When Everything is a Gift

My stunted yellow corn.

I never expected much from this year’s vegetable garden. The soil test revealed a virtually sterile substrate, nutrient-free, stripped by decades of conventional agriculture and then scraped by the developer’s bulldozers. It will take years to improve the soil to the levels of my old garden. In the first year, I figured I’d be lucky to coax a few meals out of the garden.

There’s no question the vegetables I planted are suffering. The plants are half the size they should be, and many are yellow and senescing early for lack of nutrients.

But the compost, manure, and other organic fertiliser I’ve incorporated into the soil have done some good. We have plenty of onions, cucumbers, carrots, herbs and green beans. We are overwhelmed with zucchini. The soy beans and dry beans will all give harvests. Pumpkins swell on their vines. We’ve even eaten a few melons.

Every fruit feels like a gift.

I could be dismayed at the state of the garden—corn only waist high, tomatoes ripening at golf ball size, potatoes decimated by disease … but I know what the plants are up against. I know how hard they’re working to produce anything. I admire their effort and determination.

So, in spite of how pathetic the garden is, I am pleased. I feel blessed at every meal, and I look forward to an even better year next year.

It’s Okay to Wilt

Last week, the temperature hit 38ºC (100ºF) two days in a row. Working at home those days, I sat on the polished concrete floor, because it remained a few degrees cooler than the air, which was blowing hot and dry from the northwest. My phone and computer kept overheating, and eventually I shut them down and switched to pen and paper.

At some point, I commented to my husband about the sad state of the vegetables in the garden. Every leaf was wilted, and the plants looked like they were only barely alive, in spite of the watering I’d done the previous day.

“Yes,” he remarked. “But remember, they’re supposed to do that.”

He’s right—wilting is part of a plant’s way of coping with heat. Wilted leaves expose less surface directly to the sun, conserving water and keeping temperatures within the leaf cooler. A wilted plant can’t grow or photosynthesise—permanent wilting is fatal—but it can allow the plant to survive while conditions are harsh so it can continue to thrive when conditions improve.

It strikes me that wilting is a lesson we could all learn from plants: ease up when times are tough.

How many of us have expected to keep going at our usual pace through all of life’s struggles—illness, children, death of loved ones, earthquakes, pandemic … I know I’ve been irritated with myself, pushed harder, forced myself through difficulties at full pace, only to find I didn’t actually move at the speed I wanted, or I messed things up and had to do them a second time, or I simply made my eventual collapse worse.

How much better would I have done if I’d allowed myself to wilt before the point of collapse? Maybe I could have asked for help, or lowered my standards, or simply given myself permission to relax for fifteen minutes, an hour, an afternoon.

I’ve gotten better at wilting—the wisdom of 50 years of life—but I could still improve. I just need to remember the garden during a summer heat wave.

Inspirational Flavours

I was surfing the internet last week for something different to do with lentils and found a recipe for an intriguing lentil stew topped with roast broccolini and lemon on Bon Apetit’s website (Marinated Lentils with Lemony Broccolini and Feta).

I didn’t have broccolini, but I did have an overabundance of zucchini (surprise, surprise … It’s January; of course I have too many zucchini).

I was intrigued by the idea of roasting lemon, so I substituted zucchini and spring onions for the broccolini in the recipe, vaguely took inspiration from the herbs and spices in the lentils, and ran with it.

The result was delicious and refreshingly different from my normal lentils. The roast lemon was good—sour, bitter, and slightly caramelised. It enhanced the lightness of the vegetables and was quite pretty, too. And the spicy, tangy lentils were a nice complement to the vegetables. I can envision the dish working well with many different vegetables—eggplant, green beans, even beetroot—a great way to highlight an individual vegetable against the richness of lentils.

It’s gotten me thinking about other places I might include roast lemon slices—in mixed roast vegetables over couscous, in a lemon/butter sauce over pumpkin ravioli, floating atop a bowl of vegetable soup … there are lots of intriguing options. I love when a recipe inspires new ways to prepare old ingredients.

Duck for Christmas

In the excitement of our pre-Christmas hike, I forgot to introduce the newest members of our menagerie—a pair of Indian runner ducks.

I looked into getting ducks years ago, based on the fact they like slugs, won’t tear up the vegetable garden, and lay eggs. I gravitated toward Indian runner ducks for their quirky looks and less water-dependent lifestyle. 

