Sunday, November 6, 2016

DIY Small Raised Fairy Garden Bed

Fairy garden/forest, a year and a half later (see update at bottom of post)
We’ve built several large raised garden beds at our current house (and a guide on how to build one of these will be put up at some point in the future), mostly for our own fruit and vegetable crops. What we haven’t done, however, is create our own fairy garden… until recently.

This is a quick, simple, and generalised step-by-step guide with photos on how to create your own fairy garden amongst a proper (if a little small) raised garden bed containing a few useful plants. The intention is that this can be followed step-by-step as-is, or be used as a “jumping off point” for creating a raised fairy garden bed using (possibly vastly) different materials.

Choosing a Spot

Our chosen spot for the fairy garden.
We recently got a family of ducks and ducklings (this may seem unrelated, but bear with me, it had an impact on where we decided to put this new garden bed). While they’re still getting used to us, learning to trust us, they’re confined to their cage at night, and an outside fenced enclosure measuring about 10 sq. metres with a pond throughout the day. In future though, we’d like to let them be free-ranging on our property during the day.

A few of the items we put (and will be putting in future) in the fairy garden are fragile, and if the ducks wandered through this garden bed on their search for tasty snails and insects, they may accidentally break some of the items.

Of course, they may decide the vegetables in our vegie gardens are too good to pass up, too. As such, we already have plans to fence off the area around the vegie garden before letting the ducks roam free. Due to this, we decided to put the new garden bed in the area which will eventually become fenced-off, and hence become safe from webbed feet.

After this decision, we still had to decide where to place the new garden bed in the area which would become fenced off. We ended up deciding that the garden bed can sit against an old wattle tree to act as its fourth wall, and for added ambiance.

To generalise, choosing a spot should be a matter of finding somewhere not too far from the house (so you can enjoy it easily), and if applicable, somewhere pets are unlikely to find themselves amongst the garden bed if there are fragile items being used for decoration.

What You'll Need

As mentioned at the beginning of this guide, this is intended to be a general guide, including a broad method for how we created our particular garden bed. So I won’t be giving exact numbers and measurements, just the materials you’ll need in general, and the materials we used as a guide.
  • Walls. We used old wooden planks from around the property. You can do the same, or find something else to use. Logs, bricks, or even buy some simple untreated planks from your local hardware store if there’s nothing you can use for free.
  • Something to hold the walls up. If you’re using thicker materials such as logs or bricks which hold themselves up when under pressure, this may not be necessary. However as we used planks, we used “star-steels” (a.k.a. “star-steel pickets”) to hold the walls up, both for their structural stability, and re-usability over a long time period. You could just as easily use simple wooden stakes, rocks, or anything else to hold the walls up, as long as it’s stable and safe once it’s all put together.
  • Soil. As this is going to be a home for living plants (not just the fairy garden decorations), there needs to be something for the plants to live in. You can usually use soil from elsewhere in the garden, but since we live in an area of very poor soil, we had to buy bags of soil from a local Bunnings.
  • Plants. We used Lawn Chamomile (a medicinal ground cover no taller than 10cm's, which smells faintly of apple), Wooly Thyme (a ground cover and culinary herb, which is also anti-microbial, and useful as a highly-effective gargle), and Yarrow (a wound-healing herb, which also attracts bees). They are all medicinal in their own ways, and all edible.
  • Fairy-themed decorations. Doors, stepping stones, mushrooms/toadstools, whatever you want as decorations. Have fun with this dot point in particular – after all, isn't that the point?
In terms of the plants chosen, you could pick plants which would just look good amongst fairy-themed decorations, plants which are purely functional, or possibly plants you haven’t had room to plant elsewhere. The only advice I might give is to make sure the plants you choose aren’t poisonous, as fairy gardens are a natural place for inquisitive little toddlers to gravitate towards. So safe (perhaps even edible and tasty) plants are a good place to start.

Having a general design in mind before you go out to find your materials may be wise, but that’s not to say that you can’t “wing” the design as you go. If you end up with a rather eclectic design due to no prior planning, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that as long as it all holds together in the end.

