Worldwide Friends: running rings round rabbits

A tiny break from hexie-outlining was called for. The lure of the bunnies proved irresistible…

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 3.18.19 pmScreen Shot 2015-04-30 at 3.18.37 pmI decided it was time to outline the bunnies in the centre panel. The moon got the same treatment, and there’s a banner outline round the name. They’re slightly puffy, which is pleasing — bunnies should be soft and puffy, I feel. Quilting these printed images on their wholecloth background showed me how much trouble I’d made for myself outlining the hexies, with their multiple seams. Another time, I’ll be doing something a lot simpler for a hexie quilt. And I’m starting to be seriously tempted to do a plain wholecloth quilt, perhaps just a small one, but one where the quilting is the point. Just to see if I can, you understand…

There is progress, as you can see. Soon, I’ll be able to start making hexies for the facing. Failing major obstacles and the siren call of the garden, I’ll make the deadline.

I’d have liked to quilt the fillers as well, but there just won’t be time. Maybe I can do it after the show, just for my personal satisfaction.

Time for a new needle. I’ve bent the last one…


The Gardens of Chiconia 31: Hubble, bubble…

Introducing Garden Tea. But we’re not talking the delicately aromatic brown beverage served in dainty bone china teacups with a scone or fairy cake on the side.

No, what we have here is an altogether more muscular and power-packed product. It’s something I brew up in my cauldron a large plastic dustbin for the benefit of my green babies. It smells scarily bad. It looks scarily awful. It heaves and seethes and is packed with bacteria. But it’s good. Most of the ingredients are not especially, um, well, photogenic, so this post is going to be image light and text heavy.

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Manure – alpaca, in this case.

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Blood & bone

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Start with a 60L (15 gallon) black plastic bin with a lid. It really, really needs a lid… Into this, tip a 15kg (30 pound) sack of manure. This should ideally be from a ruminant (sheep, cow, goat, camel, alpaca, etc), but horse or donkey is fine if that’s all you have access to. Dog, cat or human is not OK, and we’ll come to chicken later. What you’re looking for is a low nitrogen product with a large proportion of the helpful gut bacteria you find in ruminants. Lower bacteria = longer brewing time. One thing to bear in mind, though, is that if you’re using domestic animal manures you need to check when they were last wormed. Manure from a week later is fine. Next day manure will still contain chemicals which will kill the good bugs in the mixture.

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Lucerne (alfalfa) hay

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Fill the bin half full with water, poke and stir the manure till it’s loosened up and evenly distributed. Sprinkle onto the surface a heaped trowel full of blood & bone powder. Stir in. Add a large bucketful of fresh comfrey leaves and stir in. If you don’t have comfrey, use dandelion or nettles instead — or as well. All these plants are very, very deep rooted and bring up nutrients from levels below the reach of most other plants. The nutrients are then deposited in their leaves, and brewing the leaves in Garden Tea makes them available to whatever you’re going to use the Tea on. Comfrey stinks evilly when it’s rotting down, so you’ll want to position your bin so it’s out of nose-shot from the house. If you can get hold of seaweed, add a half bucket of well washed seaweed. Add another bucket of green weedy stuff without seeds. Here’s your chance to get rid of the pests: purslane, sorrel, ground elder, tradescantia, etc. They will break down completely in the brew. You can also add any spent pea or bean plants, lucerne (alfalfa) hay, grass clippings from a clover lawn, or pond weed overgrowth for a bit of extra nitrogen.

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Pelletised chicken manure

If you have access to worm tea, add a half bucket of that. If not, don’t worry, it’s not a drama. Now it’s time for the chickens to do their bit. A couple of heaped trowelfuls of pelletised chicken manure, or half a bucket of the fresh stuff. Yes, it’s a bit eeuw, but picking it up will help keep their run clean and healthy, and it’s great for the brew. There’s one final, and optional, ingredient. Urine. Fresh. Say, one morning’s-worth from two people. The first one of the day is the most useful, being more concentrated. It’s a powerful booster, but don’t add it if you’re taking antibiotics. Stir this lot up. Put on the lid and walk away for at least 2 weeks to let it do its stuff.

