My Grandfather's Hands

With each year since his passing, I realise more and more what an extraordinary man my grandfather was. Memories of him still run thick in my veins. His deep, melodic though gravelly voice. His cheerful grin, eternal cheekiness, his solidness. Solidness, in that he was the extreme opposite of flaky or unsure. He was a man who knew who he was, what his life was for, and where he was heading. A greater foundation laid by a grandfather for his grandchildren would be difficult to conceive. And in case you think I wax lyrical, or am looking back in time rather myopically, I will tell you more.

As a young child I would proudly tell people that my grandpa, as I called him, was a captain of a ship in the war. I don't think that is what I was told, but I'm sure it sounded adequately impressive. Yes, Ronald Stafford Martin was a sailor in WWII, but as a crewman on a supply ship. Retrospectively I'm glad he had a humble position on a non-combat vessel. I can't imagine my grandpa, a gentle giant, being able to raise a fist in anger, let alone kill another man. And evidently  the war spared him, and he returned to marry his sweetheart, Rose Mary Gordon Forlong. From what I can gather sailors had a bad reputation in conservative Christian circles in the 1940s, but whatever doubts my grandmother, or her parents, had, soon proved very ill founded. They were married, and subsequently had five children. My father, Selwyn, was preceded by an older brother, Wesley, and followed by two younger brothers, Carey and Lincoln, and a sister, Sharon.

My grandparents raised their children, "not too rich, not too poor". Grandpa lay linoleum for a living, assuring the family of a reasonably steady though humble income. Any extravagance was out of the question,but from what I understand, there was always food aplenty for the family and all those who gravitated towards their welcoming home.

One of my earliest memories of him is his hands. Calloused, ingrained with years of lino glue, and immensely strong, they were "human nut crackers". We, that is my sister and I, would take great delight in collecting walnuts from under their neighbours tree. He would then crack them open with a squeeze of his hands. We only stopped this when, after his first stroke, his ensuing exertion was met by disapproving looks.

The vehicle I remember my Grandpa driving was a mustard-yellow Toyota station wagon. Quite fitting for him in hindsight: practical, understated,  and ever so reliable. But it wasn't so much the car all his grandchildren remember well, but his driving. Approaching dangerously close to a fast walking speed, Grandpa would be upfront singing "My name is McNamara, I'm the leader of the band" whilst we gave long-suffering looks to the substantial queue of traffic behind us. But oddly enough, the older he got the faster he got. I remember catching a ride into church with him on Sunday evenings, and the short drive down Great South Road to the chapel in Newmarket was at times simply hair-raising. I still have flashbacks of one particularly wide turn into Ngaire Avenue, with hardly any use of the brakes. The only explanation we can give for his spotless, accident-free driving record is him having four angels permanently assigned to him, one for each corner of his car.

My grandfather took great delight in his grandchildren, and visiting him was always a treat, and never a chore. All of my cousins I suspect, share one particularly fond memory of both him, and Rose. In the summer months, on the hopelessly misplaced premise that we were there to "help", we would all climb into that mustard-yellow station wagon, and make the trip out to the Mangere strawberry fields. We would assist Grandpa and Grandma in their annual strawberry picking venture, but I'm sure not many of those sun-warmed bundles of sweetness actually made it into the basket. Grandpa, in fact, joked about the growers needing to weigh not only the baskets on arrival, but the children also. That way on our departure they could reweigh us, calculate the additional weight of the strawberries in our bulging stomachs, and charge us for those as well. Stuffed full, with juice-smeared faces, we would eventually pile back in for the trip home. Then, Rose and Ron would sit in the kitchen, preparing the berries to make jam. Ron would sit there, at the kitchen bar, shucking the strawberries, whilst some additional "product testing" further reduced the final number destined for the pot. He had a sweet tooth, and I inherited it.

Grandpa took his final years in the same manner he lived the rest of his life. Gently, without grumbling, deeply humble. His health failing him, my final memories were of him lying in his bed, dependant on others for his every need. I would call in,  and when  I timed it right it was my turn to do something for him - the man who spent his life so generously giving to others. I would spoon his evening meal into his mouth, the lukewarm custard slipping down easily into his now toothless mouth, and occasionally, if it spilt, down over his grey stubbly chin. Not much was said, but these final weeks I treasure as much as those sun-soaked days in the strawberry fields. Grandpa you were extraordinary.

