Home to roost

Image

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.)

Image

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.” 

My year of jam

Image

My New Year’s resolution this year was to make jam. Lots of jam, but in small batches. Instead of going mad in summer and filling my pantry with dozens of jars of plum jam (bright red ‘Billington’, golden ‘Shiro’ or dark red ‘Damson’), I figured I’d take a different tack and attempt to make a different type of jam for every week of the year. I’ve made 35 different jams and jellies so far, ranging from toffee-apple inspired Medlar Jelly to a slightly adventurous choko and lime jam.

It’s quite fun inventing jam recipes. I’ve taken to tweaking fruit dessert recipes to make more adventurous jams, like today’s batch of Chunky Rhubarb, Raspberry, Lemongrass and Vanilla Jelly-Jam. (I’m calling it a Jelly-Jam because it’s a hybrid, with chunks of fruit suspended in a clear red jelly.)

I can’t claim this invention is entirely mine – I was inspired by this recipe from the blog BraveTart. I added 1/2 cup frozen raspberries for extra colour and flavour, but mostly because I’d thawed out a big pottle of them last night (to make raspberry coulis to go with homemade mascarpone cheesecakes) so I had to use them up.

Chunky Rhubarb, Raspberry, Lemongrass & Vanilla Jelly-Jam

Ingredients:
1 bunch red rhubarb (6 fat stalks)
1 tablespoon minced lemongrass or 2-3 stalks, trimmed and split
1/2 cup frozen raspberries
1 teaspoon vanilla paste (or 1 pod, split)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Chelsea Jam Setting sugar

Preheat oven to 160C. Slice rhubarb into even 1cm pieces. Place in a glass baking dish with the raspberries (optional) and lemongrass stalks (if using minced lemongrass, don’t add it just yet). In a small pot, combine water, sugar, vanilla and minced lemongrass. Bring to the boil, simmer for a couple of minutes, then strain through a sieve and pour over rhubarb in dish. Cover with foil and pop in the oven for half an hour. (Don’t overcook it or you’ll end up with rhubarb mush. Which defeats the purpose of rest of this recipe.) BraveTart’s Stella Parks says to cook it till ‘al dente’, so keep checking it every few minutes after the 30 minute mark. 

When the rhubarb is just tender, use a slotted spoon to carefully spoon it out of the poaching liquid and into 2 x 500ml jars; it should half fill each jar. Then measure the juice that’s left. Strain and pour into a small pot and add an equal quantity of Chelsea’s Jam Setting sugar. Bring to the boil, simmer for 5 minutes, then take off the heat and set aside for 10 minutes or so, until it starts to form a bit of a skin. (The reason you do this is because if you pour it straight into the jars, all the fruit floats to the top.) Fill the jars to the top and seal. 

Even if I do say so myself, this is such a pretty preserve. Damn tasty too. I don’t imagine mine is going to last very long. In fact, I’m going to fold half a jar through whipped cream to make a rhubarb fool for our pudding tonight.

Flower power

Magnolia 'Star Wars'

I rather like winter. Not the mud and the rain so much, but the blessed relief that comes from being able to turn your back on your garden for a few months, safe in the knowledge that nothing much can go wrong. Winter’s a holding pattern sort of season, and a handy one at that, especially when you throw a newborn baby into the mix. But now that winter’s almost over, and my second son Lachie’s almost six months old, I’m itching to get stuck into the garden again. 

First job: planting 10 x Magnolia ‘Star Wars’ trees in my new formal potager garden. I bought the trees a couple of weeks ago and they’re now in full bloom in their planter bags. (Or at least they were until the wild weather last night. Amid the torrential rain and gusty winds, most of the petals blew off.)