Be kind to insects

Our relationship with nature is completely dysfunctionalShaun Tan

I read somewhere that insect ecosystems are threatened with global collapse, and I’ve had more respect for the insects around the house and in the garden since then. I’ve also become aware that the house doesn’t fill with insects anymore if I leave a window open and the light on. Where have they all gone? There are fewer daddy long legs insects in the corners of the ceiling and I don’t vacuum them away any more.

I don’t spray the garden at all and wince when I see insecticide advertised by garden centres. I figure that things balance themselves out and who am I to interfere with what nature can manage for itself? Planting alyssum and marigolds can attract away the insects which cause sooty mould if a dousing with soapy water doesn’t do the trick. Wax-eyes and other little birds make a meal of aphids on the roses and columbine. Ladybirds used to do this job, but who has seen a ladybird lately? Where have they gone? Flown away home?

I’ve seen more bumblebees than honey bees this year – except when the rosemary and cabbage tree were flowering. They aren’t the only pollinators, though. Even flies do that.

Speaking of flies, when I lived in the country with sheep paddocks all around there were always flies in warmer weather. The solution seemed to be to leave doors and windows open so that if they flew in they could fly out again. Windmilling your arms occasionally helped too. Better than unpleasant fly spray.

Water butts attract interesting insects. I sometimes put a little bleach in to discourage them, but they aren’t of such numbers that an outbreak of malaria is imminent.

Spiders’ webs make garden sculptures on dewy mornings. They make their webs on garden sculptures too.

The hens fossick for insects all day long and peck at things I can barely see. There’s clearly a lot going on that we’re unaware of. Sometimes on summer evenings you can come inside from the garden feeling itchy around the ankles from the bites of invisible insects. One night a couple of weeks ago I went out to check the hen run, and spotted an albino slug suspended from a long thread of some kind of web – or slug slime, perhaps. It looks enormous in the photo, but was 5cm long.

If the chooks hear me moving a garden pot or bricks, or lifting the lid of the compost, they rush to see what comes to light. The wood pile, garden shed and pea straw attract their attention. I can barely discern what they are eating. They don’t seem keen on slugs, however, turning their beaks away when one is offered, but I have seen them pecking at snail shells. Maggots from around the chicken-poo bucket are an acceptable snack.

We are told to watch out for wasps and stink bugs. I guess I wouldn’t leave those to sort things out for themselves if they became a nuisance in the garden. White tail spiders are not a favourite, being known for eating our native spiders and for their nasty bite. But the little hopping spiders which occasionally live on my windowsills and on my desk are very cute. Here’s one that hopped out of my printer.

I decided as a child that I would not be afraid of spiders and that I would resist the scream-and-kill response which is the default, it seems, for many human-insect encounters. Insects need our respect now more than ever.

Hope

It’s heart-breaking to think our future on earth is threatened by our foolishness when nature continues to be amazing and new life is emerging in the garden. Blackcurrants, strawberries, globe artichokes, blueberries, tomatoes, beans, apples and grapes are beginning to develop, fresh and green.

Each morning is full of promise in a garden is full of flowers.

With plenty to spare for a vase inside.

And in the nearby park, huge trees spread a canopy of new green against a blue sky.

Looking

I’ll look to like, if looking liking move…

I am learning to look. I’m trying to take my time, look and engage with my immediate world more than I have been used to doing when working. Walking gives me time to observe and enjoy, and when I’m on my bike I have to watch where I’m going!

Gap Filler has put frames around the city to encourage us to look. On my way for an eye test, appropriately, I came across this frame in New Regent Street. I took a photo looking down the street to an approaching tram, and another looking out of the street across Gloucester Street to Cathedral Junction.

The first photo shows us the street pretty much as we’ve always known it, even though it has been restored and renovated. It looks deserted – but it is mid-morning, mid-week and a rather dull day. The second photo shows – well, you can see for yourself. I’ve peered at the intriguing stickers on the frame, but am none the wiser about their origin or meaning. I enjoy the enigma.

The questions below the frame ask the viewer to look closely at what has changed and to imagine what it could look like in the future. Will the car park in the second photo be developed into something…another building? A park or art space? The questions inspire the inner eye; the imagination, the vision.

