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


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

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.) 

Back to the Land: The Book Tour!

My new book

I’ve heard it said that writing a book is a bit like having a baby: a long, often torturous process mixing equal parts pleasure, anticipation, pain and panic as the impending deadline draws near (except, of course, publishers aren’t allowed to prescribe epidurals when you just can’t take the agony any more)… but when you finally clasp that little bundle of joy to your chest, it’s all worth it.

Being a glutton for punishment, over the last 12 months I did both: I produced Lucas and my third book, Back to the Land (published by Penguin) – and now we’re all off together on a bit of an unofficial book tour, coming to a town, rugby club, school hall or gardening festival near you!

Here are the dates, and the details (I’ll update this as we go along):

Thursday October 11, Palmers Planet store, 65 Greville Rd, Albany. 6-8pm. Tickets are $10 (includes a glass of wine on arrival, nibbles and a goodie bag, plus if you buy the book you get a $10 discount). Purchase tickets in store or phone 09 477 2750.

Saturday October 13, Mitre 10 Te Rapa, Hamilton, in association with Paper Plus at The Base. Come along for a Spring Gardening Bonanza – I’ll be talking at 1pm.

Monday October 15, Trails Cafe, 191 King Street, Pukekohe, in association with Chapters Bookstore. From 7pm. Tickets $10, includes a glass of wine or beer and nibbles. Phone 09 239 1797 to RSVP.

Wednesday October 17, Kumeu Smallholders Association. I had loads of fun chatting to this group a couple of years ago, when I was still single and living in the city. In fact, I’m sure they promised to find me a man with land. (Kumeu’s loss is Hunua’s gain…) Kumeu Community Centre, 7.30pm, contact Glyn on 09 412 5214.

Sunday October 21, Nelson Arts Festival, Granary Festival Cafe, 3pm. Full details here:

Monday October 22 (Labour Day), A Night in Mapua. Join me for a night of laughs (hopefully from the audience) and gardening inspiration to raise money for the local school. More details to come when I get them!

Thursday October 25, Rural Women’s Ladies Night, Onewhero Rugby Club, from 7pm. This one’s shaping up to be a blast, back in my old home town, with raffles, spot prizes, a trading table and more… and it’s all for a good cause (actually several, as Rural Women are raising funds for several local charities). Tickets are $20 or $15 for members, with ticket sales available at the door, or email Fiona:

Saturday October 27, Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular, 10am and 2pm. I’m talking about country gardening in, well, country gardens! Full details here:

Saturday November 3, Tauranga Garden & ArtFest, The Terraces, Baycourt, 11.30am-12.30pm. See more here.

Saturday November 3, Tauranga Garden & ArtFest, The Terraces, Baycourt, Gardening: A Life Sentence (panel), from 6.30pm. See more here:

Sunday November 4, Ladies Litera-tea, Epsom, Auckland, 1pm-5.30pm. What fun! An entire afternoon of lovely ladies and their books (and cupcakes), organised by the Women’s Bookstore. Full details here.

November 9, 10, 11, Hunter’s Garden Marlborough. A workshop a day: take your pick! Here’s the schedule.

Here’s hoping I can keep the weeds down in between all those flights and road tours, because (madness) I’ve agreed to open my garden to the local garden club ladies in late November too!

WA, all the way!

The amazing Urban Orchard outside Perth’s art gallery. Nice crop of broccoli!

In August, a lovely lady at Air New Zealand called Brigitte sent me an email. “Hi Lynda,” she wrote. “In September we’ll take a group of writers to Perth to see the wildflowers and I thought you may be keen to come along.” She thought right. By the time I’d read the itinerary – wildflowers, hot air ballooning, a 4WD discovery tour of Margaret River and two nights at Cape Lodge, voted Australia’s Best Boutique Hotel by Luxury Travel magazine – I was champing at the bit! (With one small boy and another on the way, the prospect of a media junket – sorry, working holiday – was bliss. To be frank, Air New Zealand could have offered a tiki tour of Palmerston North’s public parks and I wouldn’t have been any less excited at the thought of five days of freedom from deadlines, dishes and dirty nappies.)

We departed on a frosty Auckland morning and arrived in Perth as the red sun slunk behind the city’s Phoenix palms. The next morning, the mercury hit 25°C by 10am; it peaked at 29°C! Not bad for September.

