Category Archives: Grow it yourself

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.

Grow it yourself: strawberries

If you have been thinking of growing strawberries, do not delay. They should be planted immediately. As with most edible crops, they need full sun and plenty of rich, well dug soil to get them away to a good start. Good drainage is important. If you mound the soil, you get maximum exposure to the sun for the berries but you also hasten drying out over summer. Commercially, strawberries are usually grown in black plastic. This heats up the soil faster for early production and keeps the fruit clean by stopping splashing of mud. If you prefer not to use plastic, the traditional mulch is straw – hence the name of strawberries, perhaps? You may need to keep applying mulch as the season progresses.

Netted already - mostly because of our unwelcome resident rabbit.

Netted already – mostly because of our unwelcome resident rabbit.

Space plants at about 30cm, usually staggered in a double row. Garden centres will be selling reliable named varieties or you can take runners off your last year’s crop if you grew them. The runners are the plant’s way of increasing itself and good strong ones will be full of vim and vigour. Expect the biggest and the best berries in the first season (maybe even for Christmas dinner). If you keep the plants well fed, you will get more but smaller berries the following summer but it is not usually worth persisting with the same plants past the second season.

Plan from the start how you will cover your plants. If you don’t, the birds will beat you to every red fruit. We cover ours from the start to stop the birds from raking over the mulch and to foil the elusive resident rabbit from excavating the plants, using netting spread over cloche hoops.

If you are going to grow them in pots, they will need frequent watering and liquid feeding as soon as temperatures rise again.

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