Back to Winter September 2015
  After the most glorious Spring Day another of those double barrelled cold fronts came through just to remind us of what winter is like again. We really can't complain as we have had a very mild winter with hardly any frost and less than ten cold fronts getting through, although most of them double barelled ones keeping the temperatures down for almost a week each.

Three days (and over 40mm) of rain turned our dust problem very quickly into a mud problem. Our forest driveway went all sloshy. We needed gumboots to get up to the pumphouse and jackets, raincoats and gumboots were required to take the dogs out for a walk.

But so much rain so early in the season is sure to get things growing really nicely as soon as it gets warm again.

So our first weekend of September we just pottered around with small stuff indoors and getting out whenever possible when the rain either eased off to a soft drizzle or stopped temporarily. With the soil soft again we just couldn't wait to get to work in the growing tunnels and finishing off laying those water pipes will be much easier now.


 


  Solar Power System Update
  I'm still battling with the pumphouse electrical. The borehole pump side is working perfectly but I just couldn't get batteries charging there through the control box I had made. It was a very simple switch circuit to switch the solar panel power between the borehole pump and battery charge controller. It could be a bad connection somewhere or may even be a battery compatibility problem - as we only need to power a few LEDs there for evening lighting when we bath, I'm using a little 7.2 a/h sealed lead acid battery. Just have to keep experimenting up there until I get it right.
  Down at the workshops the power system has been expanded - another battery has been added and the modified sine wave inverter has been replaced with a pure sine wave unit. And the wiring up there is now starting to get a bit messy.

Although a whole lot cheaper, modified sine wave 220 volts is just not the way to go. The computer power supply had to work extra hard trying reduce that modified sine wave back down to 19 volts for the laptop and was getting very hot and sometimes "buzzed". Running on the pure sine wave inverter it ran a lot cooler with no unusual noises.

But it was all systems go on the capacity side with batteries charging well through the day and the power being used for our floodlights and the computer at night - everything all nicely balanced and I'm sure we could even handle a cloudy day or two without any problems.

As the cheapie charge controller didn't show amp draw from the panels on it's display panel, I built a little DC "breakout box" with 50 volt and 10 amp dc meters mounted into it and connected it between the output of the solar panel and the input of the charge controller.


  Then, Add Some Refrigeration
 
New refrigerator next to the office desk - not for handy cold beers      
while working - it's just that that's where the 220 volt supply is      
And that's when the wheels came off.

We looked around at all the smaller refrigerators available and opted for the very neat little Hisense 150 liter single door unit with integrated freezer compartment. It has an A+ energy rating and 119 kWh/year energy consumption claim. The math to work that unit of measure back to watts or amps is way beyond my capabilities - but it's just the lowest energy usage refrigerator we could find. The plan was just to connect it up and see how our solar system would handle it.

Well, it didn't. After the first
  day with the new refrigerator connected,our solar system was never the same again! It was also coincidental that we had three days of cloudy weather during the introduction of the refrigerator into the system, so with so many variables hitting our little solar system at once I didn't even know where to start to solve the problems. So we just experimented haphazardly for two days (with continually flattened batteries) until the sun came out properly again.

First step now will be to determine whether we will need more solar panels to run the refrigerator through the day and be able to charge the batteries to full capacity at the same time - probably have to add another 200 watt solar panel in parallel to the existing one give us more amps into the charge controller.

Once we have that sorted we need to see whether we have enough batteries to keep the refrigerator, computer and lights running through the night. One step at a time, but right now I'm checking charge rates and measuring battery voltages through the days and nights while trying to keep things reasonably cool in the refrigerator by running it for a few hours and then switching it off for a few hours.

I can't rule out that we may also just have a faulty controller or a bad battery (all that cheapie Chinese stuff). And due to around 6 to 8 hour charge cycles, logical checking with battery problems just takes so much time.


  Growing Tunnel Water Station Plumbing
  Work got going again during the second week of September on the plumbing for the watering system for the growing tunnels.

All the white 50mm main pipes were dug in underground and the green 20mm PVC risers connected to them with a combination of galvanised and plastic reducer adaptors. We used plastic ball valve "taps" on top of the risers as they were cheap and allowed screw in connectors of the Gardena or HDPE type to be easily fitted into them. This would allow us to use hand watering from a hose pipe with Gardena fittings or set up drip irrigation by punching holes into the cheaper HDPE pipe.

