Crop News March 2017
  We're nearing the end of our growing season now and as our dear friend Maria Fischer says, "Autumn is for harvesting - a very busy and most rewarding time of the year".
  Our growing tunnel number 1 was used for the first time this season and has been quite successful. It is mostly covered in "creeper crop" foliage and the watermelon plants have quickly taken over where we removed the not so good sweet melon crop. On the left those watermelons are going to be monsters. And on the right, the butternuts also getting a little "oversized". We've already harvested from the plants out in the large crop field and as they store well, we've just put them into a basket to use when we feel like butternut with dinner.
A basket of butternuts . . .
. . . and yet another basket of assorted tomatoes
Our little Adams fig tree "overproducing" . . .
. . . and our first really, really delicious Adams fig

But some things are still growing strongly. Number one on the fast grower list is the grass - we're really battling to keep up with the strong growth and may have to get someone in this year to cut and remove it. Then, our fruit trees are all going through a end of season growth spurt and some of our little saplings are starting to look like trees already. And our elderberry bushes next to growing tunnel #1 (below) are even flowering again!


  And Yet Another Fun Visit to the Dam . . .
  We take a walk over the hill to the dam whenever we can now that it has so much water in it. It's good exercise for us and a great fun outing for the dogs.

Spottie just can't get enough of swimming out to fetch sticks that we throw far into the water. Charlie and Eva do a bit of swimming and dashing about in and out of the water and Tess scours the dam edges for new smells. Dakota just lags behind most of the time now, but the long walks definitely do her good.

      Spot in action on the water - he's a real good swimmer and is the expert stick catcher in water. Charlie's still the fastest on land though.
Looking back at the dam from the west bank through the trees in the late afternoon . . .
. . . and towards the west into the golden sunset, on our way home on the path that Johan cut for us

  Out in the Grasslands - and the Monkey Plum Bushes
  Although a bit unpleasant to walk through due to it's hairy stalks (and those fine hairs that get released when you rub past the stalks sure can make any exposed skin itch like crazy when your pores open up to release a bit of sweat when you get hot) and their seeds that seem to be able to stick into any part of your clothing that comes into contact with them, the long grass has a certain beauty about it, especially if you start looking closely at the inflorescence and spikelets of some of our different highveld varieties.

Not much else gets a chance to take hold where the grass is cut every year, but up on the hillside where it's never cut there's a few species of indigenous bushes - and unfortunately lots of bad news "bankrot bossies" as well. At this time of year the Monkey Plum bushes (one in the picture below left) are in fruit.

The Monkey Plum (Diospyros lycoides), also commonly known as the bluebush, star-apple or bloubos is a very interesting and useful plant. It's fragrant flowers and colourful berries attract many birds and insects and although the fruit is edible with a quite unique taste, there's not
much flesh as most of the berry consists of large pips. The flesh of the fruit can be used to make beers and jams, the seeds can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute and the wood of the larger plants (it normally grows to about 3 meters as a shrub but under the right conditions can grow to a 5 meter tree) can be used to built huts and be carved into eating utensils. And if you're out camping on the highveld and left your toothbrush at home, a piece of the root can be chewed and used as an antibacterial toothbrush. Much of the plant has medicinal value and it is often mentioned (in it's African language names) in African folklore.

Although the shrub is very tough we have had zero success in relocating it by digging it up and replanting it or rooting it from cuttings. It does however grow easily from seed and is quite a fast-growing shrub. Depending on the climate, it can be either deciduous or evergreen and we are indeed fortunate to have so many fruiting plants around our forest and up on the slopes of the hill as only the female plant bears fruit.

Che's grass field next to our forest now cut, raked and baled. Great field for taking the dogs out for a run.

  Dam Wall Late Afternoon Braai
Perfect reflection of the hills on the water surface
  When Maria came back from Germany she brought one of Robert's cousins along with her. Leane had a life ambition to visit Africa and took the opportunity to come back with Maria for a three
  week visit. Staying on Che's farm she got a good feel of farm life and the small town life of Heidelberg. We managed to take her on some amazing outings to our local Emerald Animal World in Vanderbijlpark so she could really close to some tame species of our local buck and Glen Afric at Hartebeesport where she was able to get really close and touch and walk with their elephants.

Back at the farm we had a wonderful late afternoon braai on the dam wall with her. Johan and Macelle joined us. It was an amazing windless and warm late early autumn afternoon and when we arrived on the dam wall we were greeted by the sight of a perfect mirror reflection of the hill on the calm water surface.

Martie set up the serving table, the guys got the fire going and we all enjoyed a lovely sunset and great social evening under the trees on the dam wall.

