Home Compost Booklet

We are pleased to finally be able to share this little bit of news with you. This year we were lucky to work with the City of Hobart and local illustrator Rachel Tribout to create this free booklet all about Home Composting!

As part of their Zero Waste Strategy, we’ve been collaborating with the City of Hobart to run free compost workshops for hundreds of Hobart folk this year – 420 folks to be exact over six workshops. Half way though these, we decided to turn my student notes into a proper awesome book to make them more accessible and beautiful. This is the result which you can now download for free from the Council website.  

And here’s a little peak inside some of the pages…

It’s our hope that this free resource helps people get started, or keep going in composting some (or all) of their food scraps at home. Because turning kitchens scraps into garden gold (i.e. nutrient-dense compost) at home is easy and darn effective in building soil health, preventing methane gases harming our atmosphere and helps store carbon in the ground. Plus it’ll give you enormous satisfaction in participating in the wonderful world of food and nutrient cycling – it’s a good feeling, trust me.

 

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Our Compost Station

The stuff of dreams this is. We’ve been talking about it for quite some time and we finally finished it. Introducing our dream Compost Station.

FYI – that rogue chook shouldn’t be there

We’ve got humanure bays, a compost bin, worm farm, chickens and goat systems all clustered into one compact, pretty spot and it’s awesome. Why is it so awesome?

It’s wonderfully efficient having all these systems in one place. We can just go to one place to drop off food scraps, humanure and animal manures into various compost options. When I harvest chook or goat poo from the neighbouring yard, it’s dead easy as it’s all on the same contour and I only have to move it a leisurely 1m – 10m. So good.

The worm farm also functions as a seat so we can hang out and watch the goats in comfort (we like to do that a lot). Plus it’s rodent proof, being built from a enamel bath and hardwood frame. You can see a photo journey of it’s construction below.

Anton showing off the false floor needed for drainage, made from reo and shadecloth. 

Worm bedding is then placed directly on top. We’re using half composted straw, nice and moist for the worms.

You can then add chopped up food scraps straight top (and the compost worms)

A layer of damp cardboard (or a hessian sack or woollen blanket) keeps the flies away and moderates temperate and moisture. 

You can read more about building your own worm farm seat (or potting bench) here and what compost worms are here.

The humanure (from the compost toilets) system is ergonomic, tidy and safe with no lifting or handling of raw poo/wee. We’ve got a number of wheelie bins retrofitted to be the chamber for an inside compost toilet. There’s a tap on the bottom of each bin which directs all urine to underground infiltration system – very similar to what’s being done here. Once a bin’s full, it’s swapped for an empty one and the full bin sits in on of the bays until it’s composted for approximately 6 months (that’s what those two green bins are doing). Once ready, it’s then transferred into this new bay where it finishes the composting process with compost worms. At this point there’s no unpleasant smell at all, it’ll stay here for another 6 months or so at which point it’ll return to our orchards. Wheelie bin toilets are awesome – check out Natural Event and The Humanure Handbook for more inspiration.

Edit: You also need to know that we have a flush toilet and that this compost toilet is optional, not for public use and all inputs highly monitored :-). 

There’s not much in it at the moment, but it’ll build up over time. The front timber panels can be removed one by one for ergonomic access. 

Tree prunings we harvest for our goats can be stored easily while they wait to be chipped and put back onto the garden or into the goat/chook run. We harvest weedy Cotoneaster daily for them from our local forest and cycle the carbon back into our landscape once the goat’s have stripped all leaves off the branches. Until now, I’ve been make awkward piles of sticks and branches which get in the way of everyone and thing, not any more. That one cross piece you can see across the front is to help contain them.

The compost bin is rodent proof with a layer of vermin mesh added to its bottom to stop rodents creeping in. You can read and see how we did this here. 

The black bin to the right of the worm farm below is full of dry, brown carbon materials to add to the compost bin and occasionally into the worm farm if needed. Having a stash of ready-to-go carbon on hand helps your compost experience be a successful one as if you only put food scraps into a compost bin you’ll create an anaerobic disaster.

