Saturday, December 29, 2012

We have gone Crazy this Year!

Crazy at planting vegetables that is!  We organise and plant our food gardens to ensure we have a steady supply of produce all year. However spring is always our main event, with many plants supplying food for us in summer, autumn, through winter and into the following spring.

Ortzi planting beans

This spring we have had a mad compulsion to plant even more than normal. We couldn’t have done this by ourselves. During 2012 we have been hosts to many enthusiastic and energetic helpers (such as Ortzi above) and this has inspired us to “stretch our horizons”.  With the help of these wonderful visitors, we planted most of the main garden beds, then we cleared out any underutilised smaller areas and filled them with veggies too. To top it all off, we also established six small vegetable beds in spaces in the orchard.
Cucumber, lettuce and basil in one corner of the hothouse
Part of our compulsion to plant, is because of the future results that we can see projected in our imagination. When we plant a bed of sunflower seed, we don’t see 30 seeds or 30 little green plants- we see a forest of 30 tall plants covered in huge yellow smiley sunflowers. And so it is with every crop – we can actually see the future (in our minds) and that is one of the main driving forces behind our compulsion.
So what have we planted this year?
·       Tomatoes.  6 varieties and over 50 plants. Heather grew plenty of healthy seedlings and we tried our best to find “homes’ for as many as we could.
·       Corn. Two beds planted a month apart to give successive crops, with a total of around 80 plants (or 160 cobs if all goes well).
·       Climbing beans 3 plantings to give a continuous harvest over a longer period of time
·       Capsicum   -- 14 plants
·       Carrots two large beds to supply us right into next spring
·       Parsnip one large bed
·       Beetroot one bed
·       Celery one large bed to allow side picking of stalks all next year
·       Continuous plantings of salad greens (too many to count) including varieties of several varieties of lettuce, raddichio and rocket
·       Cucumbers 2 varieties spread around 4 areas with plenty of space for them to climb
·       Zucchini. 6 plants with 2 different varieties
·       Silverbeet and perennial spinach – too many to count
·       Pumpkins 5 varieties in 8 separate small beds A few plants of each to give us plenty of variety. We still have 3 pumpkins from last year and had one of these for Christmas lunch
·       Herbs such as parsley, basil and many perennial ones

Spinnach,basil, lettuce & much more
And with all that, we still have a couple of garden beds left over. These will provide room to start planting winter crops such as brassicas in summer. These beds currently have other crops that are about to be harvested (two beds of garlic and one large bed of broadbeans).
Of course it would be a big mistake to “count our chickens before they hatch”. There are so many variables, that no matter how hard we try to make our imagined crops turn into reality, we know that there is a possibility that the results won’t be as perfect as in our dreams. Over the years, there have been a variety of reasons for harvests being less than what we hoped eg rodents eating corn, heat and drought stressing plants, birds digging up seedlings etc. We know that this is part of the journey, but it doesn’t stop us dreaming of bumper harvests!
So what do we do with the produce when we have excess, which we certainly hope will be the case this year. Our family, friends and helpers will get a good share and then we sell any excess after that at Healesville Organic Farmers Market in Coronation Park every Saturday morning. Perhaps we will see you there and you can share some of our harvest too!

Our market stall

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Eating our Green manure Crop!

Each year we aim to plant at least one of our vegetable areas with a green manure crop. However, we often find that other tasks are more demanding and we don’t always get a crop in the ground. This year though, we excelled in the green manure department and actually planted three beds; two with barley and one with broad beans.
Heather hoeing in the barley
All three crops germinated well and the plan was to cut the crops down when they were still quite young and let all the organic material decompose; effectively becoming a green fertiliser for the next crop. We cut the two beds of barley back as planned, forked it in with a good sprinkling of blood and bone and left it for 4-5 weeks to allow the decomposition process to work. This apparently adds phosphate to the soil and encourages a rich life force of microbial activity . Compost was added on top, then we planted two beds of tomatoes that Heather grew from seed. The beds were well mulched. So far the plants look stronger and more vibrant than previous crops, so our hopes are for a bumper crop. We will have to do an update when they are ready to harvest.