We spent our first day trekking through native bush, spotting fair dinkum Aussie species with common names like pepper and salt, bacon and eggs and kangaroo paws. Our eagerness to step off the beaten track to admire donkey orchids and mouse ears, however, retreated rapidly upon the sighting of our first tiger snake.

In Margaret River, we hooked up with Sean Blocksidge from the Margaret River Discovery Co., who runs “the tour for people who don’t do tours”. People like Judy Bailey. When she turned up with her film crew for a quick paddle, Sean was mortified to discover that his canoes had been set adrift by boozed-up Aussie yobbos. He had to strip down to his daks and dive in to retrieve them.

Though we didn’t get to see Sean in his smalls, he did show us a satisfying selection of humpback whales, emus and scary looking, stumpy-tailed shingleback lizards. Sean told a cracker yarn too, like the time a group of Japanese tourists started fizzing at the bung at their first kangaroo sighting. “Kangaroo! Kangaroo!” they exclaimed as their cameras clicked. Sean didn’t have the heart to tell them it was just a brown dog doing its business in the bush.

Speaking of business, we flew up front, on lie-flat beds with marshmallow-soft memory foam mattresses, ruining me for cattle class forever. The nosh – would madam like an entrée of five-spiced chicken breast salad with fresh papaya salsa and sesame ginger dressing, followed by miso braised beef short rib with mustard potato mash and green olive tarragon salsa? – was top-notch too, but the beverage service left, literally, a lot to be desired. If I was asked once, I was asked a dozen times if I’d like a free glass of champagne. And (almost) every time, I thought of Lucas’ little brother, half-formed inside me, sighed, and declined. It was, let me tell you, a special kind of torture!

A pop quiz!

Small (and not so small) plants from Perth

I’m in Perth, admiring Western Australia’s wildflowers, posing beside century-old grass trees (I think the species pictured here is Xanthorrhoea acanthostachys) and saying no to endless offers of free champagne. (It’s a tough life, I tell you, being pregnant on an all-expenses paid media jaunt. How many non-alcoholic cocktails can a girl take?)

I’m here on a tour with Air New Zealand, and yesterday we spent the day trekking through some of the city’s off-the-beaten-track wildflower areas. Now when I think of wildflowers, I usually think of the cheerful annual meadows we sow at home, but Western Australia’s wildflowers are quite different. They have evolved in some of the most inhospitable situations: hot, dry, dusty soils lacking in fertility. I was ready to wilt after a few hours admiring these rugged blooms; how they survive is a miracle, especially when you factor in all those kangaroos waiting to nibble off their tender new foliage.

Our guide yesterday was Eddy Wajon, author of the Colour Guide to Spring Wildflowers of Western Australia. Eddy’s nuts about wildflowers. He can spot a hairy yellow pea or a hidden featherflower at a hundred paces, which made him the perfect chap to have on hand as we explored the urban bush.

I’d like to think of myself as a bit of a botanical boffin, but aside from the ubiquitous kangaroo paw and several banksias, I don’t think I recognised a single species all day.

So, now for a quiz: the first person who can match the names and numbers of the plants pictured (click on the photo to enlarge if need be) win will a copy of my new book, Back to the Land. And to get you started, No 1. is Anigozanthos manglesii, the Mangles kangaroo paw. You can buy a hybrid version of this groovy plant in garden centres as Anigozanthos ‘Bush Dance’.

The other nine are (in jumbled order):
Mouse ears (Calothamnus rupestris)
Pink enamel orchid (Elythranthera emarginata)
Dunsborough donkey orchid (Diuris aff. amplissima)
Grey cottonheads (Conostylis candicans)
Prickly dryandra (Dryandra falcata)
Blue devils (Eryngium pinnatifolium – this one should be a doddle!)
Some tiny fluffy-headed thing (my notes failed me high, which could be because we’d just spotted a snake slithering past)
A native carnivorous sundew (Drosera)
Star of Bethlehem (Calectasia narragara)

Start Googling! I’m off to explore the city of Perth before we fly off here for two nights of pure luxury. As I said, it’s a tough life…

Flowers for Grace

A winter posy of hellebores, ‘Erlicheer’ and pink stock

My five-year-old niece Grace has pneumonia, poor tyke, so today Lucas and I made her a get well card and picked her a bunch of flowers from the garden. There wasn’t much to choose from in bloom at the moment but I think we put together a fairly respectable mix of fragrant ‘Erlicheer’, some straggly scented pink stock and hellebores in shades of pink, cream, lime and burgundy.
Last winter I put in 50 hellebores in a massed planting under a grove of silver birches at the end of our driveway – and they’re just beautiful right now. In my city garden, I planted loads of hellebores under a row of Michelia ‘Mixed Up Miss’ trees, but they struggled for moisture and invariably died. It’s a different story here: not only are they all covered in bloom, while I was stomping around them with my secateurs this morning I noticed dozens and dozens of self-sown seedlings popping up too. And free plants are just the best plants, aren’t they?
(Grace was pretty chuffed with her flowers, and with the wee delivery boy. Lucas is her partner in cousin crime.)

