Monday, 27 December 2010

Festive fare ~ fruit mince pies, raspberries, pancakes and decorations

In the southern hemisphere the season for raspberries and other delicious berry fruit coincides with Christmas.  Rachel gave us a very welcome gift of a kilo of these just before Christmas and we ate them all in a few short days - which is just as well as once picked their storage life is brief.  But... no chance of making raspberry jam this year!  Thank you Rachel, for this wonderful treat!
A favourite accompaniment to this delectable fresh fruit is a fruit mince pie:

This recipe is a winner. 
  • Dried figs, diced - 3 cups finely diced. (I did weigh what this amounted to and have now lost the piece of paper.  I'll add it in if I find it!)
  • Sultanas, roughly chopped - 1 cup
  • Crystallised ginger, finely chopped - ¼ cup
  • Dark chocolate, roughly chopped - 150 grams.  I used Whittakers Dark Ghana (72 % cocoa!)
  • Apple - 1 - peeled and grated
  • Brown sugar - 3/4 cup
  • Brandy - 1 cup
  • Mix all ingredients together in a bowl.
  • Cover and leave in a cool place for two days, stirring occasionally.
  • The recipe goes on to suggest that the mixture is then sealed into a jar for at least a month before using - completely unrealistic in this house, where it sat in the fridge for a week at the most before being made into pies. 
My apologies to its creator, that the source of this splendid recipe is now lost.
     I can tell you that the pastry recipe below is from Alison Holst's excellent book "Recipes to remember".  Memorable indeed!

Icing sugar pastry:
Full quantity - this makes enough for twelve smallish pies with lids.
  • Butter - 125 grams butter
  • Icing sugar - ¾ cup
  • Flour, plain - 1 cup
  • Cornflour - ½ cup
  • Water to mix.  Start with a quarter of a cup.  If more is needed add in small, careful amounts.
Method - notes:
When making the pastry a very little warmth makes it very melty.  Start with all ingredients as cool as possible and handle sparingly when rolling out and cutting shapes.
Bake the mince pies at 170 to 180 degrees Celsius for 20 to 30 minutes until the edges start to colour.

Half quantity for pastry to make six mince pies with lids:
Correction note: 17th September 2012.  I've just noticed that I had written the measurements below incorrectly, for which I offer apologies.  I've fixed them up now.  If you notice mistakes I'd be pleased to hear of them.
  • Butter - 60 grams
  • Icing sugar - 1/3 cup
  • Flour - ½ cup flour
  • Cornflour - 1/4 cup cornflour
  • water to mix

Rewi has a special fondness for pancakes and insisted on having these for supper on Christmas Eve - with raspberries of course!  I followed his recipe to make them:

1 cup of flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 and 1/4 cups of milk
1 tsp oil
1 egg - separated
    Sift flour and baking powder into a largish bowl.  Separate the egg white from the yolk.  Beat these separately, first the white and then the yolk.  To the beaten egg yolk add the oil and milk, and then combine with the flour.  Lastly add the stiffly beaten egg white.  To make medium sized pancakes I use a soup ladle to dip the mixture into the heated and oiled pan.  A thoroughly heated heavy cast-iron pan works well on a medium heat.  I turn my pancakes by using a spatula.  Cook till golden brown on each side.

    Festive food is especially cheering when served with special tableware in a decorative setting.  In New Zealand decorations which have their origins in the northern hemisphere continue to be popular, hence the Christmas tree pictured above which makes its annual appearance in our sitting room.  I must confess that it's made of plastic and wire which I would normally avoid, but since I found it for sale second hand for three dollars at the local Salvation Army shop I permitted myself to buy it!  Decorated with fairy lights and golden balls it certainly brightens the place up, not that we could be said to need it at the height of summer, but it certainly is festive.

    With Christmas coinciding with the summer rather than winter solstice we don't have the same need for added colour as our northern relations for whom the winter cheer of such festivities must be very welcome.

    In the Northern Hemisphere the red and green traditionally associated with Christmas and mid-winter are associated with holly.  Coming up the steps in Rachel's garden I came across this summery equivalent in her fuschia:

    This glorious bunch of roses from Penelope's garden provided festive delight on our kitchen table, thank you Penelope!  If it were the middle of winter and in the absence of flowers from the garden I might consider a Christmas-style wreathe.

    In fact, I think that celebrating the winter solstice in the dark and chilly depths of June an excellent idea. I think this every Christmas. It would make sense to put it in my brand new diary for next year right now and actually do something about it!  I could even get the tree out again for a winter showing... Nice food, good friends... But what about the berry fruit? Ah! I've thought of that already: I've made syrup for gooseberry as well as red currant fool which is safety stored away in sealed preserving jars and can be got out for the occasion, spoonfuls of summery pleasure!

    Come to think of it, I'd love to see our northern hemisphere counterparts celebrating the summer solstice in red Santa hats and lining up at Santa parades featuring the big man and his reindeer, sleighs covered with fake snow, and so on.  I suppose the fact that many of the locals  here do just this for our Christmas shows we have a well developed sense of the ridiculous, or something very like it!

    Wednesday, 8 December 2010

    Gooseberries and currants ~ all my recipes are here

    Now is the season for gooseberries and currants.  It passes swiftly so if you enjoy these luscious fruits seize the moment. 

    Although I wrote up these recipes last year, they are each in separate articles and I decided they would be easier to refer to in the one place.  For those wishing to go back to those earlier fuller articles you can find the links to them at the foot of this one.  Please note that all details have been updated to reflect my current methods and ratios.

    The only preparation gooseberries require is topping and tailing and a thorough washing - in that order.
         As with any cooking, and especially with the preparation of fruit for preserves, working surfaces and all cooking gear should be very clean.  Although my jars are always put away clean, dry and with their lids on I always wash them carefully again with detergent in very hot water before I use them.
         I would not attempt to make jam or preserves without flock-lined rubber gloves as the sugary syrup is very hot indeed; as I ladle fruit and syrup into the jars while holding them over the pot this is essential.  It could be done so that I didn't have to hold the jars but I find it much the easiest and tidiest method.

