Yay! Growing Season Is Finally Here!

With the consistent warm weather of late and a crazy hot week to come, the market garden is finally starting to thrive! Most of the plants have recovered from the freak December frost, however, a good 50% of the first batch of french beans were lost along with a handful of the tomatoes. Not much you can do about freak frosts really… Our on contour garden beds, with mini swales are working a treat. The swales are heavily mulched with all of the weeds that have been pulled up and last seasons spent crops that didn’t go to the chickens or the cows, under all the mulch, feeding the worms and decomposing away. The idea is to build soil in the swales during the growing season and winter. Once the crops are all done, they will be removed and put into the swales and covered with straw mulch, then a cover crop and green manure will be sown in each bed to over winter. The winter here is just too cold for us to grow surplus food for people on a sustainable level, so this year we will concentrate on extra soil fertility and weed management through green manures and cover crops. Just before the new growing season, the green manures and cover crops will be chopped and dropped and the swales will be emptied of their rich, biologically active, worm castings intense soil, which will be placed on the beds, ready for the coming season, where will will start again with the soil building program. I am still hot composting, but am for going the worm farming, choosing to worm farm in the ground instead. Theoretically it should work well, but we can only wait and see:-)

 

Happy New Year and a photo update.

A massive thank-you and best wishes for the new year to family, friends and customers, who have continued to support us through 2013!

It has been a while since my last post, not due to laziness I promise! The last part of this year has been as hectic as ever and unfortunately, blog entries have suffered. Now with renewed enthusiasm and recharged batteries, 2014 will be blogged to death 🙂

Here are some update photos and highlights for the latter part of 2013:

The sunsets in Darwin were amazing! Part of the travelling road show of Sharon McDonough, Rohan Bryan and myself presenting on Sustainability in schools at an ACASA conference.

The sunsets in Darwin were amazing! Part of the travelling road show of Sharon McDonough, Rohan Bryan and myself presenting on Sustainability in schools at an ACASA conference.

Yep, the termite mounds were epic!

Yep, the termite mounds were epic!

Nothing better than swimming at a waterfall:-)

Nothing better than swimming at a waterfall:-)

AHHHHHH!

The photo says it all!

The photo says it all!

Back into home brewing:-)

Back into home brewing:-)

Documenting the film crew documenting us.

Documenting the film crew documenting us.

My trusty little helper, helping with the electric fencing.

My trusty little helper, helping with the electric fencing.

After a week in torrential rain and gale force winds with 28 15 year olds, I went a little crazy...

After a week in torrential rain and gale force winds with 28 15 year olds, I went a little crazy…

Finally, we got Little-little one onto the farm to service the girls. He is a little out of condition - to much grass, too little exercise - but hopefully with a strict diet, he can back into shape and do his thing.

Finally, we got Little-little one onto the farm to service the girls. He is a little out of condition – to much grass, too little exercise – but hopefully with a strict diet, he can back into shape and do his thing.

Yep, the end of a school year and we all go crazy, especially when building wood ovens.

Yep, the end of a school year and we all go crazy, especially when building wood ovens.

These aquaponic tomatoes are going great guns in the greenhouse!

These aquaponic tomatoes are going great guns in the greenhouse!

Plenty of feed for the livestock this winter! No need to buy in hay this time, thanks to our friendly neighbours.

Plenty of feed for the livestock this winter! No need to buy in hay this time, thanks to our friendly neighbours.

Introducing Ari Quach, my new nephew! Congratulations Nam-Do, Liana and Sian :-)

Introducing Ari Quach, my new nephew! Congratulations Nam-Do, Liana and Sian 🙂

New cousin!

Home grown dinner! Highland Heritage lamb, garlic, rosemary, thyme and oregano! 4 hour slow roast. Divine!

Home grown dinner! Highland Heritage lamb, garlic, rosemary, thyme and oregano! 4 hour slow roast. Divine!

