17 December 2014

The African tinge to my mince pie baking

Usually while I'm doing Christmassy things like baking fruit mince pies, I dial up some Christmas carols and delight at the voices of boy sopranos. Instead, today I was feeling my African roots, so I listened to Shoshaloza on You Tube. My African roots are no stronger than any other freckly white person's. I mention them because our mitochondrial DNA shows we all come from Africa originally, and I really love African music and dance.

I listened and danced to about ten versions amidst the pastry, tins and fruit mince, with an ipad propped up at the edge of it all (plus my usual kitchen bench accompaniments of school books, art equipment and little girl novels... oh Anna, Anna, you do spread yourself around the house).

I loved them all. A favourite, though, was the Drakensberg Boys Choir's version - make sure you listen to the especially magic second part, you will be smiling and dancing! This version has my requisite boy soprano in it. For pure sound, the winners were an absolutely stunning Swedish choir (N3A of Kungsholmen Gymnasium, the title says).

The Swedish version is kinder to white people - there are no black singers among them to show up their stilted white movements! (This is a song you have to move to while you sing.) I don't know why dark-skinned people move so rhythmically, but I envy and admire them for it. I've seen it repeatedly in Africa, Melanesia and Polynesia (plus of course in Maori people here in New Zealand.)

We spend a lot of time, money and energy on Anna's dancing. She loves it and 'feels' the music, which not everyone with white skin does. It feels important to us. I'm usually sitting on the parents' benches at the side of the class doing the seated groove. Maybe my resolution for next year should be to get up and dance when the music takes me, no matter what the other mothers think! Some might join me! I hate the thought that singing, dancing and playing music is being replaced by listening to and watching other people do it, usually on a screen or sometimes a stage. Why not in our streets, our gardens, our houses?

Where are our roots, people?! Shoshaloza will remind you why they matter.

The mince pies I make are ugly little beggars compared to the others I see. They look like my grandmother's did, because I use her recipe and method, and even her tins! But oh, the taste... unbeatable. They're a really important part of this family's roots.

9 December 2014

Unseasonable wonders in the garden

I suppose humans everywhere talk about unusual climatic events, and have done so ever since humans could talk. Still, humour me by reading this tale of passionfruit, cucumbers and black soil.

It's only just got hot here, really, and at last there are summer sheets hanging on the line, being freshened up ready to replace warm winter sheets later today. Now our passionfruit vine is flowering, and as usual the flowers are over-the-top beautiful and intricate. We even have a few baby fruit, which is normal for early summer.

passionfruit flower

young passionfruit

But normal has meant nothing to my mother's garden in Tauranga, that city of sea and sun. When we visited in July - mid winter! - her vine was flowering. During our visit in September we were actually eating the passionfruit. The vine was simultaneously flowering, ready to go again for summer. Madness, delicious madness!

passionfruit vine in winter

Ripe passionfruit in winter

Cut ripe passionfruit

My own little boast is of cucumbers. We have been eating them for a month, friends. Cucumbers in November just do not happen in Hamilton, especially during a spring with such cold nights. Last year at that time I was struggling with little plants dying of cold. This year they were starting to climb the teepees I made them and dangling their delicious green fruit, which the children gobble up delightedly.

Cucumber growing up teepee

My secret? I'm not sure, but possibly it was the tremendous start the seedlings got. I planted the seeds in late August into little pots on our north-facing porch, and brought them inside the fire-warmed house each night. By October they were flowering and looking like bursting out of their pots, and I was too jaded with repotting tomatoes to do the same for them, so they went in the ground. The soil was well enriched with compost.

In fact I've planted some more seeds, which are just bursting now, for a second burst of cucumbers in late summer. Following the advice of Clare Jackson and Alice Bulmer in their e-book Growing Great Seedlings (just $3.85! And Alice is my friend...), I'm watering them from underneath so as not to disturb the seeds. Sprouting is going well, very well.

cucumber seed sprouting

Finally, black soil. As I've planted trees and buried possums down in our local block of bush, I've drooled over the soil in a certain area. I'm told it was an old Maori garden site, and certainly it's a flattened area below a well-known pa site. Those Maori gardeners certainly knew what they were doing. Apparently they enriched the soil with ash from their fires. I'm sure they could give us other tips as well. How could any plant not thrive in this soil?

black soil

How is your gardening growing?

