Time for a break

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We are heading off on a family holiday to Spain so I will be taking a break from blogging over the next few weeks. We were supposed to fly out tonight but our flight has been delayed by a day due to a Lufthansa strike tomorrow. When we finally get there, I’m very much looking forward to exploring and enjoying a new country (never been to Spain before) and spending time with family. We are meeting up with the whole de Bruyn clan including Quentin’s sister Deidre who lives in Australia, her husband Mike and their two boys.

I will leave you with these photos I took of the farm last Sunday. We went for lunch at a place near Clocolan called The Cabin and drove home the scenic route over the mountains. This is not a route we travel very often because it’s quite a bad road and very deserted with many of the farm houses along the route unoccupied. The road also takes one through farm lands on the top of the mountain so there are lots of gates to open, which I hate! Quentin took me on this route the first winter that I visited Vastrap three years ago and I just remember everything being freezing! From the top of the mountain there is the perfect view of the Vastrap valley and its patchwork of autumn colours. I hope you enjoy!

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Project Chicken!

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I have complained about our free-ranging chickens before and how they cause havoc in my garden without giving us a reliable source of eggs and/or meat (see Home Sweet Home). When I first came to Vastrap the chicken coop was a simple wire structure situated right behind our guest rooms. The roosters would crow loudly at all times of the day and night (not only dawn) and our guests would appear for breakfast with dark blue circles under their eyes having not had a wink of sleep. Anticipating that visitors would be reluctant to return, among them my family, I moved quickly to rectify the situation by asking Quentin nicely to build a proper stone hen house further away from the house. This has helped immensely for the noise problem and our guests sleep more soundly now.

Chicken 007

‘New’ chicken coup under the pepper tree.

But still, the chickens don’t do what I want them to, which is entirely my fault as I have not invested any time learning what makes them tick. Having recently dipped a baby toe into the topic, I realise there are a lot of very passionate people out there who spend a huge amount of time worrying about their chickens and making them happy. So, it’s high time that I learn something new. A few friends have already given me some great advice (thanks Ena and Caryn!), but I’m hoping to access the blogging brains trust to make absolutely sure that Tseliso and I are on the right track. At the moment we have two roosters, about 8 hens and 14 chicks running around the yard. After having had no chicks for two years we’ve recently had a population explosion! In tandem, there has been a complete dearth of eggs.

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Chicken 009

Chicken 001 Chicken 002

Over the next few weeks, Tseliso has been tasked with remodelling the coup to include better roosting perches, more comfortable nesting bins and an enclosed chicken run so that we don’t have to let them out every day. At the moment they free range 5 days a week and generally only stay in the coop over weekends. From the advice I’ve had so far it seems the ratio should be the opposite. I’ve printed lots of good ideas from the Internet on how we can recycle things lying around in the yard to make the hens more comfortable.

Through this project I would also like Tseliso to learn how to manage his own chickens more effectively. My goal is to get a more reliable supply of eggs, but his requirement is to have more chickens for his family to eat. This is even more important since he recently became a father to a beautiful baby girl named MaTseliso. I presume that the two goals require slightly different management techniques, but I’m not entirely sure. Any advice would be greatly appreciated! I will report back on our progress in a few months, hopefully with positive results for both of us.

Tseliso, Elizabeth and MaTseliso (3 months old).

Tseliso, Elizabeth and MaTseliso (3 months old).

Purple Feast

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I wish I was a better photographer to be able to capture the incredible insect life in our garden. For the past few months my salvia bushes have been alive with a flapping frenzy of bumble bees, honey bees and insects with very long proboscises which I think are bee flies. Walking in the garden there is a constant humming symphony and I find it mesmerising, even therapeutic, to watch them flitting from flower to flower, never sitting still for longer than an instant. It can only be a good thing to have such life in the garden, but can there be too much of a good thing? The other day I was stung on the forehead picking flowers in the late afternoon and more and more I’m finding bees stuck in the house. This probably has to do with the fact that we have a huge bee hive in the roof above our office. It has apparently been there for many years, but it really seems to be thriving. At this rate there’ll be honey dripping down onto my head one day while I’m busy blogging! For the safety of our guests and children visiting it is probably best if I find a bee keeper who can remove the colony to a safer place and harvest some delicious honey for us. Hopefully there is enough good stuff in the garden to keep the other bees and insects here without too much disruption.

