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A couple of weeks ago we noticed some new wasp-like insects, busily pollinating the Siberican Motherwort plants. They were marked just like wasps, but flew like bees, or hovered a bit, every now & then there would be a flurry as two larger bees fought, or a large one grabbed a smaller one.

Honey Bee (left) Wool Carder Bee (right)

Honey Bee (left) Wool Carder Bee (right)

Wool Carder Bee

Wool Carder Bee

 

We’ve discovered the best way to find out new things on google is to go to ‘Images’ to search, much quicker than trolling through loads of websites, so off we went in search of this rather alarming new visitor, and this is what we learnt:

These new insects are in the family Megachilidae: which includes Leafcutters & Mason Bees. They are Solitary Bees, not forming large colonies like the Honey Bee. The females are about half the size of the males, they have specialised rows of hairs on their legs, which they use to scrape ‘wool’ the downy fur from leaves like Woolly Lambsear. They carry this wool beneath their bodies, & use it to line their nests. The nests are found in disturbed habitats, cavities in rotting wood, & timber stacks etc.

The larger males are very territorial, attacking & chasing off any other pollinators from their patch, they also harrass the females, and “immobilise them, trying repeatedly to mate” not very endearing habits! Although they seem aggressive there does not seem to be any evidence that the Wool Carders are damaging our native bee populations or affecting the honey bees to any noticeable extent. The Wool Carders gather pollen from exotic plant species, with long tubular flowers, & have a preference for purple & blue flowers, although in our garden they were only found around the Leonurus sibericus flowers, which are pink. As yet we haven’t found any nests, but there is so much wilderness around the creek, they could be anywhere.

 wool bee 008 (shrunk) wool bee 024 (shrunk)

Our ports are our vulnerable spots for new species to enter NZ and these bees were first noted in 2006 in Napier & Nelson, since then they have spread out to over a dozen locations. I think in our garden since we stopped keeping bees, & the wild bees died from varroa, a much larger variety of pollinators are present in our gardens, this is reassuring in a way, that nature is filling the gap. We see far more Hover Flies, Drone Flies, Bumble Bees & Native Bees than we used to.

The other shift we’ve noticed over the last 5 years or so, is that we have less of the red & black spotted Ladybirds & more of the irridescent Steel Blue Ladybirds, this year a new arrival was the Yellow Shouldered Ladybird, which looks like a dusty blue bug, with big yellow spots, these were most often found feeding on the aphids at the top of the Swan Plants. They were impossible to photograph!!

It’s unsettling having new things arriving & wondering what these changes mean, & also missing old friends like the Magpie Moth & Cinnabar Moth, which used to be common in our gardens.

Well, our new system for growing tomatoes seems to be working well, so I thought I would put it here, in case someone wants to try it. What we have found, is that the low growing bush varieties, especially Scoresby Dwarf, are cropping really well, but the staked ones are not so prolific.Next year we shall grow perhaps 6 or 8 staked plants to add colour & variety, but stick to Scoresby Dwarf for our main crop. We have been diligent in removing any leaves that look unhealthy.

Tomato Harvest Veges from Garden

The original directions said to dig a hole 60cm deep & bury fish heads in it, but we didn’t manage to get hold of fish heads, so we improvised. In a bucket we mixed dried coffee grounds, epsom salts, plant mycorrhizal powder (from our local health shop),crushed, dried egg shells & worm castings.

We dug deepish holes, not 60cm, & put a good handful or two of this mix into the hole, followed by one disprin per plant. We trimmed off the lower leaves on our plants, so that the lower 10cm or so of the stems were bare, & planted them up to where  the leaves started.

The plants have grown well, & are providing us with plenty of fruit. Once a week Geoff sprays them with his special brew, which is 2L elder leaf liquid, & 3L comfrey/nettle/seaweed liquid fertiliser &  worm wees. This spray is designed to keep the psyllids at bay, & so far it’s working. The peppers & eggplants, & spuds also get a dose.

