Welcome Spring!

It’s the first day of spring.

So, naturally, it’s snowing.

But the daffodils are flowering, the willows are greening up, and pine pollen billows from the neighbour’s trees. Regardless of what the sky is dropping on us, spring is here.

And not a moment too soon. Like most people around the world, we feel like the past six or seven months have dragged on for decades. Can I even remember the TBC (Time Before Covid)?

For us, lockdown began during a glorious Indian summer. Warm sunny days begged for last-chance trips to the beach. Trips we couldn’t take, trapped in our bubbles and stuck on foot.

By the time we were released from lockdown, summer had given way to chill autumn rain and frosty days.

Living in our shed through lockdown, then beyond and well into winter, we felt the season’s bite early and hard. We lived in the cold shed forever, and we would live there always … at least that’s how it felt. Every icy day was a year long.

Finally, we moved into our new house. It was (and still is) glorious—a warm dry refuge from the weather.

But winter was still grinding away outside. With landscaping only partly finished, the yard was a mire of wet clay and puddles. We were still trapped indoors. Even the novelty of a warm dry house wasn’t enough to speed the days along. Time dragged its feet. Winter moved at a toddler’s pace. I couldn’t go yet—it had to get its coat and shoes. Then it lost a glove and spent a month looking for it among a drift of discarded outdoor gear.

So it was a spectacular feeling to boot winter out the door—gloveless still—when I planted the season’s first vegetable seeds last weekend. It was an act of defiance to turn garden beds, and ready the greenhouse for newly-sprouted seedlings.

I look forward to the growing season ahead. Welcome spring!

Weeding Magpies

Photo: Eric Weiss

We’re still getting to know the local wildlife at the new house. The marauding sparrows are pretty much the same—devouring young lettuce and chicken feed in large flocks. The black-backed gull’s evening flights to their nightly roos on the gravel banks of the Waimakariri River are also familiar—though at the old house, the birds were headed to the sea.

The magpies are also familiar, but I’ve noticed some intriguing behaviour here that was absent at the old house.

The magpies here are weeding my garden.

Well okay, not really. Not on purpose. But they’re doing a nice job of it, regardless.

Our yard and garden here are cursed with wire weed. This aggressive plant’s long tough branches sprawl up to a metre or more from a strong central tap root. They tangle in the lawnmower and garden tools, and can trip the unwary. Their only saving grace is that, at least in our lousy soil, their foliage is small and sparse—they may tangle all through my crops, but at least they don’t smother other plants entirely.

And apparently, they make superior magpie nesting material. For weeks, the local magpies have been avidly stripping wire weed from the garden and hauling it to the tops of the pine trees across the road. They started with the easily obtained dead plants that I’d pulled out and left lying about. But now they’re ripping up live plants and taking them away by the beakful.

All the more reason to love these feisty feathered thugs.

The Lap of Luxury

Late last week, our exile in the shed ended and we took possession of our new house. Heat, insulation, indoor plumbing … the luxuries we’re now enjoying are amazing. 

In fact, looking back over our 28-year marriage, I can confidently say we’ve never had it so good.

Our first joint living adventures were in staff housing at nature centres in Ohio and Michigan. Cold and drafty, those conditions were decidedly rustic (though they came with some excellent wildlife spotting, including sandhill cranes out the bathroom window).

During our Peace Corps service, our one room mud home in Panama had a leaky roof and harboured rats, snakes, lizards, and the most astonishing array of arthropods I’ve ever co-habitated with. It wasn’t so much a house as it was a full ecosystem.

Married student housing at Penn State University had less diverse wildlife—German cockroaches filled all the ecological niches there—and involved periodic flooding from the upstairs neighbour’s bathtub.

The 1960s duplex we moved to next had a bad mould problem, but at least we had fewer six-legged housemates.

In Minnesota, our 150-year-old house needed a new roof, piles and insulation. It was never particularly warm in winter, even after the extra insulation we added.

The 125-year-old cottage we recently moved out of was shocking when we moved in, with a leaking roof and rotting weatherboards. The only insulation was a century of accumulated bird nests in the attic. We fixed it up, but it was always drafty.

In hindsight, the shed we were living in for the past three months wasn’t so different from our previous homes.

I’m thankful, and a bit overwhelmed, to be living in a modern, warm, dry house for the first time in my adult life. Even if I live here for the rest of my life, it will never be as old as many other houses I’ve lived in. I intend to enjoy it.

