Archive for the ‘gardening’ Category

Small Murders

July 21, 2013

I don’t often feel murderous .  Sometimes people annoy me so much I’d like to kick them, but on the whole just saying so defuses the rage.  Bystanders and even my own nearest and dearest don’t get this:  ‘Ooh, she needs a good slap!’  I might say.  And then, miraculously, she doesn’t need one any more, just because I said it.  The trick works better if you say it out loud, but I have found that this doesn’t go down well at all with the public at large, so I just keep it inside my own head.  A very few, trusted companions, are allowed to share these thoughts.

All this is really to explain that I am keen on the non-violent life.  I try to avoid harming our fellow creatures, even ants and spiders; I buy meat and eggs fairly sparsely and only from free-range sources.   It’s not due to any religious conviction about the sacredness of life, or anything like that, just a feeling that we are sharing the earth and should try to do the minimum of harm to our co-habitants.

There are two categories of creature for whom I make an exception, and I go after them with bloodthirsty ruthlessness.  For years it was only one, but this year I added a second, and I have to say that I have been particularly successful with it.  That’s why I am posting this: it’s a brag post, really.

One day (years ago now) I was chatting happily to my mother-in-law, when she suddenly clapped her hands together in mid-air and snapped in satisfaction:  ‘Dratted things’.

Does either of these ladies look even slightly murderous to you?

Does either of these ladies look even slightly murderous to you?

This gentle pious relative had just killed a harmless-looking tiny brown moth, and I was amazed.

clothes moth

It seemed a bit random to  me: why a clothes moth, when she was so kind and generous in other ways?    But I had no idea they could be so destructive – until many years later there was a plague of the things – little holes all over my lovely cardigans and T-shirts.  Drawers full of hand-spun wool and raw wool were completely shredded; those bags of nearly-finished knitting had to go out. My kindly mother-in-law was long dead by then, but the memory of her passionate attack gave me permission to go after clothes moths.

They'll even eat carpets.

They’ll even eat carpets.

Luckily, shopping trends have swung full circle and now you can buy mothballs once again.  I tuck them into my drawers, and into my drawers, and they deter moths.  But I still clap my hands at passing small brown moths, and curse in the time-honoured manner.

This is a tiger moth - do not try to kill it.  It is innocent and on the whole too large for random hand-clapping.

This is a tiger moth – do not try to kill it. It is innocent and on the whole too large for random hand-clapping.


As anyone who watches American cop dramas knows, one murder leads to another.  A couple of years ago my lovely yellow lily failed to flower.  Somebody must have told me about lily beetles, but that was as far as it went.  The following year I saw that the leaves were being badly eaten – bloody lily beetles again!  This time I researched them.  Lily beetles are beautiful creatures, and very hard to spot.  You don’t really want to kill it once you find it.

Lily beetle: shining like a jewel from the Arabian Nights

Lily beetle: shining like a jewel from the Arabian Nights


The advice to gardeners is to crush it.  I found this really difficult- well they were really difficult to find, to begin with and then there’s the emotional difficulty of killing something so gorgeous.  My lilies were destroyed again that year.

2013, and in a new house.  It was now three years since I had seen my lilies, and I could hardly remember what they looked like.  It rose boldly from the pot and made lovely long leaves – then holes started to appear: lily beetle again!  This time, however, I knew to look for the larvae. They hatch from tiny eggs layed underneath the leaves – the beetle itself can hide in the ground and so make itself undetectable.  The larvae are truly disgusting – soft squishy little horrors.  I could only touch them with a tissue, and then squeeze.  You can tell when you’ve squished one properly, all right.

They get bigger and bigger as they pile up their own faeces around themselves.

They get bigger and bigger as they pile up their own faeces around themselves.

And so, every day, I went and checked my plant.  It had become a challenge to keep squishing.  I started to put coffee grounds on the earth as well – maybe that helped somewhat.  But I still hated having to squash the beetles themselves – I had to invoke the death-dealing spirit of my mother-in-law.  She wouldn’t have tolerated them for a moment.  Then there were a few days with nothing to squish.  Then one or two more larvae.  And then nothing at all .  The damage to the leaves had halted close to the buds – which went on to swell and bloom.

They turn out to look like this.

They turn out to look like this.

