Positive Identification October 2015
  And we thought Tess was just a stray township dog from Dullstroom. It looks like she's a pretty "thoroughbred" AfriCanis - a unique African dog breed that they say has been shaped by natural rather than human selection.

Looking at pictures published on various websites, although there is a lot of variation in the breed, there's a distinct similarity, and behaviour is typical. She's certainly the sharpest dog we've ever
  come across, able to spot a duiker easily in the thick of the forest and a mongoose on the hillside that we need to use binoculars to see. And when she picks up a scent, she can track at full speed. She's incredibly agile and outruns Charlie effortlessly - and Charlie runs fast!

And there's a reason for those big Yoda ears. She can hear dogs bark a few farms away - not sure what happened to the tip of the left one, though.

Now that she's settled into our pack, she's thoroughly enjoying

the space we have available for her and is an entertaining companion on our walks. She digs furiously for moles - not scared to get her her head full of sand sniffing deep into the holes. I have no doubt one day she will catch one.



  October Blooms
  We've never noticed the monkey plum bushes bloom before. This year the bushes are all full of very bland little yellow/green downturned flowers (picture below left).

Also now in full bloom are all the black wattle trees (picture below right). The early morning and late afternoon air is heavy with their overpowering sweet scent and every tree has a thick yellow carpet under it. Not a good place for anyone with hayfever problems but the bees are having a great time collecting the pollen.

 


  Power Update
  I seem to have sorted out the lighting power in the pumphouse, although there seems to be a compatibility issue between the little 10A controller and the remote monitor display. Not sure if it's when the battery voltage is very high or very low when the monitor will just display "connecting ...". After replacing the old scrappy batteries that I had found lying around in my workshop with two new 7.2 A/h batteries connected in parallel, the system provides more than enough power for our 6 LED downlights in the lightboxes for our bathroom at night.
 
Main power system cabling now neatened up a bit

The main power system powered by the new 2 x 250 watt solar panels and 50A controller has been rebuilt. The two 105 A/h batteries have been connected properly in parallel with a busbar system in an electrical box which will eventually be mounted on the wall. I built a second breakout box and connected it between
      Solar panel to controller
      breakout box

      Battery to inverter
      breakout box
  the battery output and the inverter so I can see what power the inverter is drawing from the batteries. Although the charge controller does give this information for it's "load" terminal, it is not recommended by any of the suppliers to run the inverter from the load output of the controller.

Refrigeration problems persist. The system should have enough power to run the refrigerator through the night but even though the unit has an A+ energy rating, the manufacturers didn't seem to have considered building in any "soft start" into the compressor motor system. When the compressor moter starts up the inverter is temporarily overloaded and the audio alarm goes off. I have borrowed a 1000W - 2000W surge peak inverter (mine is 500W - 1000W surge peak) and it still overloads that! Still looking for a solution to that problem but for now we just switch the refrigerator off before we go to sleep at night so we don't have to hear the alarm going off when the compressor starts up through the night.

The pictures above right of the breakout boxes were taken at around 11h00 on a full sun day - batteries already full and controller in "float charge" mode - the solar panel breakout box (top picture) showing the panels still feeding 5A into the batteries and controller letting the voltage "fly" up to over 30 volts as power is not required to charge the full batteries.

The inverter breakout box (bottom picture) is showing output voltage good at well over 13 volts and the refrigerator drawing between 4 and 5 amps (once the compressor motor has started up!). When on, the notebook computer draws another 4A, so we should be able to run the refrigerator and computer together for at least 5 hours from a full battery charge - considering that the refrigerator thermostat switches the refrigerator off when the desired temperature is reached and disregarding Peukert's rules.

The lighting and inverter backup system is working just fine. There I'm using a 30A Ellies charge controller (bare) and their little remote monitor panel. There doesn't seem to be any compatibility issues with the remote monitor and their 30A controller.

