Positive finish, positive start

This title might seem back-to-front. It’s about finishing the year by planting – and looking forward to the results in the new year.

On Christmas Day my sister and brother-in-law gave me an intriguing present.

I spent a while trying to guess what it could be. It turned out to be this:

It was a thoughtful gift to allow me to grow things in the hope of keeping them safe from the hens. Before they went on holiday, the family dropped around to put it up for me.

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about what to plant in it. Today I felt ready, but even when driving to the nearest garden centre I changed my mind, went to the supermarket first and then to a different garden outlet. I often surprise myself with a change of plan. While I was there, my sister rang and we discussed what could be planted. I went home with more than could fit in the planter. Once again, more seems possible than is actually the case. That could be a positive trait. In the end, this is what the planter looks like:

There are snow peas at the top (blown sideways by the north easterly), kale and spinach in the middle and rocket at the bottom. The idea is that these are a-leaf(or pod)-at-a-time picking plants. It’s possible I might have to plant them in the garden under a protective dome if they grow too big.

The gourmet lettuce mix and the pepper plant were squeezed into the greenhouse.

The lettuces will probably grow too big for that pot, but I like those ready-planted lettuce bowls they have at the garden centre. I’ve just made my own.

I did more in the garden than I’d planned: tidied one side of the garden shed and replanted two hanging baskets – with new linings.

I love gardening programmes. Often, in the background, you can see little pots on stakes. Why? I wondered. Are they bug traps? Nearly poking my eye out on a stake and inadvertently stabbing myself in the ribs on another were all it took for the penny to drop. Now I have a rather fetching selection of ‘potted stakes’ too.

In this photo you can see several attempts made to protect plants from my free ranging hens. Ever persistent, ever hopeful applies to both me and the chooks! So, a positive end and a positive outlook.

Happy New Year!

Artichoke, anyone?

In the garden there used to be globe artichokes which produced dramatic silver-green leaves and thistle-like flowers. I meant to try eating them before they flowered, but never did. Those plants disappeared, so I planted two more. They have grown huge – nearly two metres – and are tied up and braced to prevent them toppling over. The flowers are gorgeous and they keep coming, so I cut one bud, and gave it a go.

I vaguely remembered how, many years ago (late 70s early 80s) at the Carey’s Bay home of some hippy-style professionals (veterinarians) who were into all manner of exotic plants, we peeled the leaves off globe artichokes and dipped them in garlic butter. It was a novelty and a pleasant appetiser. Since then I’ve occasionally observed artichoke hearts on antipasto platters – those squishy-looking things which are either left till last or left on the plate untouched.

Digby Law’s A Vegetable Cookbook has various ways of presenting them – including with garlic butter – all beginning with boiling, with salt and lemon juice added to the water. I followed these instructions and then was sad to see two small spiders had been boiled as well, and there were black specks in the water – spider babies? Had I killed a whole spider whanau?

The next step is to take off each leaf, dip it in garlic butter and slide the bottom of the leaf over your teeth to remove the soft base. This was quite enjoyable, apart from the discovery of a small cooked slug. There are several layers of leaves, then the choke emerges, which you cut away, and finally the base (often called the heart) which is the delicacy according to Digby Law.

It was an interesting experience and at least I can say I’ve done it. The garlic butter was the better part of it, perhaps. There’s an after-taste best followed up with something to clear the palate.

My conclusion is that I can rest safe in the knowledge that I’m not missing out on anything, and fully enjoy the wondrous spectacle of the plant in the garden.

Clever Christmas Treats

I thought I had done pretty well making Apricot Chocolate Tidbits as Christmas gifts. I added loads of chocolate chips to the recipe. I printed my own labels for the jars with a photo featuring the troll I bought in Finland.

However, Nola (Grandma), still producing her legendary pavlovas at 91, pips me at the post.

Then the competition takes an upward curve. My sister and brother-in-law made these chocolate reindeer with edible eye balls and pretzel antlers. In a jar full of other yummy treats.

But wait! For sheer class, style and variety, my niece – engaging the help of her Mum – wins the prize! This is despite her busy life, not only working but graduating with a law degree last week. The treats bag includes raspberry jam (with homegrown raspberries), beetroot relish, wholegrain mustard, bagel seasoning, festive rocky road, and tiny dinosaur rose gummies. All homemade and beautifully labelled. Wow!

It doesn’t end there. Tiny iced Christmas trees, fruity chocolate clusters, and locally made muesli and panforte were further delights.

