Category Archives: Grow it yourself

The modest tea harvest

Camellia sinensis, the tea camellia, flowering at the end of March

With just one sizeable bush of the tea camellia, C. sinensis, the harvest was never going to be huge but after fiddly-faddling with a few minor efforts in recent years, I was determined to get as much as I could this year. I now have considerable respect for the tea-pickers of Sri Lanka and India but I assume one gets faster with practice. Mark tells me he has another three plants ready to be put out into the garden so we should, with more attention, be able to increase the harvest, though we are unlikely to achieve self sufficiency.

The first, small pick of tender tea tips

Harvesting is picking just the top two or sometimes three leaves from each growing tip, just as they are unfurling and still very soft and young.

The tea bag has a lot to answer for in terms of reducing the drinking of tea to the most convenient but mundane and utility level of activity. Where is the romance? Let alone the quality? Even worse are the gourmet tea bags which appear to be packaged in individual nylon bags and are therefore non-biodegradable, whatever the packet says. As our lives have become more leisured here at Tikorangi, we reinstated the old ways of making good loose-leaf tea in a teapot for the afternoon cup. Sometimes I bring T2 loose leaf tea back with me from Australia but we also have a New Zealand mailorder supplier at Tea Total and I have come to conclusion I prefer their teas. It is not as cheap as supermarket tea but for the afternoon ritual, we think the better quality and flavour is worth every cent.

Spreading on a flat tray to lightly oxidise and dry

My home-grown tea is free. Because we like aromatic teas, I have flavoured three batches differently. The first is lemon scented – I added some of the young leaves of the lemon myrtle – Backhousia citriodora. The second batch I dried with orange blossom (proper orange, not the mock orange philadelphus) and a few fine peelings of the outer rind of an orange and rose petals. The third was lime (lime blossoms and few young leaves) with mint and rose petals.

The yield from a tray is not large once it has dried – but fresh and aromatic

We tried making straight green tea in the past, first from fresh leaves straight into the pot and the then with leaves just wilted and left overnight. The taste was perhaps just a little too subtle for our palates. Now I do a process somewhere between green and black tea – bruising the leaves and leaving them covered overnight (which starts the oxidation process). Then I sun dry them on flat tray – which can take from one to three days, depending on the strength of the sun. And voila! Fresh tea ready for the pot. With no packaging and no carbon footprint.

In answer to the question as to whether there are different camellias for different teas, I quote Wikipedia: “Camellia sinensis and its subspecies, Camellia sinensis var. assamica, are two major varieties grown today. White tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh tea and black tea are all harvested from one or the other, but are processed differently to attain varying levels of oxidation.” There are different selections of the species and some will have different characteristics, but the vast majority of tea sold in the world is indeed from Camellia sinensis.

Our form of sinensis is pink flowered which is unusual. But I think I strategically placed additional flowers to make this photo showier than it is in real life.

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Grow it Yourself: courgettes (the final in this series)

This is a great crop for a beginner because it is so easy and productive. Rampant, but easy. Courgettes (French) are the same as zucchini (Italian), sometimes reshaped as scallopini (like flattened muffins) and also known as summer squash. They are a cucurbit, as is pumpkin. You probably only need two plants and they will need a good metre each in area. In under two months, they will drown you with such a deluge of produce that you will wonder why they are relatively expensive to buy. If you tire of the taste and texture, look up recipes for stuffed courgette flowers and nip them off in their infancy.

Courgettes are started in individual pots and planted out when soil temperatures rise around late October (or even later in colder areas). You can start seeds in pots under cover in September or just buy a couple of plants when you need them. The reason you start with individually potted plants is because they don’t appreciate their roots being disturbed.. Because they are such large and rampant growers, they need rich, well drained soils. We prefer to use compost to feed all our vegetables. Worm wee would also be a good option or you could turn to some of the off the shelf fertiliser options. Keep the moisture levels up through summer because these are plants with a very high water content. Keep harvesting every couple of days to encourage the plant to keep producing. The time between a desirable little courgette and a large, tasteless marrow is short indeed and if the plant is left with maturing marrows, it will stop producing baby courgettes for you.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Grow it Yourself: runner beans

Bushy, low growing beans are usually referred to as dwarf beans. Runner beans are climbing beans and there are both perennial and annual types. The traditional climbing bean in this country is the Scarlet Runner. It is a perennial plant so it goes dormant over winter and rockets into growth as soon as temperatures rise. Perennial beans tend to be better in cooler climates because they stop cropping as soon as the temperature rises over summer. When treated as an annual and sown afresh each year, they have more vigour so many gardeners prefer to do this.

You can build a permanent climbing frame, though this means you can not rotate the crop. We have used chicken netting secured to side posts as a frame. Others like the look of trellis but these days we find movable tepee constructions more flexible.

The annual climbing beans crop more heavily. These are direct sown in spring to a depth of about 2.5cm at 10cm spacings. Depending on the variety, you will be picking in 2 to 3 months. It is the usual soil story for most crops that grow above ground – full sun, well cultivated, well fertilised soils and mulch the crop to retain moisture. The plants will simply stop producing new beans if they come under stress from summer drought.