We are using the Qwikswitch lighting controller system for the flood lights - all lights are 12 volts and are switched on and off with a remote control button - works really well and the range is fantastic. We can switch on our flood lights from inside the car as we round the corner coming down the driveway and can switch the pumphouse bathroom lights on and off from the workshop and main house area.

On the other side of the workshop the lighting and backup inverter system using the two older batteries is also fully charged and the remote monitor panel (picture below right) shows the battery

      Lighting and backup inverter system      
- little Qwikswitch controller just above the charge controller      
indicator full at over 13 volts and the battery "smiley face" is on. The controller is letting the voltage "fly" to over 30 volts as the power is not required for charging the batteries.

Ellies 30A charge controller
and remote monitor panel


  At the Feeding Tree
  Adding to our birding list, below left, a regular visitor - the Cape White-eye and below right, seen for the first time - the Amethyst Sunbird.

Also just heard the first "piet-my-vrou" calls of the Diederick Cuckoo and seen a few swallows and swifts around. Really looking forward to seeing our regular migratory Spotted Flycatchers and Amur Falcons soon and interested to see if the Steppe Buzzard and European Roller will be visiting us again this summer.

 


  Veranda Concrete
  After a short break, Leno and his team were back for work on the second weekend of October.
 

Their bakkie was going again and although he now had new tires, they weren't fitted yet as he wanted to get the wheel alignment done first before he fitted them. So they were riding on tires with canvas showing all over the place, a flat battery (it had a hole in the side of it where the acid had leaked out of the end cell) and a suspect alternator. But they made it out to the farm and back home for the weekend!

The task for the weekend was to build steps. There were three areas that needed steps: the forest shelter down into the forest where Martie was planning her "forest path" that will lead out to the front of the property, and two sets of steps from the veranda out to the grassland area outside the house.

They decided to start with the veranda, which by now had grass growing in it, so it first needed to be cleared before a concrete foundation could be put down.

Then Leno decided that if they're going to mix concrete, instead of just concreting the corner of the veranda for the steps, we had the materials so they may as well make a day of it and concrete the entire section of the veranda area.

I thought it was a bit ambitious but obviously not too big a job for them. They had the area cleared, levelled and stamped down and were pouring concrete well before lunchtime. I gave a hand with levelling the wet concrete while they poured it and we had the whole job done by the end of the day.

Although still no steps built, there was another "thing to do" ticked off the list. I'm not sure if laying the concrete around the house is a good or bad idea. It will give the builders a nice flat surface to work on when they build the second level of the house, but I'm certain it will lead to some additional stresses for me trying to keep it in a condition that we could tile over with cement tiles when all the building is finished.


Clearing the main veranda area

Veranda cleared, levelled and compacted

First concrete going down

All done

  Building Supplies
  Concrete work just gobbles up building materials. And with Jadas down to one delivery truck for the weekend, the bakkie just had to step in and help out.

On the left, the first building supply trip - half a cubic meter of river sand, five bags of cement and some pvc pipe to get our pumphouse grey water down to the ploughed area.


  Levelling Growing Tunnel #4
  Leno was doing some building extensions at his home in the township so the team finished off Saturday loading their bakkie with some of our excess building sand from growing tunnel #4.

Very dusty, but the wind was blowing away from the growing tunnel and garage areas. Now we can get another growing tunnel into production soon.


  Heat Wave
  Now into our second week of severe heat wave weather conditions on the Highveld, Sunday morning's promise of precipitation was evaporated from the atmosphere before breakfeast was even served.

After that early September double cold front brought us an amazing 40mm of rain, we've had an evening isolated thunderstorm dump 7mm on us in the second week of October - and that's it. This season we are planning to plant some larger crops but we're holding off for signs of our more regular summer rains before planting, in fact before we can even start preparing the ground for planting.

 

  Finishing the Driveway Retainer Wall
  With all our building materials collected and delivered late Saturday, on Sunday morning first job was to finish off the driveway retainer wall that we built over the long weekend at the end of September.

Just had to put on the roller course and clean up the jointing and the job was done.

That little wall finishes off the bottom of the driveway outside the workshop area so nicely.

