Veggie Seedling Progress December 2014
  The first few days of December were a bit hot and it hadn't rained since the previous weekend. So we decided to go out to the farm on Thursday afternoon.

Our new vegetable seedlings needed to be watered - but really more an excuse to be able to wake up at first light in that wonderful fresh air.

Brinjal and green pepper plants doing very well so far.

  Growing Tunnel Hoops
  Due to weather forecasts and social events, we decided not to have the builders out for the first weekend of December. We arrived out at the farm a little late on Saturday morning after shopping around for materials and dropping off a door for Leno in the township.

New hoops installed, compost heap covered      
From the upstairs workshop

  The main job of the day was to install the hoops for the second growing tunnel. We've been giving the growing tunnels a lot of thought and we needed a covering system that was cheap and flexible.

We plan to leave the top of the tunnels open during the summer months and may only need to close them up if we have bird problems. We will also need to experiment with different coverings, but whatever we use for covering will have to be removable. So far we've seen a translucent plastic and various grades of shade cloth available. We may eventually use plastic covering on some of the tunnels (when we build more - now moving them up on the priority list) for winter to extend our growing season.

We made the hoops from 32mm PVC electrical conduit pipe which fitted snugly over the 27mm outer diameter steel tubes we had built into the growing tunnel walls. We experimented with lengths and finally settled on two three meter lengths with a joiner in the middle to give a nice curve and be high enough to be able to work under comfortably. The total hoop half-circle arc being 6m would also allow us to use a 4m width shade cloth over the top with a 1m skirt around the bottom which we would leave in place permanently to keep wildlife out.

The growing tunnel design is not yet finalised. We still need to figure out an easy way to attach the coverings. I have some ideas. But we've at least made a start and with some barrier material around it, the tunnel should allow us to grow some veggies and protect them for now against herbivore attacks.

Sunrise photo - those hoops making the growing tunnel look much bigger than we thought it would be.
Now just have to get used to seeing the new structure there.

  Bullfighting Barrier
  The game fence between Kallie and Che's farms up in the top corner of our farm is taking some serious strain.

When we're there on weekends we always chase Che's bulls away when they hang around Kallie's fence (Dakota and Charlie just love herding them off) but we can just imagine what happens when we're not there.

  The most damage is right in the corner so Kallie spent Saturday afternoon fixing up the fence wire and has now parked his feed trailer in the corner in an attempt to stop his bull getting to the fence. Well, let's see if that works.

In the picture on the right, our log fence in the distance is also taking some strain. Che's cows have taken to scratching themselves against the posts and with a bit of rain to soften the ground, the poles are slowly being pushed over.

Pesky cows.

  Saturday night we had the most amazing electric storm pass through. While sitting having dinner in the safety of our "workshop" dining room I set up a little tripod and tried my hand at photographing the lightning. It takes a lot of patience and I definitely need more practice. The storm moved through very quickly and I could only get good photo opportunities through our workshop big door opening once it had passed over us to the west. Best picture I could get below.

  Footprints in the Sand
  After a good evening's rain all the loose sand areas in the driveway are washed clean and the early morning walk to unlock the front gate becomes quite an adventure to see what's been walking around on the farm during the night.

Below left we have what look very much like small cat pawprints. Kallie, our neighbour reported seeing a smaller-spotted genet (noticably different from normal cats as it has a long bushy, striped tail) in their big white stinkwood tree outside their front door having a go at a hadeda nest one night. Could have be that. And below right, we haven't seen any duikers around for a while, but they've obviously been there.


  One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Go
  Our tortoise family has grown. From our original two, another three have been donated. We now have five! Although not the greatest pets (you just can't play with them like dogs and cats) they are quite fascinating to observe.

Being cold blooded, they're totally inactive until they've been out in the sun for a few minutes. Then
their heads and legs slowly come out of their shells and they get moving. They just walk around their enclosure munching at grass and anything you put in front of them as they go. And then when they get too hot they burrow under the pile of dry grass we put out for them.

  Highveld Thermal League

  Sunday we hosted the Model Gliding Association's end of year Highveld Themal League contest.