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Chicken 032 Chicken 049

Tseliso’s compost

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Our garden requires a LOT of compost to enrich the heavy clay soil in our area. Before I came to the farm, the system of making compost was fairly random with all the kitchen and garden scraps and grass cuttings simply thrown onto a large pile and left to decompose. There probably was some good stuff right at the bottom, but it was impossible to get to and there wasn’t enough of it. More problematic, was the fact that anything green, including weeds was thrown into the mix, which naturally was a disaster as there wasn’t enough heat to destroy the seeds. As a result, the garden still has a big weed problem.

Last summer I put a system in place to ensure that we recycle our garden, kitchen and office waste more efficiently. We built four stone enclosures and with the help of lots of information on the internet, I showed my gardener, Tseliso how to create a well-balanced compost pile without weeds. The piles get watered and turned weekly and the ready compost is sifted and stored in bags. Making our own compost saves a lot of money and it helps us with waste management. This summer Tseliso made almost a tonne of compost! That sounds like a lot, but we could use double that with all the new beds in the vegetable garden and elsewhere. The sand stone enclosures have worked really well, but if we had to build them again we would make the passage between them narrower (one meter instead of two) to make it easier to turn the piles and move the waste around. We would also have six bins instead of four!

Compost bins.

Compost bins.

The pace of compost-making slows down dramatically in winter, not only because there’s less garden waste, but also because it’s so cold! With this in mind we’ve started a little experiment to see if making the compost in an old chest freezer helps to insulate it. A friend of mine suggested this to me a while ago when I was complaining about all the old chest freezers standing around in our store rooms. He sent me this link showing how it’s done. I had a particularly bad moment one day when three of them packed up at the same time filled with meat and various things that had been put there years ago by other people and forgotten. It was really gross cleaning everything out and I’m determined not to get into that situation again! I now only use two of the freezers and label everything clearly in fabric shopping bags that are easy to pull out when needed. Quentin was reluctant to give me one of the freezers to use for compost, but the other day another one packed up for good and I grabbed the opportunity!

Reclaimed chest freezer!

Reclaimed chest freezer!

Well and truly past its prime.

Seen better days.

After finding a good place for it we drilled holes in the bottom for drainage. Yes, I was drilling too, but I also had to take the photos! We removed the freezer element and then started layering – sticks at the bottom, followed by garden waste, paper, and horse manure freshly supplied by Sonny and Beauty. There was plenty of fresh garden waste from the recently mowed lawn and all the summer vegetables that have been cleared away. Tseliso finished it all off with a sprinkling of water.

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The final product.

The final product.

And voilà, the final product! We placed a stone on the lid to keep it tightly closed and will check up on progress in a week. Hopefully it will cook nicely through winter and along with the piles that are already in progress we’ll have enough compost by the end of winter for our expanded spring veggie garden.

Moody morning

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My walk this morning could not have been more different to a week ago when I strolled down Cosmos Lane. I did a loop down to the valley and then up towards the mountain behind the house as the light changed from golden to grey. The sky was dark and moody and there were hardly any flowers to be seen. The veld is quickly turning winter-brown and the water levels in the dams have dropped. Still, this time of year has its own sense of beauty. I love that every time I go out on the farm there is something different to discover and enjoy. A walk like this is certainly a great way to start a Friday and I realise more and more how privileged I am to be in this life. I wish everyone a very happy and warm weekend!

Morning vistas.

Morning vistas.

Paris drinking.

Paris at the water.

Lone flower.

Lone flower.

Winter grazing.

Winter grazing.

Blue gum bee hives.

Blue gum bee hives.

Sandstone fence post.

Sandstone fence post.

More water for Paris.

More water for Paris.

Moody vistas.

Moody vistas.

Grass seeds.

Grass seeds.

Autumn colours.

Autumn colours.

Farm sculpture.

Farm sculpture.

I can see clearly now!

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Our house at Vastrap has undergone a transformation over the past two years. In April last year we finished a major renovation of our kitchen, living areas, bedrooms and bathrooms. We replaced all the steel windows with wooden double glazed windows and totally reorganised the way we live. I cannot tell you what a difference it has made! It has taken another year to complete the final touches. One of our biggest areas of indecision was what to do about security. Before we made the changes, every window in the house was covered with steel framed burglar bars that made it look and feel like a jail. I hated them so much that I avoided taking photos of the house, something which I now regret because I can’t show good before and after shots!

