New Garden Challenges

We’re nearing the end of September and the garden work is ramping up. It’s exciting watching the new garden come together, even if it is moving more slowly than I’d hoped.

Everything is new this year, and it’s no surprise problems are cropping up. I’ve already lost most of my first tomato planting to frost, because I don’t have a heated indoor place to start my seeds anymore. I could have prevented the loss and brought the plants indoors for the night, but I haven’t had to worry about that for years … I’ve learnt now, so hopefully won’t get caught out again.

I’ve created my garden plan based on planting at the old house, but as I start to plant out peas, lettuce and spinach, I’m finding the need to adjust. How does one convert a set of six to seven metre long beds and a few odd-shaped ones to a rank of 3-metre and 8-metre ones? Add to that the fact the soil is dramatically different at the new place, and I don’t know how all the plants will respond to it and to the amendments I’ve added (cow poo, organic fertiliser, compost, green manure). Will my carrots be harvesting size before the zucchinis sprawl across their bed? Will the lettuces grow quickly enough to self-mulch? After fifteen years at the old place, I knew intuitively how each crop grew, how to get the most from the space I had by timing plantings and spacings, which varieties did best.

This year, I’m starting practically from scratch. I will plant as I am used to planting, because it’s a place to start, but I’ll be taking copious notes. Next year, I’ll have more information to go on, and the following year I’ll have more … and some day, planting at the new place will be as second-nature as it was at the old place.

Welcome Spring!

It’s the first day of spring.

So, naturally, it’s snowing.

But the daffodils are flowering, the willows are greening up, and pine pollen billows from the neighbour’s trees. Regardless of what the sky is dropping on us, spring is here.

And not a moment too soon. Like most people around the world, we feel like the past six or seven months have dragged on for decades. Can I even remember the TBC (Time Before Covid)?

For us, lockdown began during a glorious Indian summer. Warm sunny days begged for last-chance trips to the beach. Trips we couldn’t take, trapped in our bubbles and stuck on foot.

By the time we were released from lockdown, summer had given way to chill autumn rain and frosty days.

Living in our shed through lockdown, then beyond and well into winter, we felt the season’s bite early and hard. We lived in the cold shed forever, and we would live there always … at least that’s how it felt. Every icy day was a year long.

Finally, we moved into our new house. It was (and still is) glorious—a warm dry refuge from the weather.

But winter was still grinding away outside. With landscaping only partly finished, the yard was a mire of wet clay and puddles. We were still trapped indoors. Even the novelty of a warm dry house wasn’t enough to speed the days along. Time dragged its feet. Winter moved at a toddler’s pace. I couldn’t go yet—it had to get its coat and shoes. Then it lost a glove and spent a month looking for it among a drift of discarded outdoor gear.

So it was a spectacular feeling to boot winter out the door—gloveless still—when I planted the season’s first vegetable seeds last weekend. It was an act of defiance to turn garden beds, and ready the greenhouse for newly-sprouted seedlings.

I look forward to the growing season ahead. Welcome spring!

Weeding Magpies

Photo: Eric Weiss

We’re still getting to know the local wildlife at the new house. The marauding sparrows are pretty much the same—devouring young lettuce and chicken feed in large flocks. The black-backed gull’s evening flights to their nightly roos on the gravel banks of the Waimakariri River are also familiar—though at the old house, the birds were headed to the sea.

The magpies are also familiar, but I’ve noticed some intriguing behaviour here that was absent at the old house.

The magpies here are weeding my garden.

Well okay, not really. Not on purpose. But they’re doing a nice job of it, regardless.

Our yard and garden here are cursed with wire weed. This aggressive plant’s long tough branches sprawl up to a metre or more from a strong central tap root. They tangle in the lawnmower and garden tools, and can trip the unwary. Their only saving grace is that, at least in our lousy soil, their foliage is small and sparse—they may tangle all through my crops, but at least they don’t smother other plants entirely.

And apparently, they make superior magpie nesting material. For weeks, the local magpies have been avidly stripping wire weed from the garden and hauling it to the tops of the pine trees across the road. They started with the easily obtained dead plants that I’d pulled out and left lying about. But now they’re ripping up live plants and taking them away by the beakful.