With our kitchen being commercialised, we now bake sourdough breads for our customers as well as part of our suspended produce and bread program.

With our kitchen being commercialised, we now bake sourdough breads for our customers as well as part of our suspended produce and bread program.

Nothing better than seeing all the family together.

Nothing better than seeing all the family together.

Ava-Li loves her Gramps:-)

Ava-Li loves her Gramps:-)

Dangling Christmas balls look awesome over amazing food being consumed by an amazing family. After giving cancer a good kick up the bum, it is great to see Nan Nan so healthy and with so much energy:-)

Dangling Christmas balls look awesome over amazing food being consumed by an amazing family. After giving cancer a good kick up the bum, it is great to see Nan Nan so healthy and with so much energy:-)

Gramps has much more patience than I! The boys loved working with Gramps to put together their Christmas pressie!

Gramps has much more patience than I! The boys loved working with Gramps to put together their Christmas pressie!

Yep, the tilte is not a typo! Frost damage last weekend... Unreal, middle of summer and we got frost. Tomatoes, zucchinis, beans, corn, cucumber.... all the frost tender plants, got frost bite...

Yep, the tilte is not a typo! Frost damage last weekend… Unreal, middle of summer and we got frost. Tomatoes, zucchinis, beans, corn, cucumber…. all the frost tender plants, got frost bite…

As part of our business and farm ethos, we want to give as much as we can to those in need. We have extended this opportunity to our customers and for every suspended dollar they give, we match it. It works similar to suspended coffee, but with produce and bread instead. Go to http://www.suspendedcoffeemelbourne.com.au/ for more info on suspended coffee.

As part of our business and farm ethos, we want to give as much as we can to those in need. We have extended this opportunity to our customers and for every suspended dollar they give, we match it. It works similar to suspended coffee, but with produce and bread instead. Go to http://www.suspendedcoffeemelbourne.com.au/ for more info on suspended coffee.

So now in 2014, I have begun a new role at my work looking at whole school sustainability, in buildings, grounds and curriculum, which will bring with it many new challenges. It will mean a reshuffle of the routines of managing the farm, the business and life in general, but hopefully will allow for a continued focus of sustainable practices across the board.

Thanks again to all who have supported us in our endeavors and journey in life. Bring on 2014!

No-Dig Potatoes Coming Through!

Both TL and AL have found their favourite seat!

It has been about 8 weeks since I started the no-dig style potato beds and they have started to pop up. I have given them another layer of manure, compost and straw and will now leave them to develop into hopefully, a very large crop of potatoes! This weekend, I put in another two beds, this time a little taller than the previous beds, in the hope that they will 1) settle as the rain hits them and 2) I don’t have to top them up in the coming weeks. These beds are the same length, approx 7mX1m but are about 600mm high. They should settle to about 450-500 high in about a week or so.

2 new beds today. That is a total of 8 beds. By my maths, that makes about 150-160 lineal meters of potatoes!

Potatoes popping through the top of the second helping of manure, compost and straw.

Tomorrow I start a Permaculture Design Certificate course with the man himself, Bill Mollison! This is a very exciting time for me, as although we have designed our farm using permaculture principles, it will be great to see how it can be improved. But on a more significant note, the course then allows me to design and implement so many things at work as well as teach the coming generations of students the importance of a well thought out design and plan for the future! The projects that are happening at the school are absolutely amazing and as momentum builds, more and more people are understanding and embracing the potential of experiential learning as well as starting to change the culture of the school to one that is sustainable!

Spring into Sustainability.

(Picture of wicking beds at old house)

Spring is less than a week away, well at least according to the international meteorological definition of the seasons, Spring is in 5 days. However, according to tilt of the Earth and the Sun, the Spring Equinox in the Southern Hemisphere is not until September 22nd. This gives us plenty of time (not) to get prepared for the next season…

The greenhouse has gone on hold while other more pressing matters are tended to, such as the new potato patch and prepping the current market garden for the next season. Tomorrow (Monday) I will be getting 48 dwarfing rootstock for cherries and pears as well as a variety of scion (buds), all of which are heritage varieties. My grafting skills will really be tested here as will my time management. Spring is definitely on it’s way and the buds need to be grafted before buds explode and late winter to very early spring is the time for this. 48 grafts all done at night as well as potting out…. hmmmm may be pushing it a little  but bring it on!

