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.
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?
There is much to learn in nature. Possibly the only thing Nature can’t teach us is how to get on with other humans… or how to repair a motorcycle. Still, there is much to learn. What doesn’t kill us makes us strong, it is said. And what does it take to be strong? Resiliance, perseverance, growth, being true to ourselves while still being flexible, honouring our own innate and individual beauty… I’m sure you can name more…
The little Desert Pea that ‘could’
So here is the story, of the Desert Pea who grew voluntarily, and with no water to encourage it. It shone its beauty and was admired. Greatly.
The giant’s path
And then the giants came. For days they were jack hammering, digging, and shaking the earth until it seemed everything would fall apart. But the little Desert Pea was saved. The nice workmen honoured it and protected it, as if it was their own.
The giants did their job, and leaving behind their prints on the ground, they went away.
Spring was approaching and it was time to mulch the garden. The men delivering the mulch didn’t know about the little Desert Pea….and it was buried alive!
There is hope
Soon it was uncovered, bit by bit, leaf by leaf. It was broken and battered from life, and near death experience, but it was alive.
And on this first day of Spring, it is reborn, much admired…and very well mulched.
I am doing something I have seldom done, I’m referring you to another blog that I regularly read. For those of you who are sick and tired of being sold things you didn’t ask for, you will enjoy it. For my part, I have to say, I pretty much follow Celi’s health plan, but things happen to us regardless and I also have health insurance. It is a good story, nevertheless, and her idea of how to eat and live is very good.
Apparently weather that is perfect for humans is also perfect for growing dandelions! We had a week of gorgeous weather, some rain followed by mild nights and warm days. Then, one morning I looked into the courtyard garden from my position behind the kitchen sink, and realised there were teeny tiny cotyledons in every space imaginable. This is not normal when you live in an arid climate!
Behind the clothesline, was another line…a green one, dainty and verdant. Nestled beside the wheelbarrow, little racket shaped, chartreuse seedlings optimistically reaching for their share of sunlight, in a winter shaded space.
behind the clothesline
bolt and blue
Nestled in with the spinach, the dandelions cried out to me, ‘pick us too, we are edible!’ I was merciless and plucked them one by one from the soft earth, piling them methodically for certain death. There is something very satisfying about pulling weeds when they release themselves easily, and yet, it is a sad demise.
Immortalised, here in cyberspace, like ‘stains of proof that something was once there but is no longer’ (see ‘Plan B‘)… my photographic homage to the most talked about, photographed, pulled, maligned, wished-upon weed in the world. The least among us, but alive just the same until some weedin’ woman comes along…
For some reason I seem to think it is part of my mission in life to share small insights with you. Dear readers, I hope you will not think it too self indulgent of me to share the following…
Some days our psyches need to do some catching up, a bit like a computer that is processing information. Yesterday was one of those days for me. Yesterday my intuition said, more strongly than usual, ‘Time out.’
Doing something that seemed like nothing was (apparently) where I needed to be. And soon I found myself in front of a pile of large sticks at the top of the driveway. I would break big sticks into little sticks, for fire starters. Really? We no longer have a wood-burning stove… I do surprise myself sometimes. Not being inclined to ignore intuition, legs, arms, back and mind all went to work, snapping and cracking and stretching and whirring (the mind not the arms!)
Pile of little sticks
Thoughts drifted into and out of my head…. Dad telling us to ‘police up the yard’ when we were kids. Translation: pick up the sticks laying everywhere. We always groaned. It was like punishment then, like therapy now. Also I remembered someone saying about chopping wood, ‘it warms you twice, once when you chop it and the second time when you burn it’. And I thought, my little sticks might even warm a third time if I gave them to someone with a wood-burner, all snapped into perfect lengths ready to use. Such a little gift might warm their heart.
Crunch…pop…rrrrip…crack… I cried thinking about how much Mom and Dad loved us when we were tiny and how lucky we were to have a safe home and parents who wanted the best for us. Snap…crack… more tears after watching a one minute video (Gretchen Ruben: The years are short) about enjoying the present with our children. Also it reminds me to be present for my own life, every minute of every day.
Crack…crunch…snap…Breaking sticks was moving meditation, bringing me into the present, giving me the space to feel, and to see the new growth in the garden, and in my life. Never underestimate the power of doing a something that seems like nothing.