Water pressure from the full single tank nearly one meter off the ground was ok for our small sprinkler and would be fine for drip irrigation. But if we ever need to use a higher pressure sprinkler we would have to connect a little water pump from the tap output to some sprayers.



  Commercial Compost
 
4 Cubic meters compost dumped      
next to the growing tunnels      
Sshhh. This year we decided we're going to have to cheat a bit on the compost front. Our compost is doing well but we're experimenting with the organics/manure mixtures and it doesn't seem to be quite ready for use yet. I think we need to start using
the stronger cow manure instead of the horse manure we've been using up till now. But that means getting out there on Che's farm and digging it up into bags, where the horse manure is already bagged for us when the staff there clean out the paddocks regularly.

So, we ordered in a full load (4 cubic meters) of some of

      Little heaps in tunnel #5
      ready to be mixed in
the commercial stuff from a compost farm across the other side of town. I'm sure they use pig (or maybe chicken) manure in
  theirs - and although the colour and texture is perfect and it is properly decomposed, it stinks! And with that heap so close to our living area, as well as keeping an eye on the weather forecasts for rain, we now also check the wind directions.

Starting to move compost from the big heap into the tunnels to mix in with the red soil. New compost heap
behind the garden shed in the background with bags of garden refuse and horse manure ready to be
layered over it. That compost may only be ready to use next year.


  Outdoor Lighting
  While Martie continued working very hard in the growing tunnels, I spent most of the second weekend of September getting all our outdoor lighting sorted out.
 

It was new moon and although we had our flood lights working well and used them when we needed to see what was going on outside, we felt we needed some lights on permanently out there throughout those very dark nights.

I had some nice acorn style wall mounted light fittings lying around that ran on a 3 volt solar system which were a bit dim, so I modified the bulbs to 12 volt LEDs and set up a little 10W solar controller and solar panel with a 7.2 a/h battery and mounted it all up behind the main beam of the water station.

  I added a little 12 volt day-night switch and we ended up with very neat automated lighting for the growing tunnel area.

The idea was to have all the outside lights automated, so we don't have to remember to switch them on and off all the time. The Chinese LED shop has an amazing selection of lighting and gadetry and I found a great little all-in one wall light with rechargable batteries built into the light and day-night switch built into the little solar panel. I fitted one over the door under the eaves of the garden tool shed and pumphouse bathroom. I put the solar panels loose on the roofs and now the batteries charge during the day and we have some light there all night.


  The Grass is Always Greener . . .
 

. . . on our side of the fence.

It's great to wake up to one of the eland herds grazing out on the hillside. That few days of rain we had in the first week of September has kicked off the grass growth and the veld has started to turn green - at least there's a bit of new grass out there for them to eat.

The grass on our side of the fence hasn't been grazed for a few years now (ever since we put up the log fence to keep the cows out) and is noticeably thicker and greener.

But those eland had better stay out on their side of the fence or Martie will be out there with her paintball gun (pyjamas and all). She's now fed up with them eating her plants.

Outside our pumphouse bathroom where our grey water runs out, the grass has had a head start on the season and looks like it will need mowing soon!


  Birding
  Often heard, but not often seen, I finally got a photo of one of our local Red-throated Wrynecks perched high on one of the big dead trees.

The Wrynecks are part of the Woodpecker family and nest in old Barbet and Woodpecker holes in tree trunks. Their main diet is ants which they collect from the ant nests with their long sticky tongues.

We've got a few in the area and we often hear them calling to each other across the forest.

  Then, spotted in our forest twice in one week is the Long-crested Eagle. It predominantly feeds on vlei rats and it's found in areas where there is water and blue gum trees, but they normally don't come so far inland from the north coastal areas of South Africa. Identified by that crest which we actually saw waving in the wind (but we didn't have the camera with us at the time), the white on the wing tips and the distinct banding on the tail.
 

  Poppy Colour
 

  Marties's putting lots of work into the garden up at the pumphouse as well and together with her african daisies, the poppies are the first bit of colour the farm has had in many years, if ever!

These poppies are very sentimental to us as they are grown from seed from parent's garden - the seeds are over four years old. Now that we're out at the farm to water and protect them, they have grown well and are now producing the most beautiful flowers.

