26 July 2013


When I was little I grew some snapdragons and sprouted some runner bean seeds. It seemed to me absolutely magic that a hard little thing that seems much like a small stone would grow into a whole plant and produce pretty flowers.

These days I still love growing things, and as I look around our property - small as it is - I feel deeply satisfied by what I've planted, and how well things have grown. (The plants that are no longer with us aren't there to remind me of their demise.) 

It's citrus time here in the North Island of New Zealand. Grapefruit, lemons, oranges and mandarins are studded around our lawns like gems in a jewellery shop. Here in Hamilton, despite its lack of subtropical climate (cold, kind of foggy winters, too-hot summers), lime trees thrive. As did the one we planted - until now.

It was once so healthy that visitors would comment on it, and we boasted how quickly it had grown and how many juicy limes it gave us. Pride came before a fall, literally. Under the beating sun of last summer's drought its leaves turned yellow and began to drop, then those remaining shamefully curled up .

A kind lady at a garden centre, to whom I took a sorry, clipped-off branch, assured me the tree is still alive and that I should cut it back and give it some TLC.

I took advantage of some newly uncovered chicken run turf that contained years of weeds and scraps thrown to their hungry beaks, which were eaten, defaecated and worm-churned into compost right under the chickens' reptilian feet. When we moved their run recently, a couple of years (!!) later than we meant to, a raised area of this dark crumbly stuff was revealed. This formed the basis of our lime tree emergency first aid.

Five chickens produce a lot of poo. I scooped up the stuff that had accumulated under their night perch, mixed it with the fertile soil, and spread it under our newly pruned tree. 

Finally, I dragged out all the flax leaves* that we'd thrown to the chooks to pick over for creepy crawlies, and laid them as mulch over the surface of the poo-poultice. It looks awful (although, in case you're wondering, doesn't smell) but if I see healthy new growth on the lime tree come springtime, it will be utterly beautiful to me.

I love the way the chickens contribute to this cycle of life - we throw them food and garden waste, and they turn it into gifts for us: food (eggs) and great garden ingredients (fertile soil and chicken poo). 

*Strappy leaves, like those from flax, astelia or cabbage trees, or vines, like grape prunings or native spinach, are good for chickens when they're fresh because they tend to house goodies like snails and insects. However, after a few days they're nothing but a menace. They don't break down and get in the way of the chickens' scratching, which is very important to them.

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