Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Caring for Older Animals: Part 2

You can read Part 1 here.

Providing appropriate shelter for the older animal is an important consideration that can reduce the stress placed on an aging body trying to cope with regulating temperature under variable conditions. Animals will feel the effects of heat more, and may become lethargic or begin to sweat when their younger companions may still appear comfortable. Alternately, in the winter arthritic joints and poorer circulation to the extremities will effect the older animal. My partner and brothers built Angie a well ventilated stable to offer shelter from sun and rain. However, with the exception of when eating and drinking in the stable, she seldom uses it because she chooses to stand at the fence with her companion, a miniature horse owned by our neighbour. When placing a shelter not only the direction of cooling summer breezes, cold winds and sun need to be considered, but also where your animal is likely to want to spend their time if there are other attractions to them. Gladly the fence she stands at is shady and sheltered from winds. 

our old horse
Angie sheltering under he favorite tree

Rugging offers additional protection from rain, wind and insects. Flies are a major problem in our paddock, despite regular manure removal. They bite Angie all over,drawing blood and leaving scabs, which is enough to distress an animal of any age, however the effects on Angie of constant stamping and walking through bushes to brush the flys off means she rests less and her lameness increases. We have found that covering with rugs and fly boots are the only effective means of reducing the effects of flies. Our flies were not deterred by repellants. A highly reflective silver open weave rug, with neck rug has been effective as it reflects the sun but allows air movement under the rug, in theory reducing the heat of wearing a rug on hot summer days.

As animals reach old age we adjust their routines to suit their changing physical abilities, such as lighter work or retirement for horses. Recently I discovered how essential it is to consider how such a change in routine, particularly in the case of working animals, effects our relationship with the animal and their psychological well being. Angie has been retired for six years. She worked hard for me at pony club and competitions, completing a one day event only three months before retirement at the age of 25. She enjoys human company and working to please us (most of the time!). However earlier this year she began exhibiting some new behavior which we had never experienced with her. She was threatening to nip us, even on the face, was very difficult to handle on the lead when taken out of the paddock, and displayed pig rooting and fancy prancing when taken near the sporting oval a short walk down the street. Watching the oval, which is in view from her paddock, became an obsession, to the extent of preferencing the behavior over eating (she became an avid soccer fan).

We were immediately able to rule out too much energy as the behaviour began when we she had become a little underweight before we had become aware of the teeth problem. After some deep thinking we felt that the fixation on the oval was a sign of anxiety, and that the prancing indicated that she thought it was a horse show ring. She was expecting some handsome stallions to appear on the soccer oval. We felt that the anxiety and unwanted behavior may have been due in part to a lack of socialisation (she has one paddock companion but is used to having many more), but most likely was because her position in the 'herd' wasn't being reinforced appropriately. We, the humans, are part of the herd. When she was ridden she was always being asked to move off our aids and therefore accepted us as the alpha members of the herd. Come retirement, a short walk and handling during rugging  and feeding simply wasn't in Angie's case proving enough to reinforce her social position. As a result she was anxious and the nipping was her way of challenging our position. To her, the dynamics in our 'herd' had changed and she was attempting to assert her position.

I had always held an interest in wanting to learn natural horsemanship. There is a book on my shelf by renowned natural horseman Pat Parelli, 'Natural Horsemanship'. Parelli describes how his approach to working with horses draws on studying and understanding the nature of the horse and using this information to build a better relationship with our equine friends. We learn to talk their language. One of the first exercises his book offers is fingertip yielding. This is a simple on the ground exercise that asks our horse to yield to pressure applied by your fingertips to move back, pivot the hindquarters, move the forehand and to move forward. After a 10 minute session of this exercise with Angie she displayed an immediate improvement. Her trans fixation on the oval wasn't to be seen again that day, and quickly waned over the following week. After approximately a month of working with her in this simple manner on almost a daily basis the unwanted behaviour was gone and a relaxed horse was back. She had re accepted me as the alpha member and was happier for it. We now go for walks around the perimeter of the oval on a long lead without the pig roots.

