The Axe Creek Protection Project

One of the big drawcards for us moving on to this property in 2022 was the fact that one of our boundaries is formed by Axe Creek, a major tributary of the Campaspe River. While it is usually referred to as a “seasonal” stream that is dry for much of the year, there’s good evidence to suggest that this is only a recent phenomena. In fact, when we first mentioned to an old fisherman friend back in Mount Dandenong that we were thinking of moving here, he waxed lyrical about his time spent as a young man fishing for perch along Axe Creek at Axedale.

Streams of native Water Ribbons (Triglochin procera) at the tail of one of the pools on our property.

Nowadays however, the creek tends to flow well in wet winters and springs before drying up completely through summer – although we were lucky to witness an exception to that last year, thanks to the unseasonably wet spring. Of course, that unseasonable wet weather led to devastating floods in October 2022, with the creek bursting its banks multiple times and turning our paddocks into raging watercourses, taking our fences along with it.

Axe Creek resembled a large inland lake for much of September and October 2022.

Fast forward a year, and we’ve seen a couple of very dry months that have thankfully had little impact so far thanks to all that water last year, but which will no doubt start to bite as the weather continues to warm up. Whether you blame this on climate change, or natural weather cycles, or poor land management practices – or as I suspect, a combination of all of the above – it’s clear that the health of the creek has been suffering for many years, and so when the opportunity to become involved with a project called the Axe Creek Protection Project came along, we jumped at the chance.

Axe Creek at its most serene.

Essentially, what this project aims to do is to restore valuable riparian habitat along the creek, in the hope that improved erosion controls, better shade coverage and reduced weed infestation will all help to conserve water within the creek, restore environmental flows and improve the chances of native fish, amphibians and even platypus returning to the area.

A large area of cleared land beside the creek.

When our next door neighbour approached us about repairing the shared fence line that had been wiped out not once, but twice last year due to flooding, we agreed that it would be crazy to replace like with like and just simply put up another sheep mesh fence. Whenever the creek floods, the debris that is carried with the floodwater builds up in the mesh and acts like a dam, bowing and stretching the wire until the whole thing gives way. Instead we decided to run individual strands of wire that are much more flexible and allow all but the largest of logs and branches to pass right through. We also agreed that the initial 50 metre stretch back from the creek was the most prone to flooding, and as such we finished our fence shorter, creating a fenceless corridor that we could then devote to streamside revegetation.

One of the flood damaged fences, where debris has managed to build up along the sheep mesh.
Replacing the sheep mesh with individual wires should alleviate some of the issues with flood damage.

On our property especially, there are some magnificent River Red Gums that remain along the creek, but pretty much all of the native vegetation besides that has been removed. Through consultation with Tim Jenkyn of BushCo Land Management (the company leading the project), we’ve come up with a plan to return a small but significant area of grazing land to native habitat, and to diversify the number of plant species along our stretch of creek frontage.

One of the large River Red Gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) that dominate the lower part of the property.

The project has predominantly been funded via a $450,000 donation by Agnico Eagle, the operators of the nearby Fosterville Gold Mine, in collaboration with a number of community groups including Landcare, business groups, and the amazing volunteer group FOSSALS (Friends of Strathfieldsaye Streams and Land). More than 50 landholders, ourselves included, have signed up for the project and have given access to Tim and the BushCo team to conduct walkthroughs of our paddocks, identifying and spraying out any serious weed infestations and running rip lines along areas that are then going to be planted up.

A patch of Scotch Thistle that has been sprayed, and has started to die off.

Now before I go too much further, I do want to address the elephant in the room. There’s a small but vocal group of locals who are vehemently opposed to the gold mine and everything it represents. Mining companies, and especially multinational gold miners, don’t always have a great track record when it comes to the environment and as new arrivals to the area, the last thing we want to do is throw shade on these folk and their sometimes quite legitimate concerns. But at the same time, we’re also well aware that there’s a lot of good things that the mining company do for the local community, through sponsorships and grants, and if it means having to dance with the devil sometimes to get a positive outcome, then strike up a chord and let me put on my dancing shoes. Call it guilt money, or blood money if you like, but whatever the case, it’s money that is being handed back to the community, and I for one intend to make sure that it gets put to good use. Besides, with modern society’s love of technology, including mobile phones and electric vehicles, it’s not like we’re going to be curtailing our need for more gold any time soon, and we do happen to live smack bang on top of one of the richest gold deposits in the world.

Sorting out plants into buckets for dispersal among the volunteers.

With that out of the way, I can get on to describing the way the project is currently progressing. After a few false starts (why is it that it only ever seems to rain on a Tuesday?), the weather finally stayed clear enough in early October to allow about a dozen or so volunteers from FOSSALS to turn up for a tree planting day across the two properties here, and they managed to make short order of the 400+ native trees and shrubs that Tim had selected for our stretch of creek.

Planting underway.

At this early stage, we have concentrated on colonising Acacia species such as Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), Early Black Wattle (A. mearnsii), Silver Wattle (A. dealbata) and Wiralda (A. retinoides). Along a slightly elevated line further back from the creek we’ve also planted Yellow Box (Eucalyptus melliodora) and down in the lower parts of the creek bank we have planted River Bottlebrush (Callistemon sieberi) and Tall Sedge, (Carex appressa). The plan is that once these plants become established, (and these are all fairly fast growing varieties), they will offer protection for a secondary round of planting that will include some of the more delicate, lower growing shrubs such as Correas and Grevilleas and native grasses and sedges.

The rip lines slowly started to fill up with trees and tree guards.
The planting extends along the creek edge across the two properties.
With a lot more young red gums on Fraser’s property, the species planted here were predominantly wattles.

With a dry summer threatening, the important thing now is going to be to keep the watering up to the plants, but thankfully we have recently had more than 50mm of rain, which has managed to penetrate a long way down into the rip lines. That should encourage these fast growing species to send their roots down deep into the soil, binding it far better than the pasture grasses could ever do, and helping to minimise any further erosion.

On some of the more slightly elevated areas on my property, we also planted a number of Yellow Box.
Within the confines of the creek banks, more than 40 River Bottlebrush were also planted.

In addition to the planting along the creek, I have been working closely with Tim on a plan to revegetate one of the main flood paths, directly above our dam. The large soak here is currently full of Juncus, but we want to diversify this to include swamp-loving natives like Totem Poles (Melaleuca decussata) and Heath Tea Trees (Leptospermum myrsinoides), as well as planting up the higher, erosion-prone top of the mound behind the dam with drier woodland species such as Grey Box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) and Red Ironbark (E. tricarpa), interspersed with Rough Wattle (Acacia aspera) and Common Fringe Myrtle (Calytrix tetragona). On the face of the mound, the plan is to have a mass of Gold-dust Wattle (A. acinacea), Showy Parrot Pea (Dillwynia sericea) and Cats-claw Grevillea (Grevillea alpina), which should create a stunning visual each spring that will be visible from the house.

The soak area around the front of the dam that is also going to be revegetated.
This lower area leading up to the dam was inundated during 2022’s heavy flooding.
This slightly elevated area above the soak will host a copse of Buloke (Allocasuarina luehmannii)

Unfortunately for most of the morning on the Tuesday, Fraser and I both had to work, with several remote meetings on the agenda, however we did manage to join Tim and the FOSSALS for a bit of morning tea (including carrot cakes supplied by Vanessa), during which the crew presented us with a couple of plaques to go on the front gate, celebrating the fact that we’re now making a contribution to such an important local project. We look forward to continuing this new collaboration for at least the next twelve months that the project officially has to run, but hopefully for many more years to come. It may not happen in our lifetimes, but hopefully somewhere along the line, a young fisherman might one day wander the banks of Axe Creek once again. And if he were to stop for a moment under the shade of a Blackwood tree to watch a platypus paddling in a deep pool, then I know I will have done my bit.

Commemorative plaques for the front gate.

Spring loaded

AKA: “Click go the shears”

What a difference 12 months can make – September 2022 was one of our coldest and wettest ever, followed by a very wet and cold October, yet fast forward a year and the opposite is the case – after an extremely dry August, we’ve just experienced the driest September on record. Thankfully all of the wonderful rain we had in autumn meant that the ground remained quite moist, and then with the heavens opening up in early October and delivering almost 2 inches of rain in the space of 24 hours, we should now be in a good position coming into what is predicted to be a very hot, dry summer.

One of the highlights of spring at Greatrakes is the display of ornamental pears along the driveway, although with a smell reminiscent of wok-fried shrimp paste, it’s a sight best viewed from afar.

Spring at Greatrakes is always a busy time of year, and with the weather having been so warm and sunny early, the grass (and weeds) got a head start. Of course, whenever the grass begins to grow, the ride-on mower decides to have issues. We always knew the original battery wasn’t great at holding a charge, but after swapping the battery over for a new one and finally getting some lawns mowed, the very next time I tried to start it, there was nothing again. After a discussion with the wonderful folks at Bendigo Outdoor Power Equipment, we determined that it was probably a sticking solenoid at the top of the starter motor. Sure enough, when my Dad came up for a visit, we managed to get the cover off the engine, and with a quick spray of WD40 and a very light tap with the knockometer (otherwise known as a hammer), she was back up and running in no time.

The temperamental beast that is our zero-turn mower.

This allowed me to get another round of mowing done, until right on the last pass along the fence out the front of the property, I managed to pop one of the tubeless front tyres off its rim during a particularly tight turn. No amount of manoeuvring would get it into a position where I could pump it back up again, so it was another trip down to the mower shop for a tube. Effectively, this wheel now matches the one on the other side which did pretty much the same thing for a friend last year while we were away overseas. All these delays meant that every time I eventually got the machine back up an running, I then had to contend with grass that had managed to grow knee high again. I swear, at the moment I’m having to mow the back lawn at least twice a week if I want to avoid having to rake up big clumps of cut grass at the end.

The back lawn freshly mowed, fertilised and giving the irrigation system a test run.

Still, there’s nothing quite like looking out over a freshly mowed lawn to the green pastures beyond, and with the rain at the start of October I’ve even had to cut a few strips around the inside of the paddocks so that we can get around without having to worry about stepping on a snake. Speaking of which, it’s looking like a bad year for the old murder-noodles as well, with several of our neighbours having close encounters with brown snakes in their gardens, and Vanessa even running over a black snake on the road in to Bendigo. So far we haven’t had any encounters here ourselves, although we have had one false alarm which involved a warm sunny day during which I was working in Melbourne, a neighbour answering Vanessa’s distress call and blasting a hole in the back lawn with a shotgun, and one very dead stick as a result.

A beautiful display of Ranunculi in the front garden.