In Memory of Ronald Stafford Martin 
28th May 1922 - 1 January 2005 

Thunder, rain, and hail? Must be time to get into the garden!

I'm a very stubborn gardener, and sometimes if my mind is made up to be in the garden, almost nothing will stop me. I suppose that's why my neighbours might sometimes see me, in the torrential rain, outside, getting soaked, weeding the garden. I actually like the feel of rain bouncing off my face, I like getting covered with mud from head to toe. It makes me feel alive. And sometimes one of my young children will join me in my madness.

One of these moments spawned the following blog, which I simply called "Rain".

So winter doesn't reduce the time I spend growing food much - it just changes the weather and my clothes. Over the years we have trialled many winter crops. Some, like parsnip, carrot, and beetroot, effectively bank the warmth and sunshine of the autumn, packing it away into their nutrient-dense roots. These crops then simply sit there, in the giant-outside-refrigerator called winter, until they are needed. And a few other crops actually like winter weather. I find winter is the easiest time of year to grow salad greens, if you pick the right species. Tat soi, corn salad, and miner's lettuce thumb their noses at our cold wet soils, even germinating if sown in June and July. In fact, most of my garden is coming up with miner's lettuce like a rash, as a result of plants left to go to seed last summer.

On Friday I was on Radio New Zealand, being interviewed about our winter garden. Here is the link:

So if you haven't thought about your garden recently, it's a great time of year to plant garlic, miner's lettuce, corn salad, tat soi, and if you have a cloche or mini plastic tunnel house, lettuce and mesclun blends. And we are only eight weeks away from inside sowings of long-season summer crops, like capsicums. Summer is around the corner?

Till next time,


Small spaces, surplus food: how to grow a lot with a little.

Over the past nine years that I have been cultivating this little patch of ground, I have learnt how to cram more and more production into our limited space. Our whole property is just 350 m2, so with the house and a little lawn, our entire food growing space is no more than 100 m2. But it seems that each time I think I can't fit anymore in, I find a way, by going up, or multi-layered, or out. I have also discovered some lesser known crops that have become year on year staples. So it's a good time to share the knowledge, and perhaps encourage others who share my passion for food-growing, and the challenge of a small urban plot. Here are my top tips.
  1. Think of every space and surface as potential food production. Vines and espalier on fences, fruiting ground-covers under clotheslines, chickens under fruit trees, choko and pumpkins over the tops of sheds. I recently had the epiphany I have the space to keep bees, if I can think of a way to get up onto our carport roof!
  2. Some crops can be multi-layered, so two crops can be grown in the same space. I have summer salad greens growing in the shade of citrus, and tomatillo under the espalier apples.
  3. Crops can be overlapped in time by starting a crop in seed trays while the previous crop is grown and harvested. I start growing the next crop in trays 4-8 weeks before the planting space becomes available. The next crop then goes within a day or two of the previous one coming out. 
  4. As you learn what thrives in your garden, grow more of what succeeds, and give up on crops that repeatedly fail.  Try as I might, I can't grow melons, so any space I allocate to them is wasted. I might try again when I live elsewhere, as I'm not sure if the failure is due to me or where I live!
  5. Each year try at least one crop you haven't tried before. Some will be outstanding and some you will never want to try again. But because of this approach I have a growing list of odd or obscure vegetables that to me are absolute gems (for factors such as flavour, reliable production, versatility, or winter hardiness). Tat soi, manglebeet, Dalmatian climbing bean, tomatillo, corn salad, mizuna, and miners lettuce are vegetables I wouldn't do without. 
    Myoga Ginger
  6. Plant, tend, and harvest from your garden every month of the year. I know some gardeners do a burst of gardening activity in the spring, harvest during the summer, and then buy vegetables during the autumn, winter, and spring. But in New Zealand's relatively benign winters we can eat from our gardens through all of the seasons. It takes some forward planning but its worth it. For example through the winter months we eat parsnips and carrots sown in January, beetroot and broccoli sown in February/March, and salad greens sown in the autumn and winter. We also grow our own garlic, which when harvested in January will keep for a year when strung up in a cool, dry place. 
  7. Japanese quail can provide an efficient supply of eggs in a tiny space. Our Japanese quail coop is 1.2 m long x 0.4 m wide and is home for three females and a male. Even city balconies can be utilised for egg production. 
    Our Japanese Quail coop
  8. A surprising amount of fruiting plants can also be crammed in to small urban sections. As well as our vegetable garden, we have raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, rhubarb, espaliered apples and apricots, peaches, grapes, lemon, lime, and orange.
    Apples grown flat along the vegetable garden fence (espalier-style).
  9. Plant in blocks rather than rows to increase production and reduce weed growth. Some crops are quite happy sown densely in blocks, with subsequent thinning to wider spacings as required. This will fit more plants into a small area, and there will be less soil exposed to grow weeds. Vegetables that can be planted in blocks include beetroot, garlic, carrots, parsnips, salad greens, kale, and lettuces.
    Block-planted beetroot (with some self-sown purple amaranth that we will use in salads).