The Pride of India tree is also doing very well and is suddenly full of new leaves. Hopefully it will produce more flowers this year than the few it produced last year.

  The plan for the garden in front of the pumphouse is to replace the poppies (when they are finished flowering and we've collected all the seeds) with a row of lavender bushes right across the front and then fill the rest of the area with annuals and ground covers. It should be great to look out onto from the bath window.

  More Power
  Weekend number 3 of September I continued work on the power system. We undertook another capital outlay and purchased two more 105 A/h batteries, a 50 Amp controller and two 250 watt solar panels - basically a full set of components for a second system which will help me with some component fault/mismatch problem solving. Also a considerable step up in the size of our solar power system.
 
Our array of solar panels so far, from left to right: 2x250 watt panels connected in parallel to give
500 watts, the old 200 watt panel and on the far right the little 10 watt panel that charges
our present kitchen and bedroom light system

After drilling some more holes through the workshop walls and pulling the solar panel cables through into the upstairs workshop, I set up the new kit as a separate system. To test it I used it to charge the new batteries to full one by one before linking them into a parallel array. With the sun having been out for a few days the old 200 watt system was working ok but the problem seemed that with the panel only able to provide 4 to 5 amps of power at peak sun times, there just wasn't enough power to keep the refrigerator and computer going and charge the batteries to full during the day.

 
New 500 watt system charging one of the new      
batteries. And since we've got the power, it runs      
the inverter and refrigerator during the day as well.      
 

Old 200 watt system being used for lighting      
and battery monitoring. 
The new 500 watt panel array was able to provide over 15 amps of power and had all the batteries charged to full (with the refrigerator and computer running) in a few hours.

I've also being doing a lot of research on solar panel and battery array configurations. I thought parallel connections were simple, but with batteries there's a lot more to doing it properly. For some very comprehensive DC battery power system information, check out www.smartgauge.co.uk/technical, specifically www.smartgauge.co.uk/batt_con for that parallel interconnecting info.

I'm also starting to realise how meaningless battery specifications are. If you think a 105 a/h battery will give you 10.5 amps for 10 hours (well, that's what I learned at school), you're living in a dream world. Depending on age and temperature batteries don't charge to 100% and should never be run down to under 50% capacity - so you're down to 10.5 amps for less than 5 hours! Then there's Peukert's Equation which shows that the heavier the discharge current, the lower the apparent battery capacity - and the effect is often greatly underestimated. We continue to learn!


  Moving Logs for our Crop Planting Area
  Careful with that dickey tractor towbar! I hooked up the big chain onto the tractor towbar and very slowly and smoothly dragged the big logs that were left in the middle of our grass field when the game fence was erected a few years ago out of the way so we could use the area for planting some summer crops there.
 

 
Big chain wrapped around big log
Sticks to be cleaned up before we can use area


  Plants Update
  Martie continued with her spring planting. On the right, our new granadilla bush against the water station wall. Far right is the pumphouse front garden with some african daisies planted along the little retainer wall. Thanks, Elizabeth for the stacks of little african daisy bushes. Also planted some ground covers down the centre.

Below left, the latest little plant muncher still on milk - spotted just other side of our log fence.

And below right, growing tunnel number 5 prepared - the first planting of the season's spinach, onions, chillies, brinjals and lettuces just starting to grow.

 

  Long Ladder
  Leno and his team hadn't done any work on the farm for seven weeks. His father had come down from Mozambique to visit the family and fell very ill while down here. When he was well enough to travel, Leno took him back home to Mozambique.

The 4th and last weekend of September was our Heritage Day long weekend and the building team wanted to put in four days of work. Leno's bakkie wasn't going again and he needed money to fix it. His son-in-law, who works as a barber in Ratanda, dropped them off at the farm for work on Thursday morning. The rest of the weekend I fetched them from the roadside on the way to Ratanda every morning and dropped them off at the barber shop in Ratanda every afternoon. About a 30km round trip to the barber shop - but better than taking them to and from Zonkizizwe every day.

They arrived on Thursday morning with this really, really long ladder which they said had been "found lying in the grass on the side of the road"!? It was just what I needed to fit the floodlights onto the upstairs workshop walls and was long enough for me to be able to get onto the upstairs workshop roof. It was in good condition so I bought it from them.


