little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: working in the garden

Harvest and lists

20170219_122613You probably won’t be startled to learn that I’m a list maker. Some lists bring me joy (condiments, books, Christmas shopping), some give me a sense of order (chores, morning and evening tasks, cheap family meals), others either stem or generate a rising sense of panic depending on how long they are, their timeframe and my general state of mind (things to do, people to get in touch with, jobs to be done in the house or garden, groceries).

20170219_210119I usually list vertically, then scatter extra items around the page as I run out of room, but sometimes I mind map. I did that for parenting tricks, and it’s the list I like best on a fridge covered in the damn things. I used Wunderlist when I was running a business and I keep a task list at work, although it’s out of date within minutes and so long I have no hope of ever completing it. I usually cross things out as I complete them, but the other day I tried a line of Twink (the ribbon sort that runs out in a smooth white line), and that was more satisfying than I expected.

I’ve got a week of leave (well, with a day of work in the middle and an edit that has to be done in the first couple of days) starting tomorrow, and I thought a list might save me from the scurry of things in my head. I thought I could have a short, elegant list of things to do each day — exercise, eat something from the garden, read, write — but then it grew (see people, garden, do chores, prep for dinner) and then I added on random household chores I haven’t done for a year and for some reason thought I would enjoy packing into four short days of leave (wash the windows, organise the pantry) and then it didn’t really feel like a holiday any more.

20170219_210137So, I stuck that list on the fridge and wrote a short one for tomorrow, cleaned out the chook house, did the washing, wrote a grocery list, mended some clothes, lost my nut a few times, watered the glasshouse and drank too much coffee.

But another thread ran through the day, and I’m trying desperately to hang on to it because it felt calmer, more life-giving, better for body and soul. The Cat and I spent a happy hour this morning harvesting. We picked tomatoes, mint and broad beans, kale, zucchini and lettuce, and an armful of sweetpeas and roses — a gorgeous heap of colour and potential. The Cat was enthusiastic and excited, I was quietly smug, the kitchen smelled delicious.

I stuck the flowers in a jar and cooked the vegetables through the day. Lunch was tomato salad with mint and the last crumbs of a taut sheep’s feta, a lettuce salad* softened with pear and apple cider vinegar dressing, broad beans blanched and double-podded, then fried with bacon, some scraps of bread, a little leftover chicken. For dinner, I made a gratin with slices of zucchini in stock and a layer of oiled breadcrumbs on top. In a bowl with rice, it was a garden-storecupboard marriage of surprising grace and charm.

So, the lists did their thing, but the harvest helped more. Spontaneity within bounds, and all that.

  • One of the lettuces was a Venetian heirloom number, curiously strong-leaved, verging on tough, and with a slightly bitter edge. The other was some leafy thing I let go in the glasshouse.

A dinner of the many and a dinner of the few


Of the many

Tonight’s dinner was a good one, a stir fry in which the experience of 20 years, a well-seasoned wok, the good sense of Nigel Slater and a pleasing selection of raw ingredients came to delicious fruition.

We met as student vegetarians, one of us with a wok and the other with an aptitude for slicing vegetables, and so the stir fry was an early feature of our culinary relationship. We learnt some tricks early — get the chopping done before turning on the heat, slice thinly and with an eye for the elegant line, wash the rice well before steaming it, do not peak at the rice while it’s cooking, keep the seasonings simple, come to the table hungry. Others took long to learn — use pretty bowls, use good knives, go for a variety of textures, crank the heat as high as possible.

But it is the latest lesson that has been most revolutionary. Cook each ingredient separately. For this, we have Nigel to thank. I hope he wouldn’t mind the first name, for it is how we refer to all our favourite food writers. “What would Nigel do?” we say, confronted with a spartan cupboard, a new vegetable, a cut of meat. We get our answers from other writers too, but Nigel’s pretty damn reliable. Anyway, he points out that the wok works best when it is not overcrowded, when things can move and flash and the sauce coats but does not pool.

So, that’s our new trick. I put the rice on and get everything sliced, then Ian takes over the frying. One ingredient at a time, a shake of soy for some, oyster for others, teriyaki for the meat. Bowls on the table, happy children, some leftovers for lunch tomorrow, a warm feeling in the tummy.