I ended up with chickens instead, because they were easy to get locally, and ducks were more difficult.

Three laying hens is about right for us, in terms of eggs. Unfortunately, a few months ago, before I had a proper fence constructed, one of my chickens escaped and never returned. So we’ve been a little light on eggs.

When someone posted in our community Facebook page (two days before our trip) that they had Indian runner ducks to give away, I couldn’t pass up the chance.

These two are ducklings, and won’t be giving eggs for a while (if they’re even females … we’re not certain), but they’ve been quite entertaining, and I look forward to letting them loose in the vegetable garden once I’ve finished the fence.

The chickens, with whom they’re housed, weren’t at all amused at first and are still thoroughly offended when the ducks go for a swim in the drinking water, but for the most part the birds ignore each other.

I look forward to finishing the entire garden fence so I can let the ducks loose among the vegetables. 

Carrot Surprise

I’m expecting the worst from this year’s vegetable garden. Loosening the heavy clay soil as I prepare beds can feel like chipping at concrete. I fill a bucket with rocks every two square metres. At best, I’m able to loosen the top seven centimetres. And with the soil test having revealed shockingly low levels of NPK, there’s little hope for a bumper crop.

So it was a huge surprise to lift the frost cloth from my carrot plantings to find the best germination I’ve ever had. At the old house, I sometimes had to plant twice because carrot germination was so patchy. Some varieties barely germinated at all.

Now it looks like I’ve grossly over-planted—I swear every seed germinated—all five varieties.

I planted on the same date, with the same care afterwards as I have in the past. The weather wasn’t much different from weather at the old place. The only real difference was the soil. Go figure.

Maybe it was a fluke; I had occasional good years at the old house. And who knows how the carrots will grow now they’ve sprouted.

But it’s nice to have something go better than expected in this sad soil.

Part-Time Ducks

Ordinarily, I’d be annoyed if the neighbour’s livestock made a habit of hanging out in my garden. At the old house, a mob of sheep would occasionally take a detour into the yard while being driven past. And I remember a bunch of cows grazing their way through the vegetable garden once when I was a kid. Those experiences were always destructive.

But one of the neighbours at our new place lets her livestock roam the neighbourhood, and I find it quite pleasing. They are a perfect pair of ducks—one all white, one all black (I’ve dubbed them Ebony and Ivory, of course). Watching them cruising the neighbourhood somehow makes me happy. Their owner occasionally comes out to the road to shoo them back home, but most of the time, they roam freely. 

For a long time, they avoided our place, waddling around next door, across the street, down the road … But this week, they discovered the wealth of slugs in our garden. They’ve been spending a few hours every day waddling up and down the rows of perennial crops, probing the mulch and quacking contentedly to one another.

I appreciate their gentle pest control operations in our garden, particularly since they come with no obligations on my part. I’ve seriously considered getting ducks in the past, primarily for slug control, but I never followed through. In the end they were always just more animals to have to care for. So part-time ducks are exactly my sort of livestock. They show up for work, put in a few hours, then head off to someone else’s yard. 

I hope they’re giving their owner lots of eggs.

Happiness is a Kitchen Full of Baked Goods

The weekend was crazy-busy with garden work. Saturday, I worked from 7 am to 6 pm weeding, mulching, digging post holes. Sunday’s schedule was similar, but I stopped around 3 pm because the final job on the list was planting out lettuce seedlings, and the weather (hot and with severe gales) was sure to kill them all. Besides, I could barely move—back, arms, hands and feet all hurt from the punishing work. All I wanted to do was collapse.

Except that I wanted to collapse with baked goods in hand.

So instead of sitting down, I baked. Apricot tart for dessert, and a double batch of Irish coffee crunchies (from The Gourmet Cookie Book) for lunches. Baking made me forget my tired body for a couple of hours. As I pulled the last of the cookies from the oven, I was on a roll. I started in on chopping vegetables for dinner. While dinner cooked I filled the cookies with icing and finished cleaning the kitchen, so that by the time dinner came out of the oven, the cookie jar was filled, the tart was waiting to be cut, and all the dishes were washed.

I could barely sit upright long enough to eat dinner.

But every time I’ve been in the kitchen since then, I’ve looked at those baked goods and smiled. Okay, and maybe I’ve snitched a cookie too, but don’t tell anyone. 