It’s beautiful. Built from salvaged corrugated iron from the local Tip Shop and hardwood timber from a local person’s bush block, it’s completely gorgeous. Why hide your compost bin/system behind the back shed where it’s cold and dark (and you never want to go) when you could integrate it into the hub of your garden?

One of the permaculture principles is “produce no waste”. While a lot of the success with this principle is wrapped up in reducing consumption, it also questions what we do with the waste we produce – this Compost Station is part of our answer for our property. Every morning I drink my morning cuppa staring out the window at this gorgeous creation of efficiency and nutrient cycling heaven.

Special thanks to Anton who built it for me – the ultimate expression of love.

Wondering what we do about large hot compost piles?

  • We like to make hot compost piles in different spots around the garden to benefit different patches of soil – once it’s mature we just spread the compost in place which is easier. So they’re a moving feast that we only make in Spring and Summer when we have bulk garden waste from crops we’re pulling out.
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Charcoal & Cheese

As the seasons turn, we are changing our cheesemaking.  Over winter our outside “cheese room” (rodent proof metal cage with a towel over the top) worked quite well.  But as the weather warms, the hard cheese wants a cooler life and have migrated to the fridge. We’re now finding that our home is the perfect temperature for making soft cheese, including a few types with a funky white fur coat.

We’ve been turning a basic curd or a long acid set Chevre cheese into these fluffy little pillows of joy  (they call these Crottin in French , another name for little turd).  And to up the anty, they are coated in our own charcoal from this years fruit tree prunings… lets see what we did.

The Curd

We make cheese from our goat’s milk and are making this particular cheese like our feta (see here for details).  We are also adding some white cheese culture Penicillium candidum as the milk ripens.  After the curd has set, ie reached the “clean break” stage, we ladle the curd into little moulds.  The remainder of the curd we turn into feta or whatever cheese we are making.  The P. candidum will only thrive in the correct moisture, temperature and Ph, so it wont effect other cheese styles

The curds are turned a few time as they drain.  This takes around 24 hours and 4 flips/turns.  The more they are turned, the less likely they are to stick in the mould.

Each little cheese is covered in 1 teaspoon of salt and air dried for another 24 hours

The cheeses are covered in a thin layer of charcoal (often referred to as ash, but really its charcoal).  The charcoal is sifted over the cheese.  Its purpose, once upon a time was to stop flies, but nowadays it adds a funky stripe in the finished cheese, a pinch of crunch and some smokiness to the flavour

We then cover the cheeses in a glass bowl and leave in a shady part of the house for around 3 days.  Over this time you’ll see the white mould (P.candidum) colonising the cheese.

The Charcoal

Here’s how we prepared some nice, even and tasty “food grade” charcoal.  The first step was collecting some wood.  We used our fruit tree prunings because (a) they are fruit trees (b) they were handy and in a clean pile of relatively same sized year old growth.  The wood was chopped with secateurs’ into a “camp oven” (that’s what they call them around here anyway).  It’s a cast iron pot with a close fitting lid, used for cooking dinner or bread over an open fire

We used some varied sizes, but in the future I will try to stick to branches of a consistent dimension, around 7-10mm diameter works well

Then I put the whole pot in the fire place before going to bed.  As you can see the coals were well burnt down.

Overnight the wood undergoes a process called “slow pyrolysis”.  That is the wood is heated in a “low oxygen” environment and all the water and volatile organic compounds are removed in the process.  The end charcoal is close to pure carbon.  This process is the same as making biochar, and this simple method could make those winter fireside evenings a little bit more productive if I made 10L of biochar an evening

As you can see the charcoal still has the wood characteristics, shape and even growth rings and “carbon buds”

To make the cheese ash we smashed it in the mortar and pestle.

And sifted out the chunky bits and then stored in a dry jar for later use.

