Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The (Sub)Urban Garden

I'm sure that everyone who reads this blog has rented living space at some point.  Renting is pretty nice from a number of perspectives.  For example, we don't have to worry about falling property prices at the moment, or think about anything other than cleaning the floors when we move out of this place.  Maintenance is out of our hands, for the most part, and as long as we treat the place with respect we're pretty much guaranteed our bond back.

For those of us who like to play in the dirt, renting kind of sucks.  The landscaping isn't ours and therefor we don't have the right to dig it up.  We're also likely to move out of this place within a few years of moving into it, so investing in things like raised gardening beds and fruit trees is pretty impractical.  We have all of the benefits of using and hanging out in a yard/garden but don't get to do much to make it our own.

As we've mentioned in previous posts, we're tweeking our diet and lifestyle a bit to minimise trips in the car and processed foods.  I remember growing up with a garden in the back yard, as does Peter, and we're both finding that we really miss the flavour and experience of home-grown food.  There's nothing like walking into the yard, picking a bowl full of tomatoes or spinach or berries or what have you, and then returning to your kitchen to make a meal out of the sweetest food known to man.  If we had our way we would landscape our current yard with an "edibles only" policy, ripping out the simply pretty trees to be replaced with pretty trees that produce fruit.  Edging would be replaced with layered herbs and leafy vegetables of various colours, and the only flowers we would include would be for insect control.  We would be in balance with our plants and I would have a full pantry and plenty of dilly beans in the fridge.

Alas, life isn't that easy when you rent in the city.  Or at least a sprawling suburban city.

We have friends who have built large raised beds in their yard and have done a fabulous job of transforming a weed-ridden plot next to the train line into an attractive and fertile food garden. Like our friends, we realise that in densely populated areas you can't really trust the soil quality and have to plant above ground level.  We're a little more limited with the space and sun patterns, as well, on our property.  Last summer I played around with a few herb pots to get a feel for how plants react to sun without a protective ozone layer (we don't have ozone here).  This year I know where the productive spots on our property are and have placed a variety of planters around the property to grow what we can.  Want to see what we've managed to produce?

Our front stoop is sunny in the afternoon and is basically concrete and brick and glass.  We spruced it up with an avocado tree sprouted in the kitchen last winter from a pit, a jalapeno plant, and a small herb box (in ascending order up the steps).  We'll be giving the avocado tree to the neighbours when it grows up, the jalapenos are coming along nicely and will be consumed quickly, and we've picked the hell out of our herbs already.  Hence their stick-ish look.  More are sprouting inside the house as we speak.  This round includes cilantro and dill.

They don't sell jalapenos in grocery stores here, at least not regularly.  We've seen them exactly twice since we've been down here.  I managed to find a little six pack of plants at the garden centre this spring so I brought them home.  I gave one to a friend and another died before I could get it in the ground, but the remaining four are going gangbusters.  Luckily they're producing in shifts, so we'll be able to enjoying them a little longer.  The plant on the left produced first, and these are two of the nearly 30 that are bogging the thing down.  They seem to be thriving on the strong sun down here but need a lot of water - one litre every other day.

Round two of our basil.  These need to be grown indoors until they get to be about 3 inches high, otherwise their leaves turn translucent in the sun and they fry.  These three are taking over the pot that used to grow bok choy.  The bok choy caught a nasty case of aphids and had to be put down.  I'm not too heart broken; we eat more basil.

Curly and flat leaf parsley next to our spring onions.  We're grazing regularly off of both, and I've let one plant go to seed so that I can get some more going inside for the next batch.

And this is the back yard.  It only gets good sun for about 6 hours in the morning at the height of summer, so we have tomatoes going in the bigger pots and baby spinach in the tray near the shed.  It's not much of a yard but it's cozy.  We keep our bikes in the shed.  Notice the groovy new bbq!  No longer must we huddle over our meat, like nomads, as it cooks on a small Coleman camp stove.  Now we get to stand upright to cook, like fully developed primates who have developed tools like tongs and bbq sauce.

The tomatoes are doing surprisingly well with what little sun they get.  The only problem now are the birds.  They've taken to eating anything that gets at all red, and so they've had more of my fruit than I have.
I've tried bating the neighbourhood cats into the yard with small treats and way more affection but it's not scaring the birds away.  Today I had to go down to the hardware store to concoct something to protect my little red globes of summer.  Four metres fine wire mesh, a pair of snips and about an hour gave me this solution:

The side is made of a loop big enough that the birds can't reach through to the tomatoes. I then laid another length of mesh on top.  By cutting the overhanging mesh into flaps, folding each flap over onto the vertical wall, then bending the edges of the flaps into the vertical mesh, the side wall keeps its shape.  All I have to do is lift it as a whole unit to do my picking and watering, and then replace it over the planter when I'm done.  I'm feeling pretty handy at the moment.  Tomorrow I'll do the other tomato plant, though that one is looking pretty root bound and unproductive.  It still has about 6 full sized tomatoes on it so I'm going to see what I can do.  It may not be worth the $15 worth of wire mesh at $8 per meter.  

