The Little Things–Hakatere Conservation Park

As usual, I spent most of the long Labour Day weekend in the vegetable garden. I weeded, prepared garden beds, and planted my cucurbits in trays.

Lake Clearwater with mountains
Lake Clearwater was a mirror in the morning’s still air.

But as they say, all work and no play … I didn’t want to spend the whole holiday weekend sweating in the garden.

So on Monday my husband and I went to Hakatere Conservation Park and sweated on Mount Guy instead.

The Ashburton Lakes region is a glacially formed landscape dotted with lakes and tarns. The land around the wetlands is largely tussock grassland studded with spiny matagauri bushes. An unforgiving, windswept landscape that can feel downright bleak.

That was my impression the first time I visited. Fifteen years ago, I was hired to develop an interpretation plan for what was then a proposed park only. I had the great fortune to tour the area with a Department of Conservation ranger who had worked in the area for decades and had a great love of the landscape. He showed me the little things—not necessarily obvious at first—that set the region apart. Rare insects (including an aquatic moth!), waterfowl and lizards. Unique and diverse plants. Historical use of the land, and massive changes over geologic time. There’s a lot more than meets the eye.

skink
One of the many skinks we saw.

On Monday, we were treated to a glorious day—sunny and calm at first, with a brisk breeze kicking in just when the day began to feel too warm. We parked at Lake Clearwater and hiked the track to the summit of Mount Guy. On our return, we followed the tussocky ridge down to a saddle where we picked up Te Araroa, following the track back to the edge of Lake Clearwater where we completed our large, loopy circuit of the lake.

mountains and river valley
View from near the top of Mount Guy. Mount Sunday is a small mound in the river valley, just to the right of centre in the photo.

The hike afforded stunning views of jagged, snow-capped peaks, and a view of Mount Sunday down in the river valley.

Oddly, out of all the “mountains” in the park, Mount Sunday may be the most famous. The hill was used as the location for Edoras in the Lord of the Rings movies. In the enormity of the surrounding landscape, however, it is an insignificant lump of rock.

Perhaps, like the hidden insects, birds, and plants, it is the little details that are the interesting bits.

The Organised Gardener

Garden map and to-do lists
Garden map and to-do lists

We’re in the middle of the spring school holidays. This two-week block of time off of the day job is always a busy gardening time. There are garden beds to prepare, vegetable seedlings to plant out, seeds to start, seedlings to pot up, and of course the weeds are running rampant everywhere. There’s never enough time to do it all.

This is the time where panic sets in—I’ll never have plants in the ground in time, the weeds will take over all the vegetables I planted earlier in the spring, the birds will eat all my pea plants before they get going, hail or frost will kill tender plants … I have a thousand worries at this point in the gardening year.

This is the time of year when my garden plan is absolutely essential. In mid-August, when I plant the first vegetable seeds, I create a garden map and a week by week to-do list. Every task—planting seeds, preparing garden beds, potting up seedlings, installing or fixing irrigation lines, netting crops, etc—is added to the list on the appropriate weekend from August to mid-November when I finally plant out the last vegetables. Each weekend, I need only worry about the items on the list for that weekend. I can ignore the burgeoning weeds in one place, and the swaths of winter-feral garden in another, because I know that those areas are on the list—I’ve got a plan that will make sure that by the time a plant is ready to go into the garden, the garden will be ready for it.

Of course, sometimes things get out of hand—a week of warm wet weather might speed up weed growth, or an unexpected frost might nail some tender plants and require replanting. I’m always adjusting the list, adding things or shifting tasks from one week to another, but having the plan means I can stop panicking. It means I don’t prepare a bed so early, that it needs to be weeded again before I can plant in it. It means I don’t forget to do an important task at the right time. It means that, if I spend a weekend hiking, I know exactly what I need to accomplish in the evenings during the following week in order to catch up on the work.

In short, it means I can relax and enjoy springtime—enjoy the work, rather than stress about it.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my stacks of lists and hyper-organised garden schedule. But here in the thick of springtime planting, I’m extremely thankful for the part of me that insists on organisation.

Spring Cleanout

The equinox has passed and we’re on the sunny side of the year. The greenhouse is filled with vegetable seedlings. Flowers bloom in the yard. Asparagus spears and artichoke buds are popping up to grace our dinners.

Now is the time to scour the cupboards and freezer for what’s left of last summer’s bounty. It needs to be eaten before this year’s crops start to come in and make us forget.

As usual for us, the frozen peas and corn are long gone. The carrots I froze from last year’s bumper crop have been eaten, too. The currants, peaches and strawberries never stand a chance of making it to September—they are like bright sparks for winter’s darkest days.

