Ask and ye shall receive (free advice!)

'Tomatoberry' cherry tomatoes: super sweet (and even sweeter when they're self-sown freebies from last season).

‘Tomatoberry’ cherry tomatoes: super sweet (and self-sown from last season).

Gosh, time flies when you’re having… ahem, babies.

It has been almost 18 months since I last updated this blog. Suffice to say that when you’re juggling a writing career, a bit of broadcasting, a ridiculously large garden, two toddlers, a husband (not that I could actually juggle mine, what with him being 6ft4in tall and tipping the scales at 115kg), two kunekune pigs, eight chooks, four cats, two dogs, some cattle and a dozen or so sheep… life gets a bit busy for blogging too.

But my youngest son, Lachie, turned two yesterday, and when he blew out the candles on his (storebought) birthday cake, I was sure I could see the light at the end of the toddler time-evaporating tunnel (I’ve even ceremoniously biffed the high chair and given the cot away), so I’m back.

Apologies to all of you who have asked unanswered questions in my absence (though I’m not so sorry about the 278,853 spam messages in my trash). And with that in mind, I thought we could kick things off with a free-for-all gardening advice session. Got a tricky question? Hit me with it!

Here’s a perplexing problem of my own. In my absence, I also developed a serious contact allergy to tomato plants. (I know, who has ever heard of a gardening writer who was allergic to tomatoes?) But I can’t touch them without my hands swelling up and erupting in an angry, and insanely itchy, rash of blisters. I should know better, but this morning I picked a lovely basket of self-sown ‘Tomatoberry’ cherry tomatoes. And I thought I was careful, but I wasn’t careful enough, which is why I am up late on the computer instead of sleeping. It’s either type or scratch my hands off.

Fabulous freesias

Last year I was late getting my freesia bulbs in. Quite late. Indeed, it was spring before their wrinkly bottoms saw any soil. As a consequence, they came up late, refused to flower and then struggled on miserably during the drought, making me feel guilty every time I walked down the hill path. I figured it would be my own fault if I lost the lot, but this year they all came back up and flowered beautifully. More than beautifully. They have been astonishing, astounding, sensationally stunning… you get the picture. They are – and isn’t this the true measure of success in a flower border? – every bit as pretty and perfect and strong-stemmed as the commercial cut flower varieties you see in florist’s shops. Perhaps there’s some sense in not letting them flower in their first year. 

The varieties I planted were both doubles: hot pink ‘Cassis’ (it looks more red in this photo, but it’s a deep magenta) and lavender-blue ‘Purple Rain’. I ordered both from

Do as I say

ImageIt’s not often that I sit down to read the newspaper, only to read a snippet of such riveting advice that I immediately action it. But after reading my own column (ha!) in the Sunday Star Times last weekend, I* immediately went outside and planted 25kg of ‘Summer Delight’ seed potatoes. I’d like to say I’m simply practising what I preach, but actually I’m running a month later than usual (last year all my spuds were in the ground in early August).

(*Actually my darling, husband did all the serious digging, but I was furiously weeding the rows before he cultivated and composted the soil with a kick-ass rotary hoe. The hire place loves us in spring. I really must acquire my own rotary hoe but the really good ones are damn expensive. I wonder if I could rustle up enough fellow-minded local green thumbs to go shares in one…)

Here’s my column if you missed it:

You say potato, I say plant them now. Don’t delay. Dig a hole, shove in a seed spud, shovel soil over the top then sit back and pray that blasted psyllids don’t sink their fangs into them. If you do it this morning, or this afternoon, or as soon as you finish reading the paper, you should just squeak in with a Christmas crop.

If I could only grow one thing, it would be potatoes. No argument. (If allowed two, I’d opt for a king-sized bed of thornless ‘Berry Delight’ brambles, a loganberry/boysenberry hybrid with fat, dark fruit that ripens in December.)

