Christmas Baking Makeover

I grew up in North America, with all the traditional Christmas things—snow, dark days and long nights, crackling fires, Christmas lights, cookies, pies, hot drinks—Norman Rockwell might have painted my childhood Christmases.

Nearly 17 years ago, we moved to New Zealand, to summertime Christmases. Here, strawberries, cherries, and long summer days herald the season. 

I always loved the baking aspect of Christmas in North America—Mum amassed dozens of types of cookies in the freezer in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The kids always got involved in the baking, and we’d gorge on cookies through the holidays.

I still love baking, but I struggle to dredge up much enthusiasm for Christmas cookies here. With fresh early summer fruits in season, it seems ridiculous to bake cookies that capitalise on stored foods like dried fruits, nuts and chocolate. What I crave is strawberry tarts, black currant pie, and gooseberry crisp. Or better yet, fresh fruit salad—forget the baking altogether.

Out of a sense of nostalgia, I’ve continued to bake a few Christmas cookies every year, alongside the fruit desserts, but 2021 might be the year that changes.

As everyone has experienced this year, supply chains are disrupted worldwide. It has led to shortages of various items from foods to electric cars. A few weeks ago, most of the brown sugar in New Zealand was recalled, because of lead contamination that occurred during shipping. We all dutifully threw away our brown sugar, and wanted to buy more. Of course, there was none. There’s still none, weeks after the recall.

It looks like a staple of Christmas baking will be unavailable this year.

I admit I’m not terribly upset by it. I’ve been wanting to move more toward using locally produced honey instead of imported sugar, and this looks like the perfect opportunity to break the brown sugar habit. Also, it gives me an excuse not to make Christmas cookies, but to focus instead on enjoying the fruit that is already ripening in the garden.

This might be the year that my baking finally makes the switch to the Southern Hemisphere.

To make it even more tempting to go full Kiwi, Matariki has finally been made an official holiday. The Māori new year happens near the winter solstice in June—the perfect time for eating cookies and enjoying hot chocolate. I may have to start making Matariki cookies instead of Christmas cookies. I will enjoy them so much more at Matariki.

So bring on the fruit, some icy lemonade, and the sunscreen! Hold the brown sugar—I won’t be needing it. Christmas baking is getting a makeover.

Plants Make the Home

When we first decided to build a house, and bought the land for it, we immediately began propagating plants. We selected our favourite ornamentals, natives, and perennial crops and divided them, took cuttings, and collected seed.

As soon as we had a landscape plan, before the house was even staked out on the ground, we began to prepare garden beds, hiring a rotary hoe and having twelve cubic metres of compost delivered to start the process of turning compacted, nutrient-free clay into productive soil. Nine months before we moved in, we started planting. We put in hundreds of native plants and a small vegetable garden while the house was nothing but a concrete slab. Without a connection to the water mains, we hauled buckets of water from the ditch across the road to irrigate our new plantings. Through the summer, we made the 45-minute drive to the new property weekly to check on and water our fledgeling plants. On particularly hot weeks, we visited twice.

When we moved onto the property in March 2020, we lived in the shed, because the house wasn’t yet done. Our move included about a hundred more plants propagated from the old house—plants we knew we wouldn’t be able to put in the ground until the house was finished.

The house was finally finished in mid-winter, and we got to work on the remaining landscaping. We planted out most of the remaining plants from the old house. We bought fruit trees, olives, grapes and strawberries. We even splurged on a few tree ferns and a bunch of natives we didn’t have at the old house. We bought an excessive number of roses.

We ordered more compost, hauled cow manure from the neighbour’s place, and spread more than 80 bales of pea straw out to mulch the new gardens.

We dreamed in plants.

We’ve been in the house for only 16 months, but the 15 cm tall akeake we planted reach over two metres now. The cardoon threatens to top three metres. The silver tussocks form a hummocky mound that blankets the ground and offers shelter to native skinks. The currants, gooseberries and artichokes fill their beds and look like they’ve been there for years.

This year’s vegetables are well established, feeding on the manure and compost I’ve worked into the soil over the last year. They are lush and tall and green.