  Extending the Forest Shelter and Driveway Retainer Wall
  We still hadn't decided what we were going to do with the big hole that had been dug to remove the big trees in the way of where we wanted to build the driveway wall. A lot of work went into digging the hole and I was a little reluctant to just have it filled in again. But it really wasn't deep enough for any kind of storage basement under the forest shelter so a quick decision was made to add another section to the forest shelter around it and use the hole for building rubble fill.
Hole cleaned out, pile of building sand recovered
and sand line for foundation done
  So all usable loose sand (we use our sand as building sand) was cleared out of it and work got going on the bottom section of the driveway retainer wall.

First job was to clear the area along the forest edge, measure out where the new wall will be built and lay out the "sand line" to dig the foundation. The first day was digging day to get the foundation trench down.

 
Mixing concrete and filling the foundation trench   
Foundation done and ready for brickwork

  We ordered 1000 face bricks from Jadas and built for three days on the little wall. Well, not so little as the project comprised a 6 square meter "extension" to the forest shelter area (5 meters of wall) and 15 meters of wall about 0.8 meters high (0.5 meters showing above the ground) down the driveway. It also had a tricky three meter curve joining the "extension" to the driveway section which took a lot of extra time to build as building there had to be done "freehand" with the spirit level as there was no building line to work to.

On day four of the weekend we ran out of face bricks to put on the roller course, but the wall was up to correct height and was looking great.

Building finished early and we even had time to do a clean up (unusual for these guys). We levelled all the sand around the wall on the forest side and in the driveway.

Forest shelter "extension" wall built up to ground level

Driveway retainer wall up to full height

  Cleaning Up Around the Pumphouse
 

While the cleanup was on the go down at the new driveway wall, I took the bakkie up to the pumphouse and two of the guys gave the area around the pumphouse where we had been mixing mortar and concrete for the building there a good cleanup. A job well overdue.

In the picture top left, we loaded two full bakkie loads of building rubble from the area and took it down to the driveway area and dumped it all in the big hole at the entrance of the forest shelter (picture bottom left - poor Leno cleaning up the facebrick work in the dust while rubble is being offloaded).

And now with all the soild rubble removed from the ground surface, the area around the pumphouse is a dustbowl. We'll have to replant the grass there soon, but we need some regular rains before we can get going on that.


  Gooseberries
  We have had a very early crop of gooseberries from our gooseberry bush. It has now been planted into the ground in tunnel number 5 up against the back wall of the water tank station and the bush has since grown considerably.

I think it's a bit early in the season for fruit but it was treated to a wonderful greenhouse effect late winter while still potted. We left it on our tiles well protected behind a north facing window.
It started flowering there almost immediately. I pollinated the flowers with a little paint brush and here's the result.


  Ripping Up Some Land
  Once all the sticks were cleaned up I took the tractor across to Che's farm and borrowed her ripper to loosen up the ground where we plan to plant some bigger crops. We couldn't wait too much longer
 
as since that good rain in the first week of the month we hadn't had any more and the ground was already drying out and hardening up quickly.

I measured out an area about 20 meters squared and ran the tractor across it a few times with the ripper. Each pass made six thin furrows and ripped up a good few eragrostis grass clumps. But if we're going to get any crops in there soon we're going to have to either dig out all the grass manually (only loosened up by the ripper) or I'll have to get hold of a proper plough attachment for the tractor to dig in and turn the grass over into the ground. The project is now on hold until we get some more rain.

 
Just noticable that the ground has been worked, but not nearly enough. Needs to be ploughed properly.


  Forest Shelter Steps Foundations
  A very productive long building weekend ended off with us having an an hour or so to spare, so

Temporary boardwalk to get
the concrete to the forest
Leno and the team made a start on the steps that will lead down from the forest shelter.

A small batch of concrete was mixed, a temporary boardwalk set up to get the concrete over the big log still laying across the forest shelter area and the concrete poured over the wall down into the foundation.
Digging the base for the stairway

Concrete base being levelled

  End of September Sunset Walk
  And after taking the building team to the Ratanda barber shop so they could catch their lift back home, when I got back there was still time to head up the hill and watch the sun go down. And it was a great sunset.