Back to potatoes. Let’s be frank. Size does matter. In spuds or men, it pays to seek the tallest, fittest, fastest, strongest, toughest and most virile variety you can lay your hands on. No question, that’s ‘Summer Delight’.

“Summer Who?”, you might well ask, for this creamy-fleshed, golden-skinned variety isn’t yet a household name like ‘Agria’, ‘Nadine’ or ‘Heather’. But take my word, it should be. I’ve trialled it for two years and it offers a terrific rate of return: for every 1.5kg bag of seed potatoes, expect to reap at least 20kg of large, oval, golden-skinned, cream-fleshed tubers.

In Australia, it’s sold as ‘Golden Cream’. How typical of the Aussies to claim it as one of their own, when in fact it was bred in Pukekohe by John Anderson and his colleagues at Plant and Food Research. John has been breeding potatoes for longer than I’ve been alive, and he rates ‘Summer Delight’ for both vigour and yield.
Its parentage, in case you’re wondering, includes a Scottish heirloom called ‘Golden Wonder’ and ‘V394’, known colloquially as the Sir Tristram of spud siring. (“A failure in its own right, but a magnificent parent,” explain John.)

‘Summer Delight’ is a pearler of a potato: lush and leafy on top, with whopping great tubers that grow so quickly you’d swear it had been administered something by Lance Armstrong’s pharmacist. For this reason, it’s not much chop as a commercial variety. Unlike those small-but-perfectly-formed new season’s potatoes that fetch a pre-Christmas premium, ‘Summer Delight’ doesn’t know when to stop. Even when treated as an early variety and dug within 90 days, my tubers averaged 350g each. On the plus side, when it came to selling them at the farmers’ market, at least I didn’t have to faff about weighing and bagging them like baby ‘Jersey Bennes’. I just drew up a sign: three for $5.

Potatoes are cheap and easy to grow. There’s no special science involved. Though it’s best to buy certified, virus-free seed stock from a garden centre, those manky ones in your pantry will also do the business. Dig a trench at least 40cm deep, add a sprinkle of potato fertiliser and work in a bucket of compost for each plant. Space your seed potatoes 50cm apart, backfill the trench and mound up with more compost and mulch.

Potatoes prefer heavy soils; in sandy, light soils, they have a hard time getting a foothold and tend to spawn dozens of tiny, good for nothing tubers. So kids, pay attention: if you want to trump your peers in a school spud-in-a-bucket contest, fill your 10 litre bucket with garden soil, or a mix of soil and compost, rather than potting mix. Stake firmly too, as top heavy potted potatoes have a habit of toppling over.

For those with a competitive streak, try to match Christchurch gardener Peter Keller’s record haul from a single seed potato: 103 tubers of at least golf ball girth. His secret? Compost, and more compost. Three bags per plant, plus plenty of water and elbow room. He sets aside a full square metre per plant.

At this point in the season, frost is the potato’s main foe. It’s Delilah’s razor, Superman’s kryptonite. Frost brings potatoes to their knees, turns their blackened tops to mush. It’s not the freezing but the thawing that does the damage, so if you’re caught on the fly by a late frost, lay sheets of newspaper over the plants to keep the morning sun off until the ice melts.

Later on, the fungal disease blight is a nuisance but the tomato-potato psyllid is a greater menace. This sap-sucking insect with dubious oral hygiene breached our borders in 2006 and has been insidiously undermining tomato, potato, tamarillo and capsicum crops ever since. You can try to control it with a spray regime – drench the foliage weekly with Neem, or fortnightly with Mavrik – or do as I do: get all your spuds in now, and get them all out before high summer, when the psyllid population is at its peak.

Guess the jam


I’ve invented a new game called ‘Guess The Jam’. I suspect it won’t catch on like Monopoly or Scrabble, but it basically involves me waving small pots of mystery preserves and conserves at Mum, Dad, my husband, my workmates… and anyone else  game enough to put their tastebuds to the test. There are no prizes for guessing correctly – except, perhaps, a second spoonful – which is just as well because this week’s concoction had everyone stumped. 