As usual, what remains is pumpkin. Baked and frozen when the fresh pumpkins started to rot back in July, frozen pumpkin has become a staple in our springtime cooking as we scramble to finish it off.

Maybe I should plant fewer?

Except it’s the only vegetable left at this time of year. And maybe pumpkin isn’t traditionally considered a springtime vegetable but pumpkin pie, cake, galette, and pancakes are delicious any time of the year.

So bring on the flowers, the sun and the warmth. And bring on the pumpkin! We’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

pumpkin cake glazed with yogurt frosting
Pumpkin cake … best way to eat pumpkin?

Lichens Rule

Not long ago, I spent a glorious sunny day wandering around Cass Field Station while my husband met with some students there. It was nice to take a solo walk and go at my own pace, stopping at whatever plants, bugs or rocks caught my fancy.

Once nice find was this beautiful lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum.

Lichens are strange organisms comprised of an alga living within a fungus. The alga provides food through photosynthesis and the fungus provides protection and nutrients for the alga.

R. geographicum is an alpine/subalpine lichen and, like many lichens, is sensitive to air pollution, thriving only where the air is clean. It is not, however, a fragile organism.

In 2005, R. geographicum was one of two lichens launched into space. The lichens were exposed to 14.6 days of open space—vacuum, wide temperature fluctuations, intense UV light and cosmic radiation. Upon return, R. geographicum showed little harm from the experience.

Not only is R. geographicum tough, some individuals in the Arctic are estimated to be 8,600 years old, making them the oldest living organisms on Earth. Their longevity and predictable growth rate make them useful tools for determining when glaciers retreated from an area.

But I didn’t know all this about R. geographicum when I found it on the rocks at Cass. I simply admired its beautiful mottled colours and soft texture. 

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #17

Grow little plants!

Hard to be upset about lockdown when the weather is beautiful. In fact, I was a bit disappointed I was asked to go into work today. I would have jumped at the opportunity on a rainy lockdown day, but today … well I would rather have been in the garden.

Spring has sprung
It’s time to plant
Your vegetables and flowers.

The birds are busy
In the trees with
Twiggy nests and bowers.

Hoe in hand
I soon forget
The viral threat we’re under.

With bright warm sun
And growing things
The season’s full of wonder.

Field of Dreams

If you mulch it, they will come.

When we first bought our property, we started right in on soil improvements where we knew the vegetable garden was going to be, long before we even had house plans finalised. That work was terribly depressing. The topsoil had been stripped off by the developer, and what was left was compacted clay studded with rocks. It barely grew weeds, and the combined effort of a rotary hoe and hand tilling only managed to penetrate about 5 cm into the soil. There were no worms, no beetles—and we later learned, no nutrients either.

I wondered if we’d made a huge mistake buying the land.

Since then, we’ve poured compost and manure into the soil, mulched heavily, and done our best to avoid compacting the soil so painstakingly loosened.

As I began turning beds this spring, I was stunned by the number of worms in the soil—thousands upon thousands of them. The clay is honeycombed by their tunnels, and you can’t dig a hoe in without bisecting a few (sorry!). It is truly astonishing.

Where did all those worms come from? Were they there all along, but hiding deep below the surface? Did the few worms there when we first moved in simply reproduce like mad when we started adding organic material to the soil? I’ll never know, but I begin to have hope for this garden. 

I feel a little like Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams—create the right conditions, and the players will appear.

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #12

Another day, another … day. The good news is I’ve gotten work done in the garden around the rain we’ve had the past few days. I cracked open the compost pile, and the final product is excellent—always like Christmas when you discover you’ve got six cubic metres of compost to play with!

Unfortunately, it looks like the rain is going to hang around for a few more days, so any more work out there may have to wait.

Rain, rain, go away
So we can go out and play.
Covid’s got us stuck at home.
Lockdown means we cannot roam.
Because we’re tired of being lazy
Rainy weather makes us crazy.

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #8

pansies in a pot

Another glorious spring-like day today. I suspect it will require me to spend the afternoon in the garden again. If I’m not careful I’ll get ahead of schedule for my springtime prep. Or maybe I just won’t end up behind schedule like usual. 

The garden is weeded and clean.
We’ve read all the books we can borrow.
We’ve polished the floors to a sheen.
Now what will we do tomorrow?

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #5

daffodils in bud
Spring blooms are on their way!

In spite of lockdown, spring continues to show itself. Daffodils are blooming, and tree buds are swelling. I spent yesterday morning planting vegetable seeds, kicking off my gardening season for the year. So life is not all bad, stuck here at home with plants to tend.

The northwest wind cries Spring!
And the magpies, they all start to sing.
It’s hard to be sad
And think everything’s bad,
When nature is having a fling.