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.

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.

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.

From Haast to Haast Pass

My husband and I spent the past four days on the West Coast. I was helping him with some field work involving a lot of bush bashing on steep slopes.

The trip also involved a lot of driving–all the way from Greymouth to Haast, and then over to Wanaka before heading north again. It being the West Coast, the road crossed many creeks, each one named by a small road sign. After a particularly waterway-rich stretch of highway, where  we crossed a creek every 50 metres or so, we began to note ALL the creek names. At some point I began writing them down—they were strangely poetic.

I’ve taken a section—State Highway 6 between Haast and Haast Pass—and have written a poem that uses each creek name, in order starting in Haast, and evokes South Westland. The creek names are the only words capitalised.

you swish through the Grassy paddock
to take a Snapshot,
then fossick for Greenstone
on the beach amidst the strewn blossoms
of southern rata, that seasonal Myrtle
Harris says brings out the colour of
your eyes when he tucks a bloom behind your ear.

ankle deep in the Glitterburn
on a tuesday that sparkles with gold
you fire a text to Roy and Joe,
knowing they are stuck in Dismal london,
while you grow Dizzy trying to track
the flitting movement of a tomtit
in the undergrowth, its Gun Boat grey
blending into the shadows, white breast
winking like a Cron command,
Dancing to its own irregular beat.

and deep in the forest, the Roaring Swine
fill the Gap in the silence and find
the Chink between birdsongs.

your Cache of wonder sits at the Depot,
its Square Top a fitting seat
for Orman,
the Imp with Mossy eyes.
his Eighteen Mile hike on Gout swollen feet
has not dampened his spirits.
he recites MacPherson’s translations,
mixing the ancient gaelic with
lines you’re certain came from Douglas adams.

the Serpentine path you wander tumbles
over boulders soft with moss like grandma Evans’ arms
when she would pull you into those hugs you
hated as a teen, when you and your cousin Chelsea
walked the tired streets of town—
three blocks, then Pivot to retrace
the entirety of main street—hoping
for some excitement.

now it is Solitude you crave.
as Douglas said—space is Big—
surely there is enough of it that you
can carve out your own piece of it
here, among the ancient footprints
of Moa, tangled in a Briar,
imagining Haast eagles soaring overhead.

Diana would have been your goddess,
in this wilderness of rain where The Trickle
of water is more like a roar and
liquid is a Cutter of stone.

you would stay here for decades
like Robinson crusoe, study the
ants at your feet as though you
were e. o. Wilson.

instead you Cross the river
and stand dripping and shiny
as a nugget of gold on the other side.

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.

Christmas Adventure–Gillespie Circuit

The family’s Christmas tramp this year took us to the Gillespie Circuit Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. The trip was a good adventure, through a dramatic landscape we don’t often hike in.

Day one started with a jet boat from Makarora to the confluence of the Wilkin and Makarora Rivers. It was my first jet boat ride, and I’ll admit my inner teenager was grinning as we slalomed down the river in a noisy, environmentally unsustainable fashion my adult self disapproves of.

From the mouth of the Wilkin River, we hiked upstream. It was decidedly the least interesting four hours of the trip—the area is grazed, so it was primarily a slog through a cow paddock. The track then turned into the forest and climbed steadily up Siberia Stream to Siberia Hut, where we spent two nights.

On day two, we took a day trip to Crucible Lake. The track to the lake is quite steep, but worth every step. The lake sits in a basin behind a massive glacial moraine. The glacier above the lake drops chunks of ice into the water, making it look like an enormous punch bowl. Apparently it’s popular to take a dip in the lake, but we were deterred by the ice and the cool morning air. The scale of the landscape is deceptive, and photos don’t come close to capturing it.

Day 3, Christmas Day, dawned lightly overcast—perfect for the next stage of the hike, over Gillespie Pass. The track climbs steeply over 1000 metres to the pass, first through the forest, and then into alpine scrub and tussock. Mount Awful looms over the pass, and the surrounding landscape is dominated by jagged peaks and glaciers. The taller peaks, including Mount Awful, were shrouded in cloud, but the views were nonetheless spectacular. We even got a slightly white Christmas, hiking through a couple of snow patches near the top of the pass.

