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.

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Photo: Eric Weiss

It’s not often you witness outright thuggery in nature. Predators hunt prey—they have to, because otherwise they starve. Predation is never pretty, but it is what it is. 

Sitting at my desk, procrastinating … er … writing this morning, I saw brutality, pure and simple. 

A pair of magpies was chasing a starling. They caught it and brought it to the ground. Standing over it, they pecked at its eyes. At first, I thought they were trying to kill and eat it. But after a few minutes, they got bored. The starling managed to fly off. The magpies followed, caught it and brought it back, only to repeat the eye pecking routine. Three times while I watched, they allowed the starling to escape, then brought it back to peck at it. Always at the eyes.

Eventually, they bored of the sport. They wandered away from the hapless starling to forage in the lawn nearby. After a few minutes, starling and magpies flew off in opposite directions.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Australian magpies have a reputation as aggressive, intelligent birds that like to play. They brazenly steal food from the chickens, fighting right back when a chicken lunges at them. And I’ve watched as gangs of juvenile magpies have tormented my cat, swooping low over him as a team, trying to get a peck in while he swats at them. And I’ve been on the receiving end of magpie parents defending their nests with noisy dives at my head.

In general, magpies eat invertebrates—they were originally introduced to New Zealand to help control crop pests. Research on their effects on native birds indicates they only rarely kill other birds, and their aggressive pursuit of larger predators like harriers may even provide some protection to smaller birds.

Still, I can’t help thinking magpies are the bullies of the playground. They’re fine as long as you’re not their target. Fascinating for me as an armchair naturalist, but I’m thankful I’m not a small songbird.

Summer’s Final Farewell

I moved the chickens into the vegetable garden last weekend—the final admission that summer is over.

I know it’s been over for weeks, but there have still been eggplants, peppers and tomatoes coming out of the tunnel houses. Before I moved the chooks, I harvested the last of those summer crops. We’ll savour them over the next week or so, and then it will be full-on winter from a culinary perspective, at least.

I’ve stocked up on barley to cook with our dry beans in bean-barley soup. Maybe I’ll add a bit of mushroom stock made from this autumn’s haul of porcini.

I’ve baked up some pumpkins so I have cooked pumpkin on hand for pie or galette later in the week. I’ll add frozen spring peas and summer corn to the galette, and garlic, stored in braids in the shed.

I’m eyeing up the secondary head of cabbage, sprouting from the remains of the summer crop. They’ll make tasty winter salads to complement warming meals.

i’ve planted out the winter crops, too—lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. They will provide us the late-winter vegetables we’ll crave come August.

So while I farewell summer, I welcome the culinary delights of winter. Not so varied, perhaps, as summer fare, but no less delicious.

Chasing Chickens

Foiled again! A chicken eyes the zip ties on top of the gate.

Two weeks ago I moved the chickens out of the vegetable garden and into their summer paddock. The summer paddock is smaller than the garden, and not quite as rich in insects and diverse weeds. The chickens are always a bit put out at their restricted terrain, and they express their dissatisfaction for the first few weeks by escaping.

When they get out, they immediately rake all the mulch from under the artichokes onto the paths. Then they attack the compost pile, spreading twitch roots, mouldy bread and last night’s leftovers around the yard.

It’s a test of ingenuity between me and the chickens. At first, they might fly over the fence–I clip their wings. Then they might scramble to the top of the gate along the fence’s diagonal bracing–I use zip ties to create a jagged edge on the gate so they can’t perch there. Then they might use the nesting boxes as a perch, jumping from the ground to the nesting boxes, and then over the fence–I add zip ties to the top of the nesting boxes. In time, they might dig underneath the fence and slip underneath–I fill their holes with rocks.

Eventually, they’ll grow tired of trying to escape. Or maybe they forget that they used to have more space–they have pretty small brains, after all. Either way, I will eventually win.

Until then, I’ll spend every afternoon rounding up the chickens who’ve escaped and returning them to their paddock, and then raking mulch off the paths, wondering why I don’t simply increase the height of their fence. Perhaps it’s me with the small brain…

An Egg-cellent Harvest

A few months ago I bought three new chickens because my old girls were no longer laying. I was convinced it wasn’t just a winter slump, because they really were getting on in years (for chooks), and they’d stopped laying long before winter.

But I think they’re trying to one-up the new chickens, because now that all three new ones are laying daily, the two remaining old ones have started laying again.

So now I’m getting five eggs a day–way more than we’re used to eating.

And that’s just fine by me. It’s a sparse time of year in the garden, so a few extra eggs are welcome in our diet. And if we can’t eat them all, eggs make great gifts. One of the things that makes rural life seem like such a luxury is seasonal abundance. There may be little left in the veggie garden beyond a few old beetroots, but we can still spread around our rich harvest of eggs.