Out the front of the house, Vanessa has been busy this year with her display of Ranunculi, which were supposed to be all yellow to match with the hanging basket display of pansies, but actually turned out to be a mix of colours – one of those “happy little accidents” that the artist Bob Ross used to always talk about. The pansies themselves have been a vibrant yellow right throughout August and September, and are showing no signs of letting up any time soon. It’s amazing how visible they are from far away – as soon as we turn into nearby O’Brien’s lane, you can see them glowing from across the paddocks.

A vibrant display of yellow pansies at the front of the house.
The bright yellow against the white backdrop of the house is visible from a long way away.

Elsewhere in the garden, we’ve made a start on our summer vegetables. There’s always a dilemma here in Central Victoria about when is the best time to plant tomatoes. The accepted gospel for many years has been to get them in around Melbourne Cup Day at the start of November, after the last frosts have been and gone. Looking back to last year though, with the cold, wet spring and lack of sunshine, it was the tomatoes that I planted before we went overseas in October that gave us the best returns by far – many of those that I planted upon our return in November didn’t start producing fruit until late January, and with the season turning cold again quickly after that, I ended up tossing out a lot of unripe tomatoes (because there’s only so much green tomato relish you can deal with at any one time).

So, like last year, I have started my tomatoes off this year indoors in Jiffy pots, and they’ve spent the last few weeks soaking up the morning sunshine on the front veranda. I’ve struck plenty of different varieties again, and I’ve made sure that I have plenty of spare pots of each. This way I have been able to plant some out already, while holding some aside to either grow on in pots in the glasshouse, or to plant out as replacements should we get a heavy frost.

A pergola that will hopefully be covered in tomatoes by late summer.

One of the varieties I’ve managed to grow from seed this year is “Giant Tree”, a potato-leaf variety that is supposed to grow up to 6-8 foot tall, allowing it to be trained over a pergola. Unfortunately with this one I was only able to obtain a handful of seeds, so I’m trying to nurse them through any potential frosts with the addition of some cut-off Coke bottles to act as a shield until they get established. We’ve repeated our use of straw bales for the tomatoes this year, as they did well last year once we eventually worked out a proper watering regime. This year however, we’ll be sticking to deep rooted plants (like tomatoes), and thus avoid the mistake of last year in trying to grow shallow-rooted crops like beans and basil.

Musqee de Provence, a large French variety of pumpkin, with dog-resistant guards in place.

I’ve repeated the same early planting process with my cucurbits this year, but given that these go directly into the ground, I’ve also had to shield them with industrial-strength garden stakes, in order to protect them from rampaging puppies. I’m trialling a number of new varieties (for me, anyway), including several different types of pumpkins, zucchinis, cucumbers, watermelons and rockmelons.

A full bed of garlic, four different varieties and hopefully enough crowns to keep us going over summer.

Our garlic and onion crops that have been growing through winter are nearing maturity, and this year we have made sure to plant a lot more than we did last year, with a whole bed devoted to different varieties of garlic, as well as plenty of red, brown and white onions. There’s even a full bed of eschallots that should be ready to pick in early December. We’ve already harvested a bumper crop of beetroot, some of which we’ve roasted, and many more we’ve bottled up in anticipation of many summer barbecues.

A bed of mixed red, brown and white onions nearing maturity.
Another bed of garlic, with red onions and loose-leaf lettuce in the background.

The last major project for this spring will be the planting up of the annual display in the driveway. We missed the boat a little with this, in that we weren’t able to get the weeding and preparation of the bed finished before the crop of Sweet Williams I’d been growing in the glasshouse got too spindly, so we’ll probably end up making a dash to a local nursery in the next couple of weeks to pick up some established seedlings.

The annual bed dug over and ready for planting.

Of course, it being spring, shearing season is well underway, a task a lot more onerous this year since our numbers have risen to 21 (down from 22 as we sadly lost one of our little lambs a few weeks ago to an underlying heart defect). We managed to get the services of “Shane the Shearer” again this year, one of the few shearers around who is not only happy to offer his services to hobby farms, but is also set up to shear alpacas.

Shearing time.

Since our last post, we’ve changed the make-up of our alpaca herd slightly. Unfortunately, Queenie, the black-fleeced alpaca, still had some hormonal issues that had stemmed from her being surrounded by pregnant females while she herself hadn’t fallen pregnant. This manifested in her being quite domineering towards Rosie and High Class, as well as behaving aggressively towards some of the lambs, so after consultation with the breeders, they agreed to swap her over for Pandora, a fawn-coloured female similar to High Class. Apparently she and High Class had been best friends back at their original home, and she’s certainly proven to be a much better fit for Rosie as well.

Pandora, prior to being shorn.

Pandora has an amazing, milk-chocolate coloured mark on her neck that’s reminiscent of a love heart – it’s quite visible as a darker mark on her fleece, but it really stands out once she’s been shorn!

Pandora’s love-heart is highly visible after shearing.

Just like with the tomato planting, knowing just when to shear the alpacas is a bit of a gamble – too soon and you risk exposing them to frosts and cold, windy weather, but too late and they can overheat on hot days. Last year we didn’t get them done until late November (although that was in part due to the fact that we hadn’t been able to find a reliable shearer, and partly due to my falling ill with Legionnaire’s disease). This year however, with predictions of an El Nino and a early start to summer, we decided to bring the shearing forward a bit. Despite a couple of frosty nights, there have already been a couple of warm, sunny days this spring, and I’m sure the girls will be thankful that they aren’t having to walk around in their woollen jackets during the day. We’ve also reopened the lambing paddock that had been shut off since August, so not only do they have access to plenty of fresh grass, they can also take shelter down among the red gums if the weather turns too hot or cold.

The three girls make their way out into the main paddock.
High Class enjoying some fresh grass in the lambing paddock.
Pandora discovered a head-high patch of rushes to wander through.
A couple of the new lambs, enjoying being back in the lush grass of the lambing paddock again.

So as we head into summer, we luckily have lots of green grass in the paddocks, full water tanks, and plenty of moisture in the soil. The long range predictions all look good at this stage for this to be a short-lived El Nino, with a return to wetter conditions by late December. Fingers (and toes) crossed. In the meantime, we have a group of local volunteers about to come on to the property to plant over 400 native trees and shrubs down by the creek, as part of a project to restore habitat along Axe Creek between Strathfieldsaye and its confluence with the Campaspe River a kilometre or so downstream from us. More on that next post.

Looking across the main paddock, with the tree line of Axe Creek in the distance.

New Kids on the Farm – introducing our two new arrivals

When we moved here to Axedale just over a year ago, we agreed to purchase the livestock that were currently grazing on the property – a dozen sheep, three steers and an alpaca. As we’ve previously outlined, the steers were later sold off when they became too troublesome to keep confined within our fences, and in the last few months our sheep numbers have fluctuated from as low as ten, to a new high of twenty-two with the birth of a dozen new lambs. All the while, the one constant has been Rosie, an alpaca who has spent many years here as a herd guard, keeping a watchful eye over each generation of new lambs.


With absolutely no knowledge of dealing with livestock and especially alpacas before we moved in, we did a lot of research into the best way to maintain their health and welfare, and one of the things that consistently came up in the literature was the fact that alpacas are herd animals, and despite the fact that they will “bond” with sheep to some extent, they do need companionship from their own kind. It also was made abundantly clear to us that due to the fertility of alpacas, it is imperative that the sexes always be kept separate, as placing males and females together would mean that the boys would be constantly harassing the girls to breed.

Rosie keeping a watchful eye over a new lamb

After observing Rosie over the last twelve months it became clear that she was longing for some company, as well as needing some help in her role as guardian over our ever increasing flock, so we contacted Camp Verde Alpacas, a reputable breeder located in nearby Harcourt, and began to negotiate about purchasing several more females. Rita and Anthony are incredibly passionate about their alpacas, as evidenced from their regular Facebook posts, and since we started speaking with them we have learned a great deal about how to look after Rosie’s best interests.

It became clear that the time was right for Rosie to have some company

Whilst we were keen for Rosie to have some new companions, the last thing we wanted to do was match her with other animals that might bully or ostracise her, so Rita carefully went through her list of available girls to come up with a number of names of those who would be most suitable, both as companions and as herd guards. After a visit to the farm, we decided to go ahead with a purchase of two non-pregnant females to start with, Queenie and Sunset, with an option to purchase one or two more later on if everything worked out OK. The most fantastic thing about dealing with people like Rita and Anthony is that they always have the welfare of the animals front of mind, so should the new introduction not work out in Rosie’s best interests, they were happy to swap the girls around until we could find the perfect match.

It was also high time that Rosie had some help with her herd guarding duties

In the days leading up to the girls’ arrival, we received a last minute call from Rita to tell us that despite Sunset having previously shown signs that she was not pregnant, they’d just discovered that she actually was. We discussed a number of options, including taking her anyway, or purchasing her but waiting for delivery until after she had given birth and her cria had been weaned, but in the end we decided that as this was mostly about getting some companions for Rosie, we would swap Sunset over for another girl on the list, High Class.

High class (fawn) and Queenie (black)

The Saturday morning of the girls’ arrival it was very foggy, and as Anthony backed the float back into the paddock where we were going to offload them, it was difficult to even spot Rosie and the sheep through the mist to where they stood at the other end, but as the girls disembarked and took their first tentative steps into unfamiliar surroundings, a number of the sheep spotted them, and soon they were being mobbed like a pair of rockstars. Rosie quickly followed, and within a minute or two the three girls were sniffing each other all over, and just a short time later, they were following one another around like old friends.

A rockstar welcome for the two ladies

As the day wore on it was clear that High Class was the designated leader of the pack, while Rosie and Queenie would each take turns at following behind her. They spent much of the morning walking (and running) around the perimeter fences of all the paddocks, as we’d left the internal gates open to each one to allow them to get a proper gauge for their new surroundings. The rockstar treatment continued, not only from our sheep, but also from the flock of dorper sheep next door, and even the neighbour’s two horses came over to the fence to check them out.

High Class, Queenie and Rosie

Each alpaca has a distinctly different personality. High Class is a little more aloof than the others, and tends to lead the group as they wander around. She’s not all that approachable at this stage, although she has been halter trained, so hopefully that will improve as she becomes more comfortable with her new home. She was apparently quite friendly with Pandora, another of the girls that we were interested in back at Campo Verde, so we’re considering purchasing her as well once her cria has been weaned.

High Class

Queenie, on the other hand, is a real softie, and she will let you pat and cuddle her, although we’re trying to minimise the petting until she’s more comfortable with the changes. She does get a bit possessive of High Class if she gets nervous, and a couple of times she’s gone over to where High Class has been sitting and sat right on top of her. Thankfully, with each day that’s past since her arrival, she’s become far less nervous and we’ve been able to hand feed her with her favourite snack – crushed lupins.


