Ewen's garden

A collection of columns, paintings and photographs about gardening on an offshore island in New Zealand.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A pile of manure

Asparagus, a fine spring vegetable and as one reader explained an interesting crop to grow. He was expounded the benefits of adding horse manure to his crop, the results he said were astounding. “You could see the spears actually growing!” I had to confide, my crop of asparagus was a bitter disappointment, not that this was any surprise to me. In my case I had neglected to put in the hard yards first. Success with these hardy herbaceous perennials is in the preparation. What asparagus likes above all else is a well drained soil growing naturally around coastal areas of Europe and North America this makes sense. Having a raised bed also aids in the drainage. Mix with the good draining soil a large amount of well rotted organic matter and you are ready. There are two ways you can begin your crop, one from seed sown in a prepared bed outside in the spring or secondly by crowns in late winter. If you are going to grow from seed, your plants will be small and fern like in the first season, the females of them producing wee berries. The females should be eliminated as they will produce inferior spears later on. If you buying the crowns one would hope they were male plants being sold, ask! When planting the crowns, the roots should be spread out in the bottom of a trench about 20cm deep, with a spacing of 45cm between plants. As the shoots begin to grow, the trench can be filled in. If you like blanched asparagus, as they do in Europe and particularly the Low Countries, then you must continue to mound the soil up around the tips. A minimum of a third of stems must be left to nourish the crowns for next season’s crop. A well prepared asparagus bed should last up to twenty years; imagine your own asparagus rolls each spring! I prefer to lightly sauté the spears in a little butter until tender, and eat immediately or as my reader said, simply eaten raw.

With the longer days, it is now time to be getting all your seeds planted and into the ground. Carrots, beans, lettuce, radish, spring onions and tomato (seeds under) cover. For a head start, buy seedlings if you haven’t the patients for sowing seeds. Before all this is done though, it is important to prepare the soil, with extra compost and manure, well rotted. Exceptions to this are carrots, as too much fertiliser will encourage the carrots to produce twisted split and malformed roots. For this crop it is better to put the fertiliser or manure in the bottom of a deep trench, this will encourage them to grow straight and strong in the direction of their food. Other crops could be started now including the pumpkin family, cucumbers, courgettes, squash and scaloppini. The secret with these plants is lots of compost; in fact they often do best simply growing on the compost heap.

Well I have gotten to hear and haven’t mentioned corn and there must plenty of other crops I have failed to mention, still it’s a start.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Rarotonga, just three hours flight from Auckland, with a tail wind, lies equi-distant from the equator as Hawaii. On our last trip here, Hans and I hired a scooter. This served us well until the day, at Muri beach, where in my haste to get back to our accommodation ahead of a tropical downpour, I dropped the clutch, dumped Hans bum first on the side of the road and performed a wheel stand! The act was reminiscent of a cowboy riding a bronco at a rodeo and I managed to stay on, my pride at this achievement quickly dashed by my scowling pillion!
In consequence, this time round Hans suggested bicycles, much cheaper, at $50.00 per week per person and no time or money wasted on a Cook Islands driver’s licence. An added bonus is you have time to look at the scenery.

The Island of Rarotonga is only 32km in circumference; the main road follows the coast and so is flat. Our first excursion by bicycle, after gathering self catering necessities in the main town of Avarua, was to cycle round the Island anti-clockwise from our accommodation at Black Rock (Napa’s Beach bungalows). We stopped to sit on the beach at Aroa, feeling thankful we were staying in a secluded spot of only three units, as to our left on the beach were the hoi palloi of the Rarotongan Beach Resort. I would go for seclusion any dayand feel no one makes pancakes better than me! From here we sauntered around to Titikavaeka, where we stopped fro a snack and for three dollarsentry a wander around the Maire Nui Botanic garden. The title of ‘Botanic Garden’ is perhaps somewhat of a misnomer. It has been laid out with avenues of palms and groves of hibiscus, cordylines and gardenia of myriad colours and varieties. Nothing is labelled and the hibiscus somewhat overgrown. This aside, the unkempt nature of the garden somehow lends it an air of romanticism. Around any corner you might expect and ancient ruin or perhaps a tiger! (Very much like a Rousseau painting) Really though, the only frightening thing is when a rooster unexpectedly runs from beneath the undergrowth! Rarotonga choruses to the crow of the rooster, second most abundant bird after the avian fascist, the myna bird. Apart from many hibiscus, the gardens had many different gardenia, all perfectly suited to the northern New Zealand garden. Trees of note included two orchid trees, Bauhinia sp. One had purple flowers B. blakeana, the name of the white one I was unable to ascertain. Another tree to catch my eye and this was known, after enquiring only as the buttercup tree. Having since investigating a little further in my books, I believe this to be a species of Cochlopsermum sp. This specimen had large double yellow flowers, borne on panicles at the tip of rather stout branches. The whole tree, of multi trunks, was bare of any foliage, exposing the 10cm diameter flowers. The tree was quite imposing against the lush tropical background. Amongst all this were thickets of tropical gingers with their brightly coloured exotic blooms. At the entrance to the gardens stood sentinel an avenue of royal Cuban palms, Roystonea regia; in every way justifying their common nomenclature.

From here we pedalled on to Muri Beach for a rather brief pause as the brisk S.E. trade winds and number of people on the beach made us hanker for the shelter and privacy of the beach where we were staying. So we moved on, opting to take the road running parallel to but about 500m inloand from the main road. This road is at the base of the steeply rising interior rainforest clothed peaks and afforded a quiet passage through the agrarian coutryside of the coastal plain. From the road spectacular views of the craggy Island peaks above steep sided valleys can be appreciated. Amongst the native trees at this time of year it is hard to miss the vibrant orange-red flowers of the African tulip or flame tree, Spathodea companulata. These flamboyant trees smother theselves in flowers. Similar in shape to the tulip, hence the common name, held in clusters as if on the tips of fingers. An example of this tree was palnted in the gardens to the rear of the Law School at the University of Auckland. I do recall it did flower one season, but since myemployment there in the early nineties, I have not had reason to visit. I would like to think, now once well established it might be more inclined to delight with its magnificent floral display. Completing our circumnavigation of the Island ended with fish and chips in Avarua and back to the bungalows for cocktails at sunset. The time for the entire journey, including stops, was five hours.

I will write more of our trip next time, including a visit to the garden of the owners of the property and a personalised tour of the island’s back roads.