However with the broad beans, things did not proceed as originally planned. When we saw how beautiful the plants looked, we couldn’t bring ourselves to cut them down. We love eating broad beans and our taste buds convinced us to let them grow to maturity.
The broad bean crop
We were not disappointed; we have been having feasts of broad beans for weeks now, and still the beans keep coming. We have sold quite a lot at our market stall but as they ripen when the weather warms up people tend to eat less cooked food and more salads. So we have had an excess which has stimulated a bit of cooking creativity. Our favourite recipes are Broad Bean Dip (Moroccan dip) and Broad Beans with tomato, onion and basil sauce on gnocchi. The newest recipe Heather has come up with is ....steamed broad beans, cooled, then tossed with olive oil and lemon juice.....great with salads. Having eaten many kilos of broad beans we have turned into “human beans”.
The growing pods
We have competitions to see who can prong the most steamed broad beans on their fork, who can pod 1kg of broad beans in the shortest time, who can balance the greatest number of broad beans seeds on on top of the other on a solid flat surface, who can make a single broad bean spin for longer than 3 seconds.
Delicious Broad Bean Dip

We looked forward so much to tasting and eating the first broad beans of the season. Now we are really grateful that this wonderful bean is seasonal in our climate, and it will soon be replaced in our diet by the delicious climbing green bean......Can’t wait...Yum!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sarah from Germany

Sarah is our first Helpx helper from Germany. She is on a short working holiday in Australia and stayed with us for the past couple of weeks.

Some of the jobs she helped with included weeding many areas of the garden (we have renamed Sarah - Wonder Woman Weeder), helped with our market stall, collected firewood, planted our beetroot crop (and it looks like all the seeds germinated), harvested berries, helped with composting, helped clear around one km of tracks that had become overgrown after the 2009 bushfires, helped out with most of the daily chores and more. She was such a great worker and always asking if she could help.

Of course she was very keen to meet the local native animals, and had a close up encounter with an echidna. Whilst here, she also saw mobs of kangaroos and many of our colourful parrots and other birds.

There was some wildlife that Sarah was not particularly fond of –spiders. We do occasionally come across these beautiful creatures but she would rather they kept their distance. We think she may not be quite as afraid now- in fact she may want to keep one as a pet!

The stay was not all work of course. We enjoyed each other’s company and spent much time sharing stories and laughing together. Ruby the dog thought she was wonderful because Sarah took her for walks around our tracks and spoiled her with loving pats and cuddles.

She has now left our place and managed to find paid work on a local berry farm to help fund the rest of her adventures in Australia and New Zealand. Once again we have enjoyed the company of a wonderful person and helper and we hope Sarah enjoys the rest of her trip around Australia.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Our New Multi-Function Battery Room

Earlier in the year we wrote about the big solar shift when we moved our batteries and inverter from under the solar panels outside, to inside the house at the back of our workshop. As the workshop gets quite dusty from time to time when we are sanding or sawing wood etc., we thought it would be wise to build a dividing wall to separate the battery room from the workshop area.

Battery room shelves under construction
Fortunately, we were able to make use of quite a bit of recycled material, most of which was completely free. The whole project of creating our new battery room cost less than $200 made up of:-
  • Door –purchased second hand
  • Box for the battery set – second hand and left over timber from other jobs
  • Pine studs for the wall frame- gleaned from a skip behind a shop where they were remodelling. We asked first!
  • Timber for the shelving. The uprights came from another shop makeover and the wood for the shelves from various free sources
  • Grain bench.  A cupboard no longer wanted by a family member
  • Wall paint was half price because another customer was unhappy with the tint
The shelves are filling up with produce
We built a wall of shelves in the room, which now serves multiple functions including:-
  • Storage for all our bottling and jam making equipment and supplies
  • Storage our ginger beer making gear as well as the bottles of ginger beer
  • Storage area for some long lasting crops including pumpkins (about 60 this year), potatoes, garlic and other produce
The power management system and battery box

