Out at the Front Gate January 2017
  A little early for cosmos but they were obviously in one of the "summer sunshine" seedpacks that Martie spread over the new garden at the front gate a few months ago. And they're looking
  beautiful. But you do have to get in pretty close to see the beauty in that garden as even though it is a fair size and has a nice rock border, it's just gobbled up by all the space and long grass around it.

Below is a picture of our front gate. The puppies used to be able to crawl under it so Mandla wired some sticks vertically to the diamond mesh to stop that. The garden is on the right of the gate, nicely bordered with some little rocks. We have to keep the grass around it short so that we can see it! In the background, across the road grass cutting season is in progress. A small part of the field over there has already been cut and baled.


 

  Swimming in the Farm Dam
 
Looking down from the dam wall, Martie keeping an eye on Amber and Spot taking a dip
 

The dam level was slowly dropping but there was still more than enough water for a swim. While Amber stayed over with us for a few days we took another walk across to the dam and she and Spot took a refreshing swim. I perched on the bank with the binoculars and camera and just took some time out watching some of natures little wonders around the water.

  Looking down from the dam wall I spotted a beautiful Whiskered Tern swooping and skimming the water looking for small fish. He has long wings that allow him to soar over the water surface without having to flap and bright red beak and legs that contrast strikingly with the black top of his head. I think all he may have got was a few tadpoles, though.

Then on the way back I let everyone walk on ahead and took some pictures of the interesting little wild flowers on the edge of the road. Some of them are so tiny you have to get really close to get a picture.

 
 
 

And spotted on the other side of the dam wall, a lone waterbuck bull. Word is there's a bachelor herd about on our side of the farm. Fantastic to have some waterbuck sightings again.


  Gooseberry Bush Problems
  How did these guys know we were growing Cape Gooseberries?! Unsuspectingly we don't always check all plants every day so we only became aware of the threat when they had moved in big time. And by that time the plants had hardly any good leaves on them.
 

We hardly even noticed the problem on the bushes as the gooseberry pods were plentiful and the defoliation was fairly slow.

It all started when we found quite a few of these "cute" little black and yellow striped beetles around. I then looked them up in the insect book and to our horror discovered they were the Tobacco Slug Beetle.

The beetle is an alien species from South America first discovered in South Africa in the 1920's and has been a major problem to our Tobacco industry. Tobacco is one of "nightshade" plants, as is the Cape Gooseberry. Interestingly the beetle does not attack tomato, brinjal or bell pepper plants, which are also of the nightshade family.

The pest reaches it's host plant as a flying beetle. The beetles gather, mate and lay clusters of little bright yellow eggs on the undersides of the leaves. A few days later the grubs hatch and start eating away the under surface of the leaves. As they get bigger they

      Gooseberry pods coming along well but not too many leaves around

      Martie giving the bushes the garlic and onion spray treatment
  start eating holes through the leaves and a few of them can consume an entire leaf very quickly. The "worms" are a dirty white in colour and cover themselves with their own excrement to form a slime covering - that's probably why they're named slugs. Once matured they drop to the ground and pupate in a small dirt-covered cell to emerge again in their beetle form.
 
The beetles . . .   
. . . the grubs just hatched . . .
   . . . and the slimey worm

  Motley Crew
  Here's our five "mixed breed" chicks nearly all grown up now. They're a really great little flock and spend most of their days out in the long grass out of everyone's way. And they tend to stick together and only mix with the rest of our chickens when they are all being fed together.

The sad thing with this little mixed up flock is that the mother hen deserted them a little early in their lives and now prefers to hang out with our white bantam flock. They just didn't seem to get all the chicken life instruction that they should have got from her. We see that when they're out free range foraging - they're often not too sure about what to eat and often shy away from insects that normal chickens should just love.

  They're a real motley bunch with their different colouring and features. Interestingly they all have the fluffy leg feathers of the bantams but have proper feathers on the rest of their bodies. Our other bantams are "silkies" and have fine hair type feathers.

Here they're huddling on the wall outside the workshop door waiting to be walked across to the chicken tractor in the driveway and given their late afternoon treats.

They're just spoilt rotten!


  Late Arrivals
  The Amur Falcons are here at last. They perch on the electricity wires across the tarred road during the day between their brief hunting excursions out over the grasslands and roost in the big Plane trees in town at night. They've arrived a little late this year and there's not nearly as many out south of Heidelberg as we have seen in previous years.

