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 …

Five Spring Haiku

Today is the first day of spring, blown in by a warm and gusty nor’westerly wind, as if to say, “Take that, winter! Your time is over.” Here are five haiku inspired by the day.

Ngā koru

Swirls of yellow pollen
ripple in winter’s
vanishing puddles.

Te rā

Sunshine filters through
branches still winter-bare.
Wind rattles a welcome.

Kākāriki

Bright against dark soil,
leaves unfurl and
quest toward the sun.

Ngā puaka

Heads nod to the breeze—
frills of yellow, white, purple—
decked out in Sunday’s best.

Mahi māra

Cracked nails underlined
with dirt. Hands pressed to
the Earth’s heartbeat.

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.

Winter Culinary Adventuring

One of the best things about winter is the excuse to try unusual foods. During every other season of the year, there are so many vegetables coming out of the garden, it feels wrong to buy any fruits or vegetables. And as a rule, I only buy local produce, even during the winter, but once in a while it’s fun to splurge.

can of jackfruit

A few weeks ago I bought a can of jackfruit. This tropical tree is related to mulberries and figs, and produces large fruits with stringy flesh. The young fruits (before they ripen and become sweet) are used as a meat substitute, because the texture is somewhat meat-like.

I’ve eaten jackfruit in restaurants, but never cooked with it before, so it seemed like a good winter splurge.

Jackfruit itself has little flavour—its intrigue is in the texture. Most of the jackfruit recipes I found online take advantage of this texture by using it in dishes most commonly made with shredded pork.

After scanning a number of recipes, I decided to make gyro-inspired jackfruit wraps.

flatbreads fresh from the oven

I started by making flatbreads based somewhat loosely on a naan recipe I have.

Then I made a hash of shredded jackfruit, mushrooms and onions, heavily spiced with paprika, smoked paprika, and chipotle. A dash or two of vegetarian Worcestershire sauce gave it a little tang, and a handful of fresh cilantro tipped it towards Asian flavours.

Finally, I made a yogurt and tahini sauce to go with it, generously flavoured with fresh mint.

I’m not sure what cuisine the final Greek/Indian/Southeast Asian wraps would fall into, but they were absolutely delicious. The hot and spicy jackfruit hash was balanced beautifully by the yogurt sauce, and the fresh flatbreads, still warm from the oven were everything a good flatbread should be.

jackfruit has cooking on the stove

It was fun to cook with a new and unusual ingredient, and the results were well worth the effort. I won’t be adding jackfruit to my regular grocery run, as it’s not exactly a local food (the can I bought was imported from Thailand), but I’ll definitely consider it next time I’m looking for a little winter splurge.

Rain, Rain, Go Away …

After a rainy week, the flood has only just begun. It’s been hosing down rain for about the past ten hours, and it’s supposed to continue for the next 24. I was out in the rain a short while ago building a bridge so my chickens can get back to their coop across the lake that’s formed in their paddock. The news is full of pictures of flooded streets and swollen muddy rivers.

Excessive baking!

It’s not entirely unusual weather. Last year I spent a whole week with my year 7/8 maths students doing a lesson on isoclines with weather station data after a particularly spectacular rainstorm dumped 200mm on us in 24 hours. 

But just because we’ve experienced it before doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable. It just means we know how to cope, right?

On Saturday, I baked apple/blackcurrant pie and pumpkin cupcakes, filling the house with delicious warm aromas of cinnamon and fruit. On Sunday, I raided my fabric stash to make a sunny patchwork tote bag—not that I need another tote bag, but that’s irrelevant when it’s raining for the zillionth day in a row.

Yesterday, I banged out over 5,000 words on my current novel, bringing me within 10,000 words of typing The End. 

Today … well, today I’m watching that lake in the chook paddock, in case I have to raise the height of the bridge. But when I’m not rescuing my soggy birds, I’m pottering away at my novel, and tending to marketing and all the other unpleasant aspects of writing. I’ve also drunk endless cups of coffee and tea (and it’s not even lunchtime yet…). No doubt I’ll quit early to make a decadent dinner of comfort food, probably eaten by candlelight (because why not take advantage of short days while you can?).