Inside a temporary pedestrian walkway beside a construction site, these posters demand attention.

I’d read a newspaper article that morning about some members of Extinction Rebellion who were proud of their convictions for trespassing on an oil rig. This global organisation is an interesting one to watch, or even join. Their poster art is powerful.

On the way home my eye was caught by these brilliant orange tulips foregrounding established trees in their fresh spring green. I like to consider the messages about how we see our collective selves in this varied mix: the design on the lawn edging on the left, the Mana Motuhake waka in the centre, the two fountains and the red telephone box.

Victoria Square

I had been worried that my vision was blurry, but the eye test revealed there is little change in either distance or close vision and that my left eye has even improved, so new lenses are not required. I’ll clean my glasses more often and enjoy the view.

PS Feast your eyes on these!

Too much!

A while ago, during the quiet and meditative time of the high covid alert levels, I found myself in the FreshChoice supermarket at Merivale, a ‘desirable’, ‘chic‘ suburb. I was amazed at the variety and the seductiveness of the lovely things on the shelves and decided I would return to get a ‘fix’ when I felt I needed it. Not to buy – why would I want all that stuff? Just to stand amongst it and marvel. Like a therapy session of cow-cuddling or goat yoga or sound-bathing.

The supermarket around the corner from my house has recently rebranded as FreshChoice – the same company as the old SuperValue, but a more upmarket look. The FreshChoice at Merivale, however, is at least 10 times bigger.

When I returned, my feeling for the place changed from comfort to discomfort. This time, because I was taking photographs, I looked more closely. The deception became clear. And I had a flash of insight into our ability to allow ourselves to be deceived and in denial (explaining, to some extent, why we’re in trouble in terms of our survival on the planet). Working hard to satisfy the expectations of the neighbourhood, the designers have created a high-spec farmers’ market vibe, reminiscent of indoor markets overseas (and now here too). The word ‘market’ is used and ‘grocer’ and ‘butcher’ in the signage above the various sections. The place has the feel of a theme park. Attempting to appease the shopper’s conscience about plastic, vegetables and fruit are artfully displayed in wicker baskets, yet nearby there are plastic punnets of tomatoes and strawberries. Mirrors are used to make the produce seem more abundant. And the quantity and variety is overwhelming. Do people stuff their walk-in pantries, only to throw things out when they pass the use-by date?

Confession: I did buy a couple of things, justified as gifts for a niece’s birthday.

Outside in the mall, there was a school holiday activity: cup cake decorating. I’m struggling to think of a more wasteful, tasteless item of food than a cup cake. Emphasis on appearance not substance. And so I feel I must check how I’m dressed before I venture to this part of town, even though it’s barely 15 minutes walk away. I don’t have to worry about appearances when I do my regular shop at Pak’nSave (economical on spelling and on cost). The Merivale supermarket is all about appearance. I was astounded to discover there is such a thing as collagen coffee and I felt an unexpected pang for people driven to such desperate measures.

Yet I think of the free food fridge and the pantry in the suburbs I drive through on my way to the beach.

I looked more closely at my local FreshChoice. I’ve been in hundreds of times, but just to look for the odd thing I need, not to admire the decor. Does it have a similar design to the Merivale one? It does: wicker baskets, black and white tiles and an exposed-brick wall. I couldn’t remember there being a brick wall before the supermarket was upgraded and asked the check-out operator about it. “It’s not real,” she said and pointed to a corner where a large flap of the wallpaper was peeling away.

Whodunnit?

Perhaps because I picked up, on a whim, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon at the library the other day, the early morning sight of the chooks’ umbrella crushed in their run looked like the scene of a crime.

Crime scene: 7:17am

The chooks huddled in behind me muttering their suspicions as I examined and photographed the scene. Their perches had been rendered inaccessible by the collapse of their umbrella roof.

There had been no wind in the night nor anything else of a natural sort I could think of which would explain the catastrophe. After I’d shut the chooks in their run last evening, I did see next door’s cat skulking around as usual, but she’s a slight little thing. The umbrella was practically inverted.

