Friday, March 30, 2012

Dirty feet

Today we poured a kind of insane amount of concrete into the holes we had dug in the side of our hill. Six cubic metres, to be exact.

Despite doing everything we reasonably could do to reduce our concrete usage (strawbale, earth-rendered walls, earth floor) we still ended up using only marginally less concrete than we would have if we had poured a concrete slab floor for our little strawbale cottage. Why? Because finding an engineer who'll put their career behind an 'experimental' building material like strawbale without over-engineering the footing details is kind of difficult. Never mind the fact that there are century-old non-engineered strawbale buildings still happily standing in various parts of Nebraska in the U.S... I guess 'normal' engineering and building inspector types just find it hard to believe that a house made of rendered strawbales is going to stand the test of time, even though all they have to do is go check out the ones that are dotted around the world, definitely not falling over/rotting/burning down/being eaten by rodents. I guess the way they compensate for their non-faith in the house of straw is by going slightly overboard on the bit they do understand and believe in: the steel-reinforced, concrete footings.

So we, having chosen the path of going above board (ie. council approved) for our building project, were committed to this engineering and inspection bizzo, and as a result ended up with footing that, in the words of Bill's labourer, Caspar, "could support a 2 storey stone house for about a million years". Great news (not), given that we were pretty proud of the fact that our home is completely biodegradable, apart from the monolithic concrete rectangle that was the result of today.
The pragmatist in me knows that this building adventure was never going to be free from compromises (just wait till we get to the bit where we use treated pine!!), so I wasn't really that fussed about it, at the end of the day. The non-fussed-ness was also compounded by the relief that I felt after the thing was finally poured and the truck had made it safely back up the driveway (after being regaled all morning by Bill and Caspar's encouraging tales of trucks losing their shit and rolling down hills).

It was pretty exciting, I have to say, watching the big truck back down our only-just-dry-enough driveway, putting the chute together, then shovelling the concrete down the trenches.
I tried out the trowels, the floats and tapped the edges to make sure the small aggregate filled the space under the sloped rebate around the edges of the footing, which will shed any moisture that gets in under the 3.5cm of render which is going to protect our precious strawbales from the rigours of the outside world.
And then I had to go back to work. That was pretty much the last thing I felt like doing in the whole world as I was in an exhaustion- and relief-induced coma-like state, and it was an incredibly beautiful day... But it made knock-off time even more exciting s I rushed home to pick up the fams and drove up to the land to leave our marks in the footing. All of these little doodles will be visible inside the house when it's done because of the detail we came up with for the termite protection. Obviously we wanted to reduce chemical usage as much as possible, so spraying was out of the question. I looked into diatomaceous earth and silica sand, but decided that simple was probably best. The Building Code of Australia allows for a visual termite barrier - basically a strip of concrete, either vertical or horizontal, where you can watch out for the termite tunnels as they come up from the ground and then deal with the termites if and when they emerge. We decided on horizontal because it's slightly easier to form up, and uses marginally less concrete (thought with all those piers and what-not, it probably wouldn't have made much difference). It also makes for a nice little border round the inside of the floor, which has now been decorated by our names
and squids
and little Oscar-squiggles.

Actual costs for the footings: $1100 for Bill, $150 for Caspar (think Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Synechdoche: New York), $450 for the steel, and $1404 for the concrete. I also had to buy $54 worth of timber to make the rebate on the formwork, which will now be cleaned and used to make something else, probably a part of the kids' cubby house.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Circles and squares