 
New driveway retainer wall from the bottom . . .

. . . and from the top of the driveway


  Forest Shelter Steps
  I just can't get my head around designing steps. On the house I was one step out, which we will probably now have to build into the landing slab. And now on the forest shelter steps, after Leno had built the first step we recalculated the steps and I was again one step out.

Fortunately, not too much of a problem for the builders at this stage - an extra step meant a bit more digging around the front of the steps and a small concrete mix and the steps foundation was extended by one step.

And while they were mixing concrete, they filled the base of the steps up to ground level (the foundation concrete was two brick courses below ground level).

Now, the reason for this is that I was adamant that under the steps would be hollow. I saw how much building material was used to build the steps from the house down to the garage block and I'm sure we could use the storage space under there for something.

Leno did well to build up to step number three with stock brick filling. From there on we would need to use lintels to support the steps so we could have the hollow section under the steps. And things were just not working out. After a bit of thinking and discussing between us, and no real solutions to supporting the lintels over the side opening, we decided to just put the project on hold for a while.

Foundation extended along the front of the steps

New first step built, old first step now second step

Three steps built - and that's it for now

  Toilet "Facelift"
  We're presently in a fairly advanced experimentation stage with our composting toilet system. I must admit initially I was a little concerned and not too confident that we would be able to make it all work, but after reading composting guru Joseph Jenkins' Humanure Handbook, I'm now totally convinced that the composting toilet is the perfect solution to turning our (and the world's) human "waste" disposal problem into a usable and valuable resource.
 

The book also covers the detailed theory and all aspects of composting, commercial composting toilets, practical DIY toilet building, building greywater filtering systems, wetlands, aquatic plants, sewers and the groundwater pollution dangers of septic systems and old fashioned outhouses. And Jenkins is not scared to call a spade a spade! The website link is in the paragraph above and you can click on the book cover on the left for a few interesting short extracts I've selected from the book and pdf download link.

Martie built the "toilet" from some stock bricks piled together - the toilet seat balancing unsecured on the "brickwork" over the bucket. So before we had some kind of accident there (count me out of the rescue operation), I thought while I was doing some woodwork for the garden shed tables and shelves, I would knock together a neat little toilet box. I then fitted the toilet seat securely onto the top of the box.

 
Temporary toilet "built" from a pile of stock bricks   
  Nice neat new toilet box


  Something Different
  The third weekend of October and we needed the weekend to ourselves, so we put the builders off for a week so that we could catch up on a few little things that needed to be done around the farm and also just to have a bit of a break.

Niki was visiting us from Port Elizabeth and on Sunday we arranged a family get-together. The house has a long way to go before being finished and the garage and workshops areas not that "visitor friendly", so we decided to drag our picnic tables and some extra chairs down into a little clearing in the forest, set up the gazebo and a braai between the trees and had a lovely relaxed afternoon family gathering down there.

Niki lives photography so I've used one of her photographs from the day below - you can click on the picture to link to her website to check out some of her amazing work.

 


  Internet on the Farm
  Can't work or live without internet - even if you're off-the-grid.

Before we moved out to the farm I investigated satelite and microwave "last mile" technologies extensively and although the monthly rates were reasonable, there would be fairly large capital outlays for equipment for either system.

MTN and Vodacom signals were marginal and in a last attempt we tried CellC. They gave us one of their "trial" SIM cards loaded with a bit of airtime converted to data and onsite tests showed their signal strength was much better. Although not quite ADSL rates, their data only contract deal wasn't bad either.

We already had a little DLink mobile 3G modem/router and in no time we had a reasonably priced wifi internet connection for our computers and smart phones. Another item to charge from our USB chargers but another big problem solved.


  Garden Shed Woodwork
 
Woodwork in the shade of the trees outside the garden toolshed      
Whew, another project almost completed.

I spent a lot of time on-and-off through the week making workbenches and shelves for the garden shed. Most of the material came from the left-overs from the shopfittings from our old computer shop and the twisted and bent perlins left over from the garage roofing - I cut off the pieces of perlins that I could use and what's left over now will just have to be used as firewood.