    More detailed instructions for doing preserves can be found in my two earlier articles about re-using pop-top jars and preserves.
         Once you've done your preparation as above preserves are fairly quick to make.  You do need to be on the ball though, so I suggest you do them when you're feeling fresh.

    Ratios I use are: 1 kilo of fruit / one third of a kilo of sugar / three cups of water.
    This translates into three parts of fruit to one part of sugar.  Once the fruit has been added to the syrup, the liquid and the fruit in the pot should be at the same level.
         I strongly suggest you cook no more than a kilo at a time as the fruit cooks very quickly and even while you're filling your jars with fruit, what's left in the pot continues to cook rapidly and is likely to turn mushy.  The preserves look best and have the best texture when most of the contents of each jar is of relatively whole fruit.  

    • Heat the water to boiling point, add the sugar and bring it to the boil once more.   
    • Before you add the fruit to the pot make sure you have your jars and lids hot and ready to receive the cooked fruit as it cooks rapidly and once it is time to decant it you won't have a moment to spare.   
    • Add the fruit and move it around gently to ensure it circulates in the pot so that it cooks evenly. 
    • If the fruit you've started off with is green you'll see that it turns slightly yellowy as it softens.  The liquid will increase to some degree.
    • Once the still simmering fruit is adequately cooked, ladle the fruit into jars ensuring that about three quarters of each jar is filled with fruit.  If there is too much syrup in the jar depress the fruit with a spoon to allow excess liquid to run out.  Fill each jar to the brim, quickly check that the rim of your jar is free of any seeds or skin, then get that lid firmly on and you're done! All that's left to be done is to wash your jars and label them.
    • You'll probably have extra syrup left over, which is yummy.
    Yield: I got seven medium sized jars from 2 kilos. 

    Here again more detailed instructions about the making of jam can be found in my two earlier articles about re-using pop-top jars and making jam.
         There is no escaping the fact that making jam is time consuming.  However, once you've spent a few hours getting a batch into jars you'll have a lovely lot which will last you a good long time!
         The batch I've just made worked out wonderfully well and is a big improvement on last years.  This is largely due to improved ratios and a better method.

    Ratios I now use are:
    1 kilo of fruit / 830 grams of sugar / half a cup of water.
    This translates into six parts of fruit to five parts of sugar.
    My big stock pot takes four kilos of fruit for jam making purposes so that's the quantity I cooked. 

    The main difference between the methods for jam and preserves is the amount of sugar used, the very small amount of water required and the length of time it takes for the jam to cook to setting point: by this time it's a complete mush and meant to be.
    • Heat the water in the pan - you'll need enough to cover the bottom of it. 
    • Add a small amount of fruit and stir so that it doesn't catch.  It will release it's juice fairly rapidly.  
    • Continue adding moderate amounts of fruit until it's all in and then bring it to a gentle simmer.  
    • Gradually add the sugar while continuing to stir.  
    • After simmering for a bit the mixture will start to foam and can easily boil over.  The addition of a couple of knobs of butter will settle it down again.  Your potful of fruit will be turning a dark pinkish colour.  
    • Turn up the heat - enough to keep it at a brisk, rolling boil.  It needs to cook at this rate for some time before it is ready to set properly.
    • You may find that some pieces of fruit remain yellow and relatively whole.  I pick mine out and enjoy this as a separate jam or syrup.  
    • All you need to do now is to continue to stir your jam a little and to make sure all your jars and lids are on the ready, nicely hot and so on.  
    • When is the jam sufficiently cooked to set properly?  I'm far from being an expert on this subject.  The most common test is to spoon a little onto a cold plate and let it stand for a few minutes and then to draw a fingertip or a spoon or something across it.  If it has developed a 'skin' which wrinkles as you make a line across it it's ready.  I've never found this method satisfactory.  I put a little on a plate and then see if it holds a finger line after I've made a line through it, as well as watching the pot to see that fruit at a good rolling boil starts to hiss, and to look quite treacly - even though when you ladle it up and pour it back into the pot it seems impossibly liquid!  You'll find your own method that suits you best.    
    Yield: from four kilos of fruit I got 16 smallish jars of jam - good value per kilo!  

    This is a delicious accompaniment to fruit loaf or anything of that sort.

    Ratios I use are:
    Same ratio of fruit to sugar as for preserves, and the same ratio of water to fruit as for jam.
    This translates into: 1 kilo of fruit to a third of a kilo of sugar and half a cup of water
    ie: three parts of fruit to one part of sugar and just enough water to cover the bottom of the pot.
    Last year I used more sugar - in a two to one ratio.  Fruit varies in tartness and tastes also vary so check what suits you.

    • heat water in pot - just enough to cover the bottom of the pot
    • Add fruit gradually, and cook it until it goes completely mushy
    • Push it through a sieve to remove the skins and pips
    • Put back on the heat and add sugar.
    • If wanting to preserve it in jars follow the method as for preserves
    • If wanting to eat forthwith, chill it and then either
      • serve in small portions in festive little glasses topped with whipped cream. 
      • fold a little of the whipped cream through the fool before serving in these same glasses.  Either way it's delicious!

    This is rather like a sorbet and a little goes a long way!  The  light mint flavour makes it wonderfully refreshing.
    • Cook as for preserves using the same method except with an added handful of mint which is cooked with the fruit.  If you already have some preserves, simply reheat a jarful and simmer gently for five or ten minutes with some generous sprigs of mint.
    • Remove the mint once the fruit is cooked
    • Push the remaining fruit through a sieve.  
    • Pour over a dish to a shallow depth and freeze.  
    • Serve by scratching it up with a fork.    

    All of my previously published gooseberry recipes, and the one for red currant fool, can be found by following these links: gooseberry jam, gooseberry preserves, red currant and gooseberry fool, and 'gooseberry-licious.

    See also my later articles:

    More of my articles about jam and preserves as well as other food articles can be found listed together via the link below:

    Tuesday, 30 November 2010

    Creating the garden you love ~ and a look at some of mine

    During the month I've written a series of articles about this which does have a sequence of sorts.  To make reading through them easier I've reversed the date order, meaning that they can now be read from the top down.  If you click on the month of November 2010 on the archive list at the right, it will display the first part of the group.  If you want to read the remaining ones click on the link at the bottom of the page which says 'Older posts'

    Happy gardening, or dreams about gardening ~
    whichever you prefer!

