Category Archives: Grow it yourself

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.

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.