A few years back, I was lucky enough to visit an art gallery to view works by a friend of mine from work (Lou Callow). At this exhibition, Lou introduced me to a friend of hers Tor Roxborough (the gallery owner) and we got talking about life and sustainable living. At the time, we were living at our old house which had been maxed out with productive gardens, aquaponics, fruit trees and a  section of native and indigenous plants. I spoke to her about our life and what we were trying to achieve and enjoyed Lou’s amazing art work. 3 years on and she has contacted me to find out where I am at in life and to ask me to do a talk on food production and sustainable living! The presentation will be on Saturday 6th October between 1:30-3:30pm at the Bacchus Marsh library. The group holding it is called BaccChat, a new group in the Bacchus Marsh area who are organising readings and talks on a variety of topics, the first of which is about food and agricultural production as well as touching on issues of refugees.

I have to say I am honoured to be asked to do this talk and although somewhat nervous about it all, am very excited at the same time!

The link to the first page of my old blog is http://namhaquachinatoraquaponics.blogspot.com.au/2009/10/what-is-aquaponics-i-hear-you-ask-well.html It is pretty long, but if you have a spare moment or three, have a read and make a comment here 🙂

(Picture of the AP system at old house early not long after cycling)

Power Bill “Nil”

It has been a little over a year now since we bit the bullet and purchased a connect to grid solar array and a solar hot water system. It took the power company over 6 months to install the much talked about “Dumb Meter” aka, “Smart Meter”, which meant that all of the power we were feeding back to the grid from July last year through to February this year, did not receive the full feed in tariff. Yes it did make the meter go backwards and yes that was kinda cool to see, but we were not getting our full financial benefits for 7+ months. Coupled with having to pay for the Dumb Meter, as we were on a waiting list for change over – didn’t want to hold my breath on that one (conservative estimate of 2-3 years at best before change over), it was in our interest to pay to get the meter changed over, and even then there was a 7 month wait… Suffice to say, any small benefit we had from the change over to the billing date, was eaten up very quickly by the cost of the meter. Our next quarter we had a significant surplus, which we knew would be reduced somewhat over the late autumn, winter and early spring periods. I have to admit, I thought we would be pretty close to paying for electricity this quarter, but we have just used half of our surplus, meaning at this rate, the next quarter we will break even – or there about and then start accumulating again – this time properly accounted for on the Dumb Meter.

Total Due: NIL

Note: Why do I call it a Dumb Meter, well the meter itself does not provide ALL the information I would like. For the price we paid, it should also clean the house and cook dinner! In our previous house, the standard digital meter, which we did not have to pay for, gave me more info than this thing, hence – DUMB METER!

Unfortunately, we are not as happy with the solar hot water unit. In our climate, the heat pump we replaced was probably a better system so far as providing consistent hot water was concerned, however it did use a lot of energy, hence the swap. In summer, early autumn and mid spring on wards, it performs very well for a family of 5, come winter it is pretty useless. To save energy and maximise solar heating, the element is halfway up the tank, thus allowing the sun to heat up the other half for very minimal energy use (a small 18watt pump) during the day. Unfortunately, where we live, the daytime temperatures struggle to get close to double digits, reducing heating efficiency and by the end of a cold, cold day (pretty much every day), sun or no sun, we have to boost the system for 30mins so the kids can have a bath. As they get older, I can see that boost going from 30mins to 1 hour!