Other uses of the room include
  • Storage for our battery bank (in a vented cupboard)
  • Shelving for our inverter, regulator and associated equipment
  • Space for our grain processing bench with oat roller and grain grinder attached (storage underneath)
  • Provides a mouse proof storage area for bulk grains (oats and wheat)
The thermal mass in the slab and mudbrick walls ensures temperatures in the battery room do not vary greatly. Our new verandah helps in this regard, by keeping the sun off the external walls. This makes it an ideal space for storing vegetables, grain and produce.

The dividing wall with one side to be finished
The dividing wall that separates the battery room from the workshop has one other benefit. We intend finishing off the project by building shelves on the workshop side of it, so all our tools, workshop equipment and materials can be housed together in an orderly fashion.  This extra storage area will massively improve the way the workshop functions as well. However,  we know from past experience that any spare shelves will mysteriously fill up with objects we need to store, as well as objects that we keep because we are sure they will come in handy one day!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Karen & Alex

Mastering the wood splitter
Our latest helpers (via Helpx) were Alex and Karen who came from Hong Kong on a working holiday in Australia. They are in their early 20’s, were keen to learn about Australia and were very enthusiastic in giving us a hand with various tasks. Although they only stayed with us for eleven days they helped get much work done.

Some of the jobs they helped with, included clearing an area for a new orange tree (to be known as the Karelex orange - a blend of their names ), weeded many areas of the garden, shifted bricks and a pile of building timber, helped with our market stall, washed windows, cut back bushes that were blocking paths, mowed the grass in the orchard, shifted, split and stacked a large amount of firewood, helped out with most of the daily chores and more. Phew!!!
Weeding the asparagus with Ruby on guard!
Karen especially enjoyed collecting eggs (although she was not quite brave enough to collect them from under a sitting hen. She also made us a delicious meal of sushi, that was so tasty and beautifully presented that we ate it before we remembered to take a photo – so you will have to take our word for it.
Alex washing dishes
Of course they were very keen to meet the local native animals, and for once the animals cooperated. Whilst here, they had regular sightings of a pair of swamp wallabies (who are normally very secretive and shy) and also saw mobs of kangaroos, echidnas, a wombat, a goanna and many of our colourful parrots and other birds.

Helping with our market stall

The stay was not all work of course. We enjoyed each other’s company and spent much time laughing together. Ruby the dog thought they were wonderful because they took her for walks around our tracks each day. We also spent some time exploring a bit of the Yarra Valley including Maroondah Dam and Mt Dandenong. Once again we have enjoyed the company of some wonderful helpers and we hope both Karen and Alex enjoy the rest of their stay in Australia

On our way to the wall of Maroondah Dam

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Bump in the Road

It has been quite a while since we did a post on the blog.  Every now and again events conspire to distract us from our path, and then out of the blue things are suddenly different to what they were yesterday. This is probably not a bad thing, because it gives us a chance to catch our breath, slow down and enjoy our piece of “paradise” and reassess where we are going. It also gives us a chance to recharge our batteries.

About two months ago I pulled some muscles in my hip, which ended up giving me a constant low grade pain. We have a friend who did some damage to his shoulder and (as many people do) he couldn’t resist the temptation to keep working on tasks that needed doing. The result was more damage on top of the existing muscle tears. We didn’t want to take the risk of something similar happening. As my pain didn’t go away, even after a couple of weeks of rest, we basically put most of our gardening and building activities on hold.