The big undercounter shelves were cut from a sheet of
 
Inside the garden shed from 
the right and from the left
shutter-ply and I just had to buy some laminated pine for the cupboard doors and top shelves. I put up a wood beam on the side wall that we could knock hanging nails into to hang the big stuff.

The floor was painted with two coats of Builders Warehouse Fired Earth Terracotta Ultra Paving paint and all the woodwork was given a coat of Silkwood "Golden Brown" oil sealer (same stuff that we use on the garage doors).

We used "Big Jim" organiser kits on two walls to hang little boxes for Martie's collection of seeds.


  Eating Our Own Vegetables
  Our first growing season out at the farm and we got growing going early. After one month of growing in tunnel #5, our first vegetables are ready for eating. Well, only some swiss chard and lettuce for now, but it's a start. With the recent heat wave the lettuces have already started bolting so, Martie has put some 80% shade cloth over that area. They now only get a bit of afternoon sun.
 

Our soil is still not right, but speaking to Robert, virgin farm soil will take a year or two of conditioning until it is really usable.



  Plumbing Lessons
  As we've been using the taps to redirect water between the JoJo tanks and the other output pipes, we noticed the little plastic ball valve taps getting more difficult to turn. In fact it got so bad that after forcing one of the taps the plastic tap handle actually cracked.

I thought it may be the sun baking down on them every afternoon but we use the same taps down at the tunnels and they are in the sun all day and they're still working perfectly.

So, time to take the manifold apart and check out what's going on inside there. Problem found: fine stones are being pumped up by the borehole pump and as the ball valves are on the bottom of the manifold, the stones settle on the ball valves. As we turn the ball valves, the little stones get imbedded into the nylon balls and cause the taps to seize up.

I really didn't think we'd have grit problems as the borehole is 95 meters deep and the pump is sitting only 40 meters down. All the grit should by now have settled down at the bottom of the well - but looks like that's another theory blown.

 
Just about to replace the first plastic ball valve with a metal one      
when the real problem is revealed      
The little stones have worked themselves well into the nylon balls so I don't think the taps are repairable. And I was just about to replace them with metal ball valves but the metal units also use nylon balls, so that's not really going to solve the problem at all.

First step to sorting out this mess is to put a filter into the pump output line. Then I'll have to strip down the manifold to clear all the stones and finally replace all the ball valves. But that's a job for another day.


 
Ball valve plastic ball scored by fine stones   
  Micro-filter now between pump output and manifold

 
Trap fitted to bath overflow pipe      
Plumbing lesson number two: Although our grey water waste pipes will never connect to a sewer line (it all runs out onto the veld grass and soon out onto our crop area), with all the soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, etc that goes down the drains, it's not long before the drains start smelling - not as bad as if they were connected to a sewer line, but enough to be noticeable.

The basins and shower drains all have traps (simply because the fittings we bought all had integrated traps), but for the bath drain there wasn't much space for a trap and I made up a custom waste fitting. So there we have a small problem, especially as when you sit in the bath the overflow vent is right next to you at around nose level!

There's no way to fit a trap into the plug waste line now - we'll just have to keep the push plug closed when the bath is not in use. But fixing the overflow vent smell problem was possible. I was able to get to the vent pipe through the access hole and simply fitted a 30mm trap. Overflow vent smell problem solved.


  Horses Visit Again
  Looks like the horse paddock fence over on Che's farm is down again. Repair is ongoing and they blame the eland for continually breaking it. I'm not so sure - the eland could hop the little barbed wire fence just as easily as breaking through it. Anyway, it's great to have some of the friendly horses come over and visit us now and again.

Martie always goes up to the fence with the dogs to give them some attention.


  Forest Shelter Steps Update
  Our fourth weekend of October and the builders again had transport problems. I was hoping to get the steps for the forest shelter and veranda finished on the weekend, but that will just have to wait for another time.