Pretty much every time I make a circle skirt (other than when it's out of an already-exsting circular tablecloth) I get to the bit where I'm doing the hem and I exclaim to Pearl "Man! Circle skirts have the longest hems ever! this is taking for ever! Why did I agree to do this??" etc etc. But then I inevitably finish the skirt, and am generally quite pleased with the result, so all is forgotten and I go on to agree to ever more circular skirt-making.
Last night I was up for some hours stitching some little gems for P&E poster girl, Amber Rules. Remember her? How could you forget, with a name like that!? Being the 50s lover that she is, Amber was pretty keen to get her mitts on some circle skirt action, complete with waist bands and belt loops. I've been looking to extend my sewing skills a tad, pushng mself outside of my very comfortable A-line skirt niche, incorporating a bit more schnazzy detail and what not, so I thought that circle skirts with fully lined waist bands and belt loops and fancy hiding pockets would be a good start.
The gingham was something Amber already had, which she had earmarked as the perfect kind of fabric from which to make a "toned-down skirt for work".
This is seriously a lady after my own heart: one who believes (and rightly so!) that bright sky-blue mini-gingham is toned down.
The other fabric was something I've had kicking around for, oh, about a million years. When Amber said she wanted a second circle skirt out of something "epic", I knew this was the one.
It's a little sheer, so I'm sending her a matching, vintage petticoat that belonged to Pearl. The other option was to line the skirt, but lining, as some of you will know, basically means making 2 skirts, and with all that hem to take into consideration, that was just not an option.
Partly because I was so bloody tired after days of digging and measuring and forming and what not, and then taking 3 bus-loads of year 10 students on a tour of the tip all day yesterday. Insanely tiring.
Today was meant to be concrete-pouring day. It was extremely foggy this morning when we woke up so we knew it was going to be a sunny day, and I set off with very high spirits indeed, happily anticipating the end of our footing-making adventures. When I arrived at the block I was positively jubilant as I took in the pretty amazing scene of dew-drops glistening on the kangaroo-grass and fog filling the Bega Valley below us.
All was chugging along quite nicely, with Bill, his dog, Roy and I happily finishing off the formwork and generally enjoying the sun until about lunch time when Bill decided that the driveway was still too soft to bring a concrete truck in. Damn! So much for sweet relief. But at least no rain is forecast (or visible anywhere on the horizon), so tomorrow should be the end.
Even with the disappointment, it was a great day to be working outside. Pearl had cooked some brownies, Roy and I had some nice cuddles and a photo shoot,
and Bill and I had some very enlightening and inspiring discussions about earth floors and alternative designs for our house, if we ever actually build it. And I learned even more about squaring and levelling, and realised, quite wholeheartedly that, if left to my own devices, there is no way I could have done this forming properly.
And while I'm all for taking yourself outside your comfort zone and trying new things and gaining new skills and confidence etc etc, some things are actually better off done by an experienced professional.
And, as it turns out, we might actually bring this bit in on budget.
Budget is something we're really keen to share with potential self-made-home-builders, as it's something we really struggled to find any solid information about. As a consequence of this dearth of information, it was quite difficult for us to make up a budget of our own. So we want to share with you all our real costs so that, should you ever experience the urge to build your own home, you might be able to get a feel for how much all this bizzo is likely to cost. Also keen on breaking down some of that weird thing of people never talking about money. I don't get that, and I don't think it's helpful, so we're not gonna do it, because we're all about sharing what we learn on this crazy adventure! And that includes what it costs to get a load of 20mpa concrete...
We consider ourselves to be pretty average, in the home-building skills department. I grew up surrounded by pretty much constant building and renovations so I picked up a smidge by osmosis, but other than that I'm pretty much green. Pearlie even more so, having had no renovations of building to take in, and not being particularly crafty-inclined. So there you go. We're not the kinds of people you read about in the Owner Builder Magazine (which is awesome and inspiring but also kind of frustrating because it rarely includes real costs!) who've been building for years and then decided to build their own home. We're adhering to the theory that, if you're determined, and of reasonable smarts and craftiness, and you ask the right people to help you (this lesson has been learned about a million times over in the last few days) then you should be able to at least participate, in a very hands on way, in the building of your home. So far so good. I feel really happy with the amount of involvement I've had with the footings, and the amount I've learned in the process. I feel really empowered, too, which is a pretty wonderful and valuable thing. But back to the costs...
When we have a major expenditure, we're going to put it at the bottom of the post, and tag the post with 'actual building costs', so when you're planning your home or looking to stickybeak, you can easily access the goss. No costs so far, other than the land ($95000), but stay tuned.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Tip number 9

Today I apprenticed to our friendly concreter, Bill, and learned, from an experienced local and excellent teacher (he also teaches martial arts, knot-tying, and horsemanship!) the finer details of pegging out, levelling, marking lines, successfully supervising the excavator who didn't do the job properly the first time, and tying the steel reinforcements with nifty gadgets with names like "ligs" and "trench chairs". It was pretty great, in an overwhelming, slightly terrifying, "Thank god Bill's here to help me with this massive task", "Now I understand why everyone says that owner building isn't actually super-fun" kind of way. The photo below shows some of our outcomes today - profile hurdle, trench-mesh all ready to be "dropped" (lingo for putting it in the hole) a lovely batter wall and a drain to steer any errant water away from our precious building site. To the uninitiated, it probably doesn't look like much, but I can assure you - it was quite a day.
The learning curve I took a ride on today was akin to one of those big ski-jumps they use in the winter Olympics, and probably about as scary. I'm not going to attempt to impart all the things I learned today but, in the interests of keeping this blog as a helpful place for other would-be self-builders of strawbale and other earthy-type homes, I thought I'd put a few of the biggies out there so that others may learn from our mistakes.

1. If, like me, you have to work and so cannot supervise your excavator, get someone who knows what they're doing - and what you want - to be on site to ensure your digging-guy does a good job. We spent some time this morning having the cut re-done and tidied up, because I wasn't there on the day to make sure it was done right the first time.