At first I found this enforced rest, very hard to adapt to. And as much of the everyday workload had to be taken up by Heather she found it hard as well. The frustration of it all started to get us down, until Heather had a brainwave. She suggested we do something we hadn’t done in a long time - visit our local library and check out the fiction shelves. (Most of our reading over the past 10 years has been all about practical things like growing food or building things.) The visit to the library saved our sanity as we rediscovered the joys of reading novels. In fact we were going through several great stories each week- totally absorbed in the lives of the characters we were reading about. Whilst all this was going on, I went for a few tests to make sure my aches were nothing more than just strained muscles. The results all came back ok and this also helped take any pressure off our minds- it just became a waiting game.

One of the consequences of feeling a bit low and wanting to be distracted by other things is that we steered clear of our blog. It was too much of a reminder of the work that we had planned to do. We needed to have a break for a while and feel good about it.

Just over a week ago our next lot of Helpers from arrived;  just as the pain in my side was finally beginning to reduce.  They not only helped with many tasks – especially more heavy duty ones, but they also inspired us to put our “toe back in the water” and start getting back into action. We will write more about Karen and Alex in our next post.

Right now we are happy to report that things are getting back on track. We have started planting our summer garden, are getting stuck into some fire prevention work, are about to commence work on the remodelling of our barn ( and are feeling better about blogging again.  However this whole episode has left one legacy – we have now rediscovered the habit of getting absorbed in a good work of fiction. Each night (and even during the daytime sometimes if it is a particularly riveting story) we settle down to read before bed. In fact we’ll finish this post right here, because that is exactly what we are going to do right now!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sarah from Brunei

Over the past 12 months we have had many helpers from different countries. Our latest helper is Sarah, who is Australian, and has been living overseas with her family for over a decade.  At present she lives in Brunei, but also spent a few years in Dubai. One of the reasons she came to our place was to get some ideas about sustainable living and property design that her family could put into practice when they return to Australia in the future.
Sarah "liberating" broadbeans from the weeds

Sarah adjusted really well to the change in climate from tropical weather with temperatures in the thirties to temperatures here in the teens. She has been very helpful and although only here for a short time, has helped us out with many tasks. She helped set up and run our stall at the Healesville Organic Farmers’ Market on Saturday, thoroughly weeded our broad bean and garlic  patches (which were drowning in a sea of competitors) , planted and mulched a new garden of native plants and helped with daily chores.
Putting mulch around a new native garden

 It was such a pleasure meeting Sarah and sharing our lives for a time. As we worked, we chatted and laughed, and shared thoughts on how people could become more sustainable in their ways of life. We also learnt about life in Brunei and the Middle East

We feel really privileged to have people like Sarah come here.   We wish her all the best in the future and hope she finds her dream property when she eventually returns to the Land of Oz.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What we all need now, is an Epiphany!

There is much doom and gloom about, with daily news reports on climate change, global and local economic problems, social conflict and environmental disasters. All this negative news can be very depressing.

As individuals, we are limited in how much impact we can have on these issues. However we can make changes in our own lives, which minimise our own impact and build our resilience to enable us to better cope if and when things deteriorate. This is the hard part, because it means making an effort to evaluate our lifestyle, make decisions and then sticking to them.  Many people find this all too hard and use this as an excuse to do nothing. Maintaining the status quo is much easier.

The lightbulb moment!
Perhaps what we need is our own little “epiphany”. Sometimes it is referred to as the moment when a “lightbulb” goes on in your head- you suddenly see a solution to a problem. Such moments are so inspiring that they provoke people to take action.

Gavin, a blogger friend who was living a typical suburban life on the outskirts of Melbourne, had an epiphany in 2006.
His blog description says he was “An Ordinary Australian Man Who Has A Green Epiphany Whilst Watching A Documentary, Gets a Hybrid Car, Plants A Large Organic Vegetable Garden, Goes Totally Solar, Lowers Consumption, Feeds Composts Bins and Worms, Harvests Rainwater, Raises Chickens, Makes Cheese and Soap, and Eats Locally. All In The Effort To Reduce Our Family's Carbon Footprint So We Can Start Making A Difference For Our Children & Future Generations To Come.  
His description sounds daunting, but he achieved all this on a small suburban block and went on to write a very readable and educational blog about how it changed his life ( ).

