Spring Weeds–Dock

Springtime is weed season, and there are plenty in my garden–57 species at last count.

I grumble about weeds, but I also find them fascinating. Weeds are the opportunists, the survivors, the tough and persistent plants of the world. Some have been spread accidentally, through virtue of their mobile, sticky, or tough seeds, but many more have been introduced on purpose. They are plants we once considered useful, and it is our changing values that make them weeds today.

So I’ll be introducing some of my weeds over the next few weeks as they sprout and flower and generally annoy me. We’ll start today with a weed I love to hate–broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius).

Dock isn’t my worst weed. Not by a long shot. But it is persistent. Deep, branching taproots make it a struggle to pull out, and with each plant able to produce up to 60,000 seeds a year which can remain viable in the soil for up to 50 years, there is an unending supply of new plants. Still, dock struggles to compete with established plants, so it’s mostly a weed of disturbed soil.

The goats absolutely love it, so I can’t complain there. Dock is high in magnesium, phosphate, and potassium, and the tannins in the leaves can help prevent bloat in ruminants. Any dock I pull out of the garden goes directly to the goats.

It is likely dock was brought to New Zealand (from its native Europe) on purpose in the mid-1800s. Though the leaves are high in oxalates, which can irritate the stomach and bind to calcium, potentially leading to calcium deficiency, the plant was regularly eaten like spinach. It was also used to treat a variety of ailments, from coughs to cancer.

Dock often grows side by side with stinging nettle and, like many nettle associates, it can supposedly cure nettle stings. I’ve used dock for this purpose, and can attest that it seems to help, but then so does just about any fresh leaf rubbed on nettle stings.

I wouldn’t want to fight dock on a large scale–it scoffs at most herbicides, easily survives mowing, and can resprout from pieces of root left in the soil after ploughing–but for me, it’s a manageable weed that even has some utility.


Gate Sales

I picked up a kilo of honey and a lovely variegated sage plant while I waited for my son at piano lessons today. And I didn’t step into a grocery store or a nursery.

One of my favourite aspects of New Zealand life is the practice of ‘gate sales’–selling your produce at the farm gate. Gate sale setups can be elaborate, like the beautiful flower cart one of the local daffodil farms uses, or they can be simply a table or box by the side of the road. They operate on an honour system–there’s no one there to make sure you pay–you simply drop your money into a box. Theft does happen–I know from my own experience–but most people are honest.

I’ve seen all sorts of things for sale on the roadside–all manner of vegetables, eggs, walnuts, plants, honey, in-season fruits, flowers–whatever the grower has in abundance. And it’s not just commercial growers–did your lemon tree produce a spectacular crop? Sell the excess at the gate. Zucchinis out of control? Sell the them at the gate. I used to pay my entire year’s garden expenses from gate sales of whatever was extra. I’ve gotten better at planning in recent years and have two teenagers in the house now, so I don’t have the same problem with excess produce anymore.

While I don’t sell much anymore, I take full advantage of those who do. I’ll even go out of my way to buy something (like honey) directly from the farm, rather than picking it up at the grocery store. Other times, the farm is much closer than the store. If we’ve run out of potatoes or eggs, all I have to do is walk to the neighbour’s place to get more. I like the idea that my money is going to the producer, and not to all the middlemen. I like fact that whatever I’ve bought has been locally produced. I like the feel of the trust inherent in the transaction. It feels good, neighbourly, and personal.

As we move into spring and summer, gate sales will be increasing. I’ll be ready, with my ’emergency’ stash of loose change in the car so I can stop and pick up whatever is fresh and at the gate today.

It’s Show Time!

We got the annual schedule for the Ellesmere A&P Show the other day. For those of you not familiar with the term, A&P means Agricultural and Pastoral–Farm Shows they’re called in the US.

I grew up enjoying the local Farm Shows, entering bad art projects into the competition, and admiring the rows of cattle on display. As an adult, I was lucky enough to live for several years mere blocks from the Minnesota State Fair–the Farm Show to end all Farm Shows. I even entered a quilt there–won second prize in a category in which I was the only entrant. A feat worthy of mention in the News from Lake Wobegon, if you ask me.