The muesli, with hot milk, rhubarb and yoghurt, was delicious for breakfast today. (I would have added a sprinkle of blueberries if I’d thought of it.)

Almost edible are these “smelly” treats. The Lush products are locally made and personalised with the name of the maker. The bath salts are from my sister’s sister-in-law (or my brother-in-law’s brother’s wife) who is a teacher and made homemade gifts with her students. I love the finishing touches: lace cover and antique spoon tied on with string.

I have to include some reference to chickens. My brother and sister-in-law gave Nola this delightful book. It is written by a celebrity NZ chef, who lives in Arrowtown with her family. From this central Otago town, she runs her business and has a large vegetable garden and a flock of chooks. This story is about the hatching of a little chicken whose egg had been abandoned.

There’s something very special and heart-warming about local and homemade treats!

Blackcurrants for dessert

My nephew told me recently that we evolved to see colour so that we can find ripe berries.

I have two blackcurrant bushes. One has juicy berries, the other has larger but less juicy fruit. I’m hoping the rain we’re having will help to hydrate them.

Yesterday seemed a good time to pick the berries on the first bush near the chicken run. The chooks hovered about, waiting for stray ones to drop. Dora pecked at my toes and ankles if she thought I was being less than generous with my offerings.

The berries weighed in at over 500 grams – as they did last season, I see from a January post.

Half of this was plenty for one pie.

So I made two, using the Gooseberry Shortcake recipe from an ancient Edmonds Cookbook. (I couldn’t find any berries on the gooseberry bushes this year – but I did see Dora eating one… Fortunately, the blackcurrant canes are too high for them to reach and the birds don’t seem to eat them. The blackbirds ate my blueberries, however.)

Delicious for dessert, with icing sugar and a choice of cream or yoghurt.

Eating fruit and vegetables fresh, straight from the garden, is the best thing about this time of year. We had the first six runner beans this week and they were fresh and delicious. The broad beans, sadly, are done. I’m picking rainbow chard and small silver beet, parsley and garlic chives for salads – all cut up with herb scissors, with goat’s cheese feta, fresh tomatoes, kalamata olives, and a sprinkle of toasted seeds. Yum!

Greenhouse Progress

Since I put up the greenhouse in September it’s been going well. Once secured to prevent it from tipping over in the wind, it has provided a good environment for the three tomato plants to get an early start, as I had hoped. It steams up – as my glasses do too if I look inside – and the heat builds up quickly as the day gets warmer.

By November, I had to put in twine supports for the leggy growth, and the plants were flowering prolifically. I worry a little that the pot the Tumbling Tom is in isn’t big enough for the size of the plant. The other two plants are directly in the soil. Because they are all under cover, I have to water regularly, judging how much is needed, and adding liquid tomato food to a bucket of water each fortnight.

The first fruit were appearing on the Sweet Treats plant in November. This month the other two plants have the beginnings of fruit.

Everyday I roll up the door to allow air to move around and to let bees in. The trellis discourages the chooks. The plants have grown right up to the roof.

I found a ladybird – the first I’ve seen in ages. It has only two spots, and my research tells me that this variety was first discovered here in Christchurch in March 1936.

Last week I picked the first ripe tomatoes.

By today, they were filling up the bowl.

Elderflower Foraging

For years I’ve looked at the elderflowers coming into bloom over the fence and thought, “I could do something with those…” – but I haven’t…until this year. I’m retired, no excuses!

There was an elderflower cordial recipe in the newspaper one morning. It looked as easy as the lemonade I’ve been making, so out came the ladder.

Twelve flower heads were required, which was easy enough. The recipe had a choice of honey or raw sugar to sweeten, and I opted for the honey. The result was quite watery rather than syrupy and a little disappointing. It needed lemonade to add body to it. I bottled it and made labels. Family enjoyed it.

There were still many elderflower heads temptingly left on the trees. I searched the internet for other recipes and settled on a Jamie Oliver one, having had success with his mulled wine. I needed a longer ladder this time.

This recipe required me to steep the sugar and honey mix, lemon and elderflower for 24 hours. It filled the house with its summery aroma and I was filled with the good feeling of having used a foraged main ingredient and lemons from my garden.

The result was much more acceptable than the first batch. I gave three bottles of straight cordial to my card-playing friends and made an elderflower gin cocktail mix to take to my book group.

This is the quintessential summer drink, and it was appropriate that the book we discussed was Ali Smith’s Summer.

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 when 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!