I’ve been thinking of you. Hoping the demands of the season are not weighing too heavily. With that in mind I have a few things for you to think about in between wrapping, baking and decorating–because apparently it is no longer good for us to multi-task.
Last March, after the pandemic was declared but before we were home yet, we were having an adventure, isolated as we were, in the middle of the Southern Ocean. Around March 10, 11, 12 we visited an archipelago mostly known for the name of its largest island, Tristan Da Cunha. Due to Covid-19, we were not allowed to actually set foot on the island, as had been planned. But we viewed it from aboard zodiacs on several fascinating visits. The British holding is one of the most remote populated islands in the world. A week or so ago an article came into my awareness, that this tiny little population of about 250 people has announced that almost 700,000 sq km of its waters will become a marine protected area (MPA), the fourth largest such sanctuary in the world. It is always a thrill to see such news, but doubly so when it is a place you have seen with your own eyes. When you click on the article here and scroll down, you will see a sunset photo with albatross, that is very similar to one I took from the deck of our ship, shown below. (Do go see the photo of Rockhopper penguins, they are the funniest…think of Ramone in Happy Feet)
The next interesting thing that I have come across is touted as ‘the most striking images of 2020’–subjective, I know. However, if you take the time to read the articles paired with each of the eleven photos, you will have a deeper appreciation of why they may be considered such striking images. I’ll leave you to your own thoughts, but at the very least it is a noteworthy collection, recalling the incredible events of the year.
And then there was the podcast that nearly blew my tiny mind. In an interview with a scholar of ancient Mesopotamia and Cuneiform writing I learned that Noah’s Ark was actually round. Round! You can listen to Irving Finkel’s detailed description of how he learned this fact here. (Or watch the YouTube video here, it is even more entertaining!)
On a more local news front, the little garden project I began in May, at the beginning of last winter, has limped through the hottest November on record. And I do mean limped. Things went to seed, or burned in the sear of unseasonal heat. New seeds have failed to even sprout. Pests have been persistent and much of the time invisible to my untrained eye, except when I see the after effects by way of withered or newly munched leaves looking like lacy green decorations rather than viable edibles. I only use organic and non-toxic methods to get rid of diseases and pests, otherwise I wouldn’t want to eat them. In one case, however, my persistence has paid off. Call me Popeye, the spinach is very happy now.
In the case of the cherry tomatoes, I have failed miserably. I think by the time I figure the cost of the shade cloth, the tomatoes’s share of the pest control sprays, and the original seedlings, each of the 12 tomatoes I harvested before the plants died cost me about $2.75. I will be buying tomatoes from now on. And I will not be judgemental of tomato growers if there are a few blips of availability or quality in the grocery.
Herbs are growing well, except for parsley which has decided it really doesn’t want to play in this heat. Chillies have been a massive success, so much so that I harvested two cups of them in two weeks and had to make chilli sauce to use them all, and there are still over a dozen fresh chillies on the plant for day to day use. Score!
Not to labour the point, but… it’s been a year of uncertainty at the very least. At worst it has been a time to delve into our inner resources. Deeply. I truly wish each of you a peaceful holiday season and a new year of hope and strength.
Fear, uncertainty and discomfort are your compasses toward growth.–unknown
I love it when things in my life collide with one another—in a good way. I wrote a couple of months ago (hard to believe it’s been that long) about the garden I built and planted this winter. It continues to be a revelation in all kinds of unexpected ways.
I have learned that it is better, in most cases, to plant seeds in situ, rather than be tempted by the faster route of seedlings that are bobbing their little heads fetchingly from their tiny pots in the nursery and garden centres. Seeds sprouted in the exact place they will grow seem to understand they are at home and can grow accordingly. So, given enough water and some sunshine they get on with it. Whereas seedlings, sprouted and grown in their little pots thousands of kilometres away, in most cases, in hothouse conditions or entirely different places from where they finish up, are in shock when they end their journey in the middle of dry Central Australia. Even taking all care, I’ve watched them struggle and eventually not yield very well and then go to seed quickly. Whereas the things I’ve planted from the right, well chosen seed, take a couple of weeks longer but kick on and look hearty and the yield is very good. Don’t we all do better when planted in the right place?
I’ve also learned I can plant less than I thought, now that I have a good growing base. We are about to drown in lettuce and rocket (arugula), for example! And don’t ask why I thought I needed 7 basil plants! Must be a throwback to the Italian genes. I’ve already put away one lot of pesto in the freezer and it’s not even summer yet. I dug up and gave away one of the basil plants because things were growing into one another. My lovely friend who does little paving and brick laying jobs was the happy recipient. I traded him for some pieces of old pavers on which we could sit our pots up out of the excess water that sometimes accumulates in the saucers.