Rosie is still Rosie – she’s always been a bit aloof and won’t let herself be petted, but she will come and take her favourite Lucerne hay from your hands if you call her over. She’s really bonded with the other girls, and we’ve been extra glad to see that there haven’t been any overt signs of jealousy or dominance from any of them. Rosie definitely seems a lot happier with life since meeting her new friends; running and exploring a lot more, and joining them in regular rolls in the dust, which is something alpacas are renowned for.

The three girls have bonded superbly together

The most common sight now is to see the three of them together in the paddock somewhere, a little distance away from the sheep, but still close enough to keep a watch over the lambs at play – which is everything that we had hoped for. We’ll keep an eye on things over the next few weeks, and eventually when everyone has settled in nicely, we’ll look at introducing one or two more girls, most likely Pandora and Sunset, as they become available.

Lambing season

Although there were a couple of lambs here at Greatrakes that were born last year in the days and weeks after we first moved in, this year is our first proper lambing season, or at least the first one where we’ve been able to witness the whole process from conception to birth. Thanks to a wet spring in 2022, with bumper crops of pasture, we have managed to turn our little flock of nine ewes and one wether into twenty-two, following the birth of twelve lambs. Our amazing returns this year included five sets of twins, and a couple of singles, from seven pregnancies, with only two of the ewes failing to fall pregnant. The Isle de France ram that we had on loan (who we nicknamed Pierre), certainly had the good stuff going.

Cute as a button

Pierre was with us for almost three months during late spring and summer, and with the gestation period being around 150 days, we started to look forward to our first lambs a few weeks after Easter. With absolutely no prior experience, we didn’t really know what to expect, but luckily we’ve become acquainted with some absolutely wonderful sheep farmers nearby, who have been able to answer every stupid question we’ve thrown their way.

Big Mumma and her two boys

The first confirmation we had that we were about to have some lambs was in early May, when the belly and udders on one of the ewes started to swell. We, and even those with a lot more expertise than us, were convinced that a birth was imminent, but for the next two weeks she just continued to grow and grow. This was a ewe who had lost a baby the previous year, and her udders had never really returned to normal size, but by the Saturday morning when she finally walked away from the rest of the flock and started pawing at the ground, “Big Mumma”, as we dubbed her, was absolutely huge. We headed out for lunch that day, and neither of us was surprised when we returned to see two little boys sitting beside her in the paddock.

The first set of twins
Just look at the size of those udders!

Three days later, and the next ewe to go was one we’d nicknamed “One-horn” on account of a little stub of horn she has. Unlike Big Mumma, One-horn didn’t show any obvious signs of pregnancy for most of the time up until around the weekend that Big Mumma was giving birth, when we noticed her udders had started to swell as well. One-horn gave us two little girls, evening up the numbers nicely.

One-horn and her twins
In for a feed

A week and a half later we had another set of twins (one of each), however we still hadn’t managed to be around when they decided to arrive. Finally, one Wednesday when I was working from home and Vanessa had gone down to Melbourne for the day, I stepped out on to the veranda late in the afternoon and noticed one of the ewes on her own in among the red gums. I kept checking on her periodically as the afternoon wore on, and just before dark she gave birth to a little boy. Vanessa arrived home too late to see it, so we went out to check on it at first light and were surprised to see that a little girl had joined it some time after dark.

The first birth I got to see, albeit through a telephoto lens and obscured by trees
Unbeknownst to us at the time, this little boy was about to be joined by his sister

The next arrival was a couple of days later, and completely out of the blue, another set of twins that were born to a ewe that was showing no real signs of pregnancy, although upon closer inspection her udders were well hidden by a thick belly of wool. Then a couple of days later and after a run of four lots of twins, we finally had our first single – a little girl.

Our first single birthed lamb

By this stage the boys from Big Mumma and the girls from One-horn were growing rapidly, and had begun to play together, running and jumping around the paddock at high speed, and looking quite comical at times.

The lambs will often just spontaneously start jumping
They can actually jump quite high off the ground
An exceptionally comical sight

Since the October floods, we’d had no fencing along the lower half of our main paddock, so all of the sheep (and Rosie the Alpaca) had been confined to the side paddock we’d now designated as “the lambing paddock”. Despite the ample food and shelter in there, I knew that eventually we would need to move them, if only for the fact that the shearing pen was in the paddock on the far side of the property. I had earlier run a temporary electric fence across the paddock, just above the dam, and this had worked well in confining them to the fenced section prior to the lambing season, however one weekend they had all managed to get out after the local kangaroo population brought a section of the fence down overnight, so back to the safety of the lambing paddock they went. Now with the addition of nine lambs who had never ventured beyond the gates of that paddock, I felt the time was ripe to start working on a permanent fencing solution.

The local roo population played havoc with our temporary fencing

Over the course of the next few weekends, I binge-watched as many farm fencing videos on YouTube that I could find, and by mid June my very first sheep-mesh fence had been assembled, complete with steel end stays and a gate at one end to allow vehicle access down to the creek. It probably won’t win any awards, but it’s tight, sturdy and just what was needed to allow us to open up the side gates and let the flock roam freely between both sides of the property.

My first sheep mesh fence
Anti-fox light installed on one of the posts to help deter predators (and discourage roos)

It was great to be able to watch all of the ewes and their new lambs wandering around the fresh paddocks again, and to see the lambs playing “king of the castle” on the haystack that was left in the main paddock from the summer. With five of our nine ewes having now given birth, our focus turned to the remaining four, and whether or not they would also become mums. The difficulty is that while most of the girls look extremely fat, that’s as much to do with the abundant grass they’ve had to feed on – the only real give away is when the udders start to swell, and even then that’s not always obvious until after the event. Nonetheless, we were happy in the knowledge that we had almost doubled our flock, with a total of four boys and five girls that we took great delight in watching every chance we got.

The lambs absolutely love running to the top of the hay bale
It’s a long way up (and down) for a little lamb

Then finally, on the last Saturday in June, we got to witness another birth, as the ewe we call “Dotty” began to scratch at the ground right in the middle of the main paddock, in clear line of sight from our kitchen window. When she finally went into labour, I grabbed my telephoto lens and managed to get the entire procedure on camera. It was actually over very quickly, and as darkness descended, we were quite glad that she’d chosen a spot right in front of the fox deterrent light we’d installed along the new fence the previous weekend, as we’d noticed a couple of foxes around in days prior.

Dotty sitting on her own in the paddock, showing obvious signs of labour
The first fluid sack appears
Down for one big push
The first sign of a leg
Almost there
One last push
A brief, anxious moment as the new baby lies motionless on the ground
Mum comes over and it slowly raises its head
Welcome to the world, little one
Mum starts to clean it
The first attempt to stand
Took a couple of goes, but we got there in the end
Bubs is desperate to feed, but mum wants to give it a bit more of a clean first
Finally the time arrives for that first hit of colostrum
Bubs has a good feed

Dotty was one out of the four that we’d pencilled in as “possibly” pregnant, however we’d had our doubts because earlier in the summer she’d been attacked by a neighbour’s dog that had gotten into the paddock, and for a few days there we weren’t even sure if she was going to make it. We were so excited when she wandered off on her own that afternoon, and it was such a wonderful opportunity for us to finally watch one of the lambs being born up close, even if it was through a telephoto lens.

A little girl with her ear tag

The following weekend we had a number of friends over to give us a hand to mark and tag the new lambs. This always stirs up a bit of controversy, but marking basically involves applying a tight fitting rubber ring around the tails which stops the flow of blood below it, with that portion of the tail eventually withering and dropping off. It sounds cruel, but the lambs only show discomfort for an hour or two, after which time they get used to it and start playing as usual. What it does do though is prevents the sheep’s poo from building up and becoming fly-blown, a discomfort far worse and far more dangerous to the sheep. Some of our ewes had had their tails completely docked, but that exposes their nether regions to the sun and can lead to sunburns and cancer. In our case we prefer to leave a short stump that’s long enough to protect their private parts, but still short enough to prevent any build up of faeces.

A few hours after marking the tail

All sheep in Victoria are required to be tagged with electronic ear-tags, and I had already received my order of this season’s tags, so we did that at the same time. This year’s tags are sky blue in colour, and our friends informed us of a simple yet brilliant way of tagging them so that we could tell them apart – the boys were all tagged in the left ear, and the girls were all tagged in the right ear (because as everyone knows, girls are always right).

Big Mumma’s two boys
A little girl

The final thing to do was to desex all of the boys, as the last thing you want on a small farm like ours is to have a bunch of randy boys running around the paddocks trying to mate with their mums and sisters. This is also done using the same bands as used on the tails, and while a friend and I lifted the boys up and held their legs so they wouldn’t kick, Vanessa had the unenviable task of lifting up the little woolly purse, popping the two testicles into it, and securing it with a band. As a bloke, this was really uncomfortable to watch, and it certainly looked unpleasant for the little guys as they rolled around in the grass for the next few hours, but by the following day they were showing no signs of even noticing it, and were back to playing on their haystack castle with gay abandon.

Despite the rings on their tails and testes, the boys soon start to play again

The little boy who had been born the previous weekend (who we’ve nicknamed “Blackbeard” on account of the black spots around his mouth) had started to play with the others and we had him in the pen that day with everyone else, however when we lifted him up we found it was too hard to get both of his testicles up into the pouch, so we decided to leave the marking and tagging of him for another day. This turned out to be quite fortuitous, as the next morning while all of the newly tagged lambs (and Blackbeard) were at play, we noticed that one of the three remaining ewes had given birth to twins overnight. Of course this meant that the ear tags that I had ordered (which come in batches of ten), were no longer going to be enough for all of the new arrivals, so I jumped online and ordered another batch from the departmental website.

The last set of twins
In for a feed
Room for two

This last pair consisted of a boy and a girl, bringing our total now to an even six of each. Both were born quite healthy and both fed well during the first few days, however we’ve noticed that the little girl has been growing at a much faster rate than her brother, who often seems to get distracted and wanders off when he should be feeding. Several times we’ve had to intervene and usher him back to his mum when he’s dawdled off somewhere and found a tree to sleep under or a rush plant to play with, while his mother and sister have gone off to another paddock with the rest of the flock. “Curious George” we’ve named him, and although we were worried about him at first, these last few days it seems he’s finally built up the strength to keep up with mum and run after her when he does get side-tracked.

Rosie keeping an eye on the latest arrivals
Curious George is very interested in meeting Rosie

One really heart-warming thing to watch has been the way that Rosie has looked over all of the lambs, especially Curious George. In fact, one weekday while I was out trying to snap a few shots of the lambs at play in the late afternoon sun, I looked over into the lambing paddock to see Rosie checking on the new babies, and Curious George went right up to her for a little nose-boop.


