Sun’s Return

It’s only a few weeks past the solstice. Nights are below freezing, and the worst of winter is still to come. In shady spots the frost lingers all day.

Spinach seedlings in the greenhouse
Spinach seedlings in the greenhouse

But plants are already responding to the increase in sunlight. There is a haze of new green growth in the chickens’ winter-bare paddock, daffodils are poking their shoots out of the flower beds, and the grass will soon need to be mown.

In the greenhouse, the lettuce and spinach seedlings that have been sitting there unchanging for weeks have finally begun growing again. The broccoli in the winter garden has begun thinking about heading up (at least until yesterday when the chickens got in there and stripped the leaves).

I too have responded to the sun. I’ve drawn my garden map for the upcoming season. I’ve assessed my seed needs in preparation for the arrival of the new year’s seed catalogue. I’ve nearly completed incorporating manure into the entire vegetable garden.

The weeks will go quickly. Before I know it, it will be time to start seeds, mark out garden beds and spread compost. Now is the time I should be buckling down to complete winter tasks—sewing, organising, cleaning … But like the plants stretching out their tentative leaves, I can’t help but respond to the sun, reaching for spring and looking forward to the new season to come.

Winter Baking

Pumpkin cakeWinter is a great time to try out new things in the kitchen. Weeks of cold, rainy weather always make me want to bake.

Last weekend I tried out two new things.

The first was a recipe for baked donuts. I was keen to try them, because I love donuts, but hardly ever make them because of the hassle of frying them. The idea of making up dough the night before, and then baking up fresh donuts for Sunday breakfast was tempting.

Unfortunately, the recipe didn’t work particularly well for me. I followed it to the letter, since it was new to me, but I did worry about the fact it had you mix the yeast into the flour, rather than proofing it first. The yeast never got off to the start it should have, and the dough didn’t rise as much as I would have liked. The resulting donuts were somewhat leaden. I also think the baking temperature of the donuts was too low—the recipe yielded a fully baked but anaemic-looking donut, barely browned at all. A hotter oven would produce an attractively brown crust with a moist interior. 

With a few tweaks to the recipe, I think there’s potential for a delicious (and dangerously easy) donut recipe there. I have no choice but to try again. 

The second new recipe I made over the weekend was a cream cheese frosting so simple, I had to give it a go. A block of cream cheese and three tablespoons of maple syrup, beaten until fluffy and spreadable.

The result is barely sweet, and beautifully flavoured. It’s denser than a standard cream cheese frosting full of confectioner’s sugar, but the density doesn’t bother me in the least—the texture is smooth and silky—delightful in the mouth. I used it to frost a pumpkin spice cake, and the flavours were perfect complements to one another. It’s definitely a recipe I’ll make again.

Saturday’s weather forecast is for snow. I’m already considering what I’ll experiment with in the kitchen.

A Warm Winter Solstice

The winter solstice passed this week, cold and rainy. It was also the anniversary of moving into our new house. It was truly a delight not to endure the run-up to the solstice in an unheated, uninsulated shed. To have a warm, dry place to eat and sleep; to have electricity and plumbing—what a luxury!

8 am with the sun barely rising …

Indeed, I still sort of feel I’m living in someone else’s house. Until a year ago, my husband and I had never owned a house less than a hundred years old. Then suddenly we had square corners and level floors. We had double glazing and insulation. We had doors that opened and closed properly, walls without fifty coats of paint, and not a speck of rot anywhere.

It was a bit of a shock.

And now I wonder if I’m going soft. I don’t wake up to a freezing house and have to light the fire. I don’t worry that the roof will leak every time it rains. I don’t have to venture to the attic to empty and re-set the rat traps. I don’t wake wondering if today is the day the water heater, septic system, or well pump is going to die.

Sometimes I miss the character of an old house—a house that is old enough to have a life of its own, a house that tells stories. Sometimes I feel guilty—a new house is such an unnecessary luxury.

But truth is, modern life is pretty good, especially in the cold, rainy days around the winter solstice. So for the moment, I’ll simply be thankful for all those luxuries that make the dark days brighter.

Summer Stocktake

Mid-April, and it’s time to take stock of the summer’s garden. 

Compared with gardens at the old house, this year’s was a disaster—stunted plants that died off early, solanaceous crops decimated by viral disease, and heat and drought that I struggled to combat with irrigation.

But compared with what I expected, the garden was a huge success. I managed to provide the plants enough nutrients and water that they all managed to give us something. We had enough peas, corn and carrots to freeze some. We gorged on strawberries and melons. I gave away heaps of zucchini. The laundry room is piled with pumpkins. We’ve got more garlic and onion than we’ll be able to eat before it starts to sprout. And we’ve had a steady supply of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. 