    Lilac poppies

    Monday, 29 November 2010

    Gardens and gardening ~ as a source of pleasure

    Gardening is one of my greatest sources of well-being and enjoyment, so it's surprising that I've  previously written so little about it.  I'm very interested in gardens as an environment, a landscape, if you like, so that's my main focus and what I want to talk about.  I'm not particularly technical about how I do gardening, or knowledgeable about methods as these are of much lesser importance to me.  In any case there are lots of other sources of that sort of information.  The thinking about gardening is perhaps less commonly talked about, and that's what I'm good at and keen to share.  

    As I'm instinctively reflective in character, the question of 'why' is a common starting point in any undertaking, so I start here with the question of 'why have a garden?'  Why indeed - they can be a lot of work and commonly involve getting sweaty and dirty!  Oh but the joy of it!  Let's start at the beginning:

    For a garden to be a source of pleasure it's important to give thought to what we want from it: do we want it to look out on it, or to spend time actually in it?  Do we want to grow vegetables or flowers, shrubs or trees, or a combination of all these?  If so what size?  Do we like a cottage garden look, or a minimalist one?  And perhaps most crucially, do we want to be able to do the gardening work ourselves or would we rather someone else did it?

    I want (and get) a lot of things.  Reduced to essentials this is what I'm after:
    I want a garden to provide pleasure though all the senses: contrast of leaf colours, shapes and textures; flowers, bees and butterflies; rustling of leaves, birdsong, and rippling of water; smells of the earth and leaf litter; and most important of all a sense of the natural goodness and harmony of the earth we live on.

    All this provides refreshment for the spirit – definitely worth striving for!  The best gardens are a pleasure to gaze at, walk through or rest in, and maintaining them is relatively easy and comfortable. 

    Does this sound like something you would like, or describe what you already have?  The wonderful thing about gardening is that it needn't be costly or elaborate to be rewarding and lovely.  

    In my next gardening article I'll write about tools.

    Sunday, 28 November 2010

    Gardening ~ tips about tools

    There are many gardening tools available, some of which I've found more useful than others.  The ones I find indispensable are: a spade, a pair of secateurs, gardening gloves, and a long, fairly blunt knife.

    Of these, the knife and the gardening gloves are my special allies.
    I don't know what I'd do without this knife.  I'm very careful with it as it's potentially dangerous, so when I put it down I always push it into the ground, and when I come inside it comes in with me and is put away in a cupboard out of sight!  The shape of the tip makes it quite as sharp as need be.  Its fairly blunt blade makes it less likely to damage roots when I'm scratching around or digging with it.  I see other gardeners working with little hand forks and such-like and feel sorry for them.  They need a knife like mine!

    A good quality pair of secateurs is a must:
    For me these are definitely worth the higher price tag.  A good pair should last for many years.  This pair is German, produced by Wolfgarten.  They're made in different sizes to suit the user's hand, and even come in left and right hand versions.  I couldn't work out which was which, but found this pair suited my grip! 

    A decent spade is also essential.
    When buying one make sure it feels good to you, and ask the sales person for advice if at all unsure.  You can expect to have it sharpened before it's used as properly sharpened edges are considered unsafe in shops.  Thereafter mind your toes!  I always wear closed shoes or boots when gardening.
    Note: I have since written an article about spades entitled A new spade ~ shopping carefully to get the best

    Other tools such as rakes, forks, edge cutters and a wheelbarrow are valuable but less essential.

    Thinking of buying a lawn mower?
    You may be interested to read my article about hand mowers.

    I have one other garden tool which is a special treasure - my grubber!
    I was most fortunate to be gifted this by an elderly friend.  I'm very careful with  it as it's heavy and when in use is swung with force.  One lifts it upward with both hands, even above the head, and the sheer weight of it then sends it crashing to earth where it works wonders getting into heavy ground.  Look at that beautiful handle:

    And look at the size of it!  Just so that we're clear about the scale, my feet are of average size to match my average height.  If you consider buying one don't be fobbed off with a smaller, light-weight model as it's likely to be close to useless.  And if anyone is good enough to give you one, I suggest you accept it with alacrity!

    One last thing I have to have is a good hose:
    Mine has modern click-on links and an adjustable spray nozzle which makes it easy and effective to use.
         Hoses have a second use for landscaping projects which I find marvellous: laid on the ground they can be used to describe nice, even, graceful curves which greatly simplifies the exacting work of figuring out and cutting a new edge to any garden. 

    In my next gardening article I'll look at getting started, and in particular the challenge of gardening in rental situations which may or may not be short term, which has been my situation in recent years.

    Friday, 26 November 2010

    Gardening ~ possibilities & pitfalls, costs & rentals

    Gardens differ so much - in setting, size and scope...

    The garden I grew up with was a large, rambling, hillside garden tumbled with friendly rocks and cloaked with trees and shrubs.  It was a place to escape into, to take refuge in, which has provided an endless source of inspiration, but was also a lot of work.  Too much of it.

    My loving regard for that garden and awareness of its high maintenance needs shaped the way I think about gardens in general.  Fundamentally, gardening has got to be a pleasure.  If it isn't it becomes a burden, however beautiful it may be. So when I'm thinking about developing a garden I give consideration to making it as easy as possible to look after - now and in the years to come.

    A glimpse of my childhood garden

    Other gardens I've been closely involved with over the years:
    Three have been especially significant.  They include a small suburban garden in which I had considerable scope for planting and a reasonable amount of money with which to do it; a stream-side rental property of which I adopted the stream banks which were the responsibility of the local council and which I made into a wilderness garden; and the rental property where we live at present which had no plantings whatsoever when we came to live here, other than an unsatisfactory lawn and some bits of hedge.

    The small suburban garden

    Each of these gardens has presented a very different set of possibilities and constraints, just as each has been the source of much pleasure.  In the process of developing each of them I've learnt a great deal about compromise and to be more discerning about weeds and over-growth. 