I removed the umbrella, which involved untying the many pieces of string securing it. The chooks immediately reclaimed possession of their living room.

Ownership asserted: 7:20am

With its spokes broken and twisted, whichever way you look at it, the umbrella is past help.

I wouldn’t make a detective – I completely forgot to look for footprints – or paw prints – in the dusty soil. But, looking closely at the photo of the crime scene I can see what looks suspiciously like a chicken bone. This will have emerged from the chooks’ recent excavations where compost had been dug in before the area was a chicken run. I quickly palm any such evidence of my carnivorous lapses (which now rarely include chicken) to conceal my crime, but I must have missed this one. Is it a clue? Was it an inside job?

Scarier thought: That’s pretty much the spot where my cat Skipper was buried a few years ago… Should my inspiration be further from the diverting Dorothy L. Sayers and closer to the frightening Edgar Allen Poe?

Welcome back

It was with wonder and excitement that I realised I was taking from my letterbox a fresh, new copy of New Zealand Listener. Suddenly it was as if the mad, crazy world had righted itself. Today, the next issue arrived and it is beginning to feel real.

The magazine is as substantial as ever, with familiar columnists giving all manner of perspectives and global updates, in-depth features, quips and quotes, caption competition, cartoons, extensive reviews, and my favourite back page about two journalists who have given up the city for the ‘good life’. Like dessert, that’s the article I save for last.

It was a blow when the news came early this year that Bauer Media, which owned the magazine, was to stop publishing it – along with a number of other magazines which were part of its stable. Usually I pass my copies on to a friend, but she accepted my reasoning when I explained I wanted to hold on to the last few copies in case they were the last ever!

I pined and wondered what was happening to the staff, and particularly to my rural pair. Then news came that the magazine had been bought by another media company and that the former editor was reinstated and gathering back her staff. It seems they are just fine at ‘Lush Places’ and my rural pair’s first column ended with the birth of a lamb which they and their neighbours welcomed to the world. The column ended simply, “Welcome back to ours”.

Clear the ducks!

Visiting mallard

We get lots of birds in the garden, particularly since we’ve had the bird feeder. Blackbirds, sparrows, chaffinches and wax-eyes look out for the hens’ food too, coming down for wheat and other treats on the lawn. The chooks don’t seem bothered and they all happily peck away together – although observing a kind of social distancing. Blackbirds and sparrows drink and have baths in the water trough. Some venture into the garage at times where the hens’ food dishes are put to discourage scavenging, and the chooks don’t turn a feather. However, when seagulls fly overhead the hens go still and tilt their heads upward, necks extended, on alert.

Perhaps the number of birds can be explained by the fact that spring is the season for lots of birds to be about. It’s hard to say, since I was away at work during the day last year – and we didn’t have chooks then. And we no longer have either a cat or a dog to make the birds nervous.

A couple of ducks landed on the roof with a huge thump a couple of weeks ago. One flew down onto the lawn and was quickly seen off by a very indignant Popcorn who fluffed herself up and raced at it at full speed.

This morning, a female mallard was on the lawn. She had attractive white scallop shapes on her brown feathers. Dora and Popcorn seemed unperturbed. However, when she walked along the deck, Dora hid behind me, pecking at the sheepskin on my slippers as if urging me to do something about this outrage. (This is all anthropomorphic interpretation, of course.)

The duck came closer.

Dora gave up trying to get me to do something, and advanced towards her, at which the duck turned and walked back along the deck, then down onto the lawn.

I tried a bit of clapping and shooing, half-heartedly, with no effect. It’s not easy to be taken seriously when you’re wearing pyjamas and fluffy slippers. (Or to take early morning photos without the phone cover getting in the way).

Popcorn seemed to be ignoring her.

Duck and Popcorn observing social distancing.

I began to think that they had developed a tolerance for all the birds who visit, including ducks. However, later I saw from inside the house that the duck had taken things a bit far by going towards a favourite part of the garden and both hens rushed it at once. The duck flew clumsily up, turned and landed on the garage roof where she walked up and down briefly before disappearing over the roof tops.