On the day that I found Angie sick and in pain the vet arrived within half an hour and diagnosed her condition as colic. An electrolyte and a peppermint drench (coloured a lurid minty green, which the vet says is purely to make the owner feel that there is something useful in the fluid) were administered with a pain killer. We waited for some anxious hours, tallying up my available finances as the vet quoted me the costs of our limited options for further treatment if she didn't show signs of improvement very soon. I found myself in a position where I realised that the outcome for Angie could be dictated by my bank balance. For a horse that had given me her all, I wanted to give her the same but wasn't sure if I could. 

After the initial treatment she was still in pain. I was in a paralysis of indecision as to whether to take her in to the hospital for further treatment. I feared that any decision could be the last I make for her. I had a truck ordered to transport her in, then I cancelled it, but too late the truck arrived, so with ten minutes of procrastination and the driver patiently standing by I changed my mind again. Angie walked up the ramp and plop, a nice pile of manure landed at our feet (I was never happier to witness such a motion). By the time we reached the vets, I stood on the cobblestones wondering if they thought I was an over protective owner with my bright eyed horse sauntering off the truck. 

The following morning, with Angie safely home, I received a call from the vet. He told me of two old dogs he once had. They had reached a point where life was very painful. One day he found them under the house in a very sorry state and he realised that he had held onto them for too long. He deeply regretted not putting them out of their suffering earlier. Angie recovered well, she has a great zest for life, sometimes I forget that she is old. But I keep in the back of my mind that when the day comes, I need to have the courage to let go and do what is best for her. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Love in the Lettuce Patch

heart shaped lettuce leaf
My lettuces have started sprouting love heart leafs. I wonder what that can mean?

Friday, November 30, 2012

Caring for Older Animals: Part 1

31 year old horse
My sister and our 31 year old horse Angie in the foreground

Earlier this month as part of my usual morning rounds I went out to feed my old horse that we keep in a paddock at the rear of our property. She wasn't standing at the fence eagerly awaiting breakfast as is her habit, so I called out to her. A great erupting neigh at full volume came from behind the stable. I found her on her back kicking at her stomach in great pain. She proceeded to try and get up straight away, with some difficulty and started to hobble after me as I ran for the phone. My hands shook as I searched for the vets number in my phone. Three phone calls later I had a vet who was available at that hour to come out. I sat with her and waited in terror that it could be the day, at her 30 years of age, to make a dreaded decision.

Just like us, as our animals age they need a little extra tlc to keep on going at their best.
Angie, my horse, has arthritis, and some interesting benign lumps that pop up on her (she has one on her nose that we call her beauty spot). Her teeth are also worn down so that she now requires special feed that is easy to chew and digest. As animals age their requirements change. I found that by informing myself of and understanding these new requirements there is much that can be done to increase their well being for the duration of their life. 

I try to find time to take Angie for a gentle walk every other day. Extensive arthritis in her front legs has caused her to be lame for the past five years. However the right exercise, which for her is a walk on flat ground only, adds interest to her day to relieve boredom, and helps to maintain her mobility and improve circulation. To treat her arthritis we add apple cider vinegar to her feed and cold pressed linseed oil for it's anti-inflammatory properties. Once we got the dosage correct for the linseed oil she had a remarkable and very quick reduction in her overall stiffness. We had comments from everyone at the paddocks she was agisted at at the time who were surprised by the change. In the past five years she has never gone back to her previous level of stiffness.

This year her teeth became worn down reducing her ability to break down coarse feeds. She had lost weight and could no longer chew hay. She would remove the soft leaf and spit out the stalks. We are continuing to fiddle with her diet, but with an appropriate change to more finely ground and cut feeds, and an increase in fat and protein as is needed by the older horse, with the addition of soy and rice bran, she is now a healthy weight and has a glowing coat.  

By observing our animals I generally find that they have a way of telling us what is going on with them. Angie has been chewing wood which we have interpreted as a need for more fiber in her diet. We are experimenting with the addition of beet pulp to her feed, a relatively new product to the Australian market, for it's high digestible fiber content. 

Keeping on top of minor aliments and routine care, such as worm prevention, and keeping hooves clean and free of fungal infections, has been an important part of my care strategy. The ability of an older animal to bounce back from minor aliments is reduced, and it puts more of a load on a body that may already be under some pressure dealing with chronic conditions or general reduced efficiency. In Angie's case, she has a bowed front leg that causes her hooves to wear unevenly (much like we do to our shoes if we have rolled arches in our feet). Keeping her hooves trimmed regularly reduces the pressure on her arthritic knees.