Of the few

dscn0400Strangely, the meal reminds me of another good one we had recently. We didn’t get our potatoes planted this year, or we haven’t yet, I suppose there is still time, but some came up anyway, the scattered progeny of the ones we missed last year.

I watched the plants grow without thinking much about it, making the mistake of thinking something accidental would be of limited value, and then we dug them up to make room for the spreading zucchinis. Well, what a joyous surprise that was! Red, white, purple, some whoppers, some tiddlers, all with the fine, earthy skin of the newly dug and a gloss when scrubbed like polished stones, curved amber, oiled wood. I weeded, Ian dug, the Cat took photos, the Rabbit harvested, the chickens ate the weeds, Stella kept us company.dscn0377

That night, I made a simple potato salad, nothing more than boiled potatoes, slivered green beans, a torn anchovy or two, a handful of capers and a mustardy lemon oil dressing. It was magnificent.
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Putting things together

20170123_122043I’ve done boot camp, Christmas, Trump, summer holidays, the return to work, gardening, adventures with children, movies, books, terrific whiskey, and a sleepover for 11-year-olds. Yesterday it rained and I had a cold, so I lit the fire, made hot drinks and retreated to the sofa. I wouldn’t describe it as restful, exactly — the children were tired and scrappy and stuck indoors — but it was a necessary grinding to a halt, of sorts.

It’s often hard to know what will save a day, but in this case, it was minestrone. I don’t always like minestrone, but this was a light, summery number with enough savour and steamy heat to restore just enough wellbeing for me to get to bed.

20170123_122942Ian made it, so I don’t know the fine details of the recipe, but here’s what I think he got right. The vegetables were sliced at angles, thin enough to fit well on the spoon, but large enough to offer definite taste and something distinct in each mouthful. There weren’t too many carrots, giving a layer of sweetness but not overwhelming the fundamental earthiness of the dish. The cooking started with bacon and ended with strong, fresh chard from the garden. I had extra tomatoes in my bowl, and a scattering of feta. The pasta was rigatoni, thick and knubbly. There were broad beans from our garden. The zucchinis were young and flavourful, with firm, peppery skin. The stock was light and hot.

20170123_122034The Rabbit was home sick today, so I had another quiet day. He made a Lego lawnmower — my role was to find the pieces and offer moral support. We succeeded, but only just. I left my work phone on, which was a mistake.

20170123_121854I reheated some of the minestrone for lunch, something I would avoid with a less robust pasta. Still, it needed a bit of tarting up for a new day, so I sliced in a couple of dusky Nigella tomatoes, a few shredded leaves of chard, some leaves of purple basil from the glasshouse. Feta again, of course.

The sun came out after that. We went to the gardens, kicked a ball, flew a kite. The Rabbit rescued his toy bandicoot from the animal rescue boat. We put ourselves together, not perfectly, but from what we had.

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Ooops, I didn’t mean to be away that long

Awkward. I was going to write a post about my new job and then I was going to write a post about Fiji and then I was going to write a post about Rabbit’s bike and then I was going to write a post about family life and then I was going to write a post about books and then I was going to write another post about my new job and then I was going to write a post about something else, chickens or politics or coffee or washing or Lionboy or asparagus most likely, and probably definitely about the garden at some point, which has been The Project most weekends lately and now we have 46 kinds of edible things growing in it and here’s some spring evening photos because I’m sorry I’ve been away and I might be back.

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Mysterious happenings

20160507_152131_resizedI came outside the other day and found the Rabbit tying the watering can onto himself. He said he was sorting out a system so he could take the watering can to the tap and fill it. It was a pretty complex arrangement, but he seemed happy so I left him to it.

A bit later, he wasn’t wearing the watering can any more, but he was going back and forth from the kitchen sink with a cup of water. I threw him a towel and left him to it again.

Later still, I came out and found him looking very pleased with himself. The kitchen floor was dry, and he had something to show me. “What have you been doing, kid?” I asked. “I planted a broad bean,” he said. “I made a hole in the vege patch and put the bean in it and watered it.”

20160507_152246_resizedHe took me by the hand and showed me. Nice stuff, wee one.

Chicken (& garden) update

The girls are what I think we could call “established” now — their routines, personalities and quirks are firming up, becoming easier to discern and decipher.

