Merry Christmas!

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This is my third Christmas at Vastrap. It’s going to be a quiet one with only Quentin’s parents and his sister Kathryn for lunch tomorrow. Most of my family members are enjoying holidays down at the coast and Ashley is with her mum. Hopefully we will be able to have some fun at the sea in the new year, but that all depends on the wheat harvest being finished on time. Sporadic rain showers make things very unpredictable as the wheat cannot be cut when it’s wet. Quentin is trying his best to get it done as quickly as possible and spent the whole of Sunday combining!

As Christmas is upon us, we are grateful for all our many blessings in the past year. We have been fortunate to spend quality time with family and friends who have visited us often. It’s always such a joy to share our farm experiences with others, especially children who lap up the open space, animals and farm machines! We’ve also met many new friends through our involvement with Boran cattle breeding and I’m so grateful to everyone in Ladybrand who have made me feel so welcome in the community. I started this blog six months ago and really appreciate all of your encouragement and feedback. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. We wish you all a very happy and safe festive season and many blessings for 2013!

The veld has made a quick recovery after all the rain.

The veld has made a quick recovery after all the rain.

Let the wheat harvest begin!

Let the wheat harvest begin!

Combining like mad on a Sunday afternoon.

Combining like mad on a Sunday afternoon.

Offloading wheat into trailers.

Offloading wheat into trailers.

Jars full of biscuits from our cooking exchange.

Jars full of biscuits from our cookie exchange.

Festive fun at the cookie exchange in Maseru.

Festive fun at the cookie exchange in Maseru.

Sundowners with my love.

Sundowners with my love.

Presents under our African inspired sisal Christmas tree.

Presents under our African inspired sisal Christmas tree.

Tree detail.

Tree detail.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Let’s make jam!

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December is apricot time on the farm. When I first moved to Vastrap after our wedding the apricots were in full swing and I instantly conformed to one of the most commonly held stereotypes about farm wives – making jam. Quentin absolutely loves apricot jam and his mother’s jam is the best so I had a lot to live up to. She gave me a few pointers over the two-way radio one morning and after that I was on my own.

Karine’s tips for the perfect apricot jam:

1. If the apricots are sweet and ripe use 750g of sugar to 1kg of apricots.

2. Soak the apricots in the sugar for a few hours or overnight.

3. Do not add any water.

4. Sterlise the bottles in the oven at 100 degrees Celsius and boil the lids in water.

5. Scoop off the foam that develops and stir occasionally as the jam thickens.

6. DO NOT ADD HOT JAM TO COLD BOTTLES!

7. Add a few apricot kernels to each bottle.

I added a bit of lemon juice to that first batch of jam and it turned out really well, but unfortunately I didn’t make nearly enough. I thought I would be able to give it away as gifts to my city friends, but Quentin guarded it jealously and we finished the last bottle in November. The next year I made a LOT more, 15 kilograms worth, so there was plenty to go around. I wouldn’t recommend making such a large batch in one go as it is impossible to divide the sugar evenly between the fruit. It also made a huge mess as my kitchen was in the process of being renovated and I didn’t have any counter tops or lights. Stirring and scooping from from three large overflowing pots was quite an initiation for my new stove!

Appelkoos boom land.

Harvesting from the apricot tree in the middle of the wheat fields.

For the past two years our favourite tree has been completely denuded by baboons so we’ve picked our crop from a very old tree which stands in the middle of one of our crop lands, this year planted to wheat. Our friends Debbie and David Amm were visiting us for the weekend and they helped us with the harvest. Their kids Jordan and Dylan had such fun and all Dylan wanted to do was to find a worm! It’s impossible not to eat plenty of fruit as you pick – 100% organic and so sweet, juicy and delicious!

The master picker.

The master picker on his perch.

A nest among the apricots.

A weaver’s nest among the apricots.

The happy picking team.

The happy picking team.

Perfectly ripe and sweet.

Perfectly ripe and sweet.

Soaked overnight in sugar.

Soaked overnight in sugar.

Scoop off the foam.

Scoop off the foam.

Starting to look like jam.

Starting to look like jam.

The finished product!

The finished product!

Lovely new labels from Macaroon.

Colourful new labels from Macaroon.

Veggies galore!

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I’ve a hard time blogging over the past week. Our internet connection has been very erratic and every time I sat down to write it would go down again. It was partly due to the stormy rainy weather we’ve been having, but also because the cable on our roof has completely worn out. Quentin climbed up there on Friday afternoon to replace it just as a huge storm blew over. In the nick of time he managed to replace it and we are now very happily online again!

It’s the time of year when things really start to wind down in South Africa and the big exodus from the cities to the coast begins. We never go away over Christmas as it is a very busy time of year on the farm with planting of sunflower and reaping of wheat. We have plenty of visitors passing through on their way to and from the coast and hopefully we’ll be able to take a break in January. It has been raining a lot though (hallelujah!) which means that the farm work is being delayed so we will just have to wait and see how things go.