Every year in December model gliding enthusiasts from around Gauteng come out to fly their last contest of the year on Che's farm.

For a change we had absolutely perfect gliding weather and everyone had a great time, ending off with a big social braai lunch.

It has been tradition that all pilots bring out a bag of groceries to donate to Che's orphanage. This year all the kids came down to sing the National Anthem for us and took back a bakkie full of grocery donations.

And hearing of our loss of power tools a few weeks ago, they all contributed and presented us with a Builders Warehouse voucher to help with replacing them. Thank you, guys. Very unexpected and we really appreciate that.

   The group of pilots and helpers and their colourful model gliders

The pilots with their grocery donations for the orphans

  Apricot Season
Martie picking apricots. And that horse eats apricots too!

Che's jersey cow and her calves come to see what's going on
The first two weeks of December is apricot season on Che's farm.

The apricot orchard becomes quite a busy place with people in and out picking apricots and the birds and animals feasting as well.

We stayed over on the farm again Sunday night and Monday morning early we went across to pick some apricots. Martie picked two big plastic shopping bags full.

The apricot orchard and adjacent meadow is a great spot on Che's farm. A few of her horses roam the area and take advantage of the shade of the apricot trees. It's also where all the newborn calves are sent to spend their first few weeks with their mommy cows before they're moved out to graze with the big herd.

Tranquil early morning meadow scene next to the apricot orchard

  And the next week Martie got down to processing our apricot harvest.

She made three big jars and three little jars of smooth apricot jam (on the right).

And she tried her hand for the first time at making apricot chutney as well. So on the left of the picture, we also have four bottles of her apricot chutney.

  Around the Campfire
  Our second weekend of December was a long weekend which included our Day of Reconcilliation public holiday on the Tuesday (of course, most people took the Monday off work as well). We headed back home for some business for the Monday day only - we slept over on the Sunday night and were back at the farm on Monday evening.

The builders weren't out on the farm at all for the weekend and we forgot our gas stove at home. So it was the campfire only for our cooking but we survived quite comfortably. Below, boiling water for early morning coffee.

At the campfire area the little cleome maculata plants grow prefusely. They are now all in full bloom
  and the delicate little pink flowers are very pretty.

But we've found one little plant that is different. The flower shape is identical to the pink ones on all the other plants with the same little yellow eyes and number of stamen, but the petals are just white instead of pink. Not sure if it's a deformity on this plant or another type of cleome. We'll keep looking for more white ones.

  And While We're on Nature . . .
The distinct outline of one of many helmeted guinea fowl - here in the long grass at the front gate

Driveway garden now more green and some colour      
Not even one full day old!

First Amur Falcon spotted
The Steppe Buzzard
With really good November and December rains so far, everything is very green and all the insects and animals (good and bad ones) are out finding mates or having their babies. The veld is so alive wherever you look.

It's a wonderful time to get out of the suburbs. We take our cameras wherever we go on the farm and it's not often we don't find some wildlife to photograph.

In the forest the weavers are busy making nests, the robins flit about across the driveway and little yellow-fronted canaries dash out to collect grass for their nests.

Out near the apricot orchard, a little yellow mongoose peeks out of it's burrow to see whose around

  Growing Tunnel Surround Net
  On the way out to the farm on Saturday morning we went past the High Performance Feeds hardware store just outside Henley-on-Klip and bought some shade net for our growing tunnel (at less than half the price of our local nurseries).

We also learned that the shade net is only available in 3 meter widths, so we had to do a quick redesign of the growing tunnel covering configuration. This worked out better than we had originally planned. We can run a three meter width across the top (that's if we use a top covering) and the protective skirt will have to be 1.5 meters high on each side.

We bought 20 meters of 3 meter wide 20% shade net and cut it in half long-ways to give us 2 x 20 meter lengths of 1.5m wide strips. That's enough net to do two growing tunnels. I then cut a few pieces of 40mm pvc pipe about 100mm long and cut a wide slot in each so they could open up and fit around the outside of the 32mm hoop pipes. There was enough space between the 32mm and 40mm pvc pipes to jam some shade net in between them and that held the net in place nicely at the start and finish corner. By removing the "clips" it would also enable us to quickly open up the net to gain access into the growing tunnel. We then just used some medium cable ties to attach the net to each hoop pipe all around the growing tunnel and in a few hours we had the protective net fitted.