    Gardening needn't be costly.  
    Rather to my surprise I have to acknowledge that the less money I've had to spend, the more pleasure has resulted.
         Gardeners tend to be friendly and to enjoy sharing cuttings, seeds and surplus plants.  Masses of plants get discarded all the time.  I abhor waste and love plants, and have found that expressions of polite interest have resulted in being offered more plants than I have places to plant them!  When I'm given something I make an effort to give something in return, whether it's afternoon tea, some baking, or a hand in someone else's garden, it's all part of the reciprocal generosity that keeps us all thriving.
         Nature epitomises this generosity in its abundant growth and seed dispersal.  Many of the plants in my present garden originated elsewhere and have been carted about in pots and carefully planted.  I always have heaps.  However much I vow I'm not going to have anything in pots any more I inevitably find I fill them up again with something else which needs a home or which needs to be put somewhere else, sometime, some day.  I have enough for myself, and plenty to share.  A box in the garage is packed with envelopes of seeds of one kind and another, most of which I've plucked from seed heads in various gardens over the years. 
        Occasionally I actually buy things but mostly have no need to. 

    What do you like?
    In thinking about your own garden, I suggest you think about what you best like, and then start with what you have.  Having said that, what do you want to look at?  What are your favourite flowers, shrubs and trees?  Are they suitable for where you live?  If you start with the bits that you know and feel sure about you'll very likely find that other things fall into place over time.

    Gardening, like anything in nature, takes time:
    For me the pleasure is often as much in the creation as in sitting back and admiring it, so a garden in progress can be very satisfying. It gives a sense of belonging, and delight in the land like nothing else.  Allowing a garden design to unfold and evolve over time provides a lot of scope for experimentation and adaptation, for some plants to prove their suitability and for others to fade away or be removed.  If you follow this approach you'll get a richness of planting and layout which is unique to you with which you have a very personal connection. 

    The challenge of gardening in a rental situation: 
    This is a big topic, which I'll touch on briefly here - to give encouragement rather than discuss in depth.  I've found it immensely worthwhile as well as frustrating.  I've had to compromise considerably in comparison with what I'd do with properties if I owned them, and bear in mind that I may not be there long, as well as the chance that when I leave no one else will bother.  However, I've still found it worthwhile: I get to enjoy it while I live there, and if it's pleasant and easy to maintain it may inspire others to continue on with it in their own way after I've gone.
         Taking this into account I use plants that grow easily, are easy to trim and remove if wished, and  am clear that some personal plants go with me.  I've got irises in the garden here that originated in my childhood home, and a rose which has travelled with me from place to place over the last twelve years, and various smaller plants for which I have a fondness.  By extraordinary good fortune I've managed to propagate the rose, and the irises have now filled up an entire border, so whatever I take with me, there will still be plenty left.  And while they've been in the ground they've done well, given me much pleasure and made the place special to me.  They mark clearly the place where I belong - for the present.

    Permanent only ever means 'for the foreseeable future', which may be long or short.  
    We never know what the future holds or when we may need to uproot ourselves and go elsewhere.  To put off starting a garden because we are unsure is to put off life.  Enjoy it, do it, and spread the love!  Ripples spreading out...

    My wilderness garden

    Thursday, 25 November 2010

    Gardening ~ maintenance, weed control & organics

    Ease of maintenance is vital.  
    For gardening to be enjoyable it needs to be well within our physical capabilities and the time we want to spend on it.  Some work can be expected to be heavy-going at times, but most should be straightforward and reasonably light.  The way a garden is set out, our choice of plants, the use of mulch, and the way we choose to control weeds are all part of this.

    General layout considerations:
    When I'm in the garden I want to be able to move about freely, without having to avoid branches or worry about where to place my feet.  Even more, I want to be able to get at the garden to do things in it without struggle.  To do so, it's helpful for borders to be of a width that's easy to reach into, or to have stepping stones in them.  I don't in the least mind bending over, but for some people this is difficult, in which case raised beds are a good idea.

    Choose plants suited to local conditions:
    These will require minimal work and care.  If unsure, look at what thrives in your neighbours gardens or ask at your local garden supplies shop.  Local websites such as those provided by your council or gardening clubs are likely to be a source of useful information.   
         In New Zealand our many local native plants have evolved to fit their location precisely so may be an excellent choice.  However, regional variations mean that not all natives do equally well in different parts of the country. I'll write a separate article with links to some lovely examples so you can admire them for yourselves.

    Ease of access for removal of garden rubbish:
    This requires access-ways of a suitable width and gradient.  Steps that are too steep and gates that are too narrow are frustrating and waste valuable effort and energy.  Yes, I've been there!  Think about walking a wheelbarrow full of anything and possibly heavy, and you'll get the idea.  In a large garden think of trailer access or the width you'll need to drag a tarpaulin bearing a load of weeds and prunings. 

    You'll need room for your compost and other debris. 
    Even if you don't compost your kitchen scraps, you'll still need somewhere to put lawn clippings, fallen leaves and general weeds.  Of course you can pay someone to take all that sort of thing away, but wouldn't you rather have the benefit of it?  While some of the debris is likely to need to be disposed of as rubbish, most of it will rot down nicely and be able to go back into the garden again. 
         It seems nutty to pay for waste removal and then buy compost and fertilizer when with a little time and almost no effort a simple composting arrangement in the garden can enable Nature to do it all for you at zero cost! 
         Compost heaps require very little work.  At one place we lived we had a black plastic tower with removable gates near the base.  I never thought much about it, but after a time discovered that Nature was magically transforming our scraps and garden litter into rich black earth which I could scoop out from the base by the bucketful!  Over time there were many bucketfuls, rather in the manner of Mary Poppins extraordinary carpetbag!

    Mulch, mulch, mulch: 
    Adequate mulching keeps in moisture, introduces fibre to the soil, and reduces weeds dramatically.  Some people layer newspaper under mulch to increase the effect.
         It needn't be costly.  Close to where I now live a local fencing company sells trailer-loads of light wood chips for $15.  It's not ideal but it works.  When searching for a provider be sure to check that the wood or other products are chemical-free.
         In New Zealand, land of many sheep, sheep pellets are widely available and can work wonders.  These are made from the waste wool shorn from around the sheeps behinds so it's not fit to use in the ordinary way, but is wonderfully nutritious for the garden and the wool content conserves moisture in the ground.  Be sure not to confuse the garden product with the stock feed as I've found both listed with the same descriptor!
        Before applying mulch water the ground thoroughly as you want to keep moisture in rather than out.