This picture isn’t of my actual lily – it’s just to give you an idea.  But mine is very similar.  Then in the same pot there came a bonus, for a completely forgotten hosta started to put its little green noses above the earth – very late in the season, but willing to have a go.  It seems that lily beetles like to feast on hostas as well.

the pleasure of the unexpected

a gentle  miracle



trees at the barn growing up

May 27, 2013

A while ago, in 2009, I blogged about the trees at our barn in the Berry.  Here are three of them in 2013.

 Cedar of Lebanon

Cedar of Lebanon

The cedar was one of the first trees we planted, back in 2001.  She has had some adventures – first she was seriously chewed by deer (Andrew put protective chicken wire around all the young trees after that).  Then she had to be moved to allow a drainage ditch to be dug around the perimeter – we weren’t even sure she would survive that one.  In fact the tree hardly seemed to notice the move at all.

the Larch

the Larch

Another of the 2001 planting.  This one suffered much more from the deer, and the trunk you see here was in fact just a small branch to begin with.  The original trunk died off completely.  Apart from that, every year has seen progress.

Red Oak

Red Oak

This one has only been in the ground here for a couple of years – planted maybe 2009?  It started slowly.  The leaves turn a beautiful red-brown in Autumn.  Ironically, back home in Leamington the red oaks are being systematically removed from the local park (the Leam Valley Local Nature Reserve) because they are non-natives.  It seems a little late – and incoherent – to be pulling up the drawbridge now.

Rain and Shine at Hahei

March 28, 2011

Monday 14th February – Thursday 17th February: Hahei Beach

Hahei Beach was damaged by storms – the edge of the cyclones that devastated North Queensland had also hit this coast hard. Landslips had closed roads and paths: the proprietor of the Tatahi Backpackers glumly showed us uprooted plants spread down the hillside: half his garden had fallen onto the road below. Clearly, cutting roads and paths into a hillside destabilises it, and invites these landslides. The evidence was there in lots of places on the Coromandel. You might argue that (by definition) we only saw the bits where there were roads, and that landslips can take place anywhere: but in fact plenty of native bush and steep hills can be seen, all still secure. The weather was still a bit chancy, and the walk to Cathedral Cove was closed (it might be open again by now). So we went for a drive. We parked at Ferry Landing near Cook’s Beach to take the ferry across to Whitianga and see the little local museum, with its extensive collection of photos and information about early life in the logging camps. (Perhaps inevitably) there was a charming DVD about Captain Cook and the Maori, apparently scripted and performed by members of the historical society. A discreet subtext of the displays (not loud, but deep) was a sense of outrage over the waste involved when the huge, ancient kauri were dragged out of the mountains and sent off to furnish the Empire with fighting ships. There is now a re-planting programme, which is something, but many of those trees cannot be replaced even by centuries of growth.
On Wednesday it rained on and off, but we got to Hot Water Beach just in time to paddle in the hot springs before the tide rose too high. Ravenous from all that and from a long time spent in the wonderful Moko Art Gallery there, we set off to find food – any food. Sweeping round a corner under dripping trees I spotted a rough and ready sign: Open fired Pizza  – winery.  The prospect seemed dubious, but indeed – quick decision –  down a short track we found a winery, with massive amounts of free tasting, excellent pizza, and a laid back atmosphere that anyone who lived through the sixties would recognise in a moment. Even the dark green paintwork and the Scottish waitress/cook sitting knitting a vast shawl looked authentic. I don’t for a moment think they try to create the atmosphere: they just are like that. We bought their wine and their Feijoa Liqueur, and wished we could have fitted many more bottles into our bags.

Purangi Winery

(Thanks to Kelly Chesterton’s blog for the picture.)
Back at Hahei, rain misted the hills and the out-of-focus low cloud was neither cool nor warm. The dark sea, hazy and flat, set up a rhythmic hushing monotone: a kind of white noise. I parked on the foreshore and watched the sea, wondering how best to photograph the rain. The birds had all vanished. Two kayaks circled and tipped endlessly where the murky grey-green waves were churning up sand, but my camera’s battery had flattened – the photos of islands in the rain, of headlands in the mist, would have to wait for some other year. But I swam in the cool grey waves under a light drizzle. Blissful.
On the last morning the sun came out, and brightened things up. Our useful host told us that some people had been through to Cathedral Cove anyway “using the old path”, so we decided to have a look. The path had returned itself to thick, dark-yellow clay, staining and very sticky, but there were indeed people coming back the other way. As we hesitated by the barricade and the ‘Path Closed’ sign, a Canadian clambering around it told us “It’s steep; you have to kind of rappel down; but it’s do-able.” The path itself was mostly quite easy going, but the last climb down into Mare’s Leg Cove was indeed steep: the topmost of the three flights of steps had completely washed away,