The cheese

Here’s one crottin in the photo to the right about 2 weeks old (with our friend Thea’s home made salami).

These little nuggets get eaten pretty quick.  Fun fact:  The standard curds develop a runny center like a brie cheese.  Those made with a Chevre (acid long set curd) stay smooth and creamy.  Enjoy this cheesy magic!

 

 

 

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An Urban Permaculture Home

A beautiful photo story of an urban home Jane Hilliard from Designful and I (Hannah) designed together and that’s just been finished!

But first a little “before” photo. The site was 97% grass with an old double car garage (which was replaced with the small house), a few raised garden beds growing rosemary and weeds, one gloriously old and special apricot tree and a couple of dead’ish fruit trees.

The clients were a grandmother, her daughter and her two teenage kids all lived together in the main house and wanted to build a small house for grandma to move into so they can all grow old *together*. They wanted no grass, a low maintenance edible and beautiful garden. You can see the design we completed for them and read their vision statement below.

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Vision statement: “Our urban garden is productive, low maintenance and beautiful. It is where we forage for food, enjoy the view and each other’s company.”

This is what guided us throughout the design process to create this…

The central bed beneath the existing apricot tree has a baby food forest planted in it – this a multilayered, perennial plant system. This includes layers of white sage shrubs, globe artichokes, comfrey, a border of sweet alice flowers and a groundcover of prostrate rosemary. I’m looking forward to seeing it in 12 months time when it’ll be a flurry of thriving green layers!

The raised veggie beds on the left are for annual vegetables and the fence directly behind them has cable wire which the young passionfruit vines will grow up and along – soaking up the hot sun hitting the fence. On the far right are some existing rose bushes with a floral understory of mixed daisies – yes, even permaculture values flowers of all types for beauty and the bees (they need to eat too).

The bed with the steeping stones is also based off a food forest model with ground covers of mixed edible herbs, sweet alice flowers, mixed currants, native Hardenbergia vine growing up the funky vertical structure and one blueberry shrub (out of shot). The Hardenbergia will eventually create some “soft” privacy between the two homes, creating different garden spaces/rooms.

A baby native Hardenbergia

This bed leads around the west side of the house to the communal compost station shared between the two houses.

Where you’ll find this worm farm made from a recycled bath and hardwood timber.

The northern patio area (seen below) welcomes sunlight into the house and creates a warm, protected microclimate to grow grape vines up the fence line and eventually beneath the laserlite roofing. This will provide summer shade (and food) while still allowing winter sun into the space once the grape’s drop their leaves in late autumn/early winter.

Baby grapes getting ready to grow up that whole fence!

The paths are intentionally generous to allow for easy movement between the two houses and visiting grandkids to run and ride their bikes round and round and round.

The new gate cut into the side of the existing fence to access the new small house is just so special and inviting…

You walk straight into this…

The site that welcomes the residents home every day.

Me with Danny Lees and Sam (from Earth and Wood), being our best smiley selves – eating cake with one of the delightful clients to celebrate completion.

  • Special thanks to Jordan Davis for the photos.
  • If you’re looking for a skilled and friendly landscaper trained in permaculture, talk to Danny from Earth and Wood: 0468 667 633 (website coming soon).
  • For more information on the building side of things, contact Designful.
  • If you’d like to work with us to design your house and landscape, drop us a line at hello@goodlifpermaculture.com.au
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Tagasaste (tree lucerne): Friend or Foe?

Tagasaste or tree lucerne (Cytisus proliferus), is a small evergreen tree that grows 3-6m high (depending on soil and rain) and is a popular plant for people looking to regenerate poor soils and feed livestock.  It’s indigenous to the dry volcanic slopes of the Canary Islands and was introduced to Australia some time around 1879 when seeds where sent from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England to the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

Image from Pastures Australia

It has a varied reputation across Australia. While some farmers and land holders love it and swear by it for its incredible ability to grow in the shittiest of shittiest soils and provide nutritious fodder for their livestock – others dedicate their lives to removing what can become an invasive species if left unmanaged. So if you’re looking to start a lively conversation with folks who only want natives in Australia, this plant will deliver just that.

