Heatwave!

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We’ve had a serious heatwave over the past week and a half. Terrible wind has added to the discomfort blowing dust into the house from all corners of the farm. Yesterday was the absolute worst with gusts up to 50km/hr the whole day long!

We had a little bit of rain before Myles was born, but there’s been nothing since and everything has totally dried up. I managed to take some photos of the garden early one morning just before things got really parched and windswept. The garden has come into bloom about a month earlier than usual, probably because we had some rain in September and because the temperatures have been so hot for spring. We also had a relatively mild winter so things didn’t frost down as much as usual. I just love the riot of colour and the fragrance of honeysuckle, lavender and rose drifting through the air. A real treat when the wind isn’t blowing and it’s pleasant enough to venture outside!

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Dahlia delight!

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I simply can’t get enough of the dahlias in my garden. They never fail to delight and every day something new emerges in a different colour, shape and size. The neon yellow dinner plate dahlias are totally irresistible! It’s been a while since my dahlia patch looked this good so early in the season. Dahlias have been a staple in the Vastrap garden since Quentin’s grandmother lived here over 50 years ago. There weren’t any when I arrived, but it didn’t take long for me to revive the tradition, because they are so easy to grow and make wonderful picking flowers. Exactly the type I like, the more you pick the more they flower! Livia and I are loving summer, spending more and more time out in the garden. We’ve had such lovely rain followed by beautiful hot sunny days, exactly what one expects from a good summer season in the Eastern Free State. It’s the definition of delicious and exactly what’s needed to keep the farmer in our house content and happy over the planting and harvesting season.

Quentin's grandparents at Vastrap circa 1940s.

Quentin’s grandmother Berry’s dahlias. 

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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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Late-Summer Garden

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There are signs all about that the seasons are starting to turn. Work on the farm started half an hour later today signalling the end of the busy summer period. The wild peach trees alongside the road are almost depleted of their fruit thanks to passing cars with plastic bags at the ready. Soon a sea of cosmos will bring shades of pastel to the landscape. I am more aware than ever of the subtle changes in light and temperature being awake a few times through the night feeding little Livia. In the garden, the fading agapanthus have been replaced by bright orange wands of crocosmia and the odd flowering clivia. Similarly, the spectacular pink Pride of India and bright red Bottlebrush tree add a splash of colour.  There may still be many glorious sunny days before the winter chill sets in, but it’s only a matter of time before the leaves on the poplar tree at the bottom of the garden and the virginia creeper in the courtyard turn auburn and start to fall.

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Garden colours

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While the roses are preparing for their next big flush, the rest of the Vastrap garden is coming to life thanks to some healing rain. Hydrangeas, agapanthus, dahlias, pelargonium, hollyhocks, daylilies, lavender, scabiosa, salvia, nasturtiums, echinacea, buddleja, and many more have all started to flower. The herb garden in the courtyard has gone crazy with tarragon and mint growing like weeds! Despite my lack of energy for gardening over the past few months it seems we’ll have no shortage of colour around the house over Christmas. But it’s probably wise for me to enjoy it all from a distance rather than getting into extensive flower arranging, because even taking these photos today has completely exhausted me. I guess that’s to be expected with my growing belly and only a month to go until the big day! Deep breath in, deep breath out… the countdown really has begun.

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Celebrating Spring!

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I’ve been very out of touch with the seasons this year. The onset of Spring hasn’t been quite the event it was last year perhaps because we had such a warm winter. But in general, my attention hasn’t been focused out of doors. I spent most of winter worrying about my pregnancy and feeling a little fragile, then there was pregnant Coco to fuss over and after that the puppies. In between, all our energies were focused on our auction which left very little time to think about the garden or go on our usual long walks with the dogs on the farm. I’m still a little ambivalent about the garden, but getting more and more excited for summer and the changes in store for us over the next few months.

The good news is that my pregnancy is progressing well and I’m now more than half way there. My bump is starting to show and I’m feeling her movement more clearly. Packing away our heavy winter clothes and unpacking summer stuff this morning, I was left with only a small pile of things that I’ll be able to fit into by the end of the month when I transition into my third trimester. By the time we meet her in early January, it will be the best time of year in the garden with the Dahlias and roses in full bloom. My biggest conundrum is what to plant in the veggie garden this summer given that I’ll hardly be in a fit state to do daily harvests. But that didn’t stop me from ordering a load of seeds from Living Seeds this week – I just couldn’t resist their amazing selection of heirloom beans and tomatoes, but steered well clear of the zucchini!

On the farm it is extremely dry and conditions will only get worse as temperatures rise. The veld and our wheat crop are thirsty for rain. The willow trees have sprouted green leaves, but the poplars and oaks are still bare. More than anything I love the change in light at this time of year, which brings a special glow to the early mornings and evenings when I’m generally out on the lawn playing with the puppies. Another winter has passed. Welcome back summer!

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Bright Spots

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Winter has well and truly arrived at Vastrap in the past week wrecking havoc in the garden. My beautiful pink daisies, geraniums, nasturtiums, hydrangeas and many more have all frosted over. Although I know it always happens, the devastation caused by the first frost always comes as a shock. There are a few last roses blooming in more protected spots, but they won’t last long. Things that do really well in Free State gardens in the winter are aloes and red hot pokers. They provide a gorgeous burst of colour in an otherwise dreary landscape and the birds go mad for them! I went to the nursery to buy some fresh pansys and violas for some cheer. The courtyard is much more protected so the geraniums there should make it through winter unscathed. The primulas we planted in the courtyard last year have spread everywhere even where the soil is just gravel. I just love the vibrant patches of colour that are appearing on their own. What a treat!

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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.

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‘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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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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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.