It is the over mature, older style runner beans that become stringy. Picking every few days encourages the plant to continue producing and avoids the fiddly strings that need to be cut out. Try Kings Seeds catalogue for a wide selection of different bean varieties.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Grow it Yourself – cauliflower

There is a finite number of vegetables and I am nearing the end of them in this column, which must be why cauliflower is still left. It is, I am afraid, amongst my least favourite of vegetables (palatable in cheese sauce with walnuts but little going for it otherwise). However, it has stood the test of time so clearly others view it more kindly. It is a brassica, like cabbage and broccoli, so in our milder areas, it is better to avoid growing the crop through summer when the cabbage white butterfly will wreak havoc and make the heads even less appealing. It will also bolt to flower too quickly in warmer temperatures. This means planting late winter and early spring to get through before summer (it can take up to 4 months to mature), or any time from early autumn onwards for winter harvest.

Because you only want a small number to mature at once, it is often easier to buy a few seedlings at a time from the garden centre though if you are an organised gardener, you could successionally sow half a dozen seeds in small pots each month or two. Being a leafy style veg, cauliflower wants rich soil full of nutrients. If you are using animal manure, make sure it is well rotted. We prefer compost to add nutrition and texture to the soils. Plant at around 50cm spacings to allow room to develop. Most modern varieties no longer require the heads covered to keep them white, as older varieties did, but it does no harm to bend over the top leaves to give some protection if you wish. If you actually enjoy cauli, there are trendy purple, golden and green options to try and there is some evidence that these coloured veg bring even greater health benefits to the standard white form.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Grow it Yourself: tamarillos

This is not a crop for inland or southern residents unless you have a holiday house on the coast. Even then, it is becoming an endangered species but ours still staggers on. This is another South American fruit which we have made our own in this country (along with the feijoa). In fact, it was NZ that conferred the name tamarillo. Older readers may remember when it was still called a tree tomato, though botanically it is Solanum betaceum.

Problem number one for inland gardeners is that it is very frost tender. It is a solanum so think same family as the potato and tomato (and nightshade but we can ignore that). It has to be completely frost free in its first year or so and will only take the lightest hints of frost once established. With its big, soft leaves and brittle growth, it doesn’t take kindly to wind, either. But readers, probably coastal, who can give protected and warm conditions, should have more success. It is not at all difficult to grow if you can find the right position.

Problem number two is more recent – the dreaded potato psyllid which is a fairly new arrival. It weakens the plant so badly that it usually dies. It takes up to two years for a plant to get large enough to crop, so it is relatively fast growing for a fruiting shrub. If you are really keen on tamarillos, it is probably advisable to keep raising replacements from cuttings, to ensure continued supply. They are not too bad from seed, either, though plants you buy will be superior selections. Because the psyllid is airborne, you can replant in the same area. Being a solanum, it is a gross feeder and will respond to rich soils full of compost and well rotted manure. Plants are self fertile meaning you only need one to get fruit though they do seem to crop more heavily in company.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

Grow it youself: celery

If you are harvesting celery now, you will be congratulating yourself because it is a very useful vegetable to have on hand. However, it is not a foolproof crop and if you do succeed in getting it to maturity without being stringy, slimy, disease ridden or slug infested, you often have the problem of excessive amounts of celery ready all at once. You can raise celery from seed but the need to stagger harvest means that most people will buy a few baby plants at a time from the garden centre. Seed is not such a great option when you only want 3 or 4 plants maturing at once. That said, I read one advisory that 16 to 20 plants per sowing (so we are talking successional planting) is sufficient for the average family. All I can say is that the author must have eaten vast amounts of celery.

Celery is a cool climate, very hungry crop. It needs good soil, preferably enriched with compost and rotted manure and you must keep it well watered in dry periods. Lack of water leads to stringiness and a bitter flavour. It is also a slow grower and can take up to four months to mature so you have to keep the food and water up to it for quite some time. In cold climates it is a spring crop, but in mild areas it can be sown or planted in early autumn as well. If you want to get a jump start on spring, you could sow seed soon into small pots and grow them under cover for planting out as soon as the soils start to warm up in September. Space at about 20cm apart and stay on top of the weeds which will compete with the celery’s root system and rob the nutrients.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Grow it yourself: Oriental radishes

Two weeks ago, I wrote about European radishes but considering how near our Asian neighbours are, we have been slow to catch on to the oriental varieties. Only the long white Daikon type is now sold widely in this country. According to the Kings’ seed catalogue, over 25% of vegetable production in Japan is radish of the Oriental types. These are larger growing varieties and therefore take somewhat longer to mature but they are still speedy at a two month turnaround from sowing to harvest. Being larger, they are somewhat easier to handle for the cooking process (certainly when it comes to grating into soups and casseroles) and perhaps more akin to a sophisticated turnip substitute for warmer areas where that crop is not suitable.

Oriental radishes are the same botanical family as more common European ones so they are a brassica and don’t want too much nitrogen in the soil. But being considerably larger root vegetables, they will need conditions which are very well cultivated and well drained to a considerable depth. A radish that is 40cm long is not going to like big clods of soil or compacted earth as it stretches downwards. If you can’t get that depth of friable soil, go for one of the squatter, rounder selections or shorter carrot-types rather than the traditional long white daikon. There are some coloured alternatives available as well.

Radish seed is very small and is scattered along the row and covered lightly with soil. You will have to thin after germination. These thinnings are edible so use them in salads or stirfries. Final spacings will depend on the variety you have chosen. Long thin ones will need to be around 10cm spacings, rounder, fatter ones require more room.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.