I’ve been feeling a bit like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz this week. Having been on a crazy whirlwind of a trip to the U.S. and Scotland, my overwhelming feeling since my return has been, ‘There’s no place like home’.
Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed my travels. It was great to see family in the U.S. for the first time in six (!) years, and Scotland was new and exciting. I love traveling by train, and enjoyed every minute watching the Scottish countryside roll by. And I’d never set foot in a real castle before, so visiting four of them was a highly educational experience, and something I can’t do in New Zealand. The botanic garden in Glasgow was a real treat as well—I wandered through the massive greenhouses twice, because they were so marvellous.
But I have to admit that the best part of the trip was coming home to my own greenhouse, bursting with vegetables.
Before we left, I set up automatic watering and shut the door, trusting to the automatic window openers to provide enough ventilation if the weather was warm.
Three weeks later, both summer and winter crops had obviously thrived in the warm, humid environment. A bit too humid, actually—the slaters had moved into the tomato plants (and apparently like to eat tomatoes) because it was too moist on the ground.
Aphids thrived, too, while we were gone, but all in all, I was pleased. To arrive home to fresh vegetables was an incredible gift, and it reminded me once again of how blessed we are to live where we do.
So I am happy to be home, pulling weeds, squishing aphids, and doing all the autumnal garden tidying I haven’t yet gotten to. It’s not a vacation, but it is home.
Our quince tree gave its first harvest ever this year, which is exciting. I picked them today, and my husband went looking for some new (to us) recipes that use quince.
He came across Tarta de Queso y Membrillo con Almíbar de Cardamomo—Cheese and Quince Tart with Cardamom Syrup. How could I resist?
It’s been a while since I followed a recipe in Spanish, so there was an added level of adventure for me making this recipe. I don’t think I ever bought or used azúcar flor (icing sugar) when we lived in Panama, so I had to look that one up.
Even in your native language, this is not a tart you whip out quickly—nothing using quince is, and this has lots of different things to prepare—but it is delicious! It’s essentially cheesecake with caramelised quince in a pie crust. What’s not to like?
I modified the recipe slightly—here’s my version, in English.
Cheese layer: 1 package cream cheese 1/2 cup unsweetened yogurt 2 Tbs honey 1 egg 1 Tbs fresh lemon juice
Quince layer: 3 large or 6 small quince 1/4 cup brown sugar 25 g butter 1 Tbs cinnamon
Enough pie dough for 1 crust (see my pie dough recipe here)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Cardamom syrup: 3/4 cup icing sugar 3 Tbs fresh lemon juice 3 cardamom pods
Make your pie crust and refrigerate until needed.
Mix the ingredients for the cheese layer with a handheld mixer until well combined. Set aside.
Peel, core, and thinly slice the quince (you should have 7-8 cups of fruit). Place the quince, butter and brown sugar in a large skillet and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, until the quince has softened. Stir in the cinnamon.
Roll out the pie dough and line a pie or tart pan with it. Pour the cheese mixture evenly over the bottom of the crust. Layer the caramelised quince on top, and sprinkle with chopped walnuts.
Bake at 190℃ for 40-45 minutes.
While the pie is baking, make the sugar syrup. Place the icing sugar, lemon juice and cardamom pods in a small saucepan and boil gently for 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Drizzle over the pie when serving.
The recipe I used said to serve the tart warm, which is how we ate it this evening. But I’m looking forward to a second piece tomorrow, because I think it’ll be even better cold.
Next time I make this (because there will no doubt be a next time), I’ll crush the cardamom pods so that the syrup is more strongly flavoured. I also think it would be even more spectacular with a cup of ugni berries (Chilean guava) tossed into the quince mixture.
If you don’t have quince, this tart would be lovely made with apple or pear, too.
My hands smell like onions. My fingernails are stained purple. The walls and cabinetry in the kitchen are festooned with colourful splatters and drips. The floor is sticky underfoot.
It must be harvest time.
The garden gushes vegetables in late summer, and the shorter days warn that it’s time to start preserving the bounty before it’s gone.
One of my favourite ways to save summer’s vegetables is in summer soup (which I’ve blogged about nearly every year since 2015). Because soup uses a bit of everything, there’s no need to have vast quantities of any one vegetable. And it doesn’t matter if, say, the sweet peppers bombed or there’s an overabundance of sweet corn. Soup accepts what you’ve got and returns lovely meals all packaged and ready to go on those winter evenings when you come home late from work. It is both forgiving and giving.