5 December 2014

Restoring the bush: the big reasons to do it

We live in a city, but close to a beautiful patch of native bush with a boardwalk running through it. It's next to the mighty Waikato River. This morning I walked along the river's edge, rounded a corner and there was a harrier hawk taking flight - I had frightened it away before I'd even spotted it. Its senses were so much better than mine. It was big, graceful and totally silent - a contrast to the noisy flight of ducks and tuis. Just gorgeous.

It had been in the shallows of the river. Perhaps it had caught a fish? There was nothing to see among the ripples it left behind. I walked on, and a minute later I came across a small broken blue egg speckled with brown, either hatched or eaten. Another minute or so later there was a blackbird on the ground, far closer to me than usual - was it sick, perhaps? It jumped away from me, but didn't fly. I walked away, not wanting to harass it.

I find peace and joy in encounters with nature, and I'm not alone. It's good for everyone, it turns out, and there are now many studies showing that people have better physical and mental health when they spend time in nature. Children learn better, too. Nature is not just a 'nice to have', it's essential to humans' well being.

(Although once I knew a woman who was moving to New York. She would be delighted, she said, if she never saw a paddock again. Mind you, I don't like paddocks, either. I didn't ask her about native bush, rivers and beaches, but I'd be surprised if she'd be happy to see them receding as she looked out of the plane window. Or maybe her nose was deep in the latest fashion mag.)

Four or so years ago this was mostly weeds.
I'm involved with a group that's helping to restore our local patch of bush to its former glory. We dress in unfashionable old clothes to do this rough work. Stunning and biodiverse as our bush is, there are terrible weeds and pest animals amidst the beauty. For the first time this week we wandered down on a Wednesday evening to start a series of weekly working bees to get on top of the weeds. Usually we do monthly afternoon working bees, but this is a cooler summer alternative.

"This is better than blobbing out in front of the telly after work," said one man as he sawed down a weedy privet tree. "Usually I feel like doing nothing when I come home, but once I get into it.... this is GREAT."

So we worked, not out of a sense of obligation. (I think we do have an obligation, though. Who brought all the weeds and pests that ravage this stunning country? Our forebears.) Rather, we're excited about the beauty we're creating, stoked by our sense of achievement, and happy to be getting in among it. We're in awe, too, of what we are in the midst of - this week we found a little patch of exquisite native ferns growing next to a heap of weeds. Nature creates such lovely things.

In many ways, though, it's not just about the bush. We're connecting with others in our community. We're being useful. These are things that are well known to make people happier and healthier.

I got a bit excited about the importance of nature after hearing Richard Louv speak a couple of weeks go. He's the author of the best-seller Last Child in the Woods. He pointed out that because most of us live in towns and cities these days, creating nature-rich urban areas that we can get to easily is vital if we are to have the well being we all want. Urban ecological restoration, it's called (well, it's restoration if you're restoring what used to be there before people came on the scene).

It made me feel proud of our slice of goodness, and the way we nurture it - it's not just for ourselves, or for the bush and creatures that live in it, but for anyone who wants to come here.

26 November 2014

Cheap and simple rat control in an elvish forest

Recently my family and I had the pleasure of visiting the most gorgeous lifestyle block owned by a clever and resourceful couple. It made us long for more land - for more flowers, more vegetables, more space for chickens, and most of all more space for our children to play in. Our urban section is quite small.

However, the drive in and out of town wouldn't work for us. Too much petrol, too much time. We like being able to walk and bike daily to many of our destinations. Plus I don't think we have the energy or time for maintaining a large block.

The current owners are doing forest restoration and pest control in an adjacent patch of beautiful kahikatea forest. It was a magical place. Kahikatea trees thrive in swampy ground. The land around here has been drained for farms now, but the trees' crazy above-ground roots remain. The forest felt a bit elvish and secret, like a magical, mossy, fern-filled world in which the trees should have windows.

I noticed that the couple were using the cleverest and cheapest little bait station for rats that I've ever seen, using old icecream containers. They told me they'd invented them and that they work really, really well.

You can read about how they work and how to make one on my other blog, www.keepingchickensnz.com.

I also noticed these ferns that have made a home of a fencepost - amazing!

Our friends gave us a bag of freshly dug new potatoes for our dinner. Yum... what a nice ending to a lovely afternoon.

21 November 2014

Dreaming of HenPower for the elderly

The lovely blog of Melissa at tinyhappy has thrilled me this week with its link to a story about HenPower.

An image from the Telegraph article about HenPower.
Consider a group of elderly people, in a rest home or retirement village. The demands of their own homes and sections have gone or been hugely reduced, spouses have died, and for some of them gaping holes have been left behind.