Crazy tote in progress…

And of course after dinner, when it’s still supposed to be raining, I’ll no doubt curl up with one of the books I picked up in the library yesterday.

So it’s not all bad, though I do look forward to the return of the sun someday.

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. 🙂

Celebrating Matariki–making new traditions

This year is the first year Matariki is an official holiday here in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s about time. 

Matariki is the Māori New Year celebration. The holiday is named after the Matariki star cluster (also known as the Pleiades), which disappears from our night sky for a time, and reappears in late June, around the winter solstice. 

Matariki is a time to celebrate autumn’s harvest, remember friends and family who have died the previous year, and plan for the new year.

This year, my husband and I will celebrate the harvest with pizza topped with vegetables from the garden, and pie filled with fruit from our berry bushes.

I will remember my grandmother, who passed away in May, just a few days shy of her 97th birthday. Rugs braided by her hands will warm my feet during the chilly days of Matariki.

I will plan for the new year by assessing my seed stock and drawing the 2022-2023 garden map. Although I won’t plan my planting around how the stars of Matariki look when they first appear in the sky, as Māori used to (just as I never planned by Punxsutawney Phil and his Groundhog Day predictions), but I am pleased to note the sky has been crystal clear for the past few days—clear, bright Matariki stars signify an early planting season. Just as a shadowless groundhog used to make me hope for an early spring, bright Matariki stars do the same.

Celebrating Matariki feels natural and right here in Aotearoa. When the children were young, we always celebrated the winter solstice. I made special solstice cakes, decorated to celebrate darkness or welcome the soon-to-be-lengthening days. We’d give the kids little gifts—a flashlight, or some winter-appropriate craft supplies. We made candle holders and dipped beeswax candles. We had a special dinner in the light of the candles we’d made. It wasn’t a huge celebration—just something to mark the season and look forward to during the short, dark winter days.

As the kids grew older, they weren’t interested in candle making or other crafts. We still enjoyed candlelight dinners on the solstice, but most of the other parts of our celebration fell away. Now that Matariki is an official holiday, I expect some of our solstice celebration will make its way into our Matariki celebrations.

Like us, many New Zealanders will be creating new traditions this year, mapping out what Matariki looks like today, mixing traditional Māori celebrations with the myriad cultures that make up modern day New Zealand. I hope as we all move forward with our celebrations, we can resist the commercialisation that has plagued other holidays and remain focused on the deeper meanings behind Matariki and its intimate connection to the land.

Winter Baking

Anytime of year is a good time for baking, as far as I’m concerned. But winter baking is probably my favourite.

Chocolate raspberry cupcakes
Chocolate Raspberry Cupcakes

First, it’s dark out. I can start baking after dinner on a weeknight and not feel like I’m missing out on valuable garden time, because it’s pitch black out.

Second, who doesn’t feel the need for a few extra calories on those cold winter days? We can all justify eating that extra cupcake in order to stay warm.

Third, with the house closed up, the glorious smells of cinnamon, chocolate and butter linger in the house. If you bake on Monday evening, you can still smell those delicious cookies the next morning. You don’t lose those scents out the open windows.

But possibly the best thing about winter baking is the opportunity to revisit the other seasons by using the fruit stored up during the rest of the year. 

apple pie
Apple Pie

Monday night I made chocolate raspberry cupcakes using the last of the raspberries frozen at the height of summer—that fresh taste is so welcome in mid-winter when berry fruits are little more than a memory. 

Last week I made apple pie with apples frozen during autumn. The aroma of fruit and cinnamon evoked those marvellous days of plenty. 

Next week, for the solstice and Matariki, I’ll pull out the frozen currents and make my very favourite winter treat—current pie. Its tart flavour is the taste of summer. It reminds me that the long days of December are only six months away.

So I will bake my way through June, July and August, dreaming of warmer days past and planning for warmer days to come.

currant pie
Care for a slice of currant pie?

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.