So it’s worth a long day in the kitchen to make and bottle (can) a big vat of the stuff.
And while you’re at it, it’s super easy to toss carrot peels, corn cobs, celery tops, and other ‘waste’ from soup making into a large pot to simmer for stock. Run the stock through the canner after the soup, and you’ve got delicious summer flavouring for winter risottos and stews.
So I may have spent fourteen hours in the kitchen on Saturday, but at the end of the day, I had fourteen quarts of soup and six quarts of stock (and another four quarts of pickled onions, because you know, if you’re going to spend all day in the kitchen, you may as well make the most of it.
In the coming weeks, I’ll bring in the pumpkins and potatoes, freeze sweet corn, and string hot peppers for drying. The kitchen will be messy, and I’ll have too much to get done.
But when it’s all over, I’ll be able to relax, at least for a while, until the winter crops need to be weeded …
The end of February marks the end of official summer in New Zealand. The shift to autumn is full of ups and downs. The first half of this week was as hot as it gets here, with temperatures in the low 30s (around 90℉). On Tuesday, it was hot enough that my husband and I headed to the beach for a swim after work, and I didn’t even need my wetsuit—the water and the air were both warm.
But on Wednesday, a front came through, bringing rain and a decidedly autumnal chill. By Thursday, the porcini were sprouting—a sure sign of autumn.
Of course, also on Thursday we harvested plenty of summer vegetables from the garden—zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers. The transitions between seasons are drawn out, messy affairs. The weather forecast for next week includes more summery weather intermixed with the rain and chill of autumn.
So for now, we get to enjoy the delights of both seasons, harvesting summer’s bounty amidst the treats autumn brings. This weekend, I’ll plant out my winter crops, giving them time to establish during the shoulder season, before summer’s warmth leaves entirely. I’ll also harvest the soy beans and bottle up some summer soup before the vegetables are gone. Summer’s not over yet, but it’s time to start packing up.
October is nearly upon us. For me here in Aotearoa New Zealand, that means springtime planting, flowers, and lots of weeding! But for many of my readers, it means colourful autumn leaves, pumpkins, and the spooky season of Halloween. And for writers of fantasy, like me, it means story inspiration too (even if my witches aren’t always who you might expect …).
When I was a child in the United States, Halloween was one of my favourite holidays. Yes, the candy was a draw (I’ve always had a weakness for candy corn), but what I liked most was the chance to make a costume and then walk around after dark wearing it.
Halloween imagery is all about darkness and things that go bump in the night. It’s meant to be scary, but I quite enjoy the night and all the creatures that inhabit it.
As an interpretive naturalist in America, I led a lot of night hikes. ‘Spooky’ owls and bats are old friends I’ve had the privilege to not only observe in the wild, but teach with in classrooms and nature centres in a variety of places.
And those nocturnal animals can be helpful. When I lived in Panama, there was a sizeable gap between the top of the walls of my mud house and the roof. At night, little bats would swoop into the house through the gap, zipping around snapping up mosquitoes. I used to lie awake at night waiting for their arrival before falling asleep, knowing they were keeping guard against the little blood suckers that wanted to disturb my rest.
New Zealand is blessed with a fabulous array of nocturnal animals. If Halloween had originated here, the icons of the season might be a bit different …
Kiwi—Imagine this beach-ball-sized bundle of fluff with a deadly beak spearing hapless hikers in the dark. Maybe there would be vampire kiwi.
Kakapō—What could be scarier than a nearly invisible nocturnal parrot with a booming voice that echoes through the night?
Wētā—Okay, lots of people already find these giant crickets spooky. And some of them bite. They’d be a perfect candidate for Halloween horror.
Owls … maybe not—The morepork and the little owl might need to up their game to be Halloween mascots. Their cute factor is pretty high, and their calls are far from scary. I’d even go so far to say that the morepork’s call is soothing.
Bats—Unfortunately, New Zealand’s bats are all endangered, so you’re not likely to encounter them frequently. However, they have some interesting habits that would play out well on the spooky scale. Short-tailed bats don’t hunt from the air like many other bats. Instead they scramble around on the forest floor, using their wings as legs. What’s that rustle in the undergrowth?
