Autumn Stocktake

Green beans were one of the winners this past summer.

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.

Glass Gem Corn

I’ve been growing popcorn for years now, and I’ve always saved seed. I’ve been pleased with the variety I’ve grown—it is so wonderfully flavourful, it turned me from someone who wasn’t a big popcorn fan to a real lover of popcorn.

Unfortunately, over the years, my popcorn has crossbred with my sweet corn, and I got to the point where it wasn’t reliably popping anymore. So at the end of last summer, I figured I’d buy a new packet of seed and start afresh.

Horror of horrors! When I scanned last year’s seed catalogue, popcorn wasn’t in it! What was I going to do if I couldn’t get fresh seed?

Why, plant a different variety of popcorn! Although the catalogue didn’t have the variety I was used to, it did have Glass Gem—a flint corn useful for popping and for cornmeal. 

I’ve planted Painted Mountain corn before—a beautiful flint corn which we turned into excellent cornmeal. I loved growing corn that was as beautiful to look at as it was to eat.

So I wasn’t upset to switch to Glass Gem as my popcorn. The plants grew beautifully, topping out at about 2 metres tall, with up to three cobs on each plant. A fabulous result in my nutrient-poor garden. 

I was itching to harvest them and get a peek at the cobs, so last weekend I harvested the few ears that were drying off already. 

Oh. My. God. It makes Painted Mountain look dull. 

The kernels come in the most unlikely colours, including blue, pink, yellow, white, and green. But even more striking than the colour is the kernels’ translucency. They really do look like highly polished gems. The photo in the seed catalogue did not do the plants justice.

I don’t know how they will do as popcorn—they still need to dry more before we can use them—but even if they don’t pop, they were worth growing, just for their stunning look. And I have no doubt we can grind them up into some excellent confetti-coloured cornmeal if they don’t pop well.

Curious, I Googled Glass Gem, and was surprised to see it’s a modern variety. Its roots can be traced back to a man named Carl Barnes, from Oklahoma, who died in 2016. He began growing traditional flint corn varieties in order to connect with his Cherokee roots. He collected and isolated a wide range of native varieties, and began selecting the most colourful cobs for replanting. Over the years, he ended up with the variety now dubbed Glass Gem.

You can read more about Glass Gem corn here.

Come to the Dark Side … we have cookies

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.

fig and date cookies

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.

Weird and Wonderful Ugni

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.

Autumnal Buzz

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.

Autumnal Assessment

It’s been just two weeks since I blogged about a late summer garden, and now autumn has truly set in.

tick bean in freshly fertilised garden beds
Tick bean green manure planted next to furrows filled with cow manure.

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.

Late Summer Garden

March first is considered the start of autumn here in New Zealand. As far as the garden is concerned, it’s still late summer. It’s been a cool, wet February, which has delayed crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. The extra moisture has meant bigger watermelons, though they’re ripening slowly. Sweet corn is coming on, and we’ve had some lovely meals of it, along with the first of the melons. I’ve harvested the potatoes, dry beans, and most of the soy. The pumpkins are looking gorgeous, and I’m sure we’ll have more than we can eat this winter. 

Overall, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the garden this year. Plants are showing nutrient deficiency, for sure, but they’ve done remarkably well, considering where I started two years ago. It’s clear my applications of manure and compost are having a positive effect. And it’s just as clear it will take quite a few years to build this soil up to full productivity. 

I thought I’d treat you to a selection of images from around the garden on a beautiful crisp early autumn day. It may not be as productive as I’d like, but it’s still glorious.

The Waiting Game

This time of year can be agonising. Out in the garden, the tomatoes, zucchini, green beans, cucumbers and carrots are all producing beautifully—there’s more food than we know what to do with.

But.

The sweet corn, melons, pears and apples are still sitting there, ever so slowly maturing and ripening. I try not to check them every day—I try to be patient. If I tested one apple on our tiny trees every day, there would be none left by the time they were actually ripe. But it’s hard to be patient while awaiting such seasonal treats. And the worst thing is to NOT check and go out a few days later to find the possums have eaten them all, because they ripened while you weren’t looking.

So I tap that watermelon—does it sound hollow? I check its underside—it’s bright yellow, but I know that no matter what the books say, it doesn’t signal ripeness; it’s been yellow underneath since the fruit was the size of my fist. I peel back the husks on an ear of corn to peek at the kernels—are they plump yet? I bite into an apple, hoping for sweet, not astringent.

After decades of gardening, I’m still impatient for the fleeting pleasures of fresh sweet corn and melons, apple pie and pear tarts. I reckon that’s a good sign—I still get a thrill from the chase, the anticipation.

And one of these days soon … there will be watermelon on the table.

Feathered Friend

The vast majority of the birds in our yard are non-native invasive pests—English sparrows, European starlings, blackbirds, goldfinches and song thrushes wreak havoc in the garden. They eat fruits and vegetables, dig up seedlings, spread mulch all over the lawn, and strip young plants of leaves. If I could net the entire yard to keep them all out I would.

But some of the avian visitors to our place are welcome. The fantails that flit in and out of the house snapping up flies are a delight. The silvereyes picking aphids off the trees are both adorable and helpful. And the magpies may be noisy and aggressive, but they are quite entertaining as they dive bomb the cat or squabble with each other.

The tall trees across the road from our place are home to a host of white-faced herons. They croak and grumble among the branches like modern pterodactyls, and I love to watch them winging home in the evenings, landing awkwardly before settling down for the night. 

They rarely give our yard a second glance, but for the past week, a young heron has taken a liking to our porch and front garden. 

There’s something wrong with him. I say that not because of his interest in our porch—it is a nice place to hang out—but because his legs are oddly splayed and he wobbles when he walks. Still, he seems to be holding his own, and he has no trouble flying out of range of the cat when he comes stalking. It’s possible his flight is impaired as well, and that’s why he’s foraging close to home in our garden. Or maybe he’s discovered our soil has lots of worms to offer. Either way, I wouldn’t mind if this bird stuck around.

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.