Spring picks up pace
Labour Weekend is about a week earlier than usual this year, making it all the more risky planting those tender little seedlings.
Three things I love at Labour Weekend are new potatoes, asparagus and strawberries, although not necessarily all at once.
For me, they're the essential start to summer, with lashings of mayo on the spuds and asparagus and a shot of balsamic vinegar on the strawbs. Perfect.
But, I admit, I've never been able to have all three in my own garden by Labour Weekend, only the potatoes and asparagus. My strawberries always take a bit more time to produce a harvestable crop, so I'm happy to buy my first punnet or three to savour that unmistakable berry flavour.
It's all part of the change of season Labour Weekend brings, when the pace picks up in the garden and you get to plant out all those tender summer crops like beans and tomatoes. It's an eagerly awaited ritual, full of promise and hope for the summer to come.
And it can't be hurried. It's one thing for the sun to feel hot, but tender plants need the soil to warm up as well before they can get growing.
And, if you hadn't noticed, Labour Weekend is about a week earlier than usual this year, making it all the more risky planting those tender little seedlings out too soon.
It's the time when a bit of maturity (as in age) really pays off. Once you've had a bad experience planting summer crops too soon, you learn to wait until the time is right and save yourself the bother of planting them out a second time or, worse, losing the crop altogether.
And one crop I never want to lose is that of my favourite borlotti beans. A genuine Italian borlotti, the seeds were given to me many years ago by someone whose father brought them back from Italy after the World War II.
Nowadays, of course, the biosecurity police would be on the case, war or not, and refuse entry to the edible immigrants, so it was a lucky bit of foresight for the soldier to bring them home some 67 years ago.
For those who aren't aware, beans are now some of the most difficult seeds to import into New Zealand because of restrictions to prevent virus diseases getting in to the country. And rightly so. The last thing we need is yet another biosecurity incursion to wipe out our bean crops.
And, as beans go, these specked little numbers are some of the keenest I've grown. Rather than sow them bang on Labour Weekend, I find if I wait just a week or 10 days more, when the soil's really warmed up, they pop up with great vigour, ready to get growing.
And, given a pole or string to attach themselves to, they take off to about two metres tall, flowering as they go then setting their first pods by midsummer.
It never ceases to spook me the way they "feel" their way up a bean pole, wrapping their shoots around as soon as they encounter it. But what's especially appealing about these beans is their long shelf life on the plant. Rather than the type that are only tender and harvestable for just a nanosecond, these borlotti can be either picked slim and green or when the beans themselves have fattened out to make more of a meal.
Then, when you get sick of serving green beans every which way over summer, you can leave the last of the crop to mature on the vine and shell them out as dried beans for winter soups and stews. Apart from home-grown eggs, they're probably some of the most accessible protein you can have without harming animals.
What I also love about these beans is that they're so undemanding to grow. All they need is a good well-drained soil, space to climb and enough water to get them through. No extra feeding, weeding and pampering. And they'll keep producing even if you're not picking them every second day.
And I can't help but wonder where it was the soldier first saw or tasted these humble little protein pods, and what it was that made him bring back a few seeds to try at home.
Was it the exceptionally delicate, nutty flavour and tender texture, or was it the garden where they were growing or, perhaps, the much appreciated meal they provided in appallingly awful circumstances?
Perhaps it was as a reminder of kindness given, of a particular family or farmhouse that provided shelter from the enemy, or perhaps the reminder of a beautiful Italian woman he never saw again.
And what an inspired idea it was to bring a few bean seeds home, tucked into a kitbag or a top pocket, as a reminder of an unforgettable experience, no matter what it was.
What also fascinates me is that these humble little beans the soldier brought back are, most likely, still bring being grown in a garden somewhere in Italy, handed down through different generations of the same family.
That's why I like to share them with fellow gardening friends. It's also a kind of insurance. I figure the more people that grow them, the less chance there is of losing them to unseasonably bad weather.
And when we eat them, I like to pick them straight off the vine and saute them whole, Italian style, with olive oil, a little garlic and, sometimes, a squeeze of lemon. Bellissimo.