Protective net fitted       
Securing the net at the "opening" corner

  Intermittent Thunderstorm Weekend
Window latches fitted to
workshop storeroom windows

Door hinge cut-out
With thundershowers passing through at regular intervals, it was not a good weekend for outside work (maybe I just wasn't destined to dig those six big holes around the lapa area for our new paperbark acacia trees) so we caught up on some of the inside work for most of the weekend.

First we fitted the window latches on the workshop storeroom windows (just makes them easier to open and close in our temporary "bedroom").

Then we took down the door, gave it a final sanding, chiselled out the hinge cut-outs (it was a very close
Martie varnishing the door
  fitting door - to keep the insects out - and with all the moisture in the air was now "catching" slightly on the frame) and gave it it's first coat of varnish. That saligna really looked great varnished.

  In the pumphouse bathroom we cleaned up the top of the fireplace and temporarily fitted the first stage flue (yes, I know - I've still got to fit a few more rocks into the top of that rock wall above the fireplace to complete it). The flue is a very close fit past the roof perlin - but it looks like I won't have to cut the perlin away for the flu to clear it.

And then we were back to tiling. A tricky bit that I was putting off for a while: getting the base mosaics for the shower into place. They needed to be level around the wall to set the starting point for the floor mosaics which will need to slope (not too much) down to the shower waste holes. Once the two rows of mosaics were in place and set, I started on the shower walls and got almost up to the taps. Had to stop there as Leno had borrowed my tile cutter to finish off the tiling at his house in the township.

  More Tractor Maintenance
Jacked up and left hand back wheel removed

Close-up of bracket that needed to be turned around.
Same two bolts go through axle housing to hold the mudguard on.      

I always wondered why implements would hang off-centre at the back of the tractor. Although they all still worked ok, something just wasn't right back there.

After studying the user manual (yep, you can still get one in electronic format, badly scanned pictures and all!) and checking out some photos on the internet, I realised that the left hand link arm bracket attached to the base of the axle where the adjustable check stay rod is attached, was mounted the wrong way around. I tried to think of why the previous owner had done that - the adjustable check rod on that side was more than capable of adjustment if the bracket was turned around to be the same as the one on the right.

So, with some time on my hands while the builders were busy close by on the driveway wall, I decided I would turn the bracket around.

First, I used the wind up jack from the bakkie on two bricks to support the left hand side of the tractor. It strained a little under the 1500kg weight of the little tractor.

Then it was off with that humongous rear wheel again (luckily, the same one as I had removed a few months ago for the perished tube) and then I could finally get to the bracket to switch it around.

The operation went without too many problems and now everything seems a lot straighter at the back end. The proof will be when I hook up the slasher to cut some grass, which by the way now needs some urgent cutting.

  Building the Driveway Retainer Wall Continues
  The builders were again with us for the third weekend in December and work continued on the driveway retainer wall.

On the right, early Saturday morning, starting off where they left off the previous month. Whew, how time flies.

Below right, once the base of the wall was built all the way to the top of the driveway I decided on the height of the first section. Here Leno is putting the first bricks on for the roller course.

I then did the calculations for the slope and stepping for the wall: we would need to drop two brick courses every three meters.

Then Leno worked his way back down the driveway, building the wall up the correct levels for the stepping and finishing off by building the roller course along the top of each section as he went along.

About lunch time (picture below right) we had a visit from a lone eland bull. After so many eland pictures in previous posts, you

  may wonder why the surprise? Well, Che has had enough of them eating all her expensive horse feed out in the open paddocks and a 3 meter fence has been erected just the other side of her apricot orchard to prevent them drifting through where they normally come through to her farm. Either this guy was on our side when they put up the fence or he went around the other side of her farmhouse to get to us. Or maybe he can hop 3 meters! Anyway, great to see an eland hanging around again.
At the end of the weekend's building:
above, from the top of the driveway and
below, from the bottom

  Are We Farming Yet?
  Ok, so a little on the small scale but with our first growing tunnel ready, it was just too tempting to start growing something in it. On Martie's shopping expedition to get lunch for the builders, she popped into the nursery and bought some more seedlings: cucumber, squash, celery and spinach.

