Herbs, birds and winter veg

I always think that the hardest part of the winter to endure is three weeks either side of the shortest day. Now we’ve accomplished that, even though the weather hasn’t got any better, there are a few minutes more of daylight each afternoon, and sometimes it’s even possible to think about spring. Crocuses are flowering in the garden at the front of the house, and in the grass under the fruit trees the leaves of daffodils are showing.

Almost the only things possible to plant at this time are peas and broad beans, if your soil isn’t sodden. I’ve tried broad beans and decided that I’d rather use the space for more peas, as there really can’t be a more delicious vegetable. Peas like cooler conditions and, planted in the next weeks, they’ll be ready to eat about the end of September.

From the vegetable garden I’ve been using cauliflower and broccoli, celery, and the indestructible silver beet. Cabbages are almost ready as well. Cauliflower is the latest trending vegetable, and there are recipes for it everywhere, from blitzing it in the blender to make ‘rice’, to soups and salads.

Surprisingly, considering the lack of sunshine this year, there are Cape gooseberries ripe and they make a delicious snack, much too tasty to make into jam. If you’re not a frenetically tidy gardener, they seed about and seem to have two or three crops of fruit a year, ripening regardless of conditions. They come originally from Peru so perhaps they’re used to extreme weather.

From the end of the garden I can hear the squawks, gulps and chimes and of tui as they feed on the ‘Dragon’s Gold’ kowhai. This kowhai variety grows as a vigorous bush rather than a tree, and flowers all winter, making a natural feeding centre for tui and even the occasional bellbird. I’m a bit dubious about people who set up feeding stations with sugar water, as I feel that sugar isn’t any better for birds than it is for people. These birds are honey eaters, and the nectar they naturally feed on  probably has other nutrients.  I’d rather grow a nectar producing plant like kowhai, flax, or flowering gum to attract them. According to ecosanctuary Zealandia’s website it’s better to use raw or brown sugar than white if you are making sugar water.

When nothing much else is happening in the garden, it’s time to take stock of the herbs. Most of them (excluding basil) just keep growing all year, making themselves available to spice up whichever dish is on the menu. A herb garden is an asset and you can make it quite decorative. One of my favourites was one where the herbs were arranged in a rockery – ideal, as most like sun and warmth. I’ve been planting different thymes in a section in front of the garage wall which is paved with river stones, and I’m looking forward to seeing the different shades of leaves and the colours of the flowers. Parsley is one of the useful herbs and contains vitamin C so I use it whenever I can – in scrambled eggs, added to meat dishes, and sprinkled over salads.

First published: Jul 2017

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