A Letter from the garden.

19 02 2014
Another inspirational guest post from my friend the potter, Steve Harrison……  Self sufficiency at its best.
Steve Harrison

Steve Harrison

The heat wave continues. It continues not to rain. The tomatoes continue to ripen and get sunburnt. The cucumbers continue to die off in the heat and the dry.  The corn continues to shrivel and desiccate. Some plants handle the dry and the heat better than others. Clearly cucumbers have a strict upper limit past which they just die! No room to negotiate. They curl-up, shrivel and turn to dried paper over night. Watering twice a day didn’t help. Perhaps we might have to use shade cloth during the summer months over these sensitive plants in the future if our local climate continues to heat up and dry out like this. Global warming – what global warming? We have tried to prepare ourselves as well as we can. We have dug 4 dams over the years to collect all the ground water that passes our boundaries, some more effective than others. We usually have enough water in the dams to provide us with irrigation water for the gardens and orchards to get us through the summer heat.

There have been years when I had to pump all the remaining water in the lowest dams up to the higher ones to reduce the water surface area and reduce evaporation.
I disconnected the petrol powered fire-fighting pump from the pottery system and carried it into the dried out dam floor, then ran a temporary poly-pipe line up the dam wall and over to the next dam, concentrating all the water up there. I repeated this 3 times until all the water was concentrated from the other three dams into the smallest dam. This provided us with enough water to keep plants alive for another 2 to 3 weeks longer in the summer. On two occasions we have run out of water in the dams altogether, having pumped them all down to mud. We said good bye to all our fruit trees and let them wither. Fortunately for us it was only another few weeks before it rained again and nearly all the trees survived. Only the oldest and weakest died. As in life.
We collect all our own drinking water in water tanks, from the rain that falls on our roofs. There have been times when we got so low in reserves that we only had a few weeks of drinking water left, and as it was from the bottom of the last tank, it was getting a bit murky with sediment. We had to ask a group of potters that planned to visit, if they wouldn’t mind bringing their own drinking water with them. It is possible to buy drinking water and get it delivered in a tanker truck. We have never got that low that we have been forced to buy drinking water. We’ve always managed on our own. When we came here, with virtually no money, we bought some second hand water tanks that were very cheap because they were old, and old water tanks don’t like to be moved. These old rusty tin tanks slowly corroded away with age, however, as we settled in over the years and started to be able to save some money, we were able to replace these old water tanks with new ones, one at a time as they slowly turned to rust. I became quite a dab hand at getting inside the old tanks and either cementing them up to extend their life span, or later, using silicon rubber to fill small holes. Of course patching-up old water tanks rarely works, it just gives you a few more leaky years. Because as we all know, rust never sleeps.
Eventually, after 20 years we saved up enough to get a ‘cast-on-site’ concrete tank built by an itinerant tank maker who was passing through the area, several of us in the village put our names down. We all lived to regret it. He dudded all of us in different ways. He acquired the nick-name of ‘Tank-Boy’ from one of the locals. Tank-boy never worked when you were watching, he’d turn up, always late, and if I was home working in the kiln factory where I could see him, he’d make some excuse to leave again. I don’t know where he went, perhaps to other jobs, where there was no-one at home. He was completely shonkey. He worked in chaos with rubbish all around him. He had to borrow my spanners to tighten up the bolts on his metal form-work. On the day of the big concrete casting, there still wasn’t any steel reo mesh in the bottom of the tank. When I came home from working at the Art School all day, the tank was cast. I suspect that my tank has no reinforcing mesh in it’s base. When it was all finished and he’d gone with his cheque. I finally got to look inside to find that the concrete was so badly cast, that there was steel mesh showing on the inside surface. It would soon rust out and crack the tank apart if left, so I had to climb inside and re-render the holes and patches with a special concrete primer and then render the surface with cement. 2 days of work. The final insult came when I found that he hadn’t fitted the tap into the tank properly, just cemented it onto the outside. As soon as the tank started to fill up with rain water, the tap just “popped” off. I had to get inside again and chisel out a proper hole through the wall of the tank and then fit a 2″ threaded brass pipe through the wall with flanges and sealant on both ends and screw it up tight. Then I fitted my own 2″ tap to the outlet. This part is the only part of the tank that is well done and is still working well 20 years later. The concrete on the other hand is full of cracks and ‘weep’ lines. The concrete roof in particular is in shocking state of cracks.
My friend Dave who runs a truck with a ‘Palfinger’ hydraulic crane and moves all my kilns for me, plus other jobs like stretching orchard netting over garden frames, had a tank built by the same guy, a year or so later, west of Mittagong. Dave came home to find the plastic down pipes missing from the guttering on his shed. Tank boy had sawn them off to make support pillars inside the tank that he was casting for Dave. We compared notes and it turned out to be the very same guy. Quite a strange man.
The time for having fun and making pots is over for a while now. I have to find some paying work, so it’s back into the factory/toy-shop to make some kilns to earn some money.

One kiln finished and ready to deliver with another being welded prior to galvanising.




