Little cow girl!

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Livia had her first close-up encounter with our Boran cows today. Sure she’s seen them from the safety of the bakkie before and we often pass them on our daily walks, but today she got up close with her daddy. Boy did she love it! Some of our best Boran cows were in the cattle press for our annual IVF programme, which is a way to get more offspring from our top animals. We couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity for Livia to meet our herd matriarch Hope MHB 04-11 and her beautiful little heifer calf by our former stud sire Rustin MHB 06-30, who sadly was sold this year. If her shrieks were anything to go by, Livia thought it was all very impressive and entertaining, much to her daddy’s delight!

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Counting my blessings

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The first proper summer rains came on 1 November, the weekend of my 40th birthday. That must surely be a good portend for the year ahead! It was so dry and dusty and miserable and now everything is fresh and new again. I decided to beat the Monday blues this morning by taking Livia for an early morning walk. There is still a chill in the air, but the sky is brilliant blue. The face of summer is slowly becoming visible across the landscape, which is littered with groups of cows and their new calves. Dams filled to the brim with water shimmer in the rising sun and the sound of tractors leaving for the days’ work punctuates the air. From now until the new year there will be little time for rest on the farm as maize and sunflower crops are planted and wheat is harvested.

The garden has sprung alive too with new blooms appearing daily. I’m in love with the lupins that are flowering for the first time and the dahlias have started their summer show. There are plenty of artichokes and self-seeded holly-hocks are popping up all over the place. I can’t wait for the next flush of roses as I missed most of the first. The agapanthus as budding like crazy. What a beautiful and blessed way to start the week!

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Absence makes the heart grow fonder

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Livia and I have been away for a while visiting my dad in the Cape. While we had a great trip, and even managed to spend a little bit of time with Ashley at the beach, we were very ready to come home. For some reason I’m always away in October when the roses have their first flush and things start to really happen in the garden. It makes me very home sick knowing what I’m missing out on! At the same time, the garden is desperate for some proper rain to really get things going and the farm landscape is still very drab and brown offset here and there with bright green wheat fields. The contrast between the Cape and the Free State could not be greater than at this time of year after radically different winter rainfall. We did have a bit of rain while I was away, but it was accompanied by a massive hail storm which caused a lot of damage in the garden, but fortunately not too much on the farm. Quentin took these beautiful photos just after the storm. He even came across a porcupine that had been flushed out of its hole and looked very disoriented, poor chap!

2014-10-22_0009While we were away most of the seeds I planted in pots in September germinated and the stuff we planted under the bird nets in the veggie garden seems to have survived. I’ve got some beautiful italian tomatoes, lettuce, kale, brassicas, artichokes, rocket, carrots, beans, squash and a few other bits and pieces. Our electric gate stopped working though so it stands open in the day and creates a clear path for the chickens to feast on a buffet of greens! Tseliso doesn’t have the heart to keep them cooped up all day so roam free they will. I was expecting the strawberries to be ready for picking, but sadly they were flattened by the hail.

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While we were away our new bronze garden sculptures by an artist called Sarah Richards arrived. They are a beautiful life sized wattled crane and a purple heron. I think they look magnificent (thank you my love!)

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While we were away the roses put on a magnificent display that was cut horribly short by the hail. The garden now looks nice from far, but in reality is far from nice. My fantasy of picking arm loads of blooms for the house will have to wait for the next flush later in November or early December. The irises looks beautiful though and my dahlias are coming up well. The peonies are looking a bit fragile, but hopefully they’ll pull through. Sadly is looks as if my favourite indigenous tree that was a huge attraction for birds has died. It already looked poorly last season, but it still has no green shoots. I’ll give it a bit more time, but I think it’s a goner. I don’t even know what kind of tree it is, but will try to identify and replace it.

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While we were away the new installation for our pool heating system was completed and the water pump has been connected today. I must say, the guys did a magnificent job, especially our farm manager Andre who built the structure from scratch and connected up all the little pipes. I can’t wait to have late afternoon swims with Livia and for us to have an extended swimming season! This massive new structure now standing in the garden is going to require some work to finesse and soften and my head is buzzing with ideas. I’ve already bought some more honeysuckle, star jasmine and jasmine to train up the supporting poles and along the tennis court fence. Apart from the warm water that it will provide, I’m also very glad that we now have a shady patch around the pool. My next big mission is to find some nice outside furniture to transform this into a real living space.

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Signs of life in the garden

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The Vastrap garden is slowly coming to life after a very cold and harsh winter. Things are taking their time though because we’ve had a few cold snaps over the past few weeks and it still hasn’t rained so there is little going on beyond the watered garden. The roses are in bud and a few are flowering, but the sweet and juicy flowers are very vulnerable to attack by grasshoppers and beetles since there’s so little else to eat in the veld. As always, the bottlebrush tree in our front garden is putting on a beautiful red display and I am thrilled to see the columbines doing so well in the shady spot I planted them last year. The artichokes are looking big and healthy, but unfortunately our usually robust lemon tree took a bit of a beating in the winter frost. I hope it will recover its former glory because I’m totally lost without a supply of lemons in the garden! My sweat peas all died during the winter, but the sweet smell of the flowering honeysuckle on the pool fence compensates a little. I planted some peony bulbs this winter and I’m very happy that most of them have come up and are growing. It’s early days yet, but I’m very excited to see what develops there.

