Wants, Needs, Chook Tractors and Learning to Budget

I recently made the decision to purchase a chook tractor (mobile chicken run). I got very excited, because we can’t really put our chooks in our veggie garden (aka weed farm) at all now, with risking the dog eating them, because from there they can get up onto the deck. Plus, the kids shut the dog in the veggie garden the other day* and he pushed a whole through the fence that keeps him out of said garden. That’s easily fixed (I hope) but just shows that that fence is not really dog proof, if he’s motivated to get through.

We used to have our chokes in a home made (by my brother though, not us) chook tractor, but it was made out of bits and pieces of timber we’d salvaged which weren’t necessarily all that appropriate for the job, and eventually it fell apart (ie rotted). I’m sure if we really put our minds to it we could make another one – in fact I’ve been wanting to make chook domes a la Linda Woodrow for years – but at the moment we have a few other projects on the go (particularly getting ready for an overseas trip) and we just cannot fit that one in this Spring.

So, I got all excited about the idea of buying one of these  (even though I’d prefer one of these, but they are just a little too pricey). I was a little concerned about finding the money, but then the Mister reminded me about some money we have put aside, that I had somehow completely forgotten about. So I started planning how we could rotate the chooks over the veggie garden – rearranging the beds a little for a better fit – to get rid of all those weeds so we could actually plant seedlings out later in the Spring.

Then I looked up the bank statement of the account we had that money in, and I’m sure you’ve guessed already what I saw. We transferred (most of) that money into our main account months ago to pay school fees. That’s why I’d forgotten it was there – because it wasn’t! It’s amazing how much savings you go through when one of you is on (unpaid) maternity leave for a couple of years.

Now, we do still have enough money in the bank to buy that chicken tractor if we really want it. But we have other expenses coming up, like the ongoing school fees, we’re about to get cavity wall insulation put in, we might need some plumbing work done… So probably we should just leave the money where it is, and do without a chook tractor for another year. And without a vegetable garden for another season if necessary.

I recently introduced a guest post on Sustainable Suburbia by talking about how living within one’s means is an important aspect of sustainable living. Living on credit – or on savings – is just not sustainable for the long-term. I think I need to take some of my own advice. I will soon be negotiating a return to work, as my parental leave entitlement is coming to an end, which could mean

a) I go back two days per week and the mister drops down to three days, which because of the disparity in our salaries (and may I say that I always earned more than him before we had children?), means we’ll likely be worse off than we are now, though I haven’t looked into it properly yet, taking into account tax rates and things, or
b) I go back almost three days and he drops down to three days, we find childcare for Eliane on the shared work day, and I finish in time to pick the kids up from school at 3pm, in which case we should be slightly better off than we are now, financially speaking (as long as we are not using paid childcare), or
c) (if I can’t negotiate hours that work for us) I end up quitting my job altogether and we stick with our current arrangement.

So what all this means is that pretty much regardless of our work situation next year, we need to start budgetting better and sticking to it. Which likely means, no chook tractor just now.


*Our yard is divided into three unequal sections – from smallest to largest: veggie garden and paved clothes hanging area (maybe 1/5 of the yard or a bit less) chook run  & access to shed (about 1/3 of the yard); the rest – containing the ‘lawn’, the deck, the swing set and the big boofy Labrado (actually, if you include the deck area in the calculation, this is probably easily 3/4 of the yard in total).

Update by notes

I don’t seem to have time for anything lately, but here are a few notes of where we are at:

  • We’ve signed a contract to get $28,000 worth of solar panels, ie about an 8kw system. This has involved extending out mortgage, but we figure we’ll put all the income earned by them back onto the mortgage and have the extension paid off in around 12 years, after which it will earn us a few hundred a month, and in the mean time, it’s contributing green energy to the grid, so all is good.
  • My decluttering is coming along slowly. I have been taking a few bags of stuff (clothes, books, toys) to Vinnies most weeks, not to mention all the old magazines I’ve recycled, that weren’t even worth donating to anyone (why was I keeping them?) but I can see that it is going to take me a Really Long Time, to get through the whole house. So far I haven’t been very systematic about it, which I’m realising I probably need to be, if only to keep my motivation up.
  • Our vegetable garden has been a complete and utter failure this season, due to absolute neglect combined with lots of rain – it is over run with thigh high weeds. Though the parsley is still doing well in amongst it. I think we need to build a chook dome and put the chooks in there for the winter, but that’s just one more thing to try to fit in to our lives.
  • Speaking of chooks, the two new ones we bought towards the end of last year are now laying, and we are getting lots and lots of eggs. Three laying hens is just right though – we are using up the eggs pretty effectively, but never quite run out. It’s lovely that some part of our backyard pantry is doing okay!