2. If you're having any kinds of earthworks done, be flexible with your design: you don't know what you're going to find under that topsoil. Our friend the big rock (who I'm actually growing kind of fond of, despite the changes it has forced has meant that a) the studio is no longer going to be able to fit on the cut only, thereby requiring the front corner to be on fill, which requires piers, which require a crapload of concrete, and b) we cannot angle it enough (without raising the north eastern corner to a ridiculous height) to get it truly on the east-west axis, which means that our 'perfect' passive solar house isn't going to be so perfect after all. After we pegged it out in a few different configurations and positions, it became apparent that facing it true solar north, as we had originally intended, just wasn't going to happen.
We ended up pegging it as best we could facing north-east (the photo above is taken facing east-south-east, straight down the valley towards the town of Bega, with profile hurdles and pre-tied steel in the middle-ground), minimising the amount of fill underneath us, but the pier holes, as Olive can attest, are still pretty deep (much deeper than we would have liked).
3. You can make your profile hurdles out of star pickets and timber, and they'll actually be better than if you make them out of just wood! I've been reading tons of building books over the last year or so, and they all told me to make my profile hurdles out of 2x4 timber, so I thought this was the only way to go. But when we came to peg out, Bill whipped out a couple of very short star pickets instead.
According to Bill, these are superior because they go into the ground easier, creating less disturbance in your soil profile, and can be reused indefinitely. I'm a fan.

4. Normal garden lime is fine for marking lines. No need for fancy spray paint markers.

5. Our soil, under the (quite lovely and black) topsoil, is pretty much just clay. This, like most things, has plusses and minuses. On the minus side, clay, due to its water-holding capacity, tends to expand and contract a bit in response to shifts in temperature. As Bill helpfully pointed out "It's pretty much the worst thing you can build on". Gee, thanks for those words of encouragement. On the plus side though, Bill also commented that our clay is about the best he's ever seen, and "people pay a lot of money for clay like that - you should be building pise". We are not building pise, on account of our strict adherence to Frank Thomas' motto that "if it isn't strawbale it's not worth building", but the clay-i-ness of our subsoil does bode well for our earth floor, which is probably going to be built with the clay we get out of the "big hole" Moonie has planned. I'm choosing to think of it as our top dam.

6. Reinforcing steel that has just been cut with an angle grinder cuts like a knife. Wear gloves.

7. Frilly polka-dot swimmers and gumboots are excellent attire for helping your mumma get all the stray rocks out of the pier holes and footings.
8. Doing physical work outside is good for the body, mind and soul, and I hadn't realised how much I miss it since getting this office job of mine! I spent the drive home devising ways I could incorporate more outdoorsy stuff into my job and/or getting a job with landcare.

Tomorrow we form up. More learning, I suppose. I am very very thankful to have Bill showing me the way, because even though I'm a pretty resourceful kinda lady who, as my father-in-law likes to say "would be in a shit sandwich" (I believe this is affectionate code for "will try anything once") I reckon that without some guidance I may have been out of my depth today. Turns out you can't learn everything from books. I reckon a day spent with an experienced, patient, skilled person would be better than all the reading in the world. And that's my tip number 9.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