The tea will bubble, seethe and get quite lively. It’ll go faster if you leave it in the sun. Tip the lid off with a rake or broom if you can, otherwise lift it off and step back. There’ll be a big stinky waft of biological-warfare proportions, and then it’ll settle to merely a powerfully horrible smell. I keep a plastic jug handy for the next bit, which is dedicated exclusively to the Tea. Dip a jugful of the liquid out, skimming the floaty bits out of the way. Pour this slowly into a watering can filled 3/4 full of water. Add till the water in the can turns a golden weak tea colour.

Time to give your plants a massive treat. It works well as a foliar feed for trees and non food plants, but you may not want to tip it over your cabbage and lettuces, in which case, pour it into the soil at the base of the vegetables. Don’t use it for about a week before you plan to pick leafy vegetables, and be sure to give them an extra thorough wash before you eat them. It is, after all, full of poo.

In general, there’s no hard and fast rule about what and how much to put in your brew, but bear in mind that whatever you add needs to rot down (so no wood and avoid seeds), it needs to contain manure and bacteria, and comfrey is the easiest natural way of adding trace elements and hard to access minerals, so it might be worth your while acquiring a plant. I add a half bucket of azolla water weed when I can get hold of it, as this will speed up the process, both in the Tea and if you add it to your compost; it rots ‘hot’. Once the level has dropped a bit, add a bucket or two of water to refresh it, and if you find yourself tearing through the contents a bit fast, start a second brew… Once you’re down to the bottom sludge, put this on the garden and start the new lot.

I used to pass it on to friends undiluted in 3L (6 pint) plastic milk containers, but that’ll have to wait till I get my first brew finished.

Potstickers don’t stick around…

It’s been many years since I was able to eat authentic Chinese food.

Mainly this is because gluten and I don’t get along. I have trouble communicating my dietary needs in most Chinese restaurants, where English is not the first language and where the question “can you do anything gluten free?” generally produces a blank stare, let alone more in-depth enquiries about cross-contamination. The way the food is produced causes most of the problems. I’ve observed that all noodles are dunked into the same vat of boiling water, be they wheat or rice noodles, so I’m not even safe with rice noodles. Soy sauce is everywhere, and dishes made without it are stirred with the same utensils as dishes made with it. It just hasn’t been worth it. I’ve made my own poor imitations, but I’ve missed certain dishes I thought were out of my gluten-free reach.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 2.50.31 pm Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 2.51.05 pm Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 2.51.29 pmUntil now. I have cracked the recipe for one of my all-time favourites: potsticker dumplings. These divine little parcels of yumminess are first fried gently until the bottom is crispy and brown, and then steamed to cook the rest through. They’re stuffed with cabbage, pork, garlic, ginger and onion, and they are so incredibly moreish that the Husband and I noshed a plateful each and still looked wistfully for more…

I used this recipe as my start point, and I’d suggest following the video rather than the written recipe/process for a better result. Using GF soy sauce and substituting dry sherry for rice wine is a no brainer, and the filling was soon ready – I used chopped roast pork instead of fatty minced pork, and a little of the jellied pork stock to keep it juicy.

The dumpling skins were another matter. Gluten free flour just doesn’t behave the same way as the normal stuff, and kneading and resting dough to develop or relax the gluten is an exercise in futility. I used the same quantities as in the recipe, but added a scant tablespoonful of sunflower oil and a half teaspoon of xanthan gum to the mixture, and kept the kneading to a minimum.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 2.51.55 pmGluten free doughs also dry out much, much faster, so I cut off only what I was about to use, and kept the rest in an airtight container under a damp cloth until I was ready to use it. I don’t have a proper dumpling rolling pin, and that’s now high on the shopping list because it will make producing the skins a lot easier. My dough is a little more fragile than the wheat kind, and produces a slightly translucent dumpling due to the high proportion of rice flour in the GF mixture, but neither I nor the Husband found there to be a discernible difference in the taste. The soft top and crispy bottoms were perfect.