The bounty of the backyard food forest

Lush vegie garden

The vegie garden in better times

There is something incredibly satisfying about growing your own food.

I hadn’t harvested any rhubarb since I made the rhubarb pies in November, and we’ve had an incredible amount of rain here this summer, which rhubarb evidently likes, so when I went to pick some t’other day there was a huge harvest to be had. Meanwhile my Mum has just come by to collect some of our lemons – we have a prolific lemon tree – to use with the six or so kilos of apricots she’s picked off their apricot tree to make some apricot jam and stewed apricots.

I remember when I was a child, going out to the vegetable garden with my Mum to pick some vegies and bringing them in in a washing basket. Even then it always felt so satisfying, like there was just something inherently good about being able to provide for ourselves from our own garden.

Our vegetable garden this year is almost a complete right off. For a number of reasons, not least among them the presence of Ms TenMonths in our lives, it has been dreadfully neglected. Combined with being neglected at the end of last summer and the rain we had in December, this means the garden is now overrun with weeds. We had lots of lettuce and silverbeet earlier but that’s all gone to seed now. The two tomato plants I managed to get into the ground are struggling on, but they need to be fed. The corn Mr Eight planted is doing okay, but that’s about all there is. Even the parsley’s had it, a combination of too much water and then too much heat I think.

Still, the rhubarb is doing fine, the comfrey is ridiculous, the apple trees have their first fruits on them and the lemon tree is prolific as usual. And in another month when the two young chooks start laying we should have more eggs than we can eat (the one who is laying gives us nearly enough on her own). And I know that in the next season or two we’ll get the vegie garden back on track (might have to put the chooks out there to weed it for me over winter). In the meantime, I plan to focus on getting more perennials in, like the rhubarb and fruit trees. The self seeding greens are great, but plants that stay there all year – and keep the weeds at bay – are even better.

Australian bush food rules!

Via Permaculture Pathways, I just discovered this great research into the nutritional benefits of Australian native fruits and herbs.  The research was funded by the Australian Government Rural Industries Research & Development Corporation to support industry, and basically found that a lot of native foods trump exotic foods hands down. For instance, all but two of the foods studies are higher in antioxidents than the ‘blueberry standard’, and all contained Vitamin E, some comparable with the ‘avocado benchmark’.

I’m inspired to find out which ones grow well in Canberra now and plant some. I’m guessing, for instance, that Kakadu Plums don’t, but I think Quandongs might….

The booklet is downloadable for free, or you can order a printed copy for $25.

Introducing new chooks

Little Brown on Kid #1's LapThree weeks ago we introduced two new chickens to our chook run, which is to say we introduced them to our one remaining Hen, Henny Penny. At six weeks old, Little Brown and Ocean, as they were quickly named by Kids # 1 & 2, were the youngest chickens we have yet acquired.

I wasn’t sure just how Henny Penny would go with them, so initially we shut them in the house (which has a bird-wire door at the front) and just let them out for short supervised periods, or the kid sat in their with them. Henny Penny hasn’t been roosting in there all winter, she’s been in the lemon tree, so it didn’t bother her, though we did have to bring out the nesting box, aka grass catcher, for her to lay in.

Henny Penny the White Sussex, beneath the lemon tree

After a few days we started leaving them out with her unsupervised and though she hasn’t exactly made friends with them, she didn’t attack them either, which I know can happen with introducing chicks to a flock (though I don’t suppose you can call one chook a flock!). I’m not sure how old the chicks need to be before you can stop worrying about that, but anyway, it all seems good now. She let’s them know who’s boss (and she’s huge, so I’m guessing she’ll stay boss even once they have grown up), but aside from that they get along fine.

Less surfing, more planting

I know I have fallen behind on NaBloPoMo to the point that I can barely be said to be trying any more.  But the fact is that since I started this blog I am spending altogether too much time in the house sitting at the computer (okay, reading other blogs more than writing in this one, it has to be said).