P is for polar bears, pallets, passata and paper logs

And this weekend we gleefully partook in all of these things!
Last night, I finished a skirt/dress for the niece of P&E lover, Bec. As you may have noticed, if you've read this blog a few times, I think Bec is fully ace, and count her as one of my absolute favourite customers. I've never met the lady, but crikeys do I enjoy getting emails and clothing requests from her. This weekend's polar bear dress is actually a gift for Bec's "amazeballs" niece, whose favourite animal is - yep, you guessed it - the outrageously cute, yet potentially deadly polar bear. Bec thought she might like some polar-bear-flavoured frockage action along the lines of this dress. Obviously, I didn't want to just make a copy of that dress (very distasteful) so I just set it to the back of my mind to let stew for a while, so as to conjure a perfectly P&E polar bear dress. On friday, it started to emerge from the shadows... Navy corduroy... a stitched white silhouette of a kind of frowny, crossed-arms kinda bear (modelled on one of the polar bears in the stunning book Zoo-ology by Joelle Jolivet - seriously get it. NOW)... detachable, capped-sleeve braces so you can wear it as a dress or a skirt... a ruffle and, of course, some ric rac for good measure.
I took my time with this one because of the stretchy corduroy, and even used iron-on stabiliser behind the embroidery (never done that before) and even lined the front of the skirt and the little cap sleeves (never done that before either).
Here's me 'modelling' it (if by modelling you mean standing awkwardly while getting one's picture taken).
Kinda cool - I'm the same size as niece of Bec, Pearl's the same size as Bec, so we can provide handy models for the whole family's P&E couture. I was rather chuffed, not least of all because he's got his arms crossed!!!
This morning we all woke up happy and, after about half an hour of in-bed cuddles (this is pretty standard morning fare in our big king bed) had an outrageously delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs with silverbeet, tomato, basil, parsley and jalapeno chilli on toast. Then Oski and I headed off to the tip - yeah!!! One of the awesome, but strangely excruciating things about my job, is that I get to spend quite a lot of time at our many many tips, checking things out and chatting to the staff, and marvelling at how rude people can be and how much good stuff people chuck out. The excruciating bit is that, due to some hysterical adherence to the code of conduct, I'm not allowed to get anything from the tip while I'm working. Last week, this meant that I missed out on an awesome load of very-good-nik galvanised corrugated iron, which would have been perfect for any number of things up at the land. Never mind. Today I borrowed a trailer, and Oski and I managed to get a crap-load of hardwood pallets and chicken wire, which is almost as good. The hardwood pallets are for flooring our sleeping loft in the studio, so as to avoid having to buy any more new timber than is absolutely necessary (various timber-related compromises to be discussed at a later date). I also scored a few awesomely awesome beams which will be perfect for framing the kids' tree-house. Olive and I have been absolutely devouring Tree Houses, and are very excited to get started (Olive has been taking special note of the 'Things not to do' page). On the way home we had some ice-creams (Oski's first of 3 for the day) so in all it was a top adventure.
While we were out, Pearlie was busy turning another 20kg of tomatoes into passata,
and Olive was decorating the house with mermaids and mermaid-affiliated paraphernalia and generally talking to herself. Alas for the passata adventure, we lost 3 jars to cracking, due to them being put into water that had already heated up too much. Make sure you put your jars in the Vacola unit when the water's still cool!!!!!
And then we made some paper logs.
I've been very intrigued and inspired by the ongoing discussion in Grass Roots magazine about the various methods for making fire logs out of newspaper. Makes sense, right? And apparently they work really well! When we move to the land, we will have no hot water, and will be bathing in a fire bath, under the stars. Fire bath, obviously requires fire, but our block is not heavily wooded on account of it being ex-grazing land, so until our coppiced wood lot gets up, we'll need an alternative to buying in some chopped up old-growth forest. I thought the paper logs could be the answer! Pearl has a subscription to the Sydney Morning Herald, so we have a lot of newspaper moving through our house. The idea is to get them really dense. You can use a paper-brick maker, which smooshes torn up wet newspaper into a brick shape, or you can just roll up the paper, tight as you can, and kind of papier-mache it into a log shape with an outer layer of wet newspaper, then let it dry.
Can't see why it wouldn't work - paper used to be trees, after all - but we'll see how it goes. I cannot wait to get into that fire bath!!! But first I'll need to make another trip to the tip to secure an appropriate bathtub..

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dirt, dirt, some big rocks, some REALLY big rocks, some clay and more dirt

In the lead up to our big dig, we've both been feeling, in different ways, a pretty unprecedented level of anxiety, excitement, emotion (at scarring our beautiful hill and beginning, in a physical way, our building journey), impatience and wonder. We really had no idea what we were in for, both of us having never experienced this digging shindig before. People have been warning us, telling us about how big the machines are, how much the ground shakes, how you can never be prepared for how big the cut's going to be etc etc. So we'd built up our expectations to fit with all these warnings, trying to picture the worst... and getting it so, so wrong.

