Wendyl’s country diary: sharing the bounty
Wendyl Nissen returns to the country, only to find her gardening skills have gone down a treat with the locals.
There’s not much to crow about in the country during a long, wet winter. Nothing is achieved without my trusty pair of Red Band gumboots as I trudge around my muddy property, and nothing really grows except some lovely lemons, mandarins and plump grapefruit.
I do manage, however, to keep a vegetable patch going in the milder winter temperatures we experience up north, and my first meal when I get to the house is always a fresh salad from the garden. I look forward to that meal from the moment I leave the country until the day I get back.
Which is nice for me, but I forget that during the winter every living creature on our land is starving, as there is not a lot of natural food around to nourish them while they are preparing to nest and raise their babies in the spring.
I arrived recently to find my entire vege patch had been raided. I was absolutely furious. My flourishing rocket, lettuce, spinach and silverbeet had all been stripped down to the stalks. And the Brussels sprouts I had planted, simply because I had never grown them before and wanted to see what would happen, were completely absent, so that was a small window of wonder.
I knew this wasn’t a simple case of slugs or snails… because I’ve kept hens. And when you have hens and go out leaving the gate to your vege patch open, as I did on numerous occasions, you come back to just the sort of devastation I found on my Hokianga property.
I don’t currently have hens, so I guessed my raiders were the pheasants and/or quails who live on my land and in my neighbour’s luxurious bush. I know there are a lot of them because I love watching them pottering around my place. The male pheasants are beautifully feathered and the quails always seem to have lots of little ones trailing along behind, which unfortunately get picked off at quite a rate by the falcons who also live around my place. The birds even ate some of my wildflower seedlings, which are just beginning to sprout in my wildflower meadow, although they didn’t get the newly planted garlic, but only because it is yet to sprout above the ground. And they refused to eat the nasturtium leaves – which I quite like to have in salads and sandwiches, as the small ones have a delicate peppery taste – so at least I still had those.
When I moved to the country, there were two things I did diligently. I kept a garden diary, intending to record every seed and plant and follow their progress in minute detail so that I could look back in 20 years and reminisce. But that went out the window after a year when I realised that about 80 per cent of what I planted died. I’m not a good gardener, you see. I’m the person who spends hundreds of dollars at the garden centre and six months later has one cosmos plant to show for it because, as we all know, cosmos grow like weeds!
The other thing I did was read a book called The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener, which sits on my bookshelf between Attracting Birds and Other Wildlife to Your Garden and Practical Beekeeping in New Zealand. (I once kept two beehives until we found out my husband had a previously undiagnosed bee allergy, so I’m not sure why I’ve kept that book.)
The wildlife-friendly way to garden is to share your bounty with the wild creatures and keep just some for yourself. In return, they do a lot of good for you. The birds will always eat the slugs, snails and bugs first, for the protein, and only then resort to the plant life, so the pheasants and quail are helping me garden organically. It is also rather sensibly about fences… good fences.
So I remembered how much I love the wildlife I share the country with, and how much they do for me, and then got busy with a bit of wire netting and some bird netting. I will protect just a bit of the vege patch for myself and they can have the rest. And then I look forward to seeing their young ones in spring, when there will be plenty of food for everyone.
I forget that during the winter every living creature on our land is starving.