Things Grow

And then they struggle.  This is gardening in a country ablaze.  Not that I’ve had a fire at my door, but a fast-moving 60 hectare grass fire did come within 5km on New Year’s Eve and that was close enough.  January has been full of days above 30 celsius and we’ve had about 40mm of rain locally in the past four or so months.  Not the time to establish a hedge, vegetable garden or trees, all of which I’ve pigheadedly attempted.

The only two apps I use at the moment are the Country Fire Authority and weather.  It’s all about watching stats, worrying about wind direction, hoping for rain.  Every photo I take in the harsh sun looks overexposed and my feet are taking on hobbit hoariness after hours in the garden.

Having said all of that, it’s not completely grim.  The beehive that my neighbour Terry put on the front lawn is doing really well (despite lack of rain, the heat and not much food about).  I’m eating a lot of ice cream and swimming in dams.  The colour in the landscape is really beautiful.

Layer Cake

Layer Cake

I’ve just polished off a giant bowl of spaghetti with garlic and basil from the garden.  I’m eating radishes and spinach and eyeing up the spring onions.  I have to keep reminding myself that this is the first gardening season of many and I shouldn’t expect too much, better to savour the little edible victories and keep observing and learning.

I have learnt that every job in a garden this size is huge.  New beds means getting in the tractor and rotary hoe (and, let’s be honest, Pepe to do the heavy work).  Planting a hedge seems to take months.  A while ago now I dug 30+ holes for a feijoa hedge along the northern boundary and returning to plant just recently I got all boot camp on it and was out digging at 6am many mornings in a row.  They’re surviving well so far with a fantastically extravagant weekly bucket-watering regime.

The choice of plant is a hopeful experiment, an ode to my NZ childhood.  And I figure if Gerhard and Bern’s have survived for 20 years around the corner then I’ve got a chance here.  The wire protection keeps most kangaroos and rabbits out – save the odd clumsy ‘roo that catches a paw and squashes the damn thing (one shrub lost so far.)

Mass Feijoa Planting

Mass Feijoa Planting

I waited until we got bunny-proof fencing in place to start planting veggies.  So full of promise in September, the fenced area is now unquestionably tanned.

Lush After a Wet Winter

Lush After a Wet Winter

Brown and Proud

Brown and Proud

I’m giving a go raspberries, gooseberries, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, jerusalem artichokes, radishes, spinach, beans, lettuces, spring onions, leeks, cucumbers, a few types of melon & pumpkin, and all sorts of herbs.  The most successful crop so far? Sunflowers.  Ha!  Well at least the bees are happy.

Where Once Was Garlic

Where Once Was Garlic

Now Are Sunflowers (Sheltering Lettuces)

Now Are Sunflowers (Sheltering Lettuces)

When I asked my neighbour and fellow gardening enthusiast Claire what she did in the evenings she said “kids to bed, a cider and two hours of watering.”  I get it.  Years of gardening in the Melbourne suburbs had me a bit smug about my green thumb and now the climate and soil are slapping me in the face.  With just a few plants in the ground I’d rather keep my babies alive with a spend of $170 on 12,000 litres of water than go out to dinner or buy a dress.  Not that I’ve had to buy water yet, but in these next few establishment years I doubt I’d hesitate if the need arose.  For now I’ve got a 52,000lt capacity and apart from keeping the new plants moist Brie and I are frugal as hell. It must be said we’re getting a bit dirty.

Tough Dirty Times

Tough Dirty Times

Demand Tough Dirty Moves

Demand Tough Dirty Moves

So Close

The last time you saw the stone dairy it had no roof.

Northeast Corner

Northeast Corner

Now it not only has a roof but walls, a floor and, after a protracted search for beautiful and affordable floor boards, a ceiling.  It will not be ready for Christmas however, despite my most fervent appeals to Santa.  We started digging out the dirt floor in February (back when Pep said we’d be all finished in “about three weeks”) and I have done zero to help the cause since so I shouldn’t be surprised I’m still camping.  I did wonder whether I’d have a natural aptitude for building, but over the year I’ve realised I can oil timber and that’s about it.  I do lament my lack of skill and motivation but I’m not giving myself a hard time about it as I’m a rabid gardener and that’s enough for me. I reserve the right to sprout hot building skills in the future construction of an outhouse but right now I leave the business of building to others and get on with the other 52.5 acres.  (Briele, being genuinely handy, has nearly finished her end of the dairy, and her sweat has rewarded her with a gorgeous little space, photos of which will be coming at some point soon.)

