Zucchini and Tomato Tart

We’re in the bountiful days of summer right now. And while I’d like to be sitting in a chaise lounge enjoying that bounty all day, someone’s got to pick it and process it. At the moment, the processing mostly involves making pickles and chutneys, but there’s a lot more to come. Then there’s the necessary watering, weeding, tying up of tomatoes, planting of winter crops (because as John Snow says, winter’s coming)…

zucchini tomato tart

But at the end of each day, we do get to enjoy the fruits of the season. Last night I made one of my favourite mid-summer meals—zucchini and tomato tart.

The beauty of this tart belies its simplicity—just tomato and zucchini, embellished with a little parmesan cheese, garlic and basil. 

Back when I had dairy goats, I’d spread a layer of chevre on the bottom, too, which was divine. It also had the bonus of preventing the crust from getting too soggy. These days, without an unlimited supply of goat cheese, I put up with a soggy crust—the tart is still amazing.

This tart relies on having the best tomato and zucchini possible—it’s not a dish to make with out-of-season vegetables—so if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, hang in there and enjoy this gem in July and August instead.

Download the recipe here.

The Grumbling Gardener

Like every serious gardener I know, I complain a lot.

The weather’s too hot and dry. It’s too cold and wet.

The winter was too cold. The winter was too mild.

The frost came too early, it came too late.

Aphids have killed this, a fungus has stunted that.

Poor germination, poor pollination, nitrogen deficiency, weed growth, pest birds … I can always find something about the garden that’s not right. Because there is so much that’s out of my control, it can’t possibly all go right.

And like all good gardeners, I hedge my bets.

Sixteen varieties of tomato, nine types of beans, six varieties of pumpkin, four different kinds of broccoli, and three different eggplants is betting on at least one or more of those varieties not surviving, not producing anything. Twelve zucchini plants, twenty-one peppers, and fifty-nine tomato plants is betting that some will die, fruits will be eaten by the birds, and many will underproduce for one reason or another.

So today, after grumbling about dry soil, nutrient-deprived plants and destructive blackbirds, I returned from the garden with more than we could eat, as I did yesterday and the day before, and the day before that. I’m awash in garden largess, in spite of the birds, the aphids, the weather.

I’ve largely ignored rising food costs and the current egg shortage crisis. I don’t worry about what we’ll eat the next time we contract Covid and have to isolate. I plan my main picking for weekdays, when excess can be given away at work. I bottle, dry and freeze as much as I can, squirreling away the extra for the winter (hedging my bets that the winter crops won’t germinate, will be eaten by birds, will be flooded out …).

It is the precarious wealth of the garden, and January is the time when my grumbling is often silenced by the next mouthful of delicious vegetables. I can occasionally walk through the garden in January and be overwhelmed by the abundance.

Of course, once I get over that, I’m back to my grumbling. I mean, just look at this photo—the yellowed corn, the stunted pumpkins, the prematurely senescing potatoes …

The Holiday Season Down Under

blackcurrant bushes

It’s been too long since my last post. I have illness to thank again. And simple early summer busyness. The strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, black currants and red currants are all coming in now, and I’m wondering how on Earth I’m going to pick and process them all!

The big garden excitement here at the moment is the new greenhouse that my husband and I gave to each other for Christmas. Yes, we know it was a rather early Christmas gift, but by the time we get the thing set up and ready to go, it’ll be Christmas Day. I’m looking forward to having more garden space under cover for some tender perennial crops and better winter growing.

I’m off to pick berries now and consider what different jams I’m going to be making this weekend! I’ll leave you with a little bit of Christmas doggerel (because I can’t help myself–bad holiday poetry just spills out of my brain at this time of year).

Down here where kiwi birds roam
Santa trades snowy rooftops for foam
Of the incoming tide
As the reindeer all ride
A Sea-Doo till it’s time to go home.

Down here while the barbies heat up
Santa sips pinos gris from a cup.
With sand in his shorts
He’ll play summertime sports
Till the elves tell him it’s time to sup.

Down here where pavlova is king
Santa enjoys his annual fling
Wiggling tired bare feet
In the summertime heat
While we wait for the gifts that he’ll bring.

The base of the new greenhouse. Raised beds to lift plants above winter flooding and provide decent soil for growing. Hopefully we’ll get the top put together this weekend.

Biscuit Stars (a.k.a. Starry Scones)

It’s been a long time since I blogged about biscuit stars (or Starry Scones, as I call them here in NZ, since ‘biscuits’ are cookies here). It’s been a while since I made them, too.

