Category Archives: Grow it yourself

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.

Grow it yourself: European radishes

I still associate radishes with encouraging young children to garden. The little red globes of the European radish grow so rapidly that you can be eating them in just over three weeks which gives a wonderfully quick result, even if the flavour may not be to littlies’ taste. If you haven’t had a look at radishes in recent years, you may be surprised by the range now available. There are long thin ones, large and small globed ones and colours range through reds, pinks, whites and bicolours to pure gold (Radish Zlata from Poland) and the Black Spanish Radishes which are black skinned with white flesh. And that is without even considering the oriental radish varieties.

The common garden radish has a bit of a split personality. It is almost exclusively served as a salad vegetable in this country though there is no reason why you cannot cook with it, in a similar manner to other root vegetables, albeit being of rather small stature. However it is a brassica which explains why it is better as a cool season crop. In mild areas, radishes can be grown right through winter. Yet it is a root crop, unlike most brassicas, so it does not want soils rich in nitrogen which encourage too much leafy top growth at the expense of the roots.

Sow seed directly into finely tilled soil and cover lightly to a depth of a centimetre. They will need to be thinned out after germination to allow room for the roots to develop. Pick them young. They soon get woody and too peppery so are best pulled, washed and stored in the fridge if you have too many. And you can always try Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s unlikely fresh radish dish – serve with softened but not melted butter and lashings of salt. No Heart Foundation tick for that one.

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

Grow it Yourself: Cavolo nero (Tuscan black kale)

Buffy, the contrary cat, tries to convince us that kale is delicious

Buffy, the contrary cat, tries to convince us that kale is delicious

Cavolo nero - photo Joe Mabel

Cavolo nero – photo Joe Mabel

In the odd world of fashionable vegetables, Cavolo nero ranks high enough to be showing in trendy recipes, putting it above even options like cardoon and burdock. It is a kale, a member of the brassica family, but coming from Italy and being of an interesting appearance, it is seen as a sophisticated option. It does not form a heart but instead has very long leaves in a palm-like formation, heavily crinkled or puckered (like a Savoy cabbage) and blackish green in colour. We tried growing kale one season but found it tough and unappealing. Mark commented that there may be reasons why our forbears preferred other brassicas to kale. Our cat at the time, the contrary Miss Buffy, confounded us by eating the cooked kale we rejected, but that should not be taken as an affirmation of taste and texture. Kale is very hardy and reliable in conditions where even other brassicas struggle.

Despite its unusual appearance and trendy reputation, Cavolo nero is a typical brassica – cold hardy, will hold in the winter garden but best avoided for mid summer growth because it is just as vulnerable as others in the family to white butterfly and aphids. You are unlikely to find plants for sale so will almost certainly have to start with seed. You can source seed from Italian Seeds Pronto or Kings Seeds. If you are really keen, you could try an early spring sowing for harvest two months later though it is more commonly sown in late summer to grow through autumn and to hold in the garden for winter harvest. Frosts are reputed to intensify and sweeten the flavour, somewhat akin to swedes, but some of us think this may have more to do with wishful thinking.

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

Grow it yourself: bay tree

The culinary bay has a long and noble history

The culinary bay has a long and noble history

The culinary bay is Laurus nobilis, also referred to as sweet bay. It has a long history dating right back to ancient Greece and Rome yet is still widely used today. It is easy to grow and hardy for all conditions in this country. However it needs to be kept trimmed. Left to their own devices, bay trees can reach 15 metres. Fortunately once a year is usually sufficient. We trim ours hard in early spring and the fresh growth soon appears to cover up the unsightly woodiness. At the same time, we clean up the base. Bays will sucker and shoot all over the place. If you train the plant to a standard lollipop shape, it is easy to cut away growth at the base.

One plant will yield plenty of leaves for any family. The current fashion is to use clipped bays as formal standards in potagers, but you will never need that number of leaves and there are other more interesting plants you can clip for effect. Besides, as well as suckering, bays are vulnerable to thrips – tiny insects which live on the underside of the leaf and suck the chlorophyll out, turning the leaf silver. We never spray our bay and would not want to spray insecticide on an edible leaf. Planting in a position with good air movement helps (thrips don’t like drafts) and stopping the plant from being too dense will also help reduce infestations.