In addition to the plant growth, it appears a potential family of Magpie Larks has moved into the palm tree that overlooks the new garden bed. They are not my favourite bird in appearance or sound, which is rather strident and irritating, but there is no bird who shows more joy having a bath in the residual water after rain. And I especially love the way they patrol the garden and eat insects! Whichever of the species builds the nest, I assume the female, decided this was a friendly place to raise her chicks. I keep a bowl of water for animals, there is soil around to build the mud base of the nest, and sugar cane mulch to fluff out the upper layer, ready for eggs and long spells of sitting. We also have a lot of native vegetation to attract birds, and no pets to bother them.
A few days ago I was tending my garden and there was a noisy crow sitting atop that chimney on the neighbour’s roof, only about six or so feet from the Lark who was working on the last stages of the nest. Suddenly the crow, about four times the size of the Lark, lunged at it, hoping, no doubt, to eat eggs in the nest. The little Lark loudly called out, threw her little feet in the air, flapping wings wildly to fight off the crow, just as her mate flew up from very nearby to assist and save his lady love. The crow was chastened and left immediately. I fear he will return, however. It’s a bird eat bird world out there.
Today I have seen the Lark sitting on the nest as if there might be something worth sitting for. I hope so. Or maybe she was just testing it for the fluff factor. It has been National Bird Week here and I participated in a bird count every day this week. Wouldn’t it be nice to boost the count with some little hatchlings? A bit too soon I know, but a girl can dream.
I’ve been doing further chick checks on the Peregrin Falcons in Melbourne, and taking photos for those of you who don’t have time to check. There isn’t always much to see except sleeping chicks, and gathering debris. Ugh, it’s a very unhygienic looking area now. Today I was watching the three somewhat comatose chicks rearrange themselves when one in the back raised its bum and squirted poop in a very impressive arc all over the one in the front–still asleep. Siblings, eh? Feeding time is not appealing either, but very interesting. I was lucky to catch both parents there for one feeding session and snapped a screen shot for you. The female is the larger of the two and if I may anthropomorphise for a moment, looks quite unimpressed at her mate who is doing the feeding and perhaps sneaking a bite for himself? Imagine raising triplets! These two are really working hard at this parenting thing.
We have had rain. Not a lot, but enough to green the place a bit. We had 21mm a couple of weeks ago and another 6mm since. For those of you who regularly get rain this will seem like a drizzle, but here it is substantial enough to bring changes. Rain is magic for gardens and everything, in fact. It washes the leaves free of their red dust and everything looks crisp and clean again. And the smell of eucalyptus and whatever magic is in moistened desert dust is divine. The La Niña weather pattern is predicted to bring us more of the wet stuff over the coming few months and we are all feeling a bit greedy for it. We dusted off our rain gauges and send text messages…
‘Did you get rain?’
‘Yes, we got 5mm, how about you?’
‘No, it missed us completely.’
And so on.
The cherry tomato vines are growing like stink, the fig tree has its first babies and they are growing daily, and my lovely Bay tree that is about 15 years old and has survived my benign neglect for most of those years, has hit its stride and joined the happily growing throng.
And finally. Filling in the spaces of time between the many and varied activities of a domestic engineer/gardener/tech consultant/sporadic blogger, I’m trying to again find my mojo as a practicing artist. To take away the intimidation of a white canvas, I cut up a cardboard box, primed it and painted a loose little scene of my beloved Spinifex Pigeons and Finches from our recent trip to Kings Canyon.
There are plenty of unpleasant things going on around us too, but I choose to spend as much time as possible in the realm of nature, Rilke and Mary Oliver…
Minutes ago I was up to my forearms in purple gloves, digging in cow manure for an earthworm. If that sounds oddly reminiscent to you, like the story of the optimist and the pessimist twins who were both given a roomful of shit for their birthday, you may be on to me. The pessimist child was sad and thought all she deserved was a roomful of shit. But the optimist sibling enthusiastically dived into the shit-filled room and declared ‘With all this shit, there must be a pony in here somewhere!’
Last summer was a total disaster for my herb garden, and a new low point for my gardening skills in general. Admittedly, I’ve not embraced a lot of the maintenance and prep-work as I should have. Ours is a harsh climate and we were traveling more. And sometimes I’m just ridiculously hopeful. Given the chance this year to pursue my hermit tendencies has meant time to think…time to prepare, time to get my ass in gear and build a garden, albeit a small one to start with. And I have a secret weapon now that I have not always had…a gardening guru.