Weighing in at less than 200 grams and one of the smaller insect eating birds of prey, they breed in South-Eastern Siberia and Northern China before migrating in large flocks across India, over the Arabian Sea and down the eastern countries of Africa to winter down in Southern Africa. A detailed summary of three birds tracked on their migration by GPS here. And then at the end of our summer they fly all the way back again - that's a round trip distance of about 22000 km a year!

Way back in 2012 researchers estimated that well over 100 000 birds were being netted and killed for human consumption in just one location in Nagaland at the Doyang roost site in Wokha district each year.

Without getting into the politics of Nagaland fighting for it's independence from India for over 50 years now with well documented war crimes committed by the Indian Army to prevent it, together with Nagaland's corruption ridden Government, the Naga people are not really a hostile nation.

And now thanks to the work of a few dedicated local NGOs, Churches, Village Councils and
  Villlagers, the Naga villagers on the migration track of the Amur Falcons have been educated to the value of conserving the species and it has been reported that as of 2015 there has been no hunting of the Amur Falcon in Nagaland at all.

In fact, the hunting of Amur Falcons in Nagaland is now illegal and punishable with heavy fines. It's just a bit of a mystery why we're not seeing as many Amur Falcons down our way in Heidelberg this year.


      Mature adult female Amur Falcon. Males don't have the spotted body
      and underwings. Juvenile patterns are similar to female but streaked
      rather than spotted body and a more pale and buffier appearance.

  Knowing Your Game Fowl
  We're slowly getting to know our game fowl calls. We mainly have lots of Helmeted Guineafowl and a few Swainson's Spurfowl (Bosveldfisant in Afrikaans and used to be called Swainson's
 
Francolin - the only red-necked Francolin with a black beak and legs) that roam freely through the property from the forest out into the grassland.

If you don't listen carefully the calls of these fowl are fairly similar. To complicate things further, the Guineafowl has different calls for mating, flock communication and danger. But it really helps a lot with their identification when you can actually see the bird making the call, as we spotted the Swainson's Spurfowl calling on a low branch just the other side of our log fence.


  Target Practice, Anyone?
  The waterbuck bachelor herd has been in the area for about two weeks now and five of them were spotted grazing peacefully one morning at the foot of the hill just the other side of our log fence. Three of them were perfectly positioned with their backs to us displaying the characteristic white rings on their rumps - it looked like a target range up on the hillside!

These bachelor herds are made up of young bulls (between one and five years old) that have been driven out of the main herd by the dominant bulls. The bachelor groups have a distinct social hierarchy based on size and strength, and conflict between the young bulls in the group is frequent to maintain and adjust the hierarchy. At about 6 years old the bulls become territorial and solitary, establishing a territory and waiting for a herd of cows without a dominant bull to pass through their territory so they can "claim" them and form a new family herd.

 

  Mancave or Batcave?
  One evening while I was working upstairs in the workshop a bat flew into the kitchen area. We've got lots of bats around the forest and when we switch on the floodlights outside they swoop in continually to catch insects attracted to the light.

In our attempts to wave it towards the door, it took a wrong turn and flew into the bottom workshop, and then up the stairwell to settle on the rafters for a rest with me for a while in the top workshop. I opened all the windows and after a short rest and a few circuits around the workshop, it eventually flew out to continue cleaning up all the mozzies and moths outside.


  Planting More Fruit Trees
  On one of our trips to see Martie's parents in Vanderbijlpark we popped in to see a fruit tree specialist in Three Rivers. He's retired from work and operates from home and has a really neat selection of good fruit trees in his back yard nursery - all nicely layed out in sections and rows and categorised by types and names. And not bad pricing either. We were on a peach tree mission and bought a few peach tree varieties, some early and some late ripening, as well as two of the traditional "Oom Sarel" yellow cling peach trees.

Then back at the farm we got down to planting them. Mandla dug the big holes, we "debagged" and placed them in the holes and then used our compost to fill in around them.
 
Nice big hole for each tree   

The little guava tree   

Our compost is from the first tunnel which we filled with our Joburg house garden refuse for a year or two before we moved out to the farm. We let it rest there once we moved in and then cleared it into our original forest compost heaps when we cleared tunnel number one for growing vegetables. It's not as black as the truckload of compost we bought two years ago (which we're still trying to use up) but it's got a nice texture and is much darker than our normal red sand.

We're now saving the sand we dig out from the fruit tree holes for building sand and using our compost to refill the holes around the fruit trees.

While we were digging holes we also planted our little pomegranate and guava trees. When we're done we should have a good variety of fruit trees in our little orchard.

