20 December 2016

Biochar, our new trick in the garden

As is usual for us at this time of year, we're spending a bit of time cultivating our future food. Often I think about how much we get from our garden for the time we put into it. For days or sometimes weeks we'll do nothing but harvesting - these days we are gathering lettuce, zucchini, herbs, kale, peas, some carrots and a disappointing few, but delicious, strawberries. (Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower will come in next week.) Then we have spurts of energy in there, and work hard for an hour, or two or three, sometimes day after day.

Biochar: it's for real

I'm always on the lookout for promising new ways to make the garden easier/better/more productive. One idea that's intriguing me and my fire-loving husband is biochar. Biochar is this: chunks of charcoal, preferably pea-sized, that have sat around in compost for a while before being incorporated into the soil.

The magic of the stuff is this that it locks up carbon in the soil (in the form of burnt wood), and is an excellent storehouse for two vital soil elements, microbes (sourced from the compost) and water. These goodies are housed in the charcoal's hollow channels that were originally the vascular structures in the tree that was burnt.

I keep reading about it in slightly alternative magazines, but please don't make the mistake of putting it in the same category as aerated compost tea or burying stuff in cattle horns (my apologies if I'm mistakenly putting those in the loopy category). This is a real thing - Massey University even has a research centre looking into it. Here's an 11-minute interview with one of the researchers.

How to make it

Note that this is a very down-home method. If you've listened to the interview in the link above, you'll realise that this method is very crude! For example, there are optimal temperatures at which to make the charcoal, and we have no idea how hot our fire gets.

1. Burn some wood incompletely to make charcoal (my husband does this as we sit around a fire that makes an ugly bald patch in our lawn - but it's worth it and is always a social occasion). Burning prunings is a good way to use them up. We put the chopped-up prunings in old milo tins with holes bashed in the lid. Another way to do it would just be to turn the hose on the fire while the burnt wood is still in lumps, before it burns away into ash.

Us with neighbours around a fire.

Milo tins, collected from a workplace tearoom

2. Once the charcoal is cool, it's ideal to crush it up into pea-sized chunks. We haven't done a lot of that because it's probably a horribly dusty process. We might sort out that side of it out one day, though. It tends to break up quite small during the composting process, anyway.

3. Chuck it in the compost heap or bin.

4. Distribute the compost in the garden once it's ready. The biochar chunks will be strewn throughout the soil.

I saw a weed growing out of a piece of biochar in the garden today. I'm not sure what that proves, but it seemed proper! There is good stuff in that there biochar!

Splashes of colour

Our garden's doing really well so far this year. It's the tomatoes, beans and cucumbers I'm looking forward to most.

(Plenty of garden photos here - scroll down if you just want more words!)

Climbing beans
Rampant tomato plants with NZ spinach in the foreground

Little carrot seedlings

A cabbage awaits harvest

The tomato garden from the other side

Most of our tomatoes are black - although they're supposed to be
yellow underneath and dark red on top. They're  'Eclipse Fireball'. 

Will the broccoli be ready before Christmas?

A zucchini plant happily feeding from the compost bin next to it

In the meantime, we have plenty to eat, and I'm loving the splashes of red in either corner of the garden: red alstroemerias flowering in one corner, and chickens with red combs in another. One fills the vase, the other fills our bellies in the form of eggs, and they both fill my eyes with beauty and my soul with happiness.

Ironically, I nearly lost one to the other shortly after I brought the baby alstroemeria plant home from a church fair. Chickens love alstroemeria leaves!

10 December 2016

On milking cows and international holidays

A part of me has a huge desire to take my children to Europe - to visit friends, to experience some of my favourite places, and to discover some new ones. My husband won't go again - he's sworn off international travel unless it's vital for work reasons, because of the greenhouse gases it releases. I worry about that too, but reckon the amount of meat we DON'T eat these days more than makes up for it. (Fortunately I've discovered some awesome bean and lentil recipes, which I'll share here one day.)

At my friend's cheerful doorstep

I've learned that what people choose to do depends very much on what the people around them do. So if your neighbours all suddenly start recycling, you're more likely to recycle, too. In that vein, my desire for an international trip is probably subconsciously fed by Facebook photos of my friends with their children in exotic locations.