I knew I wanted the walls rendered.  I love the look of stone, but being a dairy, the walls are cobbled together from rubble  i.e. built with stone good enough for cows but a bit patchy and dusty for people.  Back in the late 1800s who knew a human would come along and want to make a studio out of it?

There was only one guy to get in to do the job.  Shannon is some kind of artist and in serious demand, and so holding all the cards he arrived three months late, kept his own hours and left behind four dozen empty 1.25 litre cola bottles.  I never saw him eat in the three weeks he was there.  One day I came home to see ‘VB’ scrawled into the render (for non-Victorians, that’s a beer).  Sense of humour?  The guy was dry as a bone and very entertaining.  I loved to watch him work.

All other tradies acknowledge the skill of the renderer.  You can really muck this stuff up – all eight layers of it.  I am thrilled with the look and feel.  To stand in the room feels like marzipan, Santorini and fluffy egg whites all at once.

Finished Walls

Finished Walls

Detail of Render

Detail of Render

Then the floor.  I got myself a bit tangled up over this.  I wanted stone but couldn’t afford it, and a concrete slab (at a quarter of the cost) was the obvious solution.  As much as I appreciate the beauty and utility of concrete, I just couldn’t bring myself to settle on it for this place.  I want to deeply love my floor.  And so, after some deliberation and many unsolicited neighbourly opinions, I decided on flagstones and hang the cost. Cue moral panic – the kind I liked comes from dusty mines in a corner of China, the local and virtuous Castlemaine sandstone was more than twice the price with half the good looks.  Argh.

Aesthetics won out.  I went light because the 35 square metre space needs all the help it can get.  And the best part about it is the cooling effect when lain on in 35 degree heat – tested just this week.

Stone Ready to Lay

Stone Ready to Lay

Floor Goes Down

Floor Goes Down

To the ceiling.  I wanted secondhand hardwood lining or floor boards with some character.  These seem not to be found at any reasonable cost or in any sensible size. You can buy them from salvage yards but they’re fairly rare and in packs of random lengths and they need planing, sanding and a lot of editing.  To save my sanity I gave up on the secondhand dream and Pep led me to Fowles auction yard in Melbourne.  We scored some new blackbutt at a fraction of the cost of both secondhand hardwood and new shiny stuff you’d find in a showroom.  Blackbutt is a eucalypt grown in plantations in coastal forests of New South Wales – I opted for the roughest quality because I wanted as many imperfections as I could get my happy hands on.

Northeast Corner Revisited

Northeast Corner Revisited

Putting it up was a bitch of a job.  It took a long time,  it was hot and Pep’s bald head is still covered in bruises and marks.  He should have worn a helmet.

With that job done, we have just a few things left on the list – sorting the trims, getting the doors on, sanding and oiling a lot of timber, making the mezzanine bed, putting the fireplace in.  So close.

Business as Usual

Well thanks for that Brie.  In a single blog entry you managed to convey more information than I’ll probably manage to in posts up to 2015.   And a reader might now even have a sense of exactly what is going on here out in the ‘doit.  Back now to the unfortunate business of writing about nothing much…

It was a beautiful day today.  Everyone in the neighbourhood (indeed, the whole of Victoria it seems) is done with winter.  It has been a long, wet, cold one with very few sunlight hours.  Today the spring sun shone and I busied myself with leather gloves, mattock and wheelbarrow.  It seems clear to me now that I returned to Australia after some decent years serving (& sipping) Cristal on private yachts only to dig dirt and get a farmer’s tan.

Receiving Top-secret Tanning Tips from Farmer Ross

[I’m looking pretty happy here because Ross is handing me my first ever envelope-full of farm income – cattle agistment fee.  39 cows @ $3 a head for 5 weeks.  They kept my grass down and I got their poo!]

The vegie beds are done – dug, edged, paths mulched.  I can’t stop looking at them.

Vegie Beds Sorted

Today I dug 34 holes along a perimeter fence.  There are no photos of these holes as by the time I finished it was dark and I needed to get the hell out of there and take my screaming muscles to a hot bath.

