A Cool Reprieve

Oh, how wonderful this summer has become.  While we steeled ourselves for the baking heat, oven-like conditions, lack of water, dry and dust…Mother Nature instead has given us a beautiful reprieve of cool temperatures and rain.  Blessed be this unusual summer where every day feels like spring!

Sunflower artichoke

December and January both had their share of showers, rain to penetrate and soak into the ground, to still the dust, sustain the plants and seep into our water tanks. To replenish and renew the landscape when everything was getting ready to die.

Our usual plan of Operation Lock Down, to go into Survival Mode, hide away and conserve our energy from the heat outside has been unnecessary.  Beautiful cooler days have allowed us to continue working outside on the house.  Our newest project, now that Stacy has some days free from work, is to finish cladding our ramshackle weatherboard home.  Long gone is the ideal of building our passive solar dream home at the back of the block.  That dream faded after the first year when we realised just how windy and difficult that part of our property can be. Instead, we have decided that this little weatherboard house can indeed be our home and can be retrofitted to increase its thermal mass, jazzed up, insulated, clad and lime rendered to look like one of those gorgeous lil’ houses on the Greek islands.  Our Greek island house to go with our inland Mediterranean climate.  We;ve already painted the windowsills in Mykonos Blue (yes, that’s a real paint colour!)

Stacy house cladding

Not only has the weather helped our struggling plants, but also our mental well being. It’s so nice not to be hot and bothered. To have enough energy and enthusiasm to get outside and get lots of projects done.

I’ve watched friends lament the rain and weather of this inclement summer in Melbourne. For ruining their picnic or curtailing their trip to the beach.  For us it’s a blessing, the loveliest summer that we’ve had here yet.  A wonderful chance to squeeze more into our busy year when we would usually have to down tools and hide.

Our water saving measures are still working well however.  Our grey water system – a series of two IBC tanks that filter the water through sawdust and then charcoal, is working beautifully.  The reed beds that have been planted around it and the pumpkin planted on top has erupted in growth!  And clear, nice smelling water comes out the bottom. Tada!

Grey water system

Who knows how long this reprieve will last.  All we know is that we are very much appreciating it, the animals are definitely enjoying it and we are making the most of it while we can!  Now, time to get back out there…

The Drying of Summer

Golden Brown, golden brown

The landscape’s wearing its golden gown

Makes me frown, gets me down

I miss the green in this golden brown.

Summer landscape

As Summer descends, the landscape colour and demeanour is changing. The greenery is disappearing quickly as the weather heats up and the air dries out.  The rolling hills and pastures of the ancient volcanic landscape take on a golden hue; a yellow descends over the landscape until the only faint smudge of subdued greenery shows amongst the eucalyptus leaves.  From the verdant green of spring, we move into a dry, hot, dusty, yellow landscape of summer.

It happened even earlier than I expected this year.  Our Big Event of the Year – our long awaited DIY Country Wedding here in the volcanic landscape was supposed to be awash with verdant green rolling hills.  I had planned for early November to take advantage of that greenery and the nicer weather…but they evaded us.  But, it still made for dramatic pictures and a stark contrast with the golden grass instead.

Prue & Stace wedding

Summer in our new landscape often brings with it a certain depression for Stace and I. We’re forest people – we originally hail from the tree fern abundance of cool temperate rainforest.  Our property is starved of greenery in the summer months, the baking heat and high winds evaporate moisture until you feel like you are in the desert.  As temperatures soar into the mid-40’s, we go into survival mode at White Stone Farm.  Our aim in summer goes from abundance in spring to SURVIVAL… to keep things ticking over, keep things alive and hydrated.  Plants, chooks, llamas. Just keep everything from expiring in the heat!

When we encountered our first summer, it was a big struggle. We didn’t realise how hot and dry it got out here.  We had planted 50 tomato plants and not only was I working full time nearly an hour away, I was trying so hard to keep all these plants alive on a scarce water supply and had limited time to keep things going on the hot dry days.  It was hard, but we persevered and to be honest after all that effort, the tomatoes were absolutely amazing, but it was a huge struggle to keep things ticking over when we were barely here.  We just didn’t understand the challenges summer sets here.