So it was refreshing  recently when I went to visit my dear friend Veronica. She's not on Facebook, her house is full of children and animals (sometimes including lambs and pet rats), and I don't think her family's travelled more than two hours from home since I met her about nine years ago.

I can't keep my hands off this dog's soft, soft coat.

This is what I find there: smart, resilient hard-working children. Children who can speak three languages, change a nappy, make a meal, crochet, excel at their musical instruments. The barely-a-teenager does voluntary work, knows exactly which high-flying career she wants and is already working towards it, and can't wait to milk their new calf when it matures and make cheese with the milk. Children who can make do with what they have, but know how to get what they want.

The family's vege garden has old carpet between the beds.
Delicious peas, and waist-high grass in the background.
They are seeking more stock to eat it! The sheep can't keep up with it.

Their house is not going to be in Home and Garden anytime soon. But I love that the artwork was all done by the children (who are lucky enough to have private art classes), that the family allows their heart to be repeatedly broken when they hand over the dogs they train as mobility assistance dogs (you've never met such well-behaved dogs), and that much of what they have has been built, knit or sewn themselves (including their very house, which they virtually rebuilt after it was moved onto its site).

Veronica herself is kind, beautiful, even more likely that me to be in clothes scavenged from a dump shop, and fiercely intelligent.

So when a little whisper comes to me that the travel would be good for my children and they will better off for it, I just remember her family. Comparing children is probably not fair, but I do find myself spotting quite a few that spend a lot of time in front of screens and are learning more about gaming and social media than what I consider are basic life skills: growing food, managing money, cooking a meal, cleaning a bathroom, reading widely, working hard.

I still don't know whether we'll divert funds and energy into an international trip, but if we don't, Veronica's family is my reminder that my children will be perfectly okay without it.

19 October 2016

The space that books make in your head

Last week I went to a lecture by New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox. She spoke of the space that books make in our head, and of the exercise that reading gives our brain cells.

It does feel like that, doesn't it? I have 35 years of novels and non-fiction behind me, and must have hundreds or thousands of these spaces in my head, with the biggest ones formed by the books I've loved the most. I suppose they are not in fact spaces, but networks or clumps of neurones in my brain. Isn't the brain the most incredible hunk of flesh?

Sharing this love of reading for learning and for pure joy with our children has been one of the best parts of parenting. Last night I cuddled down in bed with Anna, and embarked upon one of the books that still occupies a whopping big space or network in my brain, formed when I was about her age, and reinforced by a big dose of pleasure: The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis. Polly. Digory. Rings. Tree. Wardrobe. Bliss! (Although in truth I can remember little of the story, except for how it made me feel.) Last night was the first delectable one of many, with the wonderful The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to look forward to next. We're reading my original copies**, made tatty by re-reading.

Knox spoke of how as a child she played imaginary games with her sister, lying in bed and inventing stories across the darkness of their shared bedroom, Bronte-like. Incredibly, although Knox must be over 50, the sisters still do it! Except now they do it via Skype. Knox's sister is also an author. Those little girls grew themselves big fat loops of imagination neurones - and Knox is renowned for her imaginative writing. (I think the goodness may have overflowed to Knox's magnificent hair follicles, too. I wanted to pat her like a cat, then make some interesting hairstyles with it.)

She spoke of her inability to write at primary school, and of how she had to therefore hold ideas in her head, and constantly searched for connections between ideas until they made sense.

The literati in the esteemed halls of Waikato Uni's S-block on Wednesday. Knox in the centre, and Eleanor Catton far right. Oh, and my friend Anne, the shortest one! Not a literati member, but she is a 'Librarianne'. 

Also quietly in the audience was Booker-prize winner Eleanor Catton, whose husband is a writer-in-residence at the University of Waikato, where the lecture was held. I've read that she grew up without a TV, surrounded by books.

These early influences grow our brains so powerfully. What will happen to all those children who don't read? Who saw the Harry Potter movies but never read the books? Or, as I heard from a gaming-addicted mother about her son recently, those who can't even concentrate for long enough to watch a movie?

Time will tell. Maybe they'll be fine. But they'll certainly be different.