Gavin's book is a great read
 We have been following Gavin’s blog for a couple of years and feel like we have got to know him quite well. We reckon his epiphany must have been more of a bolt of lightning than a light bulb going off in his head. We are continually amazed by the amount of energy he puts into his garden and property, his family, his many activities in the community, and his very active blog.  Apart from telling his own story, Gavin is on a mission to ensure others have access to the information he has gathered.

After over 1,000,000 pageviews (yes, that number is one million), he has now turned his story into a very readable e-book called “My First Year of Living Sustainably”. The book includes information drawn from his blog posts, but also has much additional background information. It also contains hundreds of brilliant ideas for saving energy and money, growing food, reducing waste, saving water and living more sustainably. Most of the ideas are not expensive or complex, are easy to implement and can be applied to both suburban and rural households

If you would like more information about the book, which only costs $2.99, here is the link ttp://  Hopefully Gavin’s book will be the trigger for many more epiphanies!
We salute you Gavin. Thankyou for sharing your journey. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Year of the Barn

At the same time as we erected our house frame in 1999, we put up the frame of our barn. Both buildings were roofed and then we focussed on getting the house finished so we could move in. The original plan was to finish off the barn after the house was completed. However, as is often the case with us, original plans tend to go astray.

Constructing the "barn" in 1999
As we have mentioned before, our main love is working on our gardens and producing beautiful, fresh, organic food. Once we had occupied our house we became obsessed with planting our gardens and orchard, and over the next thirteen years we planted nearly 200 fruiting trees and shrubs, established our large veggie gardens and planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs. All this activity distracted us from completing the barn, which sat idly by patiently waiting for us.

The "barn" patiently waiting....
At the same time as all this was going on, many of our visitors mentioned that the barn was too noble a building to use just for storage of materials. It was a building worthy of “bigger things”. After many years of thought and consideration we came up with a plan which would enable the barn to reach its true destiny.
Gradually an idea evolved -  to finish the barn as a building that would:-
  • Be a passive solar design with low energy needs (similar to our house)
  • Enable us to use it as a practical example for introducing people to permaculture design principles.
  • Enable visitors to experience the pro’s and con’s living off the grid using renewable energy and other sustainable features
The time has now come to put a plan into action- to actually make a start ........ 2012 is the YEAR OF THE BARN!
The retaining wall at the back
We have already excavated around the outside to level the area and ensure water drains away from the building, and erected a retaining wall at the back to prevent the constant erosion of the earth bank and this is now ready to plant out with groundcovers. We have ordered mud bricks to complete the walls, installed termite protection and put down the infill concrete slab floor.

Car jacks were used to lift
posts for termite protection

We have spent some time deliberating over what to actually call this building, to distinguish it from the other buildings at Tenderbreak (which include the house, small old shed, new steel barn and steel garage).
It could have been called the Interpretation Centre (its official title according to the local council, but we feel this is far too formal), The Lodge (too pretentious), The Shack (too ignoble), the Cabin (too plain) or many other names. In the end we decided on a very unoriginal name, but meaningful to us. We are calling it (drumroll.......) 
“Tenderbreak Cottage”!

Keep an eye on future posts to follow the rest of the story.

PS. We are running a tour of Tenderbreak in conjunction with Sustainable House Day on September 9. See our last post for details.

Friday, August 17, 2012

National Sustainable House Day 2012

National Sustainable House Day is celebrating its 11th birthday this year on September 9. This annual event is held Australia wide and gives people the chance to visit houses that have been designed, built or fitted out with sustainability in mind and talk to owners, receiving unbiased advice.
As was the case last year, we are running a tour of Tenderbreak Permaculture Farm as an ancillary event to Sustainable House Day.