Farm Shows/A&P Shows are a defining cultural experience, but the truth is, you don’t even need to go to the show to have a cultural experience. Reading the show schedule is almost as good.

For example, in the little old Ellesmere show, there are 95 different sheep classes in which one could enter one’s woolly livestock. That doesn’t include the children’s pet classes or the wool classes. And then, of course, there are the shearing and sheep dog competitions. Sheep farming may be on the decline in New Zealand, but it’s still king in Ellesmere.

Dairy has boomed in recent years, and there are quite a large number of dairy classes in which aspiring farmers can enter their bovines. The lucky winners of many of the dairy classes will receive semen as their prize. Doesn’t that just make you want to enter?

Semen certainly beats the poor dairy goat farmers, who pay $5 to enter a goat, and can only hope for, at best, $5 for first prize.

If you’ve got a dairy animal, it might just win Best Udder (Judged both full and empty–I expect no saggy udders need apply). Now there’s something to aspire to.

One of my favourites is the calf fancy dress class. Nothing like a bunch of calves in tutus and tuxes to make you smile.

And I noticed a new category I never knew existed–Donkey Challenge, judged on ‘willingness, style and accuracy over four challenges’. Now, that’s a competition I may have to make sure I see this year.

But of course, like any rural event, the real excitement is simply the hustle and bustle on the day. The hot chips and mini-donuts, the carnival rides, running into neighbours and people you haven’t seen for months, and celebrating the importance of agriculture in our lives and culture.

Hedge Fortifications

Our usual route to town has been closed for the past couple of weeks, with the flooding of the Selwyn River. Instead of crossing at Coes Ford, we have to drive upstream and cross at the bridge on Leeston Road. It adds about five minutes to the daily commute, but it gives me an excuse to drive past one of my favourite hedges.

Hedges are important out here on the Canterbury Plains. Winds regularly hit 100 kph (62 mph). If the wind isn’t howling from the northwest bringing hot dry weather, it’s probably gusting from the south, carrying rain.

When we first moved into our house, I wasn’t happy about the tall hedge, no more than five metres from the south western wall, that blocks the view and the evening sun. Luckily, we moved in during winter, or we might have cut down the hedge before we fully understood why it was there. After the first screaming southerly storm, I knew that the only reason the house was habitable in winter was because of the hedge.

Hedges protect buildings, crops, and livestock, and most of them are meticulously maintained. The larger hedges are like fortifications, a dozen metres tall and two metres thick. They’re trimmed with strange-looking machines with huge, terrifying spinning blades.

One of my favourite hedges (the one I get to drive past when Coes Ford is closed) is the one in this picture. It is enormous, both in height and length, but I have never seen this hedge looking shaggy, as mine does when it’s in need of a trim. It is always trimmed like chiselled stone. And the marks of the great rotary trimmer blade leave a swirling pattern in the hedge that I find mesmerising. It is almost a work of art.

There are certainly more artistically trimmed hedges–I’ve seen a few clipped into undulating waves, or including graceful archways–but there’s something about this hedge that evokes stone castles. It is artistic in its clean lines and sheer bulk. It’s a hedge to aspire to.


Water Perspective

“The weather’s been shocking! Where did our sunshine go?”

“I don’t know. All this rain is horrible.”

I listened to this conversation with a mixture of amusement and sadness. Amusement, because, though we’ve had seven days of off-and-on drizzle, it’s not been that bad. It’s not been cold or windy, just overcast with some light rain now and then.

Sadness because the conversation revealed how disconnected the speakers were from the desperate state of Canterbury at the moment. Three years of drought have left our streams dry, our groundwater depleted, and our land tinder-dry. The soil is dry as dust for as far down as you want to dig. This rain hasn’t even begun to bring us back to the soil moisture we should have. It has wet the top few centimetres of soil, no more.

