight. Nowadays he flies a motorised glider, so the only noise it makes is a quite inoffensive murmur as he gets it into the air. He does occasionally allow touring microlight enthusiasts to use his strip, but he is very good about asking them to avoid flying over our neighbourhood, having received complaints in years gone by from residents who enjoy suntanning naked in their backyards and get a bit miffed at the sudden appearance of low-flying aircraft.

But for some reason at this time of year, the Holiday Time Of Year, Peak Tourism Season, we get invaded by an infestation of noisy aeroplanes, clouds of buzzing midges with nothing better to do than drone about. Small planes whose pilots love nothing better than to wheel aimlessly overhead for a couple of hours, round and round and up and down and round and round again. They're not even good enough flyers to pull off any interesting aerobatics. Round and round and up and down, droning and moaning and generally wrecking the peace and quiet with a blissful disregard for anybody else.

Then there's Jet Propelled Guy. He hasn't arrived yet. It's still a little early in the tourist season. He (maybe its "she", though, generalising wildly here, women are usually a bit more considerate, and it seems to me more likely a testosterone-amped Alpa Male type) generally comes to town closer to Christmas, and flies about in a little jet-propelled plane, insanely noisy. Also an up and down and round and round artiste, but now with added roaring. The ego-riddled selfishness is quite beyond my comprehension. What sort of metastasised sense of self-entitlement, what corroded set of social values, enables this one person to destroy the quiet enjoyment of the thousands below on the Earth who are forced, unasked and unwilling, to pay the price of the solipsist solo flyer's self-indulgence?

There are also any number of Helicopter types. They fly those tiny, mosquito-looking things that make a hell of a racket out of all proportion to their size. We had one of them living just down the road a few years ago. He (really "he" in this case), of a Sunday afternoon, would flit from his "farm" to one of the upmarket golf-estates for a round of golf. In and out and roundabout he'd go, to do the shopping, to fly to some Important Meeting in George, down to Cape Town for drinkies at Camps Bay,... sometimes several times a day. The noise was awful. He was completely arrogant about it. I'd say "unsympathetic" to our concerns, but no, "sympathy" was not a concept that entered into his world. He was Big Important Asshole, and we little people ought to consider ourselves privileged to put up with the result of his ego-rot, his non-existent grasp of ethical consideration for other peoples' rights. Eventually we got him shut down by legal means, though it did come close to proclaiming Open Goose Hunting Season.

No, it's mainly this time of year when aircraft become a plague in the sky. The time of year when rich, over-entitled idiots take to the skies. I suppose it is the price we are expected to live with in exchange for the content of their wallets, off which the local economy feeds for the remainder of the year.

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