* Thanks to my mother, who, although we couldn't afford many new books, often stopped at a Book Exchange shop on the way home from work and bought me very cheap second-hand books, which had a strange smell. I didn't care.
** Bought new about 35 years ago, most likely from the Scholastic Book Club at school (it had a different name then, I think, but I can't remember it).

14 September 2016

The teenage season

As of the end of last month, we have a teenager in the family! Just quite how our little boy turned into a young man is beyond us, but like every twist and turn of life, we just have to accept and enjoy it. And there's nothing not to enjoy - apart from the guitar amp, that is.

I snuck in a bit of eco-style with pure beeswax
candles. They smelt like honey and glowed like gold.
Although I admit the cake and icing were pure junk
food, and the ribbon came from the $2 shop. Eeek.


Earlier this year, just as we were wondering how to keep him from falling into the irresistible well of screens and gaming, along came music and swept him away. He'd been listening to his own music for a long time, and making it on the violin until about a year ago. The violin, however, was limited to practices and lessons. It sounded good, but was never played for sheer joy.

Then a dear friend, at the end of a hot mosquito-ridden barbeque evening last autumn, brought out her ukulele and began to play and sing. The floodgates opened, the very point of music was offered up on a deliciously greasy platter, and in the days and weeks following we suddenly had a young maestro on the previously dusty ukulele, and shortly afterwards on his dad's guitar.

Being middle class suckers for beautiful blue eyes and a good voice, we bought him his own guitar and in May started forking out for lessons. Tomorrow night he is even playing a couple of songs at a pub with his teacher! This honour comes after many, many hours of practice, of course - none of which actually felt like what violin practice used to, I'm sure. It was pure pleasure.

But it's at home that the point of it all, and the joy of it all, comes together. Almost every night (no TV, you see), father and son play together, choosing songs and practicing, perfecting. To us that feels exactly how a harmonious home with a 13-year-old should.

The pile on the coffee table is not the focal point of this photo.


The flash new guitar can be plugged into an amp, and the longed-for amp arrived here as a present from Grandma, Uncle and Aunt on the thirteenth birthday. We have an old electric guitar, too, that now gets a daily workout.

The electric guitar in a case replete with 1970's mustard lining:
 Oh for a power cut.

Oh dear. It became immediately clear that I am an 'unplugged', acoustic guitar kind of person. I admit to banning the amp from the lounge (I know, what happened to family harmony), so he shuts himself and all that distortion up in his bedroom. And with that noise, both us and the neighbours REALLY know we have a teenager in the house.

The never-to-be repeated season

I often write on this blog about seasons: the garden, the flowers, the frosts, the cold, the heat. I enjoy the good bits of them, but there's always a little part of me looking forward to going back. In winter I look forward to the return of warmer days, sunshine and blossom, and in sweaty February I am pleased that cooler autumn days will be back soon.

The phases of our children's lives are like seasons. But unlike the outdoor seasons, the darling baby, the blue-eyed kindy boy overflowing with delight at the discovery of dinosaurs, won't ever return. I can't have him back. If I could swing a little time travel, that is exactly where I'd go for a visit, but I can't.

The only way out of the sadness of that truth is to love and enjoy him now as much as possible.

15 August 2016

Dutter the autumn fairy

We're half way through August now, in a land of bare branches, weedy gardens and mud. Last week we awoke to winter scenes as fairy-tale like as they get around here.

Frosted roof tiles.

Frosted cavolo nero kale. Good green stuff.

For our family, August is a time of children's birthdays, and this year feels momentous, with our first baby turning 13. We're realising that indeed this nearly-teenager of ours - who is turning rapidly into a young man - will leave us one day for new adventures. It is pretty sad to think about, because from the moment he was born he's been such a lovely, easy person to live with, and we don't quite know what we did to deserve him.

Maybe it was the unplanned pregnancy, the daily gin I drank until weeks later when I found out why I was feeling so strange, or the electric shock I got about half way through the pregnancy. It certainly wasn't prenatal vitamins and meditation. There were, however, a lot of peaceful, lush bushwalks, which helped me, if not him.