Enter HenPower. A chicken coop, and some hens or even eggs in an incubator that hatch into delightful little chicks. (I know not the fate of the roosters.) What happens?

It turns out to be tranformative for some of the elderly people. They say things like "‘My life has been a lot fuller since we’ve had these hens. I think I’d be lost without them." The chicken-keeping tasks lead to social interactions, a point of interest, and a sense of purpose and fulfilment. In turn, there are reduced amounts of antipsychotic drugs in rest homes and all sorts of other good outcomes.

The project started with bare-bones funding, but last year they were awarded £164,000 of lottery money to extend the project to different parts of the United Kingdom.

There's also a lovely seven minute video on the project called Hen Men here. In it, one man hasn't seen his family since 1980 and didn't talk to his neighbours until the project began. Now the local chaps get together over their chooks. (If only I could interpret the other 70% of what the men say - the accents are strong! Which is quite fun in itself - my son was gobsmacked.)

It would be fantastic if something like this could get going in New Zealand. Wouldn't it be a lovely thing for the old people to show visiting grandchildren? I can even imagine local kindergartens going on field trips to see the chickens and collect the morning's eggs, and the residents being delighted by seeing the children. Some of the children would probably start wanting their own hens at home...  what a wonderful ripple effect it could have. HenPower indeed.

I also wrote about HenPower on my chickens Facebook page and blog. If you're missing chicken posts here, please visit the other sites, which are where my chicken writings mostly are these days.

12 November 2014

New Scientist and the future: old stuff is precious

Yesterday was a happy old day. Quite illegally, I took the children out of school and we charged across the countryside to join my mother on her 77th birthday. We didn't want her to spend it alone, and she seemed pretty chuffed.

The four of us walked down to a cafe, Lynne's Kitchen, that has opened up in a block of shops that was there when I was growing up. I'd huff and puff past it on my ten speed bike on the way to and from school. In those days there were definitely not things like cafes in blocks of shops! There were fish and chip shops, dairies, hairdressers and bike shops - and maybe a butcher, pharmacy, doctor or post office in more major 'blocks'.

The old theme continued. The cafe was staffed by women of a grandmotherly age, who were about the most charming and friendly people you could ever find in such a place. Furthermore, the cups and saucers were beautiful old china. The lady at the till told me that people come from quite some distance just to use the old crockery! (I suspect she is too modest, and her charm, the lovely food and reasonable prices have a lot to do with it too.)

I'm always singing the praises of old, especially when it comes to homeware. I got a thrill recently when New Scientist magazine mentioned that particular love of mine. They predicted that 3D printers will one day give us anything we want, from electronics and building supplies to food and synthetic organs, all at the touch of a button. (Fortunately these things will made out of used materials.)

"We may also come to value old things over the new, as antiques become increasingly rare in a world of super-efficient recycling," the article states. They also predict that even as these changes seem to separate us ever more from nature, we'll want it more and more, and 'rewilding' and 'de-extinction' will become prominent. Hey, that's three loves in one place - old stuff, science and nature! (Although for me the line between science and nature barely exists - science is just about finding out more about nature in an objective manner.)

The customers at Lynne's Kitchen and I are already heading down the route of valuing old things over new. Bring it on, I say - maybe I'll make my fortune with the old things I've collected!

5 November 2014

Like a bought one: the mulched garden

I got around to mulching our vegetable garden over the weekend. Last year I was reluctant, having read that my favourite mulch, pea straw, is processed by being sprayed with roundup. I'm not sure if that's true. I know it is for potatoes, though. How dare they?

Maybe this autumn I'll collect enough autumn leaves to mulch the summer garden.

Here are parts of it, before and after the mulching makeover.

"It looks like a bought one," said a friend to me once after having spread pea straw on her garden.

Last year I mulched just one garden section, and when the drought got bad it was the only place the tomatoes kept growing healthily. The soil underneath was friable and moist. Underneath other tomato plants it resembled a concrete pan, which the water ran off when I hosed. (That unpleasant condition is called hydrophobicity, the friend's husband informed me.) The plants died.

So now I am a committed mulcher.

Does anyone have other ideas for summer vegetable garden mulch?

Flowering phacelia: a great plant for beneficial insects
that sprouts and grows at any time of year. The bees adore it.

3 November 2014

Happiness, excitement, health... it's all relative

What a busy time we had near the end of last week! It taught me a lesson or two.

On Thursday there was a school gala and Anna had to dress up as a cowgirl. She got to sing and dance in front of a crowd - bliss!