Here are her credentials:
It all started back in April when we contracted our favourite paving genius, Scott, to pull up the old pavers in the courtyard and re-lay them, removing tree roots and other impediments to a level paving surface once again. I really didn’t need to break a hip by falling on the way to the clothesline. As we were clearing away the various piles of old pavers and bricks, left over from at least four other jobs, as well as various stacked pots, the garden beds were clearly revealed. They were in an unimpressive state of compressed soil, so poor it was hard to believe I’d been growing herbs in them for some 20 years!
Scott and his helpers came and performed their levelling magic. But something inside me was niggling…level pavers was just not enough. Those garden beds were a wasted opportunity. My large kitchen window looks out over the courtyard, which, in summer when the spa is uncovered is pleasant enough, but the other 8 months of the year it is pretty ordinary. I’d managed to grow enough herbs over the years to sustain my culinary activities, but even that had dwindled to a paltry half dead mint plant and a lonely dwarfed parsley that wanted to survive, but needed intervention.
I’m always in awe of the creativity the human brain can conjure when allowed to ramble freely. Mine began to conceive of a built up herb garden, with completely fresh growing medium and something that added beauty to the area. My good friend who I call my ‘Gardening Guru’ (GG) told me of a growing medium she had stumbled upon a couple of years ago. Manure. Surprisingly, she said that she used PURE, dried out and decomposed cow manure. Knowing she grows the most amazing vegetables every year (see above photo), my ears pricked up. Could this be my transitioning agent, from lacklustre gardener to Miss Confident Gardner 2020? God knows 2020 needs to have been a good year for something!
Like a storm in my brain, the creative waves began to gather. I measured the space of my old herb garden and calculated if I dug down about 150mm, and built a retaining wall around the area, adding about 200mm height from ground level I would have a deep enough bed to put in gravel for drainage, and 3/4 cubic metre of cow poo as my growing medium. It would be deep enough to accommodate the root systems of herbs and some small veggies, like lettuce and rocket (arugula), should I feel more adventurous. Then, came the really creative part. Could I take five different sizes and colours of bricks, blocks and pavers, in varying quantities, left over from four different jobs and build one good looking garden surround?
First things first…transplant to a pot the poor little parsley plant that had survived the summer remaining almost the same size as when I planted it, six months previously. That done, in May I began digging out the 150mm of hard, packed old garden bed. It was just awful soil, full of rocks and very poor, compacted soil. What was I thinking? Knowing my 67 year old back is not used to hard labour, and that I also did not want to agitate fibromyalgia symptoms, I went about the project very slowly and carefully, digging with a pick and shovel a bucket of dirt at a time. I would carry the bucket of dirt to areas of the garden that just needed fill, but in which we didn’t want to grow anything. Engage abdominals, fill bucket, lift with my legs and lug the bucket of crappy soil from the courtyard to the receiving area. I could only do about six or eight buckets in one session. It was hard going.
After ten days or so the base soil was removed. Next I bought gravel to put in the bottom, for drainage. Then it was time to play with my blocks. I lost count of how many different patterns I considered but eventually I reasoned that the back of the bed could use the least attractive and even broken pieces because it would nearly all be covered by soil eventually. I began placing the best blocks and bricks into symmetrical patterns at the front, and things began to fall into place. After I laid the firm base using leftover driveway pavers, I could start at the front of the area, using the best bricks to make sure it looked attractive. Of course levels had to be maintained evenly so that once it was filled with the manure, it would look even and be easy to work around. Again, this phase had to be done in a number of sessions because… bricks. are. heavy. And they had to come from three different areas around the garden, where we had neatly stacked them. Fortunately, our little red hand-truck, gifted to my husband many years ago, was my valuable friend. (Thank you Chappie)
Purple gloves have been my gardening friends for years. They are sturdy and impervious and I know where my fingers are at all times. After months of serious hand washing and sanitising, the hands didn’t need any more wear and tear. Gradually the edge took shape. When I had finished, I had only ONE piece of a paver left. Every single other spare brick and paver had been used. No one was more amazed than me. In fact, I’m sure NO one will be amazed at all! When you look at the bed, it just looks like ‘oh, yeah, that looks normal.’ End of story. I hasten to add, I was not using cement to hold it all together, that would have been one skill too far for me, I think. But Scott had said he didn’t think I would need it, and so far it appears he was right.
