Giving Thanks in 2020

Thankful for these glorious blue peas with their cheerful flowers.

Thanksgiving is this week in the US and, while we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here, I do always still pause and reflect on what I’m grateful for. This year, it feels doubly important to focus on the good things. 

So here are just a few of the things on my Thanksgiving list:

  • Top of the list this year has to be all the Kiwis who have responded with maturity and community spirit to the challenges thrust upon us this year. I am truly proud to be a New Zealander this year, and I’m thankful to be here, where our collective action has allowed us freedom and safety much of the world doesn’t have. 
  • Friends and colleagues who have encouraged those around them to approach Covid-19 as a challenge to develop creative ways to continue to pursue dreams, rather than as a disaster to be lamented.
  • I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m still incredibly thankful for our new house. It still often feels like I’m living in someone else’s home, but it is a joy to cook in the new kitchen and to live in a well-insulated building.
  • This time of year, while not exactly traditional harvest time, is rich in early summer fruits and vegetables. Though our new garden is quite young, and the soil is truly terrible, we’re still harvesting good food, and I’m thankful for what we are able to produce.
  • I’m especially thankful this year for my husband and children, who have approached all of this year’s many stressors with good humour, fortitude, and a willingness to pitch in and do what needs to be done.
  • I am more than usually grateful this year for technology which has made the pandemic far less isolating than it would otherwise have been.
  • As always, I’m thankful for the proximity of beach, river and mountain. This year, even more than other years, the natural world has been a solace, and I’m thankful to have relatively wild areas within walking distance.
  • The luxury of time. There’s no question that being in lockdown in a cold shed was awful. I look back on those months and wonder how we survived with our good humour intact. At the same time, having that intense time to spend with close family was something wonderful. We invented stupid games to pass the time and stay warm, we went on looooooong walks together, we sat and talked over the state of the world. I am grateful to have had that time.

There are dozens of other things I could put on my list—big things and little. It’s a year in which thankfulness has been a gift all of its own. I am thankful to be thankful for so much, in spite of the crazy year it’s been.

What are you thankful for?

Carrot Surprise

I’m expecting the worst from this year’s vegetable garden. Loosening the heavy clay soil as I prepare beds can feel like chipping at concrete. I fill a bucket with rocks every two square metres. At best, I’m able to loosen the top seven centimetres. And with the soil test having revealed shockingly low levels of NPK, there’s little hope for a bumper crop.

So it was a huge surprise to lift the frost cloth from my carrot plantings to find the best germination I’ve ever had. At the old house, I sometimes had to plant twice because carrot germination was so patchy. Some varieties barely germinated at all.

Now it looks like I’ve grossly over-planted—I swear every seed germinated—all five varieties.

I planted on the same date, with the same care afterwards as I have in the past. The weather wasn’t much different from weather at the old place. The only real difference was the soil. Go figure.

Maybe it was a fluke; I had occasional good years at the old house. And who knows how the carrots will grow now they’ve sprouted.

But it’s nice to have something go better than expected in this sad soil.

Part-Time Ducks

Ordinarily, I’d be annoyed if the neighbour’s livestock made a habit of hanging out in my garden. At the old house, a mob of sheep would occasionally take a detour into the yard while being driven past. And I remember a bunch of cows grazing their way through the vegetable garden once when I was a kid. Those experiences were always destructive.

But one of the neighbours at our new place lets her livestock roam the neighbourhood, and I find it quite pleasing. They are a perfect pair of ducks—one all white, one all black (I’ve dubbed them Ebony and Ivory, of course). Watching them cruising the neighbourhood somehow makes me happy. Their owner occasionally comes out to the road to shoo them back home, but most of the time, they roam freely. 

For a long time, they avoided our place, waddling around next door, across the street, down the road … But this week, they discovered the wealth of slugs in our garden. They’ve been spending a few hours every day waddling up and down the rows of perennial crops, probing the mulch and quacking contentedly to one another.

I appreciate their gentle pest control operations in our garden, particularly since they come with no obligations on my part. I’ve seriously considered getting ducks in the past, primarily for slug control, but I never followed through. In the end they were always just more animals to have to care for. So part-time ducks are exactly my sort of livestock. They show up for work, put in a few hours, then head off to someone else’s yard. 

I hope they’re giving their owner lots of eggs.

Rock the Local Resources

A few of the rocks we’ve collected …

I’ve been struggling with what to do with my tender seedlings here at the new house. I hesitate to keep them in the house, knowing the amount of moisture they produce. It wouldn’t do to turn the new house into a humid greenhouse.

What I really need is a heated greenhouse, but that’s a luxury I don’t expect to ever have.

At the old house, I lined the perimeter of the greenhouse with water bottles to trap solar energy during the day and release it at night. I recycled all those bottles before the move, so I have nothing to keep the greenhouse warm at night now.

Except the other day I picked up a paperweight from my desk—a rock I’d collected from the beach. It had been in the sun and was positively hot to touch.

Of course! Store solar energy in rocks. It’s a technique that was used by Māori for hundreds of years in Canterbury to grow semi-tropical crops in this cool climate.

Perhaps I hadn’t thought of it before, because the previous vegetable garden was nearly rock free. But we’ve already picked tonnes (literally) of rock from the soil here. I can practically pave the greenhouse with sunlight-absorbing rock that will warm the plants all night.

It will take some thought—I really don’t want to add rocks to areas I’ll be tilling and planting each year, but I like the idea of using the materials available on site to solve a problem.

Now we have to figure out how to use all the rest of the rocks …

Happiness is a Kitchen Full of Baked Goods

The weekend was crazy-busy with garden work. Saturday, I worked from 7 am to 6 pm weeding, mulching, digging post holes. Sunday’s schedule was similar, but I stopped around 3 pm because the final job on the list was planting out lettuce seedlings, and the weather (hot and with severe gales) was sure to kill them all. Besides, I could barely move—back, arms, hands and feet all hurt from the punishing work. All I wanted to do was collapse.

Except that I wanted to collapse with baked goods in hand.

So instead of sitting down, I baked. Apricot tart for dessert, and a double batch of Irish coffee crunchies (from The Gourmet Cookie Book) for lunches. Baking made me forget my tired body for a couple of hours. As I pulled the last of the cookies from the oven, I was on a roll. I started in on chopping vegetables for dinner. While dinner cooked I filled the cookies with icing and finished cleaning the kitchen, so that by the time dinner came out of the oven, the cookie jar was filled, the tart was waiting to be cut, and all the dishes were washed.

I could barely sit upright long enough to eat dinner.

But every time I’ve been in the kitchen since then, I’ve looked at those baked goods and smiled. Okay, and maybe I’ve snitched a cookie too, but don’t tell anyone. 

Happiness is definitely a full cookie jar.

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.