Read Part 2....

Friday, November 2, 2012

Make your own soothing Aloe Vera Gel

Aloe Vera is a plant that should be found in every garden. Even those that fear they can't grow anything can succeed with this hardy succulent. Given a free draining position in ground or a pot by the back door, it will take care of itself. Most of us will be familiar with the soothing gel of the plant available in tubes from pharmacies and supermarkets, as a great sunburn reliever. Alternatively, the leaves can be harvested fresh from the plant for use directly on the skin. Simply cut a small piece of leaf, peal back the skin using a knife, and rub onto the affected area. A leaf can be cut, left to dry for an hour on a hot day, and then popped into your beach bag, ready for use should you get a little too much sun on the sand.

Aloe Vera plant 

The benefits of aloe vera go far beyond sunburn relief. It is a valuable ingredient in skin and hair care products for it's moisturising, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. With a few simple steps it can be processed making it ready to add to your own home made ointments, meaning you can enjoy all the benefits of this versatile plant.

cut aloe vera leaf
1. Cut a fresh green aloe vera leaf with a knife close to the base of the leaf.

cutting aloe vera leaf
2. Using a sharp knife with a pointed tip, cut down the center of the leaf, only penetrating half way through the depth of the leaf.

pinching leaf
3. Avoiding the prickly edges, pinch the leaf, pulling back the edges so that it is folded in half.
Origami aloe style!

cutting aloe leaf
4. Use the sharp tip of the knife to cut down the center of the gel on each side of the leaf.

pulling back aloe leaf sides
5. Unfold the aloe to reveal four inner sides to the leaf.

scraping aloe leaf
6. Using a rounded soup spoon, pressing firmly and evenly, scrape the spoon down each gelled side of the leaf to remove the gel. The trick with this is to not press too hard so as to avoid the layer of yellow sap that separates the gel from the skin. The sap can be irritating to sensitive skin.

aloe vera gel in pan
7. The unprocessed gel. You'll notice that some of the yellow sap has mixed with the gel, which isn't a problem unless you show sensitivities to it. At this stage the gel can be pressed through a wire sieve to remove any remaining skin.
blended aloe vera gel
8. Using a blender, whiz the gel until white and frothy to remove hard lumps. It should now be an even consistency. Bottle into sterilised bottles and keep in the fridge ready to add to your favorite skin and hair care recipes.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A lanky visitor

This week in the vegie patch...

Grey water bird
A visitor to the vegie patch this week

flowering cabbage
Our first home grown cabbage. We thought that if we waited to harvest a little longer, it would get bigger, but it flowered before we could eat it.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Mandala Garden Takes Shape

Growth is in abundance in spring, and that includes the shaping up of our new mandala vegetable garden. The photo below is two weeks on from that in the last post. The paths have been laid with cardboard boxes to suppress the grass. Under the new beds to the right a few old moldy bales of hay have been spread over the grass, with a delivery of two cubic meters of soil on top. Our chooks are busy fertilising the last quarter that is to be planted out next month and spreading the new soil. Over their run we have suspended an old trampoline mat to provide shade. In the middle of the day they can be found snoozing and dust bathing under it. Potatoes that were planted in September are shooting for the sky. They literally grow several centimeters each day.

mandala garden

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Busting our electricity bills: Part 2

Read the previous article in this series: Busting our electricity bills: Part 1

My portable air conditioner (the neck-tie cooler from the 'Bust Your Household Electricity Bills' pack) has proven a hit for keeping cool in the garden, a place where no air conditioner has ever gone before. This makes it's technology (that crystal stuff that swells to ten times it's size in water) super cool. My bathroom mirror now sports a triangular sticker that reminds me 'short showers save water', that I feel the need to add to with 'and saves power = saves $ + saves carbon = saves the planet'. I guess the sticker writing gurus didn't stick that on there as it may be a little bit more maths than the bathroom can handle. The thermometer is now telling me that it is 29. 1 degrees in my office, despite the breeze from my ceiling fan and the fact that this is the coolest room in my house. Eeep, what is summer going to bring? I feel that I and and my partner Cameron (he grabbed the free drink bottle from the pack as it fit perfectly in his bike drink holder, and because I think he really just wants to be a pirate as it says 'arrhg' on it, which apparently stands for something sustainable which I can't remember) have put in the effort using the resources of our free council pack to reduce our electricity consumption. Onto our next effort...

