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.