    Learning how to grow so much with so little is a never-ending journey. Each year I find a way to produce more, either through my own trial and error or  learning from others. Please feel free to comment, or share what you have learnt, in the comments section below.

    Till next time,


The vegetable garden and the reporter

Hi everyone

Its been a long time but the garden has been continuing, I assure you. A few weeks ago a local paper published an article about vegetable gardens being enjoyable, but not worthwhile on an economic basis. I wrote an email to the journalist, Rob Stock, and he was keen to meet me and have a tour of the yard. The article and video linked below is the result.

Hope you enjoy it


In my Grandmother's Kitchen

My daughter was sitting  in our kitchen the other day when she suddenly broke into song.

"Deep, deep as the deepest sea is my Saviour's love" she sang, in that sweet-yet-wavering voice of a young child. 

It instantly transported me back over fifteen years, as it was often sung by my grandmother. Her voice wavered too, though no longer with youth but the frailness of old age. I had the privilege of living with my grandparents as a university student (I will have to tell you more about my grandfather another day). Sometimes, lying in bed at night, I would listen to the homely sounds of my grandmother working in her kitchen. Then, as the evening grew late, she would often finish the day at her electric organ. Her soul would open up in song. Remembering it now, it's like the songs lifted her until she soared, age no longer a burden.

Back here in my kitchen, the remainder of this song flowed out, spanning the intervening years.

"I though so unworthy, 
Still am a child of his care
For his word teaches me
That his love reaches me

She loved that song.

Most of my memories of her were made in her kitchen. The kitchen was at the centre of their house and home, and feeding and caring for people was at the core of her life. Almost invariably, that's where we would farewell each other at the start of the day, and greet each other at the end. And her face would light up on my return, as if weeks or months had passed instead of only a few hours. I know she valued people. She valued me.

As we talked, my grandmother would playfully chide me - we were a different generation after all. I can still hear her voice as she responded to accounts of my days. "Oh, Timothy! You couldn't have!" she would exclaim, with a look of mock disbelief.  "Oh, Timothy, you didn't, did you?", she would say, while sporting an all-of-face grin. At other times, she would expound, at length, on the evils of rock music, or abstract art. We didn't agree on everything, but I know that she loved me through and through.

One of my earliest memories of being at my grandparent's house is of their lolly jar. It was placed high up in the kitchen, but beside a step-ladder. My sister and I would wait until no one was in sight, and then quickly make our raids. But everything was as it was intended, and I remember my grandmother being very apologetic if it was ever out of stock. 

I also remember my grandparents making all their own jam. I  come from a long line of jam makers, each generation handing down the art to the next.  Grandparents, parents, then me. Commandered to 'help pick', we would pile into my grandfather's mustard-yellow station wagon and drive out west to the strawberry fields. Hours later, baskets and bellies brimming with fruit we would drive home, joking about how "pick your own" growers should weigh people on arrival and departure as well. Sitting on a stool at the kitchen bench, Grandpa would prepare the strawberries for jamming, and Grandma would take charge of the stove. The heat from the jam would warm the kitchen, the smell of hot berries wafting through the house.  Now, many years later, jam making for me isn't simply about home made spreads. More importantly its about preserving the memories, and my family's way of life.

My grandmother was extraordinary.