So this time next year instead of using the electricity boost, we hope to have installed a flu heat exchange for our wood heater. This should provide endless hot water as during this time of year, as the wood heater is going almost 24/7. Although we have reverse cycle heating – 1 large unit in the lounge room pretty much does the entire house – the wood heater is our main source of heating, with the reverse cycle only coming on when the fire is left to burn out (only a handful of times at most so far this year).

To sustain the fire, we have mostly used wood from our property in the form of fallen limbs and such, however, we will be planting 1 1/2 (or up to 2) acres of our land as a woodlot for firewood, furniture and building timber. It will take 10 years at best before we can start coppicing so in the meantime, I need to get my act together and stockpile firewood, sourced from sustainable plantations.

As far as carbon footprint goes with our heating – burning wood releases CO2 in the the atmosphere, however, the trees we get our wood from absorb CO2 as they grow, this CO2 then gets released as we burn it, which gets absorbed by other trees as they grow etc… Effectively this cycle creates a net “zero” carbon footprint, so long as the wood burnt is replaced, which it will be when we have our own woodlot, but until then,  the wood will be sourced from fallen limbs and sustainable plantations!

Greenhouse Base Done

A slow weekend this weekend, for various reasons, however work on the greenhouse and our “sustainable business hub” has started. Using savaged materials, I have sunk in a number of posts that are not going to go anywhere soon. I used my faithful measuring device as you can see in the photo below. Each of the post holes were approximately 800 deep and heavily packed and back filled with a little bit of cement to sure things up. There is no weight in the greenhouse itself, about 95kgs all up, but better to over engineer I say, just in case we get a cyclone or something similar… (stop rolling your eyes Hayley).

My Padawan apprentice as always helping out on the farm. Here he measures the depth of the post hole for me. Feet didn’t touch the bottom, which was 800mm!

I didn’t have a straight edge long enough to span the corner posts and across the diagonal, so I rigged up a simple water level using an off-cut of hose I had laying around. Simple but effective! Clear hose would have been easier again, but this still did the job!

Sorry for the blurry image above – low light conditions. The base is down. Perfect size greenhouse for a dedicated aquaponics system. 2x1000lt fish tanks and 6 1000X1000X450 grow beds will fit in nice and snug with a little pathway in between. I have used 150mm coach bolts to anchor the corners to the posts. Fixing into end grain is not ideal I know, but 150mm should do the job nicely. I have also reinforced this with a handful of 50mm self tapping hex screws. Hmmmm overkill maybe… It is upside down, but those “pegs” just do not cut it for me, hence anchoring to the post. Once the polycarb is in place, they will no longer be a hazard.

I still plan to run the AP system off the grid, so am investigating solar – battery – inverter options as well as low wattage yet high volume water pumps. Also starting to look at fish species. I could go the ever faithful trout, and then as the water heats up, into the dam they go and restock, or go murray cod and silver perch. Being in the greenhouse, water temps should be perfect for them…

Just for the record, it is perfectly level, but 2mm out of square…

Greenhouse, aquaponics and storeroom/office.

Well things are really moving along here on the farm, well at least the ideas are. Winter has hit us hard with temperatures struggling to get into double digits most days. The winter vegetables are slowly doing there thing with our cauliflower and brocoli starting to head up nicely. Cabbages are also tightening up and my beloved brussel sprouts are…well, sprouting. Everything else however….

So off to the planning office (which really is everywhere as my head doesn’t really stop thinking…) and onto eBay. Damn that thing can be exciting! In any case, I have just purchased a 4.2 x 2.5 x 2.1 greenhouse, which will house my MK III aquaponics system made out of IBC tanks, as well as a seedling raising house. If my math is correct, I should be able to get the aquaponics system running off a battery bank and inverter with a solar panel to charge it all up during the day. With a low wattage pump, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem… Next to the greenhouse, my strawbale storeroom/office will also go up. May not get the time to finish this part this year, but hopefully the posts, beams and roof will be up by years’ end, and maybe the flooring, ready for strawbales and rendering in the summer.

Slow and steady. A little forced with limited funds, but at least I can’t rush it!