In Pictures

That bunch of teeth there is a group of ecstatic city dwellers being herded to their garlic planting work stations in the back of the ute – a nice little thrill for all concerned. Planting 2,500 cloves of garlic seemed to Karen and I a nice reason to get some help. But before they came for the day, we had to turn a patch of grass into a field.

There’s a lovely flat on my patch of land edged by Yandoit Creek (named Hermit’s Hollow on account of the fact that it’d be an ideal place to spend time unnoticed).  It’s in a valley, completely private and downhill from a (broken) dam.  Critically for gardeners, there’s topsoil.  About an acre of arable land will easily do for a four-yearly garlic crop rotation with the sort of modest production Kaz and I are interested in.  If we do want to go bigger there’s a much larger flat a little further along over the next hill.

Craig helped out with a tractor – fossil-fuelled muscle worth many times the $150 he charged.

Craig's $150 Muscle

Craig’s $150 Muscle

The Patch

The Patch

Wanting to do this whole thing as cheaply as possible, we spent a good couple of days gathering generously donated horse manure and spreading it over the ground.  Then Kaz went home to Melbourne and I thought “more poo.”  The beauty of living in the country is that there is no shortage of this stuff, so I went visiting Paul’s shearing shed.

Why the Garlic's Not Going to be Cheap

Why the Garlic’s Not Going to be Cheap

Won’t be displaying that kind of solo enthusiasm again.  Crawling on my knees and dragging sheep pearls out hurt a lot.  Even with an admittedly genius tool – a family heirloom of sorts apparently, which shows what you can do with a foraged road sign.

Shit to Shovel

Shit to Shovel

Another weekend later and after application of gypsum, a little agricultural lime, blood & bone and some pelleted chicken poo, we hoed.  As I drove to the hoe hire place I thought grimly again about fossil fuel and how much of it we were using to grow this garlic.  Hand digging such a plot would have been possible, but not pleasant.  I imagine a future universe in which a horse-drawn plough might again be the norm and that idea doesn’t seem too dark to me but for now it’s a drive to Maryborough for soil improvers and another drive to Carisbrook to hire the rotary hoe.

Karen Getting Owned by the Rotary Hoe

Karen Getting Owned by the Rotary Hoe

Now Karen’s a seriously athletic person but the rotary hoe can get away on you until you’re used to it, so that picture above is not Karen driving the beast masterfully, rather chasing it.  40 minutes and a full circuit later I had a go with less finesse.

Some fencing (thank you Michael) about which I’ll write little because even the memory of fencing puts me in a bad mood – it’s bloody expensive, looks ugly and the process never goes as smoothly or quickly as you’d like.

And then the big day.  We retrieved the garlic seed from Gerhard’s cellar and spent the whole morning breaking up the bulbs into individual cloves – dividing them into varieties, weighing it all.  Something we should have done the day before as it took us about four hours.

Preparing to Separate

Preparing to Separate

Holding on Tight

Holding on Tight

Friends arrived.

Help Arrives

Help Arrives

I stuck everyone in the ute and we got down to the patch.  Garlic doesn’t like getting soggy so the first task was to make raised beds – a bitch of a job frankly, with metal rakes and consistent use of stomach muscles.  After the raking, the planting.  The bigger the cloves you start with, the bigger the bulb you end up with and our champion seed needs space.  So a good 15-20 cm between each and more between the rows did the trick.

Working the Field

Working the Field

Your knees need to be in good order to plant garlic.  You need two men for a gate-making project.  There will be children who make a cubby house of the round straw bale and spread the stuff everywhere except on the beds.  One kid will jump out of a moving ute and land on her head.  The dog will generally annoy everyone and the whole job will get tiresome before it gets finished.  The ceaseless repetition in handling anything larger than a backyard gardening project is a reason for machines I guess, but I really enjoyed the day and I hope it felt like fun for everyone else.  The provisioning was excellent, we drank a lot of tea.

Mulched

Mulched

On a sunnier day a week later I got to planting the last of the seed.  So we’ve got up to 3,000 seeds in varying amounts of Italian Purple, Austral, California White, Hollingsworth White, Rojo de Castro and a tidbit of Mystery Purple A.

Planting the Hollingsworth White

Planting the Hollingsworth White

I reckon the pointy end of the garlic market in Australia will become all about varietals eventually, much like it has for potatoes.  And when you’re small, that’s the market you’ve got to aim at.  But we’ll see if we’ve got any to sell first – and I’ve had a few concerns about the crop because in the last month it’s been quite wet.  And wet mulch lends itself to mould.  I anxiously observed the patch for signs of green and five weeks after planting was rewarded with some tufts.

Five Weeks Later

Five Weeks Later

It’s always like that with seed.  You worry about the little babies.  And then you remember they’re quite tough and they’re going to get up all by themselves.

At Ground Level

At Ground Level

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.)

Covered

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

The Right Kind of Tweet, or, How I Came To Choose This Patch


View Over The Dam

In October 2011, during a holiday from yachts, I took a tour with mother Judy to see what kind of land was available 90 minutes from Melbourne.  I was looking for a place I might one day make a business out of – a place where people could stay, stretch out and be away from noise and the city.  I headed northwest to Kyneton, where a bunch of foody types from Melbourne had settled.  I thought I was looking for 10 acres, but the first parcel of land of this size I saw felt like a suburban back yard.  So I searched further west where I could afford a larger plot and on the last appointment of the last day was taken down a road that eventually became a red dirt track.  And it felt more and more promising the hillier and dustier things became.