So, upon returning to my comfortable borrowed house I turned the bath on, poured a glass of red, fed the dogs, emptied the fire of ashes, prepped the pumpkin soup and set the timer to 30 minutes.  I usually can’t manage more than 15 minutes in a bath but I knew today’s needed to be a 30 minute soaking event.  Slid into the kitchen at the 15 minute interval to attend to the soup (ever stirred soup naked? feels silly) and raced back into the bath to think about what to write in my blog entry.  And that’s how you get this kind of quality material.

And so to the holes.  I am starting to think seriously about planting and while the soil is relatively soft and it’s not too hot I’m prepping soil for something to screen the estate (ha) from the road.  I’ve got about 20 more holes to do tomorrow.  And then I’ll think about what to plant.  Which, for gardeners, is like choosing which lollies to put in the pick & mix – it is just damn good fun (more fun, say, than digging).

The vegetable selection is underway.  Yesterday I helped Pep put market-garden quantities of seeds in trays in his greenhouse for his upcoming busy summer season.  In exchange for that small bit of labour, he’s going to supply me with seedlings for the vegie beds – enough to feed me, B and visitors.

But first I’ll need to do some exhuming to make space.

Workers’ Strike

When I got to the land this morning I saw these lovely little crosses on two of the vegie beds.  Someone’s got a sense of humour, but who?  I thought immediately of artist Gerhard, who has displayed his abilities with signage elsewhere in the neighbourhood (something along the lines of “No exit road, do not enter” on a perfectly exitable road going annoyingly past his house.)  Same nice neat handwriting.  But no.

Turns out it’s Langley with some spare time and a good line in sly workplace safety commentary (time to renegotiate wages).  Even better, he said he was finishing up early today to go play bagpipes at a funeral.  Bagpipers seem to secure a wide range of gigs.  When I came around a corner and saw him crouched by his ute, midway in a change into long white socks and a kilt I knew he wasn’t fibbing.

Langley on the Pipes

Langley needed to tune his bagpipes before racing to the funeral.  He gave it a couple of goes.  This first clip tells you a lot about a dog’s relationship with bagpipes – Zali’s ears perk up, then deflate, then she makes a quick exit stage left at the first ill squeak.


Having removed themselves a safe distance, the dogs settle in for a far more impressive Tuning II.  How he does this on a pack of rollies a week I’ll never know.


We made an outing of it and filed in a little procession down to the freshly dug graves.

Raising Pep

The dogs didn’t much care for it judging by the howling, but I have rarely enjoyed bagpipes more.

Plan B and the land of Y

You may have been wondering what my mate B has been up to.  I finally managed to coax her down off the top of the water tank and she’s been busy ever since.  But not too busy to write a newsy blog entry….

——What Fi and I are doing overlaps in many ways, some simply and others more intricately. Our approach, ability, skills and means are diverse, but we have at least one common goal, and our principles are (somewhat, sometimes, kind of) aligned. But most of all, we want to help each other live happily, and laugh about it along the way.

Personally, I am actioning a wish to live a simpler, less mediated existence, consciously connected to the natural systems, cycles and processes which sustain and maintain healthy life.

Sharing resources and skills, being with good people who appreciate robust, hearty humour, building and growing for longevity, is really what’s at the heart of this next leg.

…and enjoying the best flavours of the season…the day, from this land, because of the work we have plotted and laughed through, together.

All said whilst writing a chapter for a blog on a mac book pro…Ha!

Others have accused me of being a nonconformist who is not shy of extreme procrastination, with hypocritical contradicting tendencies, and obsessive compulsiveness about adjectives and list making.

So here be a 12 year plan in 12 stages:

·      Retain (ethical) employment
·      Explore the local community and surrounding towns of the ‘land of Y’ (known locally as Yandoit, but I am hoping for a statutory change) with Fi and everyone else in a 250 km radius
·      Observe / learn / gather / collect / organise / make a plan… in manageable, flexible stages
·      Renovate the wooden shack at the dairy (ups to Fi) as my part-time accommodation (with future prospects in mind)
·      Move to part-time living in the city, for employment retention (but it’s really about friends + family (framily))
·      Search for land
·      Find awesome, amazing dream spot within the ‘land of Y’… assess site with locals, permy mates and all said framily members
·      Purchase land
·      Establish dwelling sites / water and energy systems / plot gardens / orchard / animal habitats
·      Build modular container studio home and adjacent artist-in-residence studio (having been in research & planning for years (already)!)
·      Change employment situation and move to full-time ‘land of Y’ living.
·      Create an abundance of food and joy within a self-sowing system which attracts other like-minded life forms to join in and
·      Live happily in the everland of Yness!