   Our own compost getting used up quickly

 
Stamping the soil down firmly . . .   
. . . filling the rest of the hole . . .
   . . . and one more tree planted

  Duck Injury Mysteries
  When we go out during the day we tend to leave all the ducks and chickens out. When we're around they just free range all around the growing tunnels and other than keeping an eye out for the odd Steppe Buzzard passing by overhead, we don't really ever think of other threats. But they're obviously always out there.

One day we went out to Vanderbijlpark for the morning. When we got back we didn't really notice anything amiss and all the chickens and ducks were accounted for when they were put away for the night. But a day later we noticed the smaller Pekin duck was not well. It wasn't as enthusiastic about it's morning feed and would separate itself from the other two and just lay in the shade in the forest during the day. We also noticed it had a bit of a dirty rear end so we grabbed hold of it for a closer inspection.

And Yuck! Something had obviously attacked it the day we were away (we would have heard the commotion if we were there) and it had two fairly deep wounds on the right side of the rear of it's body. The weather was hot and the flies were very active, so they had been attracted to the open wounds and in that short time the wounds had become a wriggling mass of maggots! It was so bad that we really thought that little duck was a goner. But we sat for an hour or so cleaning out the wounds (picking out hundreds of maggots one by one and passing them on to
  the chickens to eat) and then squirting a weak Savlon solution into the wounds and then finally spraying some gentian violet into and around the wounds.

We kept a close eye on it for a few days and even let it sleep in a box in the kitchen for a few nights. Miraculously it was back to it's normal self in a few days - with just a few purple feathers to show for it's traumatic experience. It did take a few weeks for the down and outer feathers to get back to normal though - it needed to preen to get oils back onto the feathers for waterproofing and the wound areas were obviously still a bit tender.


      Duck flock back to normal. Smaller Pekin with some purple feathers

  Grass Fields
  It's just no fun walking in long veld grass. And right now we're surrounded by long veld grass which limits our walks with the dogs to the restraints of our property.

But across the road Janine has made a start on cutting and harvesting the grass and as soon as the tractors had left one late afternoon Spottie and I took the opportunity to go for a walk (I walk, Spottie runs) on the freshly mowed field. The grass still smelled freshly cut and the virtually unlimited running space was like heaven to Spot.

 
The view from the other side of the grass field of some of our forest across the tarred road.
Our entrance gate with it's little white farm number board far away on the far right of the picture.

  Cutting the Orchard Grass
  Then it was down to getting a bit of our own grass cut. With the good rains this season it was growing rather quickly. But our little tractor really wasn't going too well. I had cleaned out the air filter system (first time in six years of "light" use - with things seriously dirty in there) and now needed to replace all the fuel filters as well - four of them! It was a little lacking in power when tackling the thicker patches of grass.
 

But it was fine for the lighter stuff so I got it going (having starter motor/start switch problems right now as well) and carefully cut the grass around the fruit trees in the new orchard. I also did a quick run to make a wide path up to the top log fence and cut all around the pumphouse area. The weed wacker was used to clean up around the fruit trees and where the tractor couldn't get to and then Mandla spend a day or two raking up all the grass into big piles to be moved across to our huge pile.


      Being extra careful near those new fruit trees
 
Mandla raking the grass into big piles after the tractor and weed wacker work in the new orchard

A quick run around the pumphouse produces another big pile of grass

  Lavender
  Martie's dream is to have big a field of lavender - and she's achieved phase one in only our second year living out on the farm. We now "almost" have a lavender hedge up at the pumphouse. Lovely when we manage to take a late afternoon bath and can watch the bees and humming bird moths busy collecting nectar from the lavender flowers out of the windows.
 
Very healthy Lavender bushes . . .    
These are the second blooms this season on the lavender bushes. Once we have a "trimmable" hedge Martie's going to use all the cuttings to make new plants and build her lavender field from there.

In the same garden the other plants are growing vigourously. One of my clients gave us a few small african daisy bushes which have grown into fairly large african daisy bushes. In the centre of the garden there's a Siskiyou Pink (Gaura lindheimeri) bush holding it's own against the dominant purple patch of Purple Heart Wandering Jew (Setcreasea pallida) ground cover that we obtained as a few cuttings somewhere. They're all doing really well in that little hot north east facing garden.

. . . and the entire garden


  Moving Big Logs
  We've still got a few of the big logs laying in the long grass just below our large crop growing area from when they cut down trees to erect the game fence many years ago. Some of them are
  really big and don't seem to have decomposed much at all over the years. And now they're just getting in the way as we can't cut the grass there, so we decided to just bite the bullet and move them.

