Welcome to the Light

We have now officially tipped over to the light half of the year. All green and growing things know it, as do the birds and the farmers and gardeners.

And for this first day in which the day is longer than the night, Canterbury’s weather has decided to celebrate—clear skies and warm sunshine with a hint of a cool breeze to remind us where we’ve come from.

A bumble bee drones by as I sit on the porch eating lunch in the sunshine. A guttural croak overhead draws my eye to a white-faced heron gliding like a modern-day pterodactyl to its nest. A jumping spider lurches across the warm pavers at my feet, leaving behind a glittering silk thread that marks her passage. Flies swirl in jerky spirals, describing their micro-territories within a cloud of lekking insects.

Days like today remind me to slow down and feel the motion of the earth.

I pluck a fresh mint leaf and chew on it. The flavour brings back summer memories of Mrs Cassel’s mint tea, sipped from frosty glasses clinking with ice. 

A bellbird whistles from somewhere in the neighbourhood. Enjoying the nectar of someone’s flowering kōwhai, no doubt. I close my eyes and remember the sound of the dawn chorus in Westland National Park.

Days like today remind me that the most memorable things in life never involve the daily grind, but only happen when we step off the treadmill and into the world.

Sitting on the porch of a tramping hut while a weka tries to steal my socks.

Fording an icy river, turquoise from glacial runoff.

Watching jumping spiders’ strange semaphore dance on the windowsill.

Biting into the first tomato of summer, warm from the garden.

Following a starfish’s slow glide across the bottom of a tide pool.

Reaching the top of a mountain to find rank upon rank of peaks stretching out ahead, begging to be summited, drawing you on to new adventures.

So, welcome to the light. Step into the world and enjoy the sunshine.

From Snow to Go

Spring is a funny old season, and this one is no different. A little over a week ago, we woke to snow on the ground—our first snow of the winter (never mind it’s spring already).

Just a few days later, we were working outdoors in t-shirts. I even considered switching jeans for shorts at one point. 

The fruit trees are dripping with blossoms, and yellow daffodils beg to be picked in profusion. The buds on the berry bushes are beginning to burst, and the weeds seem to be doubling in size daily.

But it pays to be vigilant. I’ve had to pull the tomato seedlings out of the cold frame and bring them indoors the past two nights, because it’s been well below freezing overnight. And while the possibility of snow diminishes with each passing day, it’s not inconceivable (I remember getting 10 cm of snow on the 18th of September years ago).

What is certain is that every day the sun rises higher in the sky and remains there longer. Winter and spring will continue to play tug-of-war, but eventually spring always wins.

So for another week or two, I’ll haul those tomato seedlings in at night, but there will come a day when they can stay out. 

Won’t be long now …

Five Spring Haiku

Today is the first day of spring, blown in by a warm and gusty nor’westerly wind, as if to say, “Take that, winter! Your time is over.” Here are five haiku inspired by the day.

Ngā koru

Swirls of yellow pollen
ripple in winter’s
vanishing puddles.

Te rā

Sunshine filters through
branches still winter-bare.
Wind rattles a welcome.

Kākāriki

Bright against dark soil,
leaves unfurl and
quest toward the sun.

Ngā puaka

Heads nod to the breeze—
frills of yellow, white, purple—
decked out in Sunday’s best.

Mahi māra

Cracked nails underlined
with dirt. Hands pressed to
the Earth’s heartbeat.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

sleeping cat
The cat, coping as best as he can with the poor weather.

I sit at my desk yet another day, watching the rain fall in sheets outside the window. Another morning splashing through puddles in the dark to feed the chickens. Another week using the drier rather than the laundry line. It’s been a winter of rainy days.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Compared to other regions in New Zealand right now, Canterbury is dry. For the most part, our recent rain has come steadily in small doses, rather than in a deluge leading to flooding.

But the weekend’s to-do list includes beginning to prepare garden beds for planting, and at the moment, those beds are more suited to mud wrestling than cultivation. Far too wet to work without destroying the fragile soil structure I’ve been building up the past two years. 

There is no rain in the forecast for the weekend, but given how saturated the soil was even before today’s steady rain, I expect puddles to remain through the weekend.

I am already adjusting the to-do list, already stressing about how much will have to be accomplished next weekend in order to compensate for a lack of progress this week.

Even the porch is puddly.

Because the clock is ticking. The seeds I planted two weeks ago have sprouted. In two weeks, the peas, lettuce, and spinach will be ready to plant out into the garden. If their beds aren’t ready at that time, I’ll have to pot them up in order to hold them. Extra work I’d rather not have to do. And I know my physical limits, too. Preparing twice as many beds next weekend is going to wreak havoc on my back. It’s doable, but there’s a good reason I plan all the garden prep to spread the work evenly. I’ve learned from the years when I had to literally crawl through the garden to do my planting because I could no longer stand due to the damage I’d done to my back.

But this year, the weather has scuppered my well-laid plans. I’ve adjusted the to-do list, and considered my options if the beds aren’t ready in time. Now there’s nothing left to do except to make another cup of tea while I watch the rain fall.