If we thought the way up was steep, the way down proved us wrong—it was even steeper, dropping down a precipitous ridge to the top of the Young River. From there, the nearly flat hike to Young Hut afforded plenty of opportunity to admire the rocky ridges above and the many waterfalls cascading down from them.

Day 4 was a long but relatively gentle hike along the Young River to the Makarora River through the forest. Crossing the thigh-deep Makarora River back to the car was a refreshing end to the trip.

Being a Christmas hike, the trip naturally inspired another bad tramping Christmas song. This year’s song is to the tune of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Have yourself a merry tramping Christmas.
Make the trailside gay.
From now on our cars will be so far away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy tramping days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Sleeping near to us—they snore!

Through the years we all will tramp together
If the joints allow,
Even when we’re eighty, though I don’t know how.
So have yourself a merry tramping Christmas now.

May you all have a lovely holiday filled with your favourite people doing your favourite things!

The Gift of Rain

purple cauliflower
Purple cauliflower enjoying the rain

It’s unusual to have three days of rain in December. Usually, I’m desperately trying to keep the garden watered while the vegetables are in their early summer growth phase. Usually, I’m doing a pre-Christmas weeding of vegetables and perennials that will carry me into January with minimal weeds.

Not this year. It has been raining steadily for three days, after a week or so of showery weather. Every inch of the garden is thick with weeds, and continued rain means I’m not out there pulling them as they grow in size by the hour. I’ve braved the rain to pick vegetables for dinner and berries, which are rotting in the wet weather, but otherwise I’ve stayed indoors for three days.

I’m restless to get outside.

But I’m also thrilled with the excuse not to. Usually in December, I don’t manage to do much beyond garden work. So three days to make Christmas gifts, write, and get some nagging indoor chores done has been a gift.

It’s also been a gift to the garden. Much as I try, I can’t duplicate in watering the effect of a good rainstorm. The vegetables are growing as quickly as the weeds. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage  are all ready to eat. The pumpkin and zucchini plants seem to double in size every few hours. The beans have completely filled in their beds, beating out the weeds entirely. And the peas and lettuce have gotten a new lease on life, and will likely last a few more weeks than they would have otherwise.

So while I’d still rather be out in the garden, both me and the garden are taking full advantage of the gift we’ve been given.

cat at a window
The cat is a master of rainy day activity.

Plants Make the Home

When we first decided to build a house, and bought the land for it, we immediately began propagating plants. We selected our favourite ornamentals, natives, and perennial crops and divided them, took cuttings, and collected seed.

As soon as we had a landscape plan, before the house was even staked out on the ground, we began to prepare garden beds, hiring a rotary hoe and having twelve cubic metres of compost delivered to start the process of turning compacted, nutrient-free clay into productive soil. Nine months before we moved in, we started planting. We put in hundreds of native plants and a small vegetable garden while the house was nothing but a concrete slab. Without a connection to the water mains, we hauled buckets of water from the ditch across the road to irrigate our new plantings. Through the summer, we made the 45-minute drive to the new property weekly to check on and water our fledgeling plants. On particularly hot weeks, we visited twice.

When we moved onto the property in March 2020, we lived in the shed, because the house wasn’t yet done. Our move included about a hundred more plants propagated from the old house—plants we knew we wouldn’t be able to put in the ground until the house was finished.

The house was finally finished in mid-winter, and we got to work on the remaining landscaping. We planted out most of the remaining plants from the old house. We bought fruit trees, olives, grapes and strawberries. We even splurged on a few tree ferns and a bunch of natives we didn’t have at the old house. We bought an excessive number of roses.

We ordered more compost, hauled cow manure from the neighbour’s place, and spread more than 80 bales of pea straw out to mulch the new gardens.

We dreamed in plants.

We’ve been in the house for only 16 months, but the 15 cm tall akeake we planted reach over two metres now. The cardoon threatens to top three metres. The silver tussocks form a hummocky mound that blankets the ground and offers shelter to native skinks. The currants, gooseberries and artichokes fill their beds and look like they’ve been there for years.

This year’s vegetables are well established, feeding on the manure and compost I’ve worked into the soil over the last year. They are lush and tall and green.

And when I come home after a day of work, I pass nodding aquilegia flowers and the towering cardoon. I see the roses creeping up their trellis. I admire the rows of berries, peas and cabbages, and I finally feel at home.

Because it is truly the plants (and the people that grow them, of course) that make a home.