Putting it all together

You’ve chosen your spot, you’ve got your materials, and you have some semblance of an idea of how you’d like it all to look at the end. Now comes the fun part: the assembly.

Wherever your chosen location is, the first step is to put up the walls. How the walls go together depends largely on the materials you’ve chosen your walls to be made out of.

Since we used old slats and star-steels, we placed the slats on top of each other and used the star-steels to keep them upright. Note that the star-steels only need to be placed on the outside of the walls – this is because the walls will be held up from the inside by the soil, once it’s been added.

If there are any large holes in the wall, they will need blocking. Small holes aren’t often an issue as once the soil has settled it won’t escape very easily, but large holes have the potential to disrupt the soil and let it escape, especially after a heavy rain.

Whether or not you’ll have big holes in your wall depends largely on the location and materials used for the walls. We chose to place the raised garden against the old wattle because it can act as a fourth wall, and adds an ambiance to the garden bed which would be hard to replicate without it. But its twisted shape at ground level did mean we had to fill in a couple of big holes before continuing to the next step.

Once the walls are up, the next step is simple: Fill the bed with soil.
Whatever greenery you’ve chosen, now’s the time to plant them. While doing so, keep your design in mind so that you’re not displacing where the various fairy decorations were planned to end up.
Place your various fairy decorations in their intended locations.

If you don’t have all the decorations you’d ultimately like, don’t fret, neither do we. We’re planning lots more decorations to go in, and you too can add more decorations to your heart’s content in future. For now however, just place what you have.
You have now completed your own small raised fairy garden bed. Congratulations!

Design changes, and personal touches

This is a very simple design which lends itself nicely to alterations. I’ve aimed this design and these instructions at demonstrating how simple it can be, but fairy gardens are (and in my opinion, should be) highly personal, and/or collaborative with anyone else you’re creating it with. So if you’d prefer to use different materials for the structure, plant different greenery, change the locations or type of decorations, or even just decide to create a much bigger and grander fairy garden bed, go for it!

As for us, in future we’re planning on adding more decorations including (but not limited to) long benches for the table. From there, we’ll add more stepping stones leading to a fairy ring of mushrooms to help complete the current design. Possibly we’ll add stone creatures, possibly we may add other plants in the ground surrounding the bed, who knows?

I’ll try to add another photo at the end of this article, once the coming winter has passed and spring has arrived, to show any progress the plants in the fairy garden have made (not to mention display any additional decorations).

However you go about creating your own raised fairy garden bed, I wish you luck, and I hope you have fun creating it.

(Originally published, by me, on - 04/04/2015)

Update - 6th November, 2016

Well, it's been about a year and a half, and boy there's been some changes!

Unfortunately, we lost the Wooly Thyme when we were trusting a friend to water our garden for us in summer last year (mentioned in more detail in my Yule over Christmas post), but the Yarrow and Lawn Chamomile managed to survive, and have completely taken off since then.

See the following pictures (and captions) for yourself. We're actually now planning to have the fairy garden path go straight into the yarrow and chamomile, similar to a hidden path off into the forest.

Imagine searching through those plants and finding a hidden fairy path, complete with hidden fairy decorations. I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty appealing to me.

Fairy Forest - front view
Fairy Forest - top view
Lawn Chamomile up close
Yarrow up close
Fairy Forest

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Why we chose Yule over Christmas

Our family has made a tough decision: in the future, we want to be as self-sufficient as we can. Completely, if possible.

This wasn't just a tough decision due to the responsibility that comes with managing a property with enough food and resources to feed, clothe, and house a family. But, due to us living in the southern hemisphere, there was an unexpected decision which needed serious consideration:
  1. Continue with seeing family and celebrating Christmas in Summer, or
  2. Move our celebrations to Yule. Which, in the southern hemisphere, is (of course) in Winter.

Why not just continue celebrating Christmas?

Our plans for self-sufficiency include keeping our own crops, livestock, even horses eventually. In summer, all of these will require multiple-times-daily attention.
Our three geese, when they were young.

If we're away, and our irrigation systems fail, there go our crops. If we get someone to water them, and they forget, there go our crops (which over the past four trips where we currently are, we've had happen twice).