    Other weed suppressants: 
    • Plant, plant, plant: the earth seeks to cover itself.  If you leave earth bare it will grow something.  Give it something to grow that you like, at least mildly, in the places in between your more valued plants.  For these cover plants it's sensible to choose those which can easily be removed once they are past their best or as your other plants fill out.  Marigolds and forget-me-nots are two plants I use for this purpose.  Both flower well for a time attracting bees and providing them with food.  Marigolds also attract ladybirds which are valuable as their diet  includes smaller insects such as aphids.   Both plants self-seed from year to year.   
    • I'm sure that weed matting has its place, but I don't choose it.  I should think that to be of use it would need to cover a reasonably substantial area.  In a narrow bed the weeds still grow underneath and then push out sideways and are harder to remove than if there was no weed matting in place!  If I were to use weed matting anywhere it would be underneath a paved area if it was large enough for it to be effective. 
    • Don't even speak to me about black plastic polythene which I find totally disgusting.  It kills life in the ground underneath it turning it to black glug and is difficult to dig out if unwanted - yuk!
    Let's not dramatise about the presence of a few weeds here and there!
    Letting the weeds grow just a little gives seedlings you might value a chance to show their faces and be recognised.  I've got loads of seedlings this way, and enjoy the mystery of seeing what's coming up.  By weeding too carefully too often you miss all that, just as you do if chemical sprays are used.  In any case I don't want my garden to look too controlled or like one in a magazine; I want it to look like my own.  Too smart and tidy is like a smart house one dare not comfortably live in.  Relax!

    Know your weeds, and for heavens sake don't plant them!
    Weeds are unwanted plants, particularly those which tend to take over space needed for the plants we do want.  In New Zealand's temperate climate plants which are valued in other parts of the world are not welcome here: Buddleia is a good example: this shrub is popular with butterfly enthusiasts, but there are other plants on which butterflies can do well.  Privet, blackberry, broom and oxalis are other examples which spring to mind.
    When we lived in Christchurch I made good use of a brochure produced by the local council - most of the plants which had made themselves at home on the stream banks which I had adopted were on it!
    Finding the on-line version proved strangely difficult, but here it is.  The average New Zealand gardener needs more of this sort of thing.  For me it was good to have a print version to hold in my hand which meant I could wander about with it.  There are plenty of websites that give more sophisticated information about weed control in the wild which is a huge topic and not what I am looking at here.
    Dock root
         Not all weeds should be composted: some, such as ivy, need to be burnt or to go into the rubbish.  Here again, your local council may be able to provide useful information.  Your local gardening club is likely to be a source of information.
         Removing invasive or difficult weeds, such as dock, when they are young, or at least plucking off seed heads before these disperse are good preventative measures.
         At the left you can see how extensive the dock root becomes if left to its own devices!  From memory it was at least ten inches long.  It had grown in the middle of a clump of daisies which I dug out in order to remove it.  Once this has been accomplished I was able to gift the daisies to my neighbours - a happy result for everyone.

    Consider an organic approach to weed and pest control: 
    Many people control weeds by using poisonous chemical sprays.  I do not.  There are other choices.  For example, the Christchurch City Council now does all its kerbside weed control not with chemical sprays but with steam!

    For me this is about fostering life rather than death, of respecting the right to life of the local birds and creatures who give so much and take so little.  Nature left to its own devices is very economical and has its own checks and balances.  The problem is that the existence of humans means that nature is not left to its own devices; we have introduced all manner of plant forms and situations in which pests are out of balance with what we need and want.  Organic methods seek to minimise toxic interference in our environment. 

    The approach with organic treatments emphasises deterring pests rather than killing them.   It can be helpful to remember too, that insect pests such as aphids and flies can be an important food source for  beneficial insects such as ladybirds, as well as spiders and birds.  They all work together, and if you eradicate one sort it's going to affect them all.  There's a balance.  We have to be prepared to share a portion of our garden bounty with other creatures.  That, I think, is fair.

    Here are some useful web links for organic products and methods: 
    These are all New Zealand sites.  For those readers living elsewhere, some of information provided on them is sure to be applicable.  Topics covered include both weed as well as pest control.  While this article is more focused on weeds the two topics are closely linked.  I hope what's provided here encourages readers to consider an organic approach.
    Toxins in our environment:
    I'm well aware that using 'weed wands' can minimise bending and hand-weeding and save time but the use of poisons is worrying.  Quite frankly, I don't want to have to think about it.  Manufacturers of conventional pesticides and herbicides can say what they will about the safety of their products but the long term effects are unlikely to be known for many years to come.  DDT, once widely used throughout the world including New Zealand, is now known to be residual in our food chains long after its use has been stopped, as are other contaminants. 
         Given that there are other choices why are chemical treatments still so widely used?  I expect there's a great deal of money being made from their manufacture and sale.
    The correlation between pesticides and other environmental contaminants and human disease and medical dysfunction is not speculative - it's real.
    For those wishing to read more about it I list these articles.  The last one is particularly readable and wide-ranging:
    On a happier note here are the links to:
    • my article about an organics farm near Gisborne which featured on television last year.  This is one of my most widely read articles.  Organic farming in New Zealand is gaining wider publicity these days thanks to the television show Country Calender.  The link takes you to their collection of eleven episodes featuring organic farms.
    • my article about the documentary "The real dirt on Farmer John".  John Peterson grew up in a farming family in the American mid-west, and after a series of crises both personal and agricultural, chose to farm organically.  The crises didn't stop there.  This is a story of endurance and ultimate triumph told with refreshing candour. 

    Wednesday, 24 November 2010

    Gardening ~ New Zealand natives on show

    I've been writing a series of articles about garden design, and want to pause here to share with you the delights of some of our native plants.

    Look at this glorious kowhai:

    It's one of my favourite trees. Every part of it is beautiful, and the birds love it.