Tilda is the Leader of the Pack, first to get to me when I take in food, occasionally inclined to peck her sisters on the side of the beak, seemingly the only one who knows how to open the mash feeder.

Her assertiveness and speed to treats got the better of her for a week or two when she went off the lay, then started laying shell-less and soft-shell eggs, disturbing things that she would drop anywhere then eat with the other chickens. Clearly, this is non-desirable chicken behaviour and led to much late-night, anguished Googling. The solution, in the end, was simple — bring the chickens in from the paddock to the run earlier in the evening and give them fewer treats so that she was forced to make the mash a greater proportion of her diet. Her shells are still lighter and smaller than those of the other chickens, but they are proper shells and she is back to laying them in the nest boxes, so we will count that as a win for Farmer McLaughlin.

Angelina, my dark-feathered girl, is probably next in the ranks. She is beautiful and sweet, but dim, regularly confused by fences and the intricacies of the mash feeder. She particularly likes to scratch in the dirt for bugs and often asks me to pick her a blade of grass, her elegant little head tilted in a model of chook quizzicality. She was my first layer and seems the most reliable, producing a strong brown egg every morning and sporting the reddest comb and wattles.

Helen is my wayward girl, my dreamer. We brought the chickens down to the vege patch the other day in an attempt to harness their weed-destroying, seed-eating powers for the greater good. Getting them into our makeshift enclosure was a bit of a trial, involving detours through the rose bushes, mutually alarming encounters with the cat, and Farmer McLaughlin’s best impersonations of a sheep dog. In fact, I can see the potential in a new television show based on the dog trials that were one of the highlights of my childhood viewing, but with chickens in the place of the sheep and gumbooted, straw-hatted editors taking over from the dogs.

Anyway, we got Angelina and Tilda safely enclosed and focused on their dirt-maintenance duties, but Helen had her heart set on a much more exploratory morning, around the back of the shed, over the piles of tree pruning and building supplies, and off to God knows where. She was also the first to take a dust-bathing break, rolling in the dirt like a small, demented, feathery emperor wondering where her peeled grapes are, just get with the programme already, will you, people?

So, that’s the chickens.

In gardening news, we are slowly getting things a bit tidier and I am getting to that point of house maintenance where I’m ready to stop maintaining someone else’s garden and am distilling ideas for how to make it more my own.

We have three key problems: weeds, colour and coherence. We are taking a “just deal with it” approach to the weeds; in areas where we don’t have anything we particularly want to keep, we are clearing the ground and covering it over with sacks, carpet, tarpaulins or newspapers.

Our colour woes are largely because the previous owners favoured a kind of muddy purple and a harsh orange that spectacularly fail to float my boat. We’re getting braver about taking out things we don’t like, although some of them are damn deep-rooted and hard to eradicate.

We’re also moving some things so as to free up space for more coherent planting. I’m moving swathes of sweet william from the “salad” vege patch to the “woodland” plot near the front gate. I think I’ll shift some stuff from the long strip down the side of the house there too, and my new plan — which I am pretty excited about — is to build a raised bed right along that strip and fill it with herbs.

A magnolia at the front and small fruit trees on the bank should assuage my need for more trees and spring blossom, and that just leaves the rockery between the vege patches, which is a weed-infested disaster zone. And various banks and scraggly areas, which sprout grass and dandelions to no identifiable purpose apart from giving us a ready supply for the guinea pigs.

Anyway, the top part of the rockery thing features roses, while lupins have gone from being a bright highlight of the lower part to completely crowding out both the buttercups and dandelions (great!) and all the other little pretty things I’ve planted there over the last two years (not great!). So what that leaves us with is a set of conundrums, for which I invite solutions. Do I move the roses and mass plant with something else? Do I welcome the lupins as effective ground control or do I get them the hell out of there before they TAKE OVER THE WORLD? Do I rebuild the rock wall or put in a wooden one? Do I cling to the hope I can create a beautiful French-style cottage garden or do I turn my sights to bold massed colour and easier maintenance? Who knows? Not I, said the little pen.

