Spring Has Sprung

Posted by Nick  | 15 Sep 2014  | 1 comment

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?!

Wood Barn Yarn

Posted by Nick  | 02 Sep 2014  | 2 comments

Wood, wood, everywhere — covered in poop and hay!
It must be cleaned, this clutter gone, so clean we did this day.

The farmer old, he stored his hay within this great big barn,
Atop aged planks and criss-crossed boards all tangled up like yarn.

Some to keep and some to burn — a lot had rotted through.
We order those that ought be kept, to carve and saw and hew.

Yon wood hoard grows within the barn, which is now free of mess.
The minds of us pedantic folk too, briefly clutter-less.

The Farm Gets Wheels

Posted by Nick  | 01 Sep 2014  | 3 comments

Since we bought the farm our tiny two-door coupe has been the sole mode of transport for any and all items; mattresses, chairs, and tools of all shapes and sizes (mostly awkward). Every trip down has been three-dimensional Tetris: “Will this fit? Maybe, but only if that is rotated and then those sit on top of these.”

Whilst loyal and oddly accommodating, the little city car’s limited size has prevented us from transporting many crucial items needed for a farm, as well as basic items for comfort, like a place to plonk our bottoms. But not anymore! Now the farm has some wheels more suited to its needs (namely hauling a butt-load of trees), and, thank heavens, we can finally get a couch to put our feet up after a long day on the farm.

At first we cringed at the expected increase in fuel consumption and decrease in efficiency between our little coupe’s engine (one-point-three litre) and the ute’s which is over twice the size. We were relieved to discover, however, that the ute’s fuel efficiency rating was quite high (only one star less than the coupe’s), especially for its engine size. When shopping around we’d seen other utes whose engine sizes were smaller but fuel efficiency was oddly worse, so it’s not too bad as far as bigger vehicles go. And hey, the future diet of this baby may not be based on fossil fuels at all…

The first weekend we had the ute we put it to work, naturally. We packed it full of the sorrowful potted trees we’ve been storing for years at our unit in town. Destination: Farm. Stunted, malnourished, and root-bound, we are eager, and now able, to give them permanent homes in delicious volcanic soil. It’s deeply saddening that our two metre tall kauri was mortally infected by some sort of fungal rot and has perished only months before being able to be transplanted on the farm. Whimpers and sobs.

Filled to the brim with dishevelled plants from our unit, ready to be driven to a happier place:

Exploding from the boot at their new home:

The sad-looking bunch comprises an olive, grisilinea, a couple of Asian bell flowers, a blueberry, guava, avocado, pine nut, mandarin, lemon, and a feijoa, most of which are about five years old but because of their hermitage have never yielded much more than the odd diminutive lemon, tart berry, or terribly bitter – and I know this from an unfortunate first-hand experience – olive (not that any raw olive should ever be sampled and isn’t anything but bitter).

We’re not sure where to plant this lot just yet, so for now they’ll stay in their pots and be acclimating to a higher altitude, heavy frosts, and plenty more sun. We’d better get on to finding them appropriate homes before summer.

The following weekend we drove out to my family’s house north of Auckland to pick up a sofa set that they said we could borrow. Everything’s so temporary at the moment in the cottage that furniture loans like this are really appreciated.

We opted for a dual-cab ute (which has four doors/seats but a shorter tray) because we thought the pros outweighed the cons even if it meant sacrificing a longer tray. As such, it was a little tight fitting a whole sofa set. No worries, at times like this we’ll just have to have the back open.

Here’s our makeshift “living room”, consisting of outdoor bench, folding chair, dresser seat, camping mats, and picnic blankets, before the introduction of the sofa set (and yes, that is a fitted sheet posing as a curtain):

And here it is looking a bit more welcoming:

After putting up with the previous arrangement for a few months you realise just how taken for granted a comfy sitting area is. Thanks mum and sis! The same goes for Char’s family, who kindly brought down a little dining set for us to borrow – eating dinner on a cold hard floor gets old pretty quick.

Next we plan on filling the ute with some native saplings so we can start planting up the road front, adding both privacy and a windbreak for those chilly southerlies. Stay tuned!

A Tyre to Ease Tiredness

Posted by Nick  | 16 Aug 2014  | 6 comments

Splitting wood is kind of fun. Actually, it can be a lot of fun once you get into a rhythm and treat it like a workout (or, if you’re like me, an outlet for pent-up frustration, in which case you overdo it and suffer the consequence of a kink in the neck). Like any physical activity, form is more important than strength and the right form can conserve your stamina. What’s equally essential to your endurance is having a practical setup. A chopping block that’s too tall, for example, isn’t going to allow you to impart the same amount of mechanical energy through your maul were the block shorter. Think of dropping an egg on a child’s head versus dropping an egg on a baby’s head. (Why would you smile at that? You monster.)

Form could also be called technique, of which an additional relevant term shares an etymological root: Technology. The right tools for the job, as they say, really do make life easier. So today I set out to apply some of that sweet technology to our task of splitting the seemingly never-ending stockpile of wood that resulted from the felling of a dozen cypress trees. The idea was laughably simple, but it would save us from the most toilsome of repetitive tasks: Bending down to pick something up.

I present Exhibit A – a log round being split, in which the impact has sent half of it hurtling to the ground:

That half round is still too big for the wood burner, so poor Char here will have to strain the cast-iron hinge in her spine and bend down to pick it up. Just imagine if her next blow glances the half round, shooting it off the chopping block once more. Horror of horrors, she would have to – yes – pick it up again.

Enter the man’s ingenuity! Or, rather, something I saw on the internet…

First, cut a large round as a chopping block and roll it a few hundred metres across a paddock:

Not forgetting to be an idiot en route:

Next, find an old tyre (we were fortunate enough to find a couple strewn about the farm) and envision a way of attaching it to the block.

The diameter of the block I cut was a little small to attach the inside of the tyre to, so I decided on cutting flaps into one side of the tyre to slide over the block.

Tyres aren’t all rubber. They usually have a strong steel cable imbedded in the inner rim. This was difficult to saw through. I growled at it, which seemed to help my progress.

With greater effort than I care to divulge, I eventually got the tyre fitted around the block and drove some roofing screws through the flaps, fixing the tyre firmly to the wood. It wasn’t perfectly levelled or centred, but sod it. It’s a rough tool for rough work!

Another makeshift thingamajig complete. It should do the job…

Look at that! Boom! No flying wood! No having to bend down after every split!

This handy little invention serves multiple purposes. Not only does it hold all the split pieces of a wood round together at a good height, the rubber tyre also cushions the impact of any misses, which preserves both the maul and one’s shins.