To make the elder leaf liquid fill a large saucepan 2/3 full of leaves, cover with cold water & bring to the boil. Simmer for 30 mins, cool then strain into bottles. It seems to keep several weeks ok. Simplest method of straining is to fold some net curtain into the funnel you use for filling the bottles.

Whenever the coffee grounds collect up, I mix them with some epsom salts, about 1:1 & sprinkle around the base of the plants.

So far we have made 9kg of the roasted “Harvest Tomato Sauce” (Annabell Langbein’s recipe), for pasta etc, & put in freezer, that’s about 30 cups worth, also have several batches of Ratatouille in the freezer, which is great for using the extra eggplants & zucchini, & shall definitely make lots more. This is a real treat in the Winter, when it reminds us of warm Summer days. Especially good added to Lamb Casseroles, with a tin of chickpeas & some Middle Eastern Spices.

January in the garden.

Today we have rain, what bliss. Our poor gardens have been hanging in there, the borders have only been getting enough water to keep them from complete wilting. It looks like we’ll have several days of relief, & even if there is not enough rain to really water the ground the plants & us get some respite. I went out early this morning and took some photos, I could just about hear the gardens sighing with relief!

a storm comingasparagus ferns 1happy frog in rain 1Tree Dahlia stem gathering water 1

It’s been a busy month, we have had a combined family exhibition at the Hastings Community Arts Centre. Nine family members, ranging in age from 12 to 87. It feels  very special to share this with my Mum & Aunt  & I hope when I’m in my eighties I could be part of such a venture. When we made plans for this, of course, it was in the Winter when we had spare time, & the reality was that we were all pretty busy & it was so hot we could barely move. Luckily we found a supply of iced coffees to sustain us through the setting up.

millstream poster 

The vege gardens are thriving, we have used quite a bit of mushroom compost this year to mulch areas, & we found details of a way to plant tomato plants, which although a bit more complicated at the time, seems to be having good results. We’ve also beeen brewing up elder leaves as an insecticide to keep the psyllids at bay, so far it looks promising. Of all the veges we grow, tomatoes are probably our mainstay, & if we can freeze a whole lot for the Winter we will be very happy

.tomato crop 1 Summer Garden 1

The herb garden has been a mixed bag, our Arnica crop has been amazing, loads & loads of flowers. We’ve learnt that they need to be split up & replanted at least every second year, but preferably every Spring. Meanwhile our new planting of St John’s Wort has been a failure, from what I can find out, we have a fungal problem called anthracnose, which kills the stems at ground level, so that whole stems of fine looking plant die off over night, it’s very worrisome.  In the last few years, it seems we have more problems in the gardens, the psyllids/ virus on tomatoes & spuds, anthracnose, moulds on the alliums, raiding birds eating half ripe fruit: it’s a fraught business being a gardener.

Unripe Elderberries 1Amazing Arnica crop1

Luckily the positives far outway the negatives, & just stepping barefoot out the door, into the herbs & flowers never fails to lift my heart, what a privilege it is to live this way. I think back to my childhood in England, where our outdoor area was a square of concrete, with room for dustbins & coal bunkers, & the plants growing there grew in the cracks in the walls, I feel so very blessed

.Tui by deck

Thoughts on herbal medicine

Geoff came across this speech, written by Rob McGowan about working with plants, traditions of healing, & the need for working with intent. It’s a bit of a trendy sales pitch these days, but the reality of working closely with the plants in our gardens & bush is that it adds a whole added dimension to our lives & our remedies. This speech is a wonderful, concise & eloquent description & exploration of that relationship. I hope you will take a few minutes to read it.

http://rongoanz.blogtown.co.nz/2010/06/02/rob-mcgowan-nzamh-conference-29-30th-may-2010/

I remember attending a Herb Conference, some 15 years ago now, & I had the feeling that I was out of step with many of the other participants, who could discuss at length the strengths of tinctures & how many  papers they had achieved in various modalities. (Interestingly, many of them could not identify even the commonest weeds & plants, or where to find them.)

