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 …

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.

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. 🙂

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.