A Friendly Visit

Posted by Nick  | 24 Oct 2014  | 4 comments

We’ve been itching to rope friends and family into visiting our new farm, but currently our humble rural abode can only accommodate a small number of guests at a time. Last weekend we arranged for a couple of good friends to come down, offering the meagre comforts of a blow-up mattress and bare rooms.

Arriving Friday afternoon we wasted no time in giving them the grand tour of our blank canvas, including a battle through the bush to the nearby waterfall. In my excitement I annoyingly left the camera at the cottage. Luckily, Dingus had his phone.

Saturday’s weather was mostly poo, but that didn’t stop us from bunging the remaining trees in the ground that we’d bought for our border.

As a matter of record and sentiment, the first ever trees planted on our farm by our friends Dingus and Lauren were a snazzy pink manuka and a giant-to-be kahikatea, respectively.

The first-time visitors seemed thrilled by the idea of seeing their tree-planting efforts grow over the years. How much bigger would they be in five years? In ten?

Two extra pairs of hands saw a third of the border completed in half the time. Our hard-working guests were rewarded with bacon sandwiches.

Here is a happy Char. Why is she so happy? Because bacon. Bacon is the life-force.

After lunch we called it a day and settled in early, driven inside by the relentless rain. Both nights we stayed up far too late playing Monopoly. The theme of the board we used was based on the Hobbit films. For a first-time player, this was an odd experience. Purchasing “properties” the likes of Legolas Greenleaf and Bilbo Baggins felt as if I were somehow partaking in a Middle-Earth slave-trade… Nevertheless, the game had us enthralled to the wee hours, resulting in a wake-up time that would mortify the sensibilities of any farmer.

Sunday thankfully brought clearer skies for viewing the farm in a more charming light. We did a spot of archery then casually goaded our guests into chopping some wood. Maybe if we brand this as an “authentic homesteading experience” we can score some more free labour… Muhaha.

The grimace of manliness:

The girls decided to clean up the mess I’d left when I’d last cleaved carbon. Thanks girls – oh, and Dingus too at one point when Lauren was wielding the maul. While everyone busied themselves, I hung back and stuck to the laborious task of snapping photos.

The girls soon wandered off to go thistle grubbing. We men continued to contend with the wood pile. Dingus found splitting the rounds quite meditative and satisfying once he got into a rhythm, which seems to be a common appreciation by most who give it a go.

A little while later when I scanned the distant paddocks to see where the girls were, what I spied was not thistle grubbing. No, something else had caught their attention…

Donkeys! Needless to say, we found them just as irresistible and made a beeline straight for them. These sweeties are our neighbours, and are very friendly. We hadn’t met them before. They were quite keen on introducing themselves with kisses.

The friendliness of these gentle burros made us long for some of our own to care for.

Quite a lot of thistles were grubbed in the end. We all had a fair whack, probably annihilating a couple hundred of the prickly bastards altogether. The satisfaction of this task, likewise with the wood chopping, did not go unnoticed by the friends. The novelty hasn’t worn off for us yet, either, but I’m sure it will over the coming years. Hopefully it will remain an entertaining pastime for our infrequent visitors.

We had a blast sharing our new country home with some of our closest friends, despite the weather being pretty lame. Thanks for the help, guys – come back any time!

Rusted Relic Restoration

Posted by Nick  | 13 Oct 2014  | 6 comments

As you might have read, our farm came with a plethora of old relics. Some unwanted, but others worth a second glance…

One of the many odds and ends the previous owner left behind was an old iron garden seat which looked like it had seen better days. It instantly became a bright blip on our DIY radar.

The slats of wood were random, perhaps replaced one at a time over the years in a passing “that’ll do”. Most of them looked like old garden stakes. We’d ditch the wood altogether for the project — it needed to be replaced. The real treasure to be restored here was the cast iron frame, which was heavily rusted.

The first task was to strip off the rusted weathered layer. For this we used a set of wire brushes attached to a drill. Worked like a charm.

Parts of the cast were intricate and a little fiddly.

But with persistence the result turned out pretty good.

The bolts that held the wooden slats on once upon a time had rusted so badly that we had to cut them off.