The second summer was perhaps even harder because we knew the heat and hardships that awaited us. I would look with envy at other places in Victoria (or the world!) that have milder summers, microclimates, shade, cooler temperatures, less wind and we’d question why we were in this place.  A hot, dry depression hit us again.  Our water situation was a little better because we had installed more water tanks, but it was a very dry summer.  The rains had stopped well into early-mid Spring and the land was volatile.  That summer was pretty tough.  Our dams dried up completely, the silver perch we tried to establish died. The fear of bushfires crept into our psyche, particularly mine as I was alone at the farm a lot during that time as Stace worked in Melbourne.  We questioned ourselves again…were we in the right place?  Was this all too hard?  Did we bite off more than we could chew?

The summer of 2014 was another hot and dry one.  But we were no longer surprised and steeled ourselves to mentally and physically cope.  It is what it is.  The heat saps you of strength, willingness and enthusiasm.  But, we rise to the challenge, we overcome the obstacles and we managed to keep everyone alive and happy in the heat!

One of the biggest lessons these summers have taught us is that as the seasons change and go through these big extremes, our understanding of the landscape and this environment is also changing as we continue to experience it.  The first principle of permaculture is Observe & Interact – to take the time to really understanding what goes on in the landscape, across a number of seasons.  How do they differ?  What does each season present as challenges and rewards?  Our dawning realisation is that we have wild extremes here.  Winter is very cold and frosty and summer is incredibly dry and hot.  The soil goes from waterlogged in winter to massive open cracks in summer.  It presents challenges but it also encourages adapatability and understanding.  Appreciating each season for what it does present.  With the hot dry environment, we managed to dry a heap of waste barley mash from the local boutique brewery to use as chook food.

Chooks and barley

The hot and dry environment means that we can dry food really easily such as tomatoes, herbs to enjoy in months to come.

Where once I used to lament the lack of grass and bare, dusty paddocks that surround our house, I now rejoice in seeing the sparse paddocks, because our grass fire risk is minimised.

Llamas in summer

Sure, it takes some different ways of working and make sustainability more of a challenge.  Additional hay needs to be procured from the farmer next door to keep the herbivores fed if all the grass has dried and died,we need to scrounge the local supermarket to get green scraps for the chickens each day, we pick our battles on what we will and won’t grow and our normally outdoor working hours mean that we hide away in the seclusion of our house in the middle of the day.  We like to think of it as a Spanish siesta (which usually involves close association with a pedestal fan and Scrabble!).

And we appreciate each season for what it brings.  We have stopped asking ourselves if we are in the right place.  We KNOW we’re in the right place for a myriad of reasons and we rise up to the challenge of overcoming these tough seasons and showing how others can do so too.  Let’s face it, our world will continue to dry.  Temperate areas will become increasingly drier and we need to know how to adapt to those changing situations. Growing food doesn’t just occur in the wet tropics or on perfect properties and landscapes of abundance – it happens right here, during punishing summers, droughts and harsh landscapes.

We’ll just forge a path through the dust, heat and haze and then show people how it can be done!  Watch this space…

The Perils of Permaculture visits

This farm has helped us learn things about ourselves. It’s tested our strength, our resolve, our relationship and challenged our perceptions on many things. I realise that I am not a fan of the hot, dry summer.  Growing up near temperate rainforest, I’m a green forest child and I miss it in the landscape.  So dealing with the long, hot, dry summer has been tough.

WSF-Vista-sml.jpgBut, finally we have our first rains and the parched dirt, so bare of vegetation suddenly starts to sprout!  Little sprigs of green peek out from amongst the cracks in the earth, where you are convinced that no seeds could still remain.  Resilient things, these grasses.

We had a group of Permaculture Design Certificate students out to the farm the other day.  20 students to traipse around and see what we’re up to.  I was excited about showing them around, but was disappointed that they would see the farm in its hardest time, when little is going on and we’re in ‘survival mode’.

But then I realised that this is the BEST time for them to see the place.  When it is at its worst.  When it is at the very start of a permaculture journey.  Too many times in permaculture teaching courses, students are taken to the very best, most amazing permaculture properties to see how it’s done.  I was lucky enough to visit both Melliodora (David Holmgren’s amazing property) and Dave Arnold’s property in Violet Town as part of my PDC…and it was really inspirational…but it gives you a skewed perspective on what you can achieve as a permie newbie.  Often new permies have just bought a dilapidated parcel of land cheaply, or live in a challenging area and it’s difficult to grasp just how long it takes to establish a good, sustainable, functional, integrated permaculture system.  The amazing properties that I visited took 20-30 years to get to the stage they are now at, so while it’s fantastic to be able to look ahead to what is possible in the future and be inspired and motivated, it doesn’t show any reality of what a permie newbie has to face in the immediate future.  Which can inevitably lead to disappointment in the short term.