She missed her musical theatre class the following evening in order to attend a Halloween party.

A New Zealand Jack-'o-lantern that I carved.
Pumpkins aren't in season here, but a grapefruit is a fine substitute.

On Saturday we went to the Waikato Show - a fair/agricultural and pastoral day rolled into one. Miniature horses bowed and did various tricks on command, and a dog walked a high wire. I squirmed, noticing the trainer's long riding crop close to the horses at all times, and their mouths working against the tight bit. Anna was entranced, though.

We saw baby goats, alpacas, rabbits, a turkey (their snoods are wild!) and of course spent plenty of time in the poultry shed. Anna fell slightly in love with a grey rabbit with fur that felt like velvet, and completely in love with a baby chick, which she begged to be allowed to take home. Please Mama, please Mama.

Then all of a sudden she wanted to leave. "It's not very exciting," she said, as we walked past the bouncy castle, pony rides, wood chopping and sheep-shearing show. Now, it might have been due to me spending a bit too long with the poultry, but I think she has so much stimulating stuff in her life that it takes a lot for something to stand out. Too much.

I could hardly tear myself away from this
magnificent Black Orpington rooster.
I had the opposite experience. During the early hours of Friday I began a two-day migraine (they come less frequently now, but last longer) on top of a very sore back, associated unhappy intestines, a gum infection and a sore throat. I don't think I've ever had as many things wrong with me at once, and I was miserable. By Saturday only the head remained as a big problem, and even that was waning. Suddenly I realised that a migraine alone was quite manageable compared to four other illnesses at the same time! I felt quite liberated.

I even photographed the freshly leaved oak trees lining the park where Jack was playing cricket in sheer joy. The world seemed such a beautiful place.

It's all relative, isn't it?

24 October 2014

Grow your own tomato plants - growing, selling, planting

It's Labour weekend this weekend, the traditional time for New Zealanders to plant out their tomato plants.

This brings me great relief, because I raised about 60 tomato plants this year - a few for us, but most to sell to raise funds for our local environment society. It was a lot of work, but fun. The seeds were sown in late August, and for a month or so the pots were brought in every night into the warmth, then put outside again each morning. Then the plants had to be repotted as they grew bigger.

My home garden centre.
May I say how fantastic they were? I checked our local garden centre to figure out how much to charge, and we came up with a price that was half theirs, but our plants were twice as good.

What a relief it was to load them into the car yesterday for the market we sold them at. I helped set up the stall, but the selling was done by some faithful supporters, and we raised a bit of cash. Anna came along too, and together we happily inhaled the scent of tomato leaves as we drove there.

A quick aside to mention what tomatoes we're growing: for the market it was Gardener's Delight, a cherry tomato ("sweet grape-like trusses," says the blurb). We kept a couple of them. We've also got Tomaccio, at a mere $5 for just two seeds, but I tasted a friend's last summer, and with the memory of raisin-like sweetness on my taste buds there was no stopping me. Yes, both seeds sprouted and the plants are flowering. Plus we've got another new cultivar for us, Baxter's early bush cherry - tomatoes by Christmas, anyone? - and an old heritage favourite, Brandywine - for sheer flavour power, as the sales blurb goes.

I wrote out an information sheet with tomato-growing tips on it for our tomato purchasers. Maybe the tips are of interest to you? Here they are:

·        Make sure your tomato pot is well watered at least 30 minutes before planting.

·        It’s good to bury the first few centimetres of stem into the soil. When you do this, the tiny hairs on the stem turn into roots, so you get more roots to absorb moisture and nutrients.

·        Mix plenty of compost into the planting hole, and maybe some sheep pellets.

·        Place a tall stake or two next to the plant (about 20 cm away from the stem) at planting time.  As the plant grows tall, tie it to the stake(s) to support it. Cut old clothes and rags into strips to make soft, free plant ties.

·        After planting, water well. When the soil is very moist (ideally after a good rain fall), cover the soil around the plant with mulch (e.g. pea straw, old leaves, or whatever you can get your hands on) and immediately water the mulch so it doesn’t blow away. Mulching keeps the soil and plant much healthier, especially when the weather gets very hot later in the season.

·       Many gardeners pinch off some of the lateral branches. These are the ones that grow out of the plant at about 45 degrees. The emerge in the right angles formed by the stem and a branch that grows straight out. There are different schools of thought on this – you could Google it! But if you let all the branches grow, you’ll need a lot of stakes.