Where we have succeeded this year — and somewhat against the odds, not being here for most of the summer and not hoeing as often as we ought — is with productive gardening. We’ve had good crops of garlic, lettuce and potatoes, the carrots are small but ready to harvest, the tomatoes and zucchini are producing at a steady rate, we left the fennel too long but it was a good meal, we ate broad beans to our heart’s content, and we planted the yams very late, so who knows what’s going on in there. The broccoli, corn and celery went nowhere but I am nurturing small hopes of a late-season burst of growing energy from the latter two, the herbs are thriving, and we have a better sense of the timings and systems required to grow food for ourselves. Things felt out of control and under-maintained most of the time and we are just starting to recover from the panic and madness of rampant spring growth mixed with NO TIME and LOTS OF RAIN, but we have often had something home-grown in our dinner, and every now and then most of the meal comes from the garden.



20151216_181726So, this happened. As I write, I am watching my hens fossicking in the grass on the bank. We spent most of the year building a coop and run, by which I mean my father-in-law designed and built it with our help over a couple of visits from Australia and we did bits in between with many phone calls and questions back and forth across the Tasman. We got the hens from HennyPenny, a free-range outfit in Omakau that sells beautiful, healthy Hyline point-of-lay chooks.

20151218_162843We got the girls last weekend and have spent the week getting to know them. They started laying almost the first day, and are now producing an egg or two a day between them. We got three hens: Helen, Angelina and Tilda. Angelina has darker colouring and appears to be the leader of the pack. Tilda is paler and likes to be hand-fed grass. Helen is in-between, and likes to keep her own counsel.

P1090818They are doing all the right chicken things: roosting on their perch at night, scratching for bugs, using their nest boxes, dust-bathing and following me back into the coop when I take them their supper. Their eggs are small, brown and really intense. They are spending a lot of time grazing around the berry bushes and they seem fond of rock melon. I stroked them yesterday, and they are soft as silk. And warm. Lovely.

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Checking in

In a group I’m part of, we start and end meetings by checking in. We’re chatty, self-reflective types and also good listeners, so this process can take quite some time, but it’s always worth it. Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s happening in your life, and having a good ramble about it can reveal surprising patterns and responses.

I think this check in is going to focus on birds.

We put the birdfeeder up a few weeks ago, and the birds started coming to it last week. I can see the feeder from the kitchen window and from my office; typing or washing dishes while keeping an eye on a green-flecked bunch of birds flickering around the feeder is quite a few steps up from typing or washing the dishes without the birds.

So far, the customers have mostly been waxeyes, with chaffinches, blackbirds and thrushes patrolling the ground below. But I think a tui did a fly-by a few minutes ago, so maybe she’ll come back soon.

It’s all very happy, except for the washing line situation. As mentioned in my previous post, the birds like to perch on the washing line while they psych themselves up for feeder negotiations. Then they poo on the washing and I have to re-wash it. This is sort of doubly frustrating because I already have trouble reaching half the washing line, so I’m already pretty grumpy about laundry duties.

Anyway, I guess we’ll move the line because I’m enjoying the birds too much to move them.

In other news, a youth group in the Valley is fundraising for a ski trip and I got them to dig over the vege patch yesterday. It was hilarious and wonderful in all the ways you might expect when you ask a group of teens to dig your vege patch. Two left after ten minutes when they realised the job was going to involve strenuous exercise and coordinated effort. The path is considerably muddier than it was before they started, but the patch is clean and fresh looking. They broke a pane in the glasshouse and left behind three shoes and a bucket. Some of them worked diligently and hard; some did flying leaps off the bank into the garden. The youngest and the skinniest and the biggest were the best workers. No-one stabbed anyone else, but it looked close a few times. A clump of lilies disappeared, but I wasn’t that fond of them. Maybe they’ll bloom in the compost heap. One boy did a beautiful job tidying the glasshouse and washing it down. The trays in it are neatly stacked and the mint has room to breathe.

I kept a quiet eye on the kids from my office as I worked on a copyedit, and I have to say, my feelings about them were almost identical to my feelings about the waxeyes. I loved them, but it was a rueful, charmed kind of love.

Strangely, while I was writing this, a bird flew past the window and I could swear it was a heron. I’ve never seen such a thing in suburban Dunedin, but it had a very heronesque bodyline and  it sure as shit wasn’t a seagull. It circled down towards the Gardens; maybe it’s gone to catch a fish.

Garden plans

From my office, I look out onto our back garden in all its wild, raggy glory. I have plans.