Speaking of Rosie, we’ve been chatting to a local alpaca breeder about purchasing a couple more girls to keep her company, and I’m happy to say that by the end of this month, our little family should have increased by another two – stay tuned! That’s assuming of course that the two remaining ewes don’t surprise us and give birth within the last window of opportunity, given that we’re almost five months now from the day that the wonderful Pierre finally left our pastures to go and make babies elsewhere.

It is an ill wind that blows nobody good

Fans of such high-brow games as Dutch Ovens or Pull-My-Finger are in for a real treat with today’s blog post, because it’s that time of year here at Greatrakes when we harvest Jerusalem Artichokes – also colloquially know as Fartichokes, due to their tendency to induce gaseous emissions in those who eat them.

Jerusalem Artichokes, Helianthus tuberosus

Jerusalem Artichokes, Helianthus tuberosus, are neither from Jerusalem, nor are they artichokes. They are actually a type of sunflower, native to central North America. It is thought that the Jerusalem part of the common name stems from the name Italian immigrants to the USA gave to the plant – Girasole, meaning sunflower, and that this gradually got corrupted over time to become Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the artichoke part of the name comes from the similarity in flavour of the tubers to globe artichokes. In the 1960s there was a marketing push to rename them Sunchokes, one which seems to have stuck around a bit in the USA, but here in Australia they are more commonly known as Jerusalem Artichokes – or just as often by the slightly cruder term, Fartichokes.

The thick canes of a clump of Jerusalem Artichokes

The fart inducing qualities of these vegetables is not just a myth – there’s actually a very good scientific explanation for their reputation as a vegetable that makes you toot the bum trumpet. It turns out that Inulin, a type of dietary fibre made from fructose polymers (and the very thing that makes these tubers so sweet and delicious), is undigestible by the human gut. When ingested, it instead passes through the stomach and into the colon without being broken down – where bacteria in the lower intestines eventually start to convert the sugars into gas, at which time one is forced to cut the cheese. Their health benefits however far outweigh

Cutting the canes to get to the root ball.

I had never grown Jerusalem Artichokes before, although I had experienced their invasive qualities one time when I was performing some gardening duties for a lady who had once tossed a handful of tubers into the ground beside her fishpond. With this prior knowledge I was able to determine that if I was going to grow them at Greatrakes, it would need to be within the confines of a raised bed, to stop them from taking over the rest of the garden.

Lifting the first root ball.

I acquired five small tubers from The Seed Collection back in winter of 2022, and I watched the plants grow thick and tall throughout the summer, producing masses of pretty yellow flowers that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Van Gogh painting. Once the colder nights started to hit in autumn, the leaves started to yellow and drop, as the plants approached their period of winter dormancy, and eventually a fine Saturday morning in late April presented the perfect opportunity to harvest them.

The first tubers start to appear.

The first step was to cut down all of the canes so that it was easier to lift the root balls. I could see a few tubers poking through the ground and I expected that we would get a good number of them from each plant, but what I didn’t expect was the mass of snow-white, knobbly lumps that greeted me as I lifted the first plant. Thick, fleshy tubers packed in dense clumps from the very top of the root ball, all the way down into the depths of the garden bed. As I finished the second plant and filled a 10 litre bucket, I realised I was going to be needing at least a couple more to get through all five plants.

Each plant carried masses of white tubers.

In the end, I filled two of our own buckets, plus one that had turned up at our gate full of potatoes and pears one recent Saturday afternoon. Our friends who had given it to us would be pleasantly surprised to find it coming back their way that afternoon full of yummy Jerusalem Artichokes.

Bucket loads of Fartichokes.

As I write this it’s nearly dinner time, and already we have some beautiful white tubers in a roasting pan ready to accompany a butterflied chicken, along with the aforementioned potatoes we’d been given, and some baby carrots that were picked from our own garden. Looks like I’ll be opening the lunchbox and dropping a few raspberry tarts tonight for sure!

Jerusalem artichoke flower image by Couleur from Pixabay.

Our ten biggest failures (or close calls) in this summer’s vegetable garden

In my previous post I outlined our ten biggest vegetable garden success stories from the 2022-23 summer season here at Greatrakes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all beer and skittles – this being our first year in our new home, and a totally different climate to what we’ve been used to, we were bound to make some mistakes. Not to mention Mother Nature stepping in on occasion to lend a not-so-helping hand with the situation. So here are our ten biggest failures for the summer, along with a few close calls that were technically slight wins, but somehow felt like failures all the same:

#10 Straw bale garden beds

This is one of those situations where, although I really want to chalk it up as a win, there’s just been too many speedbumps along the road to success to feel overly enthusiastic about it at this early stage. The idea of growing vegetables in straw bales initially came about, with this being our first year in our new home and raised garden beds being so hideously expensive to buy, we needed to find a cheaper alternative that would use the space we had to its full potential.

Straw bales prepared for planting

After studying all of the instructional YouTube videos on the subject that I could find, I ended up buying a bunch of straw bales at our local feed & produce store. I set them up in double rows, and prepared them by adding a high nitrogenous fertiliser. I then soaked them every day for a couple of weeks until they had started to break down in the centre, at which time I added a layer of garden soil to the top, before planting them with my chosen crops – tomatoes in some, and beans in others.

The right side bale in the foreground here inexplicably collapsed within a few weeks of planting

I guess I should have realised at the time, but planting a nitrogen fixing crop such as beans into something that’s been treated with a high nitrogen fertiliser is probably not the smartest move I’ve ever made, and it probably also explains why some of the tomato crops were a lot later to start fruiting than their brethren in the raised garden beds. That being said, I don’t think that’s the full story – it’s a lot more complicated than that, and has a lot to do with the watering regime that we first employed, as well as the root structure of the plants involved.

The first tomatoes that we produced from straw bales all ended up with blossom end rot, a condition caused by a lack of calcium. The natural instinct here is to simply add more fertiliser, until you realise that the real cause of this lack of calcium is not the absence of the mineral in the soil, but a shortage of water needed to transport it up to the fruit.

Collapsing bales caused these bush tomatoes to sprawl over onto the topsoil below

It dawned on me one day that even though I’d been watering the bales every day alongside the raised garden beds, I hadn’t really checked to see how deeply or how well that water had penetrated. Sure enough, when I dug down into one of the bales, I found that although some parts were moist to the touch, a lot of the bale was completely dry, even though it had been watered that morning. This wasn’t such a problem for the tomato plants, which by this stage had managed to develop a strong root system that ran right through the bales, but for shallower rooted plants such as beans, it meant that there was a lot less margin for error. In fact, it was only much later in the season, after we’d switched to deep soaking the bales regularly using water from the bore, that the climbing beans we’d planted really started to flower and produce beans, by which time it was too late in the season to get a useful crop.

One of the other issues with straw bales that we encountered is that some of them ended up collapsing completely. These just happened to be ones that had determinate (bush) tomatoes growing in them, which hadn’t been trellised or staked, meaning the plants ended up sprawling along the ground, and in this environment, with its overwhelming numbers of slaters, slugs, beetles and earwigs, that pretty much spelled doom for any fruits that touched the soil.

After a full season, the bales are ready to be broken up and used as mulch or compost

Given that we plan to expand the vegetable garden this season, I’m sure we will end up using straw bales again, however this time around we’ll only use them for deep rooted plants (such as tomatoes) and we’ll make sure that even the bush varieties are well staked and well soaked. Plus we’ll make sure that there’s a much higher fertilising regime using a better balanced mix while the plants are getting established.

#9 Chillies

The failure of our chillies to crop this year I attribute wholly and solely to a couple of rookie errors I made. The first one was starting them off too early – I figured that even though it was the middle of winter, the greenhouse was warming up into the mid twenties (Celsius) each day, so they’d be fine. Of course, what I wasn’t taking into account was the nights, which were getting down to around -2 or -3 each night (even reaching -6 one morning). When you’re getting a frost inside a closed greenhouse, chances are you’re not going to have much luck germinating your summer crops.

A surviving Jalapeno

The few plants that did survive really struggled, and the later lot that I established in early spring fell fate to the overwatered Jiffy pot scenario that’s outlined in failure #6 below, so I really only had a handful of spindly seedlings to plant out in November when we returned from our overseas holiday.

Mini capsicum plant

My next error was to plant those spindly seedlings into one of the few garden beds that still had any space available, rather than waiting for the correct spot to open up. Given that we were still waiting to harvest the majority of our winter crops, I chose a bare patch in one of the original raised garden beds that the previous owners had built around the base of a nectarine tree. Of course, having never seen the tree with foliage at this stage, I hadn’t really thought about how much shade it would throw onto the bed. To make matters worse, the soil in the bed seemed to be mostly commercial potting mix, rather than a proper raised garden soil mix, so it drained far too quickly and completely dried out within an hour or two of being watered. The fact that we managed to get any chillies at all was a miracle in itself.

#8 Ram’s Horn tomatoes

These tomatoes promised so much, and unlike a lot of my tomato seedlings, they didn’t suffer from overwatering while in Jiffy pots, however it seems that the early start to the season may have been too much for them anyway, as for most of the summer they just grew a thick cover of leaves with hardly any fruit, even though they were growing in the same bed as Thai Pink Egg and Roma tomatoes that were heavily laden with crops.

Rams Horn tomatoes

What fruits did appear would almost instantly start dying back and dropping off the bush prematurely thanks to blossom end rot. From all accounts they are a heavy, reliable cropper in the right conditions, but it sounds like that’s not what we have here in Axedale.

‘Rams Horn’ produced abundant foliage, but struggled to produce much in the way of quality fruit

#7 Celeriac

Not a true failure as such, but another crop that we ended up growing over a long period for very little return. I planted half a bed of celery and the other half with celeriac – both are heavy water users, so I made sure to keep the water up to them throughout the summer, but while the celery was ready to harvest in a reasonably short amount of time, the celeriac seemed to take forever to develop its customary root swelling, and when it finally did, the bases were small and quite stringy – making for a not very pleasant texture the one time we tried to make celeriac mash. In the end I pulled the lot out and fed them to the sheep. At least they seemed to like them.

Celeriac in the foreground, lots of lush green foliage, but very poor root development

#6 Overwatered Jiffy Pots

Jiffy pots, the little discs of pressed coir that swell into little self-contained planters when water is added, were an absolute godsend for someone keen to get their summer vegetables off to a head start in weather that was more suited to growing icicles. After raising my first lot of tomato seedlings in Jiffy pots indoors during July and August, I was able to transplant them into pots to grow-on in the glasshouse as the weather started to warm slightly in September.