The truth is, we need weeks and weeks of steady rain, just to bring us to where we should be at this time of year, then we need a nice wet winter to top us up.

Beachgoers have been spoiled with three years of clear skies and record high temperatures, but if it continues, there will be dire consequences for the region–a region that depends upon irrigated agriculture to fuel the economy. Not to mention the higher water bills, more frequent wildfires, rising electricity costs (because much of our power comes from hydro lakes), and fewer recreational opportunities.

While those of us involved in growing plants and raising livestock understand this intuitively, the majority of folks, living in town and paying little attention to more than the immediate weather conditions, are completely unaware.

It can’t be good, this lack of awareness. Our planet is facing such catastrophic climate change, that a lack of awareness of larger patterns in weather and climate can only lead to continued lack of action to address the issue, a continued blindness to the changes that to me are so clear and convincing.

Until we all understand that having nothing but beautiful beach days isn’t good, our fight against climate change is going to languish.


2017-01-25-14-58-09-smWe don’t often get many greengage plums. Our tree is small, and it sits in a windy location, so many fruits blow down before they are anywhere close to ripe. This year wasn’t too bad–we harvested about three kilos of fruit. Plenty to enjoy.

One of my favourite things to do with summer stone fruits is to make upside down cake. Indeed, I’ve blogged about it three times in the past two years. So today I’ll ignore the cake, and mention the plum, instead.

I didn’t know a lot about greengages before coming to New Zealand, where I found a fair number of people had them growing in their yards.

Greengages are named after Sir William Gage, who imported them to England from France in 1724. The cultivar he imported had another name, but apparently the tag was lost in transit (These were the days before anyone considered biosecurity…Importing a strange plant? Whatever). They were popular in America in the 1700s, but fell out of favour in the 1800s.

According to a 2004 article in the New York Times, there’s good reason greengages fell out of favour. The trees take longer to mature than other plums, they fruit erratically (I thought it was just our tree), the ripe fruit is fragile, and they’re prone to cracking and rotting on the tree. Not exactly an easy plum for commercial production.

But the greengage is considered one of the finest plums for flavour. Grown commercially, it fetches a high price. According to the New York Times article, in 2004 fewer than 100 greengage trees were harvested commercially in the United States. They are more common in Europe and New Zealand. New Zealand exports a small quantity of greengages to the US each year, where they are sold in specialty markets.

So I feel much better about my 3 kilo harvest of greengages. They are wonderful, and if they’re a bit finicky to grow? Well, that just makes them all the more special when we have a good year.

Get Outside—See Cool Stuff

The swarm--apologies for the image quality; I'm allergic to bee stings.

The swarm–apologies for the image quality; I’m allergic to bee stings.

I’m trying to make myself go out for a walk at lunchtime every day. I’ll admit that I can be a bit of a slave driver when I’m working, and I don’t always manage it. I have a tendency to simply work through lunch, and then suddenly discover it’s late afternoon.

In truth, the walks available to me from my front door aren’t necessarily all that inspiring—endless agricultural fields in every direction.

But you can’t experience anything if you don’t first go out. Yesterday, I took the most boring of the boring walks from my house—the one that doesn’t offer so much as a mailbox for the first kilometre. Don’t ask why I chose that way—maybe I wanted to clear my mind, as I’d been doing intense editing all morning.

On this most boring of walks, I happened to see something awesome—a honey bee swarm.

We are blessed with many nearby apiaries, and I always have a plentiful supply of bees to pollinate my garden vegetables, but even so, it’s unusual to spot a swarm. This one was hanging in a drooping mass off the neighbour’s fence.

Bees swarm to create a new colony. It’s usually the old queen who leaves her hive with a large portion of the workers. A new queen will hatch in her absence and take over the old hive.

The swarming bees leave the hive and gather nearby while scout bees search for a new hive location. This is what I saw—the resting swarm. It likely flew away to a new home within a few hours. Where those bees are now, I don’t know, but I hope they found a nice place nearby from which to visit my garden.

