Autumnal Assessment

It’s been just two weeks since I blogged about a late summer garden, and now autumn has truly set in.

tick bean in freshly fertilised garden beds
Tick bean green manure planted next to furrows filled with cow manure.

I harvested much of the remaining sweet corn, and it is now in the freezer. The pumpkin vines are beginning to die off, as are the tomatoes, cucumbers and basil. We’ve been eating lovely melons, but their days are numbered.

It is cool and drizzly today—feels like autumn.

Taking stock of how things have grown this year, it’s clear that the cow manure I incorporated into the garden over winter did amazing things. Overall, this year’s crops produced much better than last year’s. Corn in beds that got manure is twice the height of corn in beds that got none. I’ve come quite a ways from the practically nutrient-free clay I started with two years ago. 

There’s still a long way to go, though. All the plants are showing nutrient deficiency at this point of the year, and none have grown as well as they did in my old garden.

So I’ve started fertilising early this autumn. As crops have finished, I’ve been clearing garden beds and incorporating manure. With luck, I’ll be able to incorporate poo into all the beds this winter (I ran out of time last year because my weekly manure supply is limited to the production of the neighbour’s two cows.)

I’ve also included a lot of manure in this year’s compost pile. By spring, I hope to have a good six cubic metres of nutrient-rich compost to add to the garden as well. It feels good to be reclaiming this stripped paddock, restoring the mauri (life force) of the soil. I can’t wait to see how things grow next year.

Late Summer Garden

March first is considered the start of autumn here in New Zealand. As far as the garden is concerned, it’s still late summer. It’s been a cool, wet February, which has delayed crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. The extra moisture has meant bigger watermelons, though they’re ripening slowly. Sweet corn is coming on, and we’ve had some lovely meals of it, along with the first of the melons. I’ve harvested the potatoes, dry beans, and most of the soy. The pumpkins are looking gorgeous, and I’m sure we’ll have more than we can eat this winter. 

Overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the garden this year. Plants are showing nutrient deficiency, for sure, but they’ve done remarkably well, considering where I started two years ago. It’s clear my applications of manure and compost are having a positive effect. And it’s just as clear it will take quite a few years to build this soil up to full productivity. 

I thought I’d treat you to a selection of images from around the garden on a beautiful crisp early autumn day. It may not be as productive as I’d like, but it’s still glorious.

The Waiting Game

This time of year can be agonising. Out in the garden, the tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, cucumbers and carrots are all producing beautifully—there’s more food than we know what to do with.

But.

The sweet corn, melons, pears and apples are still sitting there, ever so slowly maturing and ripening. I try not to check them every day—I try to be patient. If I tested one apple on our tiny trees every day, there would be none left by the time they were actually ripe. But it’s hard to be patient while awaiting such seasonal treats. And the worst thing is to NOT check and go out a few days later to find the possums have eaten them all, because they ripened while you weren’t looking.

So I tap that watermelon—does it sound hollow? I check its underside—it’s bright yellow, but I know that no matter what the books say, it doesn’t signal ripeness; it’s been yellow underneath since the fruit was the size of my fist. I peel back the husks on an ear of corn to peek at the kernels—are they plump yet? I bite into an apple, hoping for sweet, not astringent.

After decades of gardening, I’m still impatient for the fleeting pleasures of fresh sweet corn and melons, apple pie and pear tarts. I reckon that’s a good sign—I still get a thrill from the chase, the anticipation.

And one of these days soon … there will be watermelon on the table.

Feathered Friend

The vast majority of the birds in our yard are non-native invasive pests—English sparrows, European starlings, blackbirds, goldfinches and song thrushes wreak havoc in the garden. They eat fruits and vegetables, dig up seedlings, spread mulch all over the lawn, and strip young plants of leaves. If I could net the entire yard to keep them all out I would.

But some of the avian visitors to our place are welcome. The fantails that flit in and out of the house snapping up flies are a delight. The silvereyes picking aphids off the trees are both adorable and helpful. And the magpies may be noisy and aggressive, but they are quite entertaining as they dive bomb the cat or squabble with each other.

The tall trees across the road from our place are home to a host of white-faced herons. They croak and grumble among the branches like modern pterodactyls, and I love to watch them winging home in the evenings, landing awkwardly before settling down for the night. 