Summer Soup 2020

No pandemic hoarding here, just the usual late season batch of Summer Soup. I’ve written about Summer Soup on numerous occasions (2015, 2016, 2018, and twice in 2019). We’ve been making it annually for at least a decade, and it has always been a family affair. In the early years, the children’s vegetable chopping efforts were more symbolic than helpful, but as their skills improved, their input became critical to the relatively rapid production of vast quantities of soup. 

This year, with our upcoming move, the garden output is less than in many years, and there’s so much to do, I wasn’t sure we would have a chance to make Summer Soup. In the end, I did it alone. Starting at 7.30 am, with many interruptions to help move furniture and tools, I began picking and processing vegetables. I pulled the final jars out of the canner shortly before 11 pm.

I listened to music and podcasts while I worked, and I got some brief help from my husband, but it wasn’t the same without the rest of the family there. Neither was the output—13 quarts of soup and 4 quarts of stock. 

I’m not disappointed—thirteen meals plus flavouring for four more will be lovely in the coming weeks and months—but I look forward to getting back to the family production of Summer Soup next year. It’s not just soup; it’s a celebration, and not nearly so much fun alone.

Problem or Inspiration?

The other day I planned on making roast potatoes for dinner. I brought in a colander full of spuds from the garden—more than enough for dinner.

Unfortunately, when I started cutting them I found many of them infected with zebra chip (caused by the bacterium Candidatus Liberibacter solanacearum), which turns the flesh brown. My planned dish of potatoes was looking pretty empty.

I could have gone out for more potatoes, but instead I took advantage of the resources on hand in the kitchen. I added a shallot and a few chopped tomatoes, sprinkled it with salt, pepper and rosemary, and popped it into the oven (at 210ºC for about 40 minutes for anyone interested).

The result was utterly satisfying and arguably better than the plain roast potatoes I’d originally planned. Instead of a problem, the rampant zebra chip became delicious inspiration.

Now, if I can only remember that for all the other problems in life …

Melon Season

I picked the first melons of the season the other day—a lovely watermelon and a small cantaloupe (rock melon). The watermelon could have used another couple of days on the vine, but it was sweet and delicious anyway. The cantaloupe was perfectly ripe and fragrant.

In fact, it was the smell that clued me in that the melons were ripening—I couldn’t even see this one amidst the tangle of foliage.

I’ve blogged previously about the smell of melons and the memories it evokes. Along with the odour of tomato and corn plants, it is the essence of summer. More than a seasonal fruit, melon is the season, all rolled into one fragrant ball.

So even though melons don’t start ripening here until it’s almost officially autumn, summer for me lasts as long as the melons do.

The Apricots of Wrath

I should have listened to Fate. 

“Don’t can apricots today!” it told me the other day. “You have no sugar in the house.”

But I looked at the vast quantities of quickly ripening apricots in the kitchen and knew they wouldn’t wait.

I drove to the store to pick up sugar.

Back home, I made my sugar syrup, washed and heated my jars, got my canning water to a boil, and prepared seven kilos of apricots.

All was going well until I was packing the fruit into jars. I kept an ear on my canner, making sure it stayed at a boil while I worked. When the bubbling hiss faded and died, I knew the gas bottle was empty. Not now!

I left off my jar filling and raced outside to switch gas bottles.

Back inside, water, jars, and sugar syrup were cooling, but I finished packing the apricots in and poured sugar syrup over them …

Only to find I was about a cup short of syrup. Gah! I quickly made up a small batch to finish off the jars.

Into the canner went the jars, and I heaved a sigh of relief. It took longer than usual to bring it all back to a boil, but I shrugged it off. It’s always that way for a cold-packed fruit. 

Then a few minutes into the boil, the canner started boiling over—orange, chunky, foamy water spilled onto the stove. Darn! A jar had broken. It’s rare, but after 30 years of use, sometimes the bottom of a jar will pop off during canning.

So for 25 minutes, I fought the sticky water boiling over on the stove. When I finally pulled the jars out, they were all coated in slimy chunks of overcooked apricot from the broken jar, and the stove was an gooey mess.

The six remaining jars all sealed, though, which was good. Pity about the stove. Took forever to clean.

Later, once the water had cooled, I tackled the job of emptying broken glass and gunk from the canner. And the first thing I did was drop the remainder of the slippery broken jar onto the floor, where it smashed to pieces.

Then, just to add insult to injury, when I dumped the chunky sticky canning water onto the compost pile, it somehow funnelled through the pile directly onto my foot. 