A tray of Jiffy pots planted up with several varieties of tomato seeds

However, with an overseas trip lined up for the entirity of October, what wasn’t so smart was starting a second lot of seedlings in September that were still too small to be planted up by the time we left. Instead I transferred the Jiffy pots and their self watering trays into the greenhouse, and in the last minute rush, I forgot to let my mum know that they needed to be watered separately. As the days started to get sunnier, and the temperatures inside the greenhouse started to rise, the watering became more frequent, and over 70 tomato, chilli and cucurbit seedlings slowly began to stew in a stagnant pool.

By the time we returned in November, most were beyond saving, and ended up on the compost pile. What was still alive got potted up or planted out into the garden, but none of them flourished, and apart from one California Wonder capsicum and a solitary Jalapeno, the rest eventually joined their brethren on the compost heap.

Jiffy pots are a very convenient seed starting medium – provided they aren’t overwatered

Sadly, this included the majority of my indeterminate tomatoes, and most of my cucumbers, zucchinis and pumpkins, so I ended up having to purchase a heap of advanced seedlings from Bunnings to get us through.

#5 Sweet potatoes

Another crop that promised so much, but failed to deliver – I raised a number of slips from a single orange sweet potato, and purchased an individual plant of a purple skinned variety from Mitre 10 in Bendigo, planting them into beautifully rich soil in a 700mm high circular raised bed. Throughout the summer the vines grew thickly, seeming to thrive, but as the nights started to get colder, I started to turn my mind to what sort of harvest we might get.

As I turned over the soil, I was anticipating bunches of big, fat tubers, but alas, for the most part they were tiny – if they had developed at all. I wondered if I may have been too early (they had been growing for over 4 months), however the two tubers that had managed to grow to a decent size told a different story – both were riddled with black beetles that had gouged deep tracks right through the skins – in the end the vines ended up on the compost heap and those two mangy orange tubers ended up being donated to the dogs’ dinner. We ended up eating the purple one (it was actually all white, and hadn’t even developed any purple skin) – it was pretty ordinary, and certainly not worth the effort or the space we had dedicated to them.

Sweet potatoes planted into a deep circular raised bed. The Turmeric plant in the centre was equally disappointing and produced no useable tubers.

#4 The Greenhouse

On June 9th 2021, we spent a terrifying night inside our former home at Mount Dandenong as all around us we listened to the sound of giant messmate stringybark trees toppling to the ground. The following day, as we surveyed the damage, one of the first casualties we noticed was our Maze greenhouse, which had received a direct hit from one of the fallen eucalypts. Thankfully, our insurance covered us for the damage, and we were able to order a replacement kit, however by the time it arrived, plans were already in place for us to sell the house, so it stayed boxed up until we arrived here at Axedale.

Our first greenhouse didn’t survive a direct hit from a fallen eucalyptus tree

We moved in here in winter 2022, and one of our first projects was to assemble the greenhouse so that I could start raising seedlings. We were pleased with the end result, as this one seemed much sturdier than the last one, and with just open paddocks behind it, the chances of having it smashed in a storm again seemed fairly remote.

The replacement Maze greenhouse at Axedale, soon after construction

Skip forward to January of 2023 however, and as the blistering sun caused wave after wave of dust devils (otherwise known as wily-willies) to dance across the parched paddocks every afternoon, I guess it was inevitable that one of them would eventually build up enough energy to do some damage. What we didn’t expect though, was that the path it followed would take it straight through the middle of our greenhouse, picking it up and twisting it as if it were made of paper.

10 seconds of thermal dynamics at play

A different insurance company to deal with this time around, and a far more difficult story to sell, despite it being 100% true, but as luck would have it, the assessor they sent out was not only familiar with the Axedale area, he had himself seen a wily-willie build up enough force to destroy a shed, so he approved our claim without hesitation. This time around we were offered a cash settlement for the replacement cost of the glasshouse, plus the cost for a builder to rebuild it from scratch. This meant that we were able to take the settlement and put it towards a sturdier glasshouse from a local manufacturer, Sproutwell Greenhouses in Geelong, provided of course that we built it ourselves.

The new Sproutwell greenhouse after construction

That’s a story in itself, one that involves a lot of colourful language and some deep and meaningful discussion about whether it was truly worth it, but in the long run, what we’ve ended up with is a far superior design, with a lot more space to play with, and little to no chance of it being picked up by the wind. Although I’ve learned never to say never.

#3 Borlotti Beans

The first planting of Borlotti beans I made was into straw bales, and as we’ve already discussed, beans in bales was an idea that never really worked for us, so fairly soon into the summer I made the decision to plant a second patch of Borlotti beans into a raised garden bed. I’m not even sure now, in the cold light of day, why I was so keen to grow beans that are harvested for their seeds rather than for the whole bean, as most YouTube garden channels these days seem to feature them on their “10 plants I’d never grow again” lists, but whatever the case, I persevered. The second planting went in at the same time as I planted my bush beans, and I had high hopes that this time around they wold be a success.

Borlotti beans

This second lot definitely grew a lot leafier, pretty much keeping pace with the bush beans, however flowering was very sporadic, and whereas each bush bean would be laden down with beans every day, the Borlotti beans were lucky to have produced more than one at a time. When the neighbouring mustard plants eventually grew up and over the top of them, I can’t really say that I was overly disappointed, and soon after they were removed and fed to the sheep.

#2 Brussels Sprouts

Another crop that seems to feature fairly high on most YouTube “no-grow” lists, but given the long, cold winter we had, I would have thought that this season would have been the perfect time to grow sprouts, but alas it was not to be. Despite our success with cauliflower, cabbages and other brassicas, after more than 150 days in the ground and showing absolutely no sign of developing any sprouts, these too ended up on the compost pile.

Brussels sprouts supposedly love the cold winters

#1 Potting mix

Some of the mistakes we made this year have been simply annoying, while others have been both annoying and costly, however only one of them has been truly life threatening. For most of my adult life I have worked with potting mix, and I’ve always been aware of the risks involved in handling it, but like most people, I don’t think I’ve ever truly understood just how dangerous it can be. Even the warning label on the back of the brand of potting mix I normally use seems to understate the risk – “If dusty, wear a mask”. Well after returning from overseas and spending some time in the greenhouse using a damp potting mix that was decidedly un-dusty, I can say quite categorically that the decision to not wear a mask damn near cost me my life.

Even the warnings on the back of the label seem to understate the potentially deadly consequences of inhaling potting mix

October had been an extremely humid month in Victoria, with record rainfalls and widespread flooding. While Vanessa and I were on our overseas trip, we were constantly in touch with friends and family back home, who kept us updated on the devastating floods that had swept through our region. Meanwhile, while the temperatures outside were generally well below average for that time of the year, in the greenhouse they were reaching up into the mid to high twenties Celsius on most days, and on those days that the sun did shine, well into the 30s. All the while, a 3/4 full bag of potting mix sat under the potting bench, soaking up the moisture and steaming as it heated up – the perfect conditions for growing Legionella longbeachae, the bacteria found in potting mix that is one of the common causes of Legionnaire’s Disease.

Legionella longbeachae loves to lurk in moist, humid conditions like those found in potting mix

I’ve outlined elsewhere on this blog the full story of my experience with Legionnaire’s Disease, so I won’t go into further details here, but suffice to say that this is one mistake I will never make again – there’s always a face mask and gloves on hand to use in the greenhouse, and they go on the face and hands whenever I am using potting mix nowadays – even if it’s just to top up a pot. It’s just that simple.

Sweet potato by ivabalk from Pixabay
Borlotti beans image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay
Brussels sprouts image by Carola68 Die Welt ist bunt…… from Pixabay

Our top ten biggest successes from this summer’s vegetable garden

We’ve had a bumper crop here at Greatrakes this summer, with plenty of varieties of fresh vegetables to choose from – here are the ten top performers, with some notes on each.

A small section of the vegetable garden at Greatrakes

#10 Potatoes

We planted two beds of potatoes this season – one each of Desiree (red skinned) and Sebago (brown skinned), plus an old plastic garbage bin with some overflow Sebagos. From both we managed to harvest a total of 15kgs of potatoes this summer. Approximately half were quite small, but perfect to steam whole for potato salads, while some were incredibly large, making for perfect home-made, chunky-cut chips.

Just some of the tasty spuds to come out of our garden this summer

In hindsight, we probably should have watered them a bit more – as we started getting low on rainwater, and before I’d hooked up a hose to the bore, the potatoes were one of the crops that we eased back on. Most likely this is what gave us so many smaller spuds. They were relatively disease free, with only minor predation of the leaves from what I assume to have been earwigs earlier in the season.

This season’s growing method was the “lasagne” method, where the seed potatoes were planted into beds with only a foot of soil, then as the plants emerged they were topped up with alternating layers of sugarcane mulch, sheep and alpaca manure from the paddocks, more sugarcane mulch and a dried manure purchased from Bunnings with the dubious brand-name of Whoflungdung, the tag line from one of those jokes that you’re no longer allowed to tell in today’s ‘woke’ society.

#9 Mustard

I literally planted this on a whim, in one quarter of a raised garden bed where I had recently harvested a late crop of cabbages. Other crops in the bed were still developing, so I wanted something fast-growing that could fill the hole – ordinarily I use beetroot or lettuce for this, but as we were in the midst of a fortnight of searing hot days at the time, I was finding it tough to get them established. The mustard seeds however, germinated within a couple of days, and once they emerged they never looked back.

Mustard in full flower

With all of our cabbages and cauliflowers having already been picked, the mustard plants (and our horseradish as well) became the focus of the local population of Cabbage White Butterflies, and it became a regular morning ritual for us to spend an hour before work picking off the green caterpillars that were so well camouflaged, and feeding them to the wrens and wagtails that would eagerly line up for them.

After a bumper crop of flowers, the plants began forming seed heads en masse, and I watched each day for them to start drying out. Eventually it got to a stage where a few heads had started to split, and with extremely hot weather forecast for the remainder of the week, I harvested three large brown paper bags full of the uppermost seeds. As a lot of the lower seed pods were still a little green, I decided to leave picking them for a future date – of course, this never happened, and by the time I removed the dried plants at the end of the season, there were hundreds of new mustard plants emerging below them.

So far I have managed to process only one of the bags of seed heads, while the other two are still in storage in the garage – from the seed that we gathered in that one bag, we had enough to produce a full jar of delicious, hot whole-grained mustard, enhanced with a local beer from nearby Tooborac, and some honey from Beechworth.

#8 Sweet corn

I’d never really grown sweet corn before, having never had enough space in the garden until now – so I did some research beforehand and came to the conclusion that for the greatest success it would need to be planted in clumps rather than straight rows due to the way it is pollinated.