We had built our first compost heaps in the forest (see August and September 2012 posts) and dug into the first one for compost for the growing tunnel. We were very pleased with the results. Decomposition was a little slow - just over two years and the material still wasn't completely broken
Well that plastic covering on the compost heap didn't last too long.    
We'll have to invest in something better than a painting drop-sheet.    
And there's Martie hard at work inside the tunnel.    

A peek inside - all seedlings planted, watered and doing well
down - but good enough to now use in the growing tunnel.

We're learning. The idea is to get the material to decompose faster. Keep it moist and let it get hot. Inside the forest was not the best place for our compost heaps. We'll still use them for finer materials but all future compost heaps will be out in the full sun!

Our very own compost

  The Birding Tree
  We also "planted" our birding tree just outside the workshop kitchen next to the retaining wall that runs along the front of the house. The idea was to get a bit closer to our birdlife and we could use the tree as a feeding station for them.

Just before we left for home the previous Monday morning we headed into the forest with the saw and selected and cut the dead tree. We then carried it all the way to it's new spot and set it up the next weekend.

On the right (you have to look carefully and I've circled it), the little spotted flycatcher making use of the birding tree to hunt from the next morning.


  And A Bit More Birding
  Below left, the weavers in the the big black wattle tree next to the kitchen - they will eventually be right outside our main bedroom/bathroom (upstairs) windows if the tree survives the second level building process. This poor guy is now on his third attempt at building a suitable nest for the female to lay her eggs in.

And on the right, the diederick cuckoo with us for the summer. We hear their calls all day long and sometimes spot them being furiously chased by the weavers (it's a brood parasite and the weaver is one of it's preferred hosts) but it's the first time we've actually seen one perching. That bright white chest gave it away and it has beautiful glossy green feathers on it's head and back.


  Losing Against Nature
  We've been having very strong thunderstorm activity in the area over the past few weeks. Nothing unusual for this time of year, but scary nonetheless. We are losing trees continually (not too serious, we have enough of them) - the rain softens the soil and then the wind does the rest. Below left, in the top corner of the farm, just outside our fence, another black wattle trunk splits off, ripping a main surface root out of the ground and half the tree falls down. More firewood!

Below right, looks one one of our cute little prinia's just copped it. Most probably victim to the common fiscal (fiscal shrike/jackie hanger/butcher bird) that hangs around from time to time.

  And below, a scan across the forest trees showing all is not well here. The tops of the young saplings are mostly ugly brown and dead - the new growth should be vibrant green and growing strong! This is the result of the eucalyptus weevil that has taken hold in the forest. The larvae hatch out in spring and feed on the leaves and young shoots. They then drop to the ground where they pupate. The weevils then emerge and continue eating the leaves through their life cycle. After mating they lay little egg capsules on the leaves and the whole cycle starts again - and if the conditions are right, we can have two cycles a year! The poor younger eucalyptus trees just don't stand a chance.

The eucalyptus trees are not indigenous to South Africa and they were originally introduced for timber and firewood and sometimes ornamental purposes. It is a very fast growing tree and due to it's nectar rich flowers, has become a very important tree for beekeepers. Some species have been controversially declared invasive here due to their high water sucking capabilities.

We bought the farm with the forest, which comprises mostly eucalyptus and some black wattle trees which together covers over half of the total farm property. We have yet to identify the eucalyptus species we have but are aware of the general problems with them and have already started, and plan to continue, introducing indigenous trees onto the farm. But that's going to be a long process. In the meantime, the eucalyptus trees are a great energy source for us (and we've already used some of the wood for fencing in the forest), but all resources on the farm need to be managed.

