Nursery web spiders

The nursery web spider (Dolomedes minor) is one of New Zealand’s larger spiders, in spite of it’s species name. At this time of the year, it’s also one of the more visible spiders, or at least its webs are.

Nursery web spiders don’t use webs to catch food. Instead, they use their silk to create shelters for their eggs and newly-hatched young. These shelters are visible in late summer and autumn on the tips of shrubby plants, especially gorse.

The female spider can sometimes be seen hanging around the web during the day. In fact, if she’s nearby, its hard to miss her, with a body nearly two centimetres long, and a leg span reaching six centimetres.

The nursery web isn’t the only care the nursery web spider gives her young. Until the spiderlings are near to hatching, she carries the egg sac with her to protect it. The young hatch out inside the nursery web, staying within the web’s protection for about a week.

The spiderlings disperse by ballooning—they let out a strand of silk until the force of the wind blowing on it is greater than their own weight, and then they float away on the end of the thread to a new home.

Like other members of the genus Dolomedes, the nursery web spider is an ambush hunter, chasing down its prey on foot. But most other Dolomedes do this exclusively on or in water, whereas the nursery web spider hunts on land as well as water, eating a wide range of invertebrates.

Home Fires Burning

Cat enjoying a good book by the fire.

I woke yesterday morning shivering under the summer quilt on the bed after a restless night listening to icy rain on the roof.

Time to switch to winter mode, I suppose.

I lit the first fire of the season.

It wasn’t long before the cat joined me by the fire. Then my daughter, then my husband, then my son…Nothing like a hearth to draw everyone together.

I think about the angst over today’s youth, separated from face-to-face interactions by their devices, and I think that perhaps what we all need are small, poorly insulated houses heated by inefficient wood burners. In a big, centrally heated house, it’s easy for everyone to retreat to their own rooms—shut the door, pull out the phone and troll the internet. But in our house, the only comfortable room in the winter is the 3×4 m living room. A teen who retreats to their room and shuts the door pretty quickly returns to warm up by the fire.

Yes, we may all sit here doing our own thing, but by gathering around the fire together, we share what we’re doing with each other. Someone might share a good line from the book they’re reading, or show a dumb cat video they thought was funny, or ask for help on a maths problem. Simply by virtue of proximity, we connect in other ways.

I will admit that on winter mornings, crawling out of a warm bed into the freezing air to light the fire, I dream of luxuries like heat pumps. And sometimes it would be really nice to have some space to myself, rather than do my knitting cheek-by-jowl with a teenager practicing a new juggling trick. But on the whole, I suspect the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. We humans are hardwired to sit around the fire talking to one another. Our ways of relating to one another, passing on wisdom and culture, and finding our place in a community evolved around the fire.

So, again this winter, I will keep the home fires burning.

The Pumpkin Fairy

It was most certainly the year of the cucurbit—from an abundance of cucumbers to an avalanche of zucchini, to a mountain of melons, and finally, more pumpkins than we can possibly eat.

My daughter picked about three-quarters of the pumpkins over the weekend—the total came to exactly 100, some of which are 15 kg behemoths. That’s a lot of pumpkin. That’s eating pumpkin every three days for a year. That’s only three-quarters of the pumpkins from this year’s garden!

The kids think I should start dropping pumpkins off on random people’s doorsteps—a sort of Pumpkin Fairy. It would certainly get rid of the excess pumpkins, but I wonder what people would think to find a pumpkin on their doorstep …

Would you like to be visited by the Pumpkin Fairy?

Growing Gifts

The first neighbourly gift I was given when we moved into our house twelve and a half years ago was a handful of dried scarlet runner bean pods for seed. A couple of weeks ago, I harvested the twelfth batch of seed from the descendants of those first beans. The neighbour who gave me those beans has since moved away, and I haven’t seen her for years. But her gift still feeds us every year.

Another friend gave us a few raspberry canes about ten years ago. Those raspberries (and their descendant cuttings) now fill a thirty-metre long bed, and yield large quantities of fruit each summer.

A few years after the raspberries, my husband drove one of my son’s classmates and his dad to a school outing. In exchange, the dad gave us a couple of gooseberry plants. A few strategic cuttings, and we now pick almost more gooseberries than we know what to do with each year.

Around the same time, one of my husband’s colleagues was pulling out some artichoke plants, and asked if we wanted a few. I’ve divided those plants twice since then, and we now eat more artichokes than anyone should be allowed to.

For a gardener, these are the best gifts—divisions, cuttings, and seeds from cherished plants. They are gifts that may seem small at the time, but they grow every year.