Fortunately we'll have our darling, fascinating and spirited girl a bit longer, as she's only turning 10. For a week or so she's been passionate about decorating cupcakes to take to school to be sold in order to raise money for the SPCA. Yesterday was the day, and she did a fine job, with just a bit of help from me. She even swept the mess off the floor afterwards!

This girl can write (so can our boy, but he won't let me share or show much about him anymore). So,
if you've been noticing that autumn feels like it's a Very Long Way Away now, here is her story of Dutter to explain why.

In autumn her class had to make a creature from leaves, and name it (hers, you may have guessed, is called Dutter). Last week they were asked to write a story about their leaf creature, and this is what she wrote:


Sliding on ice,
Flying through air,
Padding slowly to his lair,
Dropping leaves as he goes,
amber, golden past his foes.
Curling, waddling, flying around the world, and every where he goes, autumn comes and leaves. Through in and out the days, as he flys, he sometimes would like a rest, at home or anywhere throughout the golden west.
Autumn comes and goes, but only when Dutter is here.
When he misses home you will see him coming back. For sometimes he needs to see his family and friends, and his cosy bed. Dutter, lovely and warm. Never gets called names and always is respected. He loves his family very much, but sometimes needs a rest. So, he is away for three months traveling the world, then coming back to his bed, home and warmth of his house.
Dutter loves to run, play and hunt while he drops his leaves, as he goes about his ways.
For, Dutter is A third penguin, a third cat and a third peacock.

(Errors repeated exactly as she wrote them. I couldn't figure out how to turn most of the dots on the 'i's into love hearts, though!)

19 July 2016

Suspicious of convenience

The things that humans have invented to make life more convenient are truly mind-boggling. Paper and pencils, mattresses, electric lights, taps and ovens... I love them. My favourite appliances are the washing machine and dishwasher for the hours of time they free up each week. (Written, I suppose, from the point of view of someone who's never lugged water from a well.)

The latest invention: a laundry folder. Available from www.foldimate.com
to the truly lazy and spendy.

The laundry folder: a step too far

At some point, however - and I think we are at that point - trading money and the earth's resources for convenience must stop. We have to draw the line somewhere! People are welcome to mortgage their financial futures for playstations, heated car seats and this laundry folder, but with a few billion of us around now, they are not welcome to create demand for more and more stuff to satisfy humans' inbuilt desire for convenience.

After all, it's to be our great grandchildren's planet, too.

Yes, it might be available, and it might even be cheap. However, it will almost certainly be polluting, and it will certainly fill your house with yet more 'stuff'. Boo to both of those.

Stealing skills

It will also erode your ability to look after yourself. Packaged food means you don't need to be able to cook, a heatpump means you never learn to chop wood and light a fire, a laundry folder means that the deftness required to fold laundry fast need never develop, or if it has it will fade away.

Stealing movement

Automated blinds? Ah, no need to use those thighs and buttock muscles to raise yourself from your comfortable armchair. No need to use arm muscles and fine motor to control to pull a chain. You, too, can be relieved of this burden. 

Wireless technology for easy installation
Automated blinds. Sedentary, couch-shaped people can
 enhance their current shape by purchasing these from Luxaflex.

Just remember, your body reflects and adapts to what you do with it. Move it!

The solution

The solution, of course, is to actively be satisfied with what you have, even if it means doing a bit of work, and honing skills that couch potatoes don't have. It means acknowledging that people who lived before these things were invented were every bit as happy as we are, if not happier. Because 'stuff'' never makes us happy.

Gratitude is a big help here. When I focus on being grateful for an oven that heats up at the touch of a button, sparing me the woodchopping and firelighting that cooks had to do for thousands of years, I am grateful!

When we take modern conveniences for granted, and let our mind rest on what could be easier and faster, our thoughts turn to what we haven't got, rather than what we have. A gap is created that we crave to fill. It's a normal human desire, but it's a route to the equally normal human feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Advertising, of course, steers our minds in the dissatisfied direction, as does every television programme that shows people in flash houses and cars. They subtly reveal to us a gap between what we have got, and what 'other people' have. The result is dissatisfaction - unless we actively choose the opposite.