Bay is not difficult to strike from cutting, though most people buy it. It grows reaonably quickly so it is not necessary to pay over the odds for a large one, unless you are impatient. If you have an abundance of leaves, they are reputed to repel pantry moths when you strew them through your food cupboard.

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

Grow it yourself: rosemary

Such a pretty name for this herb (botanically Rosmarinus officinalis) which has had a resurgence in popularity in modern cooking. It is no longer reserved for roast lamb but is widely used to give that southern European flavour, especially when sprinkled over roasting potatoes. There is no reason at all to use the dried, often stale product from the supermarket when every good home can have a rosemary bush to provide year round fresh flavour.

The key to growing rosemary successfully is to remember that it is a Mediterranean herb which means it is used to poor, dry soils and hot sun. So don’t be too kind to it. I recently killed an established prostrate rosemary in a large pot by giving it a topdressing of compost. If I had just left it alone, it should have been fine. Waterlogged soils will kill it even faster.

Rosemary is easy enough to root from cutting (choose new growth which has hardened so it is not floppy) or you can buy a plant. If you get a shrub, it will get some size to it and may even reach close to 2 metres over time if you don’t clip it. You should also have a choice of prostrate or dwarf forms which are more suitable for containers. If you don’t give the plant a haircut from time to time, it will get woody and gnarly rather than staying bushy. You can prune your bush right now. Most rosemary have blue flowers in summer which bees find irresistible.

If you have a dog, make sure you site your plant away from corners and edges where the dog is likely to mark its territory by peeing on your herb. I speak from experience here….

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

Grow it yourself: aubergines

GIY – aubergines

Goodness knows why these are described as eggplants – some varieties are egg shaped? The texture can be a little like an over-boiled egg in its shell? Aubergine is a much more attractive name for what is widely seen as a sophisticated vegetable, showing up ever more frequently in modern NZ recipes. The problem with aubergines is getting your timing right because they need maximum heat all summer long. Essentially you need three to four months of warm weather to get a worthwhile harvest and, being a plant from warm climates, it will succumb as soon as temperatures drop in autumn. For most of us, this means starting the plants in pots under cover so they have some size before planting them out when soil temperatures rise in November. You can either buy a few plants from the garden centre or start from seed. If you choose the latter, you may do better if you go for quicker maturing varieties with smaller fruit.

Aubergines are solanums along with potatoes, capsicums and tomatoes but they are not as easy to grow. They like humus rich, friable soils in full sun. Once you have planted them out, treat them like a capsicum or even a tomato. They may need staking if they start to fall over. They will benefit from early pinching out of new shoots to encourage them to be bushy. They will need watering in dry summer times. But the bottom line is that you don’t have established plants in the ground by the beginning of December, you have missed the boat.

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

Grow it yourself: cape gooseberries (Physalis peruviana)

Physalis peruviana - commonly known as cape gooseberries

Physalis peruviana – commonly known as cape gooseberries

Few people know the proper name of the cape gooseberry, though Physalis peruviana gives a handy clue on origin – Peru. So it joins other South American fruits such as feijoas, the NZ cranberry and the tamarillo which are easy to grow here. This is a wild fruit that you leave growing more for browsing upon or for encouraging children out to forage rather than for substantial harvests. That said, if you can get enough, it stews well and makes a fine, tasty jam.

Cape gooseberries are a solanum and you may spot the physical similarities to other solanums like tomatoes, aubergine, potato and even the nightshades. Tomatillos are also related. They all look even closer relatives at this time of the year when mildew blights the foliage. Theoretically, you can certainly grow them as a tidy row in the vegetable garden but in practice, most people just let seedlings go in rougher areas or margins of the garden where a bit of untidiness doesn’t matter. The little green fruit which turn yellow when ripe are extremely decorative in their papery sheaths, but the rest of the plant is pretty scruffy. In mild conditions, the plant will stay as a short lived perennial but in colder areas it is generally treated as an annual. The more summer heat it receives, the better crop you will get.

If you have a friend with a plant, get a ripe squishy fruit and grow the seed. Once you have it growing, it gently seeds down. It is sometimes available for sale in the garden centres but all plants grown in this country will be seedlings, not named selections, so you might as well start from free seed if you can.

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