Sweet corn ‘Early Extra Sweet’

Therefore, I dedicated an entire raised bed to production of corn, and set about planting two lots of F1 hybrid varieties, Early Extra Sweet and Snow Gold Bicolour. My first mistake was to plant the Early Extra Sweet on the sunnier side of the bed – despite being planted at the same time as the Snow Gold Bicolour, it germinated and grew to fair size a full week or two before the other variety even started sprouting, meaning it was constantly shading the later growing variety behind it. The second mistake was to plant the two varieties together – apparently Snow Gold Bicolour doesn’t taste anywhere near as nice when it is cross-pollinated with other varieties.

Not that either mistake made a huge impact, although it was noticeable that the Snow Gold Bicolour produced less viable heads, and the Early Extra Sweet was definitely the nicer of the two to eat. With the corn really starting to get going at around the same time as I got the bore set up for the watering, it meant that we were able to keep the water up to it. The Early Extra Sweet started flowering right at the time that we had a few very windy days, and combined with a lot of activity from the local bee population, we were able to produce more than enough heads to keep us and our visitors munching on extra sweet, extra juicy corn-on-the-cob for most of summer.

I think next season I will stick to the one variety, possibly in two separate patches, and I may stagger the plantings by 2 or 3 weeks to get a longer growing season. I may also look at planting some heirloom varieties next time around so that I can collect my own seeds, but given the amazing flavour of the Early Extra Sweet F1 hybrid, it’s going to be hard to resist planting more of that variety again.

#7 Capsicum

Raised from seed sown early in the spring and planted out in November, my chilli plants have seen mixed success, largely because of where and when they were planted (underneath a nectarine tree in a fairly dry, shaded spot). The only ones to really shine have been the capsicums, especially the California Wonder variety that were planted at the front of the bed and therefore received the most sun.

Capsicum ‘California Wonder’

Unfortunately while they were being established we were transitioning from using the rainwater tank to using the bore, and most of the chillies probably didn’t get enough water to thrive – certainly none of them died, but they were very light on for fruit. The California Wonders however produced masses of big, green capsicums that were juicy and delicious.

Also bountiful was a miniature variety, with several plants producing masses of yellow, red and orange fruit – practically though, I’m not really sure they were worth the effort as the fruit are in fact very small. Probably next season I’ll concentrate on raising a few more California Wonders from seed.

#6 Basil

OK, so technically it’s a herb, and not a vegetable, but our enjoyment of this year’s bumper harvest would certainly have been lessened, were it not for the masses of basil that we were able to pick this season. From the Genovese, Lemon and Thai varieties that I grew in the greenhouse through the full summer heat, to the green and purple-leaved varieties of Sweet Basil that we planted around our egg plants and strawberries, we have been able to pick basil pretty much all summer, and it’s been a welcome addition to tomato and pasta dishes, in salads and on bruschetta, and I’ve frequently harvested the Genovese variety pictured in the foreground above to produce the most amazing pesto I’ve ever tasted.

Genovese Basil in the foreground, with Thai Basil and Lemon Basil growing beside it.

#5 Egg plant (Aubergines)

I’ve never been a big fan of eggplant – I’ve always found that most of the traditional ways it’s been served to me, it’s had an oily, almost slimy texture that has made it far less appealing than other vegetables. So the only reason we ended up growing it this year was purely by accident. By that, I mean that I had wanted to grow some of the little marble-sized Thai eggplants that are traditionally used in Thai curries, but when I ordered the seeds, I mistakenly ordered a variety called ‘Thai Purple Ball’, which, it turns out, produces traditional, tennis-ball sized globes of dark purple. By the time I realised, I had returned from overseas with a glasshouse full of seedlings, and no time to order and establish a fresh lot of seed.

A healthy Bonica egg plant

Later on in the spring, after harvesting a stack of beetroot, I also had a hole big enough for a few established plants, and after spotting some advanced Bonica seedlings at Bunnings on sale, I decided to go with three of them.

Egg plants love plenty of heat, and we had that in abundance this year, so both varieties really turned it on. By late February we were picking 1 or 2 giant Bonicas and the same number of Thai Purple Ball each day, and we were desperately scouring the recipe books for new ideas. Thankfully, Vanessa is a wonderful cook, and some of the recipes she discovered have become staples in our diet now, including an amazing hybrid moussaka/lasagne dish, and a smoked egg plant dip, that when accompanied with our home-raised lamb, made one of the best dishes I have ever tasted.

Bonica and Thai Purple Ball egg plants

What we couldn’t eat, we took into the office whenever we made the journey in to Melbourne, and they were all greedily snapped up. I’ve definitely changed my mind when it comes to growing egg plant, and look forward to trying some new varieties next season.

#4 Cucumbers (and other cucurbits)

Our cucurbit production got off to a very late start this year, largely in part to several rookie errors on my behalf. I’d actually started them off early, planting a number of varieties of cucumber, zucchini, melons and pumpkins into jiffy pots late in the winter, that I kept in a tray indoors. Unfortunately, with the cold September that we had, it was still too early to plant them out into the garden, so before we went overseas in October, I moved the tray into the greenhouse. Of course, I forgot to warn my mum, who was looking after the watering of the greenhouse, that they were in their own self-watering tray, so when we returned in early November, most of them had dissolved into a mushy mess, and those that hadn’t were barely clinging to life. To make matters worse, the few salvageable plants I did put into the garden really struggled in the heavy soil, and with an exceptionally wet spring, had all but died by the start of summer.

Cucumber ‘Marketmore’

So in early December I invested in some better quality soil, created some raised mounds in the garden, and planted some new seeds, three to a hole, in the hope that we would at least get something. And get something we did – for the most part, due to the lateness of their establishment, each plant has only produced one or two fruits, but the quality of what has been produced has got me really excited for what can potentially be achieved in our garden in the future.

The cucurbit garden

The biggest successes have been the cucumbers and zucchinis, both of which have produced enough to keep us well fed throughout the summer. The cucumbers in particular have been plentiful enough that I have been constantly bottling dill pickles throughout February and March. In fact, I even managed to get a couple of established plants going in straw bales as a replacement for a failed crop of beans, growing up a trellis, and these too produced heavy crops that were perfect for slicing and pickling.

A ripe Honey Dew rockmelon ready to pick
Rockmelon ‘Cantaloupe’

The three varieties of melon I grew – Charlestone Grey watermelons and Honey Dew and Cantaloupe rock melons, each only produced one or two fruits, but the quality was amazing, especially the watermelon, which was incredibly sweet and juicy despite the dry summer. I’m not a big fan of Cantaloupe either, but Vanessa tells me that the first one we picked this year was delicious.

Slices of ripe Cantaloupe rockmelon

We’re yet to pick the pumpkins – most of which I grew from seed we collected from store-bought fruits, but they’ve each got some nice looking crops to pick. The standout has been the Butternut Squash variety, which has produced several very large pumpkins that we’ll look forward to eating later in the year.

Pumpkin ‘Queensland Blue’
Pumpkin ‘Butternut’
Pumpkin ‘Kent’ (Jap)

#3 Bush beans

I really learned some lessons this year with the different varieties of beans I planted. The first, and most important, was that despite the success of other crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers that I planted into straw bales, the shallower rooted bean plants really struggled in the summer heat, and by the time the climbing beans had established a deep enough root system to start producing crops, it was very late in the season. I also found that the Borlotti varieties I’d planted, grown for the seed itself rather than the whole pod, failed to thrive in either the straw bales or the garden bed, and certainly didn’t produce a crop anywhere near worth the effort to grow them.

Bush beans thriving underneath climbing tomatoes

The standout however, were the two varieties of bush, or snap beans that I grew in the raised beds underneath some climbing tomatoes – Cherokee Wax, a type of butter bean (yellow) and Gourmet Delight (green). The first variety to crop was the Cherokee Wax, and they were producing around a kilo of beans a week from a dozen plants at the height of their season. A couple of weeks after them, the Gourmet Delight beans started coming on, and as the first lot of Cherokee Wax plants started to fade out, the green beans hit their stride, producing nearly 2 kilos of beans from the same amount of plants on a weekly basis. My only complaint was that the beds I had planted them in were only 350mm high, and at one stage I ended up with a bulged disc in my back after bending down for too long picking them – next season I’ll keep them and other heavy cropping varieties in the 700mm high beds that are far easier to pick from.

A mix of Cherokee Wax and Gourmet Delight beans

#2 Beetroot

Sorry tomato lovers, but by far my favourite vegetable to grow, pick and eat is beetroot – and this season we have produced tons of it. The standard Aussie go-to for a salad or a burger is a slice of pickled beetroot, and whilst I don’t dislike the stuff that comes in a can, I will say that once you’ve made your own, you’ll never go back. I have pickled so much beetroot this summer that you’d think I’d be sick of it, but far from it – it’s been on the lunch and dinner agenda for many a fine meal this summer.

Sliced, pickled beetroot

Stick your head inside the kitchen at Greatrakes on many a Saturday afternoon this summer and you’ll likely have heard the sounds of the Cosmic Psychos’ ‘A Nice Day to go to the Pub’ echoing from the Bluetooth speaker on high-rotation, with the classic line, ‘Nice day to have some beetroot, have some beetroot, have some beetroot’ pumping out, while a saucepan of pickling brine bubbles away and another pile of sweet, earthy beetroot slices await the pickling jar.

Thinning out rows of beetroot allows you to pickle some of the ‘baby beets’

As well as the traditional red varieties Early Wonder and Detroit Red Globe, we’ve also grown Golden Detroit this year, which produces orange flesh, as well as the Italian variety Chioggia, which has concentric rings of pale pink and white.

Pickled Chioggia variety beetroot

Of course, it’s not only about the pickling, and there’s been several long lunches this summer where one of the star attractions has been freshly roasted beetroot. We’ve also enjoyed a number of salads with the delicious young leaves scattered through them – visually very pretty, and tasty and nutritious as well.

Young beetroot plants

The highlight for me about growing beetroot, and the reason why you’ll rarely find us without at least one or two patches of it growing somewhere in the garden, is that it’s so quick and easy to grow, and so versatile right throughout the growing season – you plant it in clumps and then use the young leaves in salads as you thin the rows out, and again harvest the baby beets for salads or pickling whole, until you’re eventually left with a row of evenly spaced, large beets that are perfect for slicing or roasting whole. The perfect, year-round vegetable, in my humble opinion.

#1 Tomatoes

A vegetable garden wouldn’t be complete without at least one tomato plant, and this summer at Greatrakes saw us growing dozens of them. Some of the first plants were established way back in July, grown in Jiffy pots indoors and then transplanted into pots to be grown-on in the greenhouse, before eventually making it into garden beds as one of the first chores upon arrival back from our overseas holiday in early November.