I figured out a solution to the problem of supporting the brickwork above the side opening for the forest shelter steps. I spent some time on the project and knocked down most of the one side of the steps and rebuilt it with the opening half a brick wider and put in a nice big section of angle iron to support the opening. I finished the basic brickwork around the opening. The builders should be able to finish it off from there on.

 
Very narrow opening before . . .   
   . . . much better after the rebuild


  Eucalyptus Weevils
 
This year's undamaged new leaf growth      
We are still in the very early phase of our summer season but we've noticed a definite reduction in eucalyptus weevils around. Last year the new leaves on the eucalyptus trees were already being attacked by the weevils and almost every leaf had edge damage.

So, where have they all gone? The winter was very mild with only a few really cold spells. Maybe they need more cold? Last year on our walks we picked the weavils off the leaves and squished them wherever possible (almost as therapeutic as weeding the vegetable garden) but I don't think that could have made that much difference to their population levels. Could be the little predator wasps Anaphes nitens have finally moved in?

The weevils should now be coming out of thier pupal stage where the pupae lie under the ground and the weevils emerge in their thousands to fly up onto the foliage to eat leaves, mate and lay their eggs.

 
Last year's lea
ves showing worm . . .
. . . and weevil damage
 

Another of nature's mysteries - weevil overpopulation one year, hardly any the next. But we'll be keeping an eye on them over the next few months.


  Pumphouse Garden
  Martie's been working up at the pumphouse garden again. The poppies are finished now (on the compost heap) and all the seed pods have been harvested for baking and next year's planting.

In their place she's planted a row of lavender bushes from cuttings from Alida's garden (right). The idea is to have lavender bushes along the paving edge and then some ground covers and small shrubs to cover the rest of the garden area (below).



  Planting First Lucern and Maize
 
Crop area well ripped      
After 7mm of rain on Saturday afternoon, we decided to use the fourth Sunday of October to make a start on planting our "big crops". I got the tractor out early in the morning and while the soil was still moist (no dust), ran the ripper across the area I had ripped after our good early September rains. I did three more runs in different directions to make it look a bit more like it had been worked.

Then we spent the rest of the day out in the sun on the tedious job of taking out the eragrostis grass root balls on the top four meters of the square - by hand with a garden fork.

 
View from the upstairs workshop - big square area ripped and top lucern planting area cleared

 
All the grass removed and ready to plant our lucern patch      
The first section - about four meters wide - will be our lucern patch.

Lucern is great food for herbivores (we don't have any of our own yet - just the sporadic raiders) and being of the legume family, is an excellent soil enricher. Nodules on the roots are able to produce their own nitrogen and convert any excess nitrogen into useful compounds such as amonia and nitrates.

  We started by digging in some of our commercial compost, replanting a few of the lucern plants that had come up in the poppy beds (the seed must have been in the horse manure we spread over there) and then sowed some of the the lucern seed we bought from Hi-Performance Feeds. The smallest quantity they would sell me was 1kg - enough to cover 400 square meters!
 
Digging in a few wheelbarrows of compost   
   Compost dug in and we're ready to plant

 
Lucern seeds - pre-coated with rhizobia,
fungicide and colourant   
   Manually sowing the lucern seeds - mixed with a bit of flour shows where seed has been sown

 
Planning the maize planting on the kitchen table       
Then it was on to the maize. I know this is not how real farmers do it, but we planned out our planting pattern on the kitchen table. We are starting out with a few Starke Ayres Zama Star seeds as the Revolution hybrid seeds are not yet available from Hi-Performance Feeds.

And after the planning session we decided that if each plant yields three mealies, our 8 x 8 matrix would yield around 200 mealies. Far too much for us so we scaled down to a 4 x 8 matrix and will plant more in two or three week intervals to spread the mealie yield over a few months.

 
Compost laid ready to dig into maize planting rows   
   Planting the seeds manually in their rows

 
Butternuts planted in the bottom section   
Martie started work from the other side of the ripped square. She cleared a few square meters of grass clumps and planted some butternut seeds - only planting four seeds as each plant should yield a few butternuts.