Next I needed the cow manure to fill the remainder of the bed. Problem. The manure that was delivered had large chunks of very hard, decomposed material. GG told me it would be fine, just water down once it was in place and then use the spade or garden fork to break it up. Sounds much easier than it is, believe me. She said hers had been well broken down when she got it, but mine was still quite lumpy. She guessed that it was probably a local source and given our very dry couple of years, there had probably not been enough moisture to foster dung beetles who would have aided in breaking it down. The earth’s ecosystem at work, or not, in my case. Once again, my trusty bucket and I began shovelling shit and carrying it. This time it was actual shit. I carried from the pile on the edge of the yard, back to the courtyard and into the hole. Engage abdominals, shovel carefully, lift with your legs and carry to destination. Eight buckets a session. Every few days I would water it down and let the moisture soak the clumps then break it up with the gardening fork or the spade. And every couple of days I gave my body a rest day.
Somewhere during this stage of things I realised my fitness was improving. I began to look around toward continuing the activity once the herb garden was established. I finished up with some extra manure, so I decided to dig up the other small areas and incorporate the remaining manure into them. I could feel my courtyard beginning to love me back. After previous success with water rooted basil cuttings, I began to make cuttings of some succulents I had bought last summer but not known how to care for properly. What was left were some wilted branches, which I snapped off and put into water. Presto, I now have 10 perky cuttings all with roots, six of which are planted into pots for future transplanting. Then I took my mostly dead, wholly root-bound mint and divided it into three clumps (mint will survive almost anything, even me) and planted those into pots of fresh potting mix. They have bounced back like curls in a hair commercial. Totally giddy with success, I gratefully accepted my next door neighbour’s offer of seeds from her very interesting looking basil that has purple tips on green leaves. I scattered them into pots of fresh mix and I have lots of tiny green leaves poking their heads up.
We are still a couple of weeks away from planting seedlings, due to frost risk, but I am hopeful. The nursery of seedlings grows, the growing medium becomes more lush by the day, and my soul has been gently lifted by the effort and achievement. GG and I realise, we are at our best when maintaining our positivity (see others who find solace in nature here and here )
So, what does digging around my garden wearing purple gloves, looking for a particular earthworm have to do with this story?
As I was preparing the last little space of garden bed to receive its share of the cow poo makeover, I moved the rescued, and completely transformed, pot of parsley from the bed, up out of the way of the digging. As I did so, there was a lovely fat earthworm enjoying the moisture. Not wanting to cut him in half with my spade, I carefully picked him up and placed him in the new bed. After consulting GG as to whether I’d done the right thing, she suggested he might like a more moist area. So I donned the purple gloves and raced back outside to retrieve him and place him elsewhere that is consistently moist. But I was too late. He had already made himself at home and disappeared into the moist manure, hopefully to enjoy many years of happy digging. In fact, maybe that will make two of us. Nature shows us in myriad small ways how to dig around and be grateful and move forward. I’m always looking for my pony.
We could have had one last safari, making six, before we left Gondwana. But the last two had taken a toll on my tummy that I just couldn’t shake. The effect was worse than the roughest seas on the cruise and Don was happy to be done as well. We decided to get an early start for Franschhoek (pronounced: Fran-chook). We knew we were running low on energy and we had to save some for whatever might happen on our trip home.
When we said farewell to Felix we could tell he was very worried about his family and how he would support them. Gondwana had announced they would be winding down at the end of that week, keeping only a basic crew to maintain the reserve.
‘last one out, turn off the lights’
Just as when we had arrived to a welcoming committee, we left with a cheeky farewell from the Gondwana inhabitants. As we drove past small towns and townships* we felt quite heavy and sad, for we could see what was coming. In the townships people live very close together and many have poor hygiene and no transport, so they were hitchhiking rides. A perfect ‘vehicle’ for an eager virus. Even though the government was being very proactive with regard to the virus, and there were only a few hundred cases at that stage, we just knew what would likely befall them.
The drive was, again, very pretty landscape, and we had a nice, albeit brief, refuel and loo stop in Swellendam. We watched a local woman making ‘rooster bread’ as it is called. There was a little cafe two doors away who would make the dough and this lady came every day to cook the bread for them. She would roll the dough into mounds, then one at a time she would place a mound on the grill and pat it down. When it cooked on one side she turned it over to the other side and then stacked them up ready for the cafe to use. Apparently they put anything in them you would use in a sandwich. I would loved to have tried one, but we weren’t the least bit hungry so I asked to take the photos and thanked the woman, and we were on our way again.