Happiness is definitely a full cookie jar.

New Garden Challenges

We’re nearing the end of September and the garden work is ramping up. It’s exciting watching the new garden come together, even if it is moving more slowly than I’d hoped.

Everything is new this year, and it’s no surprise problems are cropping up. I’ve already lost most of my first tomato planting to frost, because I don’t have a heated indoor place to start my seeds anymore. I could have prevented the loss and brought the plants indoors for the night, but I haven’t had to worry about that for years … I’ve learnt now, so hopefully won’t get caught out again.

I’ve created my garden plan based on planting at the old house, but as I start to plant out peas, lettuce and spinach, I’m finding the need to adjust. How does one convert a set of six to seven metre long beds and a few odd-shaped ones to a rank of 3-metre and 8-metre ones? Add to that the fact the soil is dramatically different at the new place, and I don’t know how all the plants will respond to it and to the amendments I’ve added (cow poo, organic fertiliser, compost, green manure). Will my carrots be harvesting size before the zucchinis sprawl across their bed? Will the lettuces grow quickly enough to self-mulch? After fifteen years at the old place, I knew intuitively how each crop grew, how to get the most from the space I had by timing plantings and spacings, which varieties did best.

This year, I’m starting practically from scratch. I will plant as I am used to planting, because it’s a place to start, but I’ll be taking copious notes. Next year, I’ll have more information to go on, and the following year I’ll have more … and some day, planting at the new place will be as second-nature as it was at the old place.

Welcome Spring!

It’s the first day of spring.

So, naturally, it’s snowing.

But the daffodils are flowering, the willows are greening up, and pine pollen billows from the neighbour’s trees. Regardless of what the sky is dropping on us, spring is here.

And not a moment too soon. Like most people around the world, we feel like the past six or seven months have dragged on for decades. Can I even remember the TBC (Time Before Covid)?

For us, lockdown began during a glorious Indian summer. Warm sunny days begged for last-chance trips to the beach. Trips we couldn’t take, trapped in our bubbles and stuck on foot.

By the time we were released from lockdown, summer had given way to chill autumn rain and frosty days.

Living in our shed through lockdown, then beyond and well into winter, we felt the season’s bite early and hard. We lived in the cold shed forever, and we would live there always … at least that’s how it felt. Every icy day was a year long.

Finally, we moved into our new house. It was (and still is) glorious—a warm dry refuge from the weather.

But winter was still grinding away outside. With landscaping only partly finished, the yard was a mire of wet clay and puddles. We were still trapped indoors. Even the novelty of a warm dry house wasn’t enough to speed the days along. Time dragged its feet. Winter moved at a toddler’s pace. I couldn’t go yet—it had to get its coat and shoes. Then it lost a glove and spent a month looking for it among a drift of discarded outdoor gear.

So it was a spectacular feeling to boot winter out the door—gloveless still—when I planted the season’s first vegetable seeds last weekend. It was an act of defiance to turn garden beds, and ready the greenhouse for newly-sprouted seedlings.

I look forward to the growing season ahead. Welcome spring!

Weeding Magpies

Photo: Eric Weiss

We’re still getting to know the local wildlife at the new house. The marauding sparrows are pretty much the same—devouring young lettuce and chicken feed in large flocks. The black-backed gull’s evening flights to their nightly roos on the gravel banks of the Waimakariri River are also familiar—though at the old house, the birds were headed to the sea.

The magpies are also familiar, but I’ve noticed some intriguing behaviour here that was absent at the old house.

The magpies here are weeding my garden.

Well okay, not really. Not on purpose. But they’re doing a nice job of it, regardless.

Our yard and garden here are cursed with wire weed. This aggressive plant’s long tough branches sprawl up to a metre or more from a strong central tap root. They tangle in the lawnmower and garden tools, and can trip the unwary. Their only saving grace is that, at least in our lousy soil, their foliage is small and sparse—they may tangle all through my crops, but at least they don’t smother other plants entirely.

And apparently, they make superior magpie nesting material. For weeks, the local magpies have been avidly stripping wire weed from the garden and hauling it to the tops of the pine trees across the road. They started with the easily obtained dead plants that I’d pulled out and left lying about. But now they’re ripping up live plants and taking them away by the beakful.

All the more reason to love these feisty feathered thugs.