Mandla did some essential cutting to get them to manageable (only just!) size so we could get them out of the way there and across to the other side of the farm where Martie's going to use them to stop the water runoff at her kitchen garden.

Bakkie taking a bit of strain
    Cutting the logs smaller


  Power Issues
  Everything seemed to be working fine for a week or two after our recent cell balancing controller upgrade that Jacques did earlier in the month on the lithium iron phosphate battery system. But then one sunny afternoon the system went beep crazy while I was in Joburg. I instructed Martie to just switch off the computer UPS (as it was making the most noise) and leave it at that - everything should be adequately protected for over and under voltages and I could check it out when I got back to the farm.

But when I got back to the farm the inverter had blown and after much testing and fiddling over the next few days, I found we had a rather unusual problem. As the battery being charged from the solar panels through the charge controller reached it's full charge capacity, for some reason the new internal cell balancing controller would shut off the battery output. This caused the inverter to switch off (causing our little UPS that we use to run the computer to beep furiously). The inverter would then time out from it's "overload" status and restart, pulling the battery voltage down a bit for it's restart process and while the computer UPS battery charges to full again. The solar panels would then fairly quickly recharge the battery to full capacity again and the sequence would repeat. The continual switching off and on of the little Chinese inverter was just too much for it and it stopped working.

So to keep the fridge and computers running again we shut down the upstairs inverter and moved it to the downstairs system until we could get another inverter. Upstairs 220 volts wasn't essential, we really just needed the 12 volts supply from the batteries for our outside and workshop lighting. I also adjusted the solar panel charge controller to not let the voltage high enough for the battery controller to sense full charge. Not too sure how that will affect the cell balancing as the balancing actually takes place when the cells are fully charged, but we'll deal with that one later.

Once the problem was identified and resolved and the system was running properly for a few days, it should have been a quick purchase of a new inverter and we would be back to normal with a main and backup system. But our Chinaman supplier had changed his policy to sell his inverters with no warranty at all! And to make matters worse he was unable to repair faulty units! Although his inverter had given us good service and the failure was actually a result of a failure on our ancillary equipment, I was definitely not going to be supporting him with his new zero warranty policy. So Jacques organised us a good 800 watt inverter (the Chinese ones were rated 500 watt but the Chinaman always warned to put in a fuse on the input which would blow at 60% of that load for all his units). The new inverter was a bit expensive but is one of the better brands available.

And while we were changing inverters and messing with the downstairs power system I decided to build a decent power panel to get everything all neat and tidy and to be able to do proper monitoring of the battery charging and usage.
 
Power panel plywood outer frame being glued and clamped together      
I made it the same as the upstairs one, so it went together quickly. I then layed everything I wanted to mount onto on the grey plywood "faceplate" and drilled all the mounting holes. Finally, a few hours to mount everything and connect it all together and everything worked perfectly.

For maximum flexibility in charging our cell phones and internet modem I used a car cigarette lighter device to run from the 12 volt supply to give us 2 x 1 amp USB charging
 
Woodwork done, ready to drill      
all the holes to mount everything      
Completed power panel with new      
inverter under the battery      
points and used the very neat (and rather expensive) new CBi plug point with 2 x 2 amp (high speed charging) USB charging points that run from the 220 volt supply.

I also built in a 4-way light switch for the LED strip lights for the kitchen and garage (for when I eventually get them up), a set of banana plug sockets for 12 volt output and three meters, two for monitoring the solar panel voltage and amperage and the third to measure what the inverter is drawing from the battery system. Now I can see at a glance how much power is going into the batteries and how much we're using on the output side.

 
Here's those three meters in action. The middle amp meter (solar panel input) has a scale 0 - 30 amps and the right amp meter (output to inverter) has a scale 0 - 20 amps. In both pictures the solar panel voltage is about 13 volts which is fine. On the left the panels are charging the batteries at 16 amps and the fridge and computers are drawing 12 amps. So, although not great for an overcast day (on a good sunny day we can get up to 30 amps from the solar panels) we're still getting the batteries charged at 4 amps. But then in the picture on the right a few minutes later, the fridge compressor has kicked in and we're now drawing 14 amps. And the cloud cover has increased a bit so the solar panel charging has also dropped down to 14 amps. So although we're still providing enough power for our applicances, we're not charging our batteries any more!