Once all the rust was stripped and bolts removed, we gave the frame a thorough wash and dry.

We wanted to protect the iron and give it a dark finish, so picked up some exterior metal “ebony” spray paint.

A couple coats later and it was looking pretty sexy.

The screws and bolt heads would be visible as part of the final product, so we drenched them as well.

Next up: Sanding. A lot of sanding. Oh man, so much sanding.

Originally we had planned to use some of the cypress we’d had milled, but none of the cuts were thin enough to fit the iron frame. Without a thicknesser we were relegated to sourcing wood the old-fashioned way: From a big-box hardware store.

We were limited by the specific dimensions of the frame slots, so the only treated wood that fit was rough-sawn.

The sun was shining this particular spring day, and with little shade around we both regrettably got quite sunburnt. Mental note to bring sunscreen and hats now that summer is on its way!

A few passes of coarse grit with a random orbital sander stripped most of the rough-sawn ugliness away. Rough-sawn slats on the left compared to a couple sanded ones on the right:

After yet more sanding on finer grits, we had eight sleek-looking slats ready for staining.

We chose a stain colour called “driftwood”. We thought a weathered grey look would go well with a black frame.

After the second coat of stain had dried we battled with positioning the wood slats in the iron frame. It was a bit of a terror because the iron bar connecting the two sides was bent, skewing the structure of the whole seat. We corrected it as best we could, racing to complete the project before we had to head back to Auckland.

As evening began to settle in, we drilled holes for the slats and jammed the bolts through. Bam, done. We stood back and appraised the finished product.

In the end we had turned this:

Into this:

What do you think? Pretty nifty, right? Our first piece of restored furniture for the farm! It’s not perfect, and we’ve definitely learnt some things for next time, but overall we’re stoked with the result. Not only do we now have a sweet garden seat at a fraction of the cost of a new one, it comes with the bonus of having saved something from ruin. It’s something we can smile at and say “shit yeah” – this is what DIY is all about.

From this:

To this:

What’ll pop up next on our DIY radar? Not sure. All we know is that these sorts of projects are addictive…

Mulch, Volts, Peas, and Poop

Posted by Nick  | 02 Oct 2014  | 1 comment

It’s been a little slow on the farm for the past month or so. Auckland still has its jaws firmly latched onto our lives, so we haven’t had too much time lately to launch into bigger farm projects. Since this is undoubtedly your favourite blog about country living, I bet you’ve been overwhelmed with anticipation for a hot new post. I’ll tie a few odds and ends together to put you at ease. You’re welcome.

We’ve planted two thirds of the initial tree boundary but are leaving the final portion for when a couple friends come down soon. Then they, too, can enjoy the pleasure of planting trees (and we can score some free labour). In the mean time we’ve made use of the pile of wood chips from the cypress milling to mulch around the wee saplings. It’ll keep them warm and moist, and hopefully act as a defence against the encroaching pasture.

Oh, and did I mention we finally got a wheelbarrow? I’m quite chuffed about that.

With dryer paddocks and new tyres on the ute, next time we’ll be able to transport the mulch by the tray-load.

We set up a temporary hot fence to keep the stock well clear. Can you imagine if those heffalumps got through and trampled/devoured the babies and all our hard work? I’d lose it. It would be the Waikato Chainsaw Massacre, hamburger style.

Instead of buying an expensive mobile solar unit for the hot fence, we just ran it through the orchard to a pre-existing energiser in the laundry/tool-shed near the cottage. Not the prettiest set-up, but it’ll do for now until we decide on something more permanent.

When it came to connecting the electric tape to the energiser, I had to work around the expertise of the previous owner (a recurring theme), whose penchant for rough-and-ready improvisations is unabashed.

The quality of our own set-up ended up being no less makeshift.

In other news, along with a wheelbarrow we also picked up an extendible ladder, allowing us to finally reach high places like this to untie random loops of rope:

One of us was particularly enthralled with investigating the new gadget:

The wheelbarrow was immediately put to use, and not just for carting mulch.

I believe this is the technical unit of measurement for a shit-load. We dumped this lot around the old plum trees in the orchard, whose fruit were tasteless last summer (when we first visited the property). Here’s hoping with some extra fruit food and scattered manure they’ll squeeze out a bit more sugar this season.