We drove through the Franschhoek Pass to get to the town and so we had a stunning view of the area even before we’d arrived. This region, as with Stellenbosch, was famous for wine, but we were not going to experience that side of things on this trip, due to the alcohol restrictions. Our accommodation was a rather unusual place, set beautifully with the mountain as backdrop and a stunning scene from the outside tables as well. The L’ermitage Franschhoek Chateau was what I would call a group of holiday apartments, large bedroom and sitting area, with kitchenette and luxurious bathroom. There were all kinds of balconies and outside areas to sit which we used to advantage, while planning our activity for the following day. The place was even set out for weddings, with its own chapel and small reception hall. That evening there was a small wedding and reception, without alcohol but nonetheless enjoyed.
When it came right down to it, the town was mostly empty and with the wineries and museums closed we had to get a bit creative. We had seen something about a large organic farm a short drive from town and decided we would drive there and see if they were open. Again, we were lucky. They were open and due to small crowds, we had a private tour around the main gardens. It was their last day to be open due to lockdown measures and it was the most incredible place of that type we have ever visited. Babylonstoren** used their own organic produce to make nearly everything that was sold on the farm. There was a winery (closed, of course), a farm shop with dairy products, breads, meats, olives and many other things. The Scent Factory used their own herbs to make soaps, creams, perfume and other products. Also there were two restaurants, one that served large meals and one with smaller offerings, called The Greenhouse, our choice later in the afternoon. The lamb and olive pie, halloumi and salad sandwich and a shared dessert, were all homemade using their own organic ingredients.
It was the most relaxing, nourishing and calm place you can imagine and a perfect choice for our last full day in South Africa.
The last morning we were away smartly, though CapeTown was only an hour’s drive. By the time we filled the car with petrol, dropped off the rental and got to the airport several hours had elapsed. We had an hour or so to wait but we had eaten breakfast before departing L’ermitage, even though breakfast was being served in the airport lounge. I noted the food was all open and subject to any airborne germs that might be around, so I was glad I wasn’t hungry. I was pretty sure that uncovered food would not be the case for much longer. We could feel the tension everywhere.
So you see, the things we worry will happen to us, seldom do. And the things that we never see coming are the ones to bring us undone. Our bags were never lost. We were never sick, or seasick. I seldom had any problem finding food I could eat or the appropriate clothes from my suitcase. Even my pants fit perfectly to the very end.
Big challenges yield big memories…and they don’t get much bigger.
*townships are loosely equivalent to Indigenous communities in Australia, or Indian reservations in the USA
**Babylonstoren, so called because of the various languages in South Africa, having been settled by the French Huganots and the Dutch centuries before. And ‘storen’ is the word for ‘hill’ taken from one of those languages. The garden was designed by French architect Patrice Taravella.
Whenever I am asked what the climate is like in Alice, I answer that the temperatures range from -4 or -5C overnight in the winter to 40C+(104F) daytime highs in the summer. They usually respond with “Wow, that is hot” and it is the customary inside joke to reply “But it’s a dry heat”. At the moment, I really can’t say that without a huge caveat that we had 50% more rain than normal last year and it appears the pattern is continuing. The humidity and heat seep to my inner workings like rust into a motor, and nearly stop me. What doesn’t happen in the mornings before about 11am, seldom gets done until after a protracted siesta. (It is 6am and I am listening to rain as I write this)
can you see the green tinge on the ranges?
Don at work at the dining table with visitor and her joey looking in
Of course the local environment and our garden have responded to the wetter conditions, but not always in the ways we might have expected. The Ranges and outcrops are decidedly tinged with green, looking more like Ireland or Scotland than Central Australia. Wildlife is behaving somewhat differently, too. Usually when we have enough rain to boost the food sources in the scrub near town, the wallabies and kangaroos retreat from town to the bush and we don’t see them until things dry out again. This summer we’ve seen fairly regular appearances of them, one even stopping to have a look before breakfast earlier this week. My husband was working at the dining table and quietly called me to come have a look. I can usually tell by the quality of his voice if I need to grab my phone for a photo, and sure enough that was the case. A short while after this wallaby visited, a larger one, with joey under its own power, bounded up the steps and through the breezeway. They often use it as a ‘cut through’ to the scrub that is only one row of houses behind us. It was an entertaining way to start the day.
After the rain, droplets glisten like jewels
Curiously, a small family of dingoes has established itself nearby as well. It has happened previously, and is of some consternation to locals as the dingoes become fairly immune to urban life. Local domestic dogs have been taken and I have personally been stalked on my morning walks. The Rangers try to capture and relocate them when possible, but it can take a while. On a recent morning walk there were two dead and disemboweled wallabies near the path, and the following day another one. Very unsettling–and just possibly, the reason for the mums and their joeys to be moved in from out bush, if there has been a dingo population explosion–but I’m just speculating.
