First Fruits

The new property isn’t quite gushing berries like the old, but it’ll get there.

The family spent much of last Sunday gardening at the new property. It had been several weeks since I’d worked in the garden there, and the weeds had been busy. The list of weed species on the property continues to grow, with cleavers and field madder the newest unwelcome volunteers. I found convolvulus too, scrambling along the perimeter fence through a clutch of gorse seedlings. At least the convolvulus will have pretty flowers.

There were nice surprises, too. The artichokes we transplanted are growing well. And nearly all of the cuttings of gooseberry, red currant, black currant, and blackberry have survived and are flowering. The strawberries have done well, too. One of them even offered me a ripe berry—the first fruit of the new property. It wasn’t the best strawberry ever, but it was the flavour of possibilities, the flavour of things to come.

Garden Gifts

Our house went on the market today. We’ve spent the past several weeks painting, tidying and weeding to make the place look its best. On Sunday evening, after a hard three days of work, I wandered around the yard. The air was sultry—oppressive heat slowly giving way to the comfort of a lazy summer evening. The freshly cut grass was soft and cool underfoot as I padded past purple baubles of blooming chives, snow-in-summer spilling onto the path in frosty profusion, multi-hued pansies nodding in the light breeze, and pale irises standing tall. I strolled the rose garden, only just beginning to flower. A lone peony sported golf-ball-sized burgundy buds. The last of the pittosporum flowers perfumed the air.

In short, the garden was at ease in its lush maturity—the result of fifteen years of hard work, on top of the botanical history of a hundred years of landscaping. I thought of all the plants the property had gifted us with—roses, dahlias, naked ladies, camellias, irises, and others. Discovered among the overgrown gardens, often nearly choked out by weeds, the plants responded well to love and care, and formed the core of what we’ve done with the yard.

Then I thought of our new property, a bare paddock, its botanical history limited to pasture grasses and clover. There will be no gifts, discovered among the weeds. No heirloom plants needing only a little love to bloom and thrive.

The thought was depressing as I strolled the mature plantings we will leave behind. Starting from nothing but rock and clay is a daunting prospect.

But this property will gift us plants yet again—hundreds of seedlings, cuttings, bulbs and divisions sit in pots, awaiting transport to their new home. One day, they will be the botanical history of the new property. One day, I will stroll among them in contemplation, just as I did among their predecessors at the old house.

Spring Bounty

What a difference two weeks make!

Last time I went to the grocery store, I scanned the isles looking for a few decent seasonal vegetables, because there was little in the garden.

But virtually by the time I’d brought the vegetables home, the garden exploded with good things to eat.

Artichokes and asparagus are both coming on strong. Every day a new cauliflower suddenly bursts, creamy-white among the leaves. The purple sprouting broccoli plants are covered in florets. The spinach and lettuces seem to double in size every day, providing crisp springtime salads. 

It seems we’ve gone from famine to feast overnight. I shouldn’t be surprised; it happens every year. But it’s always a delight.

Winter Losing its Grip

When I returned a tool to the equipment hire place yesterday morning, the owner asked if I thought we’d have snow.

At school, the staff were buzzing with the possibility of a snow day. “Don’t tell the kids!” one whispered. “They’ll go crazy.”

The weather forecast is for a southerly storm to blow in on Wednesday. Depending on which forecast you look at, we might have snow to 400 metres or to near sea level.

But regardless of the forecast, it’s beginning to feel like spring.

Yesterday evening when I stepped out to close the chicken house, lambs bleated in nearby paddocks, starlings warbled in the treetops, and blackbirds fought over new territories. 

The sky was still light, though it was nearly six o’clock, and the air was soft and full of promises.

Today I am comfortable in a t-shirt, and have opened the doors and windows to warm up the house in the winter sunshine.

Whether it snows tomorrow or not, winter has lost its grip. Spring is on its way.