I’ve been wanting to do this post about the new vegetable garden for a while now. I can’t say how many times I’ve gone out to take photos only for them to become outdated as things keep growing and changing.  I’m very proud of what Tsidiso and I have achieved in our new patch of paradise. It is such an improvement of what was there before and will hopefully get better and better over the years as we learn more and more. We’ve had some hits and misses this season and many of my seeds did not come up because it was either too dry or they were dug up by the chickens or dogs. The things that did come up are thriving though. It’s my new therapy to go and potter in the garden in the early morning or evening as the sun is setting!

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The Vastrap veggie garden in December 2012.

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In time yellow roses will climb up the arch and the fig and bay trees in the foreground will grow.

This is what the patch of land above the house looked like in August when I started thinking about the changes (see A Whiff of Spring!). I got the idea to use stone from the mountain behind our house to create raised beds from an inspiring and informative blog called Bealtaine Cottage, about a beautiful permaculture garden in Ireland. We have heavy clay soil which is hard to work with and needs a lot of compost to prevent it from compacting. Tsidiso is doing a great job managing our compost heaps so we should be able to improve the quality of the soil over time at no cost. There is already a huge difference!

Picture climbing roses, stone path down the middle, raised circle in the centre with plum tree and lots, lots more!

The blank canvas.

I have tried to plant things that I love eating and which are a bit exotic. I have left the artichokes to go to flower this year as the plants are still young and they create a striking feature. I’m trying to grow more seedlings to have more of them in the main garden.

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Artichokes in flower.

Otherwise there is the usual mix of things that I love using in the kitchen: peas, green beans, flageolet beans, courgette, gem squash, pumpkin, beetroot, carrots, radish, swiss chard, spinach, kale, white and pink mealies, rhubarb, tomatoes, basil, coriander, lettuce, rocket and various berries. I also planted two cherry trees which will take time to grow, but they will be beautiful one day. I also have apricot, peach, almond, walnut and apple trees and there are some very old catawba grape vines at the far end of the garden. For colour there are bright pink geraniums from my friend Vicky’s garden, yellow climbing roses, nasturtiums, sunflowers, zinnias and lavender. Everything is not in flower yet so watch this space for an update in February!

Fig tree with nasturtiums.

Fig tree with nasturtiums.

The plum tree.

The plum tree.

View from the east end.

Patch taking in the view and a cow passing by in the background.

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Pumpkins starting to take over and sunflowers almost ready to bloom.

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Squashes, mealies and beans.

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An old tennis bench we had restored – a great place to take in the setting sun!

Gemsquash.

Gem squash.

Courgette flower.

Courgette flower.

Baby pumpkin.

Baby pumpkin.

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Frilly lettuce and rocket.

Early morning courgette harvest.

Early morning courgette harvest.

Snap peas.

A bucket full of snap peas!

A Gift of Rain

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I feel like I’m falling way behind on my blogging. I’ve wanted to post an update of the veggie garden progress for weeks, but other things always seem to get in the way. Like now, I can’t possibly focus on anything else but this weekend’s rain! I was away the whole of last week working in Joburg and Quentin joined me for a weekend visit to a friend’s farm near Klerksdorp. When we got home on Sunday night there was about 60mm (just over 2 inches) in the rain gauge. It was desperately needed as we were starting to run short of food and water for the cattle and the newly planted maize was wilting in the heat. It’s too late for the wheat crop, which is almost ready to be reaped, but hopefully it will be a better season for our summer crops (maize and sunflower).

After a good drenching everything looks brighter and more sparkly and the dusty air has been washed clean. Needless to say, my beloved farmer is in a very good mood! One can get pretty fixated on the weather when one’s livelihood depends on it.

On Monday morning I took the dogs for a long muddy walk. The sky was electric blue and there were puddles all over the place. Coco stayed at home because she was recovering from her third bout of biliary this summer. We were lucky to get home when we did on Sunday because she was looking very poorly and needed medication urgently. She is on the mend, but the poor little thing certainly knows how to look sorry for herself!

Convalescing Coco baby.

Convalescing Coco baby.

A glorious morning at Vastrap!

A glorious Monday morning at Vastrap!

The rocky drive leading to the house.

The rocky drive leading to the house.

Puddles for the first time this summer!

Puddles for the first time this summer!

Tumi, Paris and Patch having a swim.

Tumi, Paris and Patch having a swim.

Passing a lone bull.

Passing a lone bull.

Newly planted maize refreshed after the rain.

Newly planted maize refreshed after the rain.

Replenished dam.

Replenished dam.

Happy bulls chewing the cud.

Happy Boran bulls chewing the cud.

Gumboots!

My gumboots!

Muddy dog prints.

Muddy dog and cattle prints.

Vista.

Farm vista.

The rain came too late for the wheat almost ready to be reaped.

The rain came too late for the wheat almost ready to be reaped.

Water supplies still low.

Water supplies still low.