The stars of them all have been the carrots. Last spring I blogged about how well my carrots germinated this year—better than they ever had before, which was quite a surprise in the new garden. At the time, I reserved judgement—it was too much to hope the carrots would grow well in heavy clay soil studded with rocks.

But all summer we’ve been eating beautiful carrots, and last week I harvested everything remaining in the bed, because the slugs and slaters were taking their toll. The fridge is packed with carrots now, and I blanched and froze several kilograms as well.

In spite of everything, it was one of the better years I’ve had for carrots. To be fair, the roots are small, compared to the old garden. Some are bent where they hit a rock, and many broke off when I tried to lift them—if they penetrated too far into the clay, they were nearly impossible to harvest.

But even the purple carrots grew, which is quite an accomplishment for me—in past years, the purple carrots have done well in early spring, but then have been decimated by aphids, so we only ever eat them as baby carrots. Last week I harvested quite a few nice big purple carrots.

Best of all were the Paris market carrots—little, super sweet round roots perfect for lunch boxes and snacks. Their shape made them easy to pick, so there weren’t any left when I harvested the lot last week, but they’ll definitely be in next year’s lineup as well.

Overall, I consider the summer’s garden to have been a success. It’s looking pretty bare out there now, and I’m hauling cow manure from the neighbour’s place and incorporating it into the soil, so by spring I hope to have a few more nutrients available for the plants. I’m already looking forward to next summer.

A Squirrelly Weekend

Dried vegetables don’t look nice, but they’re great for backpacking.

I had a very squirrelly weekend last week. It wasn’t full of bushy-tailed, nut-eating rodents (they don’t live in New Zealand); I was the squirrel in my weekend. Squirrelling away food for later.

Thursday, I addressed an overabundance of zucchini by making zucchini bread. I tucked three loaves into the freezer to eat in the coming weeks.

On Friday, I used more of that zucchini, along with lots of other vegetables from the garden to make a vat of pasta sauce. Some of the sauce was eaten for Friday’s dinner, but most went into the freezer to eat in the coming months.

On Saturday, I shelled dry beans from the garden. Once they’ve fully dried, I’ll pack them in jars to be made into chilli and refried beans over winter.

Later that day, I made six meals worth of veggie burgers to squirrel away alongside the pasta sauce in the freezer.

All weekend, I had the dehydrator running, drying fruit and vegetables for tramping (backpacking) trips over the next year.

On Sunday, I picked, processed and froze the year’s harvest of soy beans.

My husband got into the act, too. He made two large pizzas, two-thirds of which we froze for future meals.

The garden is beginning to empty and the freezer is filling up. It’s a good feeling, in spite of the work involved. Like a squirrel, I’ll be able to curl up in my nest through the winter, nibbling on the food I’ve stored up.

Giving Thanks in 2020

Thankful for these glorious blue peas with their cheerful flowers.

Thanksgiving is this week in the US and, while we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here, I do always still pause and reflect on what I’m grateful for. This year, it feels doubly important to focus on the good things. 

So here are just a few of the things on my Thanksgiving list:

  • Top of the list this year has to be all the Kiwis who have responded with maturity and community spirit to the challenges thrust upon us this year. I am truly proud to be a New Zealander this year, and I’m thankful to be here, where our collective action has allowed us freedom and safety much of the world doesn’t have. 
  • Friends and colleagues who have encouraged those around them to approach Covid-19 as a challenge to develop creative ways to continue to pursue dreams, rather than as a disaster to be lamented.
  • I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m still incredibly thankful for our new house. It still often feels like I’m living in someone else’s home, but it is a joy to cook in the new kitchen and to live in a well-insulated building.
  • This time of year, while not exactly traditional harvest time, is rich in early summer fruits and vegetables. Though our new garden is quite young, and the soil is truly terrible, we’re still harvesting good food, and I’m thankful for what we are able to produce.
  • I’m especially thankful this year for my husband and children, who have approached all of this year’s many stressors with good humour, fortitude, and a willingness to pitch in and do what needs to be done.
  • I am more than usually grateful this year for technology which has made the pandemic far less isolating than it would otherwise have been.
  • As always, I’m thankful for the proximity of beach, river and mountain. This year, even more than other years, the natural world has been a solace, and I’m thankful to have relatively wild areas within walking distance.
  • The luxury of time. There’s no question that being in lockdown in a cold shed was awful. I look back on those months and wonder how we survived with our good humour intact. At the same time, having that intense time to spend with close family was something wonderful. We invented stupid games to pass the time and stay warm, we went on looooooong walks together, we sat and talked over the state of the world. I am grateful to have had that time.