Permaculture has some baggage around spreading weeds. I’ve heard people say things like “permaculture is nothing but a strategy to spread weeds” and “permaculture gardeners are messy, they’re just propagating invasive species and they’re so lazy they let them get out of control.”

I’m sure sometimes this has been true. But I bet $5 (I’m not loaded) that when it comes to spreading invasive plants, I reckon ornamental gardeners have more to answer to than permaculture gardeners. I write this as I look out across a hillside of “native” bush which has thick understory of cotoneaster. A local who’s lived here since the 1960s told me that after the devastating 1967 fires that literally burnt most of Hobart, cotoneaster was one of the few plants that thrived in a burnt landscape, so ornamental gardeners planted it. Fast forward to now and it has firmly integrated itself into our whole peri-urban bushland – it’s become naturalised. I should know, as every day I harvest large branches of it for our goats. That and hawthorn – the other ornamental weed that’s making itself at home in local bushlands.

But this is not a blog about who’s a worse gardener or land holder. It’s a little dive into our relationship with plants and how we respond to the inevitable traveling of plants from one continent to another and the naturalisation that occurs after plants exist for decades, thriving in particular climates and soils.

I sit on the fence with this one. We live in urban Hobart where plants such as ornamental weeds including cotoneaster, willow, ivy, privet, and mirror bush (to name a few) are fostered in private gardens. As small-town-Hobart is also tightly hugged by bush, there are also a range of “environmental weeds” such as gorse, tagasaste and boneseed that *pop up everywhere*. I do believe that to remove all these weeds is impossible now. Their seeds are in the soil waiting for the right conditions to grow. Most, if not all – have naturalised, meaning they’re here to stay and now it’s up to us in how we respond to them.

Before we go any further, let me be very clear that I do not advocate actively introducing ornamental or environmental weeds into areas that don’t have them. For example properties neighbouring national parks, wild grasslands, pristine coastlines or vibrant water ways should be protected and maintained for the precious, unique ecosystems that they are. For these places, the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE)  promote planting native “tagasaste alternatives” to get a similar function, specifically Prickly box (Bursaria spinosa) and hop bush (Dodonaea viscosa) in dry areas and local Tasmanian native acacias for high rainfall areas.

But for urban and peri-urban areas where weeds are naturalised, wouldn’t it be interesting to look at how we can co-exist and evolve side and side? Again, I’m dead keen on maintaining native biodiversity *everywhere*. I’m just not keen on spending the rest of my life poisoning weedy plants in the name of native is best and everything else must die. 

So what do we do in our own garden? Tagasaste has popped up everywhere. We pulled out most the baby trees as we don’t need 1000 of them. However, we saved around 10 and interplanted them between our fruit and nut trees to act as nurse trees for the next 5-10 years or so. Nurse tree functions vary, in this case the tagasaste is fixing nitrogen into the soil (improving its health) and growing more quickly than the fruit and nut trees – therefore providing eventual wind protection (we have gnarly winds). As a major side bonus, they’re already providing fodder for our goats who love the fresh branches and leaves. You can see its nutritional benefits for livestock outlined below.

Comparison of tagasaste foliage with other common stock feeds

Chart from Permaculture Plants, Jeff Nugent & Juilia Boniface – sorry about the bad scan. 

Let it be know this is the only “environmental weed” we’ve actively fostered on our property. I’m always pulling out baby boneseed and gorse. We happen to have inherited an old windbreak made up on cotoneasta and pittosporum which we’ve chosen to keep due to those gnarly winds I mentioned above. Other than this, we plant only natives and fruit/nut trees and diverse shrubs.

So is tagasaste a friend or foe? I love and respect all plants and all unique ecosystems.  At the end of the day it comes down to your environmental and social context. In our case, tagasaste is a friend, but a bloody well managed one.