So we're still researching the weevil problem and really don't want to use any chemical insecticides - that would probably just kill off all life in our forest. Right now the only really effective solution would be to introduce biological control in the form of the egg parasite Anaphes nitens, a little wasp which is native to Australia and was at one time introduced into South Africa. Now just to find out whose got some of these little wasps for us to let loose in our forest.


  Driveway Retainer Wall Completed
  The day before Chrismas we had the building team out to finally finish off that driveway retainer wall. It was just a matter of getting the stepping down all correct and putting the roller course of bricks on the top.

With that done we can level the driveway again and start cleaning up the area to get the forest edge there looking something like natural again.

View of the driveway retainer wall now completed from the upstairs hobby workshop driveway side window

  Early Friday morning, the day after Christmas and not a good idea to take a nice relaxing bath!
Back into the forest you go    

Scaring the builders in the garage    
When the builders were there two days before there was the usual snake commotion in the garage and I had to relocate another night adder from the construction area. I released him very deep in the forest. Now I'm not sure if the one in the bath was the same one or we have a few on the farm. It's just so co-incidental that the only snakes we've seen on the farm other than the brown house snakes have all been night adders - three so far.

Little night adder in our bath

  Planting Trees
  After breakfast we finally got down to planting our new trees. It's really hard work planting big trees. First the hole needs to be dug much larger than the bag (thankfully the ground was reasonably soft from the recent rains) so that lots of compost can be put under and around the root system (a very important tip from Robert) to get the tree off to a good start.

Then a bottom layer of compost is put into the hole, the tree lowered into the hole, the bag cut open and removed, and a good mixture of sand and compost put in to fill the hole space around the tree. That would still not be too bad, but these were paperbark acacia trees and working under them was tedious, with them hooking at your clothes every time you moved!

The plan is to plant the acacias right around the lapa we are building there. Come to think of it, we haven't built on the lapa for nearly two years now, but we're more determined than ever to complete this project as it's such a great place to take a rest after a hard manual labour session. The big black wattle tree gives great shade and it's far enough away from the wind breaking effect of the main forest to almost always have a cool breeze passing through.

We will now start cutting away the lower branches of the black wattle and then cut it back progressively as the acacias get bigger.

  The Wrath of Nature
  After planting two of our trees we cleaned ourselves up and headed off to a farm down the road for a funeral service for Kallie Jr, our neighbour's son.

When we got back to our farm, a really big thunderstorm that had been building in the south all morning reached over and dumped on us. The rain came down so hard that we were able to watch the rain gauge fill to over 15mm in just over half an hour. The wind bent and swayed our trees like they were made of rubber and the thunder and lightning show was very intimidating.

Heavy rainfall, ground already soaked and runoff starting      

With another two storms in the distance, our pavement      
under 300mm of streaming water coming down from Che's farm      
But we only got the edge of the main storm! The core (witnesses suspect it was a mini tornado) went right through Che's farm and peeled off a few of her building's roofs like they were made of cardboard. It blew shade cloth covered horse shelters right through log fences and generally flooded the whole place. Thankfully no-one or any of the animals were hurt, although reports of staff scuttling from sheds as they were blown apart made for very entertaining "after-the-event" stories.

Our stuctures are very protected from the elements by the forest and we had no damages at all. We've seen heavier rain from thunder-storms in the past but never seen the trees bend like they did with that storm.

Even though it was a Friday, we headed off home for the evening, planning to bring the builders through on Saturday morning to level the driveway and start clearing and levelling around the pumphouse.

When we left the farm in the late afternoon, we had to drive through 300mm of water streaming down our pavement from the direction of Che's farm!

Looking over to Che's farm after the storm, rivers of water streaming down the hillside

  Lucky Shot, More Birds and an Evening Visitor
  Well, how lucky can you get. Above, a pair of our favourite birds on the farm, the Bokmakierie. They're not often seen but their melodious calls can be heard often around the outskirts of the forest. Here we saw them in action performing their wonderful duet.

Our birding tree is becoming very popular. We "hang" all our old fruit and bread out on the little branches early in the morning and we're rewarded with regular visits from our local little feathered friends while we have our breakfast.