As it’s February now we are approaching the end of Summer. Everything is ripening and we are very busy in the kitchen in the evenings. The kitchen echoes to the sound of the fermenter ‘blurping’ away as it converts our grapes into wine. I took the afternoon off from kiln building and stainless steel sheet-metal work to harvest half of our shiraz crop. This year the vintage is quite early. In past years the shiraz was vintaged in March, but with global warming, everything has moved forward a month, more or less in line with all our other fruit crops. Since the early seventies when we first moved here ripening has occurred earlier and earlier, and it snows less and less. It hasn’t snowed here in Balmoral for years now and it must be at least 5 years since the Hume Highway was blocked by a sudden snow fall. The shiraz aren’t fully ripe yet, not as ripe as I’d like them to be, but the black birds, wattle birds and the friar birds have found them and more importantly, have found that they can just squeeze through the 65mm hex mesh ‘chook’ wire that encloses the garden. We will need to re-wire the garden completely with smaller mesh, if we are to keep them out in the future. I only want the little insect eating birds in the garden, not the larger fruit eaters. I suppose that we are lucky that it has taken the birds 15 years to work out that they can get into the garden and help themselves. I plan to re-clad the garden walls with 30 mm hex mesh in the future, if fact, as soon as I have the time and money. I already have a 50 metre roll of white plastic orchard netting left over in the shed from when we netted the vineyard 20 years ago. This is enough to cover the top. I have kept it wrapped up in black plastic up in the barn loft, so that it wouldn’t deteriorate from ultraviolet exposure.






If only I’d known all this when I started!  I could have saved myself a lot of time, effort, loss, angst and money. In my experience of life. I start out knowing nothing and learn as I go, usually by observation and then by asking questions. Most people respond well to genuine enquiries, but there are a few stupid people who think that everyone should know what they already know and respond in a Neanderthal sort of way. I can do without them. I don’t think that they know as much as they think. They say that they don’t suffer fools gladly, but all of us are fools until we get ourselves educated and as there is always something to learn, I’m a perpetual fool. Even experts are fools in another field. There was one particular shop keeper in Bowral that I’m thinking of! The Neanderthals prove themselves redundant in the long run. Mademoiselle Fifi and I have learnt to live our lives, by living it, on the job as it were, from trial and error –  A lot of error actually, but we persist, and good-will always shines through and it’s been mostly fun. A complex mixture of hard work, fun and the emotional rewards and comforts of that hard work!

IMG_0150 IMG_0149(1)

This year we are experimenting with whole bunch maceration for the shiraz vintage. I have picked the grapes a little early, before the birds eat them all. They could be sweeter, but never mind. In a perfect world I’d wait another week or possibly two, but the wildlife won’t allow that. I have two fermenters working. One with and one with-out French and American, lightly toasted oak shavings in the must. I’m trying whole bunch maceration again this year, I have enjoyed a few very nice wines made by this method, that some of my friends and associates have either made themselves or given to me as presents. The product can be quite tannic from the extended close infusion of the tannins from the skins, pips and stalks in the vat. This is not a bad thing. But takes time to soften out. Just about all red wines. Well, actually, all quality red wines, are made by extended contact with the grape skins. The better wine makers who want the best results for their wines also perform a ritual, called ‘plunging the cap’. No, it’s not a ritual humiliation performed on youngsters in british private schools. It’s a way of getting the maximum contact with the grape skins with the fermenting juice. All the colour in red grapes is in the skins. The juice is clear, hence champagne, a white wine, being made from red Pinot noir grapes as well as chardonnay grapes.
With prolonged contact of the skins and sugars, the yeast slowly converts the sugars in the juice to alcohol. The alcohol is the active ingredient that dissolves the anthocyanins that produce the red colour. I’ve read that the red is good for me. I certainly hope so. I like to think so, just as I like to drink it. I won’t know for another year or so whether this experiment has worked well enough or not. It has become quite trendy recently to ferment wines on wild yeasts. I have decided that there is enough at risk in making our years harvest of shiraz grapes into wine without adding the uncertainty of possibly loosing it all to a rogue wild yeast. So I have taken the precaution of using a known, reliable, cultivated red wine, shiraz, yeast.


After all these last few weeks of dry heat, it has finally rained. We have 32 mm. of slow soaking rain and it is really nice. All the plants are responding well and shooting out new growth.
Mmselle Fifi is out and about in the garden with her baskets harvesting whatever is ready to be eaten on the day, any excess is cooked, concentrated and otherwise preserved in some way for later use.


Yesterday, she was out harvesting some of the red ‘isabella’ grapes. Perfect for making dark grape juice. So far she has pasteurised and preserved 14 litres of the delicious stuff, so fruity, fragrant and sweet. A perfect drink for a hot summers day or any time really. So far she is about half way through the crop. A crop that we otherwise wouldn’t have got if we hadn’t put it entirely under netting a month or two ago.

with love from Syrah and Isabella
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One response

22 02 2014
bev

yes it is dry, we keep our garden growing as best we can, can’t let everything die then start again, it’s all happened before, right back into the 1860 or so around 1974 there was a drought, i can remember then people raking and drying their grass clippings and large donations of fodder going to feed the animals of unwise farmer, it rains they over stock in the hunt for gold, the rain stops they don’t sell their cattle early on because the price isn’t right, their animals suffer(cruelly) now no one want their cattle, wiser farmers have grabbed all the feed lot positions, even wiser farmer(we saw their trucks going to market full of prime beef, now no trucks as greed takes over) sold their cattle early on, se it locally prime looking cattle now showing ribs with little to eat but mollasus lick and dry blady grass

plant the trees and the rain will come says mythological (philosopher) wise person.

every forgets forgets before these recent rains app’ 8 years ago we were in a 10 year drought.

don’t be conned by violin players plucking at you heart strings

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