A Hobbit Adventure

As a writer of fantasy and adventure novels, it’s important to me to get out and have my own adventures. My adventures provide the inspiration and the gritty details for my characters’ escapades. I especially enjoy true wilderness adventures—the less sign of human impact, the better.

view from Mt Isobel
The view from atop snowy Mount Isobel

Of course, not every adventure can be a wilderness experience. Sometimes you want some fun with a little more luxury.

My husband and I recently spent a lovely weekend in Hanmer Springs. While the town is known for its hot pools, we’re not the hot pool type. What we appreciate about Hanmer Springs is the ability to step out the front door of your holiday home, climb a mountain, and end the hike at the pub a few blocks from the holiday home.

It’s hardly a wilderness experience, especially given that Hanmer Springs is surrounded by pine plantations, rather than native bush, but on a winter weekend during the rainiest month on record, it’s just right.

Our main hike for the weekend was up Mount Isobel. This wasn’t our first winter trip to the peak, but it was the first time we’d followed the ridge from the peak in order to descend via Jollies Pass. The last time we were on Mount Isobel, the wind was so fierce, there was only enough time to race to the top, snap a photo or two, and race back down before we froze. This time was entirely different.

It snowed the previous day, so we hiked through a winter wonderland. Light wind and full sun made it a stunning hike. The snow was an easily hikeable fifteen centimetres deep on the ridge—just enough to ensure our feet and lower legs were thoroughly soaked by the end.

There was nowhere dry to stop for lunch, so we ate in short snatches standing up. That was really the only downside to what was a delightful seven-hour hike.

And when your hike ends in Hanmer village, with beer and good food on offer, and a roaring fire at the holiday home to warm your toes, it’s hard to complain about anything. I think of it as a Hobbit adventure—a bit of fun without skipping second breakfast.

Planning Time

We’ve turned the corner on the seasons—the days are getting longer now, and we’re in the second half of the year. The seed catalogue will be arriving within the next couple of weeks, so now’s the time for garden planning.

As someone obsessed with organising, creating my garden plan each winter is a highlight of the year. It’s the time to take stock of the previous year’s successes and failures and to dream about next year’s abundance.

For me, planning starts with taking inventory of my seed stock. Two large shoe boxes barely manage to contain most of my seeds (the broad beans never fit). Small vegetable seeds are arranged alphabetically. Large-seeded peas and beans get their own shoe box, and are less well organised. 

My inventory is kept on a spreadsheet that I update annually, so I can see at a glance what I’ve got in stock. As I update the inventory, I cross-reference my garden notes, tossing out seeds that had low or no germination the year before. When I find seeds I know I need more of, I make a note on the spreadsheet. When the seed catalogue arrives, I can quickly determine what I need to buy. (Note that this doesn’t actually save me any time in getting my order in—I still page through the entire catalogue, because you never know what new things you’re going to absolutely NEED, based on a pretty photograph and a two-sentence description).

Once I’ve got my seed needs identified, it’s time to plan where all those plants are going to go in the vegetable garden.

Every year I draw a map on a large sheet of paper. The map includes all the vegetable beds plus the greenhouse and any ‘overflow’ space I happen to have that year in perennial beds. I give each bed a grid reference—columns labeled with letters, rows with numbers—so I can refer to them easily when I start mapping out my weekly tasks later in the year.

With last year’s map as a reference, I tentatively write each crop into the beds I want to plant in, careful to rotate crops to avoid pathogen build up. As I plant each crop later on, I’ll mark a date on the map to tell me when it was planted.

By planning ahead, I avoid mistakes like planting sprawling winter squash next to low-growing herbs that will be overrun by the squash. I can also plan for large plants to sprawl into space vacated by early crops, or tall crops to shade cool-loving crops and extend their season.

Equally importantly, by planning in advance, I can control myself when it comes time to actually plant seeds—preventing problems like having to deal with 50 kg of zucchini every day in February. Planning goes a long way toward making each garden year a success.

Pro tip: Garden planning is best done on a really cold, nasty day, with a cup of coffee or glass of wine in hand. 🙂

Matariki Hike–Tiromoana Bush Walkway

Nature pulled out all the stops last weekend for Matariki. All three days of the long weekend were stunners, with temperatures more like mid-autumn than mid-winter.

On Saturday I worked in the garden in a t-shirt, and we had all the doors and windows open for most of the day. On Sunday, with both kids home for the holiday, we headed out for a hike.

Avoiding the snowy mountains and crowded ski fields, we headed to an unlikely spot—the Kate Valley Landfill.

Well, okay, not the landfill itself, but the restoration area next to it on Transwaste land.

Tiromoana Bush Walkway wends through a patchwork of restoration planting, old paddocks, plantation forestry and regenerating bush. An active predator trapping programme has clearly done its job, and the air teems with bellbirds and pīwakawaka.

Access to the beach cuts through a steep valley between limestone cliffs busy with welcome swallows. The beach is narrow and overshadowed by actively crumbling cliffs of limestone and clay—definitely not a place you want to be during a storm, but quite fascinating on the blue-sky day we enjoyed.

The hike was only about three hours long, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the beach, even on a short mid-winter day.

We had relatively low expectations of the hike when we started out, but it ended up being quite a pleasant mid-winter outing. Not very strenuous, but with enough ups and downs to be interesting, and with some intriguing landforms along the coast.

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.

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.