      All set up and the fire burning well - lots of dry wood around to burn

     Sun gone down behind the hills and time to eat in the evening twilight
All the girls that put the event together so well.
And loads of boerewors cooking on the fire.
      Leane with the amazing sunset over the faraway hills in the background

  The Rat
  The dogs were getting very restless at night and sniffing all over the place around the kitchen and bedroom areas. Sometimes it was getting so bad we were starting to lose sleep with their persistent night time activities. It just had to be a rodent invader.

Then one evening the dogs got excited in the kitchen while we were having dinner and after we finished eating we decided to start moving things around a bit to find out what was bothering them. It didn't take long before we spotted the rat. And it was a big one!

  We eventually got it cornered and Charlie went in to attack first. It turned on her and she immediately let it go. Tess then took over and went in to sort it out properly. It did bite her on the lip and she actually yelped but like the professional hunter she is she didn't let go and quickly made the kill.

The puppies had a good sniff at the dead rat and we then chucked it outside for the night to bury it in the morning. And for the first time in a few nights we had a really peaceful sleep.

  Sunflower Field
  One of our farm dreams - to have our own sunflower field. Well, it's not that big this year but a lot better than last year. I'm just not sure why some of the plants have grown so well and others are still so small. They were just planted from a packet of parrot feed seeds and they did all seem to germinate at about the same time. And they were all about the same size as seedlings but some just matured well and others didn't. Could also be that the soil in one area is better than in other areas as it is in one patch that they seem to have grown bigger. Anyway, we should be able to make some chicken feed from them as they dry out and we'll just have to see how the sunflower field turns out next growing season.

  Sundowner Game Drive
Above, the lovely view of the game farms and dams out over the hill behind Che's farm to the east.
Below, animals spotted on the drive, small herds of zebra and springbok.
  It's not often we go out over the hill to the east on Che's farm deep into the game farm that we are actually part of. So when Johan organised a very local "game drive" for Leane, we jumped at the opportunity. He drives over there often and knows the area very well.

The girls packed some sundowner snacks and drinks and we headed off eastwards over the hill. We spotted a few of the eland regulars, a flock of dikkops and kiewits on the flat lands and then small herds of zebra and springbok.

      All the girls on the back of the Landy
  We also stopped off at some of the gold mine tunnels that had been dug into the hills. Our hills are right at the south western end of the Wits-Nigel gold reef and in the 1940's prospectors (or maybe even real miners) dug tunnels deep into the sides of the hills all over the place in the area.

We attempted to go into one of the bigger tunnels but it was filled with water a few meters in and we were attacked by swarms of hungry mosquitos.

There's lots of interesting little concrete and rock structures around the area but if you aren't familiar with early mining operations it's a bit difficult to try and figure out what they are. Lots of history there.

On the right is one of the prospectors markers still well preserved in the long grass. The inscription reads:
E Jones
Lic No 2813
CLS 17

Our timing was perfect and on the way back we stopped on the top of the hill looking over Che's farm and the Houtpoort valley to take in another amazing highveld sunset.

      Old mining claim marker
      Johan exploring one of the caves

  Another Wildlife Road Death
  So sad. The Rensburg road that runs past our farm is getting busier. Many delivery vehicle drivers have realised it's a shortcut into town from the old Durban road and Che's Montessori school results in children drop-offs and collections all day long.

And if the speed limits are obeyed I'm sure we could prevent many of our wildlife roadkill incidents. But with our modern day lifestyles with most people's total disregard to conservation, and the vast distances having to be covered to get around, getting there as fast as possible has just become a way of life for most. Unfortunately our wildlife suffers.

  Eucalyptus Tree Identification
  At last I think we've identified the species of eucalyptus tree in our forest. Dead giveaway is the little blobs of white stuff they're almost all dropping in large quantities right now.

So, it's the Eucalyptus viminalis, commonly know as the ribbon gum, manna gum and sometimes white gum. It's a straight tall growing tree with rough bark on the lower portion of the trunk and at the base of larger branches. Higher up, its bark sheds in long ribbons during summer leaving the upper trunk and branches a smooth white and leaving a huge mess at the base of the tree. It makes a great paddock tree but often drops branches (and unfortunately usually on fences) as the tree gets older. One advantage of the dropping branches is it starts the slow process of decay where the branch broke off, encouraging hollows to form for bird, insect and mammal habitation. It's also a very hardy tree and will cope easily with -15 degree temperatures.

The small flowers are cream coloured, and usually form in a cluster of three. The gumnuts and buds (flower or seed pods) are the easiest way to identify the manna gum. They are usually in groups of three and in the shape of a four way tyre iron (three buds and one stem holding the buds to the tree). None of the other gum trees have this configuration. The gum nuts can be very variable in size, but that tyre iron configuration is always there. Also, the flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female parts) and are polinated by bees, giving the bees an abundant source of pollen and nectar in return for their valuable services.

