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the gaggle

I so love the way the whole gaggle take on responsibility for the goslings.  The adults stand guard, watching in every direction while the babies graze.  Trevor (the big white male on the right) goes mental if you pick up a baby.  He has no real weaponry – no fangs or claws – but he knows his role is to protect them.  Jackie, in the middle, sat on the eggs, but Maria stayed with her the whole time circumnavigating the island where she sat looking for threats while Trevor and Kermit (the other adult male) stood guard on the bank. They know their future as a gaggle rests with the new generation, and they’ll all do better if they all do better. Smart geese.

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Corrin  asked me a little while ago about the geese – “At some point, I’d love to hear about your geese, I don’t recall you mentioning them previously than your Lemon Glut. Do they lay? how many? I assume they’re wild? do they do anything else for you .. as in composting like chooks? They’re very beautiful.”

We are relatively new to geese.  The original incentive for trying them was an idea that perhaps they would be territorial enough to ward off some of the predatory wildlife like goannas, and give the chooks a bit of protection.  Plus we had, for the first time ever, a secure body of water in a lined dam.  And the original pair were so picture-book picturesque.

Our first pair of geese were named Kirsty and Xanana (my partner is huge on puns – sorry!)  But being very ignorant about geese at the time, we didn’t know that male Pilgrim geese are always pure white with blue eyes, and the mixed colours of Xanana and Kirsty were a sure giveaway of two females.

Xanana sadly got got by a a mother wild dog teaching her pups to hunt.  Kirsty sat on the island crying for days. It was heartbreaking.  So we got some more geese to keep her company.  This time we got five more – José, Patrick, Trevor, Jackie, and Charlotte.  After watching the way they worked as a team with one standing guard while the others grazed, we thought that a larger flock might be better at self defence.

The first year Jackie successfully hatched six goslings, one died from a tick, five grew into adulthood, but Patrick was got by a fox and Charlotte died of no obvious cause.  This year poor Jackie has had ten eggs taken one by one by goannas, but one of the younger generation has been smarter and is sitting on a nest of eight eggs on the island.  So now we have nine adult geese and potentially up to eight goslings due in a couple of weeks time.

So, from that limited experience, ten things I know about geese:

1. They are intelligent, endearing, and have lots of personality – way too much to be suitable meat animals. Goodbye goose dinner idea.

2. They are really demonstrable in their affection, racing up to greet us when we get home, agreeing (under a bit of sufferance) to being picked up and cuddled, which makes them great pets once you get over how big and noisy and scary they are.

3. They are raucous.  Really raucous. Early in the morning. Very early in the morning. Did I mention raucous?

4. It takes a village to raise a child and a gaggle to raise a gosling.  The whole group are devoted and diligent parents. The males guard the female on the nest and make sure the babies eat first.  It’s probably how Patrick got got. All young fathers should watch goose movies.

5. It is cruel to keep them without a swimming size body of water.  They are water birds.  They love it so much.

6. Watching geese on the dam is one of the great pleasures of life. Beautiful, graceful, happy, entertaining.

7. They graze, and they eat lots of grass. We give them a scoop of laying pellets a day too, but mostly what they eat is grass.

8. They poo soft green pellets, like wallabies but softer, but quite acceptable (unlike ducks that are really messy poo-ers).

9. They can fly, quite a distance when in danger.  We have had to go collect Trevor a couple of times from a neighbour a kilometre away, downhill, when they were spooked by wild dogs.

10. Though they are large and noisy and scary and hang in a flock with guards, they are still vulnerable to foxes and dogs and need a safe place (like an island) to sleep at night.

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This is the latest in our attempt to keep chooks again strategy – guard geese.  The idea is that the geese will chase off some of the daytime predators, so the chooks can be allowed to free range in the daytime.  Our newly lined front dam means we have a place for them, and the island is a “work in progress”, with the idea that they will sleep there safe from predators that are less comfortable swimming. We shall see how it goes.  In the meantime, Xanana and Kirsty are great fun (though a bit noisy) to have around!

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This post was first published on Simple Green Frugal  some years ago.  It’s worth a re-run.

A post on Little Eco Footprints this week called Are we making a mistake living in the city? has been in the back of my mind at odd moments all week. I live in a rural community. I moved here as a young hippy mum nearly 30 years ago, living first in a caravan with no power, road access, or running water. I have never regretted it and although it was diabolically hard in those early years, I do have the best of lives.

But sometimes, like the deserted beach or the fantastic suburban restaurant, things are only fantastic so long as no-one else knows they are. Is living in the country like that? Is it only possible to do it without destroying it because most people don’t?