Prior to putting an offer in I dragged car loads of friends out to pass judgement.  I hesitate to include this clip of one such visit because it makes my now deceased dog look like the smartest individual in the vicinity (Alice at her heels).  But it is one of the first records of the land and anyway, the tweeting birds make a lovely soundtrack.  In five years when I know how to pronounce agistment I hope I will look back on it and smile at the naked earnestness.

What I like about Yandoit Hills are the hills (and the fact that my spellcheck tries to change Yandoit to bandit, then sandpit, then handout).  Flat land is no good – the eye gets bored, particularly if that eye has the misfortune of settling upon the predominating style of rural Australian architecture.  Hills seem to bring lyricism, and bloody useful opportunities for directing water across the land.

Yandoit Hills was settled by Swiss-Italians and northern Italians back in the 1850s and 60s during Victoria’s stupendous gold rush, during which time the state (although it was not quite yet a state) produced at least a third of the world’s gold output.  The Italians built absolutely beautiful stone buildings, like my neighbour’s below.

Neighbour To The Right (My Derelict Dairy To The Left)

So the hills and the buildings decided things for me.  And certainly the creek running through was a clincher. The soil – not so good.  Deep mining took the topsoil off the area between Bendigo and Ballarat and left behind what is called Castlemaine slate and sandstone.  In digging foundations for a house I’ll probably come across my building materials…

So now I have 21.5 hectares of hard ground to deal with.  But there is opportunity in everything and if the grapes and olives all around are anything to go by, I have a good chance of growing some things I really love.  The climate is considered temperate and not far off a Mediterranean classification.  That means a few nut trees, figs, and a whole host of fruit trees that love a bit of frost.  Cheers to four seasons!

And as for the colour palette, which couldn’t be any further from my native Auckland’s verdant green,  I was inspired by a visit last year to Huzur Vadisi, a beautiful yoga retreat set in an olive grove in Turkey.  At the end of summer it was dry, but there was much beauty in this dusky landscape (the yurts didn’t hurt either).

The Setting at Huzur Vadisi

When the sale of the land went through I knew that a rusty gardening habit born in a suburban backyard would not equip me with sufficient nous to deal with 21 hectares of farmland. Not a project for the solo operator.  Enter Briele!

Water Tank Conquered

I met friend Briele years ago over wine, when she’d come in and drink at Ume Nomiya, my bar in Melbourne.  Briele wants to live in the country too and we’re going to practise on my bit of land together while she looks for a patch nearby.  More practical than me, stronger, with hands-on knowledge of a range of small animals, she is seriously credentialed.  She brings the art too.  And she films stuff.

We decided we’d better educate ourselves prior to moving out to Yandoit Creek Farm (working title – grimly uninspired, improvement necessary, ideas welcome).  So in January we did a two-week Permaculture Design Certificate.  And that little adventure deserves a post of its own.

The End

This is a blog about land.  Dirty, thrilling land.

For Sale

When I was ten I remember walking my grandfather’s 1300 acres near Taupo in New Zealand feeling unsettled in the vastness and quiet.  Despite 38 years of cities, the liquid must have got into the chalk somehow because a month or so ago I settled on a purchase of 53 empty acres in Yandoit Hills, 130 km northwest of Melbourne, Australia. There’s nothing there except a couple of sheds, a seasonal creek and eucalypts (and blackberry and St John’s wort and snakes and spiders and kangaroos and foxes and hares and bloody rabbits and innumerable birds and, soon, me).

I want to live there and create something.  But before the next 40 years can start, some things must end.

I spent the last three and a half years working on large private yachts and that’s all over now.  I went to 30 countries and saw oodles, had some eye-popping experiences and saved a bundle.  With enough money to fund a land purchase, I decided to come home.

So the travelling must end.  I did go out with a bang though, with a month-long trip to the Italian alps, during which time I learnt that certain Italians indeed need to eat daily home-cooked pasta:

Gorgonzola and Walnuts

and pasta

Luca’s Real Deal Carbonara

and pasta

Burnt Butter and Sage

The afternoon naps were inevitable.  In between the pasta I ate an array of unphotogenic brown meats with polenta – chinghiale, duck smothered in its own liver, sausages.

I ate it all.  Head-sized pizzas for one, slices of lard (I forget the more appealing Italian word for it) with an aperol spritzer pre-dinner, bbqs during snow.  And washed everything down with a hell-load of cool climate wine from Piemonte, Veneto and Trentino Alto Adige.  I came to understand just what regional eating really means and why Italians feel they’ve eaten exotically by travelling 50 km to the next town for lunch.

When I am eating fish out of a tin on a day of total fire ban I will mentally make love to the memory of this food.

Other things are ending.  The buying of new clothes, Melbourne coffee, a close relationship with running water and electricity.  Namby-pamby soft hands.  My beloved hound Aya, after 11 elegant years.  She visited the land just once and must have decided it wasn’t for her.  I miss her.  And now I guess I will have to get a grubbier, less regal, more useful dog for the upcoming hard country living.

R.I.P. Aya

So, this is not a food blog despite the photos.  It’s about what I’m going to do with a large piece of land, starting from zero with precious few practical skills or knowledge. I have some ideas though.  I’m going to start.