I feel the earth move…

There really is no better sight than a man on a digger, doing a year’s worth of hard spade slog in a single afternoon. (Single green-thumbed ladies: I highly recommend you start hanging out at new subdivisions, building sites, roading developments and anywhere else earthworks are required. A man who can operate heavy machinery, especially while dressed in a reflectorised vest that’s fashionably colour-coordinated with his excavator, is very useful indeed.) 
This is where our new lawn is going. It will be a formal, slightly sunken lawn edged with a low wall of recycled kerbing stones (the Hunk brought them home from work too) and it’s going to look magnificent surrounded by a meadow of wildflowers. That’s if it ever stops raining for long enough for me to spray the old grass off around the edges so I can start sowing. Is there any such thing as a pagan sun-dance?

And then there were tui…

I woke up this morning to the gorgeous gargle of a tui getting liquored up in the ornamental cherry tree by our front door. It almost made up for the miserable weather, again. I love watching tui. They’re so hedonistic. Faced with a tree in full blossom, they behave worse than adolescents on alcopops, especially if you’ve got an early Taiwanese cherrry, Prunus campanulata. They drink themselves silly on its fluoro-pink blossoms; don’t be surprised to find them blotto on their backs, having fallen out of the branches.
Our tree’s a pale pink Japanese cherry but that doesn’t mean the tui are any more refined at our place. By the time I came downstairs and grabbed my camera to snap this photo, a second tui had arrived on the scene. Instead of sharing, the two birds immediately launched into a lout bout of beak-and-claw biffo. Tui are beautiful songbirds, but they’re also big bullies.

Give peas a chance

Child labour: it’s not all about sneaker factories in third world countries. My mother forced me to shell peas. Thousands of fresh peas, from thousands of pods. I did it under duress.
As a kid, I hated peas. On one occasion, I was told by my parents thatI couldn’t leave the table during a family dinner at my Aunt’s house until I’d eaten my peas. It was a battle of wills. I lost. But I sure showed them. I showed them all what semi-digested peas look like when power chucked back up.
Mum always grew climbing peas, staked with criss-crossed bracken fern sticks cut from the roadside. These days compact peas, such as Greenfeast and dwarf Earlicrop Massey, are more widely grown than that lanky old-timers like Alderman Tall. Sugar snaps or snow peas, those tender types eaten pod ‘n’ all, are even more popular, though even they need a shoulder to lean on.
Stuck for space? Train Progress or Rondo up trellis or wire netting fences, or rig up marvellously rustic tepees from manuka poles, trussed together with twine like a game of cat’s cradle.
Sow peas now. They do best in the cool days of spring. Come summer, powdery mildew hobbles the vines. Sow seeds directly where you want them to grow, unless your garden is frequented by felines, blackbirds, slugs or snails. Cats show no respect for freshly cultivated soil – when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go – and birds will scratch the seeds out as soon as they sprout. Slugs and snails just scoff the lot. Sow peas in trays first if need be.
My tastes have changed since I was a toddler. I now eat piles of freshly podded peas in spring, boiled briefly then drizzled with butter.  If I’m feeling flash, I’ll make like I’m on Masterchef and serve spring lamb on a verdant smear of minty pea puree. Finely chop half a small onion and sauté in a tablespoon of melted butter. Add a 500g packet of minted frozen peas and 100ml of hot chicken or vegetable stock. Simmer for a few minutes, till the peas are soft, then add a big handful of torn fresh mint leaves. Pour into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Season with sea salt and serve.  It’s the posh way to eat frozen peas while you wait for your own crop.

Self Sufficiently Lynda is published each week in Sunday magazine, in the Sunday Star-Times.

The official “Before” photo

In the best tradition of the ugly duckling turning into a swan… here is what my new garden looks like right now. Mud. There’s lots of mud… and not a lot else, apart from a strip of white fencing tape to roughly mark out where my new formal sunken lawn will be. Yep, that’s the formal lawn I’ll be standing on in a big fat wedding frock in February. Begs the question really: does anyone make bridal-themed gumboots?

(And, in case you’re wondering, the blue diagram in the foreground is an attempt by the Hunk from Hunua to teach me how to work out the right angles required to result in a lawn that was square with the boundary fence. Confused? I was. I had to retire indoors for a glass of wine and a lie-down.)

15 minutes of fame for kale

It was drummed into us as children: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Which is why, in 15 years of horticultural journalism, I haven’t written a single story about kale.

It’s not that I don’t like kale. I really haven’t got a bad word to say about it. Nor a good one. Kale’s just a bit player in the brassica family, like the kid picked last for a sports team. Even the chickens left it till last when they pillaged my vege patch.