Moa—Yes, these giant birds are extinct and were probably only partly nocturnal, but maybe their ghosts or skeletons could haunt a New Zealand Halloween. Their diet was mostly plants, but I still wouldn’t want to meet up with a 3.5-metre-tall bird in the dark.
Of course, a Southern Hemisphere Halloween would have to fall in April or May, during the autumn here. We could all dress up as kiwi or moa and eat pavlova …
We haven’t had a frost yet, and there are still lots of carrots to harvest, and a few tomatoes and peppers in the tunnel houses, but the summer garden is done, for all practical purposes. Next weekend, I’ll let the chickens loose among the weeds to enjoy the summer’s buildup of insect pests.
Now’s the time for taking stock of the summer’s endeavours.
What went well?
More than I expected to! I was thrilled with the glass gem corn—the plants were gorgeous and tall, and the yield was spectacular. I won’t know for several months whether the corn pops well, but so far it looks like a winner.
I was also pleased with my watermelons. they got off to a slow start, but once they took off, they really took off. And my patience paid off—every melon I picked was ripe and delicious. It was fun to have both red and yellow varieties this year, and both provided lots of small and yummy fruits.
Once again, my carrots have done spectacularly well. The reason there are still lots to harvest is because the fridge and freezer are both crammed with carrots, and I have nowhere to go with the rest. After last year’s carrot success, I thought it could be a fluke—I had the occasional good carrot year at the old house, too—but two years in a row makes me think I can probably plant half as many carrots next summer, leaving more space for something else! I’m already scheming …
The pumpkins were another winner—I picked 54, which is way more than we can possibly eat (though we’re doing our best—yum!).
What didn’t go well?
The sweet corn was disappointing, but I’m not surprised by that—it was in one of the beds that didn’t get manure last winter, so it was pretty nutrient stressed. We had plenty to eat and some to freeze, but I would have liked to have more for the freezer. Next summer, I’ll be sure to give it a well-fertilised bed.
Tomatoes were also disappointing—they were clearly nutrient stressed too, in spite of being in manured beds. Add to that the fact the birds managed to eat more of the fruit than we did, and the harvest was less than hoped. I’m considering fewer plants next year, but netted. And, of course, more manure!
The basil was also strangely disappointing—in spite of a nice wet summer, it bolted early and remained fairly small. I blame lack of nutrients.
Peppers and eggplants struggled this year, too. I blame the overhead sprayers I switched to this year after my drip irrigation finally gave up after 17 years. Combined with wet weather, I think the sprayers provided too much moisture to the leaves and too little to the roots—plants were small, and the fruit tended to rot before ripening. I’ll be making a new drip irrigation system for them next year.
Though the watermelons thrived, the rock melons were pathetic. They set almost no fruit, and most of those set rotted before ripening (or at least before I noticed them, because they were small).
The jalapeños were beautiful—big fruits and plenty of them—but had absolutely no heat. I still don’t understand why some years they do this. Fortunately, the serranos I planted were nice and hot, but they struggled to ripen before the end of summer—I’ve been picking them as soon as they begin to blush red, rather than waiting for them to turn fully.
Overall, I was quite pleased with this summer’s garden. By all objective measures, it was pretty pathetic, but given the point I started at just two years ago, it’s improved dramatically. I just need to keep pumping in the organic material—manure, compost, pea straw. I’m thrilled with how much good it’s done already.
With our switch back to standard time last weekend, we’ve most definitely entered the darker half of the year. My husband and I took our first evening walk in full dark yesterday, and we can expect months more of the same.
Part of me mourns the loss of hot sun and long days. I certainly feel the dwindling abundance of the summer garden as plants die off. But I also enjoy the darkness.
Summer is bright, noisy and frenetic. Everything is in motion. I’m in motion. Long days mean more tasks on the to-do list—an expectation to ‘make hay while the sun shines’. Summer gardening can start as early as 6 am and continue past 9 pm. It feels wrong to lay about in bed when the sun pops up at 5 am, and who wants to go to bed at 10pm, before it’s even dark?
The bonus of all that work is abundant fruits and vegetables, weed-free gardens, clean gutters, tidy lawns …
But it gets exhausting after a while.