Self control

It all comes down to the marshmallows, really. As I was reminded recently by the first part of a documentary on the Dunedin study, so much of success in life comes down to self-control. Preschoolers' success at not eating the single marshmallow on their plate in order to wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows predicts a large number of facets of their future, from graduating from university to having a successful marriage.

Not buying stuff that is expensive and polluting, but just might save us some effort, is much like refusing to eat that delicious, tempting first marshmallow. Of course we all want to gobble it immediately*! The secret is to look away from it, which is what the successful preschoolers did, and remind ourselves of why we are saying no.

The delayed gratification of two marshmallows in 15 minutes is equivalent to the healthier body and planet, the more satisfied and therefore happier mind, and the more secure financial future that not buying brings about.

From a purely financial point of view, the US$800 or so that the laundry folder costs will turn into $1200 or so in 15 years at a 3% interest rate. That's not a lot, but if you apply the self control consistently, it would be quite achievable to avoid spending $5000 on convenience products in a year. That would turn into nearly $8000 in your bank account 15 years later. (Low interest rates are pretty hard on savers, that's for sure. In times of more normal interest rates the increase would be much greater.)

The convenience pyramid

If convenience items were arranged like a food pyramid, I'd put weatherproof housing, running water, pre-woven cloth, and needles and thread at the bottom. At the top would be the clothes folder and automated blinds, and the contents of some children's lunchboxes.

But we get to behead the pyramid above the washing machine and dishwasher, right?

*The funniest bit in the documentary was the little girl bursting into tears as she lost control and ate the first marshmallow!

7 July 2016

A nourishing winter garden soup

I've got a bit of a 'not buying' theme happening at the moment, but there are certain things it's very difficult to avoid buying, like food.

A productive garden means buying less food. It saves money, but requires you to spend time on it. Some things, though, take almost no time or effort, and butternuts are in that category.

Our frosted winter garden a few days ago.

Almost-free butternuts

One seed + a fertile patch of soil + a little of water = 10 or so butternuts.

Note that these butternuts will not, like commercial crops, be grown in depleted soils and have artificial chemicals added. Nope, they will be organic and bursting with the goodness of what the plant has extracted from your soil.

How to grow butternuts

In early September, poke seeds into a bit of compost in a pot with drainage holes. Keep it moist but not soaking wet. These are big, tough seeds that germinate very reliably (as in, like weeds), especially if kept reasonably warm.

About October, transfer the baby plants (or even just the finest-looking one) into a fertile spot, preferably next to a compost bin or pile, or where one has been so the soil is very rich. The growth of your plant depends entirely on this richness. If the spot isn't perfect, you will still get fruit, but they probably won't be numerous or have dark orange flesh.

Ideally, also plant it next to something it can climb on, like a fence. This means it will take up little ground space. It probably won't climb the fence by itself, so when you see a long branch spread out across the ground, take it up the fence and tie it there with something like old pantyhose or a T shirt cut into strips.

These things grow vigorously, so if you want to grow them exclusively over the fence you need to be vigilant about tying them up before the branches get away from you.

Water it when you think of it. An existing compost bin will provide it with a lot of the moisture it needs.

It's wonderful to see the flowers, then fruit, appear and develop.

In autumn, when the plant is starting to die off, cut off the fruit, leaving a good thumb-length of stem. Wipe the butternuts clean, dry them off and sit them in the autumn sun in a dry sunny spot for a week or two. This toughens the skins so the butternuts won't rot over winter before you can eat them.

Store them somewhere cool and dry. The danger here is them rotting where they sit on the ground, which I've found is more likely if the ground is concrete. Sit them on some wood or old sacks, perhaps.

The remainder of our haul in storage.

Turning them into nourishing deliciousness

The only way I truly love pumpkin, or butternuts, is in soup, although I'll happily tolerate them as part of a roast dinner with lashings of gravy.

I put much of my good health over winter down to my butternut soups. If I eat them regularly I need to take a lot less of this stuff. Although it's called Zinc Fix, it's got plenty of betacarotene in it (which the body turns to vitamin A as needed), and other zinc supplements don't have its miraculous effect, so possibly the betacarotene is doing some of the good work. Without it (and the soup, which is obviously also rich in betacarotene) my sinuses would be infected for much of winter, which is very debilitating.