As for the animals, same deal. We don't really trust any automated system to keep our animals alive for longer than a couple days, so we rely on friends to help out, and we pay them if we can't otherwise repay the favour. But what if that person then has a pressing engagement which means they can no longer look after the animals anymore, leaving us to scramble to find someone else, or cut our trip short and come home ourselves (which over the past four trips, we've had happen three times)?
Our geese a month later.
Just a few of our animals needing
our attention.

Maybe we've just had a string of bad luck. Hey, given how often something's gone wrong just for us stepping outside our door for longer than a couple days, it's highly likely. But short of hiring a professional, we've basically stopped trusting people to help out. Because while it's been relatively easy to deal with any of these issues while we're not relying on our harvests, the story would be very different in the future, when we are.

So then, can we really risk it? The idea of being away for a couple of weeks to visit family during Christmas, the same weeks that anyone we get or pay to look after the property will also be distracted by their own festivities?

But what else can you do?

To be honest, at first, there doesn't seem like much of a choice. It's Christmas, there's no option but to go, right?

Hauling a Yule Log (source: Wikipedia)
Yule, the pagan celebration on which Christmas is originally based on, occurs on December 21/22, depending on the year... in the northern hemisphere. For us in the southern hemisphere, however, it occurs in June. All the problems with leaving home during Summer I discussed above are practically non-existent at that time of year.

Trees and crops are either sleeping or not planted yet, with watering sorted in the form of Winter rains. Animals also aren't at any risk of overheating. Long trips away still require organising for someone to check on the animals, but it could be every second day, just to make sure they haven't tipped over their water containers and such.

And when Christmas rolls around, the time of year in the southern hemisphere where crops and animals really need the most attention, we'll actually be around to give that attention to them, personally.

How it's going to work for us

Here's the plan.

In the two to four weeks around Yule (depending on each year), we'll still need someone we trust in the community to look after our property, coming around a few times a week to refill food and water containers, and generally check that everything's okay. If possible, it can be a quid-pro-quo situation, where if they do it for us, we'll do it for them for Christmas. Otherwise, we'll have to pay someone, but as it doesn't require visiting multiple times each day, it won't be anywhere near as expensive.

During these weeks, we visit each of our family's. If possible, we organise a get-together at someone's house and hang out for a week or more together. If not, we spend at least a few days at each family member's house to see them personally.

If they still have work, we still visit, accept that they'll be away during the day (maybe go see a local site or two), and help out each night so that we can enjoy the company of each other. Snuggle in against the cold weather with hot drinks and good cheer.

On the night of Yule itself, whoever we're with can take part in some traditional Yule celebrations with us, if they feel like it.

Basically, we see everyone in our family, personally, over an extended time. And, when Summer rolls around, we're home to look after our land and animals. Exactly as it should be during the hottest time of the year.

The downsides of this tact

If there are indeed any readers out there in the southern hemisphere who have been plagued with this issue before, and are wondering if this idea will work for you, be warned: there are many downsides to this idea.

All of them, at least, are purely social.

1) Expect family members to be extremely confused.

We sent out a mass-email to family members on both sides once we were fully committed to this idea. We explained everything in careful detail, noting the why's and how's, including the fact that we would see everyone each year still, but around the middle of the year for our Yule instead.

It was almost a week before we got our first reply. After that, the replies slowly rolled in from each person, varying wildly from (paraphrased) "Cool idea", to "Oh, well, at least it's okay if we still get to see you all once a year". So, about as good as we could hope for, but it was obvious that, even without asking us further questions, there was a lot of "I still don't understand why they can't just keep doing Christmas" going around.

2) Expect family members to be pretty darn annoyed.

Christmas is, after all, a time for family to get together. So in the family member's eyes, it doesn't matter if you want to spend over a week with them every year to celebrate Yule if it's at the wrong time of year. Well, as far as they're concerned.

Until it becomes a regular occurrence (most likely after many, many years of doing this), expect this to continue. For some family members, possibly indefinitely. Spend as much time with your family over your holiday Yule period as possible, but otherwise, there's really not much to be done about this if you're truly committed to the idea.