About the time we go off Daylight Savings Time, my body has had enough. That extra hour we gain isn’t enough to make up for the post-summer exhaustion, and I find myself going to bed by 9 pm, happy that it’s dark long before then.
In addition to the extra sleep, I appreciate the calm of night. A walk in the dark is an entirely different experience than a walk during daylight hours. The chatter of sparrows and starlings is absent. Magpies are silent. Neighbourhood dogs are indoors instead of barking at passersby. Quieter sounds come to the fore—the zit-zit of katydids, or the trill of a frog. A lone sheep maa-ing in a distant paddock. The gurgle of the local water race. There is peace in the darkness that is difficult to find during the day.
In the morning, I feed the chickens in the dark. They are groggy and slow—instead of racing toward me as soon as I enter the paddock, they wander my way, muttering their greetings.
Although there are too many streetlights near our new house that obscure the fainter stars, I still take time every morning to greet the night sky—moon, planets and constellations.
I am comfortable in the dark—it is a soft velvet cloak wrapped around my shoulders.
And when I choose to come inside in the dark of longer nights, there is the warmth of the light. The smell of cooking. The rows of pumpkins stashed on top of the cupboards. Summer’s bounty stored up for winter.
During the dark half of the year, I have extra time to spend on baking—I can make fiddly cookies, cakes with cooked frostings, fancy decorated cupcakes. I have more time for sewing, spinning, and other crafts. I can sit and read a book without feeling guilty about wasting daylight.
So while there is some sadness to the end of summer, there is also joy in the darkness. And there’s the knowledge that summer will return and I will miss the books and baking of the dark side.
One of the most interesting autumn fruits we grow is Ugni molinae—known as ugniberry, Chilean guava, strawberry myrtle, New Zealand cranberry, and Tazziberry. The plant is native to Chile and Argentina and is little grown outside of South America.
The pretty little bush is sometimes grown as an ornamental here, the fruit being mostly ignored. That’s a shame, because ugniberry is such an interesting fruit.
The small aromatic pink/red berries have a tough outer skin and a seedy interior. I think the flavour is reminiscent of vanilla custard, but others have likened it to bubble gum, cotton candy, or a combination of strawberry, pineapple and apple. Regardless of how you try to describe it, their taste is unique and delicious.
Until recently, we had never cooked with ugniberries—we’d always eaten them fresh. In fact, few ever even made it into the house—we’d just grab handfuls to eat while we were out in the garden.
This year, however, we’ve been trying to expand our use of ugniberries. Two weeks ago I made ugniberry scones for Sunday breakfast. I made an ordinary oat-based scone with a touch of vanilla and threw in a couple of handfuls of fresh berries. The resulting scones were lovely.
Earlier this week, my husband picked several cups of ugniberries and combined them with a quince, a few tiny apples and a bit of sugar, cooking them into a thick rose-coloured sauce with a flavour/texture combination that made me think of figs crossed with cranberries.
I used his ugniberry sauce in a filled bar cookie laced with lemon peel. The result was so delicious that by the time I thought to take a photo of them for this blog, they were nearly gone.
I can see why people might not like ugniberry—with tough skin and lots of tiny seeds, the texture could be off-putting—but I’ve grown more and more fond of the little fruits, and I look forward to coming up with more delicious baked goods that feature them.
As an entomologist, I love early autumn. Insect numbers are at their peak, and most insects are adults—their most active and visible life stage.
As a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, early autumn nights were nearly deafening with the cacophony of cricket and katydid chirps. Days buzzed with the sounds of cicadas and grasshoppers.
New Zealand is quieter, but autumn still has its distinct voices. Our katydids’ sharp ‘zit zit’ seems to echo from their favourite ake ake trees. Crickets twitter in the grass on sunny days. Cicadas and grasshoppers buzz from trees and bushes.
Bees and butterflies are particularly active on autumnal blooms. Many of our showy butterflies overwinter as adults, so they can be seen flitting about on warm days into late autumn.
Of course the clouds of invasive cabbage white butterflies on the brassicas and the German wasps swarming the compost pile aren’t terribly welcome. But still, I enjoy the leggy hum and flutter of the season.
It’s been just two weeks since I blogged about a late summer garden, and now autumn has truly set in.
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.