Moonie, our uber-relaxed (almost a little too relaxed) excavator has had us on tenterhooks the last few days, us wondering if he was actually going to show up when he said he would, and just hoping and hoping the rain stayed away. I finally got hold of him this morning, and he was all like "It's cool man, it's all cool. Just relax". Relax!!??? you want me to relax when we've got 15 people coming to raise our strawbale cottage in 3 weeks and we have absolutely nothing prepared?? Relaxing, under these circumstances was not on my agenda.
I left him to do his thing at around 9 this morning, then returned just after lunch, bracing myself for the terrible scar I was about to behold. Let's just say it was a bit of an anticlimax.
There was a nice entrance, a gently sloping and curving driveway down to the house site, which was not dreadfully huge or unnatural-looking (other than the complete absence of grass) and a very gently sloping batter up to the natural slope of the land. Not deep, not steep. And I could perfectly imagine our little house nestled cosily into the hillside on the pad provided. But why had he left that huge pile of dirt just to the left of the dozer?
Oh. That would be because it's not actually a pile of dirt but a giant, enormous boulder. A too-big-to-move-even-with-a-bulldozer boulder. Lucky it's not right in the middle of where the house is s'posed to be going, but it did nudge the house forward enough that it's no longer going to be just on the cut (ie. sturdy ground with no need for piers). Looks like around half a metre of the north-eastern corner of the studio is going to be on the fill, meaning that we're going to need those pesky piers after all. At least a couple of them, anyway. The reason we were attempting to get the whole thing on the cut was to avoid the extra concrete needed to fill a pier hole. We're not massive fans of concrete, or, to be more precise, cement, on account of it's totally obese embodied energy. Hence the earth floor and as-minimal-as-possible strip footings. But thanks to our friend the giant displacing boulder, we're gonna be using a bit more of it then we bargained for. But that's cool. We've watched enough Grand Designs to know that's how these things roll. Remember the one where they were making the underground vet clinic and found 2 huge voids??!!! At least we didn't find them eh? But we get the moral of the story: When you're digging deep underground you never quite know just what you're going to find. Even an experienced local operator like Moonie didn't expect the boulders
or the massive amount of clay underneath our topsoil. Being eternal optimists, Pearl and I just kept thinking how good this would be for our earth floor and dam-building later down the track, while Moonie was a bit disappointed he didn't find the decomposed granite he had expected, which would have been perfect for covering the driveway.

But now it's done. I had wanted some kind of little ceremony on the day we broke the ground - a dinner on the cut, some sprinkling of seeds for soil-stabilising groundcover, but we've had such an immense week of late working nights, 5am wake-ups and middle-of-the-night anxiety attacks, that we were actually too exhausted to do much more than take a few photos and exclaim, tiredly "Wow. It's really not as bad as I thought it would be".

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Not so spotless

How would you feel if you came into the kitchen and found your 2 year-old sucking on the spray nozzle of a bottle of surface cleaner? That happened to me the other day. I felt pretty relaxed, and then humoured by the face Oscar pulled when he copped a taste of what was in the bottle: White vinegar with orange peel floating in it.
Our kids are really free range. Like, they're certified organic free range, not RSPCA or Lilydale free range. They're even more free range when I'm in charge (Pearl at least usually keeps them clean and clothed, whereas I do not), possibly bordering on feral. But I love the joy! I love sneakily watching them when they're free to be the little animals that they are, because I know that sooner or later their animal-ness is going to be at least a little bit stamped out by the rigours and expectations of living with other people and going to school and playing sport etc etc. Not that this is entirely bad - I feel confident that their certified organic free-range childhood will mean that their little animal spirits get a strong toe-hold, and can hopefully serve them well in the imaginative and creative-thinking and resourcefulness and instinct stakes. But I think that in order for that toe-hold to be as solid as it can be, the free-range phase needs to be as long as it can be.
As a result of this free-ranging, we have to make sure that the place we're living is mostly safe, to avoid any chance of either of them (but especially our very oral little Oscar) putting something kind of deadly in their mouths.
Did you know that you can clean your whole house, including incredibly caked-on years-of-rental-house oven crust, with vinegar, bicarb and, if you're feeling fancy, a bit of lemon or eucalyptus oil. Ask your grandma - she probably grew up that way.
If your oven is feral, douse it in bicarb. Seriously, lay it on about 2cm thick, then wet it down so it's kind of like toothpaste. Leave it overnight, and then in the morning, scrape it all off with a spatula. If necessary (and I doubt it will be - I've cleaned some pretty feral ovens in my time, being as I only clean an oven when I'm moving out of a place), you can repeat the process. Skanky showers can be attacked with bicarb and half a lemon.
You can even use bicarb on your hair and teeth, too.
And yes I know all this is in the Shannon Lush book, but I for one was really put off by the cover and the fact that it's called Spotless. 'Spotless' is a bit too clean for my liking...
So next time you run out of surface cleaner, take that empty bottle (seriously, don't recycle it - it'll just get sent to China) and fill it with white vinegar. Then next time you eat a lemon or an orange, save the peel (no flesh!!) and chuck it in the bottle. Then let your little people explore to their hearts' content, safe in the knowledge that even if they (for some inexplicable reason) down a whole bottle of the stuff, they're probably going to be OK.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

We wait...