Eggsplaining the Difference

A standard egg at the supermarket weighs 53 grams, large eggs are 62 grams and jumbo eggs are a massive 68 grams.

My new chickens just started laying yesterday, and I smiled at the tiny eggs they laid.

Then I weighed them—far from being tiny, they weigh as much as a standard egg.

Turns out the ‘normal’ egg from my chickens weighs 80 grams or more (I had a 92 gram one last week—I know because it looked big, even to me, so I weighed it).

I’ve known this for some time. My eggs are bigger than the eggs called for in your average recipe. I can usually skimp on the number of eggs I use, with no repercussions. It comes in handy in wintertime, when egg production is down, and I’m often rationing eggs.

But I hadn’t really quantified it before. So, doing the maths, if a recipe calls for four large eggs, that’s 248 grams of egg. Just three of my 80+ gram eggs will do, in that case. That matches my experience with skimping on eggs in a 4-egg cake. In recipes that call for three eggs, I can probably get away with two. Start looking at a genoise cake that may call for 7 eggs, and I should really be using closer to 5.

I can’t tell you why my chickens lay such enormous eggs. I assume it’s a combination of genetics and diet. Coming from the same breeder, I expect my new ones to eventually lay 80 gram eggs, like the older ones do. But if they don’t, that’s just fine. Truth is, those super jumbo eggs don’t fit very well in the egg holder on the fridge door. Sometimes, when I open the fridge, an egg flies out to splat on the kitchen floor. I wouldn’t mind non-ballistic eggs.

Crane Flies

2016-11-29-07-27-59The crane flies are the largest family of flies in the world. There are over 15,000 species worldwide, with 1600 species in North America and 600 species in New Zealand.

The Māori name, matua waeroa, means ‘king mosquito’. You could be forgiven for thinking crane flies are giant mosquitoes—their body shape is similar. But crane flies cannot bite. The adults of many species don’t eat at all, and those that do sip nectar.

Crane fly larvae are sometimes called leatherjackets, because their exoskeletons are thick and leathery. They are aquatic or live in wet soil or rotting vegetation. Most feed on dead plants, though there are a few predators among the aquatic larvae.

When we moved to Crazy Corner Farm, and I turned the vegetable garden for the first time, I found the wet end of the garden teeming with crane fly larvae. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Every shovelful of earth came up with at least ten larvae. It was truly impressive, and the chickens loved me for the handfuls of larvae I tossed to them that year. The larvae must not like cultivation, though, because I don’t find them in the vegetable garden anymore.

I find crane flies endearing—awkward and gangly, they remind me of teenage boys who’ve just gone through a growth spurt and aren’t quite comfortable with their larger dimensions. The analogy might not be so far off. Crane fly larvae are legless and live in confined spaces. When they become adults, they suddenly have six impossibly long legs, and are airborne. It must be terribly confusing.

I spotted this beauty on my office door this morning, sitting on the glass with the white curtain behind it. I couldn’t resist photographing it.


A Little Too Much Indoor/Outdoor Flow?

Fine in the paddock, not welcome indoors.

Fine in the paddock, not welcome indoors.

I always assumed, growing up, that window screens and screen doors were there to keep insects out of the house. It never occurred to me that other wildlife would want to get in, too.

Two nights ago, we woke at 2 am to the sound of the rocking chair on the porch thumping back and forth and claws raking the bedroom window. At first, I cursed the cat—who often sits on the rocking chair meowing in the middle of the night—and rolled over. But the raking claws didn’t stop. The cat never claws at the window. I opened my eyes, then had to get up for a closer look, because I couldn’t believe what I saw. An Australian possum was sitting on the back of the rocking chair, leaning out to scratch the window.

What the heck? Was it trying to get in?

It got me thinking about all the non-insect wildlife we’ve had in the house over the years.

In Panama, there were numerous mice, rats, scorpions, whipscorpions, windscorpions, and tailless whipscorpions…naturally. But there also were a few geckoes, and a skink who spent weeks living with us. We started leaving out water for him on the table, and named him Smaug.

There were the bats. Mostly they were small ones, but occasionally we’d get a massive one, with the wingspan of a pterodactyl. They’d swoop in between the top of the wall and the roof, wheel around the house, then swoop out again.

There were regular chicken incursions, even after we evicted the one brooding a clutch of eggs there when we moved in, and there was a cat who came inside and had kittens on our bookshelf.

The largest visitor was probably the dog, who came into the house chasing a rat, then regularly trotted in after that to see if we had more rats for her.