Electricity pole

I was recently informed by a nice solar engineer when he visited to give me a quote for solar panels (more on that very soon...) that if I am not receiving a discount from my electricity supplier then I should ask one. So I called Energy Australia and asked for a better deal, armed with the information that AGL was offering a 10% discount in exchange for signing a three month contract, plus $175 off the first bill. They offered me 12% off my bills (including the green power component which AGL wasn't discounting) plus $100 off my next bill. This was in exchange for signing a two year contract. Their rates are the same as AGL's for the first and second pricing tiers on a single meter plan. Where Energy Australia and AGL do differ is in the difference of their thresholds of electricity use, that once met, increase the rate to the second pricing tier:

Energy Asutralia:      First  1000kWh/annum @ 24.40c 
                               Next 1000kWh/annum @ 25.50c                    
                               Balance 34.30c      

AGL:                        First 4000kWh/annum @ 24.40c 
                               Next 4000kWh/annum @ 25.50c
                               Balance 34.30c  

These prices exclude GST 
We chose to stay with Energy Austraila, as whilst their usage thresholds were not as generous as AGL, our plans to reduce our consumption meant that the higher discount was likely to give us larger savings than the better threshold. This is however just one example of the challenge of comparing electricity plans offered by various suppliers. Currently the competition is fierce between the electricity suppliers, which puts us, as the consumer, in a fantastic position to negotiate the best deal..... knock, knock.... just on time, believe it or not, that was AGL at my door right now wanting to nab me as a customer.

PROJECTED  COST OF ELECTRICITY for the next 12 months: $3,000.00*
*based on our last 12months of consumption for our house-hold of two

- 12% discount + $100 off the first bill = saving of $460.00*
*over 12 months on projected costs

Read the next article in this series...
Busting our electricity bills: Part 3 - Going Solar 

Friday, October 5, 2012

New Garden Shaping Up for Spring

The whip birds cast into song and I knew it was spring. Green shoots were covering our dwarf apples, still in their pots waiting for a new home in the earth. We had been pondering our garden plans for a few months. Plan number four won our hearts (and heads, surely a winning combination), see The Plan: Designing a Garden

In an effort to beat the heat of summer we have been hoeing, barrowing and digging for the past month. This past October long weekend we had a garden working bee with my parents and Star the border collie (chicken guard and horse rounder upper, a sure sign of a dog in need of a flock of wooly sheep). I was reminded that all that is required to keep my Dad happy is to hand him a shovel and let him dig. There's therapy in the earth. However I must remember to make him a pair of leather arm guards for Christmas, as whenever he helps at our place he seems to do battle with sharp objects (rusty corrugated iron and this time it was a rose bush). Unfortunately the blood on his arms suggests he came out second best. But he stilled called to thank me for the weekend. Thanks Mum and Dad and of course to Cam.

vegetable garden
The view from the stable roof, overlooking the beginnings of the mandala garden (left) and the last crop in the original vegie beds (front). Dad with a shovel in his hand.

The citrus avenue softens the hard lines of path and garage, all gifts from family.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Spring Garden: Photo Essay

Everything blooms in spring...

seed head

pea flower
peas in flower

dangling seed heads

purple flowers

broad beans and bee
a bee pollinating broad bean flowers

autumn green manure in flower
autumn green manure in flower

dill flower
dill in flower

Monday, September 17, 2012

Busting our electricity bills: Part 1

'Give me the Flick'. This is one of the stickers I received in an energy saving pack from my council. It has a picture of a light switch on it. Our local council is running a 'Bust Your Household Electricity Bills' competition. There's a prize for the family who make the largest reduction to their bill. I don't recall what the prize is, but for us, the savings on our electricity bill is enough of a reward. 

