Real Life

Country diary: From wild weather to wildflowers

Floods, fire and an unexpected eel have all tested her mettle since moving up north, but Wendyl Nissen finds her heart is at home in the Hokianga.

Two years ago I fell in love with a house and some land on the Hokianga Harbour. It was far too early to be falling in love with a house and land on the Hokianga as we had a 15-year-old daughter in high school, so leaving her and moving up north was impossible.

Instead, we do what flash writers say in their autobiographies. We ‘divide our time’ between Auckland and our home in the country. But it would be true to say my heart is in that Northland spot with my husband, my orchard, my garden, my beach, my dogs and my chickens – well, the chickens I will get eventually.

Every month I’ll be writing in this column about the seasons and the adventures that only a city girl can have in the country – of which there have already been many. In our first few months we found an eel living in our water tank. We’d had to get the tank fixed, and there was the eel, swimming around in the dark – apparently quite happily. We had no idea how it had got there, but someone thought perhaps a load of water trucked in might have contained baby eels. And then someone else told me that Maori deliberately put eels in their water tanks to keep them clean. I certainly had no problem with the quality of our rainwater, so perhaps it was a good idea to have the eel there.

During our first winter came the storm that flooded Northland, leaving people without power or telephones for a week. Unused to such deprivations, and sick of listening to my daughter stress about having no contact with Facebook, we decided to leg it back to the city… only to find that my car was locked in the garage, which had an electric door firmly secured shut. I’d never owned an electric garage door before so had no idea there was a lever you push to manually roll it up – until the neighbour took pity on me and trekked across the paddocks in the pouring rain to help me out.

And then came the wildflower meadow, which I am looking at now as I write this column.

We have a small paddock which I immediately designated as a future wildflower meadow when we first saw the property. As a greenie, I wanted to provide flowers for the declining bee population, a home for wildlife and, rather selfishly, flowers to pick. My father was all for me getting a sheep to keep the grass down, but I was determined to have flowers. I love flowers, and when you live in the city there’s not a lot of room to grow them. Little did I realise that getting rid of the kikuyu covering the land is a near impossible task not recommended for country newbies.

I asked the man who mows my lawns to take care of it for me without using environmentally unsound weedkiller… I asked him to burn it. The result was a stressful day as he and his mate torched the paddock and smoke billowed out for miles. I stood by with the hose at the ready, deeply afraid of sparking a bushfire in the dry, drought-prone north, and that night I went out in the dark with my torch every half hour just to check nothing had sparked. Never again.

But, it worked. Last year we had a somewhat patchy wildflower meadow but loads of flowers. In preparation for this summer, I spent the winter attacking thistles every week, tearing out kikuyu, and planting more seeds than a wildflower meadow really needs. I discovered that borage is particularly useful – not only does it have wonderful bee-attracting blue flowers, it also has a spreading habit that knocks back the kikuyu very nicely.

This year the paddock is resplendent, and I can pick flowers galore to take back to Auckland for my home and The Australian Women’s Weekly office. There are sunflowers, poppies, cosmos, echinacea, dill, borage, daisies, dahlias, calendula, cornflowers, forget-me-nots and a whole lot of other flowers which are delightfully pretty but I have no idea what they are called. They are all very welcome and, if it’s anything like last year, they’ll last right through until May.

Most evenings I take a glass of wine out to the wildflower meadow, where I sit and listen to the bees on their last rounds before heading home, watch my dog Flo chase the many skinks that have moved into the undergrowth, and keep an eye on the harrier hawk that comes for a quick look to see if there’s any prey she would like for dinner.

And I’m very thankful I’m not just looking at a sheep.

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