Oh, and this is Stalker.  She sits on our window ledge and stares at us frequently.  We don't know her real name but since she started this little practice on our first day in the apartment we've taken to calling her what she is.  Here, she's staring at me while I practice my guitar.  She's slightly neurotic (running away suddenly at odd times, obsessively licking her stomach until the hair comes off and she's oozing from open wounds, etc), so we don't let her in the house.  We scratch her ears, though, which I'm guessing keeps her coming back.  What would a garden be without a cat, however transient and disease ridden?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Take Your Foreign-Dwelling Loved Ones to Work Day

This week I've been back to work for three half days to get things in order.  Between the office printer not working (still - that's how we left it before Xmas) and the usual "how was your summer" banter with the tricklers-in, I didn't get too much done.  In the last post I promised to bring along a camera to show you guys my bicycle commute.

Well, taking pictures while cycling is hard to do (no, I didn't try).  And Peter's got a nice commute in the opposite direction from our house.  So why take a bunch of digital photos of only some of the area when you can Google Street View?  

They got photos of the area up and running a little while ago of a typical Auckland morning, with the sun shining off of recently rained-upon houses and streets.  Just head on over to maps.google.com  and click on "Get Driving Directions" on the left.  If you start at Queens Parade, Devonport, Auckland you'll get a good view of the waterfront.   For the destination address, type in Anzac St, Takapuna, Auckland.  This route shows a good example of the different things a cyclist deals with around the city.  We're lucky in that we have more dedicated cycle lanes than many other areas, but it's not pervasive.  This is only a small part of our collective commute, but those of you with our personal details can probably probe a little more if you have the time to kill.  Welcome to the neighbourhood!

Monday, January 12, 2009

A bike ride in Auckland...

Is like an intense game of frogger: it's ultimately fun but you really have to look out for cars. This week alone (two days into it) I've had two close calls. That being said last week was uneventful. I think this means my riding has been raised to a new level, to continue with the video game analogy, but I could be wrong. There may just be more congestion due to all of those drivers back into the swing of things after the holiday break. Who knows. The only thing I do know is that it feels good to be able to stop at a red light right next to a car that passed me about a kilometre back, and to think that I didn't have to burn any gas while the other guy did.

We're experiencing a resurgence in bike ridership in our home lately. With the longer hours of daylight and drier weather Peter's been biking in to work nearly daily and I've recently bought a bike to toodle around the neighbourhood on. I have to say that it feels darn good to be back on the bike, now that the obligatory and awkward "getting to know you" phase is over. Two years of relatively low physical activity and a shiny new case of asthma have left me a bit out of shape, you could say. The rolling hills of Auckland didn't make the process easy but after a few weeks of short near-daily rides I'm doing better. I can now make it 14 kms without stopping (I actually feel pretty good afterward) and I only need the inhaler sometimes after I ride now. All in all Peter and I are feeling healthier these days thanks to this long-forgotten mode of transportation.

Our readers may recall previous posts in which Peter explained the perils of cycling in Auckland. The roads are narrow; shoulders and bike lanes (where they exist) tend to be filled with gravel, broken bottles and the odd dead hedgehog; storm drains are not always designed well and grates can sometimes run parallel to the curb. And always the aggressive traffic. None of these things make cycling as a commuter mode of transportation an easy choice, and those around here who choose to take the plunge trend toward the hardcore.* I'm trying my best to fit into this category, as I'm lucky enough to live along a commuter corridor that has bike paths for most of its length. My employer also has showers and lockers in the women's bathroom, which means that I can have a quick rinse once I get to work. Not everyone has access to this sort of thing here, so I should probably take advantage of it.

At its heart, this change is simply the latest step in our efforts to become a bit more earth friendly. We never drove the car all that much to begin with, but I'd say that 95% of its use was for my daily commute. At first I didn't feel bad because I could justify it: my weekly petrol bill was half the cost of bus fare for the equivalent distance, and driving cut my commute time in half. What's not to love? We'll, I hate sitting in traffic at the end of the day, getting wheezy 10 minutes into a friendly ultimate frisbee game at work, that extra roll on my stomach that now pops out when I sit down, and generally being a part of the twice-daily single occupant vehicle exodus.

So we're trimming back. My goal is to be able to bike to work come the end of the month without being too red faced and sweaty. Peter's biking to work daily, and we're cutting back on our meat consumption. It's all a part of our attempt to keep healthy and cut down on our carbon footprint.

I'll be taking the camera along some of my rides later this week so you can see what we're up to in our daily routine.

*A special note for Moms Jan and Char: don't worry. We wear helmets, ride only when it's safe and get off the bike or ride on the foot path when it's not. You've taught us well.