This is my first attempt at Blueberry & Bay Leaf Curd. I saw the recipe in Country Living magazine, and in their photo it was a beautiful, bright purple, clear (almost jelly-like) jam oozing over warm scones, whereas mine turned out more like Nutella. It’s velvety smooth, thick and chocolate-coloured with an intriguing (and utterly delicious) flavour. Because it looks like chocolate, it actually tastes like chocolate. (Not one of my blind tasters could pinpoint any of the ingredients, but all assumed it had chocolate in it.) I have no idea where I went wrong, but it could have been any one of these things I suppose: (a) I used frozen blueberries, rather than fresh; (b) I used fresh bay leaves, rather than dried; (c) I didn’t have any vanilla extract so I used vanilla paste; and (d) who keeps unsalted butter in their fridge? I used plain salted butter. I also used my own free-range eggs, still warm from the hen house, and they have lovely orange yolks so perhaps that had an effect on the colour as well. I’ll try again and see what happens.

Blueberry, Bay Leaf & Vanilla Curd 

Ingredients: 225g blueberries, 2 large bay leaves, 50g unsalted butter, 225g caster sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 3 medium eggs, beaten

1. Put the blueberries into a pan with a splash of water and the bay leaves. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 5-10 minutes until soft. Tip into a sieve set over a bowl and push with the back of a spoon to extract as much juice as possible.

2. Melt the butter and sugar with the juice and vanilla in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Strain the eggs to remove any threads. Keep stirring for 20-25 minutes until thickened, taking care not to overheat.

3. Pour into sterilised jars, seal and label when cold. Eat within one week.

Home to roost


When we got married in our garden three years ago, we bought a bunch of old wine barrels on Trade Me to use as sun umbrella holders and rustic bar leaners. We’ve hacked up a couple since then to make half-barrel planters, but the others have been lined up next to the shed, awaiting their next assignment. Then, a month ago, Jason had the bright idea to flip them on their sides, cut out a front door and a hinged flap on the back… and turn them into hen houses.
As we weren’t sure if the chooks would fancy a round, faintly alcoholic smelling new abode, we started off with this trial barrel, which is casually propped up on sawhorses, at a pig snout-safe height in the orchard, with a bit of 4×2 for a makeshift ramp.
At first, the chooks were distinctly unimpressed. (They’re clearly not fluent in upcycling fashion or shabby chic style.) I watched one of the Silkies wander up the ramp once, but aside from that I haven’t seen any nesting instinct from the rest of them. Indeed, the hay that Jason tucked in to line the barrel has remained squeaky clean (and our chooks aren’t exactly known for their household hygiene standards. The Silkies are a bit too stupid to roost, so they sit on the filthy floor of our old hen house and are crapped on by the brown shavers perched above!)
Anyway, the chooks may not be sleeping in the barrel, but by golly, they’re laying in it! When we lifted the flap yesterday, there were 18 lovely brown eggs – the first of the season – sitting in the hay. 
You know what that means, don’t you? That means spring is officially here. And it also means I’ll have to make a big omelette for dinner, as we can’t fit that many eggs in our fridge door.

Almond blossoms

ImageDidn’t get around to pruning your fruit trees last season? Me neither – and I’m glad I didn’t, because now I wake each day to a dainty curtain of almond blossoms outside our upstairs bedroom window. It’s going to make picking the nuts a bit tricky next autumn, as the trees are now about 5m high, but for now it’s a delightful sight to wake up to.

Almonds aren’t as pretty as ornamental cherries but they’re first out of the blocks in spring… and they give me something to look at until my all-time (well, for the last few years at least) favourite spring blossom tree bursts into bloom. That, if you’re wondering, is the spectacular Betchels crabapple, Malus ioensis ‘Plena’. (And here’s a picture of Malus ioensis ‘Plena’ from Harrisons Trees to whet your planting appetite.)