We'll keep that bottom section for the "creeping" crops such as pumpkins and squashes. They can stretch their tentacles down into the grass area below the main crop area.


  Borehole Water Update
  All the big farmers are holding off on planting their crops until the weather forecasters announce more certainty for regular rains. But maybe we're a bit over-enthusiastic and our crop planting is so small scale, we feel we can supplement with hand watering if the rains don't come soon.

But the water situation in general is looking rather bleak. I remember last season getting over 700 liters from our borehole on the morning pumping session. We're now down to a yield of just over 500 liters - not sure if the water table has dropped or our borehole is going bad, but reports from other farmers in the area are that their boreholes are also yielding a lot less and some are actually drying up. We could drop the pump a few meters lower into the well as many of the farmers around us have already done, but our yield is still ok for our everyday use. We now try and pump as early as possible (there's enough sun on the pumphouse solar panels to start running the pump at 06h30) and then run another pumping session just after lunch and squeeze another 200 liters.

With such a low yield borehole we need to manage our pumping sessions very carefully. If we miss a lunchtime 200 liter pumping session, it doesn't mean we'll get that extra 200 liters the next day - that's 200 liters gone forever. We are also very fortunate to be able to fill up a tank or two every now and then from Che's farm (her main borehole is still very strong) to keep us going to supplement for building work, to water our new crop area and in case of emergencies.

 
  View from the pumphouse - waste. overflow and tank refilling pipes all over the place

But our water management needs some attention - it's just getting a bit too complicated - too many pipes of all sorts laying around and taking a bit too much of our time to manage water routing daily.

My original plan was to have the borehole pump fill the JoJo tanks up at the pumphouse and have the overflow from the tanks run down to the growing tunnel area and fill the tanks in the water station there for watering the vegetables. But the whole overflow thing is not working. The tank levels are not right and if I leave the pump filling the JoJos to overflow we have waterfalls coming down off the pumphouse roof! I just need to get up there and check the overflow outlet levels and move the overflow pipe to the lowest overflow outlet and seal off all the others - I'll have to get to that job soon (can't remember where it is on the priority list at the moment).

So for the time being I have to monitor the tank levels and use the manifold to route the pump output to where we want the water to go. A bit tedious because you often get involved in other things while pumping water and forget to switch it over - sometimes wasting quite a bit of our precious water.


  Full Moon
  What an amazing moonrise!

We set up our picnic tables and some chairs out on our new concrete area outside the workshop and had my sisters and nieces around on Wednesday evening for sundowners and snacks. The evening weather was lovely (no wind for a change) and timing was perfect for watching the full moon rise up over the hill.

I set up the camera with the 400mm lens and took this lucky shot just after it appeared. The silouette is of the trees and the game fence on top of the hill.


  Garden Shed "Handover"
  The garden toolshed is finally completed. And in the last week of October we had the official handing over ceremony. Nothing much really, just a peck on the cheek and a quick thank you before Martie started moving her stuff in. And with that all of the gardening stuff should now be moving out of the garage.

The toolshed is not really very big - but being situated out near the growing tunnels, is mainly for storage of all the gardening stuff and the preparation of seeds for sowing. All the seeds are organised in the Big Jim organiser trays on the walls (flowers on the left, vegetables on the right) and the shelves are being populated fast.

The first seed planting got going within hours of moving in - the new seed trays can be seen layed out neatly in one of my Big Jim toolbox covers on the workbench under the window in the picture below.

 
Inside the garden toolshed: To the left . . .   
   . . . and to the right


  Germination!
  That magic muti coating on the Hi-Performance Feeds lucern seeds is amazing. Four days after planting (although being watered in the early morning and evening every day) most of the seeds have germinated.

Oops, I don't think the flour mix worked too well though - the little plants seem to be a little too close together. We'll sort that out later but for now it's all about trying to keep them going until our rains arrive.