Then Susun Weed stood up to speak, she spoke of the Wise Woman Way, & the gentle plants & their uses. I sat in the audience, moved to tears, feeling validated in my hands-on knowledge, that my years of having soil on my hands & under my feet counted for something. That something may not be quantified but it is valid, & for me it is the foundation of my love of herbs.

A stand of Salsify seed heads, Te Onepu Road

Turn of the wheel

The wheel has turned, & we are resolutely looking at Spring. My wishful dreams that we would be all tidy in the gardens with time to spare have evaporated! Suddenly everything is growing, weeds, blossoms, tiny bulbs, lambs, catkins, willow leaves, that awesome sense of shift & hidden movement as sap rises & life returns.

English Violets Magnolia stellata

Primroses Swallows return

We tidied our boxes of seeds the other day & put all the really old ones in a bag, which I shook out around the edges of the gardens. Many of these were Aquilegias from the days we ran the nursery, Nora Barlow, Nora’s Sister, Little Warwick, Red Star, doubles, singles & clematiflora types, if only 1% germinate we will have some treasures.

This is the time to get seeds sown, we spent a happy couple of hours sowing seeds in the greenhouse today, & we are even in phase with our moon calender, which says from now to the 7th Sept is good for plants above ground. We have sown punnets & pots of tomatoes, peppers, curcubits, & other veges, plus some herbs like Burdock, Valerian & Cardoon, plus some odd packets of very old seeds we hope might grow.

It’s also the time to start seed potatoes sprouting, (see chitting potatoes in blog) this makes sturdy sprouts, ready to grow fast once they are planted in about 6 weeks time.

We had our first, modest feed of Asparagus this week, early in the season, & so delicious with butter & black pepper. Our ratbag sheep got into the gardens & stripped all our beautiful brassicas bare, so now we have stumps where once there were heads of broccoli & cabbages forming. Very depressing after such a good start. We might get a few late heads of Broccoli from them. We had the last word  with the sheep, two wethers, which are now in the freezer! We are getting tough!!

unruly flock Brassica stumps

This year we are altering our vege growing, no pumpkins, we never eat enough to use what we grow. Only early spuds to avoid/minimise the psyllid problem, & a new super feed system for our tomatoes, which includes fish heads, aspirin, bone meal & worm castings, fingers crossed.

Finally I just want to say what amazing big skies we have here, they are stunning, here are a couple of pics to inspire you.

skies Aug14 019 (shrink) skies Aug14 004 (shrink)

We had a big frost last week, & went out to take some photos. Rugged up against the cold, in thick jacket, hat & gloves it was possible to appreciate the delicate beauty of the early morning. Giles had discovered some photos online of frozen bubbles, so we spent some time playing with that idea, & blowing bubbles onto the roof of the car. Most pop quite fast, but the ones that stay very slowly freeze, with those lovely fern-like patterns that frost makes. As gardeners we are happy to get some good frosts to help clean the garden of nasty bugs & also to provide the chilling that many of the plants we grow, need, to  anchor them into their seasonal cycle. Most of our garden & herb garden is planted in deciduous plants, trees & shrubs, which all enjoy a good frost & a rest over the colder months.

Bubbles & Frost

Frosty MorningSoft Morning Light

Our plants might be resting but we are not. We are re-organising our herb garden in a major way. The central bed had become totally overgrown by a tenacious mix of St. John’s Wort, Solomon’s Seal & Couch grass. Geoff has dug this out & we have sifted through the soil to pick out any roots left behind. We’ve planted a new bed of St. John’s Wort, where it is surrounded by lawn , so hopefully it will be contained.  We’ll plant annual herbs & vegetables in the old bed, so we can dig out any Couch etc that shows up. We’ve also doubled the size of our Arnica bed, so we should have a good crop this year. Next on the list is to clean up the Meadowsweet bed & split the plants up, as they are very congested & not producing many flowers. That area is also rife in Couch Grass, so we shall have a good dig around & mulch were we can. Mulching certainly seems to help keep the Couch under control, as it comes up to the surface, under the mulch, & is easy to pull out. We use old cardboard boxes or thick layers of newspaper, & cover these with leaf mulch or similar, heavy cover.