that's the top flight of steps, lying on the sand, right at the bottom

and the others were slippery from the muddy feet of the people who had been there before us.

two flights of steps were intact

We had explained the situation to a young German couple back at the barricade, and they decided to come along. They were agile down the cliff, and immensely kind – carrying my bag and offering a hand down.

behind those bright leaves is the tree root we used to rappel down the cliff

A New Zealander climbing back up showed us a slightly easier route, for the return: I imagine this was the ‘old path’ that the bloke at Tatahi had mentioned.

the alternative track up from Mare's Leg Cove

I’m noticing nationalities here because I really enjoy the multi-national feeling of Hahei, and of the folk whose sense of adventure led them along the forbidden path.

I mentioned the New Zealand attitude to rules in a previous blog. Here we found another interesting moment. Having disobeyed the sign telling us that Cathedral Cove was closed, we met some workmen on the way back, right by the barricade.
One looked at us (aggressively I thought) and said ‘Did you see the sign?’
‘Yes,’ Andrew answered (man to man).
‘And you chose to ignore it.’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
No further comment. I enjoyed the unemphasised assumption that we could exercise personal responsibility, and choice. He clearly thought we were stupid, but he allowed our right to be so.
We hustled back to Auckland in broad sunshine, to return the hired car on time.

Doyenne de Comice

November 4, 2010

It must have been forty or fifty years ago that some wise and benevolent person planted the pear tree in the back garden of this house.  Now, it is mature and beautifully shapely.  Each year with remarkable reliability it produces a crop of enormous pears.  I’ve never seen such beauties in any shop: the largest weigh in at just over a pound.

In fact one can follow their progress through most of the year – from the flaunting, shamelessly bridal blossom in early April with its attendant bees; the tiny early nubs of pears; the ‘June drop’ that clears out the excess; through the jaw-dropping gradual summer expansion of individuals into the grandees of October.  They hang, massive as chokoes as we watch and wait for them to be ready.  October this year has been still – golden and sunny – night frosts have turned the birch leaves a more intense yellow than usual and the whole garden glows with the reflected light.  The pears still hang in large numbers like great pendulous Christmas decorations.

 I’ve already been picking the ones on the lower branches, to ripen indoors and give away by the bagful to friends and family before they can be spoiled.  On the other side of the garden wall in the carpark the lower branches have been emptied for the first time, I suppose by our neighbours.  Some change in perception must have taken place, and I’m glad to see it, as now, finally, the wind will start to bring them down, ready or not.  The race is on to use as many as possible before that can happen.  So many are way up high – out of reach even when I climb up the stepladder and stretch dangerously into the tree.  The branches – even the smaller ones – are stiff and brittle, grey and knobbly.  They resist being pulled down to make the high pears reachable.  When the sky greys and cold winds begin to blow through the end of October the pears still unpicked begin to crash to the ground.  Some fallings land softly in the juniper bush or in the hosta – yellow-leafed now in its tub – or snag in the weigela, bulbous yellow fruit beside the few, late, magenta flowers.  These survive quite well.  The ones that hit the window box or land on the corrugated plastic of the shed roof are a little bruised, and I bring them in to cook.  Even so, many impact with a smash on the patio, or on the garden chairs, or are sliced open on the brick wall, while the wind carries others ten yards away, down the garden and across the carpark.  Always there are far more pears than we can possibly imagine using; always this prodigy feels embarrassingly wasteful. 

Even the sound ones don’t keep for long.  For weeks they sit ripening in the kitchen – a crunchy delight to eat – then there comes one day (not yet – but soon) when the last and best are like manna: magical and perfect.  We eat them with care but still the juice flows everywhere – over chin, hands, elbows even.  And then, even more quickly, they are over, and good for nothing but compost.

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