There are dozens of other things I could put on my list—big things and little. It’s a year in which thankfulness has been a gift all of its own. I am thankful to be thankful for so much, in spite of the crazy year it’s been.

What are you thankful for?

Carrot Surprise

I’m expecting the worst from this year’s vegetable garden. Loosening the heavy clay soil as I prepare beds can feel like chipping at concrete. I fill a bucket with rocks every two square metres. At best, I’m able to loosen the top seven centimetres. And with the soil test having revealed shockingly low levels of NPK, there’s little hope for a bumper crop.

So it was a huge surprise to lift the frost cloth from my carrot plantings to find the best germination I’ve ever had. At the old house, I sometimes had to plant twice because carrot germination was so patchy. Some varieties barely germinated at all.

Now it looks like I’ve grossly over-planted—I swear every seed germinated—all five varieties.

I planted on the same date, with the same care afterwards as I have in the past. The weather wasn’t much different from weather at the old place. The only real difference was the soil. Go figure.

Maybe it was a fluke; I had occasional good years at the old house. And who knows how the carrots will grow now they’ve sprouted.

But it’s nice to have something go better than expected in this sad soil.

The Beautiful Banks Peninsula

View from the top of Lavericks Peak Loop Track.

I still remember my first trip to the Banks Peninsula. It was probably less than 48 hours after we’d arrived in New Zealand and the only part of the country I’d seen was Hagley Park in central Christchurch.

The bush at Otepatotu Reserve

When we rounded the bend and the road sidled up to Wairewa/Lake Forsyth, my face split in a grin. I craned my neck to look up the steep slopes on the left while black swans cruised the sparkling lake on the right.

We stopped in Little River for a toilet break (we had toddlers then—we stopped at every toilet), and I fell in love with the Little River Cafe and the attached Little River Art Gallery.

Carrying on toward Akaroa, we crested Hilltop, and Akaroa Harbour glittered tropical blue down below. Onawe Peninsula jutted like a bead pendant into the harbour and the road wound down through a patchwork of forest and paddock toward the sea.

Native clematis in bloom.

I have made that drive countless times in the nearly sixteen years since the first trip. I still get that silly grin on my face. Every. Single. Time. Since that first visit I’ve scaled taller mountains, seen glaciers, stood at the base of Tane Mahuta, cruised Milford Sound … By comparison, the Banks Peninsula is positively dull.

But for me it defines summer in New Zealand. Even in winter, I feel like I’m on summer holiday when I’m out on the Banks Peninsula. I forget the to-do list. I turn off the cell phone. the daily stresses vanish.

Cushion star in a tidepool at Okains Bay

We hadn’t been to the Banks Peninsula since March, before lockdown confined us to home. But last Sunday we ventured out to sample everything we’ve been missing: morning tea in Little River, a lovely little hike through old totara and tree fuchsia in Otepatotu Scenic Reserve, a very chilly dip in the sea at Okains Bay and rock hopping along the coast to Little Okains Bay, and finally beer and chips in Akaroa and a stroll through the Garden of Tane.

We arrived home tired, crusted with salt and sand, and thoroughly satisfied with the day.

This weekend is supposed to be warm and sunny … we might just go and do it all again.

New Garden Challenges

We’re nearing the end of September and the garden work is ramping up. It’s exciting watching the new garden come together, even if it is moving more slowly than I’d hoped.

Everything is new this year, and it’s no surprise problems are cropping up. I’ve already lost most of my first tomato planting to frost, because I don’t have a heated indoor place to start my seeds anymore. I could have prevented the loss and brought the plants indoors for the night, but I haven’t had to worry about that for years … I’ve learnt now, so hopefully won’t get caught out again.

I’ve created my garden plan based on planting at the old house, but as I start to plant out peas, lettuce and spinach, I’m finding the need to adjust. How does one convert a set of six to seven metre long beds and a few odd-shaped ones to a rank of 3-metre and 8-metre ones? Add to that the fact the soil is dramatically different at the new place, and I don’t know how all the plants will respond to it and to the amendments I’ve added (cow poo, organic fertiliser, compost, green manure). Will my carrots be harvesting size before the zucchinis sprawl across their bed? Will the lettuces grow quickly enough to self-mulch? After fifteen years at the old place, I knew intuitively how each crop grew, how to get the most from the space I had by timing plantings and spacings, which varieties did best.

This year, I’m starting practically from scratch. I will plant as I am used to planting, because it’s a place to start, but I’ll be taking copious notes. Next year, I’ll have more information to go on, and the following year I’ll have more … and some day, planting at the new place will be as second-nature as it was at the old place.

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!