Bearded Dragon lizard (about 35cm/14″) long
Bearded dragon lizards have also made their presence known in larger than usual numbers this year. Found this poor fellow recently deceased along the walking path this morning. We have one in particular at our place that suns itself on the grassy knoll in front of the dining windows. (behind where the wallaby appeared) We watch with great interest how brave he is. One morning he seemed doomed, fending off five butcher birds that had him trapped. He prevailed, snapping back and outwitting them.
The native flora in the area has blossomed profusely, providing stunning photography subjects, as well as exceptionally stunning hay fever. Fortunately mine is mostly controlled with lubricating eyedrops and my husband has a nasal spray that he uses so that we can both sleep at night.
Because the cloud and rain kept the earlier summer months cooler than normal, many flowering plants came on later than usual. Our citrus trees have suffered the most, the lime having only about a dozen fruits and the lemon tree which is normally prolific, not a single fruit. Puzzling. Both trees are about 15 years old and, except for the first year, have never missed a year without more than enough fruit for us and the neighbours.
there’s a fungus among us
perfectly carved leaf veins
mushrooms are a rare sight here
Todd River flooding the causeway we normally travel to town
lady bug landed on piece of plastic wrap
In the darkest hours, the Outer Kingdom is filled with a din of crickets punctuated by the clicking of burrowing frogs that have come to the surface for their short life cycle. Spiders have nearly taken over outside, spanning incredible distances that I can’t help but admire…from afar. Every morning on my walk I have to carry a stick to clear the webs in front of me. Walking into spider webs is very unpleasant. I’ve seen grown men react worse than me. Ants frantically try to find dryer ground in between bouts of rain. Last summer we had the giant grasshoppers, but this is the summer of the teeny tiny ones. Their hundreds are no less damaging, devouring the tasty green parts of fig leaves with incredible precision. I live in hope of one year having figs on this, my third attempt of growing fig trees in 25 years. There has also been an explosion of that most charming of insects, the lady bug. I have had a dozen or more inside the house, which I have gently transported to the Outer Kingdom again. In fact, just now, when taking a break from writing I walked to the kitchen, and there was another one ensconced on a piece of plastic wrap!
I can’t help but think if I lived in a big city and the weather was significantly different, I may have missed all the changes taking place. But here, it is in our faces, and mostly we like it that way…as long as it isn’t attached to a web.
We are blessed with amazing natural beauty here. It is almost criminal to take it for granted. But we do. Sometimes. Take the clear blue skies we often have… I long for some cloud now and then, not to mention a little rain. Clear blue skies have an implied imperative that one must get out and make the most of it. But all I want some days is to curl up with a book and listen to some music mingled with the sound of drizzle on the metal roof. I got my chance last weekend, which included Mother’s Day. Since I couldn’t be with either our daughter or my Mother, listening to rain, reading and floating between cups of coffee, ginger tea and preparing one of our favourite meals (here) was a fine situation to have.
after the weekend of rain
rain on the ponytail palm
vestiges of a cicada summer
Rain brought the early signs of winter with it. The vestiges of summer are pretty depressing after the grasshoppers decimated our citrus trees. The lime is an early producer so we had ample limes, but the lemons, which I use much more often, don’t look like they will be able to mature with the lack of leaves for some photosynthesis. (don’t be confused by the photos, the lemon is the green fruit-left and the limes are the yellow ones–I know!) My herb garden is looking very sad, I won’t bore you with a photo, but suffice it to say, most of it will be dug out soon and the soil and irrigation replaced, along with a renewal of plants. I did have one victory, however. The bay tree I worked to save from scale infestation last summer has yielded a nearly perfect harvest this year and will certainly last me another year.
unripe lemon on denuded tree five months ago
Waterlogue edit of home grown limes and bay leaves
Baking weather has returned and my fourth ever loaf of homemade sourdough spelt bread has emerged miraculously from the oven this morning. Maybe I’m just easy to please after not being able to eat bread for years, but it is pretty much my dream loaf.
Sourdough spelt bread ‘chips’-great for dipping or snacking
Last night the heat bag reappeared and was warmed and woven around my feet. The little mug I save for warm milk and honey was again filled and slowly sipped, until I was warmed inside and out. Such is the change of seasons and our delight in their coming and going.
This fig leaf was lunch for the grasshoppers, and they are still hungry!!