Ok, so that is 13 stages, but they are all flexible and will probably stretch far longer than 12 years. So far, I am retaining ethical employment, have started research, planning and searching and have begun (and am loving) shack renovations…


North-facing front

South-facing back

West-facing wall – note overhead milking system

More milking paraphernalia


Suspected asbestos roof

Doors: living on the left, sleeping on the right


Bird nest


Cleared Out

Pep and me on the job

Before – change to west-facing wall, cleared for insulating. Milking paraphernalia gone.

After – insulation and lining

We now have a walkway, two rooms cleared of milking equipment, completely re-nailed exterior weatherboards and another list up for the next stage of the job.

The List

Vodka please.

The Neighbourhood in Fog

Missing Italy quite a bit.  The look, the feel, the buildings, the landscape (the one euro roadside espresso, the food, the food, the food.)  So I was delighted to wake up the other morning to a thick soupy fog shrouding the neighbourhood.  It was Piemonte in winter. I took my crappy little camera and drove around the block.

C & R’s Wine Shed

Vince’s Place

The Old Homestead on the Corner

G & B’s

Sunken Structure at G & B’s

Neighbour’s Renovation

View to My Neighbour

View of the Ploughed Beds

The fog lifted but the rain did not.  I decided to keep going anyway with making the vegetable beds.  Pep’s tractor ploughed over the cow poo I’d collected, and then we threw around some limestone dust, gypsum and blood & bone.

Then I set about heaping the dirt into beds.  The size of the task and the shock of the physical labour made me very unreasonable and I had a little conniption part way in, attributable certainly to too much dirt, too much rain and an appalling lack of fitness for the task.  The work of peasants ain’t for pansies.  After the episode that Pep now (repeatedly) refers to as The Hissy Fit, I asked nicely for some help in moving the mud.

Peppy & Langley Helping Post Fit

Progress is such a mood improver.  I whacked up the volume on Ray LaMontagne (lyrics!) and settled into a nice daydream about his identical twin brother moving in around the corner as I started putting out the rock I’d collected from my hills.

Beds Before Levelling Off

Rock is heavy.  The tops of my thighs are bruised and grazed – a testament to overenthusiasm and an underestimation of the weight of various kinds of stone.  But I think it’s not only worth the work but is in keeping with the northern Italian feel of the neighbourhood and the rusticity of things.

Bit Sodden

I’m halfway there and will finish it this coming week.  If it stops raining.

Special thanks to Pep and Langley for standing me.

Glamour Job

This afternoon I pulled off my boots and poured out a rich cow poo tea that had brewed nicely after a day in the wet.  Yesterday I started a rather ambitious gardening project – collecting several cubic metres of cow pats armed only with a wheel barrow and gloves.

First of Many

It was great while it was sunny – how happy I am in this little (very homemade) vid:

Today it rained steadily and I thought I must continue.  When you’re down in the back paddock and you’ve got manure dribbling into your boots you know you’re doing some good honest work.  I could have worn one of my three pairs of gumboots or at least rolled down my trouser legs…

Or I could have done it the sensible way and brought some cows into the area I intend to put my vegetable beds.  But the fencing is poor and the herd would have wandered into the building site.  I could have sorted the fencing and put chickens in there and let them prepare the soil but I haven’t been organised enough for that.

So I decided to go and fetch.

Far Paddock Collection

Very slow on my own, but it’s a great way to comb slowly over the land and get to know it.  I am now a connoisseur of the cow pat – I know from metres away how easy the thing will be to pick up, how heavy it will be, the consistency.  I know what happens when you misjudge a throw and get the dog.   A good time was had by all (except for Belle on the left – still peeved.)