The soup

This isn't my recipe, so I won't claim it. It's Nicky's tomato soup from the wonderful Nelson-based Homegrown Kitchen. I strongly recommend it, with the following changes:

- roast the root vegetables first (even the onion if you can) in oil, for more depth of flavour. You can include parsnip, too, and rather more butternut than the recipe calls for. Naturally where it says pumpkin or squash, I use butternut. I don't peel it first - the very thin but sneakily fibrous skin will feed your gut microbes.
- just use plain white vinegar if you don't have apple cider vinegar
- add a splash of milk rather than cream if you don't have cream, or omit altogether
- last time I made it I used lamb stock rather than chicken stock, made by boiling up bones from roast lamb, and included a few fragments of roast lamb meat. It made superlative soup.

It's wonderful with buttered fresh bread, or toast.

Yum. Freeze some in containers for future cold winter days if you can.

Hope you love it as much as I do, and may your winter be a healthy one.

28 June 2016

Not buying and loving it

Maybe you, like me, have noticed a new trend of minimalism. As in, "I have four shirts and three pairs of pants and own a total 100 things and this has made me productive and calm". Some of them are even making money out of it.

I will never be that minimalist.

But I think I can move towards it. What I love about the concept is (a) not buying stuff, and (b) things looking tidier and cleaning becoming easier (and we could do with a bit more cleanliness and tidiness around here).

A surface that's been decluttered (kind of)

Not buying

There is also talk of the world having reached peak 'stuff'. However, looking at the tonnes of attractive and enticing crap available from shops (I am especially looking at you, $2 shops, The Warehouse, Farmers and Briscoes, but there are more), I am doubtful. When I drive past the queues of cars trying to get into crowded Briscoes/Rebel Sports carparks on sale days, I become highly skeptical. I'd be delighted if it was true. So would the waterways in China.

But here in our house in our corner of Hamilton, we have definitely reached peak 'stuff'. I am no longer even going into op shops without a shopping list. At the moment the list comprises a roasting dish (in which to put scraps for our chickens), a front door mat, a dartboard and attractive long sleeved cotton or linen collared shirts to keep the sun off my poor pale, freckly skin in summer. Without a list it is just too easy to accumulate more stuff, especially when it's cheap. I have no doubt that the fairy godmothers of the op shops will deliver. After all, the minimalists and the over-consumers are sending their stuff there these days.

This book case is next in line for some minimalising.
The Red Cross bookfair will benefit.


Speaking of cheap, I am feeling exceedingly so at the moment, which is definitely contributing to the not-buying kick I'm on. Not so much cheap, but frugal, spurred on by the marvelous Frugalwoods blog. This youngish couple who live in Vermont, USA, are so frugal that I'd have to take food supplements with me if I went to visit (by which I mean actual food, not vitamins or something). Yes, they are lean, but fit, healthy and super smart, and headed for retirement at the ripe old age of 33.

They've just moved house, and I'm not sure about their heating plans for their coming winter, but for the previous ones in snowy Massachusetts they've heated their house to just 14 degrees C overnight and 16 degrees during the day in order to control heating costs. I must point out that I write this, admiringly, while basking in about 25 degree heat from our wonderful woodburner. I'm a weakling in the cold and I know it. However, it puts me in a better frame of mind about our frigid master bedroom, which the woodburner's heat can't reach, and is probably quite often only 14 degrees C. Thankfully global warming has meant it's so far been entirely bearable this year (I don't mean that: global warming sucks).

Our cat shares my love of winter warmth.

As Mrs Frugalwood points out, we can pretend we're like the Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie. Of course, we are far better off: midwest America in midwinter in an unheated attic bedroom would probably mean my Raynouds-diseased fingers would drop off.

Doing without

However I think we could all do with the dose of the Ingalls. Were they so much less happy than us with our fancy cheese (or any cheese at all), cashew nuts, gourmet potatoes, fish oil and cacao nibs? What we do know is that they were lean and strong, and that Laura Ingalls died in her 90s. (They also had no immunisations and some of them had terrible long term complications from illnesses that we no longer have to bear - thank you, modern medicine.)