The embrace of her hugs, the size of them seemingly at odds with her  diminutive frame.

The skin of her hands, wrinkled yet soft. Kind.

Her saintly patience and grace. Her mercy.

Her mischievous streak, that in the last few months of her life, only developed more.

Her joyful spirit

And that radiant look on her face when you greeted her. Perhaps she greeted people as Jesus would - with the joy of seeing a long lost child, even if you had just seen her at breakfast.

I didn't know it then, but perhaps my grandmother's also gave me glimpses of what heaven is like. At the centre of her life, always close. A place of warmth and complete acceptance. Deep joy. The surety of knowing exactly who she was.

Till we meet again Grandma - I had better sign off to let the tears flow


Rose Mary Gordon Martin
Wedding Day 1945

Five Ways to Change The World (if you're a parent)

Parenthood. It's more demanding than my career. Broken sleep, school runs, preparing food, helping with homework, settling disputes, getting them dressed, tending to scrapes and bumps, and the list goes on. Not that I'm complaining. No, I wouldn't change it for the world. But sometimes I think that parenthood is putting the brakes on my desire to change this world.

Really, I keep on champing at the bit to get out there and do something big. Wherever "out there" is. I feel like I am ready to make a difference but unable to because of my circumstances. But then I am thankfully reminded of a critical truth, and it brings some much needed understanding and peace.

The best way for me to change the world is by being the best father that I can be. For if I change the world for the better, but in doing so forsake my family, then I have ultimately failed. And if I impart to my kids the faith and values that I see the world through, then I am helping shape the lives of another three world-changers. Everyday, I play a huge role in my children's world, be they one, two, or five years old. I know that I am closely observed by them, and every decision and action that I make can impact their physical, emotional, and spiritual development. These early years are so critical, and I for one need reminding of that. A lot. This is probably the only time in my life that I can have such a profound influence on other people. It's all about the importance of now.

So here are my top five ways to be a world-changer, if you're a parent.
  1. Love them. The single most important aspect of parenting. Love them with a nurturing, unconditional love that lets them know that you are there for them, no matter what. If our kids know this, deeply, they are set to love well themselves.
  2. Challenge them. Kids need healthy challenges. Like muscles, they need to push boundaries to grow in strength and character. Obviously, challenges need to be age-appropriate. At the age of two, my oldest boy stubbornly trudged up a very steep hill, just to get to the top. Later I hope he will climb mountains with me. 
  3. Be present. This one is critical, and the one I find the hardest. With the many distractions of modern life (mobile phones, TV, internet, email, Facebook, and dare I say it, blogs), I need to consciously slow down and make sure I am being present with my kids. Just them and me, full undivided attention. It says to them "you are valued", "you do matter", and "I do love you". 
  4. Pray. I believe in the power of prayer. If you don't, then maybe you can take this point as the 'power of positive words'. Sometimes, as my children sleep, I place a hand on them and pray for their growing relationship with God. I speak over them the values that I long for them to have.  Courage, compassion, justice, and mercy, to name a few.
  5. Follow your dreams. It's up to  us to model this - how can we encourage our children to pursue what  they were made to do, if we are don't  do this ourselves? We need to lead by example, showing our children that anyone of us can lead a life that is more than the status quo. 

Till next time


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Winter tomatoes: the gardener's Holy Grail?

If you had told me a few weeks ago that you were trying to grow tomatoes outside during the winter, I would probably have looked at you incredulously and wished you luck. It just can't be done, because tomatoes are a tropical crop that we grow during our summers like an annual. But perhaps I have been wrong.

Yet again our first tomatoes ripened in early January, and the plants were all but done at the end of March. That's only three months of tomato production in a climate that is reliably frost-free for nine months of the year! So in a quest to conquer tomato production  I went on a global research quest (courtesy of Google of course) to discover varieties that might significantly lengthen our tomato season. And the result of this was a crash course in tomatology, and some glimmers of hope for tomatoes in the cooler months.

The tomato is native to western South America and belongs to the genus Lycopersicon, which has around 10 species. Tomatoes are thought to have been first domesticated by the Aztecs over 2000 years ago, and tomatoes were widely cultivated in Mexico by the 1500s. Following the Spanish invasion of Central America, the tomato was then spread to Europe and the Phillipines, and subsequently, to the remainder of the world.