It's also good to note that not everyone will be like this, of course. There can be just as many family members who, while they may not still fully grasp or agree with the concepts of why, will at least understand that it's not a decision you made lightly, and will support you.

3) Gift giving becomes a little trickier.
Hand-knitted socks, by my wife, for me, for Yule.

We now give our presents at Yule. We're celebrating at Yule, so it makes sense to give any presents to our family members around Yule as well. This does lend itself to a little confusion, though...

At least in this first year, where I don't know if any of our family members took our decision seriously, everyone was pleasantly surprised with, and very thankful for, our gifts. But as most of our family seems to be forgetting about our Yule idea, will they be expecting more gifts at Christmas time? Not wanting to give gifts because they're not going to get any at Christmas? Simply still giving gifts at Christmas, but with the potential to be a little disappointed because they're not getting one back (forgetting they already got a gift six months earlier)?

This con of the idea is tricky, with just as many chances of hurt feelings as the first two cons. It isn't at all insurmountable, though, it's just another point to keep in mind. If there are years where, due to hard feelings or simply confusion, you don’t get a gift back, don’t sweat it, and keep giving your Yule gifts each year. After all, the gift for you should be in the giving, not the receiving, right?

Other unexpected benefits

There are, at least, a few other unexpected benefits of this idea.

1) Travel during your holiday period is a lot cheaper.

If you can just drive over to see your family, this point may not apply. But if you have to book accommodation, flights, or anything else really, then it definitely does.

School holidays are usually anywhere between mid-June to late-July, depending on the state you live in. So if you plan your trips around Yule in mid-to-late June, the first half of your trip will be in the off-season for holidays. Depending on your state, the second half may be, too. A lot of money can be saved because of this.

2) Getting time off work may be easier.

Over Christmas, everyone wants time off work. Over Yule, not so much. As such, at worst, it will be just as hard to get time off. But at best, almost no one else is asking for time off, so it won't be difficult to get your Yule time off approved.

3) No more having to share a single day.

Whichever house we're at, we'll have our Yule traditions on the night of Yule (obviously). Other than that, though, we're not placing any particular importance on any single day or night. Rather, we're concentrating on getting to see everyone for a minimum of at least a few days (preferably around a week or more) for some good holiday cheer.

Compare and contrast with Christmas in its current form. If both sides of your family live close, many people spend Christmas traveling between family members, never spending the supposedly special day with any particular person for more than a few hours. Others, especially those where their respective family members live far apart, have to sort out a schedule along the lines of "We'll spend Christmas with you, but New Years with them, and then swap year after year". Both of these options have the potential to create hurt feelings, unfortunate ideas of "Why can't you stay longer with us though", or "Why can't you keep spending Christmas with us and just be with them for New Years each year?"

Granted, we're potentially creating even more hurt feelings with our way of doing things. But at least we're skipping all of this.


Mudgee, our sheep, when she was just a
few days old.
Yet another animal who'll appreciate us being
home for summer.
We're trying to do what's best, what makes the most sense from a self-sufficient and ecologically-sound point of view. If we want to live self-sufficiently, that just won't be possible if we decide to leave our animals and crops for a fortnight or longer during the hottest part of the year. It just doesn't make sense.

The fact that we're not having Christmas anymore is mostly just an unintended casualty of the idea. It's not that we don't want to see our family anymore, but moreso that we'd prefer to see them when it actually makes sense: in the colder time of the year, when the land needs very little attendance.

If we're lucky, our family and friends may still not agree, but will at least understand in time. If not, we'll still sleep soundly knowing that we're sticking with our principles, and doing what we believe is right. In the end, that's a very comforting thing to hold onto.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Telstra/ZTE T96 phone review

A review of a mobile phone for those out there who, like me, have bucked the smartphone trend for something a little... simpler.

Telstra/ZTE T96 with Telstra "Blue Tick". Image source: Telstra

I've owned this particular phone for almost two years now. It's been subject to drops, splashes, immersions in water, and kept on going with nary a care in the world. In short, it's done very well to put up with my careless ways.

(Feel free to skip to the last section - "Verdict" - if you'd just like the short version.)

Call quality

Very good. I've very rarely had a real issue when talking to other people on this phone to-date.