Come spring, pagans celebrate by dancing around bonfires, whereas I simply give thanks that I’ve survived another winter without having to eat too much kale. Though frosts sweeten its flavour, kale is still only tender enough to eat raw in salads at the baby leaf stage. Spirulina drinkers could also add it to their smoothies I suppose. Mash cooked kale with spuds, like the Dutch dish stamppot, or hide it between the layers of a vegetarian lasagne.

King Seeds offer Blue Ridge, a dark blue-green ruffled hybrid; the handsome Squire, which forms a shaggy Sideshow Bob-style mop top; and a new hybrid named Red Monarch, which deepens to dark purple in wintry weather. There’s also raggedy Red Russian, described in Egmont Seeds’ online catalogue as “any chef’s dream in a stir-fry”. Good try, but the only kale considered hip in culinary circles is the rustic Tuscan variety, Di Toscana or cavolo nero.

Cavolo nero looks like an inside out cabbage, with long crinkly leaves that arch like fronds, giving rise to its other common name, palm tree cabbage. It’s quite striking but in my spray-free garden it’s also a magnet for whitefly. They congregate along the wrinkly undersides of its leaves and are a devil to scrub off. I shudder to think how many I’ve eaten.

One kale I’m keen to get my hands on is the European sea kale, Crambe maritima. I first admired it a decade ago in the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman’s famous shingle garden at Dungeness. Blanched, its spring shoots are said to be similar to salty asparagus.

Our closest coastal native equivalent is Cook’s scurvy grass, Lepidium oleraceum, a scrappy perennial with a not dissimilar flavour to kale, but a much fussier temperament. According to Oratia Native Nursery, it “demands high nutrients such as guano”.  For Cook’s scurvy grass,
being crapped on from a great height by seagulls isn’t just good luck, it’s life-preserving.

Self Sufficiently Lynda is published each week in Sunday magazine, in the Sunday Star-Times.

Update: Duck vs Dog

Oh no. Just days after I wrote about our duck, patiently sitting on her nest of 14 eggs, I went down to check on her and found a trail of broken egg shells and a sad, stressed duck.

The eggs had all been eaten.

Stoat? Ferrit? Feral cat?

It’s impossible to find the culprit. Or at least I thought it was, until I took the puppy for a walk. He has a terrible case of canine diarrhoea.

Coincidence? I think not.

Ducking for cover

Spring has sprung! The daffs and freesias are flowering, the almond orchard’s a cloud of blossom, lamb racks are ripening in the paddocks and our Pekin ducks are fattening up to plan.

I bought the ducks last spring from the Mapua Country Trading Company, then stocked up the pantry with star anise, Chinese five spice powder and soy sauce. I promised crispy roast duck for Christmas dinner. But when it came to the crunch, they were too darned cute to kill.

Pekin ducks have white feathers and questionable flying abilities. Ours prefer to waddle everywhere, as fast as their stumpy feet can carry them. Yell “quackers” and up the hill they come, lurching comically through the long grass, to get their daily bread.

We started with six ducks. A couple of months ago, something ate one in the swamp. We found its beak and its feet in the rushes. Then a second duck disappeared a fortnight ago. The finger of blame was pointed squarely at the border collie puppy, and my poor parenting skills. I’d bought him a squeaky toy mallard from the pet store. When the novelty wore off, he moved on to the real thing. I’d caught him in the act once before. Having saved the drake’s neck, I gave the dog a stern lecture and sent him off to the stables for time out.

As for the missing duck? We went duck hunting. We searched the swamp, the orchard, the stream and the gully. Eventually we found her under the cypress shelter belt, sitting on a nest of 14 eggs.  Nothing says spring like a clutch of fluffy ducklings.

Naturally, I’ll be too chicken to consume any of them. But who cares: soon we’ll be snacking on new season’s asparagus – the first spears are already poking out of the pea straw like little periscopes – and globe artichoke buds in garlic butter. There are sugar snaps to top’n’tail, peas to pod and tender broad beans to flip out of their fur-lined jackets.

September also marks the start of the new sowing season. So get busy. Sow heirloom tomatoes, eggplants and capsicums in trays. Then cosset them indoors, or under a cloche of salvaged window frames, until Labour Weekend. Put in more peas, more broad beans, carrots and Cos lettuce. But don’t jump the gun with beans or basil. Spring is here, but summer’s a long way off yet.

Self Sufficiently Lynda is published each week in Sunday magazine, in the Sunday Star-Times.