Below left, a pair of Dark-Capped Bulbuls. We often have one come into the kitchen very early in the morning when we're still in bed and look around for any of our dinner leftovers on the table. When it finds something good it will call out loudly for it's mate to join in the feast. If we weren't already awake, that would do it! They are lovely songbirds (sometimes a bit noisy) and have a variety of chirpy little songs.

Below centre is one of many of our Southern Masked-Weavers. They're in the peak of their breeding season and this male's stance just says it all! Ready to challenge anything, big or small, especially if it looks like another male Southern Masked-Weaver.

Below right, a Black-Throated Canary, identified by it's yellow rump and white tail tips. They are very small birds and we have lots of them making nests in the trees and zooming down into the long grass to collect a grass stalk from time to time. They also eat the grass seeds and are so light they hardly move the grass stalk when they land on it.

  On the right, another one identified. This is the Bronze Mannikin - recognised by it's silver lower bill, heavy flank bars and iridescent green shoulder patches. Lots of them feeding on our grass seeds.

We decided not to have the builders out for the fourth weekend of December due to weather forecasts predicting continual scattered thundershowers. So we spent most of the weekend tiling in the pumphouse bathroom and just enjoying the farm.

And while relaxing after work on Saturday evening, our waterbuck bull wandered out of the deep forest to graze on the juicy short grass on the forest edge. What a great way to end off the day.


  Pumphouse Bathroom Shower Tiling
  Tiling is progressing slowly in the pumphouse bathroom.

With my tile cutter back from Leno, I cut the next row of tiles to size. This half tile matches the pattern used on all the other bathroom walls, although it is one tile higher on the shower walls.

The purpose of this half tile was so that I could cut out slots in the tiles with the mini-grinder for the shower taps instead of battling to drill round holes with the diamond hole cutting drill, and also to get the listellos at the correct height.

Once the half tile row was layed I put on the row of "Africa Spirit" listellos, another full tile and then placed the four tile "Africa Spirit" panel as close to centre as possible between the two shower taps.

I tiled as high as I could - had to stop a the shower head holes. Looks like I'm going to have to drill the holes in the tiles for those.

  First Grass Cutting
  We also made a start on cutting some grass. With the higher than normal rainfall for December, the grass was getting very long and it was becoming unpleasant to walk around between the garage block and growing tunnel area where we were working for much of the weekend.

We were also spending far too much time looking for the tortoises in the long grass in front of the garage block, so that was included in the cutting session. We raked up all the grass and put it all on the big compost heap.

  Cruel Nature
  With the soil softened up from the rains and lots of decomposing vegetation about, our detritivore shongololos are out in their hundreds and all very busy.

Unfortunately, so are their predators. Not only do these poor creatures have to avoid being eaten by the mongoose and birds (although they have their smelly and toxic excretion
  to protect themselves there), they have to watch out for gangs of millipede assassin bug nymphs. These little bugs attack en masse and suck the poor shongololo dry while it's still alive! It's sometimes such a cruel world.

  Making a Start on the Big Grass
  The last day of the month (and year) and I started work early to get the tractor going again. There was quite a bit of oil lost with the drawbar problem that I fixed last month and after another dig into the user manual to locate the transmission system oil filler cap, I topped up the gearbox with 5 liters of gear oil (it takes a total of 30 liters!).

The filler hole is next to the gear levers and after removing the cap and peeking into the filler hole I was pleasantly surprised at how shiney and clean all the gears inside there were. Outside, of course, it is a completely different situation.

We fired it up, connected and adjusted the slasher, and I started on the grass. There was still quite a lot of last year's cut grass laying around in flattened piles in the grass. This year I've decided to manage the grass cutting operation better.

The plan is to cut smaller sections and rake up the grass every time I cut. The cutting part, ie riding the tractor, is the really fun part. Raking and picking up the grass afterwards is not so much fun.

And here we go, first cut in front of the 

Then up along the fence from the forest 

And a bit along the front fence. On the left from the 

One of the forest clearings
tunnels out across the campsite area

past the pumphouse to the top corner

front gate and on the right from the bottom corner

The driveway out of the forest