All the more reason to love these feisty feathered thugs.

Shed Cuisine

Fresh vegetables from the garden and some foraged mushrooms add a gourmet feel to even the most basic shed cuisine.

I haven’t done a proper blog post for weeks. Life’s been more than a little weird.

It’s been strange to see everyone posting on social media about all the baking and cooking they’re doing in lockdown and to feel completely separate from that. In normal times, I’m baking all the time, the cupboard never without something delicious and homemade in it. In normal times, I’m often spending two hours preparing even an ordinary weeknight dinner. In normal times, I bake scones or muffins for breakfast every Sunday. In normal times, weekends are for bread baking, jam making, preserving …

But these times are far from normal. Even ignoring Covid-19, we’re living in a shed. I’ll admit, I’ve been moping a little. A camp stove in the back yard is a poor substitute for a full kitchen and bread oven. 

But we also have rigged up the microwave and an electric kettle in the shed. And there’s the grill, too. It took a little time, but now that we’re settled in, creativity is again blossoming.

We’re learning to cook in the microwave—something we’ve never done. Apple crisp, blackcurrant crisp, fudge, frittata, porridge—I realise now we haven’t even begun to explore the possibilities of microwave cooking. It’s not the same as using a conventional oven, of course, but when a conventional oven is unavailable …

We’ve also been making excellent use of the food we preserved before the move—pesto, vegetable soup, apple sauce, pickles, olives, dried tomatoes, dried fruit, frozen fruit … there’s no shortage of excellent ingredients.

And some of the simplest meals are some of the best—potato soup, chilli, lentils and rice, risotto, risi e bisi—none of these requires more than one pot on a camp stove.

Cooking is weather-dependent—rain and wind both make cooking outdoors impossible (or at least really unpleasant)—but that just adds a little extra challenge. Maybe it will inspire a little more creativity.

What I know for certain is that I’ll appreciate the new kitchen even more when the house is finally done. 

Summer Soup 2020

No pandemic hoarding here, just the usual late season batch of Summer Soup. I’ve written about Summer Soup on numerous occasions (2015, 2016, 2018, and twice in 2019). We’ve been making it annually for at least a decade, and it has always been a family affair. In the early years, the children’s vegetable chopping efforts were more symbolic than helpful, but as their skills improved, their input became critical to the relatively rapid production of vast quantities of soup. 

This year, with our upcoming move, the garden output is less than in many years, and there’s so much to do, I wasn’t sure we would have a chance to make Summer Soup. In the end, I did it alone. Starting at 7.30 am, with many interruptions to help move furniture and tools, I began picking and processing vegetables. I pulled the final jars out of the canner shortly before 11 pm.

I listened to music and podcasts while I worked, and I got some brief help from my husband, but it wasn’t the same without the rest of the family there. Neither was the output—13 quarts of soup and 4 quarts of stock. 

I’m not disappointed—thirteen meals plus flavouring for four more will be lovely in the coming weeks and months—but I look forward to getting back to the family production of Summer Soup next year. It’s not just soup; it’s a celebration, and not nearly so much fun alone.

Problem or Inspiration?

The other day I planned on making roast potatoes for dinner. I brought in a colander full of spuds from the garden—more than enough for dinner.

Unfortunately, when I started cutting them I found many of them infected with zebra chip (caused by the bacterium Candidatus Liberibacter solanacearum), which turns the flesh brown. My planned dish of potatoes was looking pretty empty.

I could have gone out for more potatoes, but instead I took advantage of the resources on hand in the kitchen. I added a shallot and a few chopped tomatoes, sprinkled it with salt, pepper and rosemary, and popped it into the oven (at 210ºC for about 40 minutes for anyone interested).

The result was utterly satisfying and arguably better than the plain roast potatoes I’d originally planned. Instead of a problem, the rampant zebra chip became delicious inspiration.

Now, if I can only remember that for all the other problems in life …

Melon Season

I picked the first melons of the season the other day—a lovely watermelon and a small cantaloupe (rock melon). The watermelon could have used another couple of days on the vine, but it was sweet and delicious anyway. The cantaloupe was perfectly ripe and fragrant.