Our summer garden
Features explored on our tours include:-
  • Passive solar house design using thermal mass to control temperature
  • Earth bermed walls, mudbrick construction and radial sawn timber
  • Oat roller and home motorised grain grinder
  • Designing houses to resist fire & numerous bushfire defence systems including a fire shelter
  • Solar power system that provides power to our house (No mains grid connection)
  • Grey and black water worm farm treatment system.
  • Wood stove for cooking, heating, ironing and hot water supply
  • Fresh water and garden irrigation reticulation systems
  • Large organic veggie garden and use of compost to build soil depth from 10mm to 300mm.
  • Seed saving and companion planting.
  • Organic orchard with over 100 varieties of fruiting trees and bushes
  • Less common plants include yakon, medlar, lemonade tree, white sapote, shatoot mulberry
  • Our flocks of free range hens and ducks
  • Fences, gates, trellises, hothouse and outbuildings made from recycled materials.
  • Our plans to use a steam engine as a back-up power supply for our solar system
  • Fish stocked multifunction dam, and much more
One of our tours
Our property is in the Yarra Valley, 65km from Melbourne. If you would like to join our tour you are very welcome. Bookings are essential as we have a limit of 20 people. The tour runs from 1:30 to 4:30 and the $15 per adult cost includes afternoon tea. Email us for more information at

If you cannot make it on that day, email us, and we will let you know when the next tour is on.
Of course there are plenty of houses open on the day in every state in Australia. Details of these can be found on NSHD website .

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Busy Winter

For the third year in a row we are experiencing a wet winter. After around 10 years of drought we are not complaining, but are finding it takes longer to get some jobs done.
However, with the help of Jeff (see our last post) we have still managed to complete a number of tasks that needed doing.  Many of these were listed in the last post, but we also painted the battery room, did quite a bit of work on our barn conversion (see future post) and paved the back area of our large shed (using secondhand pavers) which means we no longer have to trudge across the clay to gain access.

Sadly, Jeff has now left Tenderbreak to continue his Australian trip and will shortly return to China.  We did manage to fit in a bit more sight-seeing, including a trip to Heathcote where we visited Sally and Liss. Although the kangaroos at our place kept out of sight, there were plenty around the Heathcote township, giving Jeff a chance to get some great photos. 

We also visited our friend Pete the Permie to buy a heritage apple tree. We chose Opalescent, which happens to be our favourite eating apple. Whilst there, we showed Jeff around Peter and Silvia’s nursery and farm. He really enjoyed meeting the sheep and especially the Llama.

Before he left, Jeff wrote a message on the supporting post that he helped install in the chook pen. Although the message is in Chinese, he put the translation on the other side. We wish Jeff all the best for the future and perhaps one day we will meet up again.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Our New Helper Jeff

Our latest helper (via Helpx) is Jeff, who is on a holiday in Australia, after finishing his degree in China. However it is not much of a restful break, because he has very kindly helped us out with many tasks. Normally at this time of year, most helpers head north to keep away from our cold Victorian winters. But when we told Jeff that temperatures can drop to zero on some nights, he replied that where he has come from, the temperatures can drop to minus 17 and snowy conditions prevail for months on end. Our winter was mild in comparison!

After a short visit to some Chinese friends in Springvale and Strathmerton, Jeff travelled out to our place. He has been very busy ever since. Some of the jobs he helped with, include digging out and mulching an old blackwood tree, weeding and mulching the garden, shifting mudbricks, replacing a post that held up the chook house roof, collecting trailer loads of old bricks and transporting them home, helping with our market stall, covering our hot house with plastic sheeting, cutting back vegetation that was encroaching on the drive, shifting a piles of gravel and earth, digging drains, jackhammering a hole in a brick wall, mowing grass, helping out with most of the daily chores and more.