shower timer
Shower timer

A few more of the things I received in the starter pack:
  • A thermometer. It has a little reminder printed on the front to heat the house in winter only between 18-21 degrees, and to cool in summer between 23-26 degrees.
  • Four minute shower timers.
  • A water bottle, a substitute for air conditioning.
  • Neck tie coolers, another air con alternative, that is, unlike an air conditioner, conveniently portable.
  • A sheet of stickers to remind us to 'Be cool, shut the door' when opening the fridge, and 'unplug me' for our phone chargers.
  • And a pile of guides about heating, lighting, hot water and sustainable living.
 Over the last year we have made considerable investment in upgrading our appliances to more energy efficient models, buying recent second hand models where we could. We up-graded our fridge to a larger model, but one that is more energy efficient than our old fridge. This winter we bought a 2400W Panel Heater to replace our slow column heater. And when our washing machine of only five years keeled over, we replaced it with a four star front loading model, the best we could afford under a $1000. Each of these appliances were no longer performing for us, so needed replacement. We calculated that the savings in energy efficiency would, at second hand rates, make them pay for themselves within a few years. 

At this point we moved to our new home, which includes the oh so not so glam instant hot water heater. Our winter electricity bill was $930.00. We cringed. Oopps! There goes our new budget. Our daily usage was 32kw. Eeeppp..... up from 12kw in summer (we have no air conditioner). And only a third of that bill included the new 20% rate increase. Our electricity costs were getting scary. We knew it was coming but now it was sinking in. It was time to do some maths. I added up our last four bills, one years worth. My calculations for the next 12 months produced a potential figure of $3000 in electricity on the new rates with the 100% Green Power package.

I got out the pile of sustainable energy saving guides from the council. We are going to have a thorough go at winning this competition before our bank account resigns from its job.

Read the next article in this series...
Busting our electricity bills: Part 2  

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Recycling the Freecycle Way

The concept of waste ignores the basic cycles of nature. In nature an output from one system becomes the input of another. On this principle was born the invaluable resource of Freecycle. The Freecycle website is a simple platform where anyone in the world can create a group for their locality, and gain members who can start posting Free and Wanted advertisements for all those things they need or don't want anymore. And of course everything is given free in good faith. Furniture, books, flat screened Tvs, fridges, boats. One persons waste becomes anothers treasure.

black stemmed taro
Black stemmed taro

Our horse paddock has perfect conditions for growing taro. So much so that beautiful black stemmed taro plants had set up home and gone weedy. 30 or more tubers was a bit of a job to dig out when added to our list of other chores to refurbish the paddock. A quick check in bunnings, and I find that these plants sell for $8 or more each. Lacking time and keen for any help to tick a job off our garden to do list, I put a 'Free for Removal' ad on my local Freecycle network. Within two days I had three eager takers sending me emails. I replied to them all, that there were plenty to go round and that they were all welcome to take their pick. Two got back to me. 

The first were an older couple interested in growing unusual edible plants. They were keen to try their hand at taro. Unfortunately the variety in my paddock was a little disappointing in the tuber size department. But he took a few anyway. "Have you tried Yacon?" asked the man. I replied that I certainly have and were planning a large planting of them. "Have you grown fennell?" Yes, but I don't have any in at the moment. He deposited by my front door step a few days later a bag of yacon, a fennell seedling and two large daikon radishes. 

The next keen gardeners, two women, had just bought an acre in a nearby suburb and were planning a pond, orchard and vegie garden. They brought a trailer which they half filled with taro. One of them commented on what a lovely plant a yellow hedging shrub in our front yard was. I was looking to move it as, I informed them, we are planning a cottage garden out the front. They were glad, upon my offering to dig up the lot for an instant hedge a their place. "We love freecycle!" They said. In gratitude they offered me a card for their pet minding business. "Next time you go on holidays, we are happy to mind your cat for free."

I still had 10 or more plants left. Gumtree is another great website for freebies. Check out the 'free' classified section. It tends to have more landscaping and building giveaways than Freecycle, which has more household stuff. Previously we dismantled an old iron and hardwood shed that was advertised on Gumtree, free for removal. It has saved us $100's on our horse stable build and there's plenty left over for a chook house.

I posted an ad and got in touch with yet another passionate gardener, Steve. He cleared out the remaining plants for a school's dry river bed garden. He had collected over 60 varieties of taro alone for the garden, yet didn't have the black stemmed variety. I was so pleased for it to go to such a worthy cause to be enjoyed by many. Another gardener who is keen on exploring the more unusual varieties, Steve offered to help me source any plants I wanted in the future. It seems a fantastic hobby, modern plant finding in our internet age. Sure to be less adventurous than a century or so ago when it meant traveling to exotic places, but no doubt rewarding. Plus he offered to raise a variety of seedlings for a community garden I am involved in.