I'm sure they, like most humans, would delight in being able to afford all the goodies in our shops. And yet they would have been disgusted at what it's done to our environment. We, however, have been like the frog heated slowly in water: it's hard to notice that it's getting hot. The writing I've been doing recently about New Zealand birds has highlighted to me how very much we've lost, much of it in the last 150 years. So I'm stepping back further than ever before from consumerism. And instead of it being hard, I feel better. An under-the-surface burden seems to have been lifted, and I like it.

So thanks all the same, but don't ask me to go shopping. Unless it's to an op shop with a good stainless steel roasting dish.

Loving our clean, junk-free beaches.

14 May 2016

Dummies' guide to growing root veg

When autumn comes, I always adore the colours on the street trees in our local neighbourhood. The leaves have mostly fallen now, but a couple of weeks ago they looked like this:

What a wealthy, leafy suburb we live in! I always feel a bit overwhelmed at the privilege of it at this time of year. (Although, when you look inside the houses - and yes I am an open-home snooper - they are pretty dated and worn out, in general.) 

Out the back of our house, the veneer of the genteel look disappears, and there is a riotous little Good Life going on! Chickens, vegetables and abundant fruit, all a bit messy but very productive.

Carrots and parsnips from seed tape

These days you'll always find carrots and parsnips growing. We never used to bother with them, because it seemed too hard to get them to sprout reliably where we wanted them. They seem to sprout well if you let a plant go to seed and drop where it will, but with the root veg I like to control where they grow. And I dislike thinning.

Rows of carrot seedlings.

Then I discovered the fail-proof seed tape! It's like a strip of tissue with seeds impregnated in it at just the right distance apart. The seeds all sprout, and they are generally the right distance apart, although I do thin the carrots lightly, as I'd rather have 30 good sized carrots than 50 small ones. The parsnips don't seem to need it.

How to do it

In poor soil, nothing's going to grow well. So firstly, I put some compost on the soil and mix it up a bit. Then I make a 1 cm or so deep trench with my finger. I lay out the seed tape in the trench, then cover it lightly with soil. Finally - and crucially - firm the soil down well over the tape. Those little seeds do not like to meet air pockets.

Then - also crucial - keep it moist, watering lightly every day if it's hot and dry. Once the seeds have started to sprout, they need moisture or they'll die.

Huge, but not at all woody.

Why bother?

I used to think that carrots were cheap enough that there was no point growing them. But the taste...eating a raw shop-bought carrot is a chore. A homegrown one is a pleasure - sweet, crisp and light. 

Parsnip? I used to detest the very word. I'd only had watery mashed ones, long ago in university halls of residence. Then one day somebody gave us some from their garden, and my sister in law roasted them (or did she make parsnip chips?). I have loved them ever since, especially as part of a roast dinner, with gravy.

The perfect roast

Our potatoes failed utterly this year due to trying a new and unsuccessful space-saving method, so when roast time comes around, instead of spuds I have our home grown starchy veg. These are parsnips and some butternuts I grew next to a compost bin and over a fence. Our fussy children still have potatoes though (bought ones). 

One seedling (grown from a saved seed) grew about 12
butternuts on the goodness of a fine compost bin.

Winter or summer?

I planted the current lot of parsnips in mid summer, and they are ready now, but will sit happily in the ground all winter waiting to be dug up when needed. Indeed, they will become even sweeter when (or if) we get a frost. If I leave them until spring, they'll go to seed. They will still look all right when I dig them up, but be inedibly woody. I'll plant some more parsnip seed tape in spring, and they should be ready about mid summer. 

Carrots grow faster than parsnips, but both grow very slowly or pause completely in winter. Our current lot (planted in about February or March) will have to do us over winter, and I'll start planting more in September. Or if this crazy warm weather lasts, I might try sowing more in winter. Because the season is madly warm. Look what I got out of our garden last week, in the last month of autumn!

A late autumn harvest. Beans and tomatoes in May: what the heck?

We live in Hamilton, New Zealand: I have no idea how these things work where it's hotter or colder. 

Also, we have had a lot of grapes. So, so many grapes. Sadly they are now mostly feeding hundreds of wasps.

Green grapes "Niagra"

Ah, vegetable gardening. Still loving it, after all these years (23 years, minus 4 when I was overseas, from student to worker to mother).
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...