    Kowhai tree trunk

    For a long time New Zealanders have been somewhat blasé about having native plants and trees in their gardens as on the whole they are less showy than many popular exotics but attitudes are changing.

    Websites listed here provide a range of images and information:
    And one more look at the kowhai tree, this time at its foot:
    Look at this tiny nest:

    It is composed almost entirely of horse hair and thistledown.  Fancy raising your family in that!  My guess is that it belonged to waxeyes like the little one on the left:

      Tuesday, 23 November 2010

      Gardening ~ paths, frontages & fences

      Even before planting is begun a garden should look good and function well.  I have found this to be true both with gardens I've extensively altered as well as those I've started up from next to nothing.  The principle of form being based on function is sound.  Certainly it's helpful in deciding what we want, and a good principle to check while working on any project.

      These are a good place to start.  If you do nothing else in your garden get the paths working properly.
           Paths to and from entranceways are of particular importance.  They should be wide enough to walk on comfortably without the need to consider where to place your feet and should be free of obstacles such as uneven paving stones and bushy over-growth.  Most of us have legs the same length, so paths should be level across their width.
           Steps need to be stable and of a gradient and depth that is comfortable and safe.

      If your paths already exist cleaning or weeding them will smarten the place up immediately.  Are pathways wide enough?  Trim growth back from their edges.  If they go through a garden define the edges by digging the earth back a little from them.  If set into lawn, make sure they are even with it.  Build up the lawn if need be. 
           The entrance pathway pictured to the left was awkward to say the least, with an odd turn in at the gateway which made it was too narrow for a pushchair to be easily manoeuvred through it, and a drop of an inch or so from the edge of the concrete to the lawn on its other side made it awkward in other ways.  The solution was found in some concrete blocks lying idle elsewhere and some barrow-loads of earth.  It took a while to place the blocks evenly but was a good result. 
           If paths have yet to be formed decide where you want them.  The way I decide this sort of thing is to walk backwards and forwards and observe where my feet go, then I lay the the hose along one side of it and maybe put in some pegs.  Food skewers are good for this sort of thing.  Then I try it out some more.  Does it feel right and does it look right?  Bear in mind anything else you are likely to want to do with the area.  When your path is well placed it's likely to look satisfying from every angle.
           Whatever you use to construct your paths, whether it's flattened earth, paving stones, or slabs of rock, make sure  the resulting surface is nice and firm and as even as possible.  It will take time and effort, but it is a good place to start.  If left until after you've done other landscaping it's likely to be disruptive to your carefully laid lawn or nicely planted border.  In any case you may find you've run out of puff and motivation!

      Frontages and letterboxes:
      These are often neglected aspects of the garden and make such a difference to the look of a place and indeed, taken collectively, to the whole neighbourhood.  An attractive frontage also provides a good welcome when we come home.
           When we came to live here one of the first things I did was petition our landlord to remove a particularly ugly and unnecessary segment of fence and to remove the letterbox so I could paint it.  This was successful.  Digging up and mounding additional earth just behind it was a secondary consideration and done later.  These simple tasks took relatively modest effort and transformed the look of the place immediately.  A few cheaply purchased annuals put in to get that part of the garden going added to its freshness.  Our landlord was so impressed he bought brass numerals for the letterbox!
           Most letterboxes in this country are of an appalling standard which is surprising considering that New Zealanders take pride in being capable with practical things.  Many letterboxes don't even fit a standard envelope and are just rubbish!   Our present one, although it required a coat of paint, actually is properly functional and now looks proud of its job.
           Our landlord and his wife live next door.  The summer after we moved in their half-hearted frontage annoyed me so much I made it over for them while they were away!  I have to assure readers that permission had been given for me to do so, but it still made for a nice surprise on their return.  The cost was zero as I filled it in with bits from our own garden.  It has continued to bush up well since then and requires almost no maintenance.     
           If you have a gate it's important that it's hung properly and is straightforward to open and shut.  It's surprising how many are not! 
           In establishing and keeping up a pleasant frontage we do ourselves and others a good service.  

      Fences, hedges and defining boundaries:
      To fence or not to fence, that is the question!  Fences are good for a number of things: firstly, to contain or exclude animals and small children; secondly, to define boundaries and give privacy.  I completely understand the former and have reservations about the latter.  Fences are certainly the best choice in some situations, but in my view hedges and border plantings are often far better. 
           Too many fences in small places close together can too easily make properties look like stock yards.  Furthermore, they create deep shadow especially in winter, and the ground on the dark side then becomes over-wet and plants or lawn situated in their shadow don't grow as well. 
           Hedges and planted borders, on the other hand, are full of interest, provide places for birds and insects to have their homes, and take up excess water.  In summer they provide pleasant shade.  And they filter the wind far better than a fence.  Lastly, a hedge is live wood, whereas a fence is dead.  I'd rather have live things around me!
           In a rental situation one often has little choice, but it can be worth stating a preference.  Our landlord is a keen fencer.  He finds them satisfying to build, and I must say I'm glad of some of them: a fence between our shared drive and the neighbour of a different property provides a welcome screen from a very untidy section.
           However, on our side of the drive I resolutely opposed even a partial fence to continue on where the hedge ends.  Instead I planted a border.  It's a very long border, some 50 feet or so.  After we moved in I did a lot elsewhere in the garden and it seemed too big a job to undertake, so I left doing anything about it for about a year.  But I couldn't help thinking about it:

      I considered where a border might best be placed.

      Finally I couldn't stand it any longer and launched into this major project.  It was made possible by my trusty grubber!  The use of two hoses, a measuring stick and a packet of food skewers helped me get the curving edges nice and even.  Once the ground was ready I planted it very simply with self-sown seedlings and tussocks which I'd potted 'just in case'.  A sprinkling of marigolds and other hardy annuals also from saved seed helped to fill it in.

      Early 2009

      Although it took a considerable amount of labour to establish it, it cost me nothing and is a lasting source of pleasure and interest.