Couch roots under pavers Equisetum hyemale Cleared beds Couch & Taro

Our bath pond is also in need of a good sort out, it has a variety of Horsetail in it, E. hyemale,whichalthough not as rampant as E. arvense, still spreads & has nearly filled the bath. We shall have to dispose of the unwanted roots very carefully, probably on top of a bonfire heap. We are hoping our frogs will return in the Spring & be delighted to find a bit more space in their pool.

New St. John's Wort bed Tidy Herb Garden

Wintertime

Winter is here, after dragging it’s heels for some weeks. It has arrived in earnest.

We have filled our woodsheds with a mix of Willow, Robinia & Apple wood, which is a good combination for hot fires. Our routines change, we dawdle in house in the mornings, thinking of tasks that just have to be done beside the fire. Porridge has appeared on the breakfast menu, or tea & toast on an especially slow start. I have remembered last years soup recipes & made big pots of Pea & Ham soup, & our ‘Oxtail without the Tail Soup’, putting pots into the freezer for later. Casseroles & stews , lasagnes, Shepherd’s Pie & curries are in our thoughts, & on our plates. We have a great system at present, where Geoff, Giles & I take turns to cook, & we each cook enough for two nights, so we only cook once a week each, plus a fry up or freezer meal for the odd day, I love it. I’m starting to try out some new recipes, instead of just cooking in a rush as I often do.Frosted Garden Gingko after Frost

There’s nothing nicer than finishing work & coming home to a cosy fire & warm house, with maybe the option of a hot bath, courtesy of the coalrange. The cat has taken up residence under our old Fire Nymph, & we let our old dog Rif sleep indoors at night. They are both about 14 & getting a bit frail. Young Didgit gets put in the kennel, & wakes me in the mornings with her big, wet, cold nose thrust into my face.

Rif asleep Tripper under the Fire Nymph

The frosts have knocked back everything that dies down or simply dies with the cold, & at present there are drooping, wilted frost burnt leaves strewn about the gardens, looking rather depressing. The trees however look lovely, & golden leaves float down from them with every whisper of breeze. Despite the Winter chill, we are needing water, our rain tanks, which filled so well in April with over 200ml of rain, are getting low as we’ve only had 20 ml this month so far, the weather forecast always says rain later in the week, but when we get there, it has moved on again.

Mice & rats are a bit of a pest now, they gnaw at night sounding like they will eat through the timbers that hold the walls up, or that they are rolling heavy balls up & down, or maybe chewing through our wiring. I pretend to myself it just very noisy mice, but I am afraid that it’s rats in the walls. We have set traps & laid bait, neither of which we like to do, but it’s us or them.

Last weekend we got woken up at 5.30am by bangs & booms, it turned out to be duck shooters in the paddock behind our house. They were shooting Paradise Ducks, & over the day I think they wiped out the whole lot. I know they are a pest, & there were lots of them, but I do miss them. I have been in the habit of sitting in bed in the morning with a cuppa & watching them go about their duck business. Occasionally a hawk would fly over & the whole lot would rise into the air, & do that magic thing where they turn, flashing from black to white & black again. Now the paddock looks forlorn & bare. I guess it won’t be long before some other parries find the spot & move in.