In fact, it was the smell that clued me in that the melons were ripening—I couldn’t even see this one amidst the tangle of foliage.

I’ve blogged previously about the smell of melons and the memories it evokes. Along with the odour of tomato and corn plants, it is the essence of summer. More than a seasonal fruit, melon is the season, all rolled into one fragrant ball.

So even though melons don’t start ripening here until it’s almost officially autumn, summer for me lasts as long as the melons do.

The Apricots of Wrath

I should have listened to Fate. 

“Don’t can apricots today!” it told me the other day. “You have no sugar in the house.”

But I looked at the vast quantities of quickly ripening apricots in the kitchen and knew they wouldn’t wait.

I drove to the store to pick up sugar.

Back home, I made my sugar syrup, washed and heated my jars, got my canning water to a boil, and prepared seven kilos of apricots.

All was going well until I was packing the fruit into jars. I kept an ear on my canner, making sure it stayed at a boil while I worked. When the bubbling hiss faded and died, I knew the gas bottle was empty. Not now!

I left off my jar filling and raced outside to switch gas bottles.

Back inside, water, jars, and sugar syrup were cooling, but I finished packing the apricots in and poured sugar syrup over them …

Only to find I was about a cup short of syrup. Gah! I quickly made up a small batch to finish off the jars.

Into the canner went the jars, and I heaved a sigh of relief. It took longer than usual to bring it all back to a boil, but I shrugged it off. It’s always that way for a cold-packed fruit. 

Then a few minutes into the boil, the canner started boiling over—orange, chunky, foamy water spilled onto the stove. Darn! A jar had broken. It’s rare, but after 30 years of use, sometimes the bottom of a jar will pop off during canning.

So for 25 minutes, I fought the sticky water boiling over on the stove. When I finally pulled the jars out, they were all coated in slimy chunks of overcooked apricot from the broken jar, and the stove was an gooey mess.

The six remaining jars all sealed, though, which was good. Pity about the stove. Took forever to clean.

Later, once the water had cooled, I tackled the job of emptying broken glass and gunk from the canner. And the first thing I did was drop the remainder of the slippery broken jar onto the floor, where it smashed to pieces.

Then, just to add insult to injury, when I dumped the chunky sticky canning water onto the compost pile, it somehow funnelled through the pile directly onto my foot. 

Cleaning up the mess took almost as long as the rest of the process, and I questioned whether it was worth it, or if I should have simply thrown away a couple of kilos of fruit and called it a day before I started.

Then my daughter pointed out that we had the makings of six fruit desserts there, ready to pull out on a winter evening. She had a point—we’ll enjoy that fruit, and by winter, I’ll have forgotten the frustration of preserving it.

But, still, I keep thinking I could have sat on the porch with a good book instead …

No Vampires Here!

Mid-winter, when it was time to plant the garlic, I had no idea where we were going to be living at harvest time. 

So I covered all my bases and planted a full complement of garlic at the old house and at the new house.

Last week I harvested the garlic from both properties. As I expected, the garlic at the new house grew poorly in the clay and rock, but it did grow and is perfectly acceptable. The garlic at the old house had a spectacular growing year—nearly every head is large and plump.

So, knowing we struggle to finish off a normal year’s garlic harvest before it sprouts and gets nasty, I made an effort to preserve a few heads. Well, thirty-two heads, to be exact.

First, I filled the dehydrator with thinly sliced garlic and dried 20 heads. I’ve dried garlic before, and we appreciate the ease of tossing a few flakes into the mortar and pestle and grinding them up. Twenty heads of garlic dries down to less than a pint jar full of flakes—uninspiring until you think about how concentrated the garlic flavour is in that jar!

Then I tried something new—I pickled 12 heads. According to the recipe I used, the cloves can be used just like fresh garlic, and when you finish off a jar, the pickling liquid makes a great flavoured vinegar for things like salad dressings. They’re quite pretty in their little jars, and I look forward to trying them long about August when the fresh garlic is sprouting. Again, twelve heads looks like nothing when peeled and packed into jars, but with 32 heads preserved and another three dozen hanging braided in the kitchen, I still have a whole bunch to give away. 

So if you’re looking for vampires, go somewhere else. They’ll be staying far away from my house for a long time.