Starting early

Buried treasure: ‘Inca Gold’ yams. We’ll roast them with honey and orange juice.

Looks like we’re in for a couple of wild days of weather – it has been bucketing down for 36 hours and shows no sign of relenting. The stream through our swamp is now a raging torrent, the cats are refusing to put a paw outdoors and I can almost guarantee that our sheep will no doubt choose today to start lambing.
Luckily, we made good use of the fine (albeit grey) day on Saturday. Jason hoed over a good sized chunk of my vege patch and Mum helped me sow and transplant several rows of strawberries, peas and broad beans. Lucas helped too, if you call flinging dirt about and stealing my trowel help.
Last year I had two rows of ‘Camarosa’ strawberries in this particular corner of the garden. Now I have four; we divided up the crowns and replanted them in fresh mounds of soil enriched with a bag of strawberry food.
Then we sowed and transplanted: 2 rows of ‘Novella’ peas; a row of double Shirley poppy seedlings; 2 rows of ‘Exhibition Long Pod’ broad beans; a row of cauliflowers and broccoflowers; 2 rows of ‘Easy Peasy’ peas; a row of orange calendulas; 2 rows of ‘Greenfeast’ peas; a row of celery seedlings; 2 rows of crimson-flowered broad beans (I’m slowly bulking up my seeds of this unusual variety, though I’ll have to cover the plants when they start flowering to avoid cross-pollination); and 2 rows of climbing ‘Sugarsnap’ peas. (You may have guessed that I’m trialling all the different pea varieties, as I did with carrots last spring, to see which ones produce the best yields, the climbers or the dwarves.)
We also harvested a bowl of scrummy ‘Inca Gold’ yams. I planted the seed tubers two seasons ago, but didn’t get around to digging them up last winter (being somewhat preoccupied with a newborn baby). They popped up again last spring so I ignored them, then of course the 22 frosts we’ve had so far this winter dealt to their tender oxalis-like foliage and they died down without trace a few weeks ago. Jason was busy digging the soil over when he unearthed them. “Oh wow,” I said. “We’ve got yams!” “Oh,” replied Jason, “is that what they are? I thought they were Jerusalem artichokes so I was trying to dig them back in before you noticed.”
Bless ‘im. I’ve clearly forced him to eat enough Jerusalem artichokes this winter to last a lifetime.

Ice, ice baby

Boy oh boy: this winter is shaping up to be the stuff of (freezing) legend! We had our 20th winter frost this morning; this time last year we hadn’t even had one. It’s certainly proving useful in determining what’s truly frost-hardy… and what’s not. My silverbeet, kale and Brussels sprouts don’t even flinch but the giant mustard, Nicotiana sylvestris and seedling poppies are all laid flat by frost each time… only to pick their leaves up again when the ice thaws. Earlier this week one of my ‘The Fairy’ roses sent out a few new sprays of tiny pink blooms; the buds were dusted with ice crystals this morning. Jack Frost is also a damn effective composter. I didn’t need to clear out half my summer garden; it has simply turned to mush and slumped to soil level.
On the plus side, all this winter chill means I should get a bumper crop of apricots, almonds, peaches and nectarines come summer!

The sound of silence… and wow!


My apologies for the fact that it has been all quiet on the blog front for a couple of months now, but I’ve been busy finishing my book. It’s a journey through the seasons in my country garden, and as a girl (well this girl at least) can only have so many original thoughts, I’ve been saving them all for the book.

However I thought I’d quickly share these photos of amazing echinaceas that I took while visiting nurseryman Eddie Welsh in Palmerston North this month. Wowee – his nursery beds look like an American designer prairie garden. I’m going to sow packets of echinaceas myself next spring to emulate this look. (I did ask Eddie if he’d sell me the whole lot, but I think he thought I was kidding.)

And now, back to the book!