Chook house
We don’t have a chook house, but we want one. Not sure where to put it, but probably down the back somewhere. The Rabbit has just discovered eggs, and it would be lovely to have our own supply. Plus, is there any better garden soundtrack than hens clucking?

The glasshouse
The glasshouse needs a good tidy up and then we can start raising seeds and growing tomatoes, basil and coriander. We’ll try cucumber too — it’s hard to get a prolific crop down here, but a few for treats would be happy.

The vege patch
This is the biggest section of the garden, and we’ve planted beans, peas, garlic, potatoes and yams so far. We need to dig in winter’s green crop, then plant zucchini, carrots, more beans and peas, and whatever other yummy things we can think of.

The salad patch
This is a smaller patch near the back door. We started on this early this season, so we’ve got lettuces, sorrel, beetroot, fennel, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, spring onion and herbs on the way. I love having a little patch near the kitchen that I can scavenge in for dinner options.

The rose garden
We moved all the roses into one patch this year, and we’ve planted some daisies in with them too. I’d like more daisies to fill in the gaps, or maybe we could put in some azaleas?

We have a few borders around the place: one running under the rose garden, one along the side of the house, and a pair leading up the path to the front door. We have tiny sweetpea seedlings coming up along the front door path; they were flowering profusely when we moved in last year, so maybe we’re a bit behind. The seeds are from last year’s crop and I am very anxious to see whether they will work.

I’ve been weeding and planting bulbs  and flowers in the borders, but they require quite a lot of maintenance. I have about a million little things in the rose garden border, and I have no idea whether I’ve created a shambles or a thing of beauty. Not that those are mutually exclusive. I’m slowly figuring out which baby leaves are weeds and which are pretties, although some continue to mystify me. My general rule is to let things grow until they’re big enough to decide whether I like them or not; this has led to a few disasters, but I am learning.

Front patch
There’s a section at the front that defies categorisation. It seems to have a bit of everything in it, and I want to shift most of it out and plant a magnolia, a cherry, perhaps some rhododendrons. The bank is also looking dicey, and we’ll have to work out retaining options at some stage.

Damp, ferny bit
There’s an L-shaped bed outside the kitchen window with grasses and ferns and green/cream things in it. The plan is to shift the grasses onto the bank, plant tree ferns and more ground ferns, and waterblast the bricks in front so they’re less hazardous. There’s a big concrete retaining wall behind this bed, with clematis growing down it. I have a long-term plan to plaster the wall and paint a mural on it, despite my complete lack of plastering and painting ability.

We’ve got a couple of lawns near the house that are fairly easy to keep tidy and one steep, scraggy bank that drives me nuts. I think we’re working towards native grasses at one end of the bank and fruit trees and berries at the other, but the mowing and weed-eating is still a big chore. I’m considering sheep.


Autumn, how I love thee — let me count the ways

So, I guess up there in the North, you’re all spring — coats and blossoms and soft rain and crocuses and whatnot. Down here in the South, though, we’ve flicked into autumn, which I suspect is my soul season, and which I am certain is delightful and a welcome growing up of summer, that fickle, disappointing, occasionally wonderful season.

Good things about autumn (which my over-caffinated fingers have tried to spell about six different ways already)

  1. It’s a warm and clean-limbed day, and I’ve brought my work out to the back porch. Coffee; a raggedy, weedy garden; bees patrolling the flowers, doing their small, vital work; the leaves taking colour against the sky; some writing to put to rights.
  2. Scarves, obviously. And cardigans. I’m such an old lady.
  3. Red wine seems to go with most meals.
  4. When we have friends over, we can pull the table into the garden and have a FEAST.
  5. The temperature has steadied, the wind has dropped. If it heats up, I’ll take extra joy in bare arms. If it cools down, I’ll light a fire without feeling foolish. When the sun shines, my limbs will soften and I’ll tilt my head to the sky.
  6. The year has clicked into gear. We’re rolling now.
  7. Duvets. Bed.
  8. In the spring, just two seasons away, I’ll be an aunty to two new babies. And one of them will be just down the valley.
  9. The students are back — the city’s got its buzz on.
  10. Eggplants, zucchinis, tomatoes, pumpkins. Lamb. Fennel growing fat in the ground. Apples. Pears.
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