Yes it is a very bucolic scene. Lovely isn't it? We were actually hoping it would be a little less peaceful and lovely. We should have begun tearing into the land this morning but our excavator went AWOL. The morning dawned clear and crisp. Not a cloud in the sky. We were elated and nervous as we anticipated everything falling into place in time for the April 16 start date of our strawbale building workshop with Frank Thomas. Ah but it didn't quite fall into place. Turns out the excavator was in Canberra on some "urgent business" and now Thursday's the day. He promises that Thursday's the day. A very lovely concreter is booked in for Monday and it should be pretty smooth sailing given it's just the footings for our 6mx3m studio cottage. No big dirty concrete slab for us. No siree, we are having an earthen floor with dirt from our land. Speaking of, we've been doing quite a bit of research on such floors, exploring the different methods and, trying to work out what might be the best approach given we will be asking the floor to dry over Winter. No doubt this will be the subject of some extensive writing around May. So as I was saying, we should have the foundation for our little strawbale complete next week. Time is getting tight, we need to leave around 14 days between the concrete being poured and our workshop start date. If this was Grand Designs, Kevin McCloud would be looking straight to camera saying "They've got less then 3 weeks to get the house site excavated and ready to start building. They've got over twenty people coming to work on April 16. By anyone's standard this is a ridiculous timeframe. I just don't know if they're going to be able to do it" Don't worry Kevin, we can do it!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"It's just like a pinata!"

Today was an exquisitely perfect Autumn day. So Autumnally Autumnal it almost made our teeth ache. Possibly after reading this upbeat post your teeth will ache. This totally enchanting change of season bizzo is further solidifying our feeling that moving south was so the right thing to do. We are enjoying these cool crisp nights and perfectly warm days. It's just perfect weather for more apple picking, eating and cooking. Oh the side-of-road abundance! What a thing of beauty. Annie came home from work earlier in the week to report on the very laden apple tree she had spied on the side of the road, in the very picturesque environs, somewhere between Bemboka and Candelo. With the last batch of found apples bottled and stored away, more apple picking was looking to be a necessary part of our Sunday agenda. We set out in the still cool hours of this morn to find the tree of abundance and find it we did.

It was a joyous morning. The apple fragrance in the air, the bluest of blue sky days, the sparkling stream nearby, the warmth of the apples picked fresh from the tree and the tart, crisp juiciness of this mystery variety. A gorgeously sensuous experience. Oh yes and then to reach some of the higher ones we had to bash the tree with a metal pole (hence the pinata reference, courtesy of our ever-observant Olive). So yes, a little jarring to all those sensuous senses we were experiencing but pretty fun nonetheless.

We left with a boot full of apples.
We have many plans for this little bounty: a) spicy apple chutney that has to sit for 3 months before being consumed. Holy shit, this is gonna be good; b) jars of apple jelly to thrill the kids and to eat with fine cheeses and wine; c) give away to friends and d) many apple pies. I whipped up this little baby this arvy.
She's a real good one this recipe. I got it out of a Delicious magazine some years go, it was the recipe of somebody's grandma so it's pretty CWA and by golly, is it good. I've made it for many apple pie loving loved ones over the years and it's always met with smiles and exclamation. The secret ingredients are custard powder and icing sugar in the pastry and the apple is cooked with a ton of sugar, star anise, clove and cinnamon so it's a fragrant sweet heaven. I think the reason I love it so much is that it is so the antithesis of all the whole foods cooking I do most of the time. For the kids of course! I'm always nutritionally value adding - some quinoa here, some tahini there, some chia seeds in this and some wakame in that. But this pie is just so delicious in it's non-attempt at health. So tonight was the first of many this Autumn.

We felt pretty excited by this Autumn day that we decided to have a little bit of an Autumn celebration this evening. Dessert was, of course, uber-delicious apple pie. But we preceded it with some help from Farmer John. Some of you may have seen the delightfully quirky and uplifting film, "The Real Dirt On Farmer John" a few years back. In its own kooky way, this film was pretty formative in planting the seed (yeah sorry) that we could one day be regenerative farming laydees. Farmer John is into some pretty esoteric stuff from the biodynamic realm, which I am not, happy as I am in my atheistic realm. But it seems to be working for him, so good luck to him. Anyhoo, Farmer John has a cookbook called, unsurprisingly, "Farmer John's Cookbook: The Real Dirt On Vegetables". And while some of the recipes are not for us, some of them are truly delicious. Like the very warming and very Autumnal pumpkin, kale and white bean stew. It's so satisfying and delicious, flavoured as it is with cumin and sage. We partnered it with the corn bread recipe from Farmer John. So all in all an American salute to Autumn. We were so taken by our American salute that we had to listen to the Carolina Chocolate Drops while we dined.

Ok so maybe dined is pushing it. We ate together, amidst "play breaks" and scooter rides and general chaos, as we reflected on the bounty of Autumn and the potentially massive week ahead. Our excavator is booked in for Tuesday (weather permitting) but the weather forecast is terribly non-committal. There's a lot of "Chance of showers" being uttered on the BOM. However in hopeful anticipation of the impending earthworks, Annie pegged out our agreed house site - due solar north of course. She also pegged out 2 swales that will carry water (slowly) from the culvert on the road to our initial food growing area. These swales are around 75 metres long so we've got some pretty formidable garden designing/planting/nurturing ahead of us. Annie also found a beautiful fallen log that will be perfect for the kid's treehouse/cubby that we will soon be building.