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Cold Frame Gardening

Recently, we built a much anticipated, beautiful bit of infrastructure for our garden – a cold frame.

This is a welcome addition to any cool temperate garden, where we’re all constantly working on creating warm microclimates to extend our season to get tomatoes earlier and longer, reliable eggplants and abundant basil.

Cold frames can be really compact and small, so are also a great option for people who don’t have a large enough space for a hot house or polytunnel. We still have plans for a hot house one day (specifically for oranges and bulk ginger), but in the meantime we have this 7m x 1m cold frame for annual vegetables and herbs.

What did we build it from & where did we locate it?

We built it from green (fresh) hardwood timber from a lovely bloke’s bush block in Franklin (southern Tasmania) and polycarbonate sheeting.

We located it up against a north facing rock wall (south facing for folks in the northern hemisphere) so it soaks up the hot sun and acts as thermal mass, retaining the heat for longer to benefit the crops growing  in front of it.

Things to know about building with hardwood timber for garden beds

  • Eventually it will rot – but not for around 10 years (approximately).
  • If you can access it and afford it, Cypress macrocarpa timber is the most durable timber to use in the landscape. We couldn’t afford it, so are using a mixture of Eucalyptus trees.
  • To extend the timber’s lifespan, you can line the sleepers with non-toxic plastic to prevent direct contact between the timber and soil. While not shown in these photos (sorry) this is what we’ve done.
  • We’ve built the frame so the timber sleepers can be removed and replaced as needed.
  • The actual frame has separate timber pickets on each upright to stabilise the whole frame (seen in photo above right). Eventually we’ll replace these with steel star pickets – again to extend the life of the frame.
  • You could just not use timber and use bricks/stone for the edging and steel for the frame with concrete footings – all maximum durability! We’re just using what we have available to us.

Once the whole frame is built, we aerated the soil with a broadfork – just use a standard garden fork if that’s all you have.

After this aerating process, we put down a layer of cardboard to slow weeds coming back (they *will* come) and then a good layer of top soil around 200mm deep to match the height of the sleepers and a sprinkle of compost on top.

And then we plant!

Normally people in Tasmania plant their tomatoes after “show day”, October 25th. Traditionally this is when you can safely say there’ll be no more frost – although occasionally there’ll be a “freak” frost. This year we planted a small batch of tomatoes on September 21st. One whole month early – we have big smiles on our face in anticipation of eating tomatoes sooner rather than later. We have another batch of tomatoes we’ll plant after show day in different open air garden beds.

In another few weeks, we’ll plant basil seedlings all around these tomatoes to make use of all the available space.

Importantly, the lids can open at different heights to let small or large amounts of air in. This is important as on hot, sunny days you need to ensure that air flow is maintained, otherwise there’s the risk of fostering fungal diseases.

As we get really strong winds at our house we put a lock on each lid. One year our whole broccoli crop was literally blown out of the ground – so we take our wind-proofing pretty seriously around here. You can see our lock of choice to the right.

Eating with the seasons is a wonderful way to eat. That first tomato of the season tastes really *amazing* after 6 months of no fresh tomatoes. But this little bit of infrastructure reduces that waiting time – some might call it cheating, we just call it clever :-).

Edit (March 2019) – If you would like to see how our cold frame went for its first season, read our other blog here. 

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How To Make Bees Wax Wraps!

We’ve been using beeswax wraps for quite a while now and like them so much we decided to start making our own.  We’ve tried two approaches, the first just 100% beeswax from our beehives and the second with beeswax, pine resin and olive oil.  The wax and resin makes a  better wrap, albeit with a bit more work… Tally ho, here’s what we did.

Beeswax is harvested from our bees.  We melt the harvested wax with water then sieve through a sieve then muslin.  Let set and drain off the water, This leaves fairly clean beeswax. You can also just go buy some.

That yucky wax and cappings and occasionally dead bee turns into clean wax, ready to be grated.