Our winter garden, much of it ready to be farewelled now
that Labour weekend is upon us. The photo is framed by that
quintessential kiwi backyard accessory, the rotary clothesline.
It's utterly practical, if space allows.
Have a lovely Labour weekend, in and out of the garden!

23 October 2014

Gourmet food, virtually for free

If you heard me groaning in pleasure in our back garden the other day, it was nothing untoward. I was just tasting the first strawberry of the season.

It was ugly, yes, and small, but oh, the flavour. I'm not sure how the commercial growers manage to transform strawberries into comparative bags of red water.

Strawberry plant

We have a video of Jack, just turned two, having just eaten the first strawberry from the garden in the first year we lived in this house. He starts running in circles around the back lawn (a barren wasteland compared to the garden jungle it is now), getting faster and faster, while his red-juiced mouth cries 'Stwawwwwberry! Stwawwwwberry!' as all the nerves running from his taste buds to his brain explode with flavour fireworks.

This year, in between the strawberry rows (yes! I planted actual rows of something!), are a new favourite of mine, radishes. Until I tried eating them with butter and salt, I thought I didn't like them. Mostly I eat them with olive oil and salt now, or chopped up in a salad. And they are so fast and easy to grow! Every radish seed sprouts, which is most certainly not a general rule in our garden, and in a month or so there are big pink radishes ready to eat. Gourmet food virtually for free ($3.75 for 250 seeds).

A just-pulled organic radish

Radish with oil and salt

These are some of the flavours that have been coming out of our spring garden, along with herbs, spring onions, gourmet lettuces and parsnips, the latter eaten roasted - so very, very good. Broad beans are also there for the first time, although nothing interesting has come from them yet. I'm going to try to overcome that with this recipe from Nadia Lim.

The other sensation that hits me each spring is the smells. Each year I remember that the smells change so much with this season. Citrus blossom makes me pause beside our house. Old-fashioned roses yank me to a standstill as I walk along the road. Oh, the smells.

Honey bee on orange blossom
A honey bee visits our orange tree.

Orange tree branch in blossom
The orange tree is thick with blossom, despite
being pruned severely over winter.

Spring is good.

16 October 2014

Farewell to a feathered friend

Our magnificent black Orpington died last weekend. She was a heap of beautiful glossy black feathers, her body pushed out of the nest box by brown shavers who desperately wanted the space to lay their eggs.

Black orpington chicken feathers

No one saw that hen without commenting on how big she was. Only a week earlier my brother couldn't tear his eyes away when he visited. "That is a BIG chicken," he said. She was the size of a smallish dog, and probably weighed 4-5 kg.

Child feeding black orpington

She was one of our first batch of chickens, remaining behind when I sold her one of sisters for being too broody and the other for being too mean. She's had two batches of new flockmates since then, all brown shavers (Boring! Utilitarian! But oh, the eggs, the eggs.) The second lot she was mother to, and the third lot grandmother. I kid you not - that's how she behaved. I wrote the story of how she cared for her dearest daughter last year in this post, The old beauty lays again.

With her best pal.
The shock of her sisters and daughters leaving sent her into the nest box: it was her retreat during rough times. And there she went to die.

Why did she die? She was five and a half years old. Chickens of traditional breeds can live for 12 years, and I was planning on her being a well-aged beauty. Yet she hadn't laid one of her distinctive creamy, symmetrically oval eggs since last summer, in spite of coming into breeding condition, so I thought something might be wrong. I was about to worm her, for the first time ever, in case that was the problem. But her plumage was stunning and her comb red and erect, so she wasn't particularly ill.

She did have a swollen 'bumblefoot' again - it had troubled her for a couple of years, on and off. Maybe. Maybe.

I was away for the weekend, by the way, and a neighbour was caring for them. He hadn't realised she was dead!

Anna and I cried a bit, and stroked her still-stunning feathers. Then we plucked the bits of her that weren't wet and maggoty. Her plumes will go to a weaver I met a couple of weeks ago. Chicken feathers are some of the best for beginner weavers of Maori cloaks to use, apparently. When she sees these ones, her eyes will gleam. Never were there more beautiful chicken feathers.

Insulating feathers of black orpington hen
Her inner 'insulating' feathers.
Plucked feathers of black orpington hen for weaving a cloak
In a plastic bag ready for the weaver.
With sadness I dug a hole in the garden for her burial, and planted some peony poppy plants on top. She'll be pushing up poppies instead of daisies, or however the saying goes.

Peony poppies pink
Peony poppies. The image and
the seeds I bought are from
Kings Seeds.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...