So, my most boring walk was amazing. That reminds me, I still haven’t gotten out for a walk today. Time to step away from the desk and get outside. Who knows what I might see?

When the pests are cute

img_2765A month ago, I saw a perfect little bird nest in one of the fruit trees—incredibly tidy, and woven from grass and lichen. It was so pretty, I couldn’t bear to remove it, though I knew it must be the nest of a non-native bird (that’s about all we have here). Starling and house sparrow nests get the heave-ho as soon as I find them. This one…well, I couldn’t possibly disturb something so cute.

I forgot about the nest for several weeks, but today my husband noticed it was chock-full of chicks. Five grey fluffy European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis)—so ugly they were adorable.

We don’t really need any more goldfinches, but since we don’t grow grain, they’re not much of a pest to us. These five chicks, though, will likely join the flock that descends on the neighbours’ fields in late summer. Sorry, guys. If you’d seen this cute nest of chicks, you’d understand.

Fabulous Flax

2016-12-14-13-33-57-smAbout two weeks ago, a paddock we drive past nearly every day suddenly turned the unmistakable blue of flax. Not New Zealand flax, but linen flax.

At first, I thought it must be something else, because the plants were short—only about knee height. I’d never seen linen flax so short.

I also didn’t think linen flax was grown in New Zealand any more. During WWII, linen flax was introduced and promoted for wartime needs. The first planting was in 1939, and within several years, there were seventeen processing plants in the South Island. But by 1948, it was all over. As far as I can tell, there is no flax grown commercially for fibre anymore in New Zealand.

But flax seed and flax seed oil are a different matter. And, naturally, the varieties grown are shorter and bushier (with more flowers/seeds per plant) than the varieties grown for fibre production. The largest New Zealand processor of flax seeds is just down the road in Ashburton, so it makes sense that one of our neighbours might plant flax.

I hope they find it an economically viable crop—it’s one of the most beautiful crops I’ve ever seen. For the past two weeks, it has been a sea of blue on sunny days (the flowers close when it’s cool or wet). A wonderful addition to the colourful array of crops grown around us.

Bugs in Your Food

2016-12-18-06-46-58Can you find the insects in this ingredient list?

Yep, that’s it, at the very end—carmine—an all-natural food-safe red colouring made from the crushed bodies of the cochineal scale insect (Dactylopius coccus).

I don’t buy much processed food, so I rarely eat carmine, but I was excited to find it listed as an ingredient in the packaged macaroni and cheese I recently bought for a backpacking trip.

The cochineal scale is native to Central and South America, and lives on prickly pear cactus. It has been used as a dye since at least the 15th century, when it was used primarily to colour textiles. For three hundred years, it was one of our only red food-safe dyes. In the late 19th century, synthetic dyes began to replace carmine.

Until the 1820s, Mexico was the sole commercial supplier of carmine to the world, despite efforts to grow the insect elsewhere. At least one of those attempts ended in an environmental disaster. The British tried to establish carmine production in Australia to supply red dye for military uniforms in the 1700s. The insects died, but the cactuses thrived and eventually took over 259,000 square kilometres (100,000 square miles) of the country before being brought under control in the 1920s by the introduction of a moth that eats the cactus.

Carmine production is labour intensive. The insects need to be protected from predators and severe weather, then have to be brushed off the plants by hand at harvest. The insects are dried, crushed, and mixed with various substances to make a range of colours from bright red, to pink, to purple. It takes 80,000-100,000 insects to produce 1 kg of carmine.

Concerns over the safety of synthetic food colouring has led to a resurgence in the use of carmine in recent years, and it’s not unusual (though still not common) to find it included on the ingredient lists of food packages. In fact, you might be surprised how many products on the supermarket shelf contain carmine. Though it is more expensive than synthetic red dyes, it shows up in various cosmetics, candies, alcoholic drinks, fruit juices, sauces, cheese, meat, preserves, and desserts. In the US, the ingredient list is required to say ‘cochineal extract’ or ‘carmine’. In the EU, it might be labelled additive E120, and here in New Zealand, it is usually listed as colouring 120.