      Springtime - October 2010

      Usually I favour garden beds being mounded up with a scattering of rocks and lots of additional earth, but in this case I chose not to do so.  Neither I nor my landlord were sure what the future of that particular border might be.  Given that it's possible it may be removed after our departure I wanted to make taking it out as simple as possible - and its loss the cause of least regret!  With the passing of time its future seems more assured.  It will continue to put on height over the years as the shrubs grow up and there is plenty of room between them and the edge of the drive.
           A fence can go up in a matter of days whereas a hedge or a garden border is certainly a long term undertaking.  In many instances planted borders can define a boundary as much as it needed if you have the interest, energy and patience.

      Later note: One last look at that border:
      Early on the morning we moved from that place I took this photograph. 

      It was June 2011 and a heavy frost lingered.  The plants had filled out well and I was sorry to leave them, but life goes on and I'm taming a new garden now which presents new challenges.  I'm pleased to have a couple of seedlings of those big grasses though, which were so successful, the original seed having come plants on a stream bank in Christchurch.  My happy memories of the parent plants live on.

      More about letterboxes:
      Entries in a recent competition for quirky letterboxes show that some New Zealanders do have a high regard for this oft neglected household object.
      • NZ's quirkiest letterbox - article published on '' on 18th November 2010.  To see other entries click on the 'Next' link underneath the photograph of the winning entry.
      • Canterbury letterboxes stay home - article published in the Press on the 17th November 2010.  These letterboxes weren't entered into the competition but could well have been.

      Monday, 22 November 2010

      Gardening ~ contours, shifting perspectives & plant selection

      The underlying contours of the garden are best determined early on with paths cut, terraces constructed and boulders placed as desired.  Any natural contours can be emphasized at this time by heaping up earth, arranging rocks, or adding other garden structures such as archways or pergolas. 

      Once pathways and the means of defining property boundaries have been worked out it's time to consider what else you want to add to your garden in terms of structure.

      When these structures and shapes are right our garden will look satisfying even before we start to plant in it.  Planting is then pure pleasure, and the growth that follows will encourage our gaze to wander from one thing to another and find ease and contentment in the shifting perspectives that result.

      I like my gardens to have as much naturalness as possible.  In the landscapes of the countryside I find the mix of predictability, variation and gentle chaos very restful.  With a little consideration the qualities of natural landscapes can be echoed in the sorts of choices we make for our gardens whatever their size or location. 

      The contours of the natural world are full of curves in the form of pleasing mounds, hollows and pathways.  Our perspectives shift and vistas change as we move.  These photos show this point well:

      The approach to one of Canterbury's inland mountains

      Same mountain, same day, different standpoint.

      Garden beds that are heaped into mounds are pleasing.  I avoid stiff board or log edgings as I don't find them necessary in a garden any more than they are on a hillside in the country.  While retaining walls are necessary in some gardens this is not usually the case.  Getting the slope and height of a mounded bed right can take a bit of working out, but is satisfying.  Plants are then well displayed and the garden looks as if its meant to be there.

      In beds which are flat rather than raised contours are created by edges which are well defined and by the plants themselves.  The good effect of a shallow but clear furrow just inside the edge can be formed by digging the earth back from it a little.  The curved border featured in the previous article was a flat one.  The edges look just fine and the plants provide good height perfectly well without the addition of extra topsoil.

      The smaller the garden the more important it is to have continuity.  This can be achieved by borders which continue on around corners and the repetition of certain plants.  Good continuity is a bit like having the same carpet throughout the house: the effect of having different carpet in every room tends to make a house seem disjointed and bitsy; it's the same in gardens.  We want each part of the garden to have its own character while clearly belonging to the whole.
           In this view of the back garden you can see the strong curves and connecting borders which help both to enclose and reinforce the back boundary with pleasant greenery:

      As the shrubs grow variations in height will become more apparent.

      This is an important aspect of continuity.  My present garden is relatively small.  While each part of the garden is distinctive I've used lots of plants repetitively: I love hebe shrubs, and have about a dozen of them in my garden: some are the same as each other while others are different varieties.  These are good for smallish gardens in that they can be trimmed to scale or left to grow overhead, also they flower well and the birds and insects love them. I've interspersed these with native grasses which are tussock-like and which give the plantings a certain rhythm. A small part of the driveway is planted on both sides, and I've put familiar plants used elsewhere on both sides so that they look harmonious and as if they belong to each other.
      If you have rocks to add to your garden so much the better.  Rocks add character and interest like nothing else.  When arranging them consider how they can best be used so they are in keeping with other aspects of your garden.  When putting in a new garden in the middle of my front lawn I tried putting a stone edging around it.  I roughed it out like this to try the effect:

      After looking at it for some weeks I decided it was incongruous with the rest of the garden which doesn't have any rocks in it.  I rearranged the stones in what turned out to be a star shape, thus:

      This formation had the added advantage of allowing me to get more height than I could get with the previous arrangement.  It was much more difficult to get the stones comfortably placed but I liked it much better, and have planted each of the segments with various small plants.
           I'll write about making the birdbath shown in the top image in a separate article.
           When placing your rocks you'll probably find that they have a top side and an underside.  If this is so, you'll no doubt find that they look best with their topside uppermost.  When I'm working with rocks I often find  that much of their bulk ends up being submerged.  This is likely to be how they were in their original setting.  I like my rocks to look as much as if they have always been there are possible.  My arrangement above is clearly contrived by human hands but is pleasantly jumbled, as if shaken into place. 

      Preparing the ground for planting:
      It's vital to do this properly before you plant anything, and doing so will pay big dividends in the long run.  A garden that is set up properly will not only enable your plants to grow much better but will also be much easier to maintain.
            Below you can see a corner of the garden as it was when I was beginning to work on it.  I had crashed about in the stony ground with the pick end of my grubber to break up the ground, expanding the width of the existing bed and incorporated good strong curves in the edges.
           It was a very unpromising beginning, but there were good resources available: a large mound of topsoil out the back which had been formed when the drive was put in, and an excellent supply of horse manure from a horsey place down the road.  Both were free of charge and required only my labour and the means to carry them: I borrowed a ute with a serviceable tray-back and got three loads of manure, and the trusty wheelbarrow has now carted about a couple of hundred loads of topsoil which were used to mound up the beds and level the lawns.