Frida – getting in on the action 🙂

100% Beeswax Wrap

We experimented with simply grating beeswax on some cloth and putting it in the oven.  Simple, a beeswax wrap.

This works, however it’s as sticky as we’d like it, being unable to mould and stick to complex shapes.  That said its good enough to keep a blue cheese in a carefully colour-coded blue wrap.

The Pine Resin (rosen) Wrap

Enter the beeswax and resin wrap.  Mixing beeswax, pine resin and a bit of olive oil creates a superior wrap.  The method is fairly strait forward.

  • 5 parts beeswax
  • 5 parts rosin
  • 1 part olive oil

Pine Resin is  the sap of pine trees that is used as part of its healing process.  You can harvest your own which we tried by visiting various pine trees in the hood and scraping dried globules of wax.  It was pretty slow going for me (not that many pine trees around here) and harvested around 50 grams in an hour.  At some point, I decided to go and buy some from the art supply store for $50 for 500 grams. Enough to last us a loooong time.

The wax, resin and olive oil is is placed in a jar or saucepan in a double boiler (another saucepan of water).  It takes a few hours for the whole mass to incorporate.  The pine resin forms a toffee like texture for a while before dissolving into the wax.

Once the mixture is melted and combined it can be used immediately or stored for later, simply re-melt at a later point.

Fun Fact – beeswax and pine resin makes ….pine salve, apparently good for wounds and abrasions

The fabric.  We searched the material box and also scoured the tip-shop for nice cotton scraps (thanks to our friend Tom who works there).  We washed the cotton and dried each piece of material.

To apply the wax mixture we used a paint brush to paint onto the cotton.  Under each section of cotton we put some greaseproof paper to stop it sticking to the table.

On some materials the wax mixture did not penetrate the material.  We placed each wrap in the oven at 100 degrees C for around 5 minutes.  This let the wax mix fully into the wrap.

Afterwards we trimmed the rough edges of the wraps to clean them up a bit

How cool is this stuff.  Its tacky, its sticky, it moulds to shape and holds in place.  Oh, it smells kinda nice too, a bit like a sauna 😊  Maybe we should make some for christmas presents?

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Broad Bean Rust

Our little broad bean crop has rust caused by the pathogen Uromyces viciae-fabae. I noticed it weeks ago and despite my best intentions, didn’t get around to treating it in its early stages.

Where does it come from? Generally from infected seed. We did introduce some new seed this year and suspect it came from here. However, it also travels on wind – so it could arrive from your neighbour’s garden. Prevention of rust includes making sure there’s good air flow in the crop, having clean seed and treating it as early as possible.

Two DIY treatment options include spraying the infected plants with 1 part milk to 10 parts water – this is the same mix used on powdery mildew for zucchinis, cucumbers and other members of the cucurbit family. The second option is mixing up 2 litres of water, adding a few drops of vegetable oil (or other type of oil), a couple of drops of dishwashing liquid and 4 teaspoons of bicarb. Mix well and spray on infected plants. The bicarb soda makes the leaves alkaline which can prevent fungal spore development.

Importantly, you need to apply these treatments when its not raining heavily (or about to) so they have a chance of sticking around on the plant surface long enough to be effective.

This diagram on the left from Agriculture Victoria outlines the life cycle of the rust and really emphasises the importance of having clean seed to prevent it from recurring season after season.

We wont save any seed for planting from this crop. Instead will harvest what we can, eat the beans (fresh and dried) and make sure the plant matter is taken out of our nutrient cycling systems in our property. We’re fortunate to have a local council with a commercial composting facility – this is where we take any diseased plants as their large, hot composting eradicates any pathogens so aren’t passed on into the mature compost product. 

As our plants are predominantly being impacted at their base, I’m hoping the hundreds of flowers up top have a chance to turn into beans before too much rust spreading occurs. Fingers crossed.

We’d love to hear about any treatment options you’ve had success with – so comment below to share the goodness :-).

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How To Rodent-Proof Your Compost Bin

If you’ve got unwanted rodents living in your compost bin a simple and effective way of keeping them out is by adding vermin mesh onto the bottom of it.