The essential oil found in the leaves shows an antiviral effect and can be used in the treatment of influenza. The leaves inhibit the growth of Staphylococcus aureus. Also, a leafy twig decoction can be used to bathe rheumatic limbs.

A manna is exuded from the leaves and the young bark of new twigs and are as a result of insect damage. Red gum exuding from cracks in the bark of older branches and the main trunk can also be eaten. The Eucalyptus manna, which exudes from punctures in summer months, has a very pleasant sweet taste and is slightly laxative. The aboriginal Australians collected it after it fell to the ground, or they scraped it from the leaves. Heavily covered leaves were pounded and baked.
  Since the manna is probably formed as a result of insect damage, it is quite possible that it does not form on eucalyptus trees in some parts of the world where the indigenous Austrailian insect are not present. But here on our farm, I think we've got the full range of eucalyptus tree pests! More info on the tree and good picture of the manna here. Now that we know what this strange white stuff is, we collect and eat handfulls of it at a time - pure natural confectionery. It has a slight almond taste and is deliciously sweet.

For those interested in the chemical composition of the manna, it consists mainly of melitose and the sugars arabinose, raffinose, dextrose, and sucrose.

Our local wild birds haven't seemed to have cottoned on to this wonderful food source yet, although our dogs and chickens have. The New Scientist has in interesting article on Australian birds that harvest from the manna gum.

Also, very lucky for us if we ever want to keep Koala Bears on the farm, this is THE Koala eucalyptus. Although they do eat leaves from some other eucalyptus trees as well, this is their favourite. It's also the favoutire tree for the cute little Australian yellow-bellied and sugar gliders.

    Manna blob developing from an
    insect "injury" on a new branch

Above left our driveway full of little white blobs. We do harvest from the sand surface but our driveway retainer wall (picture above right) keeps our manna nice and clean and much easier to harvest.

Above left, the typical Eucalyptus viminalis "gumnuts". Above right, a more detailed
picture of the gumnuts and some more manna developing on a young branch.

  Hens of Adventure
  Some chickens are just more adventurous than others. And we find the "loner" hens tend to be the really adventurous ones. The roosters are the responsible fathers (with really only one thing on their minds).

Here Martie nearly had a heart attack when she spotted two of her hens walking around high up on the wall on the house building site. They actually climbed the steps and must have just gone up for the view - there can't be much to eat up there. And when she called them they just casually flew down into the driveway as if it was the most natural thing for a chicken to do.

  A bit of Nature's Beauty
  Life is busy on the farm but we're still getting some time to look at and appreciate the beauty of nature. On the right, one of the larger lacewings. And now you can see where they get their name from. Those wings have the most beautiful transparent and opaque detailed patterns on them.

And below left, our little mallard duck is now losing all his colourful breeding season feathers and going all bland. There are beautiful deep blue striped feathers all over the place and I even found his "drake" feather - the little tail feather with the curl that only male ducks have. And even his ordinary feathers have lovely shapes. Below right, chicken feathers from our "silkies" - all soft and fluffy.

  Kitchen Cupboard - Farm Style
  It doesn't look like the house is going to be finished any time soon now so we've decided to make our workshop kitchen a bit more "comfortable" for Martie. First job is to make some cupboard space. Operating in a kitchen with no cupboard space has been difficult.

  But seeing as the space will eventually be a workshop one day, all fittings will need to be constructed multifunctionally so that they can be eventually be used as workshop cupboards.

Here is the beginnings of the workbench kitchen cupboard - some timber layed out and planning the doors and drawer positions. We'll be using some old drawers and cupboard doors that my son Ivan gave me when they refitted their suburban kitchen. A bit of sanding and painting and they'll be as good as new.

  First New Models Out of the Workshop
  And two at a time! The first two models out of the new modelling workshop, in the background the Gentle Lady and in front, the Easy Answer. They're both little 2 meter trainers but just
  needed to be completed.

Completed models take up less space than lots of bits and pieces.

Late afternoon calm weather test flights were successful and after a bit of trimming they were both ready to go out for some daytime thermal hunting.

Unfortunately on the second flying session the Easy Answer's wing snapped on a very moderate winch launch and the model was almost instantly transformed back to kit form. A two week rebuild and it was back to good as new and flying again with it's now reinforced wing spars.

  Sorry, More Nature Stuff
  The seasons are a-changing. We're not really looking forward to the cold short winter days but right now this year's slow transition of summer to autumn is just so beautiful.