Here in New Zealand, we’ve had mice and rats, including one bold rat who sauntered into the kitchen through the front door while I was washing dishes one day. Sparrows and the odd starling are regular visitors in the summer—they come in, poo a few times, and leave. Chickens and feral cats are occasionally pop in for a visit, too.

For one magical season, we had a piwakawaka, who would flit into the house every day. He would zip around inside, eating flies, then land on a bird mobile hanging from the kids’ bedroom, bobbing up and down like just another wooden bird.

I can only imagine what mayhem that possum would have caused if it had gotten in last night. Earthquakes would probably seem tame to the havoc of a possum indoors. You can bet I’ll be making sure the windows are all closed tonight—I think I’d like to keep that one outdoors.


A New Gardening Lexicon

A nice tidy rolag.

A nice tidy rolag.

I’ve noticed that the world of extreme gardening doesn’t have a very good vocabulary. There just aren’t the words to express the particular situations, actions, and states one experiences.

So I’ve developed my own gardening lexicon, to try to fill that gap in the English language. Here are a few of my words:

Chook—verb. To toss something to the chickens. E.g.: Just chook those weeds—they like them.

Chookable—adjective. Suitable for the chickens to eat. E.g.: Those weeds are chookable.

Dinger—noun. A rock in the soil, accidentally struck by a gardening tool.

Goat—verb. To toss something to the goats. E.g.: Goat these branches—they like them.

Goatable—adjective. Suitable for the goats to eat. E.g.: Those branches are goatable.

Grunter—noun. A weed that requires significant effort (and usually a tool) to pull.

Hum-dinger—noun. A particularly large rock in the soil, accidentally struck by a gardening tool.

Pop bead—noun. Insect pest. Name comes from the sound it makes when squished between the fingers.

Rolag—noun. A term borrowed from weaving. Weeds that have been hoed into a tidy roll, ready to be lifted into the wheelbarrow or thrown on the compost heap.

Squeaker—noun. A nest of mice, when overturned accidentally by a shovel or spading fork.

Superman tree—noun. A tree or shrub that looks difficult to cut, but is actually easy to cut, making the cutter feel like Superman. (See also Wonder Woman weed)

Twitch light—noun. Couch grass with unusually fine runners.

Twitch-on-steroids—noun. Couch grass with unusually thick runners.

Twitch-headed—adjective. Having weeded so much that you see weeds when you close your eyes.

Wonder Woman weed—noun. A weed that looks like a grunter, but is actually easy to pull out, and makes the weeder feel like Wonder Woman. (See also Superman tree)



List It

See no evil--list it instead.

See no evil–list it instead.

It’s about this time of year when I look around and see how shabby the garden looks. Through the depths of winter, I didn’t notice. I wasn’t outside enough. The days were short. I didn’t want to work outdoors.

But even if the lengthening days and singing magpies weren’t enough to tell me, the calendar is screaming that it’s just two weeks to spring.

So I’m paying more attention to the yard and garden. I’m taking a second glance at what I thought was my herbs beginning to resprout…and finding that the green I saw was actually a giant, aggressively spreading vetch. I’m walking through the vegetable garden to assess what needs to be done…and finding that though the chickens did a lovely job on some weeds, they didn’t touch the most difficult ones. I’m checking the bird netting over the strawberries, and finding hole after hole that needs repairing. I’m inspecting irrigation pipes, and finding ice-cracked valves. I’m walking the rows of currants and raspberries, and finding enough thistles to make me want to cry.

In short, I’m finding so many things to do, I begin to think I can’t possibly do them all.

And so, to maintain my sanity, I make lists.

A list of things to do this weekend.

A list of things to do in the evenings during the week.

A list of things to purchase in town.

A list of things to do next weekend.

A list of things to do the weekend after that.

A list of things that need to go on a list…

By mid-September, I’ll have every weekend through late-November planned in detail—exactly what needs to be done in order to have everything under control and planted out at the right time.

It sounds crazy, but it keeps me sane. Once a task is on a list, I can ignore it. I can walk past that aggressive vetch plant every day, knowing that if I just keep to my lists, I will eventually get to it. I can be completely blind to the holes in the bird netting, because I know that fixing it is on the list the week before the strawberries should start to ripen.

Without my lists, I’d be overwhelmed by the mountain of tasks to get done between now and December.

But the lists aren’t just good for making me get my work done. They also help me get my play in, too. Fun stuff goes on the lists, too. A weekend tramping trip, a day at the beach—I can schedule these things in alongside my work, and then actually enjoy them, because I know I’ve got time to do them. It says so, right on my lists.