The Gift of Rain

purple cauliflower
Purple cauliflower enjoying the rain

It’s unusual to have three days of rain in December. Usually, I’m desperately trying to keep the garden watered while the vegetables are in their early summer growth phase. Usually, I’m doing a pre-Christmas weeding of vegetables and perennials that will carry me into January with minimal weeds.

Not this year. It has been raining steadily for three days, after a week or so of showery weather. Every inch of the garden is thick with weeds, and continued rain means I’m not out there pulling them as they grow in size by the hour. I’ve braved the rain to pick vegetables for dinner and berries, which are rotting in the wet weather, but otherwise I’ve stayed indoors for three days.

I’m restless to get outside.

But I’m also thrilled with the excuse not to. Usually in December, I don’t manage to do much beyond garden work. So three days to make Christmas gifts, write, and get some nagging indoor chores done has been a gift.

It’s also been a gift to the garden. Much as I try, I can’t duplicate in watering the effect of a good rainstorm. The vegetables are growing as quickly as the weeds. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage  are all ready to eat. The pumpkin and zucchini plants seem to double in size every few hours. The beans have completely filled in their beds, beating out the weeds entirely. And the peas and lettuce have gotten a new lease on life, and will likely last a few more weeks than they would have otherwise.

So while I’d still rather be out in the garden, both me and the garden are taking full advantage of the gift we’ve been given.

cat at a window
The cat is a master of rainy day activity.

Fruits of the Season

strawberries and rhubarb

I made strawberry rhubarb jam last weekend, marking the beginning of the Christmas season. Currants, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, and blueberries are also beginning to colour up.

The peas are filling out so fast it’s hard to keep up with them, and every broccoli plant is sporting a ready-to-eat flower head. Carrots and onions are just hitting picking size, adding crunch and colour to meals.

The cabbages are bulking up, promising to be ready for sauerkraut making on Christmas eve (our ‘traditional’ sauerkraut making day). And the broad beans are all ready to eat, and coming to their glorious end.

In short, the summer cornucopia is filling up and spilling over.

We will host fourteen people for dinner tomorrow, and I hardly have to hit the grocery store to feed everyone. Some alcohol and cheese is all I need to supplement what’s in the garden (need being a loosely applied term here, of course). It’s what I love most about a summertime Christmas—the sense of abundance that accompanies the celebrations.

vegetables from the garden

Of course, the garden’s abundance also means there’s an extra pile of holiday work picking and preserving, weeding and watering all that produce. But there’s something festive about the work when you can hum Christmas carols while you’re at it. The piles of fresh vegetables and summer fruit in the kitchen are the reward for every tired muscle and late-evening preserving session. And thankfully, we’ve got long summer days in which to get all the work done.

When Everything is a Gift

My stunted yellow corn.

I never expected much from this year’s vegetable garden. The soil test revealed a virtually sterile substrate, nutrient-free, stripped by decades of conventional agriculture and then scraped by the developer’s bulldozers. It will take years to improve the soil to the levels of my old garden. In the first year, I figured I’d be lucky to coax a few meals out of the garden.

There’s no question the vegetables I planted are suffering. The plants are half the size they should be, and many are yellow and senescing early for lack of nutrients.

But the compost, manure, and other organic fertiliser I’ve incorporated into the soil have done some good. We have plenty of onions, cucumbers, carrots, herbs and green beans. We are overwhelmed with zucchini. The soy beans and dry beans will all give harvests. Pumpkins swell on their vines. We’ve even eaten a few melons.

Every fruit feels like a gift.

I could be dismayed at the state of the garden—corn only waist high, tomatoes ripening at golf ball size, potatoes decimated by disease … but I know what the plants are up against. I know how hard they’re working to produce anything. I admire their effort and determination.

So, in spite of how pathetic the garden is, I am pleased. I feel blessed at every meal, and I look forward to an even better year next year.

It’s Okay to Wilt

Last week, the temperature hit 38ºC (100ºF) two days in a row. Working at home those days, I sat on the polished concrete floor, because it remained a few degrees cooler than the air, which was blowing hot and dry from the northwest. My phone and computer kept overheating, and eventually I shut them down and switched to pen and paper.

At some point, I commented to my husband about the sad state of the vegetables in the garden. Every leaf was wilted, and the plants looked like they were only barely alive, in spite of the watering I’d done the previous day.

“Yes,” he remarked. “But remember, they’re supposed to do that.”

He’s right—wilting is part of a plant’s way of coping with heat. Wilted leaves expose less surface directly to the sun, conserving water and keeping temperatures within the leaf cooler. A wilted plant can’t grow or photosynthesise—permanent wilting is fatal—but it can allow the plant to survive while conditions are harsh so it can continue to thrive when conditions improve.

It strikes me that wilting is a lesson we could all learn from plants: ease up when times are tough.

How many of us have expected to keep going at our usual pace through all of life’s struggles—illness, children, death of loved ones, earthquakes, pandemic … I know I’ve been irritated with myself, pushed harder, forced myself through difficulties at full pace, only to find I didn’t actually move at the speed I wanted, or I messed things up and had to do them a second time, or I simply made my eventual collapse worse.

How much better would I have done if I’d allowed myself to wilt before the point of collapse? Maybe I could have asked for help, or lowered my standards, or simply given myself permission to relax for fifteen minutes, an hour, an afternoon.

I’ve gotten better at wilting—the wisdom of 50 years of life—but I could still improve. I just need to remember the garden during a summer heat wave.

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.

Make Marcella Hazan Proud

On Sunday my husband and I decided to make lasagne for dinner—and not just a meal’s worth, but enough to freeze for quick mid-week meals. With the garden full of late-summer vegetables, it was a great choice. We divided the work as we usually do—I would make the pasta and my husband would make the sauce.

Then I remembered I’d already packed up the pasta maker and taken it to the new house. How was I going to roll out the pasta?

I heard Marcella Hazan scoff from her grave. She never used a pasta machine. No good Italian would be caught with one of those.

It was time for me to learn to roll out pasta the ‘right’ way—by hand.

Thankfully, Ms. Hazan includes detailed directions in The Classic Italian Cookbook. With the book open on the benchtop, I began kneading and rolling my dough.

“I expected more swearing,” my husband commented ten minutes later. And there might have been, had I not had experience with pasta dough before. But the instructions were comprehensive and my dough compliant.

It still wasn’t easy—to stretch and coax the dough so thin without ripping it or letting it dry out was a challenge. It was also quite a workout—by the time I’d finished I was sweating and my arms were tired.

But it worked! My pasta sheets weren’t quite as thin as those I make with the pasta machine. And they were ragged oblongs instead of the neat rectangles that emerge from the machine. But they did well in lasagne. The thicker sheets had a nice toothsome quality. 

Marcella would be proud.

Still, I’ll be glad to go back to using the pasta machine in the future. 

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.

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 …