We both agree, however, that extensive further testing and sampling is going to be required. I’m thinking prawn and sweet chilli next time…

Worldwide Friends: Easy does it…

I gave myself some time out for fresh air and exercise in the back yard. Frankly, I needed a bit of a breather and time to look at greenery. But I’m back.

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 6.51.00 pmI’m quilting WWF without a hoop or frame. It means the stitches aren’t quite as neat or as straight as they would otherwise be, but it also means I don’t have kilos of heavy, hot quilt in my lap during the process, I don’t have to shift said kilos of quilt around as I stitch in the ditch around each red hexie, and I don’t have to shift the frame every two hexies. The quilt sits on the table, slightly bunched up in the area where I’m working, and lies stretched over my lower hand. I have enough slack that I can turn just this working area a little as I stitch round the corners. The rest of the weight is on the table. I can withdraw my lower hand, stand up and walk away.

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 6.50.31 pmThe pin basting is in the centre of each red hexie, so a hand’s breadth apart. I was concerned I’d be catching the thread on the pins, but so far it’s hardly been a problem. I stitch one side of a hexie to anchor it, then remove the pin and stitch the rest. I’m burying the knots as I go — it’s the only way on this dark quilt, as locating strays at the end would be time consuming and tedious.

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5 rows completed; the arrow shows where I’m up to. 15 more rows to go, and then I can start the facing.

I’m not aiming for perfection in the finished result. I’m human, and a defective one at that, and I can forgive myself for slightly wonky, slightly uneven stitching. The hexies themselves are pretty perfect, and if the quilting is less so, well, so be it. I’m not entering this quilt into the Show for competitive reasons, and I don’t expect or hope to win anything, I just want to share the friendship, the collaborative process and the joy that quilting brings me.

Right. Time to stop typing and set a few more stitches. Slow and steady does it.


The Gardens of Chiconia 30: Super Size!

It’s not the gardens I’m talking about, although at 3/4 acre (3,000m²) they’re large enough. 

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 5.24.06 pmNo, it’s the bugs.  I’ve complained before about monster grass-hoppers and Very Hungry Caterpillars. Lookee here. That’s a standard trowel… and that, my friends, is a Lawn Grub. The out-sized offspring of a beetle, whose natural habitat is, you guessed it, lawns. What two of them were doing in the bottom of my capsicum planter is anyone’s guess. I left them on the bird feeder for the magpies to enjoy…

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Malabar spinach

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Brazilian spinach

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Today’s planting.

More fun in the backyard today. I planted three varieties of tomato, four different herbs, English, Brazilian and Malabar spinach, bok choi, zucchini, two different kinds of capsicum, two different kinds of strawberry and a Norfolk Island black passionfruit vine on the side fence.

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11 years of faithful service, and now it’s time for a new handle!

There’s still space in the raised beds for a bit more, and I have some work to do preparing the potato bed, but it’s beginning to take shape. One tool I won’t be using is my poor border spade, which gave up the ghost today and will need a new handle before it can be used again.

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 5.24.22 pmWe’ve given the starfruit a big boy’s haircut, and all the deadwood is now gone. The Husband offered himself up to the green ants, and went in with the chainsaw. Many bites later, the job is done, and the tree is now a third of its original size, but looks much happier. It’s had a top dressing of pelletised chicken manure and blood and bone around the new dripline, so hopefully that’ll give it a boost. My Garden Tea is still bubbling away and isn’t ready for dosing out yet. Take a look – that’s alpaca poo floating on the top, mixed with comfrey. I’ll post about Garden Tea when it’s ready to go.

Another trip to the dump got rid of the last trailer load of prunings. The jungle is now tamed, and ready for its chooky inhabitants. The Husband has been patiently chipping away at the rock hard ground where the base of the chook house will go, so fairly soon we’ll be able to put in the edging and get a load of crusher dust to lay.