We are more moved by the anticipation of the earth works than we imagine we would be. If all goes well, the end of the week could see us with, not just a giant scar across our land but, a firm foundation for our little house, our little strawbale. Feels pretty weird.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

How do you like them apples?

You may have noticed that Pearl does most of the preserving in our family. Most of the cooking, too, on account of the fact that, no matter how hard I try, most things I cook turn out being kind of bland and most things she cooks turn out to be freaking delicious. But we're kind of OK with this distribution of labour, and believe that people should pursue what they're good at - most of the time. Self-extension outside of one's comfort zone is also something we value. It was with this in mind that I have embarked, in the last few days, on my first preserving adventure.
OK, OK. It's not technically my first. I did have a fling with a batch of disastrous (ie. mouldy) mulberry jam, which I made without a recipe. That's just the way I roll.
This time round, I did use an approximation of a recipe, which I found in our oft-used book, Preserving the Harvest by Carol Costenbader (Pearl calls her the botulism scaremongerer) It's getting quite the work-out these days, as we frantically try to preserve the ridiculous amount of cheap, organic fruit and veg we pick up at the markets and, in the case of these apples, on the side of our road, not far from the famous plum tree that was the absolute highlight of our summer.
The day we went to first check on our cows (who have moved on now, by the way, having trampled and chomped the grass to a useful level) we were pretty excited to spot the tree, kind of laden with HUGE green-with-reddish-blush apples. When I say HUGE, I mean seriously huge (capitals v italics? Which is more emphatic??), like, difficult for an adult to eat a whole one.
As we discovered with the plums, there's some kind of special feeling you get from finding free food growing on the side of the road, especially when it's delicious and freakishly free of pests. Both the plums and the apples seem to have been untouched by the usual suspects, namely fruit fly and birds, and we cannot for the life of us work out why, given that both trees are entirely unattended.
We picked as many as we could happily reach and transport, then headed home to decide how best to preserve. The Apple Pie Filling recipe in Preserving the Harvest was an immediately obvious choice for me, since I believe that a) the best way to eat fruit is in a dessert, and b) dessert is the most important meal of the day and so deserves to have the most delicious ingredients.
I had (perhaps problematically) assumed that Pearl would, as usual take on the task of preserving. But after a couple of weeks of the apples sitting there on the bench, with Pearlie attending to other important tasks such as her TAFE assignments, South East Food Project meetings and general daily kid-wrangling and house-maintaining, I decided to take matters into my own hands one day while I was home with Oscar. We peeled and chopped, then tried to make sense of what "6 quarts fresh tart apples" would look like. In the end we decided it was probably a lot like a big saucepan full, so that's what we cooked up.
And they tasted pretty good!! Today I hot-packed them into their Vacola jars, then set them to boil in the Vacola pot for the recommended 25 minutes.
So far, there is a good suction on the lids (though I'm always nervous about removing the clips) which hopefully means no mould.
The remaining few apples in the first pic are going into another batch of tomato sauce, and the giant zucchini was today transformed into a zucchini pickle. The shelves are heaving! And we're looking forward to a winter of cheese and pickle sandwiches up on the land if the rain stops in time for us to get the footing dug in time for our little strawbale-building workshop... But that will be the topic of Tuesday's post, I'm sure.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dear Michelle

As you know, I was pretty excited to make your skirts. I was so chuffed when you emailed me to order some P&E to cheer you up. How wonderful to cheer people with sewing!
I actually ended up making you 2 skirts, so you can pick which one you like the best, and I will send the other one to Georgie Love, so someone else in need of cheer can snaffle it.
The cool-flavoured one I cut out as a demonstration skirt at a remake and remodel workshop that I ran at the Candelo Town Hall on tuesday night.
It is, of course an ex-tablecloth, but I can tell you that in all my years of collecting and sewing with tablecloths, I have never seen one coloured like this. The pocket is an ex-placemat, courtesy of my little sister Meg, who is an avid rural traveller/op-shopper and extraordinary fabric scout. The red ric-rac around the pocket is, I think, kind of fancy. It's the first time I've done something like that, but I can safely say that it's my New Favourite Thing, especially since I organised my fabric/haberdashery stash and discovered about a billion little bags of it that I've been picking up over the years but never actually using.
The warm-flavoured one is a skirt that I'd cut out a while ago, which had been lost amongst my extensive 'in-progress' pile. I came upon it while I was looking for fabric for your skirt, and when I measured it, just out of interest, I found that it was exactly your size. I shit you not.
I decided that it was providence, so sewed it up for you, adding a birdie pocket as per instructions. The 'Fig parrots on Eriostemon' were leftover from the tablecloth I used for Ally's wedding dress.
I love that the birds and the plant are both identified in such a no-fuss way, almost like you're looking at a text book. A tablecloth text book - now that's something I could look at...
Anyway, let me know which one you like best, and I'll get it in the post to you. I hope the cheering works!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

rainin' and rainin'