In both loudspeaker and regular mode, you can adjust the volume, which is nice, though I almost always keep it set to max anyway. The only gripe I could make here is that sometimes, e.g. when travelling on a loud bus, the volume could be just a little bit louder. Otherwise the volume is more than enough.

Construction and typing

In terms of looks, this is a pretty simple, sleek candybar design. It's relatively lightweight, sitting around 85 grams. The buttons are smooth and flat, sticking out only just enough to be able to feel which button you're about to press when typing without looking, which is nice. With that said, due to how smooth the buttons are, you will initially on occasion find yourself getting lost on this keypad when typing without looking, until you're fully used to it.

T9 predictive text generally works quite well, however the dictionary's capability for new words is a bit limited, which is a little sad.

Dropping this phone (unless you do it from a great height) is no issue. On carpet and other such "soft" materials, it just bounces a bit. On harder ground, it will usually bounce too. On the occasion it does come apart from the drop, just stick the battery back in, put the cover back on, turn it back on, and continue on your merry way, no harm done.

In terms of drops of water such as from rain, I haven't had any issue. Unless it's a heavy rainfall I won't even put it away until I'm done using it, occasionally wiping the screen from time to time. Note that it isn't actually rated for being waterproof, or even splashproof, so this is ill-advised, and as such do the same at your own phone's risk. Still, one of the great things about cheap feature phones is that I'm not too bothered by the very slight chance that some raindrops will cause issues.


The T96 has a single 2 megapixel rear-facing camera. For similar cost 3G feature phones, this is pretty good and does well enough for most tasks, but don't expect too much.

In full light or a bright room, with limited-to-no movement, the camera does well enough at capturing a moment. Add movement to the mix however, and hello blur city. Furthermore, the less available light, the less detailed the pictures will become. Daylight in an otherwise unlit room will be okay, but by no means great. For example, compare the two pictures here, one taken outside, one inside at a darker corner which gets no direct sunlight, both taken on a late, cloudy afternoon. Once you start getting into properly "dark" situations, best not to bother, as there is no flash and it will only be able to pick bits and pieces out in most of these situations.

Video is largely the same. Great to have the capability, and it allows you to take videos for as much time as you have memory to spare, but the quality is... not great (to put it politely).

In short, both the videos and pictures taken by this phone are by no means good quality. However, for when you're in a pinch and just need something to "capture a moment", the T96 does work perfectly well, and frequently I've been glad to have the 2MP camera on-hand regardless of a perceived lack of "professional quality".

Works on 3G network (requirement for Telstra)

This isn't just something which is good for browsing the internet, but will soon be a requirement for phones that will be using the Telstra network. So even if you don't want the T96, pay attention to this point, because it's very important if you're with Telstra and planning on buying a dumbphone/feature phone soon.

Telstra is retiring its 2G network as of the 1st of December, 2016. You'll still be able to use 2G if you're planning on using one of the other Australian networks, but if you want to be with Telstra, then at minimum, your SIM card and mobile phone need to be able to work on 3G or higher.

As the T96 works on 3G frequencies along with 2G, the only thing you need to make sure of is that your SIM card will work on 3G (just drop into a Telstra store to find out if you're unsure), and you're good to go!


As mentioned, this phone works on the 3G network. So while it's faster than 2G, if you're coming from 4G or above then you will definitely notice the slowdown when you move to this device. Still, the browser works well enough with the exception of one major problem.

The issue stems from the small amount of RAM the phone obviously has available. I can't find details on the processor or RAM (everything I find on that, and the operating system, just says that it's "proprietary"), but it doesn't seem to have much RAM available because some pages are too much for it to handle.

In layman's terms, what this means is that if a webpage has too many pictures, or otherwise too much "other stuff" going on, the phone (partway through loading the page) may just tell you that it ran out of memory and quit the browser.

This can be mostly mitigated by going into the browser's advanced settings and changing the "Browser Mode" from "Full" to "Simple". This gets rid of a lot of the nice formatting, background colors, and any other fancy things. But while this helps with a lot of pages (that were previously throwing the error) being accessible again, say goodbye to enjoying well set-out websites. Furthermore, some webpages can still cause the error to occur if they simply have too many pictures, too.