My “perfect world” fantasy has everyone living in permacultured villages with tiny ecological footprints, networked and linked with electric railways and internet (powered with geothermal or big desert solar installations), largely self sufficient in food, water, waste disposal, houshold and local energy, trading knowledge, culture, art, craft, manufactured goods and specialist crops.

The villages would be neither city nor country, but a bit of both. They would have enough population density so that people could get around by foot and bicycle – kids could walk to school and to their friends places to play, neighbours would be close enough to rely on in emergencies or even just to borrow a cup of flour or a tool or visit for a chat. But they would have a low enough density to allow most of the fresh food production to be local – kitchen gardens, fruit trees, chickens, geese, dairy cows.

That’s not a very different level of population density to the older suburbs in Australia. As permaculture writer David Holmgren says, “It’s technically possible that the traditional older suburbs could actually produce all of the food needed to sustain the people living there. The amount of open space – both public and private space in backyards – means that you’ve got a population density not that much greater than some of the densest traditional agricultural landscapes in the world.”

FAO says that “It is realistic to suppose that the absolute minimum of arable land to support one person is a mere 0.07 of a hectare–and this assumes a largely vegetarian diet, no land degradation or water shortages, virtually no post-harvest waste, and farmers who know precisely when and how to plant, fertilize, irrigate, etc.” John Jeavons claims that 0.2 hectare can support a family of four. So my fantasy isn’t unreasonable.

But back to my fantasy. Households and small businesses would have local grid connected solar power and rainwater tanks for water, with local water and power boards managing supply and floating pricing to force frugality in times of shortage.

Villages would have their own schools, hospitals, and local economies, based on trading everyday goods and services, but would be connected by high speed electric trains to allow some villages to produce specialist and higher education, specialist medical services, centres of excellence in research, arts and sport, and manufactured goods and specialist crops. Villages would also be connected via the internet, allowing work in any kind of knowledge industries to be globalised.

Giant solar installations in the desert would provide the power for the railways and energy intensive manufacturing. There would be no private cars. Petrol would be very expensive and reserved for engines and manufactured goods that couldn’t do without it. Young adults would go backpacking round the world on trains, bikes and sailing boats.

Thump. That was me falling back to earth.

In reality, both urban dwellers and country dwellers are a long way from my fantasy. With the prices people are willing to pay for quality food, and the cut that goes to packaging, transport, storage, wholesalers then supermarkets, it’s no wonder that many farming practices are the equivalent of strip mining of farmland, as destructive to the environment as concrete suburbs. Much of our food is industrially produced, in CAFOs and ILOs that are just like rural factories. Both farmland and urbanisation are threats to biodiversity. Both lifestyles rely, in different ways, on huge energy subsidies.

I think most rural areas in Australia at least would benefit hugely from a big population influx of people intent on creating a simple green frugal lifestyle. It would move them towards, not away from my fantasy. But in reality, the majority of the population lives in cities, and it is there that the real work of creating change needs to be done, and will have the biggest effects, for all of us.

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parsnips gone to seed

After the heat wave of last week, today is cool and wet.  We had over two inches of rain yesterday and the garden, orchard, geese, ducks, fish, yabbies, wildlife, dams, tanks – everything is loving it.  (Well, the chooks not so much. My chooks are so phobic about water that when I tried to mist them with the hose set to a really fine spray last week to keep them cool, they just stood miserably out in the sun till I turned the hose off).

It’s a perfect planting day. The ground is wet and Bom says that here in northern NSW we can expect under 30°C and patchy rain for the next week.

I’ve planted another round of carrots and beets and spring onions, using my usual system.  There were a lot of casualties to the heat wave out of the last lot, so it’s good to fill the gap.  Succession planting small amounts every month, rather than using up all your garden space in one big planting, is a good insurance strategy.

It’s a too early yet for onions and garlic, but I’ve planted the first round of parsnips for the season.  I had left a couple in the garden to go to seed (that’s the picture), and they reckon it’s the right time to plant seed. Parsnips are from the umbelliferae  family, and like the rest of that family their flowers are good for attracting predatory insects like tachinid flies, assassin bugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps.  So letting a few flower and seed is a pest control insurance payment, and you get free fresh seed as a byproduct.

By standard gardening calendars it’s a bit early for parsnips – they take four months to mature, and they are best harvested after the first frost.  We can’t expect a frost until well into June.  But I’ve learned to trust that plants know what they are doing. Parsnips hold in the ground well so if we get bad conditions for planting next month, we’ll still be eating them in June. And we eat a lot of parsnips.  To my taste they make better mash than potatoes, and they are wonderful in a tray of roast vegetables, which is one of my all-time favourite dinners.