Recycling with Freecycle and other free directories is not only environmentally responsible and a help in my case as I tick off another job done, but as I discovered a fantastic way to meet other like-minded people, in my case, serious gardeners. I was pleased to simply see the taro go to new homes and clear up my paddock. However the generosity of those I gave to makes me realise what a wonderful way it is to share resources.

You can join Freecycle for free at

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Plan: Designing A Garden (Part 3)

Drawing plans for a garden can be a surprisingly abstract experience. John Brookes, is I surmise to be a well regarded garden designer, as I discover his garden in my Phaidon book of famous gardens. His approach to garden layout is to play with abstract shapes on an overlay of a site map, as detailed in ‘Your Garden Design Book'. This process is fun.  I found myself playing with random shapes, not thinking too much of the finer details. Circles, I love circles. I discover the effectiveness of this approach to creating a basic structure to the garden. It all seems to come together quite easily. In the final plan the shapes might be delineated by a fence, the edge of a path or a garden bed. 

garden plan 1
Garden Layout 1

There is a useful key to this design process for getting the proportions right. Brookes lays a grid over the site plan. The size of the grid and whether it sits on a horizontal or diagonal plane is determined by the size of the site and existing main structures, such as a house. The grid allows the garden to relate proportionally to the key features of the site. I chose to make my grid approximately 3.25m for the side of each square. This is half the width of a proposed deck a the rear of the house and appropriate to the site which is 13.5m wide, thereby fitting just over 4 squares across the width of the site. Note that my grid does not fit snugly to the site boundaries, I want to draw attention away from the boundaries, therefore making it of less importance to line design elements up with them. When playing with the shapes of the garden layout I use the grid as a general guide. Not everything need line up precisely with it. The circular vegie garden for example is approximately 3 squares wide, but sits a little off the lines of the squares to allow some space between it and the glass house. 

garden plan 2
Garden Layout 2

Visualising the infinite possibilities of our backyard has been a fun creative process. I developed four potential plans for our new garden. Each plan details the basic structure. Once we decide on which plan we like most, a planting plan can be overlaid. You'll notice that each plan incorporates the existing structures in our backyard: shed/garage, greenhouse and a concrete path that runs along side. We are currently building a horse stable and feed store room, only the feed store is visible on the left, the stable is an extension of it further to the left. We decided on a number of fenced zones for the garden, in order of distance from the house:
  • Zone 1: grassed backyard suitable for a dog
  • Zone 2: mandala vegetable garden incorporating a chicken house in the center
  • Zone 3: native food garden and orchard
  • Zone 4: pond for growing edible water plants and tropical food forest
  • Zone 5: horse paddock and stable/feed store

garden plan 3
Garden Layout 3

Each of the zones are placed in the same location on each of the four possible garden layouts. These positions were chosen based on a study of the sun and shade patterns of the site, drainage, slope, and the siting of high visitation areas closer to the house. The differences between each layout are the shapes and lines of the fences, pond and garden beds. These lines will form the foundation and style of the garden. We are still not sure which one we like best. We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on our plans. Which would you choose: Plan 1, 2, 3 or 4?

garden design 4
Garden Layout 4

Friday, August 3, 2012

Seedraising Workshop at Purple Pear Organics

We picked up a friend and headed out for Anambah, a suburb bordered by the Hunter River on the outskirts of Maitland. The farm we are visiting sits on the boundary between city and country. A brand new 'homemakers' center sits next door, Maitland airport is their other neighbour. A housing estate is slowly enveloping the surrounding hills. We spot the sign: Purple Pear Organics.

Rolling up the tree lined drive we a are greeted by a flock of white geese patrolling the yard. Today's classroom is a large open shed, the walls adorned with farming implements and tools, already bustling with members of the Hunter Organic Growers Society (HOGS). Each seated in their fold up chairs, hats on heads and gardening gloves at the ready. The sun casts a welcome warmth below the tin roof. HOGS have organised today's workshop on seed raising with our hosts Kate and Mark, the entrepreneurs behind this successful example of community assisted agriculture (CSA). 