Marry well

I write a weekly column in the Sunday magazine in the Sunday Star-Times. Here’s what I had to say last weekend:

I am a gardening guru – or at least that’s how I’m introduced whenever I speak to small town horticultural societies or garden club gatherings. (I assume it’s meant as a compliment, even if it does make me sound like a bearded old man, or a whiskery old woman for that matter, with dubious spiritual philosophies and a penchant for polygamy.)
Guru or not, I’m regularly asked to share my gardening knowledge, my nifty tips and handy hints for living self-sufficiently on a shoestring budget. 
Sometimes my advice is quite conservative. Only grow what you like to eat, I say. Save your own seeds. Learn to pickle and preserve. Save cash – and the planet – by shunning store-bought chemical sprays. Kill aphids with soapy water or boiled rhubarb leaves. Send fungal spores packing with baking soda or trim milk. Plant blooming bordellos for beneficial insects, bribe bees with blossom trees and let birds make short work of the bugs.
Other times, my advice is on the regenade side. Pee on your powdery mildew-infested pumpkins, I implore. Plant possums (preferably dead ones; the live ones can be a bit tetchy) under new fruit trees. If the neighbour’s cat keeps crapping in your raised beds, defend your territory with a ring of prickly rose prunings or sharpened kebab sticks strategically positioned to poke them in the posterior. Pour table salt on slugs and snails and watch them froth to death in front of you. Steal cuttings from public parks (I consider it a ratepayer’s rebate). And don’t bother making your own organic compost. Just feed all your kitchen scraps to your chooks and make crème brulee instead.
I save my best two tips until last. Never buy a house, I warn novice gardeners. Buy a garden. Even the worst house in the worst street can be demolished or renovated, but if you sign up to buy a home on a shady section with boggy soil on the south side of the street, all you’ll ever be able to eat is silverbeet. Or a crop of Chinese water chestnuts.
As for my all-time top tip? I’ll admit I was a slow learner on this front, but I can honestly say that the secret to a top-notch garden is to marry well. Marry a man – and I say this without fear of allegations of sexism, for gardening clubs are predominantly populated with congenial women and cheerful gay men – with muscles, machinery and money, in that order. 
Marry a practical man, a manly man who can lift bags of potting mix and leap fences in a single bound, sometimes even at the same time. Don’t agree to walk up the aisle until you’ve seen evidence that they can assemble flat pack furniture, sharpen a shade, unscrew a jam jar, prune a tree, fix a fuse, change a tap washer, castrate a lamb, drive a digger, carry you over the threshold, change the oil and filters in your car, do the haka, build a shed, bait a hook (and unhook your catch) and teach a two-year-old boy the ins and outs of male anatomy. (“Look, Mum! I have a willy and ballsacks.”) 
I’d be lying if I said that marrying a handy man doesn’t have some disadvantages. My husband can stake out the levels of an entire new subdivision with a state-of-the-art, satellite-driven surveying instrument, but he can’t work Windows 8 – let alone our dishwasher, vacuum cleaner or washing machine. He refuses to watch rom-coms, doesn’t do candlelit dinners and has no time for deep and meaningful heart-to-hearts. (“Talking about feelings? Isn’t that what your girlfriends are for?”) 
Steer clear of men with their own minds. Opinionated men are to be avoided too, especially if their opinions differ to your own. How irritating it is to be continually questioned over landscape design decisions and impulse plant purchases. (“Of course we need 10 swamp cypresses, darling. Yes, I do realise they grow to 25 metres tall, but I’ll find a spot for them somewhere.”)
Finally, if at all possible, eschew thinkers in favour of doers. Unless, of course, you can convince your man to think along the same lines as you. And if you can’t? Seek sage advice from a former American president. “I have learned that only two things are necessary to keep one’s wife happy,” said Lyndon B. Johnson. “First, let her think she’s having her own way. And second, let her have it.”