Paradise Duck Decoy Brimfull woodshed

Our Feijoas are prolific & big this year, next on my ‘to do’ list is to cook some up & freeze, we’ve made Chutney & Feijoa Farmhouse Cake from an old Listener recipe, & of course we give them away to anyone who can be persuaded to take them. Luckily they are quite a bit later than most people’s crops so we can find takers. Giles has plans to make wine, to add to the growing collection wired onto our top shelf. This includes the Peach Parfait, Beetroot & Carrot with Lemon Balm.

Feijoas still on tree Autumn Bonfire

It’s both the bliss & burden of a ‘lifestyle’ block, the satisfaction & stress of using up, storing or giving away our harvests. I wouldn’t have it any other way, I’m happy to have time to do these things in amongst ‘work’, & really it all becomes one & the same, & I would never give this up for a huge salary, commuting to work & all the stresses that go with that.

The Sages

S. patens Salvia madrensis

Usually when I am preparing to write an entry in this blog, I wander around the garden with my camera & take photos of various interesting or obscure things. This time I found our collection of Sages, (Salvias) all flowering merrily because of our mild Autumn. So I am putting in a selection of images, most of these are ornamental rather than medicinal, but are so colourful & lovely that they are well worth growing. In fact I think we should get a whole lot more planted in our garden.

 S. mexicanaS.confertiflora Boatman's Sage S. bethellii

Some of them, like S. confertiflora (flirty Flora to her friends)S. patens  & S. madarensis are frost tender, so we will need to take cuttings VERY soon if we want to have plants next Spring. Luckily they grow readily from cuttings, so it’s not a problem. As well as these beauties I realised we have Pineapple sage, Annual Clary, & Pink & purple varieties of S. superba, Grahamii Sage plus a plant with small grey leaves & lovely blue flowers, all of which survive from year to year, the Annual Clary self seeds.

s. guaranitica Clary sage S.sclarea  Black Knight Sage

We’ve lost our Tricolour Sage, as it sulks with wet feet, & one of our Red Sages looks to be succumbing too, luckily we have several Red Sages planted about the place, & one in a pot to thoroughly avoid  wet feet during the Winter. Funnily enough, the Golden Sage, which is right next to the dead Red is looking perfectly happy.

We find the White Sage quite tempermental, some plants thrive, & others fade away, & it’s almost impossible to grow from cutting. The seeds germinate well but often we lose at least 2/3, strange. However once it is established it grows fast & well handling both hot summers & wet, cold winters. We burn the dried leaves in a bowl to clear energies, mostly because I simply cannot master the art of making Smudge Sticks. We’ve also made Hydrosol with it, & this is a really simple way to cleanse. I often mist myself when I come back from town, just to shake off all the busy vibe.

White Sage S. apiana Gold Sage S. officinalis Icterina Red Sage S.officinalis purpurea

 

 

Geoff & I have just spent a glorious couple of days, staying in a friends bach at Mangakuri Beach. It’s one of my most favourite places, with long sweeping stretches of polished, wet sand, which reflects the varying shades of  the sky.  There is hardly ever more than a few people there, if we go out of the busy season, a fact I never take for granted, having grown up on the Kentish coast, where you were lucky to squeeze onto a piece of sand the size of your beach towel, between the crowds also guarding their space.

Mangakuri at Low Tide

Ever since those early days, living by the sea I have had a love & fascination for the myriad forms of life that inhabit the rock pools & environs. So, despite it being an official ‘holiday’ for us, I got up early, & with Geoff & Didgit in tow,  headed off to explore the rocks at low tide. It’s some years since we have stayed at Mangakuri, & it has weathered severe floods in that time. We were dismayed to find, or rather ‘not find’ many of the creatures we were expecting to be living in the pools & under rocks. We did find quite a few Kina, & young Paua, plus their kin the Shield Shells, there were plenty of those little dark green crabs, with one claw bigger than the other, there were Limpits,Chitons, Cat’s Eyes & Barnacles, & a few Whelks. We saw two large purple starfish, a Sea Centipede & a few worms. What we didn’t see were any Hermit Crabs, usually abundant over most of the pools, no Sea Anemones, no Cushion Stars or their delicate relations the Brittle Stars. Where are the Seaweed Crabs & the little Octopus?