The existence of 10 species in the genus Lycopersicon is the critical factor that  allowed the development of the phenomenal number of tomato varieties that exist today. All species in the genus can interbreed, with new varieties arising from crossings and chance mutations. Wild tomato varieties are still being used  as a genetic resource to impart traits such as salt and drought tolerance (from a species native to the Galapagos Islands) and disease resistance. Specific varieties have also been developed to best fit the climate where they are grown, from localities as widely spread as Siberia, southern Canada, China, Ukraine,  Ethiopia, and New Zealand. Seed catalogues in New Zealand  list up to 166 tomato varieties (e.g. but globally, estimates range from at least 10,000 varieties, to a mind-numbing 25,000 (US Department of Agriculture). So surely, somewhere out there, is a variety that will extend our fruiting season.

Tomatoes can be red, green, yellow, orange, purple, white, or green, and round, oblong, turban-shaped, or pleated. Size can range from the size of a currant, to a whopping 3.5 kg (a variety called "Delicious"). The variety of names is extraordinary, reflecting the wide geographic  spread of tomato cultivation, and I suspect to some degree, breeder fanaticism. So step aside Beefsteak and Russian Red. Here's my pick for the best or most bizarre variety names (well, the ones that are for general audiences anyway...)

Stupice (maybe this tomato lacks intelligence?)
Stump of the World (absolutely no idea what was being aimed for here!)
Silvery Fir Tree (multi-use for timber?)
Amazon Chocolate (now that sounds good)
Green Sausage (sausage-shaped, and striped yellow and green)
Hawaiian Pineapple (massive tomato, yellowy green)
Missouri Love Apple
Heritage #624 ex Bob Lord (now there's a marketable name....)
Dancing with Smurfs (red with a blue cap)
Geza's Strawberry Potato (hey everyone, this year I'm growing Geza's Strawberry Potato Tomatoes....)

The most exhaustive list I have found so far, with links to further details of each variety, is on the website linked below:

For me though, selecting tomato varieties is not just about length of season, but also taste, colour, size, and disease tolerance. I want naturally-healthy tomato plants that produce lots of good tasting fruit over a long season. After pouring through a multitude of websites, and learning about everything from tomato festivals to online tomato forums, I came up with a short-list. I will be trialing these and with a bit of luck, I might be able to grow tomatoes in the winter too.

My top picks are as follows:

Subarctic Plenty
Oregon Spring
Paul Robeson
Sunsets Red Horizon
Red Currant 
Japanese Black Trifele (which hails from the Ukraine, of course)

So its now mid-autumn, and I'm sowing tomato seeds. Madness? I'll keep you posted.



Current tasks in the garden (early-mid Autumn)

Harvesting now:
Swiss Chard
White Welsh Onions

Sowing now:
Spring Onion

Transplanting now:
Brussels Sprouts

The Weed Oxymoron

My garden has many weeds, which draws me to ponder just what they really are. Common definitions of weeds often revolve around them being "unwanted plants" or "plants without value", so what is a weed is heavily dependent on context. For example, a walnut tree could be a valued plant if it was growing in an orchard, or an unwanted plant, and therefore a weed, if it grew on a sports field.

So this makes me wonder just how weedy my garden actually is. The more uses I have for weeds, the more they are wanted, and the less weeds, by definition, I have. I can passively weed the garden by doing nothing but changing my philosophy.

So there are really three types of plants in my garden, species that are intentionally propagated, species that were originally planted but now self-seed to form sustaining populations, and species that, through neglect or oversight, grow there unassisted. Some of the latter are true weeds, unwanted in any form, whilst others I am discovering, are not actually weeds at all.

Its midsummer at the moment. Most of our salad greens have turned bitter or bolted to seed, and it takes quite a bit of foraging to harvest a salad - a few remaining lettuce leaves, tat soi, chicory, the last of last winter's corn salad, and some sorrel. Yesterday, while picking such a salad I remembered the edible qualities of young dandelion leaves. Sweet, and I was soon to learn, rich in a multitude of minerals and vitamins, including folate, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium, Calcium, and many others. Despite my best efforts, dandelions grow with wild abandon from the paths, garden edges, and forgotten corners of my garden. Tentatively tasting the young shoots I had the epiphany that this plant was actually an overlooked and under-utilised resource.  I successfully unleashed the leaves on unsuspecting dinner guests, and a new vegetable was born. Dandelion has joined the growing list of "self-sown" vegetables on offer, and another weed is gone.