I use the same system for parsnips as for carrots – raised in the shadehouse four or five to a pot, then planted out as a group, potting soil and all with minimal disturbance to the roots.  I find they transplant fine like that, and it saves having to spend a month trying to keep them constantly moist in the garden while they germinate and establish.  And it allows me to put little clumps of them spread around the garden.  They grow taller than you would think, much taller than carrots, so they go towards the southern side of a bed.

If I get some time this afternoon, I’ll also pot up next year’s strawberries The chooks are due to move on to the bed they are in next, and they need a fresh start anyhow.

And I have about 20 seedling Mango trees in the shadehouse, that have been waiting for enough rain to plant.  I think they might be a good fire retardant species, so I’m planting them all along the edge of the fire trail downhill from the house.

And, most important of all, I need a sanity day getting my hands in dirt!

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summer garden

My garden came through the frizzle weather of the last couple of days not too badly, though the dam is low now and I’m very much hoping we don’t get more of it before decent rain.  We have 100 silver perch in there, just getting big enough to eat, and the geese and ducks use it too, so there’s a real limit to the amount I can afford to battle heat waves with water.

Stacking to the north, shade, mulch, and plant selection did the trick though.  This photo is of one of my fully fenced beds, looking from the north towards the south.  Below me (I couldn’t fit it all in), around the northern fence, are non-climbing curcubits – potkin pumpkins, squash and zucchini, and beneath my feet is some aragula (wild rocket).

In summer I plant my fully enclosed garden beds with climbers right round from the east to the west.  Climbing beans are really resilient in heat waves, and provide good shade to everything else.  I can use a lot of beans by the time we eat them fresh and let enough fully mature for dried beans.  Cucumbers and tromboncino need more water, and they wilt and drop fruit in the heat, but the vine survives.  Sweet corn is also a good heat wave survivor. The eggplants, capsicums, basil and perennial leeks in front of them get the benefit of shade for much of the day.  Some of the fruit was burned but most survived.

The only leafy in the picture is the young amaranth.  In other beds I have mature amaranth, over a metre tall and taking up most of a square metre of space. It’s a good, resilient, heat loving summer green (even though it’s not actually green).  I harvest leaves and stems to use where I would use spinach or chinese cabbage in winter. There’s no lettuce in this bed.  There are a few, mostly buttercrunch, scattered around the garden.  Few enough that I could protect some of them, and some them got fried.  There’s a bit of parsley that hasn’t gone to seed, and it survived.  There’s some rocket that suffered but the wild rocket was fine.  I was happy that I haven’t been planting many leafies since early spring.

Today is cool and overcast, such a contrast.  And it is now past the summer solstice and heading into what is normally our wet season.  I planted a new tray of leafies on New Year’s Day, and they are just coming up now.  If I were going to plant brussels sprouts, they’d be in this box, but I’m right at the northern end of their range in a good year, and I’m not betting on a cool winter this year.  So sadly I’ll give up on them now.  It’s still just a bit early for all the brassicas here – they will be big enough to go out into the garden in about 6 weeks and the cabbage moths will still be too active then.  I ummed and ahhed about silver beet and celery and leeks, but they’ll be better in a month’s time too.  So just a little starter for leafies but their time is coming.

leafy midsummer

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11 goose eggs

Eleven eggs in the first nest, and Jackie is sitting on them, and another two in a second nest.  So fingers crossed they might hatch a whole lot of goslings this year.  Last year was disastrous for them.  We had built a haybale shelter with access only from the water, thinking that would give them enough protection, but goannas managed to raid the nest over and over.  And geese in mating season are so noisy!  Months of being woken before dawn, and no goslings to show for it.

This year we have built a floating island on the bigger top dam out of recycled panels from a coolroom, with nesting boxes on them and a couple of stands of low electric fence surrounding the whole dam.  And we’ve spent the year getting the geese used to being fed at bedtime up there, then turning the fence on at night.  They can fly out over it in the morning if they want, but mostly they just wait to be let out.

The gaggle are fiercely protective of the goslings once they are hatched, but eggs and baby goslings are vulnerable to carpet snakes and goannas and hawks and eagles and owls and foxes and feral cats and dogs, and we’ve even encountered quolls here.