Mangakuri Rock Pools

Does anyone know why this beautiful beach & others nearby are so depleted in wildlife? Is it the ongoing effects of the floods, perhaps mud or sand being re-distributed? Is it the various effluents & chemicals getting washed down stream from farms much further away? Whatever it is, it is cause for concern, what was once a richly varied & teeming environment is now much poorer & depleted. I would really appreciate to hear from anyone who can perhaps shed some light on this situation.

I was talking to my Grandson about Hermit Crabs just the other day, & asked him if he’d ever seen one. when he replied that he hadn’t, I had airily said that we would take him to the beach & show him some….I hope we haven’t missed our chance.

Didgit meets a wave

Autumn Harvests

It’s a busy time of year for those of us with a strong ‘Inner Squirrel’. The last of our peaches have been picked, many given away, eaten, some cooked & frozen for the Winter, & some made (hopefully) into Peach Parfait Wine.Which we anticipate being a Rose Dessert Wine at some stage in the future. Of course there is a long way between the process & the imbibing & it can be a perilous journey! I’ll put the recipe & some pics in the Winemaking section.

Meanwhile the next onslaught is walnuts, & I am just as obsessive about gathering & hoarding those. Didgit the dog is a great help, merrily crunching or insisting that I throw the useless black nuts for her to chase. At the moment I am laying the nuts to dry on sheets of old frost cloth, in the garden caravan. When that is full I shall have to get myself organised & tidy the greenhouse so I can fill the benches. Once they are dried we store them in onion sacks until needed. We only crack enough to fill a jar or so at a time, or in a rush when in the middle of making bread or biscuits, & we realise the jar is empty. After the Walnuts come Feijoas, & then the pressure is off. No I lie, I have just been out playing ball with the dogs & realised that the Chestnuts are just starting to drop. The edible ones are the Sweet Chestnuts which are incredibly prickly, Horse Chestnuts (Conkers) are more like spiky helmets, the conkers are a beautiful rich brown, with swirls & lines on them, not edible but do have some medicinal uses, mainly in a tincture to treat varicose veins.

  

In the vege garden the Brassica that we planted some weeks ago, under netting, have thrived & look very promising. The Fennel plants are bulbing up nicely & the Leeks are plumping up, so our plans for Winter veges are on track. We have started weeding & clearing debris from various parts of the garden, as things finish up. We’ve plonked the mobile compost heap in the middle & heap piles of weeds & sheep poo into it. Luckily over a couple of days it compacts & we can fit more in. We’ve just been given two tiers of a worm farm & have started some tiger & red worms in it. It seems there is a bit of trial & error involved in keeping it going, so hopefully our new friends will thrive.

 

I cut back the Basil plants the other day, & experimented making Basil Oil. It has worked really well, & if you want to make your own it’s very simple, & also a great way to use up the flower heads. It needs no extra care to keep fresh & I think it will be brilliant for cooking with & adding to salad dressings, especially Tomato salads.

Basil Oil: Take all the trimmings & cram into a 1 litre Agee jar, fill with oil (I used Rice Bran, any mild oil will do) to within 2cm of top. This takes a whiles as the oil settles through the compacted leaves. In a smallish saucepan, put something in the bottom to keep the jar out of contact with the pan bottom. I used an Indian mesh ring that usually goes on the gas hob to spread the heat, this sagged a bit in the middle, so I put a tea caddy spoon in the centre. Sit the jar on this gadget & put in cold water up to about 2/3 way up the jar. Simmer on low heat for an hour or so, poking with a chop stick from time to time. Remember to keep the water topped up, using hot water. Strain when done & store in a glass jar or bottle in the dark, ready for creating amazing taste sensations.

 

Next experiment is Chilli Oil, using the same method, I shall report back later.