Kitchen burglar bars "before".

Kitchen burglar bars “before”.

A pile of steel relegated to the backyard.

Pile of steel bars relegated to the backyard for recycling.

However, we could not get away from the reality that we need some form of security. Living out of town it is not an option to put up beams linked to armed response and one cannot help but feel vulnerable when you are home alone. We searched and searched an avoided the topic until one day we discovered an agent in Bloemfontein for transparent burglar bars, known as ClearBars. Quentin was initially sceptical but Hendrik, the agent for the Free State and Nothern Cape, came to our house to demonstrate how strong they are and convinced us they would do the job. They are made from “polycarbonate and ISO 9001 approved for military VIP protection, aircraft windows, Formula 1 cars, and other applications where safety and security are paramount.  The material has a tensile breaking strength of 3000 kg’s and is virtually indestructible!” Apparently we are the first people in the Free State outside of Bloemfontein to have them installed.

Unclear photos of ClearBars!

Unclear photos of ClearBars!

One obstacle was the roller fly screens we installed before the summer. They sit flush against the window and roll up away from sight when not needed. Hendrik had to figure out a way to install the bars behind the fly screens. I cannot praise his service enough. He and his assistant Via spent two solid days at the house removing the fly screens, installing the ClearBars, and cutting and installing new wooden frames onto which they mounted the fly screens. It really looks great and we can feel secure without feeling like we’re in jail. I am particularly happy that the views from my kitchen windows have not been ruined.

Kitchen windows.

View from the kitchen up to the veggie garden.

View from kitchen onto courtyard.

View from kitchen onto courtyard.

View onto the driveway.

View onto the driveway.

Fly screen detail.

Fly screen detail.

Bedroom views.

Bedroom views.

One area that remains unresolved is our enclosed veranda at the front of the house. It’s a beautifully warm room on winter’s days when the sun streams in. We did not change the bars here because we plan to eventually replace the steel windows with sliding or folding wooden windows and doors. I think I can live with this view for a while knowing that the rest of the house is sorted!

Remaining bars on the front veranda.

Remaining bars on the front veranda.

Cosmos Lane

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There are few things more soothing for the soul than taking the dogs for a walk down cosmos lane on a crisp blue-sky autumn morning. The cosmos only flower in a short window from late March to early April so I’ve been waiting for the perfect opportunity to go out and capture them. The rain we had over Easter washed the air clean and ushered in a distinct shift in season from summer to autumn. In fact, yesterday our friends were posting photos of snow on the Maluti mountains in Lesotho not too far away from us, which would explain the sudden chill in the air!

My walking destination this morning was the little road that runs past my parents-in-law’s house at Diepgezicht farm. It is a charming dirt track usually lined with cosmos at this time of year. The flowers are alive with bees and there were flocks of little birds feasting on the last of the sunflowers, while Egyptian geese flew overhead. At the far end of the road is a derelict old sandstone farm house with the most beautiful stone work. It is such a pity that the house has been left to go to ruin and I noticed that the roof over the front veranda has collapsed, perhaps because someone removed the old sandstone columns.

As usual the dogs were in their element, with Tumi and Patch sticking close to me while Coco was nowhere to be seen. We lost Paris on our way to Diepgezicht, but when we returned to the car an hour and a half later, the clever girl was there patiently waiting for us. For those who don’t know, Paris is totally blind (see How Paris “Sees” the World). It never ceases to amaze me how she gets around. What a pity she missed the cosmos!

Crisp blue-sky morning.

Crisp blue-sky morning – view across the valley towards cosmos lane.

Good morning sheep!

Good morning sheep!

Tumi and Patch loving their walk.

Tumi and Patch loving their walk.

Colourful cosmos.

Colourful cosmos.

Nest amongst red berries.

Nest amongst red berries.

The derelict farm house.

Derelict sandstone farm house.

Turning back.

Turning back down cosmos lane.

Buzzing bees!

Buzzing bees!

Last of the sunflowers.

Last of the sunflowers in the distance. 

Bye bye sheep!

Goodbye sheep!