Embracing Autumn

Our summer has finally turned to autumn. Cooler temperatures and more rain mean the grass has begun to grow again, green shoots sprouting through rain-driven drifts of dead vegetation.

The tomatoes are browning, spent after summer’s excess, and while I mourn their loss, I welcome the fruits of autumn—pumpkin, wild boletes, black beans, apples and a return of leafy greens. I welcome warming soups and casseroles. I welcome the smell of baking pie, simmering beans, and sautéing mushrooms.

I welcome the reduced workload in the garden, too. There’s still plenty of harvesting to be done, and I’ll be clearing away dead plants throughout autumn and winter, but soon I’ll release the chickens into the garden to keep the weeds and pests in check until spring.

It’s time now to take stock. Plenty of summer soup, pickles and jam in the cupboard; strings of onions and garlic hanging in the kitchen; pesto, peas and corn in the freezer. Jars of popcorn and dry beans line the shelf, and a basket of apples sits in the kitchen. We will eat well this winter, food and effort stored in jars and freezer boxes to be released and enjoyed on dark, cold evenings. 

So I will savour the warmth and sun that remains, but embrace the cold to come.

Alpine Delights

The family spent a delightful hour on the Dobson Nature Walk in Arthur’s Pass National Park on Wednesday. The track is an easy one, and hiking it quickly takes about 20 minutes. But it’s not a walk you want to do quickly, especially in summer. It winds through alpine and sub-alpine vegetation, including some beautiful tarns, and in summer, so many plants are blooming, it’s hard to take five steps without finding another lovely orchid, daisy, or hebe in bloom.

For me, the best part of the walk is the abundance of sundews in the tarns. As an entomologist, I’m naturally drawn to carnivorous plants like sundews. Sundews catch insects on the sticky hairs you can see glistening in this photo. The hairs are sensitive to both touch and taste, and when they sense a struggling insect, they fold inward to further entangle their prey. Enzymes exuded by the hairs then digest the insect, and the leaf takes up the nutrients in order to grow in the nutrient-poor alpine wetlands. 

These sundews were just beginning to flower—many plants had flower buds, but none had yet opened. The flowers sit above the leaves—an important adaptation, since the plant needs to be pollinated by the very insects it eats.

The alpine summer is short, so when these plants are done flowering, the leaves will slowly shrink into a structure called a hibernaculum that sits near the soil surface and protects the plant through the winter.

Catlin’s River Walk—a little bit of magic

My family and I were in the Catlins last week, in the southeast corner of the South Island. It’s a wild and remote area, home to more penguins and fur seals than humans. No urban adventures here—it’s a place for outdoor recreation.

One of the things we did was to hike part of the Catlins River Track (we didn’t have time to do the full track). It was unlike any other place I’ve been in New Zealand.

In fact, it reminded me most of eastern Pennsylvania, in spite of the fact that it shares not a single common species of plant or animal.

The track follows the Catlins River, a beautiful waterway that cuts through layers of limestone in one little cascade after another. Swing bridges cross the river several times, providing great aerial views of the water (and a little excitement for those who don’t like heights). The forest is old-growth beech which provides habitat for myriad native birds, carefully protected by intensive predator control. 

In addition to the beech, we were delighted to see two species of orchid on the forest floor, red-flowered mistletoes in the treetops, several species of slime mould, some lovely mushrooms, and a beautiful native harvestman. The birdlife was noisy and varied, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any endangered mohua. And, amazingly, there wasn’t a single sandfly! 

The whole effect was one of an enchanted forest. We were certainly enchanted.

The track is relatively flat—easy hiking for kids or those who can’t face the usual Kiwi hiking track going straight up a mountain, and because there’s no “goal” to reach, you can simply walk as far as you’d like, and then return. The entire length is 12 km one-way, with a return loop option through forestry land away from the river. 

I highly recommend this track. I’ll certainly be going back when I have enough time to do the whole thing.