And when I come home after a day of work, I pass nodding aquilegia flowers and the towering cardoon. I see the roses creeping up their trellis. I admire the rows of berries, peas and cabbages, and I finally feel at home.

Because it is truly the plants (and the people that grow them, of course) that make a home. 

Garden Transformation

vegetable garden

The weather forecasts have been good and the garden beds are all prepared, so in the evenings after work this week, I’ve been planting out vegetable seedlings.

On Tuesday, as I left the garden at dusk, I turned to close the gate behind me. I smiled as my gaze swept the scene. My work had transformed the garden from a weedy patch sporting a few vegetables to a vegetable garden with a few weeds. The transformation had taken months, but my shift in perception was like a switch being thrown.

The coming long weekend will complete the transformation, with all the remaining seedlings filling in the gaps. But the switch in my perception means the weekend planting will be an enjoyable challenge. It won’t feel like an insurmountable hurdle.

This is where my obsessive-compulsive garden planning pays off. All the tasks I’ve crossed off my list since mid-August come together this weekend in a tidy, fully-planted garden with the potential to feed us for the year.

People ask if I have plans for the long holiday weekend.

“Just gardening,” I answer. 

They think it’s work. And no doubt I’ll spend long hours on my knees. I’ll sweat. My back will ache. My feet will protest the hours encased in gumboots. 

But the work I will do this weekend is more a celebration than a chore. At its end is a sense of accomplishment and well-being nothing else can provide.

And as every gardener knows, at its end is the beginning of a new set of tasks—the weeding, watering, and other ongoing care that fills the summer calendar.

So this weekend I will plant and celebrate, and next weekend I will weed.

Springtime Companions

I like to make the most of my garden space. No matter how big the garden is, I never seem to have enough. 

lettuce and peas planted together

I also enjoy having fresh salad greens all year, but lettuce has a tendency to bolt in our dry, warm summers.

I tackle both problems, and keep weeds at bay with companion planting. 

I plant most of my peas along the fence surrounding the vegetable garden, using the fence as a trellis for the tall varieties. The bed I prepare for them is 50 cm wide, and since I want them to climb the fence, the peas sit at one edge of the bed, leaving plenty of room for weeds to grow.

Instead of letting the weeds take over, I plant my lettuces and spinach in front of the peas. These low-growing plants quickly cover the soil, smothering weeds and naturally mulching the soil, protecting it from the drying sun. The taller peas provide shade to the salad greens for much of the day, preventing them from getting too hot and bolting early.

Both peas and lettuces finish around the same time mid-summer, so it’s easy to pull them all out at once and chop them up in place to thickly mulch the garden edge, preventing weeds from taking over.

And if I’m really thinking, I plant big rangy late crops in the beds nearby—pumpkins, cucumbers, melons or potatoes. They creep across the path and take over the space vacated by the peas and lettuce, making sure the garden space is used continuously all summer.

Watching the Weather

tomato plants in the greenhouse

October is over so I’m a little obsessive about the weather. Will we have another frost? Will it rain? Will it be warm and sunny? What will the wind be like? Every day is critical for the next two weeks.

I do my best to time indoor seed planting just right, so all the frost tender vegetables are ready to plant out on Canterbury weekend (in mid-November)—the date I can be 90 percent sure of no more frost. The slow-growing peppers and eggplants are first—planted the 15th of August along with all the frost-hardy crops. A week later, I plant the tomatoes and basil. Fast-growing cucurbits and corn wait until late October.

By the beginning of November, the greenhouse is full of plants waiting to be planted out.

Of course, no matter how hard I try, there’s a level of uncertainty. A particularly cold spring can slow down growth so I’m planting out tiny seedlings in mid-November. On the other hand, warm sun can mean my plants are chomping at the bit by the first of the month. Hence, my obsession with the weather.

This year, my tomatoes are at the perfect stage to be planted out now. In two weeks, they’ll be overly tall and leggy. So I’ll be checking the long range forecast to see if I can plant them this weekend instead.