Vermin mesh (aka rodent mesh)  is made from thick wire (around 2mm) and has small squares that baby rodents can’t squeeze through. While it does start to rust after 5 years or so, it’s an effective way of composting food scraps without inviting all the rodents in your neighbourhood to move in at the same time.

Vermin mesh

The first step is to pick up some vermin mesh from your local hardware shop – we got it in a roll of 5m as we know we’ll use it for bits and pieces around our property. Some shops will sell it by the metre – just call around until you find the best place.

Roll it out, place your compost bin on top of it and cut off the right amount you need, keeping a few inches available around the whole bin.

Next up, cut the vermin mesh into a rough circle shape and then simply start folding the mesh over the edges of the compost bin.

I used my boots to help press it down firmly. It doesn’t have to be perfect – just strong enough that it grips onto the edge, which is really easy. You want to be able to take it off again (when your compost’s mature) so I made it reasonably loose.

And that’s it! So quick and easy. The only tools you need are some good wire cutters.

From here you can locate your compost bin somewhere convenient in your garden. We’ve placed ours near our chooks and goats who we feed every morning, this makes it easy for us to place food scraps in there on the same trip – effeciency plus!

You can also dig the compost bin into the soil 200mm to create another barrier to the rodents from getting in – but generally the vermin mesh is enough to do the job. 

As you can see below, we’ve got a second bin with a lid on it to store dry carbon materials. This makes it easy for us to add a small bucket of carbon with each bucket of food scraps that goes in. We also make sure we chop up our food scrasp to the size of a 20 cent coin to help them break down more quickly.

For something that take less than an hour to do, you’ll be kicking yourself you didn’t do this years ago. Happy rodent-free composting!

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How To Make Goat’s Feta

We’re lucky enough to have a milking goat on our property – a splendid toggenburg called Gerty and her daughter Jilly Love Face (who we don’t milk). You can read about our urban goat system over here. When you have milking animals, thoughts rapidly move to….what do I do with all this milk.  For us (and most others) the answer is cheese.

I’ve (Anton) only been seriously making cheese for around 6 months and finally feel comfortable about sharing our approach to making feta – watch this space for other cheese recipes in coming months. We use raw goats milk as we believe it’s healthier and definitely tastier than anything the shop can provide. Gerty currently milks around 2 litres per day.  So over a week we drink/make yoghurt on around 5 litres and the remainder we transform into cheeses.  Currently we alternate between making a batch of feta one week and then a batch of a harder storing cheeses the next week.

Here’s how I make feta…

Clean the kitchen and get materials together

We try and clean the kitchen before starting.  This gives you access to surfaces to put stuff on, as well as reducing the chance of contamination.  The key utensils I use are a saucepan, large spoon, thermometers, measuring spoons, muslin/mesh, kettle.  I also use milk, rennet, culture, and acid sanitiser.

Clean the pot

We clean all the materials that will be touching the milk and cheese.  We use both boiling water and/or acid sanitiser.  The acid sanitiser is pretty handy because you don’t need to re-boil the kettle all the time.  It effectively kills the bugs from 2 minutes of contact.  I generally mix up around 1 litre of sanitiser (uses around 1 ml of the acid solution) and it is enough for the days cheesemaking action.  I get mine from the local homebrew store.

Measure the milk

Its good to know how many litres of milk you are using, as this effects how much culture to add as well as how much coagulant you use.  This batch uses 11 x 750ml bottles of milk – around 8 litres.  From this 8 Litres of milk I get around 1.4 kg of Feta.  If I was making harder, pressed cheese the yield would be lower, between 800g-1kg of cheese from this much milk.

Add the culture

Cultures are used to “ripen the milk”.  Effectively it acidifies the milk and makes it ready for the effect of the coagulants. I have experimented using natural aging and pre-packaged cultures.  As a beginner cheesemakers we have had more success with the prepacked cultures but look forward to learning more about using natural cultures.  That said, we use raw milk and there is undoubtedly a lot of extra microbial action occurring, which helps on improving flavour and aging.