Aside from those odd jobs we’ve been doing a bit of gardening. Nothing major, just adding a few greens here and there. Twenty strawberry plants should suffice for the two of us this year, right? Nom.

The lettuces have picked up! Not looking like stunted frost-bitten frills any more. Char’s pointing at the lettuce in case you miss it:

We also planted some snow peas and built a trellis from some old wire net that we fished out of the shed:

We’re committed to having a productive veggie garden this summer; we’ve become complacent at our little unit in Auckland the past couple of years. Veggies need love! We’ve weeded, fertilised, and mulched this bed, adding a little pathway so we can reach the middle. Will it all have grown when we return? Ohh, I feel like a giddy grandma!

We met some more of our new neighbours who are just as lovely as all the others. They spotted us grubbing thistles in a paddock adjacent to their property, so they popped over bearing a carton of (truly) free-range eggs, courtesy of their own chooks.

As well as having a couple hundred acres for sheep, they have the makings of a little lifestyle block going on around their house, including — wait for it — donkeys. That’s right. Donkeys. Having some burros of our own has been part of our dream since the beginning, so to hear their broken heehaws from across the farm warms our hearts. We’re obviously in the right place. The fact that these neighbours also accommodate a bunch of other animals, including a striking white goose, tells us we’re going to get along just dandy.

It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve been down to the farm, so we’re itching for this weekend to arrive. In the coming weeks we hope to see a few more projects take the spotlight, like the restoration of an old cast iron garden bench, the construction of an archery target, and — if all goes to plan — finally showing some friends around our paradise-in-progress. Watch this space!

Spring Has Sprung

Posted by Nick  | 15 Sep 2014  | 4 comments

With the change of season the warmer days are ushering greener grass, fewer frosts, bleating lambs, and blossoms aplenty. In New Zealand things are turning pretty all over the show. The farm is no exception.

Gone are frigid mornings with heavy frost like this:

And with the passing of winter, sleeping beauties are awakening:

Emerging from dormant twigs which might have been mistakenly thought dead only weeks before:

Attracting symbiotic friends who’ve doubtless hungered in hibernation:

The drone of dozens of furry-bottomed bumblebees is heard beneath a vibrant rhododendron in full bloom:

Who litters the ground with dazzling petals as soon as they trade nectar for pollen:

Nearby plum trees look snow-laden as their rising sap triggers an explosion of white:

Clusters of the colourless beauties are like clouds on sticks whose petals rain from above like floral snow:

A plump wood pigeon, kereru, swoops in to sample the sweet nectar:

At this time of year everything tastes good:

The Pleasure of Planting Trees

Posted by Nick  | 10 Sep 2014  | 4 comments

If the scope of our dream could be summed up in a few words, one of those words would be “trees”.

As the most foundational aspect of building a world — literally from the ground up — our eagerness to put trees in the dirt has been overwhelming. I’ve admittedly been rather impatient. But now that we have the automotive means to haul loads of the babies, we can hop to it. Aw yeah!

After giving some good business to a nearby nursery, forty-odd native saplings were stuffed into the back of the ute. It was a perfect amount for what we had planned.

A road runs along one side of our property for a good half kilometre, so we thought it would be a great place to start planting a screen for both privacy and shelter. Seeing as it’s the southern edge of the farm, it would also serve as a minor windbreak for the frigid southerlies we are blessed with here in New Zealand.

We figured we’d start with the one-hundred-ten metres that spans a paddock between the cottage and stock yards. That’d be about three ute loads. We’d have it done in three weeks if we took a load down each weekend.

We loaded up our little cart to transport the trees across the paddock.

Surprisingly, an entire ute-load only took two trips in the cart.

Before planting we had arranged with the farmer who’s leasing the land to keep this particular paddock free of any beasts that might be inclined to nibble or otherwise trample our wee saplings, at least until we got a hot fence up. That included these lovely ladies, who were the subjects of our very first herding attempt on the farm:

I’d love to impart a story of comedic failure in which we were chasing mutton for hours, but shifting these gals was a cinch. Beginner’s luck? I don’t know, Char’s pretty good with animals.