Jeff is keen to learn about Australia, its culture, our food and of course permaculture. We have spent many evenings discussing these things and for us learning more about China. He has a very good appetite and has enthusiastically eaten a wide range of meals that differ greatly from his normal diet. In fact he has not only eaten them, he has often taken photographs of our meals. We jokingly told him he could turn his photos into a cookery book. Jeff has even adopted our habit of starting the day with a bowl of porridge- in fact at the moment he is our chief oat roller. The only food he cannot cope with, is the one that most visitors to Australia find hard to take- vegemite!

Of course he is very keen to meet the local native animals, but so far they have been very uncooperative- only the wombats have been out and about. However, while he was shifting some mud bricks he did uncover a baby (40cm) snake (deep in hibernation mode). After that, we took over shifting the rest of the bricks, just in case the snake’s parents were around. Fortunately, all we found was one other baby, and we made sure both reptiles were safely transported away from our buildings to “snake corner” where they were released.

The stay is not all work of course. When possible we have managed to explore a bit of the Yarra Valley and taken the dogs for walks around our tracks. So far we have visited Healesville, the local tourist railway line, Maroondah Dam, William Ricketts Sanctuary, the Skyhigh scenic viewing area on top of Mt Dandenong and we spent a day exploring the Mornington Peninsula.

Jeff has made good friends with our dog Bluey and Ruby (a dog we are dog-sitting for a friend). In the photo above, you can see Jeff testing out a Chinese saying that says “if you ride a dog, it will rain on your wedding day”. Hopefully the saying won’t come true!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Winter and porridge are a marriage made in heaven

In a strange coincidence (or was it?), The Age newspaper ran an excellent article devoted to the joys of eating porridge, just eight days after we did the post about rolling our own oats. The report by Carli Ratcliff is titled “Wild Oats” (see it here )

Oat porridge with sultanas and freshly grated ginger
The article is largely about the popularity of different types of porridge in various Sydney fashionable eateries (apparently it is “all the rage” at the moment). There are plenty of excellent suggestions for spicing up the traditional recipe, but the article does have a few oversights.

It doesn’t mention adding freshly grated ginger (as well as a range of dried fruits) which we reckon is one of the best ways to make a top class porridge. Surprisingly it doesn’t mention the benefits (let alone the possibility) of rolling your own oats.

Other ingredients we often add to our oats include apple, sultanas, goji berries, dried apricots, various nuts and seeds and honey. 
Rice porridge with fruit, nuts, seeds, yoghurt and honey
Sometimes for variety we have brown rice and to this we add sultanas, and sprinkle on top sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds as well as walnuts, macadamias and stewed apple or any other stewed fruit that we have at the time. As we haven’t been eating meat we also add quinoa when cooking the rice as this gives us protein.  Last but not least a dollop of plain yoghurt right on top and there it is .....our delicious breakfast.

Although the article promotes biodynamic oats, it is worth noting that even biodynamic and organic oats may have been pre-steamed to remove the natural oils to give them a longer shelf life. The best way to ensure you are getting all the goodness of the whole grain is to freshly roll your own.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Grinding our own Flour

Our last post told about our wonderful oat roller. As that purchase worked out so well, the next experiment on our grain processing journey was to purchase a wheat grinder. Once again we did some research, but our purchase this time was not as smooth running.
Retsel Hand Powered Wheat Mill
We wanted to keep things as simple as possible and decided on a hand cranked wheat grinder called Little Ark, purchased from Retsel in Dandenong, as a 60th birthday present for Heather.  One reason we chose this model was because we were told it could be attached to an electric motor if we wanted to go down that path in the future. The package, which included the handmill, steel grinders, stone grinders, 2 pulleys and a v-belt was fairly pricey, but the machine was a simple well-engineered design.