They rarely give our yard a second glance, but for the past week, a young heron has taken a liking to our porch and front garden. 

There’s something wrong with him. I say that not because of his interest in our porch—it is a nice place to hang out—but because his legs are oddly splayed and he wobbles when he walks. Still, he seems to be holding his own, and he has no trouble flying out of range of the cat when he comes stalking. It’s possible his flight is impaired as well, and that’s why he’s foraging close to home in our garden. Or maybe he’s discovered our soil has lots of worms to offer. Either way, I wouldn’t mind if this bird stuck around.

10 Garden Hacks

A few days ago on an online group I’m part of, someone asked about people’s life hacks.

I thought about it for a while and realised that I spend so much time in the garden, that my ‘life’ hacks are mostly garden hacks.

So here is a list of 10 of my many garden hacks:

  1. Cut up empty milk bottles to use as plant tags.
  2. Give your chickens the run of the vegetable garden during winter—they’ll keep pests and weeds down and make springtime garden prep easier.
  3. Recycle old cotton sheets and clothes, and raffia baskets as biodegradable plant ties.
  4. When picking carrots, water well about an hour beforehand—the soft soil will make the carrots easier to pull.
  5. When thinning carrots, remove the largest plants first—the small ones will grow, and you’ll be able to eat your thinnings.
  6. Instead of tossing empty juice bottles in the recycling bin, fill them with water and line them up in the greenhouse—they’ll store heat during the day and release it at night. Paint them black for even more heat absorption.
  7. Fill plant pots with cement to use as weights for things like bird nets and row covers. Give them wire handles threaded with a short section of irrigation pipe so they’re easy to move around.
  8. Whenever you cook something, like pasta, that is boiled and drained, save the boiling water and pour it on weeds to kill them instead of sending it down the drain.
  9. Plant summer lettuces in the shade of tall crops like corn to keep them from bolting too quickly.
  10. Plant rangy crops like pumpkins next to early crops like brassicas—by the time the pumpkins grow large, the brassicas are gone and the pumpkins have space to sprawl.

Black Currant Pie

I have blogged about black currant pie before, but it’s worth doing again. This year’s black currant harvest was overwhelming, not just because it came in the two weeks on either side of Christmas, but also because it was huge. It didn’t help that the red currants also gave a hefty crop at precisely the same time. For two weeks, I felt like all I did was pick and process currants.

Well, and eat them, too.

We use currants in ice cream, crisps, cobblers, fruit salads, and smoothies, but my favourite way to eat them is in pie.

Black currant pie is not for the sour-averse—it is a full-bodied, knock-your-socks-off type flavour. To me it is the flavour of summer. And because it works equally well with frozen berries, I always try to save enough so I can make black currant pie on the winter solstice and dream of long summer days in the chill and dark of winter. 

So revel in the intense flavours of summer and enjoy a slice of black currant pie. You can download a pdf of this recipe here.

Crust:
¾ cup all purpose flour
¾ cup wholemeal flour
¼  tsp salt
60 g butter
60 g Olivani
3-4 Tbsp ice water

Filling:
4-6 cups black currants
½ cup sugar
2 Tbsp flour

Topping:
2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts (or rolled oats)
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
75 g butter, melted

Crust:
Whisk together the flours and salt in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter and Olivani with a pastry knife until the largest chunks of butter are the size of small peas. Sprinkle the ice water over the flour mixture and combine with a fork until evenly moistened. Knead lightly, just until it forms a coherent dough (it will be crumbly). refrigerate while you prepare the filling and  topping.

Filling:
Combine sugar and flour in a small bowl. Mix with stemmed, washed black currants and set aside.

Topping:
Combine the flour, walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Stir in the butter with a fork until evenly moistened and crumbly.

Roll out the crust and place in a 23 cm pie pan. Pour the filling into the pan and sprinkle evenly with the topping. Bake at 200°C for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 170°C and bake another 30 minutes.

Serve with a generous dollop of whipped cream.

Summer Fruits

strawberries and rhubarb

Before our house was even staked out on the ground, we knew where the vegetable garden and berry fruits were going to be planted. We began preparing the garden months before the builders arrived. We took cuttings from berries at the old house, and were planting well-rooted currants and gooseberries as we finalised the design for the house. We tried to avoid mistakes we made at the last house—just one, not two, rows of bushes per bed, to make picking easier, and fewer plants overall. No need to be overwhelmed with fruit.