Belated Poetry Day

I missed World Poetry Day last week, so here’s a belated poem in honour of the day, inspired by the little spider who has built its web over the kitchen window.

David and Goliath

Honeybee caught
In a spider web
Buzzes murder to
All eight-leggers,
Stinger stabbing at
Offending silk.

Alerted,
Out rushes
The tiny spider,
Dwarfed
By its angry prey.

Dart in,
Avoid the sting,
Dart out.
Throw silk with
Frantic hind legs.
Tangle wings, tangle legs.
Dart in.
Avoid the sting.
Bite.
Dart out.
More silk.
More silk.

Bee’s wings are stilled
Though she still buzzes
A warning,
As though through
Gritted teeth.

More silk.
More silk.
Dart in.
Bite again.
Dart out.

The bee’s movements slow.
Abdomen goes slack.
Legs twitch once.
Twice.

More silk.
More silk.

David slays Goliath.

Can’t Stand the Heat?

Chilli peppers are one of the prettiest plants in the garden. It’s no wonder there are so many varieties grown largely for their ornamental value.

But I appreciate my chillies for their kick as well as their glossy leaves and cheerful fruit. Unfortunately, chillies are tropical plants, and many varieties need a longer, hotter growing season than I can provide here, even under cover.

Two varieties, however, regularly produce well.

Jalapeño Early—I can’t grow normal Jalapeños, but this variety is a week or two quicker to produce, and that’s enough. One of my favourite chillies because its low heat level (2,500-8,000 Scoville Heat Units) means you can load a dish with them and enjoy the other flavours they impart along with the heat.

Thai Super Chilli—At 40,000 to 50,000 Scoville Units, these peppers are significantly hotter than Jalapeños. Just one of these little gems gives a nice kick to a dish. I particularly like these chillies because they dry well in beautiful strings hanging in the kitchen. They’re easy to grow and preserve, and they lend beauty to the garden and the kitchen all year.

A couple plants of each of these peppers is plenty to grow a year’s supply of spicy goodness, but you know I can’t stop there. I usually plant at least one other mildly spicy pepper. this year, it was Cherry Large Hot. Similar to Jalapeños for heat, these chillies really serve no purpose for me except as a beautiful red contrast to the green Jalapeños in salsas and pickled peppers. Good enough reason for me to plant them!

Equinox Accounting

Happy Equinox!

It is the autumnal equinox, and fittingly, our weather today has started out pure summer heat, and is predicted to turn to wintery wind and rain later on. I can see the clouds piling up to the south as the front approaches.

There are still plenty of summer crops coming out of the garden, but the equinox is a good time to evaluate what worked and what didn’t this past summer.

It was an extreme summer, so there’s no saying this year’s performance will hold in future years, but new varieties that did well include:

Tomato Indigo Apple—I blogged about this beauty when it first began to ripen. It has proven itself over the season, producing plentiful, delicious and attractive fruits that ripened early and continue to ripen as other varieties are giving up for the year.

Tomato Oxheart—This variety was also new to me this year, and it did well enough to deserve another go. The almost disturbingly heart-shaped (as in ox heart, not love heart) fruits were flavourful and plentiful.

Onion Pearl Drop—Cute and fast-growing. I’ll plant these again.

Watermelon Sweet Red—It might have simply been the weather this summer, but Sweet red matured more quickly and produced more fruit than Rapid Red, which I’ve planted in past years. I’ll be curious to see how it does in a cooler summer.

Varieties that didn’t grow so well:

Eggplant Container Pick—I was excited by this smaller variety of eggplant, as mine always end up pressed against the top of the low tunnel I grow them in, but these seeds didn’t even germinate.

Tomato Russian Red—This isn’t a new variety for me. Usually Russian Red, bred for its ability to withstand and produce well in cool temperatures, is my best producer. This year, the plants spent most of their energy on vegetative production, growing to massive leafy plants without actually producing much fruit. And the fruit they did produce was so hidden in all the greenery that I missed half of it. It won’t stop me from planting Russian Red in the future, but it emphasises to me the need to plant a mix of varieties, as year-to-year differences in weather can make a big difference in production.

Pole Bean Jackson Wonder—The jury is still out on this bean, but poor germination and slow growth mean I still haven’t harvested any of these lima beans. There are plenty of pods on the plants, but whether they will fill out properly before frost kills them is debatable. My guess is that in a normal summer here, they wouldn’t have a chance—they appear to need too long a growing season.