I've probably mentioned this fact before - I love sewing for people I love! - but I had to mention it again given the gorgeous set of tops I just had the pleasure of whipping up for one of my loveliest friends, Niki. Is she not a beautiful P&E model?
Her request for 3 tops and a bolero came one day when I was lamenting not having enough cash to buy the new Sal Kimber album. How gracious of Niki to buy tops from me in order that I could purchase some music! The creative cycle is truly a beautiful thing...
The tops were to be comfy, but smart, and vaguely related to the colours dusty pink, blue and green. This was pretty fun, as I love colour-themed requests, especially since organising my teatowels and fabric remnants. I am an absolute sucker for anything arranged by colour, especially op-shops. The colour-coded op-shop seems to be a bit of a regional thing, in my experience, the most spectacular ones I've seen being in Cooma and Wagga Wagga. A few weeks back, I had a pretty awesome few rainy days of sick leave, after injuring my shoulder, so couldn't go on with any 'big' jobs (ie. house-building related). I just had to snuggle down and colour-code my fabric. How dreadful, I know.
So the tops were easy.
The bolero, on the other hand, was to go with a frock she already owned. Niki had sent me the belt, as a reference, but I was all in a tizz about the colouring.
The dress, as you can see, is bloody spectacular, so I was really feeling the pressure to get it right. What to do when in such a tizz? Defer to your muse, I say. Pearlie (my muse) is extraordinary at picking out combos. Combos of colours, combos of accessories, combos of food. Whatever - she rocks them all. Including Niki's bolero's dusty salmon wool/bright turquoise bias binding combo, which I believe to be marvellous.
Niki was pretty chuffed too, which is always a bonus.
While we were in Sydney hand-delivering Niki's tops (a special service reserved for only my most special clients, sorry) Bega was a recipient of some pretty phenomenal rain, which managed to wreak havoc all over our pretty shire. Being massive proponents of the 1st permaculture principle of Observe and Interact, we were super-keen to see how our land was handling the big wet. Pearl, Oski and I (Olive was at school) trotted up at the first opportunity, and were pretty excited by what we saw.
Firstly, the dam was absolutely chockers. Awesome. BUT it was overflowing, and showing off a pretty dreadful spillway which had some significant potential for erosion. Spillways, as we learned in Harvesting Water the Permaculture Way (yep: we get into some seriously sexy night-time viewing down here) should follow the contour of the land for quite some way, so that any overflowing water is captured and carried along the land slowly and gently, so as not to create any erosion and to ensure the land receives the maximum possible benefit from the rain. Our dam, in contrast seems to
a. spill right over the dam wall, taking our beehive with it (the only time I've been happy that the bloody bee lure didn't work) and then
b. create a kind of mini-river over the side, evacuating all our azolla and making a lovely azolla-bog in the gully below the dam wall.
Not the best outcome, at all, but interesting to see. We're not that upset about the dam's performance, given that, come spring, we'll be draining it and excavating it to remove silt, increase our water-storage capacity and create a gorgeous swimming hole. And at least we know it doesn't leak.
Speaking of excavations, they were pretty much supposed to be done by now, given that our workshop is in LESS THAN FIVE WEEKS but have been delayed on account of aforementioned rain. Slightly stressful, though Pearl has been wonderful with her "Babe, it's the weather. There's nothing we can do about it so don't worry" and things do seem to be clearing. All going well, Moonie the bobcat/bulldozer/front-end loader driver and self-declared "Excavation Advisor" will be up at our place bright and early on Tuesday to gouge out great quantities of hillside. The feeling is... well... kind of huge.
PS. As I write this, I am enjoying, quite immensely, the sound of the new Decemberists album, which I received in the mail today. It's a double live cd and, well, let's just say Pearl and I are dancing/panting/exclaiming "Yeah Colin!" as we go about our evening chores. Fun times.
PPS. Post-major rain event, the far South Coast this early Autumn is a truly spectacular place to be and all going well we should have some beautiful building weather for our April straw bale workshop. The prospect of toiling away on our hillside, with so many loved ones, on bright, crisp Autumn days excites us big time.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

And then I made some skirts...

soon to be available from Georgie Love:

including these, my first ever P&E skirts, for little people.