Social websites such as Facebook and Twitter work just fine in "Full" mode, though.

Battery life

Very good. Not as good as some other feature phones, but still good considering its low price tag and list of features.

With constant heavy use, this phone will last me up to three days from a full charge. With minimal use, over a week. Leaving it on standby, this phone is stated to last up to 300 hours, and I could definitely believe that.

My regular usage pattern includes calling my wife after work, calling various other people from time to time, texting, MMSing a bit, and occasionally using the internet. With this, the average time between charges is anywhere from four to six days, depending on the particular week. That's pretty good, especially when compared to the average battery life of current smartphones.

Finally, if something does happen to your battery (it stops working, simply stops holding charge, or something else), you can always purchase another one at the ZTE Accessory Store if you have to. I admittedly don't know and can't make any promises for how long they'll keep those batteries listed, but it looks like they have batteries still listed from some of their older models. So, here's hoping the T96 battery sticks around on there for a while to come!


The screen is about what you'd expect on a phone like this. 2.4 inches, with a resolution of 240x320. It actually does alright at displaying pictures, but with a size and resolution like that, don't expect a crisp, breathtaking display when looking at pictures or browsing the web, or you will be disappointed.

In direct bright sunlight, the screen can be a bit hard to make out. A bit bothersome, but nothing that shading the screen can't fix. In any condition other than bright sunlight, including other conditions while outdoors, the display is fine.

Overall, the display is perfectly tolerable - I've personally found it to be just fine. It's better than a great deal many other feature phones out there, but if the feature phone you're looking for has to (as a personal requirement) have an amazing display, then this may not be the phone for you.


The phone comes with the Telstra "Blue Tick", "recommended for rural handheld coverage". This phone definitely does well on this front.

I live out where Optus devices sometimes have trouble getting a reliable signal, and my T96 consistently sits at full bars for 3G. Further out "in the sticks", long after some of my friend's phones have lost coverage, I'm still normally getting anywhere from one to three bars.

In short, I've never been without coverage, except where the phone can't be blamed (e.g. when I've been far from civilisation, travelling deep cross-country, or sitting in a valley with mountains on all sides of me).

For everything else, the phone does have a jack on its back for connection up to an external antenna, if need be.


You can add extra storage to the T96 via MicroSD card, up to 32 GB. Considering there's only a stated 0.125 GB of internal storage available, adding some external storage is definitely advised.

There's a standard headphone jack at the bottom of the phone, and the phone does come with a music player too. If you don't plug in headphones, the music comes out the phone's speaker.

Charging is done via a standard micro-USB port. Through that same port, you can connect your phone up to a computer to move files (music, pictures, anything else) to or from the phone.

The T96 also has Bluetooth (2.0) capability.

There's a dedicated camera button. Maybe not a necessity, but it's a nice touch regardless.

Holding down the hash (#) button instantly changes your profile from whatever it currently is (General, Outdoor, or Silent) to Meeting. Furthermore, if you're currently in the Meeting profile, then holding down the hash button returns you to whatever profile you most recently used, before Meeting. Another small, but nice, touch.


I originally got this phone when Telstra had it on sale for $49. A very reasonable price.

As of the time of writing this article, it's currently sitting at $79 dollars. Not quite as reasonable, but given how much I like this phone, and how reliable I'd say it is, I'd still pay that for this phone.

My black T96, along with my other Everyday Carry items


The display isn't great, pictures and video are just passable, and using the internet browser can sometimes be a pain.

But let's be honest. When looking for a feature phone, a crisp display, taking great pictures and/or videos, and a seamless ability to use the internet are often features that are just not as much of a requirement as other features that this phone does well at. When these features are on a phone, they're usually optional extras, little additional niceties, not requirements.

The call quality, construction, 3G capability (since Telstra is retiring 2G soon), battery life, coverage, and extras are all good. Great in some cases. And these are usually the things that more people searching for a feature phone are interested in.

Would I buy this phone again? Absolutely, without a doubt.

If you're interested, you can find the T96 on the Telstra online store here. Or, you can find it on ZTE's website here. Finally, a manual for the phone can be found on ZTE's website here.