Last year, we harvested a handful of fruit from the currants, gooseberries, raspberries and boysenberries. The strawberries gushed fruit for the better part of the year. For barely established plants, they did well. 

This year, with most of the plants well established, we’re inundated with berries—so much for not being overwhelmed. The week before Christmas was a frenzy of fruit processing—we froze fresh fruit and fruit puree, made several batches of jam, and ate a whole lot of fruit pie, trifle and fresh berries.

Upon our return from our Christmas trip, there were even more berries ready to pick. We made more jam, preserved more whole fruit, made more pie, and have been eating fruit five times a day. The cupboard is once again packed with jam, and the freezer is stuffed with frozen berries. Thankfully, the currants and gooseberries are nearly done producing, but the raspberries and boysenberries are still going strong. The strawberries are finished with their first heavy crop, but should maintain a level of output we can easily eat for the next few months. I’m thankful the grapes are only in their first year and the blueberries aren’t doing as well as the other berries—not that I don’t want grapes or blueberries, but I’m worried about freezer and cupboard space.

lemon raspberry cake
Lemon raspberry cake

At least the fruit trees are still young—we got a handful of cherries, and will have a few pears, apples, and peaches if we’re lucky, but shouldn’t be overwhelmed.

It’s a lovely problem to have. With the summer vegetables coming on strong, too, there is a real sense of abundance in the house—a great way to start the new year.

The Gift of Rain

purple cauliflower
Purple cauliflower enjoying the rain

It’s unusual to have three days of rain in December. Usually, I’m desperately trying to keep the garden watered while the vegetables are in their early summer growth phase. Usually, I’m doing a pre-Christmas weeding of vegetables and perennials that will carry me into January with minimal weeds.

Not this year. It has been raining steadily for three days, after a week or so of showery weather. Every inch of the garden is thick with weeds, and continued rain means I’m not out there pulling them as they grow in size by the hour. I’ve braved the rain to pick vegetables for dinner and berries, which are rotting in the wet weather, but otherwise I’ve stayed indoors for three days.

I’m restless to get outside.

But I’m also thrilled with the excuse not to. Usually in December, I don’t manage to do much beyond garden work. So three days to make Christmas gifts, write, and get some nagging indoor chores done has been a gift.

It’s also been a gift to the garden. Much as I try, I can’t duplicate in watering the effect of a good rainstorm. The vegetables are growing as quickly as the weeds. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage  are all ready to eat. The pumpkin and zucchini plants seem to double in size every few hours. The beans have completely filled in their beds, beating out the weeds entirely. And the peas and lettuce have gotten a new lease on life, and will likely last a few more weeks than they would have otherwise.

So while I’d still rather be out in the garden, both me and the garden are taking full advantage of the gift we’ve been given.

cat at a window
The cat is a master of rainy day activity.

Fruits of the Season

strawberries and rhubarb

I made strawberry rhubarb jam last weekend, marking the beginning of the Christmas season. Currants, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, and blueberries are also beginning to colour up.

The peas are filling out so fast it’s hard to keep up with them, and every broccoli plant is sporting a ready-to-eat flower head. Carrots and onions are just hitting picking size, adding crunch and colour to meals.

The cabbages are bulking up, promising to be ready for sauerkraut making on Christmas eve (our ‘traditional’ sauerkraut making day). And the broad beans are all ready to eat, and coming to their glorious end.

In short, the summer cornucopia is filling up and spilling over.

We will host fourteen people for dinner tomorrow, and I hardly have to hit the grocery store to feed everyone. Some alcohol and cheese is all I need to supplement what’s in the garden (need being a loosely applied term here, of course). It’s what I love most about a summertime Christmas—the sense of abundance that accompanies the celebrations.

vegetables from the garden

Of course, the garden’s abundance also means there’s an extra pile of holiday work picking and preserving, weeding and watering all that produce. But there’s something festive about the work when you can hum Christmas carols while you’re at it. The piles of fresh vegetables and summer fruit in the kitchen are the reward for every tired muscle and late-evening preserving session. And thankfully, we’ve got long summer days in which to get all the work done.

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.