So I was happy to show them our warts and all perspective on our property.  Some were motivated, some were overwhelmed, and some were downright horrified!  Welcome to the start of permaculture people…it ain’t always easy getting a functional ecology happening with our parched, nutrient-starved Australian landscape.  I did feel the need to follow up with them in Spring to reassure them that things get greener, easier, better and all-round nicer in other parts of the year – and many of them were amazed at the change in the landscape.

‘Tis yet another example of Observe & Interact – understanding that there are many changes that take place in a landscape and on a property throughout the year and that giving yourself time to observe and understand those changes for the challenges or opportunities they provide is of utmost importance to assist with decision making and efficiency.  We bought our property in May, right after some very unseasonal summer rains and the place looked amazing.  Little did we know about the desert like summers to come or the swamp like winters to wade through or that roaring southerly that whips across the property.  I happily told them about some of our rookie errors (planting fruit trees on the windiest part of our block to help provide a wind break…what were we thinking?!) and our enthusiastic plans for the future.  It also allowed them to see a property at the very start – and think about how they might plan their permaculture design and overcome some of these challenges if they had such a property.

Now with the autumn rains, it’s lovely to see the landscape undergoing that change, reminding me that the seasons bring different offerings and appreciating being amongst the landscape as it becomes refreshed after a long hot summer.  I hope through their visit and by following along with our journey, that those permaculture students also have a better understanding of what the start of a permaculture venture might look like – with all its trials and tribulations, as well as having that beautiful Melliodora-esque property vision for the future.

Winter Is Coming

Our seasons have been delayed.  A long, hot, dry, dusty summer has given way to a long, hot, dry, dusty autumn.  A strange autumn, with no rain until the very last few days.  It’s been tough here at White Stone Farm, with our dams drying and plants dying, surrounded by this brown landscape.  We’re lucky though, ours is a mere hobby compared to the ancestral tracts of land from which many farmers must carve out their entire livelihoods throughout rural Australia.  For them the prolonged dry weather has been most difficult, with feed prices sky-high, crops failing and livestock going hungry on the barren ground. When food comes so readily from supermarkets and seems so abundant, we can easily forget the physical and emotional hardships it takes to get it to our plate.

The White Stone Farm herbivores tend not to stray far from their meal during those energy taxing dry days and the prolonged dry weather has cost us more in feed than we had anticipated.

Dinner time at White Stone Farm

Our hay bales for growing, so dutifully and painstakingly collected in summer and readied for the autumn rains have stood dry.  Our grand plans to have them soak up the autumn rain in preparation for garlic planting stood unfulfilled.  We emptied the last of the dam water trying to give them some moisture so that the first stage of decomposition could take place.

White Stone Farm hay bales

We seem to be caught within a rain shadow of a rain shadow.  Clunes is reputedly quite dry and then where we are located just north of the town seems to be further shadowed by Mount Beckworth.  With our beautiful view of the surrounding volcanic landscape, we watch rain storms gather and scud across the skies beyond our boundaries.  We’re jealous to hear about the torrential rain in Ballarat, or a deluge in Melbourne.  But no amount of rain dances have brought them our way…

And then, in the final week of autumn, Mother Nature finally helped out in our dry, parched world.  The rains we were eagerly waiting on and hoping for so that we could plant our garlic finally arrived, with the skies opening up to a brief deluge to moisten the ground and refresh the landscape.  Our first 10mls was cause for celebration.  Maybe that last rain dance did work.

The light flush of green on the landscape is now taking hold, as grasses and plants rise forth out of the dusty, bare ground.  Gumboots are now out in force to combat the muddy clay and numerous puddles.  The sodden ground is slippery and you can just about hear the plants taking a big long draught of water before it disappears down the large cracks that opened up the clay during the dry!

Winter fire at White Stone FarmAll too quickly, the brief autumn rains and warm sunshine are giving way to winter.  The chill is in the air and winter is coming.  Frosts are starting and words like “brrr…minus 2 degrees this morning” have returned to our vocabulary.  The type of weather that you can pull out all those lovely, warm jumpers, long socks, scarves, beanies and gloves, get out your favourite long-johns and cosy up to the fire with a good book and a bowl of steaming vegetable soup whilst the night cools down or the rain beats down outside.  Sunset is early and night falls quickly, with us needing to dash home from work to lock up the chooks.  No detours allowed as we race to beat the setting sun and the prowling foxes and get our chicken girls safely to bed.