I was feeling whimsical on Sunday morning, though, and whipped one up for breakfast. As usual, it turned out beautifully and took minimal effort. It struck me as the perfect ‘fancy’ breakfast for the coming busy holiday season.

Try making one of these yourself—everyone will ooh and aah over your amazing culinary skills, and you never have to let on that it’s dead easy (I won’t tell …). 

Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

Springtime Sick Days

It’s been a while since my last blog post. I wish I could say it’s because I’ve been so busy in the garden I haven’t had a chance to sit down. 

Reality is I’ve finally been hit by Covid, so I haven’t been in the garden at all for days.

The weeds are growing, the pests multiplying, and time is ticking away in the spring planting season while I’m indoors sneezing, coughing and blowing my nose. 

It’s not the end of the world, of course, but it is frustrating.

However, there have been positives of an enforced rest.

  • I’ve never enjoyed the flowers outside my windows more. Right now, the pansies are a riot of purples and yellows throughout the flowerbeds, the snow-in-summer is a frosty carpet of blooms, the geum is flowering with the richest red, columbines are opening their blooms, and best of all, the irises right outside my office window have started to bloom. These plants were rescued from the school I work at when their location was due to be paved over. I had no idea what colour they were, and it turns out they’re a gorgeous purple—my favourite iris colour.
  • I’m appreciating anew the security of having plenty of preserved fruit and vegetables from last year and spring vegetables in the garden. No matter that we’re not allowed to leave home for a week—everything we need is here.
  • I’m appreciating the care of other gardeners who have offered help and dropped off fresh lemons for us.
  • I’ve gotten some sewing done, which is unusual at this time of year, when I’m usually occupied by the garden. 
  • I’ve read several books—always a bonus.
  • Now that I’m feeling a bit better, I’ve been able to get some writing done. I was disappointed Covid took me away from editing my next book, because I felt like I was on a roll. But a few days away from the computer gave me time to more deeply consider the changes I needed to make, and the edits I’m now making are going to lead to a better book. That’s a win!
  • Most importantly, I’m in isolation with my husband (who is also sick), and the extra time together is a gift.

So in spite of the fact there is a mountain of work awaiting me in the garden, getting Covid hasn’t been a complete disaster. Eventually I’ll be well enough to get back to the vegetables and the weeds, and they’ll still be there for me when I do.

Carrot Success

young carrots
Young carrots, fresh from the garden–nothing is better!

I used up the last of the fresh carrots yesterday—the last of the carrots that I planted a year ago at this time. 

There are still about 2 kilograms of frozen carrots left that should last almost until the first of this season’s carrots are ready to pick.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am about that. It’s the first time ever I’ve grown (nearly) enough carrots for the year. Usually I end up buying commercial carrots by mid-June.

We eat a lot of carrots. I have raw carrots for lunch every day, and at least half our dinners have carrots in them. We also discovered the joy of Mexican pickled carrots this year, and probably ate five kilos of them in the past two months. So a year’s supply is a whole heap of carrots! 

And if you wonder why I go to all the effort of attempting to grow a year’s supply of carrots, you have clearly never grown your own carrots. Home grown carrots put the tasteless, watery supermarket carrots to shame. Yes, they’re not as uniform in size and shape—I harvest some pretty ugly, twisted roots from my rocky garden—but their flavour (and colours) are far superior to commercially grown carrots.

I plant a wide variety of carrots. Last year I planted Paris Market, Scarlet Nantes, Touchon, Kuroda Improved, Tendersweet, and Purple Dragon. Touchon has been my workhorse carrot for years—flavourful, reliable and nicely shaped. When we moved to the rocky soil of the new property, I first tried Paris Market—a stubby round carrot I figured would be less bothered by the rocks. I wasn’t terribly excited about it at first—little carrots can be a pain to process in the kitchen, when you want a whole lot of carrot for dinner. What I didn’t know was that Paris Market carrot also has fantastic flavour for eating raw, and roasts beautifully as whole little carrot nuggets. It can also grow to a whopping size if you let it. And because of its shape, it’s easy to pick in my heavy clay soil. It’s beginning to nudge Touchon out of the top spot on my favourite carrots list.

Now that I’ve successfully grown enough carrots, my goal this year is to spread my carrot planting over a longer period, so I get just as many carrots off half the garden space, and so I don’t have 40 kilos of carrots in the fridge at any one time. 

And there’s one of the many reasons I love gardening—there’s always something new to learn, new to try. There are always tweaks and improvements to be made. A gardener can always aspire to a more productive, less weedy, less labour-intensive garden for the coming season.

Happy gardening everyone!

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. 🙂