First, thank you to everyone who commiserated and encouraged me in my time of loss of Kitchen Mojo last month. I’m happy to say it has nearly returned to normal. That is to say I’m having the usual number of failures rather than the dismal number I was having this time last month! It has been a battlefield here. We had a very wet start to January, followed by an invasion of thousands, and thousands of grasshoppers. They have nearly devoured my favourite herbs, citrus leaves, curry leaves and even my sapling fig trees. I don’t like to use poisons on my edible plants, for obvious reasons, so I have very reluctantly employed the ‘compression method’ my husband taught me.
Ick. But effective.
Well, let’s put it this way, I’m losing the battle more slowly than I was previously.
Bay Tree – BEFORE
The next, and ongoing, battle was a bad infestation of scale insect on my 10 yr old Bay tree. Because of our heat here I couldn’t just spray with white oil and let it do the job. White oil will kill the plant at temps above 30C. So I had to strip all the leaves from the tree that had scale on them, while leaving the newer growth to help it recover. Then I had to spray the branches and trunk with the white oil, leave it under cover and out of direct sun for two days, then gently spray with soapy water and use a soft brush to wash it off. So far, it has worked. I am checking the leaves every few days and scraping the occasional scale off and tiny new leaves are appearing. When winter comes I will be able to spray it again.
Ham and bean soup with corn bread
Meanwhile, in the kitchen we’ve enjoyed a few nice meals inspired by the cool temps that came with the rain event. Leftover ham bone from Christmas made a delicious, savoury cannellini bean soup, along with corn bread made in my new cast iron pan. The cast iron pan is another battle I’m slowly losing, but I have not given up.
Buckwheat pancakes with fresh blueberries, peaches, apricots, walnuts and Greek yogurt (inspired by our own Bizzy Lizzy here)
The seasonal fruit has been delicious this year, with or without buckwheat pancakes!
Australian grown peach
If there is a more gorgeous fruit than a fig, I’d like to see it.
Lamb Mignon created by Milner Meats, Alice Springs
A wonderful new find from our butcher is ‘lamb mignon’. They use fillet or backstrap pieces and wrap it in bacon (their own) and skewer it for cooking on the barbecue/grill. Delicious.
I’ve been experimenting with some salads that are substantial meals in themselves.
finely shredded chilli and cabbages and crushed mustard and fennel seeds
Chilli Cole Slaw
And, finally, my creation of the month, as declared by my husband, is Chilli Cole Slaw. We have some medium/mild yellow chillies growing and so far the grasshoppers haven’t developed a taste for them, so I have plenty to use. I finely shaved two colours of cabbage, added the finely sliced pieces of chilli, then… wait for it… the magic ingredients… about ½ tsp each, mustard seed and fennel seed, finely ground in my tiny mortar and pestle. For a lighter than normal dressing I used organic, Greek yogurt, thinned with a little apple cider vinegar, whatever sweetener you like, and a bit of salt. The dressing should have a sweet/sour taste which offsets the chilli nicely. I used about 1/3 C for 3 C of shredded cabbage, but adjust it to your own liking.
Spring fills me with a little bit of crazy. Something inside me feels just a tiny bit drunk with magic. It is, perhaps, a little more subtle here, in arid land, than in other climates, but there is no doubt when it arrives.
herb garden: chilies, mint, parsley, basil, oregano, dill, thyme, onion, chives (rosemary, curry tree and lemon thyme are elsewhere)
Onions against mosaic wall
My winter-worn herb garden has been transformed into culinary promise. (The bloody fairies went ‘walkabout’ when I needed them… but all is forgiven now.)
bees on onion flower
A month ago, the rosemary bloomed profusely, sending out the invitation ‘Come one, come all, there’s a party in this garden!’ The citrus trees soon joined the festivities and have set small fruit. This week, onion flowers are the perfect source for drinking nectar.
Non-native wildlife, behaving suspiciously
No doubt the neighbours have seen me around, creeping… oddly, capturing images in early morning light… off with the fairies, perhaps?
tiny green visitor, shot with macro lens on iPhone camera
translucent wings of moth shot with macro lens
A few tiny, winged creatures find their way inside. I lean and stretch and contort as I capture their delicate profiles.
evening light illuminates kitchen
Rays of light also find their way inside, as well as illuminate the outside from new angles.
laden Wattle tree against blue sky
Native Wattle trees are heavy with musky scent and ball fringe– ready for Mardi Gras!
Fragments of childhood visit briefly; “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree….” (Joyce Kilmer 1886-1918)
“Ring-a-ring-a rosie, pocket full of posies…”
Desert Rose, floral emblem of the Northern Territory, Australia
Fig cuttings ‘nursery’
figs in larger pots with irrigation
Fiona fig, redolent with promise–yet again!