The peppers and eggplants, however, could use another week or so in the greenhouse before being planted out. I’ll coddle them in their pots, urging them to put on some good growth before they’re at the mercy of bugs and birds. I’ll be hoping for good sunny days to kick their growth into high gear.

At the same time, I’ll be watching the early crops already in the garden. They’ll be starting to feel the heat—risking bolting if they get too hot and dry. I’ll be monitoring the weather to know when I have to turn the irrigation on.

In two weeks it won’t matter so much—it will be reliably warm enough, and predictably too dry. All the vegetables will be in the garden, and they’ll all need extra watering.

But for now, I have the weather forecast open on my browser at all times, watching carefully to make the most of what the weather has to offer.

The Little Things–Hakatere Conservation Park

As usual, I spent most of the long Labour Day weekend in the vegetable garden. I weeded, prepared garden beds, and planted my cucurbits in trays.

Lake Clearwater with mountains
Lake Clearwater was a mirror in the morning’s still air.

But as they say, all work and no play … I didn’t want to spend the whole holiday weekend sweating in the garden.

So on Monday my husband and I went to Hakatere Conservation Park and sweated on Mount Guy instead.

The Ashburton Lakes region is a glacially formed landscape dotted with lakes and tarns. The land around the wetlands is largely tussock grassland studded with spiny matagauri bushes. An unforgiving, windswept landscape that can feel downright bleak.

That was my impression the first time I visited. Fifteen years ago, I was hired to develop an interpretation plan for what was then a proposed park only. I had the great fortune to tour the area with a Department of Conservation ranger who had worked in the area for decades and had a great love of the landscape. He showed me the little things—not necessarily obvious at first—that set the region apart. Rare insects (including an aquatic moth!), waterfowl and lizards. Unique and diverse plants. Historical use of the land, and massive changes over geologic time. There’s a lot more than meets the eye.

skink
One of the many skinks we saw.

On Monday, we were treated to a glorious day—sunny and calm at first, with a brisk breeze kicking in just when the day began to feel too warm. We parked at Lake Clearwater and hiked the track to the summit of Mount Guy. On our return, we followed the tussocky ridge down to a saddle where we picked up Te Araroa, following the track back to the edge of Lake Clearwater where we completed our large, loopy circuit of the lake.

mountains and river valley
View from near the top of Mount Guy. Mount Sunday is a small mound in the river valley, just to the right of centre in the photo.

The hike afforded stunning views of jagged, snow-capped peaks, and a view of Mount Sunday down in the river valley.

Oddly, out of all the “mountains” in the park, Mount Sunday may be the most famous. The hill was used as the location for Edoras in the Lord of the Rings movies. In the enormity of the surrounding landscape, however, it is an insignificant lump of rock.

Perhaps, like the hidden insects, birds, and plants, it is the little details that are the interesting bits.

Asparagus, Asparaguses, Asparagi?

asparagus spear infected with phytophthora
Asparagus spear infected with phytophthora

It’s asparagus season, and we are enjoying spears from our own plants, though not as many as we’d like.

We moved crowns from our old house to the new, and have had rather mixed luck. Some didn’t survive transplant. Others grew poorly last year, and did not show their faces this year. Still others sprouted this year, but have been succumbing to phytophthora infection—a new challenge for us.

Phytophthora asparagi is an oomycete. Its long-lived spores overwinter in the soil and infect asparagus roots and spears. Phytophthora infection interferes with water transport in the stem, causing shrivelling and a ‘shepherd’s crook’ curl to the spears.

Oomycetes were once thought to be fungi, because their growth forms can be similar. They are, however, genetically distinct and are now known to be more closely related to kelp than fungi. Many oomycetes are plant pathogens, and some, like late potato blight, sudden oak disease, and Phytophthora asparagi are of economic importance.

We never had trouble with phytophthora at the old place—our well-drained soil with excellent nutrient levels kept it at bay. But at the new property, the heavy clay soil devoid of nutrients provides perfect conditions for phytophthora growth. 