CSA puts the consumer in direct contact with the producer. Subscribers have an opportunity to know where their food comes from, how it is grown, and who grows it. Mark tells us that they feed 20 families who each commit to a weekly box of produce from the farm. They don't like waste. By selling their produce before they grow it they know precisely what quantity they need to produce. This model seems to share the gluts and losses more equitably. This season they received a poor batch of onion seeds. None germinated, therefore, Kate laments, no one will receive onions this winter. But things must weigh out, as they have a long waiting list of families and are planning to more than double their production very soon.

A light plane circles into land, disappearing below the horizon. We head for the mandala garden. Kate is the farm's seed raiser. It's cheaper than buying seedlings she tells us. Mark mentions the challenges of reaping a profitable income from their small scale operation, despite selling direct to the consumer. For the economics to be at the ideal, Kate would need to sow seeds at some incredible speed. I wonder at how much large scale farming operations play a role in pushing small farms out of the market. Not to mention the ongoing saga of the supermarket price wars. Being in the sunshine on a winters day makes for a rather nice office, but it's still a business, the economics need to be managed carefully. 

A bessa block glasshouse stands in the corner of the market garden. A row of pines create a wind break to the west. All the trees on the farm were planted by Mark and Kate. This left them with a pile of black tree tubes. Everything has a potential for re-use at Purple Pear. We are presented with a styrofoam box cut in half on the horizontal, filled with tree tubes that have have also been cut in half. A simple home made seedling tray. These are used for the second stage of seed raising. Seeds are densely sown into small punnets. When the first two leaves emerge, the seedlings are planted into the individual tubes of the tray. See below for a step by step:

Home-made Seedling Tray

styrofoam box and tray
2. Insert a tree tube tray to hold the 
tubes in place.
styrofoam box
 1. Cut in half horizontally a small
styrofoam box. Punch drainage holes into
 the base.

 3. Cut in half tree tubes and insert the top 
section into the tray. 
Alternatively use empty toilet roles.

ready to plant tray
 4. Fill with seedling mix. 
(see the seedling mix recipe below)

making a hole in the soil
 5. Make a hole with a stick or dibbler in 
each tube.

 6. Prick out seedlings when the first two leaves 
have emerged and plant one into each tube.

7. Store in a green/glasshouse or protected area with adequate sun. 
Feed weekly with seasol.
8. When plants reach around 10 - 15 cm high, place outside to harden up for a few days,then plant into your garden.

Seed-raising Mix 

Equal parts:
Cocopeat (available in bricks from hardware stores and nurseries) 
Crushed basalt (landscaping supplies)

Potting Mix

Equal parts:
Crushed basalt 
Compost or worm-casts or aged cow manure 

A few volunteers start the fiddly task of prying apart seedlings from a tangle of roots and planting into the trays. I nip away quickly to the loo, which is an experience in itself. Beside the shed sits a white box, a mismatch of recycled building materials, propped up on stilts. The handle is a knotted rope threaded through the door that slots between two nails on the door frame to hold it to. Inside, I peer into the bowl. I don't make a habit of inspecting toilets with such attention, however this one has caught my eye as it works somewhat differently to the familiar dual flush. There is a deep dark hole at the back as one would expect with a compost toilet. At the front end there is a little white dish with a drain in the middle, like a miniature handbasin. 'Liquids, solids.' I think. As a female, I have had never had to consider my aim before. 

On my return my partner tells me that there was a mid air dual between two large birds of prey. I gaze at the sky where the winner remains circling. The bird has a large wing span, perhaps close to two meters. They had broken apart before hitting the ground.

Kate gestures behind her to a bench made of old heavy gauge wire fencing, like those that were once used to fence schools, laid over a frame to create a table. Trays of thriving seedlings lay on top, a net thrown over to keep birds off. This is the holding pen where seedlings spend a day or two to harden up to the elements before graduating to the vegetable beds. Below the table peck a few chooks enclosed in a pen to keep the grass down. The structure serves two purposes, a classic permaculture principal in action. 

Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning circle. The term often refers to concentric diagrams common in Buddhist and Hindu art. The mandala as a garden layout (see my earlier post Mandala Chook Clock Garden) has been popularised amongst permaculture enthusiasts by Linda Woodrow's book 'The Permaculture Home Garden' where a series of circular beds placed within a larger circle form the design. Purple Pear's market garden resembles Woodrow's system being a series of mandalas within mandalas, dotted with small fruit trees and central ponds that attract beneficial wildlife. Wandering down the narrow paths that weave gently through the garden, spongy underfoot, I find myself somewhat pleasantly disoriented, but I go with the flow. We are presented with a recently planted circular bed, chock full of some 200 or so seedlings in an approximately 2 - 3 meter diameter bed. The key to gardening efficiently in this design, Mark explains, is that a large vegetable such as a cabbage, will be planted in the middle of a patch of fast growing plants, such as salad greens. By the time the cabbage encroaches on the smaller plants, these plants will have been harvested, leaving room for the cabbage to expand. Kate affirms the importance of this simple design element as a key part of the system. 

I feel heartened to notice patches of clover and chick weed fringing the vegetable beds. By comparison, I feel the inevitable weeds in my garden aren't so bad after all. 

There is a glimmer of a smile on Mark's face as he mentions that his chook dome is in need of a few repairs, and therefore requires a few extra hands to move it to the next bed. It just so happens that today there a plenty of willing hands. Six or so people circle the dome and grip the edge of the frame, slowly walking it to an adjacent bed. The moulting crew of chooks within stay under the dome as it moves. The chooks new bed is piled high with mulch and spent plants. They get straight into scratching it over with their powerful legs. The domes are made according to Woodrow's method. Approximately 1.5 - 2m in height, and the width of the mandala beds. The frame is a network of black and white flexible piping (I assume another useful tip find), covered in chicken wire with a tarp on top to weather proof it. A mower catcher makes for a nesting box. When a crop is harvested the chooks are moved onto the bed to weed and fertilise it in preparation for the next crop. Permaculture in action.

Seated in the 'classroom', the last crumbs of afternoon tea are brushed away. Photo copies of a calendar of June are passed around. I note the little cow symbols dotted across the page. Contented cows sitting down chewing the cud. This is a moon calender. Mark explains there are several different approaches to planting by the moon, but which ever works for you is the one you should choose. He recounts an evening upon which they hosted Lyn Bagnall in preparation for the launch of her book 'Easy Organic Gardening & Moon Planting' to be held at the farm the next day. It was an evening of heated discussion over the merits of their differing methods of moon gardening. However, Mark re-affirms, which ever method works for you. 

Across the page are the days of the month. Running in a column below each day is a picture of the moon phase, today it is waning, and the zodiac that the moon is currently in front of which informs the daily plant focus. Today there is a picture of a tomatoe, meaning it is a fruit day, therefore all planting and harvest activities today should involve fruits such as apples or melons. A graph shows the position of the moon in the sky: whether it sits high or low in relation to the horizon. Today it is descending and nearly at its lowest point in the sky. The moon effects a pull on the earth, Mark tells us, which we can observe in the tides of the oceans. This pull of the moon also affects flows within living things. In plants the sap flow will rise as the moon ascends, and descend to the roots as the moon lowers in rhythm with the monthly pattern. Seasonally there is a similar effect, in Winter energy tends to move inwards, to conserve, in Spring and Summer energy moves out to the periphery.  These rhythms can impact the success of germination, pruning, fertilising and other activities in the garden.

I gaze out beside the shed, a little boy is befriending the resident tabby cat. He motions for the cat to follow him. The cat decides that eating the crumbs off my partner's feet is a more lucrative option. 

Moon planting is a way of getting in tune with natures rhythms and utilising these to promote optimum plant growth. By undertaking particular activities at certain times, such as pruning in winter when a plant is dormant, and ideally when the moon is descending, then the sap flow will be directed towards the roots, reducing the stress on the plant. Once you develop a feel for working with nature, Mark's experience is that you'll discover a sense for knowing what needs to be done on each day without looking at the calender.

I am still not sure what the cows are for, but they look happy, if that can be a testament for moon planting. In all seriousness, the thriving garden at Purple Pear is surely a testament to Mark and Kate's application of permacuture and biodynamics as systems that produce fantastic results. 

As we turn out of the farm-gate I take another look at the houses creeping over the hill, the cusp of development. I think how appropriate a location for a farm that aims to close the gap between farmer and consumer. 

Thank you to Kate and Mark for sharing their knowledge and to Hunter Organic Growers Society ( for organising the day

To learn more about Purple Pear please visit their website 

Moon Calenders are available for sale from Holistic Page.

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