And all the indigenous grasses are seeding. A serious irritation to anyone attempting to walk through it with any type of short shoes and socks, but their irritating tactic of spreading their seed is very effective after their equally tactical and beautiful displays to attract their pollinators. On the left, a tuft of grass with pretty white soft and fluffy seeds stands out against the late afternoon shadows on the dam wall.

Below, from the foot of the hill above Che's homestead, the view of the Houtpoort valley with the now common sight of huge grass fields cut and baled and the bales waiting to be removed for storage for winter feed and bedding for all the farm animals. And in the far distance beyond the big dam in the valley and the N3 highway, on the other side of town the smoke from the thousands of small fires to keep people warm as the evenings get colder and to cook their evening meals in the Rotanda township rises in the evening air in front of the Suikerbosrand hills. A serious polution problem over there but it does make for a great mood photograph.


  Eland Attack
  We spotted them out between us and Che's homestead one afternoon and thought they were far enough away not to be concerned with. But the're continually on the move and cover considerable distances very quickly. And they attack at night while we're sleeping!

Fortunately the dogs heard the eland in our "yard" and quickly

alerted us. It's no fun chasing off a herd of eland with torches in the dark at 02h00 in the morning, but someone has to do it. Due to our early warning system they only had chance to start their munch attack on our little sunflower plantation, nibbling leaves and right through some of the flowers on the very edge of the plantation. Pictures of the damage on the left and right.

  "New" Eggs
  Our last batch of chickens has now matured and the hens have started laying eggs. And just look at the size of the "new" egg on the right compared to the regulars. Shame. I'm sure they'll learn how to lay bigger ones as they get older.

The roosters of the same batch are also maturing and really giving their rooster father a hard time trying their luck with his "harem". So there's quite a bit of squawking and chicken chasing around the farm growing tunnels at the moment, not to mention the competitive (very!) early morning crowing.

  Upstairs Workshop Roof Racks
  The upstairs "hobby" workshop is starting to get quite full now with more and more stuff coming from the old Joburg workshop. So I quickly knocked together another pair of roof racks - one for some of the unfinished/broken models and the other for all the fibreglass cloth that I've collected over the years. Now it's all in one place and I can see what I've actually got! And looking at my stock, I certainly won't need to buy any more cloth for a few years to come.

One new big and one smaller roof rack installed
    Models and fibreglass cloth rolls on the roof racks

  Giant Watermelons
  Wowee! We harvested the biggest two of our five watermelons from our growing tunnel number 1. They weren't that great inside (not enough red flesh) but the bits we could eat were good.

Not sure why they weren't that good. Could be that we planted too late and harvested too early. Could also be the seed type we planted, the high rainfall - low sunshine summer season we had or maybe the plant was just too confined in the growing tunnel. We will certainly be trying again next season.

  Water Table Rising
  We hadn't had to pump our borehole dry for this entire rainy season. Regular rains meant we didn't have to water plants too much and just needed to top up the tanks with an average of 200 to 300 liters a day for our kitchen and ablution usage.

But with no rain for the second half of April we had to pump the borehole empty a few times to fill all our tanks after rather big watering sessions to keep our plants going.

To our surprise we found with all the recent rains the water table had risen considerably and we were able to pump almost 1000 liters through the day. Back in early summer we were down to around three to four hundred liters a day. And from past year experiences, our water table usually holds well to nearly the end of winter.

  Sunflower Art
  Yep. No TV, so we have to make our own evening entertainment. Martie cut one of our mature sunflowers as a table decoration and after dinner one evening I found you could selectively remove the old flower buds to make patterns when the tops of the black seed is exposed. This is a simple image but I'm sure with a bit of creativity you could really make something nice. But unfortunately it doesn't last. As the sunflower dries out, your artwork starts to deteriorate.

We'll be picking them all soon and removing all the seeds for our chicken feed program.

  Pavement Grass Cutting
  How fantastic. For the second time this season Kobus sent his team out to cut our pavement grass. As we have no use for it right now he baled and took it away for us as well. That's saved us a great deal of time and diesel fuel.

But he sent out a different tractor driver this time who decided our sagewood bushes were just weeds and he mowed them down like grass. We did manage to stop him but unfortunately only as he had almost finished. So we only managed to save one little badly damaged bush. They are indigenous and strong and will undoubtably grow back again, but it has just taken them three years to get where they were before their latest brutal hacking. They were similarly hacked by the municipal pavement clearing team a while back. Come to think of it, we haven't seen the municipal team out for a few years now. I wonder if we'll ever see them again?

      Our last mangled little pavement sagewood bush. And just look at
      that grass inside our property that will also need to be tackled soon.
The pavement grass cut and
 raked and ready for baling