Cleaning up the mess took almost as long as the rest of the process, and I questioned whether it was worth it, or if I should have simply thrown away a couple of kilos of fruit and called it a day before I started.

Then my daughter pointed out that we had the makings of six fruit desserts there, ready to pull out on a winter evening. She had a point—we’ll enjoy that fruit, and by winter, I’ll have forgotten the frustration of preserving it.

But, still, I keep thinking I could have sat on the porch with a good book instead …

Seeing is Believing

The Canterbury tree wētā (Hemideina femorata) is endemic to the lowland forests of Canterbury. Like other tree wētā, it is a sizeable insect and an opportunist when it comes to food, eating mostly leaves, but taking advantage of the protein in other insects it encounters.

Here in rural Canterbury, it’s rare to find tree wētā. Old timers talk about how you used to see wētā every time you trimmed the hedge, but in 15 years of trimming, I have seen no wētā. I’ve even put wētā houses (like bird houses, but designed to appeal to wētā) in the hedge, but have never found anything but spiders in them. 

Though I’ve never seen a study of their population changes, anecdotal evidence indicates Canterbury tree wētā numbers have dwindled with the intensification of agriculture and the increased use of chemical pesticides.

I have been fortunate to raise quite a few wētā in captivity, and in doing so, I’ve become familiar with the insects’ strong smell. This smell has been their downfall when faced with introduced mammalian predators—strong enough for even a human’s nose to perceive, it acts as a beacon to hungry rats, and stoats.

But it’s not just in my insect tanks I’ve smelled tree wētā. With some regularity in the early morning I can smell them in the hedge when I pass on my way to feed the chooks.

We humans have a poor sense of smell, as mammals go. We rely much more heavily on our sense of sight for identifying things. So for years now, I’ve doubted my nose, because I’ve never seen a wētā on the property or anywhere nearby.

But not long ago, on an evening walk with my husband, we found an adult tree wētā dead on the road.

Yes! I knew my nose couldn’t be deceiving me, though I was never confident enough to declare their presence based on smell alone. Now I am. I may not have seen them in my hedge, but if there are wētā being hit on the road a hundred metres from my house, I am willing to believe my wētā-scented hedge harbours them too.

No Vampires Here!

Mid-winter, when it was time to plant the garlic, I had no idea where we were going to be living at harvest time. 

So I covered all my bases and planted a full complement of garlic at the old house and at the new house.

Last week I harvested the garlic from both properties. As I expected, the garlic at the new house grew poorly in the clay and rock, but it did grow and is perfectly acceptable. The garlic at the old house had a spectacular growing year—nearly every head is large and plump.

So, knowing we struggle to finish off a normal year’s garlic harvest before it sprouts and gets nasty, I made an effort to preserve a few heads. Well, thirty-two heads, to be exact.

First, I filled the dehydrator with thinly sliced garlic and dried 20 heads. I’ve dried garlic before, and we appreciate the ease of tossing a few flakes into the mortar and pestle and grinding them up. Twenty heads of garlic dries down to less than a pint jar full of flakes—uninspiring until you think about how concentrated the garlic flavour is in that jar!

Then I tried something new—I pickled 12 heads. According to the recipe I used, the cloves can be used just like fresh garlic, and when you finish off a jar, the pickling liquid makes a great flavoured vinegar for things like salad dressings. They’re quite pretty in their little jars, and I look forward to trying them long about August when the fresh garlic is sprouting. Again, twelve heads looks like nothing when peeled and packed into jars, but with 32 heads preserved and another three dozen hanging braided in the kitchen, I still have a whole bunch to give away. 

So if you’re looking for vampires, go somewhere else. They’ll be staying far away from my house for a long time.

Cilantro Security

Cilantro (aka coriander) is an acquired taste. When I first had it, I thought it tasted like soap. Now I love it. Which makes this year’s crop all the more welcome, because we’ve been without it for several months.

Cilantro will grow year-round here, although during our dry summers, it bolts quickly. Usually I plant a spring crop and let it bolt and re-seed itself for a fall/winter crop of volunteer plants. Unfortunately, last spring’s crop was badly stunted by aphids and a hot dry spell, and it didn’t set seed. 

So we went all winter without cilantro—a sad state, when winter is the time for chilis and bean dishes that we normally flavour with cilantro.

It’s hot and dry again, but I’ve taken precautions against another cilantro failure. I planted two crops several weeks apart, and I’m watering them well. Hopefully we’ll be back to a continuous cilantro supply this year.