Before buying the plants we’d done some research on how to design a restorative native shelter. We based our selection of trees on their speed of growth (we favoured faster varieties for obvious reasons) and density/height. Being a visual learner and having been requested by Char to compile a list of species, I drew up an infographic as a sort of general plan:

An important aspect of planting native species is to create a sense of randomness in order to mimic the wild (unless you’re designing for a specific look). It’s difficult for humans to construct true randomness, so apparently an intersecting wave is a sensible guide to follow which appears random enough from ground level.

Believe it or not, the plants in the photo above are enough to cover about forty metres by three metres wide. As expected we didn’t find the exact species we’d compiled into our list at the nursery. At least we knew the types that we needed. Among the forty-odd plants were twenty varieties of pittosporum, lophomyrtus, corokia, kowhai, ribbonwood, manuka, cabbage tree, miro, and pseudopanax. My mum said not to get any of “those ugly lancewoods”. So we got four.

It felt like a momentous occasion to be planting our very first trees on the farm. I chose a mighty miro, which will eventually grow to twenty-five metres and whose berries will be gorged on by fat kereru.

Char went for a classic kowhai for her very first farm tree; a colourful favourite of tui.

Time to get busy. Step one: Plot planting plan for first ten metres. Step two: Choose plant placement. Step three: Painstakingly remove turf layer. Step four: Plant trees. Step five: Bacon sandwiches.

Having laboured away in various backyards in Auckland growing up, I’m all too familiar with the tacky smelly geological abomination that is clay. Thick and sludgy when wet, chalky and tough when dry. And why does it always smell like crap? Not nice crap either, not like compost. Like a bulging diaper that’s been festering in the hot sun for a week. What’s with that?! (For anyone actually interested, this is due to standing water and our stinky friends anaerobic bacteria.) However, here in the fertile Waikato it seems clay is almost non-existent. Digging into the topsoil there’s dark rich organic matter, looking almost like potting mix:

Not a clump of clay in sight.

Even the light brown subsoil is a delicious fine loam. We found traces of pumice as well. Further evidence of the volcanic origins of the fertile ground. What a treat! We have no excuse now for unhealthy plants.

After a few hours we’d exhausted our stamina and thankfully our supply of trees. The first forty were in the ground. We just hoped to hell that it would rain in our absence and they wouldn’t get eaten by the enormous mutant hares we’d spotted lurking around…

Maybe we’ll come along later with a wheelbarrow and collect all the slabs of turf so we can finally replace that mysterious pit under the cottage with something other than junk…

Upon our return the following weekend we were relieved to find the saplings just as we’d left them. No frost damage, no signs of interfering monster bunnies, and the soil was damp. A smarter idea had us unloading the next lot of trees from the roadside instead of carting them across the paddock. D’uh.

The new season is bringing warmer days. It’s been all jeans and jumpers for a while, but this day had me out in a t-shirt and shorts. Char, in a singlet, got sunburnt shoulders and a subsequent reprimanding. Next time we’ll bring sunscreen and hats and loose-fitting shirts! The heat made us dread what the middle of summer might be like. Lots of trips down to the river methinks.

Because we had a better idea of what we needed to do the second time around, we had finished another forty metres a bit quicker. Eighty metres total now — thirty-odd to go to reach the one-hundred-ten mark!

In five years time this string of native trees should be three to five metres tall, and hopefully dense enough to block out most of the visibility of the road. Mulching should help. We have a whole lot of wood chips from the cypress that we had milled, which is a bonus.

This is just the beginning of our tree-planting endeavours. It’s one of our primary ambitions to turn this arboreally barren farmland into a landscape dotted with stands of trees, both native and exotic. It’s a life-long project, and like we say, if it were perfect already we’d have nothing to do.

We hope our efforts will not only beautify our rural home, but create ecological benefits as well. We’re excited about seeing wildlife thrive in the habitats we create over the years. What new species of birds might the growing trees attract?

It feels good knowing that a by-product of planting trees has the environmental benefit of creating a carbon sink. How many trees must we each plant, I wonder, to offset the carbon emissions of an entire lifetime?

Is there anything not awesome about planting trees?!