So what 'wanted weeds' are there in your garden? 

Dandelion on the garden path
All of our swiss chard (silverbeet) is produced by letting them grow wherever they self-seed.
I wasn't planning on growing pumpkin this year, but nature had other ideas. This pumpkin plant germinated from our compost. 
Self-sown tomato "Gold Nugget". We often get our late tomato crop (March-May) from self-sown plants that germinate in November-December. 

A self-sown parsnip that will now provide the seeds for a self-sown crop in the winter-spring of 2014


Summer, my favourite time of year. The heat, the sunshine, the sudden downpours in the afternoons that drench the ground and cool the air. The garden is lush and burgeoning with food, and the kids spend hour upon hour playing in the yard. The sprinkler often doubles as a garden watering device and child coolant. 

Our tomatoes have rocketed up their stakes and now reach the eaves of our house. The beans are beaning, and the summer onslaught of seemingly endless courgettes has begun. The apple trees are laden, and we have a slow but steady trickle of strawberries and raspberries. Fresh-picked salads are a regular part of our diet, and we are working our way through the last of the potato crop. I delight in simple meals that have been completely home-grown and caught - early season potatoes, salad, and snapper caught off the west coast. We can even cook the fish in olive oil produced on family land in Northland. These meals may not cost much, but its dining that makes me feel like a king. Nature's riches are more profound than bank notes. 

Within 6 m of the walls of our home there are lettuces, sweet corn, beans, tomatoes, squash, rockmelon, rhubarb, tomatillo, strawberries, swiss chard, capers, raspberries, onions, blackberries, boysenberries, grape, apples, peaches, cucumber, courgettes, kale, mizuna, tat soi, lemons, limes, oranges, Jerusalem artichoke, potatoes, rosemary, sage, parsley, thyme, basil, coriander, and avocado. Our yard is not large, but everything is crammed in, forming a visual riot of production. And whilst I yearn for a larger garden, our current home has taught me just how much you can do with what you have got. 

Courgette "Gold Rush"
Tomatillo - a Mexican fruit that tastes like a lime-infused tomato
Dwarf beans
Espaliered Fuji apples

For me, producing food from the land is a blessing and a real privilege.

"The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance, the wise grows it under his feet."

  James Oppenheim

I write therefore I....

Blogging. I am often driven to wrestle my thoughts onto paper and send them off into the electronic ether. Sometimes, I admit, it simply acts as therapy. It allows me to take hold of random thoughts, to view them at a distance, and to make sense of them. At other times, I think I am clear and decisive about what needs to be said - I feel an urge to say things that need to be expressed, to hopefully inspire or challenge, or to simply share knowledge.

I believe that writing can give people a voice. In a world of six billion people, it is easy to have a false sense of the insignificance of an individual. What effect can one person have? And how many people think like me? For when I see actions and events so contrary to the very core of my being, the frustration is that I can feel alone. But you reading this blog assures me that there are many people, be they in my home country, Russia, Germany, China, or Kenya, that relate to the thoughts I express here. Most of you I have never met, but I want to say I appreciate your readership.

Not that I view myself as perfect by any means of course. I am inconsistent. I can be thoughtless. I  seek reconciliation between who I am and who I want to be, and often I fail. I need to remind myself that I can simply make the best use of who I am to  make this world better. Even if it's just for one person, somehow, somewhere. And part of this journey for me is to write, and hopefully something I write might resonate with a reader.

For I wholeheartedly and firmly believe that everyone is deeply significant. We are all meant to be here and each one of us can achieve good that only we can achieve. We have all been made to be vital, creative, impacting people, who, through a deep and truthful sense of who we are, can change  the world around us.  First think me, then my neighbour, then the world. Person by person, city by city, nation by nation. Grandiose? Maybe. But people are meant to be visionary, it's a part of who we are. Like it or not we are completely and utterly changing our world. The question is, which way will we help it to go?