We’ve only just started planting in the veggie garden because there is always a risk of late frost in the Eastern Free State. Last year I had terrible trouble with chickens digging up the seeds I planted and something eating all my seedlings. We’re trying to combat this by putting up nets this year, but I’m not sure if it will work. I’ve also planted more seeds in pots so that I can transplant them when they are more robust. The biggest problem at this time of year is keeping things watered properly in the hot windy weather before the rains come. I’m a bit disheartened about the veggie garden at the moment, because it’s never been as good as the first year it was established, but we’ll keep on trying. If all goes well we should have a good supply of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries during the season.

Things are fairly quiet on the farm while Quentin waits for the first rains to fall. That will signal the start of the crop season which is very busy, but for now we are taking the gap and installing some heating for our swimming pool. A few years ago my dad gave us a system of plastic pipes that are used to heat the pool water, but we’ve never installed them because it required a bit of work to set it up. Since I am desperate to swim with Livia this summer and our pool is usually very cold, I begged Quentin to do something about it. The team in the workshop have spent ages building a huge frame to instal the pipes on and it is looking good so far. I must say I didn’t realise what a big job it would be, but hopefully it will work!

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Cooking with Livia

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I spent the morning with my cooking club today and Livia came with for a change of scenery. There was a constant stream of entertainment as she was passed from one adoring aunty to another and showered with love by her godmother Vicky. She should be a junior Masterchef in the making with all the food loving ladies she spends time with! With the temperatures rising, we decided to focus on a summer theme of salads and ice creams. I cannot think of many better ways to spend a Friday, cooking with friends, eating good food and delicious ice cream!

Heidi and Vicky made some great dishes with cheese and pears – the one was a fresh pear wrapped in home made ricotta, drizzled with honey and served with caramelised onion focaccia, the other was poached pears stuffed with camembert ice cream. Wow, what a treat!

I made brown bread ice cream with a butterscotch sauce, which I saw in an old copy of Vogue Entertaining and Travel from 1999. I’ve been doing a major spring clean at Vastrap which has led me to rediscover many gems that have been gathering dust under counters over the past few years. These magazines are such a treasure trove and I’ve dusted off all the summer ones to use this season. To be honest, brown bread ice cream doesn’t sound like it has much going for it, but the bread crumbs are toasted and caramelised in sugar, which makes it crunchy and delicious. Click HERE for a great recipe and serve it with some butterscotch sauce. Lucky for Quentin, I’ve come home with a whole tub full as there was so much to taste that we hardly made a dent in it. Wishing everyone a very happy weekend!

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Assessing the damage

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Last Sunday, the afternoon we returned from our holiday, a fire started on the mountain behind Vastrap. It is peak fire season in our area and everyone will be on high alert for the next month or two until the summer rains come. The veld is extremely dry and dusty and the smallest spark can set things off. Strong winds add to the danger. Of course we are happy that it’s spring, but until it rains the drab brown landscape and hazy air makes it hard to get too excited.

Thankfully the worst of the fire was on the mountain and there happened to be no wind for two days, which made it easier to control. At one point my parents-in-law panicked that their house might be in danger as the flames neared the trees behind their property, but with the help of our neighbours and the fire department who went above and beyond to come out to us at 9pm on a Sunday night, the fire was contained. In the end we lost about 200ha of grazing, but we don’t use this part of the farm often because there’s not enough water for the animals up there and no trees for shelter from the heat.

With Livia in a sling, we traversed the length of our mountain property this morning until the stone fence post which forms our boundary with three other farms. It was very crunchy underfoot and our legs were black by the end of the walk. The dogs had a ball, but they all needed a bath when we got home! Amazingly, there are already green shoots coming up only a week after the blaze. It will be interesting to see how quickly the veld rejuvenates after a bit of rain. Our thoughts are with all the other farmers that have been and will still be affected by bad fires this year.

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Pass the parcel!

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We’ve just returned from a two-week overseas trip to Venice and Istria in Croatia. It was a big family affair organised by my step-father, Charles in celebration of his 70th birthday. There were 22 of us including kids and babies! I was slightly apprehensive to travel with a 7 month old, but my fears were completely unfounded. It was an absolute joy to have Livia with us, made all the more special by the fact that she could spend some real quality time with her grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins and her sister Ashley. The kids had an absolute ball and Livia was happy to be dragged along wherever we went. She explored new food and the joys of gelato; discovered her little boy-cousins Tom, Ollie and Alexander; and seemed to love being passed from one adult to another, especially her granny Sussie, her aunty Hannia and her cousin Sibella. She turned 8 months old towards the end of the trip and since we’ve got home her development curve has just skyrocketed! It’s such a joy to watch.

One of the hardest things for me living on the farm is the fact that my closest family don’t live 5 minutes’ drive away, as they have done for most of my post-university life. It is so important to me that Livia has a good relationship with all of her grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins and that she should feel totally comfortable and relaxed in their company. The kind of family time we just spent together is invaluable to cement these relationships and I’m incredibly grateful for it. Here are some of the photos showing what a trooper she was and how much my precious little girl is loved by everyone. A very big thank you to Charles for bringing us all together in such special places and facilitating some very happy family memories. xx

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