Not so good

The nor’wester wasn’t quite the cyclone bearing down on Miami, but it toppled the greenhouse. And it was enough to put the wind up Dora who rushed up behind me and, quite unprovoked, pecked me on the leg.

Those spooky looking hands at the top of the photo are my gardening gloves hanging on the line. They look for all the world like manifestations of the wind giving the glasshouse a casual push.

Fortunately, the tomato plants are fine. The seedlings are a bit battered but okay. The basil was fine too, until it got the second fright of its young life when Dora rushed in like a robber’s dog.

It must have been quite a sight: me struggling against the wind to put the inflating greenhouse up, reinserting the piping where it had popped out of its sockets, rescuing upturned plants, and fending off the chooks at the same time.

Once again it’s upright – now inelegantly anchored with heavy paving stones (on newspaper so they don’t damage the plastic or the piping) and logs. Then, because the wind was catching the top of the structure I tied it to the fence. The knot is in the doorway so I can undo it easily. There was potting mix on the walls which I hosed off. Finally, I re-sowed the salad-mix lettuces.

Knot so good. The crazy stick-figure knot reminds me to improve my rope-tying technique. I have a book: Knots – An Illustrated Practical Guide to the Essential Knot Types and their Uses.

And the wind has died away, as if there is no more fun to be had.

So far so good

The next day, having ascertained that the greenhouse could be viable, I bought plants which I normally wouldn’t purchase for at least another month. Here is the greenhouse, complete with cover, and with two tomato plants in the ground. I have to wait a little longer for the “lunch-box” pepper plants I prefer to be available.

In pots on either side I’ve planted a “tumbling tom” tomato with which I have had success before, and basil. There is also a pot in which I sowed salad-mix seeds. Two containers of seedlings – sweet peas and lobelia – are safe on another shelf ready for planting outside. The terracotta-coloured pot has a chain attached and I’m considering planting something edible in this pot and hanging it from the ridge pole to make use of the upper space.

We had a frost the morning after I planted, so I was pleased to see that the plants seemed unaffected by the cold outside.

To take this photo, I had to wait for the condensation to clear. It was warm inside the greenhouse. When the sun is on it, I unzip the flap and put the piece of trellis (leaning on the left) lengthwise across the doorway to keep the hens out. If it is warm enough and the moisture on the plastic has evaporated, I roll up the door and secure it with the ties.

“Northwesterlies, gusty at times” are forecast. The greenhouse, although nestled into the fence, is not secured – so fingers crossed it stands its ground.

So far, so good…

Flat-pack: from fear to fun

Spring is here and I’m keen to get more plants in. Tomatoes and peppers would be good – but it’s still too early. Unless you have a green house.

I have a small garden, but it occurred to me that I could fit a tiny green house in a sunny spot by the back fence.

The chosen sunny spot

Expecting it to be an expensive purchase, I was thrilled to find an $80 flat-pack green house on the Mitre 10 website. As it was only available in the Ferrymead branch, I drove to the other side of town and then browsed in the garden section while my flat-pack item was unloaded from the Mainfreight truck. Then I headed home along the estuary and the river; the scenic route.

Perhaps I was subconsciously daunted by the assembly part of the venture. First I had lunch to get my strength up. Then I cleaned the bathroom. Then I cleaned my car. The chimney sweep came and cleaned the chimney. We chatted.

Finally, I unpacked the box and set out the contents.

There was a diagram by way of instructions, with numbers and letters. As I began to put it together I started to enjoy myself.

I worked methodically, pleased that there was no-one watching or commenting on progress and making ‘helpful’ suggestions. For a moment, I thought I had the dreaded ‘piece left over’, but it turned out to be the ridge pole, with which the structure was complete.

Time for a roof shout.

Next I had to clear the space. This involved trimming back the horrible ivy which showered me with grit and pollen. I moved the blueberry which is growing in an old copper with a metal stand. Orville’s Dream (garden sculpture) was moved as well. A couple of raspberry plants and an aquilegia were shifted.

Inspector Popcorn.

Then I walked the green house into position. I found some old pieces of treated timber to hold it off the ground.

Dora and Popcorn give their approval.

Now it is ready for the cover to be fitted and the shelves to be put in place. And the planting. But that’s for tomorrow.