In this case we are adding two “dashes” of “Flora Danica” culture.  We stir it in the milk with a clean spoon.

Yes we have funny little spoons with words like “dash” and “pinch” written on them.  Handy when you are using measurements like 1/8 of a teaspoon.

Warm the milk

The milk is heated up to around 32 degrees C.  To do this, I put the saucepan in the sink and add very hot tap water to the sink (around 60 degrees C).  Over the next twenty minutes this tends to bring the milk up to around 32 degrees and reduce the temperature of the sink water as well.

Use any pot you have, it doesn’t have to be a particular type of pot. 

I keep the milk in the sink at 32 degrees for 30-60 minutes.  I add or remove hot water to the sink to keep the temperature moderated.  It helps to have two good thermometers.  I have one in the milk and one in the sink.  I can monitor the temperature difference and add the right amount of hot water.

Add the coagulant

I use calf rennet, mainly because we were given a jar of rennet to use (waste not want not).  Maybe in the future we will try some vegetarian DIY coagulants such as thistle or fig.  I carefully measure the rennet using a little 1 ml syringe and some cooled boiled water (to remove chlorine).  For the 8l of milk we use 1 ml of rennet.

The rennet/water mix is added to the milk.  I gently add the rennet and stir with a “gentle up and down motion”.  This is so the milk and rennet gets mixed, but does not maintain momentum.  This will stop the curd tearing as it forms.

Clean break

After around thirty minutes the milk starts to coagulate.  This is the classic “curds and whey”.  At a point where the curd cleaves in a sharp line is called “clean break”.  How long it takes to achieve the clean break will depend on how acidic the milk has turned and how much and fresh the rennet is.

Cut the Curd

The curd is cut into as even sized cubes as possible (around 1.5cm cubes).  This is done by cutting into strips, then columns.  Finally the knife is turned diagonally to cut sideways.  The curds are very delicate at this stage so take it slowly and gently.

Curd “strips

Curd “columns”

Curd “diagonals”

 

Rest

The curds are left to rest for around 10 minutes.  As this happens whey drains away from the curd and the curd shrinks a little.

Stir

The curds are gently stirred for around 15 minutes and rested for another 5 minutes.  Any curds that are not “cube” shape can be broken with the edge of the spoon.  I am trying to make the curds a fairly even size.  As I stir the curd it will shrink to around half of its original size.  Many hard cheeses use a similar process up to this point, however the curd is slowly heated and stirred for some time (maybe another blog)

Strain

Pour the curds and whey through a muslin mesh or a cheese cloth.  I use “grain bags” that are also used for homebrewing.  They have a tight effective weave, perfect for this job.

The curds are hung to strain for 6-10 hours.  If I am making the cheese at night I leave it overnight, and during the day I drain until just before bed.

Brine

The cheese is now cut into strips around 1 inch thick and placed in a saturated brine.

The Curd strips and then placed in a saturated brine.  A saturated brine has all the salt it can absorb in suspension.  I salt the cheese for around 4-6 hours, any exposed pieces are sprinkled with course salt.

Storing

The cheese is then transferred to a container with around 40% brine and 60% whey.  The container is stored in the fridge and pieces are removed as desired for eating – yum!  The cheese can be stored in the fridge in brine for months, although each batch lasts us around 2 weeks

Texture

The texture of the end feta is influenced by many of the steps taken along the way.  For a smoother “Danish style” feta, I stir the curd less, drain for shorter periods and salt with a less salty brine.

Want to know more?

  • We have been reading Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking by Gianclis Caldwell, Chelsea Green Publishing  (Thanks to our mate Sam Cramer for the lend).
  • We’re looking forward to reading “The Art of Natural Cheesemaking  by David Asher!
  • We have purchased materials and cultures from Teros.eco in Hobart and cheesemaking.com.au
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