When we got home we eagerly unpacked the unit and put it together. In our minds we could already smell the beautiful aroma of bread baked from our very own freshly milled grain. We soon found out that it took far too long to mill enough flour for a cake by hand (and was very tiring as well).
The motorisation kit

So we set about converting the Little Ark to a motorised unit. We had all the gear necessary except for the motor (A very important component). We had been told that the cheapest source of a motor was to extract one from an old washing machine. Often people throw out machines with good motors when they start leaking, when the electronics that control the washing cycles fail or perhaps the gears seize up. I confidently told Heather that we would pick one up from the side of the road within the next few weeks.
Our second hand washing machine motor

In Victoria, we have a wonderful system of recycling called roadside collections. Each Shire has their own system, but generally it involves residents putting unwanted household goods on the roadside for collection by contractors (who hopefully recycle them). Although it is frowned upon by some, these collections are a goldmine for people like us, who have an obsession for re-using things. We spent the next month scouring roadsides on every trip we made. We came across every conceivable type of household product but no washing machines. Suddenly old machines were as rare as hen’s teeth!

We kept looking over the next few months and eventually came across one. We took it apart, attached the motor and turned on the power. To our relief the motor happily turned the grinder. However when we placed grains into the hopper, the motor didn’t have enough torque to turn the stones that ground the wheat. It just stopped. It was time to begin our search again, but this time for a stronger motor.
Our grain processing bench with storage shelves 

Over the next twelve months we came across several more machines. In each case we ran into problems. Usually it took around half an hour to get the motor out before we found out what the problem was. Some didn’t work, others were not strong enough, whilst others had shafts that were too big for our pulley wheel. It was important for the motor to have a small pulley on it which then drives a larger one on the grinder to gear the process down so that grinding stones are not turning too fast. If the grinding surfaces turn too fast, the stones and the wheat become too hot and the flour quality is severely reduced.

In an act of desperation we called into a shop that sold second-hand washing machines, thinking they might be able to help us source the perfect motor for our job. This idea came to an abrupt halt when they told us that for many years washing machine technology has advanced beyond the sort of motors we were looking at. Our only hope was to pick up an old machine with a suitable motor.
The grain mill in action -how easy is that!

By now we had almost given up on the project and the grinder was packed away. However, by chance we mentioned our dilemma to Heather’s brother Graham and he said he might be able to help. He took us down to his shed and pointed out a shelf at the back. There, underneath a few other things were two electric motors. Suddenly our grain grinder dreams were reawakened.

These motors were larger than the ones we had tried before so everything looked promising. We found some brackets to hold the motor in place, and rigged them up so we could slide the motor along  to tension the drive belt. We flicked the switch and tipped some grain into the hopper. It worked well at first- a bit too well. The stones were turning too fast, and then they stopped. The big pulley on the grinder was slipping on its axle.

This was a whole new problem. To solve it we had to get the pulley off the drive shaft. No matter how hard we banged it, it wouldn’t budge. So once again we lost our enthusiasm.

Freshly milled flour
By now Heather’s 61st birthday had passed but she still dreamed of a day when we would be grinding our own flour. Then one wet day when we didn’t have anything else to do, she suggested we have another go at getting it working. This time after a few well placed whacks the pulley came off. The slipping problem was a result of the small worm screw in the hub of the pulley not aligning with the flat spot on the shaft. Out came a file and a new flat spot was created and the whole lot put together. We added an old light switch to the circuitry to allow us to turn it on safely and away it went. To slow it down we placed an intermediary pulley in between the other two. This brought the rate down to about 100 turns per minute which is just right.

For a very professional finish, all the gear was mounted onto a solid bench (discarded by a member of the family) that also holds our oat roller. We turned the drawer space underneath into a convenient storage area for grains and equipment. The final modification needed was a cover to fit over the grinding stones to direct the falling flour downwards (instead of flying sideways). Heather made one out of an old ice cream contatiner and it works a treat.
Time for coffee and cake (made out of fresh flour of course)
Wonder of wonders now a cup of flour takes only a couple of minutes to grind and this is far less tiring than doing it by hand. It is all 18 months late, but at last Heather has got her birthday present. Perhaps we should start working on her 62nd birthday present now- she might just get it by the time her birthday, comes around in 2 months time!

PS. We purchased our Survival Ark Mill from Retsel in Dandenong. Their web address is

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