      You can see the effect of the extra height and the layer of manure I spread before adding the topsoil.  I had a long way to go and got slimmer!

      The garden responded with gusto!  Here it is again a few months later:

      The mounded earth and thriving plants are the focus of the attention rather than the fence, a much more restful view!  

      Planting and perspectives:
      Natural perspective can be emphasized by plantings of differing heights and sizes, and by placing them at varying distances from the viewer.  This creates a pleasing sense of distance even in a small garden.  One has a foreground, the middle distance and the background.  The eye moves naturally from one to the other which is restful as well as good for our eyes. 

      Choosing plants:
      For the best results and greatest ease of care choose plants that are suited to local rainfall and other conditions.  Native plants are ideal in this respect as evolution has designed them precisely for local conditions over the millennia.
           In considering what to plant I often spend hours looking through gardening guides to determine which ones are likely to do best.
           Planting needn't be done all at once.  Initial plantings made up of blocks of plants which are simple and hardy and provide basic shape and cover for a new garden are a good start.  At a later stage these can be adjusted and added to with other more subtle plantings as the structure of the garden becomes established and can support them.
      A plea for trees:
      Please, please, please give consideration to the long term height and viability of plants, especially trees.  It's important to be realistic.  If they are going to grow too tall in the long term they should not be considered.  Otherwise they have no future and all the years of getting established and growing up will be completely wasted.  And for heavens sake plant them a reasonable distance from any fences or boundaries.
           I am constantly dismayed to observe seedlings which will grow to substantial proportions being planted perhaps twelve inches from a fence or boundary.  This means that they will grow up very lopsided and very probably be removed within a few short years - what a waste.  Think of your own arms and how we need to be able to extend them in all directions, then think of your tree and its branches.
           Hedges in particular need to be considered in terms of their space requirements: unlike fences which occupy only a narrow width and are finite a hedge needs to be planted well back from your driveway or other plants.  It needs room to spread out each year without the need for constant trimming, and you will need the room to get at it from all sides to do so.
           There are plenty of trees and shrubs which can be either pruned or kept low enough to manage, or left to their own devices to grow more naturally.

        Sunday, 21 November 2010

        Gardening ~ more about contours and rocks

        Described below...
        In earlier articles I've outlined principles of garden design that I've found useful, showing examples of how I've applied these in relatively small gardens.  In this one I share an example of how these same ideas can work in a more substantial setting with some photographs taken yesterday.  I've numbered the principles so that you can easily see what I mean.

        Earlier in the spring Rachel and I discussed problems she was having with her lawn.  Most of it needed to be cleared and resown which was a big job, and, given the problems of the past, was not guaranteed to be a success. 

        First: form should follow function:
        I asked her what she wanted from that part of the garden.  The family like to be able to sit there from time to time and to have their lunch out of doors.  The lawn slopes fairly steeply and was never going to be suitable for garden furniture, and anything else had always been a matter of balancing cups and trays while lounging on a rug.  This is all very well in its way but maybe it was time for a change.  

        It's fun to play with ideas.  If the lawn was likely to struggle, why bother with it?  I suggested cutting a terrace into the lawn where they could enjoy sitting and replacing the lawn above it with a simple garden filled with easy-care native grasses and so on. 

        Ideas are free.  We went outside to pace it out.  Where did they sit, I asked.  They liked to sit just above a small garden situated in the middle of the lawn.  I have a great fondness for what might be called sit-upon rocks, which invite you to sit on them.  How about a terrace edged with these sort of rocks, nothing too rigid in shape or style?  These can look great and garden furniture is then optional.

        I could visualise the effect clearly although I wasn't certain about details.  We seemed to have enough to go on - nothing venture, nothing win!  We decided to put our best efforts together and have a go.  
        Second: getting the paths right:
        At the top of the existing lawn the family walk to and fro to another part of the garden along a barely formed track.  A proper path was needed there and that's where we started our work.  This path marked the edge of the new garden.  A carefully laid hose was helpful with getting the curves even as was the pick end of the grubber.  

        Third and fourth: defining edges and beginning to develop contours
        The next thing we did was to excavate directly into the lawn to form the edge of the new terrace.  Gradually the rest of what was necessary started to became clear.  We went on to incorporate the existing circular garden into the scheme and began to work out the placement and height of some comfy stones.  These stones were placed in the exact best spots in relation to each other and the view.  Once more that useful hose helped us see the best curves and get them right.   

        After this big burst of work the garden sat there waiting for some weeks while we were both busy with other things.  

        Then yesterday we decided to have another go at it.  Here it is when we were starting our labours:

        Fifth: preparing the soil:
        By this stage quite a bit of new topsoil and manure had been added to the upper garden and we were evening it out and getting the mounding effect we wanted.  You can see the path running behind it.  

        Sixth: those wonderful rocks!
        Getting the remaining stones placed just where we both wanted them took several hours and some tact!  At the time I remembered that just earlier in the week I had written that lugging earth and rocks around soothed my soul, and thinking what a gross exaggeration that was!  We both got some nasty bruises from handling the rocks, and were mighty glad to go in for a hot meal.  But what a happy result.  At that point my sometimes savage soul relaxed and opened like a new rose.  It is satisfying:

        Seventh: settling those contours and mounds:
        Above the right hand end where the rocks diminish in height we've pushed the earth back and scuffed a fairly level area before mounding the earth back in a bank.  There are likely to be a few more rocks placed on that slope in a separate group.  The little circle garden, dismantled for the time being, will need to be reassembled in a new arrangement.  So there is a lot more work to be done, but for the present the bare shape is dramatic and pleasing.  

        It looks good from all angles, which is my measure of structures that are successful.  

        The bed at the top is ready for short term planting.  It will be filled with easy, no-fuss plants which give it immediate cover.

        More substantial planting can be done in the autumn when manure has rotted down and the time is right for more substantial planting and transplanting. 

        Ninth:  VoilĂ !
        Time to get out the tea tray, load it up with all manner of goodies and begin to enjoy it!

        The next day planting began:
        Rachel set to work getting a selection of plants in to provide some basic cover.  The spiky, grass-like plants are Libertia, a charming native which has small white flowers. 

        Further refinements can now be carried out at leisure.