After a hectic period of harvesting, preserving and working, the organic garden in the heart of Christchurch is at rest.
Too wet to really do any gardening of any great merit, it's time to sit inside, near a fire (as neither David nor myself drive a car we feel our sensible burning of dry wood is perfectly kosher), and snuggle with the cat, who has suddenly become very affectionate.
Our winter lettuces, sheltered by the espaliered apples, are surviving well despite the frosts. Silverbeet, spinach, cabbages and broad beans are all thriving by the west fence, and a mixed green crop is covering the bed where the orach (tree spinach) and other assorted plants had been.
THE DEAD BEDS
In one of the beds opposite, however, the green crop is struggling. A few lupins have popped up, but nothing else of particular note. This is the bed I mentioned some months ago, the failed Aztec trilogy bed. The corn had been stunted, the tomatillos hadn't done much, various beans performed badly. The pumpkin did nothing. We thought we'd try the green crop to give it some life back, but it really is a mess. Dead soil is very distressing, and we don't really know what has been there in the past so it remains a mystery.
The dead bed is crying out for compost. For inspiration, I turned to Lady Balfour, and was reminded about mycorrhiza, the intimate relationship of mycelium fungi and plant roots. Sir Albert Howard once told us sternly: "Nature has gone to the trouble of creating a link between humus in the soil and the plant. It behoves us to make the fullest use of this provision", namely by applying good compost. Howard's view about this mycorrhizal provision, to quote Balfour, is that "the root cells, acting very much like the stomach of an animal, obtain in the process of digesting the invading fungus, a protein rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, and that:
ROOTS AND FUNGI
"'The mycorrhiza appears to be the machinery provided by Nature for the fungi living on humus in the soil to transmit direct to the active area of the roots the contents of their own cells. Whether this is the only means by which such things as accessory growth substances can safely pass from humus to the plant, or whether the fungi provide essential materials for their manufacture in the plant itself, has yet to be determined with certainty. Some such explanation seems exceedingly probable. If the accessory growth substances contributed to humus were to pass from the soil organic matter into the pore spaces of the soil, they would have to run the gauntlet of the intense oxidation processes going on in the water films which lines these pores. In this passage any substance of organic origin would be almost certain to be seized upon by the soil population for food and oxidised to simple substances, such as the plant ordinarily takes in by the root hairs. If, as seems almost certain, freshly prepared humus (obtained from animal and vegetable wastes) does contain growth-promoting substances (roughly corresponding to the vitamins in food), it would be necessary to get these into the plant undamaged and with the least possible delay.
"'The mycorrhizal association in the roots, by which a rapid and protected passage for such substances is provided, seems to be one of Nature's ways of helping the plant to resist disease.'"
As compost, properly made, fosters fungal activity such as myccorhizal associations in soils, we should find that an application of our good compost to 'the death bed' has positive results. It will be an interesting experiment.
Meanwhile, other sorts of fungus are abounding, mushrooms and toadstools galore all around the place, particularly in the citrus grove, where piles of weeds placed around the trees had been sitting in perfect condition for weeks, and almost overnight turned into rich black mulch with the first damp weather.
As I write this, I am holding in one hand a very squishy, pulpy persimmon, and I'm eating it. This persimmon was picked about three weeks ago, when it was just soft. The birds had been eating these gorgeous orange baubles off the tree, and while we like birds, we wanted persimmons too. We could probably have covered the fruit on the tree. However, we picked them instead. These ones are the astringent variety and, while sweet, they leave an utterly disgusting furry coating in one's mouth if they're not completely ripe. The one I just ate has been slowly ripening on my window-sill since it was picked, and it was worth the wait. This is good news, as it is almost the only fruit still available here now (along with chilean guavas and the last of the feijoas).
Indeed, the harvest table is now almost empty, after months of being utterly laden. The Jerusalem artichokes are in the cupbaord, along with the potatoes (three varieties, including the startling purple 'Maori' potato). And while we still have abundant silverbeet, other pickings from the garden will be slim now for the next few months.
Despite this our meals can sometimes contain amazing diversity. Last night, for example, a frittata boasted onion, garlic, yam, Jerusalem artichoke, our three varieties of potato, pumpkin, carrot, silverbeet, cbbage, leek, a stray black krim tomato and the very, very last tomatillo for the year, a perfectly preserved specimen that had somehow got hidden under a piece of paper on the harvest table. Most of this had come from the garden. The good thing about eating this way is that you only need to use a little bit of everything to make a substantial meal. Very satisfying.
Strolling around the garden at this time of the year is wonderful. The leaves have come off all the fruit trees; just a few naked branches to remind us of autumn. The bulbs have come up in the orchard, and the big patch of jonquils (kindly donated by Dianna K. of Soil & Health) will be spectacular when the flowers burst forth. Everything has slowed down, conserving energy for action. I am still eager to do things, but the garden is saying no. It is tantalising me with its potentials.
It's a good time, therefore, to start thinking of wider issues. No.4 Riccarton Ave, which technically is a part of the Botanic Gardens, is becoming a hot topic at meetings and in memoranda, even while the garden sits under a glistening blanket of frost.
Earlier this year I said that our vision was to ensure that this acre of organic orchards and vegetable gardens could be opened to the public, and maintained by the organic community.
The concept was met with excitement from many different groups and, following a feature in the Christchurch Star, an open day in March brought about 50 people around for lunch under the apricot trees. Yet while the idea is excellent and widely supported, not everyone appears to get the idea.
An unofficial phonecall a couple of nights ago heralded the very real possibility that the house itself may well be BULLDOZED and the site merely used for cuttings. This is a problem, not least because the house is currently my home. The property is a valuable resource which has enormous educational potential for the whole community.
I encourage everyone who shares the vision of a demonstration organic garden - with meeting rooms and offices for organic community projects - housed in Christchurch's Botanic Gardens, to write to me expressing their interest. It's not over yet!
Meanwhile, the garden is asleep, under its white, frozen blanket, waiting for something to happen.