But it does allow us long luxurious time indoors as the early darkness closes in, time to read good books to relax and inspire, spin llama wool, weave new creations, discuss more sustainability ideas that we want to implement or go over our permaculture designs and house renovations that we have planned for the warmer months to come.

Already the garlic is sprouting, the chickens are going through their moult (although some have stoically continued to lay eggs in the colder weather – it must be all the lovely extra food we are giving them!) and the bugs are returning to the damp places beneath rocks and logs.  It’s becoming a chicken paradise again with lots of green pick to enjoy and protein galore as worms and bugs return near the surface of the moist soil.

Garlic sprouting

The herbivores are also enjoying the greenery and Jess and the llamas are full of new life that comes with the energy hit of delicious, fresh grass.  After such a protracted, hot and dry few months, it is certainly nice to look out over a carpet of green that now adorns the landscape and appreciate Mother Nature’s watery gift of goodness from the clouds above.

Winter wanes at White Stone Farm

With its last gusty, frosty breath, winter seems to be finally waning here at White Stone Farm.  The warmth of spring is starting, the fruit trees are in their flowery finery of pinks and whites and the pastures are becoming verdant and lush once again.  Ah Spring, my favourite month at the farm as the landscape dries out after its winter deluge.

White Stone Farm blossom

Golden rays and deep blues
White and pinks and purple hues
Heady scent upon the breeze
Will likely bring hayfever’s sneeze
But Spring is welcomed in all her glory
To help us with our White Stone story

A change in the seasons also sees a change in birdsong.  Birds quiet, hidden or holidaying somewhere else during the colder parts of the year are back with their songful presence – Grey Shrike Thrushes delight us with their whistling and Striated Pardalotes call and flit amongst the Eucalyptus trees near the house.  The Welcome Swallows have returned and are again nesting above the back door, their indignant calls berating you if you disturb them when going in or out of the house. Continue reading

What’s New at White Stone Farm

Wow – how quickly the year is disappearing!  No sooner did we enjoy the golden hues of autumn, then winter approached with bracing winds, rain and more rain, sub-zero temperatures and more rain.  Did I mention rain?  How sad the extra water tanks aren’t in yet!  But the ducks think it’s the best thing in the world – the whole property is one big swamp, just ripe for puddling around in!!

Ducks love rain!

So far, our record coldest morning was about -6°C.  The landscape was blanketed in white icicles, giving everything a lacy cover that crunched underfoot. Nearby towns had snow!  Even the weeds looked pretty in their icicle finery.

Aside from the cold, there have been some glorious days of winter sunshine, enabling Stace to get out and make some amazing changes to the White Stone Farm landscape. The rain and high clay content on the property does make anything to do with dirt or driving around the property a lot more challenging and it’s caused Stace huge frustration as he slips and slides around the block.  In future years we won’t be doing such grand manoeuvres in the slushy, slippery winter but this year we need to get lots done before spring.  Despite the trying conditions, Stace has done an amazing job at moving earth to create some innovative infrastructure and effective grow beds… Continue reading

Winter on the Doorstep

Brrrr…winter is on its way at White Stone Farm!  Crisp, clear nights with millions of stars ablaze in the sky turn to frosty mornings and a landscape blanketed in icicles of white.  The grass crunches underfoot as I brave the frigid air to feed the early morning crew.

Jess is always the first at the gate (or back door if she’s near the house), jets of breathy steam blowing from her wide equine nostrils.  She whickers good morning and her ears prick forward at the promise of carrots. Continue reading

Change of weather, Change of attitude

It’s amazing what a change in location and lifestyle can make on your outlook to the weather and all it brings.  In the depths of a dry summer, this is even more apparent.

Once rain was an annoyance, an inconvenience, damaging to picnic plans and outdoor BBQ events.  Now here at White Stone Farm, Rain equals Life.

We’ve come to realise that our property seems stuck in a rain shadow – we’ll watch storm clouds scud across the sky towards us, heavy with rain, only to part and leave us in perpetual sunshine, with a tinge of disappointment at missing out.  Great for weddings, not so great when your plants are thirsty and your dam is running low.

Continue reading