So what am I doing now? Well, I have been reading the Down to Earth forum, and just surfing from there, while nursing a sleeping Babe Number 3, and it has inspired me. So right now I am going to change a certain baby’s very full nappy, and then I am going outside (with her) to finally plant out my tomato seedlings, all of whom have been begging me to get them in the ground, for at least a week or two!

How to cook rhubarb, fresh from the garden (or from the shop, if need be)

I harvested my biggest load yet of Rhubarb yesterday, and there’s still more in the garden. We have had such a wet Spring that it is growing prolifically. So now the question is how to cook rhubarb? Of course I’ve stewed it before (instructions below), but I’m going to try something different this time.

Did you know that rhubarb is actually botanically classified as a vegetable, not a fruit? This is only our second year growing it. I planted a few crowns that my mother dug up for me in the autumn before last, and harvested enough last year to make several small batches, which I stewed and ate over a week or so on my breakfast cereal. No-one else in the family was particularly keen on it (weirdos), but I think we had it once or twice for dessert with ice cream, all the same.

This time though, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to cook rhubarb pie. I spent quite some time yesterday Googling “how to cook rhubarb” and came up with a gazillion and one rhubarb pie recipes, some with strawberries, some with apple (I often stew it with apple) and some plain.

The one I liked the sound of best was plain, with the flour and sugar mixture placed half in the pie crust under the raw chopped rhubarb, and the other half over the top of it. Apparently this makes sure the juices from the rhubarb don’t soggify (do you think that’s a word?) the pastry, and creates a nice crisp crust. Of course, I’ve lost the link now, but I’ll find it again and if it works out I’ll post photos and add a link to the recipe.
Freshly harvested rhubarb stems

In the meantime, here’s how to cook rhubarb the way my mother and Nanna both did it:

  1. Clean the Rhubarb stems and trim the ends (NB the leaves are filled with oxalic acid so DO NOT eat them!).
  2. Chop it up, into about 1/2-1 inch pieces.* Use your judgement with this, some stems are much thinner than others, so they’re not all going to be the same anyway – no need to be slavish about getting it exact.
  3. Pop it in a saucepan with just enough water to cover – rhubarb has a high water content, so you don’t need a lot of extra water, but don’t leave it to boil dry as I did twice (twice!) last year. A heavy based saucepan is best.
  4. Add sugar – now, this is variable to taste basically, but start with about 1/2 cup per 1/2 kilo (or per pound) and see what you think. Some people like up to a cup per pound. You can also add some apple in which case you don’t need as much sugar.
  5. Simmer until the mixture is mushy – look for the rhubarb strings to be mixed through out, rather than solid pieces. Though again, this is a matter of taste – but that’s how my mother always made it, so that’s how I make it too.

That’s it. That’s how you stew rhubarb.  Now you can eat it, either hot with ice cream, or cold on your breakfast cereal tomorrow (or stirred through your porridge, mmm).

Tomorrow, how to cook rhubarb pie.

*Why am I talking in inches? I could say 1-3 cm, which is not the same as 1/2-1 inches, but there you go. I told you it didn’t need to be exact 🙂

The Self-Seeded Vegie Garden

Tonight we had a salad for dinner with store bought tomatoes and cucumbers. But from the garden: cos lettuce, baby silverbeet, rocket and parsley. Oh, and eggs.

What makes me so happy about this is that that poor vegie garden has been dreadfully neglected since Babe Number Three was born eight months ago. I haven’t even got tomatoes in and it’s almost November (it’s Spring here where I am, which is Australia, in case that wasn’t clear). But all those salad vegies self-seeded from last year’s crops.

Kid Number One and I got out and planted beetroot, bok choy and broccoli earlier in the Spring, but they haven’t been wildly successful. Most of the broccoli got eaten by something (snails, I think) and the bok choy shot to seed before it had done anything much else. Most of the beetroot is going okay though.

The rhubarb’s going to seed now too, I must get out and harvest some. What happens when it goes to seed, does it spring up everywhere like parsley? I’ve only grown it from crowns before.


Off topic: since this is a new blog, I have signed up for NaBloPoMo for November to motivate me to really get going. I haven’t done much writing since Babe Number Three was born…

National Blog Posting Month

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