So the plan is to pile the cow manure on the grass, take up Pep’s offer of a tractor-powered hoe, then dig in some other organic goodies, lay thick mulch over and let it rest for a month while the worms get busy.  By then I’ll know what I want to plant.  And in the meantime I’ll go collect sandstone from the land to edge the beds.

An update on my precious garlic is due.  I planted it about four weeks ago and on advice left it unprotected.  Cockies, rabbits and kangaroos find it unpalatable apparently.  Or not! A few days ago I went to visit it and found half the healthy shoots chomped.  I blame the guard.

Garlic Guard Dozing Off

Garlic Half Munched and Now Protected

I threw some chicken wire over it and hope the nibbled shoots grow back.  I can see that pest protection will be high on the agenda in future gardening endeavours.

So, the view after the work of the past two days.  The fallen tree will need to be chopped up for firewood (it toppled in the wind a few months ago.)  I think I’ll do four more beds tomorrow to make it ten total.  Should be enough to get me started.

Vegetable Beds Laid Out

And after such hard labour I made cookies to congratulate myself.  Sultana butterscotch – yum.

Cookie Reward

How Mud Saved Me From Information Overload

“Stop reading and start digging.”  Yes madam!  Good advice from a friend, delivered in plain language, after I whinged about the low-level anxiety that comes from endlessly following links on websites.  Good websites, with really useful information about building and chickens, stove top kettles, drainage, which apple trees to grow, local birds, cast iron cookware, earthen floors, whippets’ habits, guest houses in Brittany.  An investigation into wall render can indeed, in the course of two hours, lead to a guest house in Brittany and then it’s 12am and the fire has gone out.

And that’s just the internet.  My bedside reading is growing, not shrinking – the more I try to devour, the more I don’t know.  I’m trying to get a design together for what will become the gardens in front of the dairy – a sizeable chunk of dirt.  And I want to do it right.  Of course the idea of getting it right from the start is a nonsense in gardening. But fear of making some big expensive mistakes is paralysing me somewhat.  I’ve never dealt with so large a project, with so many elements.

Front Garden to Play With

So there’s that holding me back from making cuts in the dirt, and then there’s the weather. It’s been rainy and foggy (and splendid.)  It’s bloody nice inside by this fire.

But, following Miri’s directive, I did get out into the mud today.  I planted a nice patch of garlic in the couple of square metres friend Kaz dug out a few months ago.  I had to work hard to get hold of this garlic.  Pep, a normally generous man with a LOT of garlic seed, would not, despite repeated mewling from me, give any of it up.  Sure, it’s his cash crop.  But could he not spare a little?  Is this stuff really gardeners’ gold?

I sat quietly for many months, hoping for a melt in Pep’s resolve.  And then, unexpectedly, after a day helping him and his partner in the garlic business plant a portion of their 20,000 seeds, a few bulbs were thrown my way, and not by Pep.  I’m not sure how he feels about it, but I’m not asking!

In Other News #1 – The Window Goes In

So, digging done, back to the books.  I am very fond of two at the moment.  One is a beautiful cookbook called Rosa’s Farm.  It is written by my neighbour Rosa Mitchell and is a love letter to Yandoit, expressed in recipes that give a firm nod to both her Sicilian roots and her love of the simple and local.  I have known Rosa for years, as she cooked for a time near my bar in Fitzroy.  But when I bought here in Yandoit five years later, I didn’t know she owned a house just metres down the road.  Or that her brother Pep would become my builder (and withholder of garlic.)

In Other News #2 – The Roof Goes On

The other book I am reading constantly is A Pattern Language, published by a collection of architects and academics out of California in 1977.  Possibly the nicest gift I’ve ever received, this tome seems to be about everything.  The authors advocate people designing their own houses, streets and communities – if you understand the language of patterns, then you can design and construct spaces.  It’s a book of astonishing common sense filled with handwritten drawings and some pretty firm opinions expressed with a certain charm:

“There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.”  “If there is a beautiful view, don’t spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it.” “Houses with smooth hard walls made of prefabricated panels, concrete, gypsum, steel or glass always stay impersonal and dead.”

Chapters on snoozing in public, gathering on steps, the hierarchy of open areas, teenage society.  1000 pages I can’t read fast enough.  If you are interested in space and connectedness and fantastic ideas from the ’70s that seem to have been largely ignored subsequently, read this book.