Two months ago, before we’d identified phytophthora, I planted a packet of asparagus seed. I wanted to fill in the gaps in the asparagus bed, where our transplanted plants had died. Now, with 38 beautiful asparagus seedlings in the greenhouse, I’ve got a different plan for them.

Michigan State Extension recommends fungicide and careful selection of planting site to control phytophthora. I’d like to avoid the fungicide, but I can manage the soil, at least a little.

asparagus seedlings

My little seedlings will need about 18 months in pots before I can plant them out. That’s plenty of time to prepare a special raised bed for them, filled with compost, sand, and soil for high-nutrient, well-drained growing conditions. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy the asparagus we are getting, and do our best to keep the old plant alive until the new ones can be harvested.

And, just so you know, the plural of asparagus is asparagus.

October Book Promotions

Whether you’re heading into autumn or coming into spring, October is a great month for reading. (Okay, EVERY month is a great month for reading!) This month, I’m participating in a pair of promotions with other authors, so if you like fantasy, get ready to go wild, because there are some fabulous reads here.

The first is a selection of free Fantasy books for Children and Teens. The selection includes The Dragon Slayer’s Son and a whole bunch of other great books. Definitely worth checking out!

The second is a fabulous group of fantasy books ranging from teen to adult titles that includes Fatecarver. Check out the list. Who knows? You may find your new favourite author here!

The Organised Gardener

Garden map and to-do lists
Garden map and to-do lists

We’re in the middle of the spring school holidays. This two-week block of time off of the day job is always a busy gardening time. There are garden beds to prepare, vegetable seedlings to plant out, seeds to start, seedlings to pot up, and of course the weeds are running rampant everywhere. There’s never enough time to do it all.

This is the time where panic sets in—I’ll never have plants in the ground in time, the weeds will take over all the vegetables I planted earlier in the spring, the birds will eat all my pea plants before they get going, hail or frost will kill tender plants … I have a thousand worries at this point in the gardening year.

This is the time of year when my garden plan is absolutely essential. In mid-August, when I plant the first vegetable seeds, I create a garden map and a week by week to-do list. Every task—planting seeds, preparing garden beds, potting up seedlings, installing or fixing irrigation lines, netting crops, etc—is added to the list on the appropriate weekend from August to mid-November when I finally plant out the last vegetables. Each weekend, I need only worry about the items on the list for that weekend. I can ignore the burgeoning weeds in one place, and the swaths of winter-feral garden in another, because I know that those areas are on the list—I’ve got a plan that will make sure that by the time a plant is ready to go into the garden, the garden will be ready for it.

Of course, sometimes things get out of hand—a week of warm wet weather might speed up weed growth, or an unexpected frost might nail some tender plants and require replanting. I’m always adjusting the list, adding things or shifting tasks from one week to another, but having the plan means I can stop panicking. It means I don’t prepare a bed so early, that it needs to be weeded again before I can plant in it. It means I don’t forget to do an important task at the right time. It means that, if I spend a weekend hiking, I know exactly what I need to accomplish in the evenings during the following week in order to catch up on the work.

In short, it means I can relax and enjoy springtime—enjoy the work, rather than stress about it.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my stacks of lists and hyper-organised garden schedule. But here in the thick of springtime planting, I’m extremely thankful for the part of me that insists on organisation.

Sunshine in a Teacup

I woke up to the sound of rain today. Not an unwelcome sound—the seedlings in the garden will appreciate it. Still, a rainy day inspires a certain amount of decadent self-care to banish the mental chill (even if it is perfectly comfortable indoors). 

My decadence this morning came in the form of pulling out a Sunday teacup for my coffee. 

We bought two of these cups at Driving Creek Railway in the Coromandel a few years ago—a Christmas gift to ourselves, and a real splurge. They’ve become our special occasion coffee mugs—used on Sunday mornings and Christmas Day only. In my mind, they’re associated with relaxation, holiday, and decadence.

So on this rainy morning, with a day of intense work on the next novel ahead of me (and no sunny-day excuses to get me out of it), I thought I needed a little motivation in the form of a special vessel for my coffee. A tiny thing, but it has made my day sunny, despite the rain outside.