Oxheart Red tomatoes beginning to ripen

There were many varieties we trialled this year, in raised beds, straw bales and even some in pots, and while the results weren’t always as expected, for the most part they performed beyond expectations. Some of the standouts this year were Thai Pink Egg, a prolific cropper with pink egg-shaped fruit exactly as the name suggests, Black Cherry, an indeterminate (climbing) cherry variety that has rarely been without fruit, Oxheart Red, a slicing variety that produces thick, juicy fruits with very little seed, and of course the faithful standby Roma – the staple of any good tomato sauce.

A handful of Thai Pink Egg tomatoes
Thai Pink Egg Tomatoes start off yellow before ripening to a pinkish-red

Other varieties that I grew from seed that are worthy of mention have been Tatura Dwarf, a locally raised determinate (bush) variety that produces wonderfully heavy crops of smallish to medium sized slicing fruits, and Principe Borghese, with its heavy crop of cherry-sized red tomatoes that are perfect for sun drying or slow roasting.

Thai Pink Egg and Principe Borghese tomatoes sliced and ready for drying
Fresh out of the air fryer
Stored in a good quality olive oil, ready for adding to sandwiches, salads and charcuterie platters

The were a few failures that came about from the same issue as I mentioned earlier with my cucurbit and chilli seeds – those that had germinated in Jiffy pots before our trip but had been too small to plant up, ended up in the greenhouse among all the other seedling trays, and were accidentally overwatered while we were away. Varieties that I had looked forward to growing, such as Money Maker, Grosse Lisse, Tigerella, Rouge de Marmande and San Marzano, ended up being confined to the compost heap, and whatever varieties I could find at Bunnings to replace them with were adequate, but hardly set the world on fire.

Indeterminate Oxheart tomatoes trellised and growing in straw bales

The only variety from those that I did end up growing successfully from seed that I would still consider a failure was one called Ram’s Horn – an oddly shaped Roma type of determinate tomato that I found to produce far too many leaves compared to fruit for most of the season, and was highly susceptible to blossom end rot in hot weather, despite receiving the same amount of fertilising and watering as the far more prolific Thai Pink Egg and Roma that were grown in the same bed. Of the store-bought varieties, they’ve all mostly performed OK, although the Black Russian variety has been prone to splitting and I probably wouldn’t bother with that again.

‘Rams Horn’ produced abundant foliage, but struggled to produce much in the way of quality fruit

All in all though, the tomato crop this season has been phenomenal, and we have easily picked in excess of 15 kilos of fruit – probably closer to 20kg. Much of that has been from the cherry tomatoes – Thai Pink Egg, Black Cherry, Principe Borghese and a couple of self-seeded varieties that have sprung up elsewhere in the garden. These we have used to make semi-dried tomatoes, sauces, and my absolute favourite – confit tomatoes, slow-roasted in olive oil and bursting with sweetness.

A morning’s harvest
One of many different sauces we made with our tomatoes this year (using our own garlic, basil and red wine)

Next has been the Roma tomatoes, producing enough tomatoes from a half dozen plants to make up several litres of passata, along with dozens of bottles of tomato sauce. Not to be outdone, the larger slicing varieties, particularly Tatura Dwarf and Apollo, have also given us enough fruit to keep our salads and sandwiches will filled. Oxheart Red has also been a prolific producer that fills the gap between paste (Roma) types and slicing varieties – if I had one complaint about it though, it’s that while it produced some good fruit early on, it was fairly sparse during the hottest part of the season, and it has produced a huge crop of tomatoes right at the end of the season when they are struggling to ripen. Still, if you are like me and love a good green tomato chutney, then you’re certainly well provided for.

The last of the season’s green tomatoes, ready for chutney
The finished product – sweet, sticky, and highly addictive

We aren’t planning on taking any holidays this September-October, and with the new greenhouse now up and running, I’m hoping next season will see us trying a heap of new varieties, depending on what seed I can get my hands on between now and then. One thing’s for certain, even if the next season is only half as good as this one, tomatoes will surely be the mainstay of our summer production here at Greatrakes.

More tomatoes ready for processing

A change of direction

For anyone who has been hanging on all this time wondering what the hell happened at Greatrakes over summer, you’ve probably realised by now that I’ve decided to take the blog in a different direction, and rather than providing monthly updates, from now on I’ll be adding content whenever I feel the urge to do so – which may be several times a month, or maybe not for a few months at a time. So to tie up some loose ends, let’s just say that summer here was very late in arriving (in Axedale we only had one day in November that just managed to sneak into the 30s), however once it had finally done so, it came with a vengeance. For the last three months we have been baked dry with searing heat and very little rain – on the rare occasion that storms did form up in Central Victoria, we watched despairingly as they slid away to the east and west of us. Meanwhile to our north, in Queensland and across the top end of Australia, there have been record rains and devastating floods as the third year of La Nina drew to a close. For a year that had been as wet as it was though, here in Axedale we ended up watching our paddocks turn to dust, and by late February we were forced to bring in a couple of rolls of hay to supplement the dwindling supply of grass for the sheep and alpaca to eat. Thankfully we received a healthy drop of rain at the start of March, and a couple of days of good follow-up rain towards the end of the month – not enough to refill the tanks yet, but enough to get some green back into the fields.

Luckily here at Greatrakes we have an excellent bore that produces water that’s technically drinkable – as the rainwater tank behind the garage that I use for my vegetables started to get lower, I invested in some new hoses and hooked up a watering system to the bore for us to get through – and what a success that was, with bumper crops of beetroot, garlic, spring onions, mustard, beans, strawberries, basil, eggplants, sweet corn, cucumbers, zucchinis and tomatoes. For the first time in twenty years we’ve had a garden that we’ve been able to utilise to grow substantial amounts of produce – in fact this year we’ve hardly had to buy any vegetables, apart from those that we didn’t grow enough of last year (such as garlic, onions and potatoes), or those that we’re still waiting to finish cropping (such as pumpkins, sweet potatoes and melons).

We’ve picked at least 15 kilos of tomatoes alone this season – with many going towards making passata, sauces and confit, as well as being given away to friends and family. I’d have to say, despite my love of several of the sauces I’ve made, including some extra tangy and smoky BBQ sauce, it’s hard to go past the confit cherry tomatoes, either in a pasta dish or piled into a hot toasty – absolutely delicious little bombs of explosive, sweet flavour that are truly exquisite.

Over 10kg of potatoes came from just two raised beds, but unfortunately that still wasn’t enough to tide us over, so next season we’ll be increasing our crops exponentially. This was the first time that I’d tried growing potatoes using the layering method, where you let the plants poke their heads out of the ground for a bit before covering them with another layer manure and straw – repeated several times throughout the growing season, it saw us gather more than seven kilos out of each of two raised beds. Unfortunately, before I had hooked up the bore I had been using the rainwater tank and had tried to go sparingly as the dry summer wore on, sacrificing some of the watering that should have been going to produce big spuds – an error that resulted in about 4kg of the total 15kg being on the small side. Nonetheless, these were perfect for using in potato salads, or roasting tom make our own version of ‘pommes noisettes’.

I’ve never been a big fan of eggplant, but this year with all of the summer heat, our crops have been huge, and Vanessa has tried her hand at a couple of variations that have made me rethink this whole ‘not liking eggplant’ deal. In fact, I’d have to say that the roast leg of lamb (from our own paddock) that she recently cooked and accompanied with a smoky eggplant sauce using eggplants from our garden, washed down with our own wine that we produced this year at Shiraz Republic, would have to have been one of my all-time favourite meals!

I grew a small patch of garlic last winter from on bulb that we’d bought from the supermarket that had started to sprout – it produced enough bulbs to get us through the summer and make a valuable contribution to our sauces and pickling mixes, but sadly we’ve now had to resort to buying it again, so this year I’ve purchased a stack of bulbs of four different varieties, and we should be looking at enough garlic for us to be self sufficient for the next twelve months.

As far as mustard goes, I planted a small patch as a cover crop in one quarter of a raised bed, after I had harvested a crop of cabbages earlier in the season. Despite massive predation by cabbage white butterflies (which we would counter by spending about an hour a day picking off the caterpillars and feeding them to the birds), they produced a bumper crop of flowers, followed by so many seed pods that I gave up picking them all after filling three large paper bags. This turned out to be a big mistake, as the remaining seeds dropped everywhere, and I reckon I’ll be pulling mustard seedlings out from around my crops for many years to come. Still, with each paper bag full of pods producing enough seed to make a full bottle of the most delicious wholegrain mustard, we won’t be needing to buy more of that any time soon, so that has to count as a win, right?

When it comes to vegetables, I really love changing people’s minds about beetroot – it always amazes me when people say they don’t like beetroot because the only time they’ve ever experienced before is the soggy sliced stuff you get from a can. This summer we have rotated crops of beetroot throughout the season, growing several different varieties including the regular red beets, as well as golden varieties and even a striped variety that turns white when pickled! We’ve pickled most of the beetroot, both as slices and whole baby beets, but we’ve also roasted some to produce the most amazing flavours imaginable.

Meanwhile Vanessa has devoted much of her free time this summer to establishing a Dahlia garden. It’s been a tough year, but finally the hard work and hours of hand watering with a hose attached to the bore has paid off, and the house is currently filled with stunning blooms of all shapes and sizes. She’s also been paying close attention to the watering and dead-heading of the many hanging baskets that we have hung along the verandas at the front and back of the house – the pink and purple petunias along the front make a striking display as you approach the house, while out the back the cheerful mass displays of Calibrachoa and Bacopa perfectly compliment the gorgeous views out to the west.

Apart from the successes in the garden, and my continued slow recovery from Legionnaire’s Disease, the other thing of great note this summer has been the addition to our family of another German Shorthair pup – Mathilda, a gorgeous girl with a dark brown coat and a little patch of white hair on her chest – her father was a very tall dog and the speed at which her lanky legs are growing makes it look like she could be the same. After a few days of sorting out their pecking order and the ownership of various toys, Heide has really bonded with her new little sister, and the two have become great playmates (or partners in crime as the case may be). Reinhardt is far less enthusiastic about the young one’s eagerness to play all the time, but when things have eventually quietened down of an evening you’ll usually find the two of them curled up together on the same bed.

As far as work around the house, there hasn’t been a lot that we’ve been able to accomplish due to the heat. We did manage to build a new glasshouse though, thanks to an insurance pay-out after our last one was destroyed in a freak wily-willie (otherwise known as a dust devil). We were both working in our offices one afternoon when we suddenly heard what sounded like a truck coming up the driveway. With the searing heat and the natural amphitheatre that our house sits in, it’s not uncommon of an afternoon to see multiple wily-willies dancing across the paddocks, and they’re usually fairly small and harmless, but on this occasion it ran along the length of the house, tearing the cover off the spa and picking up a half full recycling bin from against the back of the house and depositing it several metres away on top of a hedge. We both ran out to watch this tornado-like dust devil roar its way across our side paddock before turning and running back along the edge of the Mount Sugarloaf Nature Reserve across the road from us. As it blew itself out we walked around the back of the house to survey the damage and discovered our glasshouse had been lifted up and twisted in two like piece of paper.