The idea is goose dinner once a month or so.  But there’s another flaw in the plan beyond getting goslings past the predators.  Geese are one of the nicest and most engaging animals we’ve ever tried, much more intelligent and affectionate than chooks or ducks.  But if we can raise enough goslings, we can trade them with a neighbour and eat his.  I know it sounds silly but it just might work

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in season in February

My pickings today loaded up my kitchen bench.  Mangoes are biennial, and this is a mango year, so I’ve been making smoothies and cakes and pickles and chutney and sorbet, and giving lots away.  The spring this year was wet enough for the pomegranates to fruit well – often our springs are too dry – and the tamarillos are all ripening at once.  I’m back to growing enough tomatoes to bottle some, the snake beans and green and purple and Madagascar beans are all bearing enough for both eating green and letting mature for the bean jars, and the  chilis and capsicums have all started to ripen at once.  The tromboncino dropped fruit in the heat wave early in the new year, but the rain since has brought them all back into glut again, and the Suyo Long cucumbers are bearing well enough to become a favourite variety.  I’m making pesto from sweet basil, and I have lots of lemon, lime and Thai basil too. Feels like such luxury to have such glorious abundance. Now I just need to decide how to deal with it all!

As well as all the glut crops, we are picking the first of the figs, passionfruit, and carambolas and the last of the paw paws, and the occasional Jackfruit (which can make a glut just with one fruit).  Our peaches are finished, but stonefruit are still well in season in many places.  The geese have decided they like eating banana palms, which would be an issue except that the wild brush turkeys have been getting all the  bananas for years. If we were shorter on fruit I’d need to do something about that, but I’ve run out of good ideas to try.  I figure I’m just fattening up the brush turkeys as security in case of real famine times!

I still have a few zucchinis planted and bearing but the tromboncinos are good competition for them.  The yellow button squash make a nice change sometimes.  The next patch of  sweet corn is just about ready. We’re between pumpkins – the potkins are finished and the Japs about to come on. I’ve had better success with eggplants this year than usual.  There’s the usual carrots and beets, and as usual the greens are scarce this time of year.

My ginger and turmeric love the heat and rain this time of year.  I have both as perennial plots – I just dig some when I want it – but this time of year the plants are growing like crazy.

So this is the harvest around which I base my cooking this time of year.  I’d love to hear what’s harvesting in other places.

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fruit fly

I live smack bang in fruit fly territory.   Bactrocera tryoni – Queensland Fruit Fly.   They seem to be getting, if anything more prolific as the climate heats up, and I think over the years I’ve tried every known method of control, short of spraying, which I can tell without  trying it wouldn’t work.

The pheromone baited traps catch lots of male flies, but it makes no real difference to the infestation. It probably just breeds dumber fruit flies.  The protein baited traps catch lots of fruit flies of both sexes but there is so much rainforest fruit around, and other people’s gardens, that  there’s a nearly infinite number where they came from.  Pruning trees low and covering with a mosquito net works if you get the net on early enough, and it has no holes and goes all the way to the ground. But nets only last one season in the weather, and pruning means you have a small tree without a lot of fruit. Bagging each fruit with cloth, mesh or paper exclusion bags works if you get the bags on early enough, but it’s a huge amount of work.  And if you can’t see through the bag, it’s hard to know when the fruit is ripe.  Predators work, especially spider webs and insectivorous birds, but they just keep the population down, not out.  Planting varieties that fruit very very early – October – used to work but seems to be less and less effective.

These days my best strategies are:

  • Give up on the things that are really fruit fly prone – it’s just not worth the effort.  So I’ve been cutting out the stone fruit trees, leaving just the tough skinned seedling peaches that have some resistance.  I plant one or two rounds of beefsteak type tomatoes like Brandywine early, but for mid and late season tomatoes, I go for Roma and cherry types that are fruit fly resistant.
  • Love spiders.
  • Enjoy the fact that for home consumption, you can just cut fruit and eat the good half.  It’s sometimes hard to tell from the outside.  These cherry tomatoes, for example, all looked fine, and most were, but if I had been aiming to sell them, this one fruit fly infested one would have made the whole lot unsaleable.  My peaches are often stung but I can cut out the stung part for the chooks, and put the rest in the fruit salad.
  • Allow chooks, ducks and geese to forage below fruit trees.  They clean up fallen fruit and like the fruit fly infested ones best.  Pick fruit fly infested fruit and feed to the enclosed chooks.  This breaks the breeding cycle, but there’s an infinite supply breeding in the native figs and wild fruit, so it doesn’t make any serious impact on populations. It does, however, turn a waste into a resource.

So breakfast for my chooks today was a bucket of stung Bishops Crown chilis and a bowl of stung tomatoes, and breakfast for me was toast with the one last of the brandywines, miraculously unstung,  and everyone is happy.

brandywine

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