Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

This website is an odd mix of my interests as a writer, entomologist, naturalist, gardener, and educator. You’ll find blog posts about rural New Zealand life, links to my books, and some of my favourite recipes. Feel free to explore, drop me a line, and sign up for my e-mail list.

Year of the Cucurbit

A portion of one day’s cucurbit harvest…and the melons and pumpkins haven’t even begun.

The Chinese New Year is coming up in less than a month. It will be the year of the dog.

I beg to differ. At least at Crazy Corner Farm, it will be the year of the cucurbit.

Extremely high temperatures combined with an unusual amount of rain seem to have encouraged growth of the pumpkins, zucchinis, melons, and cucumbers this year. I have never, in over 30 years of gardening on three continents, seen cucurbits grow like this.

I accept responsibility for the zucchini. I know I always plant too many. But the others aren’t my fault.

Melons are usually incredibly difficult to grow here. They barely grow, and give very few, tiny fruits. I’ve tried them in the greenhouse, and they seem to do even worse there than in the garden. Too cool and dry, I suspect. Not this year! They have outgrown their bed and are invading the beans on either side of them. There are dozens of fruit set, and those fruits (still quite immature) are already larger than most of the mature fruits I’ve gotten in previous years.

The pumpkins have simply devoured half the garden. They’ve invaded the corn, overtopping it in some places. I’ve had to push them back into the garden when they’ve escaped, growing over five metres from where I planted them. I planted just a few plants each of pickling cucumbers and  table cucumbers, and spaced the two varieties well apart from one another. I am now hacking them back to keep them separate and avoid them spreading over the shade house. My plan with the pickling cucumbers was to have just a handful for making fresh pickles (because I only ‘make pickles’ every two years to avoid becoming the crazy pickle lady), but I’m harvesting as many pickling cucumbers as I do on most pickle years.

I have lost all paths in half the garden to cucurbits, and many of the paths in the more clear half are overgrown, too. It is truly out of control. I have never seen this sort of cucurbit exuberance before.

So, I declare 2018 Year of the Cucurbit. Care for a pickle, anyone?

A new species!

It’s always exciting to discover a new species in the yard. Yesterday we found a chocolate tube slime mould (in the genus Stemonitis). A beautiful creature, and aptly named.

If you Google chocolate tube slime mould, you get lots of websites calling it a fungus. Let’s just get this straight right now. Slime moulds are not fungi. Not even close. They’re not even in the same Kingdom of life. Saying a slime mould is a fungus is about as accurate as saying you are a fungus.

We’re a bit nutty about slime moulds here at Crazy Corner Farm … Okay, we’re a little more than a bit nutty about slime moulds. My daughter and husband have been working for months on a slime mould bridge modelled after Physarum polycephalum.

Slime moulds are some of the strangest organisms you’ll find in your back yard. Many are named for their looks, and one of the most common species goes by the name ‘dog vomit slime mould’.

The two groups of slime moulds, plasmodial and cellular, are quite different from one another, and both types are weird and wonderful creatures. Plasmodial slime moulds can cover several square metres, but are made of just one cell filled with thousands of nuclei. They creep across the ground like a giant amoeba with pulsing waves of cytoplasm, engulfing and eating bacteria.

But they’re more than just quivering bags of goo; they can solve mazes, even choosing the most efficient pathway if there is more than one. Cellular slime moulds (which don’t form enormous multi-nucleus cells) can join together to create a multi-cellular organism when the need arises for a larger, more mobile body.

Slime moulds may even save us from the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria—researchers are working on ‘training’ cellular slime moulds to sense and destroy resistant bacteria.

So you can see why we were excited to find another species of slime mould living on our property! Who wouldn’t be excited by it?

How To Eat a Whale

Melinda Mae took eighty-nine years to eat a whale, according to Shel Silverstein. How’d she do it? “…she started in right at the tail.” and “She took little bites and she chewed very slow, / Just like a good girl should…”

This morning I found this adult female white-tailed spider on my office deck. I don’t know what killed her—she’d dragged herself about 20 cm across the deck oozing hemolymph before succumbing to whatever it was—but by the time I saw her, the ants had found her.

At first, they swarmed over her body, biting at her legs, tugging at hairs. I looked closely with a hand lens—they’d made not a mark on her exoskeleton. Melinda Mae was lucky whales’ skeletons are on the inside.

Eventually, the ants stopped swarming, and I assumed they’d given up eating their ‘whale’.

But a few hours later, I checked again and noticed an ant slip underneath the spider’s body. Another photograph revealed the spider was shrivelling.