To be honest, we weren’t holding out much hope of getting anything back from our insurer – we were already pretty much assured that we weren’t covered for all the damage to our fencing from the October floods, so the thought of trying to convince them that we’d been hit by a freak windstorm that came and went within a minute, seemed like an uphill task. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained right? So we contacted ING and they sent out an assessor, who then came back to us with an offer for a cash settlement that would enable us to upgrade to a larger, sturdier model, made right here in Victoria by Sproutwell Greenhouses – provided of course we were prepared to build it ourselves.

Let me say, that as much as I am in love with the quality of the greenhouse, the instructions that came with the greenhouse (plus the fact that there were about 4 different versions of the instructions provided to us, each contradicting the previous), was almost enough to question whether it was all worth it. I’m sure I’ll mellow over time, as the new greenhouse really is a massive step up from the previous one, but right now I’d be hard pressed wanting to set up another one any time soon.

OCTOBER – NOVEMBER 2022: Water, water everywhere

This post, for reasons that will become obvious, is both very brief, and very late. October for us at Greatrakes was pretty much non-existent, due to the fact that we boarded a plane on the 6th of the month and jetted out to Prague for the start of a nearly month-long sabbatical in Europe. We left the house and dogs in the capable hands of my mum during that time, and only returned to Axedale in the early hours of November 3rd, having missed some of the wildest and wettest weather ever to have hit the region.

More rain

The big wet, as you will have seen from our previous posts, had actually been going for several months already, and with each downpour the flooding had been a little worse, so with a few days to go before our trip began, the last thing we wanted to see was another huge frontal system heading down from the north.

As October began, the floods from the 27th and 28th of September had finally started to recede, leaving behind them piles of debris stacked up against the fences of the lower section of our paddocks, with the fences completely pushed over in several places.

Luckily, with the help of a neighbour and a four-wheel drive, I was able to straighten them sufficiently to keep the sheep and alpaca confined, and to restore the electric fence along the creek line to working order, a day before we were set to leave the country.

The creek levels dropped before we left for our holiday – but for how long?

Fast forward to just over a week later, and in the early hours of the morning of the 14th of October, we were waking up on the Danube River in Austria to news that the rains back at home had reached biblical proportions, with dumps of over 200mm overnight throughout the catchments of Axe Creek and the Campaspe River. Lake Eppalock, which had been sitting at around 47% capacity when we moved to Axedale in late May, was now around 133% capacity, with water levels above 1.8 metres flowing across both spillways. In fact, so ferocious was the flow on the second spillway, that it had washed away the road below it. Of course, all that water was heading into the Campaspe River, and the first chance it had to escape its banks was at the McIvor Highway crossing at Axedale, which not only resulted in the road between Heathcote and Bendigo being cut, but also removed the entire road surface from a section just above the bridge, images of which were now making news across the globe.

The water levels reached to well above the dam, the highest since the house was built in 2015

We checked in throughout the day and night with mum to monitor the conditions, and despite the fact that the water levels had reached halfway up the final rise before the house’s ground level, plus the fact that the house was now literally cut off from all road access in and out, she seemed to be handling it quite stoically. The sheep and alpaca were all securely locked up in the top paddock, out of harm’s way, and the house was still very much high and dry, so she resigned herself to a couple of days indoors and soldiered on.

The sheep were certainly not in any danger of running out of food during October and November

Pastures aplenty, but fences – not so much

When we finally returned in early November, most (but not all) of the rain had cleared, and we were faced with the sight of paddocks towering with pasture. Unfortunately, the floods had completely destroyed around a third of our fencing, meaning that the livestock had to be confined to the top paddock until such time as I could erect a temporary electric fence across the main paddock to keep them from straying into the creek or the neighbouring properties.

Rosie surveys the acres of fresh pasture after all the rain.

Even then, the amount of pasture in the top paddock was way beyond the scope of the small flock of sheep that we had to keep down to a manageable level, and after sorting out the issue of getting them all shorn before the impending summer (if and when it finally arrived), we ended up enlisting the help of another Axedale local to come and slash the main paddock for us.

Picking & planting

In the meantime, the vegetable garden was finally starting to offer up some excellent produce, with rows of healthy cauliflowers and cabbages ready to pick, along with radishes, lettuces and carrots. A lot of the radishes, cauliflowers and cabbages ended up in various forms of pickled produce, such as piccalilli and sauerkraut, although I ended up having to throw most of the sauerkraut out a couple of weeks later due to it drying out (I’ll explain why in a moment).

The first of many cauliflowers from the garden.
Several of the cauliflowers ended up as delicious piccalilli

After harvesting the vegetables that were ready to pick, the most important job in the vegetable garden was to transplant all of the tomatoes from the glasshouse into the garden, as well as replacing the lettuce that had gone to seed with some fresh summer herbs. The tomatoes that I had experimented with planting out early were also doing well, as despite the rain and the cold days, there had been no frosts during our time away. I potted some of the seedlings up and planted the rest into raised garden beds, before refilling the planter box in the glasshouse with potting mix and a light top dressing of seed raising mix and sowing a bunch of different varieties of Basil and Dill. Little did I know it, but this simple action of emptying the remains of a bag of potting mix that had sat for a month in the glasshouse into a planter box would have a profound effect on the next two months of my life.

A bunch of radishes destined for the pickling jar
A big hearty Iceberg lettuce

Struggling to breathe

By the Tuesday afternoon of the week following our return to Australia, I started to develop severe asthma – or so I thought. Having been hit with bouts of it off and on throughout our European trip, I suspected it was just a return bout, and given that I had a journey into the office in Melbourne planned for the Wednesday anyway, I made an appointment to see my doctor in the city before work. He prescribed me another inhaler and a preventer and sent me on my way, but on returning to the office it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to do much, so I hopped back in the car and drove the two hour journey back home to bed.

The next day I felt worse and stayed in bed all day – by the afternoon I’d started to get hot and cold sweats. Given the wave of COVID 19 sweeping the state again, I took a Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) and expected the worst, however after a few minutes it came back as negative. The following morning my fever was running at 40 degrees, and I was struggling to even breathe lightly, so we called an ambulance. After testing negative on another RAT, and despite the advice of the ambos and the doctor on the virtual ED call that it was COVID and I should just wait it out at home, I insisted on making the trip into the emergency department. After passing yet another RAT and then lying in the waiting room for an hour, dripping with sweat and gasping for air, I was finally taken in for a chest x-ray before being sent back to the waiting room again. It wasn’t long however before the nurse came back in to inform me that I had a severe bout of what they suspected was pneumonia, and that I was being admitted to hospital immediately.

Things take a turn for the worse

Over the next two days my condition continued to worsen, despite the copious amounts of antibiotics I was being administered, until one of the doctors suggested they switch to treating me for Legionnaire’s Disease, given my recent history of working in a confined space with potting mix. Sure enough, within hours of the change in medicine, I started to come good, and I was finally able to go home on the Monday afternoon. The recovery from Legionnaire’s though is a very slow process, and the rest of November (and much of December) was pretty much a write off for me, both work wise and gardening as well.

We’ve all read the label hundreds of times, but how many people actually wear gloves and a mask when using potting mix?

A hearty drop

One thing that we were able to do during November was to finish bottling our own wine, thanks to the wonderful people at Shiraz Republic and their Rent-a-Row program. Given my lack of energy, I wasn’t able to do much myself other than stick labels on bottles, but Vanessa and our friends Jarrod & Aleisha did all of the heavy lifting to clean, fill, cork and seal 72 bottles of lovely Shiraz. I did manage to stick the labels on the bottles however – labels that I had designed myself based on an oil painting I had completed of a red gum by the roadside just near our house. As a tribute to our new home and location, we’ve named the wine “Sugarloaf Road Shiraz”. It’s drinking nicely already, but it should really start to peak over the next 5-7 years. If we can make it last that long…

SEPTEMBER 2022 UPDATE – aka, never go the early crow

With a few days left in the month and a looming overseas holiday to prepare for, I thought I’d be incredibly efficient this time around and get the September blog out early. Well, you know what they say – never go the early crow!

On the 26th and 27th of the month, after a long weekend of beautiful sunshine and warmer weather, the heavens once again opened over Axedale. Monday wasn’t too bad, with some light rain in the morning and a couple of brief heavy showers in the afternoon. Tuesday for the most part was much the same – I counted 10 mm in the rain gauge at 6:00 pm when I checked before dinner. An hour later that figure stood at 19.2 mm as a series of thunderstorms drove across from Heathcote towards the west (an unusual direction for our weather to travel, and one that often results in heavy rain).

The measuring station on Axe Creek at Strathfieldsaye sat at around 1.53 metres all day – well below the height it needed to reach to flood the road crossings nearby. By the time I went to bed it was still sitting at around 1.54 metres. So imagine my surprise when I woke (early) at 4:30 am to find it had just hit 3.12 metres!

As soon as it was daylight, I drove down to the road crossing at O’Brien’s Lane, where it was plain to see that this time around, the flooding was far more severe than in the past few weeks. The flood marker that sits above the road surface on the side of the bridge itself tops out at 2 metres, and whereas the water levels had hovered around the 1.4 – 1.6 metre mark previously, this time the entire sign was underwater, with the markers on the upper sign showing a level of around 2.4 metres.

Back at the house, my first port of call was the control box for the electric fencing, as it was clear that the water levels would now be high enough to be shorting out the bottom wire. What I hadn’t expected was just how high the water would be – as I approached the gate to enter the main paddock, I could see sheets of water all the way along the fence line, and fast flowing water cutting right across the paddocks at the base of the large red gum that usually sits quite a long way back from the creek edge.

Down by the creek, I could see the yellow warning signs that mark the top wire of the electric fence flapping wildly as the torrents of water slapped against them.

Alas, the fast flowing waters had also brought with them lots of debris, which had banked up against the fence in several places, pushing it over like it was made of paper. I’m hoping that once the water clears, it will just be a matter of straightening up the star pickets again, but I guess time will tell.

Thankfully, all of the livestock had plenty of safe access to higher ground, and now that the steers have gone I’m not too concerned about them wandering out before I have had a chance to straighten the fences.

So much like the last few days of August, it seems that once again the biggest falls for the month have come right at the end. And yes, with two more days to go, it is possible that yet again I’ve jumped the gun, however the weather bureau assure me that this is it for at least the next few days. And they’re never wrong now, are they?