The fig babies have gone from the nursery to more spacious surroundings, so they can survive the harsh summer heat. Old friends have donned new green frocks, pretending they will play along! Be careful Fiona, there are four adolescents vying to take your place! (see 2013 Spring in Arid Country)
Gazanias (for nibbling) in kangaroo thoroughfare (with compost bins!)
Especially for the resident kangaroos, there is the ‘gazania run’… located in their regularly used thoroughfare, punctuated with a peace offering of water at the end. (It seems to stop the little darlings tearing at the other plants as they try to get to the water at irrigation points.)
I have a secret little patch of… watercress… plenty of moisture in a sheltered pot, shaded by the yucca plant. Shhhh…
light on curry leaf tree and yuccas
New season light has incited my rebellion for the mundane… breakfast cooked to inedible this morning, and where was the cook?? Running back and forth to see if golden highlights had reached this plant or that corner of the garden. What is food when you are crazed with Spring?
Last July when we were travelling in the UK, we had a couple of fantastic days in Southern Wales. Most of our time was spent in gardens and enjoying the scenery. During our travels I attempted to publish posts to keep you up with things. But wanting to do justice to this beautiful place that is a tribute to the culture and the volunteers who are saving it, I have saved it for a post all its own.
We have seen some wonderful gardens in recent years, but none more special than one called Dyffryn. The estate was in disrepair after an attempt to make it into a luxury hotel failed. Unfortunately the home had already been stripped of most of its original features before it became apparent that the purchaser would not have the financing to follow through with renovations.
Tireless volunteers have assisted the National Trust and worked for years restoring the estate home and garden back to former glory. And it is not finished yet. I can’t imagine how much effort they have put into it.
Though it rained lightly throughout our visit, it didn’t dampen our experience. In fact, the overcast day saturated the colours while leaves and blossoms glistened as if encrusted with diamonds. The garden revealed itself like a demure young beauty, formal at first, then sweet with promise. Rooms within rooms, layer upon layer of texture, scent and colour live vividly in my memory.
Some days are diamonds, I hope you are having one.
Stones are unpolished gems, gems are polished stones. These are not the same thing.
Early morning panorama
Before the ‘treatment’
The garden is a deeply, sensual experience, pungent smell of eucalyptus, fresh mulch, occasionally feint urine! It is tactile and rewarding, unyielding as well as fragile. The morning chorus serenades, and daylight’s first rays highlight shapes and textures all around me. And still, I taste the lingering coffee in my mouth…
Purple gloves better than fingers.
Stones are small, ROCKS are large.
Stones without edges
The round ones roll… and roll… easily moving along the earth, unlike those of us with sharp edges that get caught on things.
The stones don’t stay where I toss them, or place them, they seek their own place. How human of them. No two are exactly the same, try though they might to be so.
Singly they can draw attention, preside. En masse they create driveways, castles, great walls, kingdoms and continents, planets.
home to wildlife
My friend told me once ‘Alice has an endless supply of sticks’. But the supply of stones is infinitely more. It is that exactly.
What makes a good stone? Who can answer this? All beauty, strength and purpose is in the eye of the beholder.
Fingers better than purple gloves… sometimes.
These were some of my thoughts as I donned my purple gardening gloves to transform the edges of our driveway this week. An hour at a time was all my back and knees could handle. Each morning I raked out the stones from the edges, carefully, to leave the embedded ones for stability. Stone by stone I separated out four years of debris and put the stones back. The refuse was all organic and so went to compost and mulch…full cycle, and recycle.
After the ‘treatment’
The purpose of this seemingly useless task? It was twofold. The debris that gathers amongst the stones eventually fills up the cracks between them and covers them over. It hides their beauty, and also begins to spill onto the driveway, making it difficult to see the edges when we are driving the car in and out. The driveway is rather steep, so this matters from a practical standpoint. And the beauty forthcoming is self evident.
Some of the large rocks that create the structure of the driveway are but the tips of the bedrock our house and our neighbourhood is built upon. They were never going to move, so we added to them and created our rock garden, edging the driveway. With fresh mulch and a trimmed branch here and there, I think it now looks like it has had a facial and a haircut, don’t you? And perhaps a strand of stone pearls to set it off…
Strand of stone pearls
Pablo Neruda inspires me with his poetic essay ‘Some Words for a Book of Stone’
It is the poet who must sing with his countrymen and give to man all that is man: dream and love, light and night, reason and madness. But let’s not forget the stones! We should never forget the silent castles, the bristling, round gifts of the planet. They fortify citadels, advance to kill or die, adorn our existence without compromise, preserving the mysteries of their ultraterrestrial matter, independent and eternal.