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 5.24.56 pm Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 5.25.08 pmI’ve been getting a couple of small limes a day from my little tree, so there has been a surge of Lime Zucchini cake eating. Using our own limes just gives us all the excuse we need to stuff our faces with what is now a firm family favourite.

And here is our reward for a day spent mostly doing yard work!

Tomorrow, I’m picking up my needle again.

And so to bed

Only you definitely wouldn’t want to take a nap in this one!

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 6.56.56 pmIt’s been a cool, pleasant day, and I seized the opportunity to get done a job I’ve been longing to start. Today, I built three raised beds, lined the bottoms with wet cardboard, topped that off with 6″ (15cm) thick flakes of lucerne (alfalfa) hay, and watered the lot down. There’s a trailer load of good quality compost waiting to be shovelled into the three beds tomorrow.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 6.57.16 pmCardboard stops the contents of the bed escaping out the bottom, and helps to suppress grass and weeds that might be tempted to invade and enjoy the tastiness going on in there. Plus it’s an excellent way of recycling and saves space in the recycling bin. But there’s a downside. Cardboard is mostly carbon, and the process of rotting it down draws nitrogen out of the surrounding soil. This is where the lucerne comes in. It’s nitrogen rich as well as providing biomass, and helps to replace the nitrogen robbed out of the soil by the cardboard. It rots down over time and reduces in volume, but meanwhile, helps with drainage.

The compost is made here in Mackay using plant material collected from all over town and from a wide variety of sources. It’s like rich black moist crumbs of chocolate cake, and smells nearly as good! Once I’ve shovelled it all into the beds, I’ll lay down an irrigation hose before I plant to avoid disrupting the future seedlings, and I have a bale of shredded sugarcane mulch to tuck everything up in once I’ve planted.

And finally, there’ll be a top dressing of Garden Tea, but that’s a post for another day.

I’ve learned a few things about what will and won’t work in this climate. My planting will reflect this, but one thing’s for sure. There will be tomatoes, capsicums, beans, spinach and herbs. I’ve got to plant twice what I think I need, so I can retrieve a reasonable amount once the plagues of insects have  taken their share. I’m also going to build up the existing bed which housed beans last year, which will contain potatoes this year.

It feels great to have soil under my fingernails again, and muddy knees, and a stiff back and a peaceful mind.  I’m back where I belong. Out in the garden.

A mixed bag

It has been a trying few days.

We discovered, after receiving an astronomical power bill, that our solar array wasn’t working, and hasn’t been for some time. As a result of paying to get it fixed and paying said astronomical bill, we’ve had to cancel a planned trip to Melbourne in June. Very disappointing; I’d hoped to catch up with friends and family, do a bit of shopping, show the Husband where I used to live, that sort of thing. It’s not really a substitute, but to make up to ourselves for missing out on Melbourne, we’re going up to Cairns on the bike for 4 days of zooming around the hills, eating good food and catching some amazing scenery. That’ll be at the end of May, and I’m looking forward to it a great deal, especially now that the weather’s a bit more moderate.

I’ve been a bit under the weather recently, and am waiting for blood test results, and my annual flu shot is making me feel a bit yuck too, a bit shivery and headachy.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 8.24.00 pmScreen Shot 2015-04-23 at 8.23.18 pmOtherwise, life has been busy, with the result that I haven’t managed to make much progress with quilting Worldwide Friends. I’ve managed three rows of red hexie quilting in the last 3 days, which is pretty poor progress — I should be able to get three rows a day done at the very least. I’m hoping to feel better and have more time tomorrow. At this rate, I definitely won’t have time to quilt the filler hexies too. It’s always the way, isn’t it: lots to do in limited time, and events conspire to reduce your time even more!

We have a few more plans in the backyard, including three raised beds for vegetables, down the side of the house and near the water supply so irrigation won’t be a problem. The Husband is going to mark out and chip out the base for the chook house in the next day or so, so Chookonia is a few steps closer too.

Right, time to get tucked up in bed and try to sleep myself well again.