  Waterbuck Tracks
  We seldom see the waterbuck (or any other of the wild animals) come too close during daytime but we really don't know what goes on out there in the farmlands during the night.

The waterbuck and duiker obviously do come in a lot closer at night as one morning we noticed some waterbuck hoof prints running right through the middle of our mealie and sunflower fields just in front of the pumphouse. Thankfully the waterbuck are not destructive like the eland and they didn't eat any of our mealie plants or any of the little sunflower plants at all.

When we let the dogs out in the mornings, I'm sure if they could speak they could tell us many stories of the overnight activities out there. But they just dash about and take in everything through their super sensitive olfactory system hundreds of times more powerful than ours. When they linger too long in an area, we go and check it out.


  Chick Survivors
  Not too good a survival rate for our last batch of five chicks shown in the picture midway down the December blog entries.

One died soon after the picture was taken. Not sure why. The second we suspect was trampled before we separated the rooster. And the third we think was a victim of the chicken fleas which
 
we are still actively fighting in that growing tunnel where the little family have been quarantined until we can get rid of the fleas completely.

And we're still learning chickens. So interesting how the hen is protective over her chicks while they're small and she's teaching them their life skills. Then as they get bigger she seems to lose interest in them and the rooster takes over the protection function and often calls them when the food is put out or when he finds a worm or cricket to eat.


  January Harvest Update
  First off, it's been a month of mealies, mealies and more mealies - and only the best mealies. Lucky we like mealies as they've been our staple diet through most of the month. And they taste so different freshly picked. We've learned just when to pick them. The theory is that once you've picked the mealie, the natural sugars begin converting into starches and it doesn't take long before they start to taste more like the mealies you buy in the supermarket.
  In the picture near right, we've had some really nice tasty giant cucumbers but we're still having a lot of them turning yellow on us (four on the wall). Martie cuts up the yellow ones and feeds them to the tortoises. They love them.

On the far right, our second attempt at grenadellas. Our last season's bush didn't survive the winter. Not sure if it was a good idea to replant in the same place but that's where we want the grenadellas. This one looks much stronger and we'll make sure we protect it from the winter frosts. It already has a few flowers and fruit.

  Then, those monster brinjals just keep coming. We're still not sure what seeds we planted them from, but we really need to track back because not only are they so big, they taste great as well. In the picture on the right, two of the monsters behind a smaller one and the standard "Black Beauty" variety from last year's bush on the front right.

We used tunnel number one for the first time this year and we planted it with melons: a few sweet melon plants, a few watermelon plants and a lone sunflower and sorgum plant that just grew there so we left them. On the right, one of the first sweet melons. It wasn't that great, very watery and lacking in flavour. We're putting it down to the weather - just too much rain and not enough sun. Unfortunately we lost most of the crop as during another rainy spell, they all just collapsed and rotted and the tortoises scored the spoils again.

Tomatoes. We didn't really plant many this year - they all came up from last year's seeds. On the right are the first few of the harvest. Lots more to come!

Then the first two figs from our struggling little White Genoa Fig tree. Maybe we should have just picked them off before they got bigger and given the tree a better chance. But they did taste good and once the fruit had been picked the little tree started shooting new leaves and branches.

Bean harvesting is continual. Martie harvests a handful or two every few days.

Then, on to the berries. We've had these thorny bushes around for a while now. We knew they were berry bushes but not sure what type. This year they flowered and fruited and we had the most wonderful black raspberries. We also have a blackberry bush that produced one or two blackberries - delicious.

Finally, below are our elderberry bushes that have grown wild this year (from little dead sticks just surviving the winter) and a few elderberries that the birds didn't get.







 

  January Weather Summary
  Lots of lovely and regular rain - a total of 115mm for January. Although not as much as the 214mm we had last year during a very hot season with long heatwave periods and basically only two torrential downpour periods during the month, it's a lot better than the meagre 65mm we had in that very hot and dry 2015 January!

But unfortunately, with the regular rains, not much sun. I can't remember ever having so many overcast days - and often heavy overcast weather for three or fours days in a row, sometimes with rain and sometimes without. This played havoc with our solar panel battery charging systems and we had to really manage our power usage carefully. We managed ok with often having to leave the fridge off overnight and only having to run the generator for a few hours one evening so I could get a computer repair job out! The solar geyser seemed to handle the overcast weather a lot better and only once or twice we had to bath in luke-warm water.

Below, some highlight pictures. We had it all: misty mornings, big angry dark and threatening clouds during the days and a few really beautiful sunsets.