Some of the shrivelling would be from dehydration, for sure. But as I watched, I saw a steady stream of ants slipping in under the spider, then slipping out again. Something had punctured her, killing her. The ants had found the hole and were using it to access the soft bits inside.

I expect these ants will accomplish their task much more quickly than Melinda Mae did, but then, they’re working as a team.

So how do you eat a whale?

Well, if it’s got an exoskeleton, the answer is, from the inside out. And if you want to finish before you grow old, get some friends to help.

Infidelity

It’s time to come clean. This will be hard for some of you to hear, but it needs to be said. I never thought this would happen. I never thought I’d be saying this, but I can’t deny it anymore.

I’ve found a tomato as good as Brandywine.

I know, I know, you can’t believe I would do something like that. Can’t believe I’d be so unfaithful after decades of tomatoey bliss.

But there you have it. Indigo Apple is my new love. She’s a black tomato—a beautiful medium-sized fruit on an indeterminate plant. Her flavour is complex and rich, like Brandywine’s and, in contrast to Brandywine’s long maturation time, she ripens early. What can I say? I’m in love.

Hawksbeard: a Cheerful Weed

We’ve had recent, much-appreciated rain, and the grass is unusually green for January. But even with the grass growth, summer is weed season in the lawn.

More specifically, summer is weed flowering season.

Some of the weed flowers are uninspiring, and merely annoying—the dull greenish flowers of plantain, for example.

Others bring a splash of colour to what is normally a bleak time in the lawn.

Hawksbeard (Crepis capillaris) is one of the more prolific colourful weeds in the lawn in summer. An annual or biennial member of the dandelion family, this plant bears small, cheery yellow blooms on tall, branched stems.

The NZ Plant Conservation Network shows hawksbeard as being naturalised in 1867 from Europe. Like its cousin dandelion, it was most likely brought to New Zealand on purpose as a food plant—it’s young leaves are edible. Like the dandelion, it is no longer valued as a food, but is considered a weed.

I will admit, the tall flower heads of hawskbeard can be annoying in the lawn. They seem to spring up overnight between mowings, and they slap against your legs as you walk through the yard. But I do appreciate their yellow blooms at a time of year when most other plants give up from the heat and drought. I have been known to use hawksbeard in flower arrangements, and their green rosettes are sometimes the only green to be found around the yard.

Rolling out the Welcome Mat

When we first moved to our house, most of the landscaping, at our place and at the neighbour’s, was non-native. Gorse, photinia, oaks, birch, macrocarpa…plants of little interest to native wildlife. We’ve slowly been replacing much of the non-native vegetation with natives. When the property next door changed hands, the new owner replaced the gorse hedges with natives. Our plantings are all maturing, and I’ve got my fingers crossed we’ll soon attract some native residents.

Over the years, piwakawaka (fantails) have shown up occasionally, usually in autumn, and only for a week or so before moving on. But this year, one has arrived in summer. He’s been flitting around for over a week now, chattering and declaring ownership of the place. I’m crossing my fingers, hoping he’ll stay.

Piwakawaka don’t stay still for photos, but he was talking to me through the kitchen window yesterday and, with the window as a bird blind, I was able to snap a couple of photos that weren’t just a blur of feathers. He’s a cute wee guy. I hope our welcome mat is acceptable to him.

Good Mum, Bad Mum

It rained all day today, as it did yesterday, and as it’s supposed to do tomorrow. The weather is fine by me–plenty of water for the garden, and I have lots of writing to do–but for the kids, three days of rain in the middle of the summer is hard to manage.

What can a mum do under these circumstances, but bake, and enlist the kids’ help? So we made soft pretzels and zucchini cupcakes (see previous blog post). It doesn’t take all day, now the kids are teens, but it gave them something to do for a little while, and treats to eat afterwards.

I felt like such a good mum…

Then I thought about the fact I let my kids eat soft pretzels, pickles and brie for lunch, with a big frosted cupcake afterwards (not to mention licking the bowl and beaters).

Such a bad mum!

All those times we’ve fed our children healthy, balanced meals…you know what they’re going to remember? Yep. Pretzels and pickles for lunch.

I know this, because the meals I most vividly remember my mother making when I was a kid were the naughty ones–hot apple pie with milk (for dinner–the whole meal!) and raspberry shortcake (again, the entirety of the meal). Those meals were legendary, precisely because they weren’t healthy and balanced. They were naughty and we knew it.

Such a bad mum!

Such a good mum!