Category Archives: Grow it yourself

Grow it yourself: onions

Is it worth growing onions when the product is so cheap to buy with consistent quality? Possibly not if your vegetable gardening is suburban dabbling and you have access to a good farmers’ market or another reliable source. We grow them because we aim at self sufficiency (even though we don’t always make it) and we like to know where our food comes from. If you grow your own, you can also go beyond the usual brown, red or spring onions. Kings Seeds have at least 10 different types listed. If you want the range, you will have to grow from seed. Alternatively you can buy bundles of seedlings which look like baby spring onions, at the garden centre.

Onions don’t like heavy soils. They do well in light, sandy soils but you need to build up the soil fertility by using manure, a green crop, compost or fertiliser. They don’t have big root systems. In fact they don’t have a lot of top either so you have to make sure they don’t get swamped and shaded by competitive weeds. Onions get planted any time between autumn and spring though you won’t be harvesting until next summer and autumn. However, different varieties of onions have different planting requirements in that time span so check the instructions.

Spacings depend entirely on the variety. Some are small so can be grown close together while others need room to develop. While commercial production uses a non bulbous variety (Allium fistulosum) for spring onions, home gardeners know that any thinnings and surplus juvenile plants will fit the bill.

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

Grow it yourself: cabbage

Cabbages are part of the brassica family, which includes broccoli, cauli and Brussels sprout. This means they are gross feeders (gross meaning greedy or hungry in a gardening context, not revolting) growing best in heavily fertilised soils, rich in nitrogen. To hold up their large heads on a single stem requires a good root system in firm soil so get the ground right from the start. You can plant for most of the year in warmer areas, though we avoid summer for the brassica family to avoid problems with white butterfly. Cabbage can be grown from seed sown directly into the ground or from small plants. Don’t get too carried away – consider how many cabbages you want to eat. They can be difficult to give away. Every plant is also going to need about half a metre clearance all round to give it space to grow. Cabbages take two to three months to mature so planted now, will be ready in winter.

However, for those of us are who are less than enthusiastic about large heads of cabbage with lots of white stalky centre bits (there is only so much cole slaw and stir fried cabbage one can eat), there is a much larger range available now for the home gardener. There used to be a choice of large red, green or crinkly savoy. Now there are a number of mini growing varieties available with heads around 1kg instead of up to 4kg for the larger types. There are also conehead types with softer leaves, assorted quick maturing Chinese cabbages and even the Italian Cavolo nero (which is more like kale). Check out the Kings Seeds catalogue for a good range which might encourage a rethink on the role of this vegetable garden standby.

For the record, we do not for one minute think there is any truth to the current theory that white butterflies are territorial so can be discouraged by eggshells on sticks. Wishful thinking.

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

Grow it yourself: garlic

Freshly harvested garlic is a very different proposition to the stuff that has been hanging about for ten months and has lost most of its potency. We are not, perhaps, served well by the traditional wisdom of planting on the shortest day and harvesting on the longest day. We prefer Kay Baxter’s advice and moved to autumn planting in order to get it in growth before it has to deal with the cold, sodden soils of a wet winter. You can even successionally sow from May to August to extend the harvest season. Fresh picked green garlic is delicious.

Garlic needs to be grown in full sun, in heavily worked, fertile soils. It is a greedy feeder and good drainage is critical. If you are organised, you can prepare the beds now and sow a quick green crop. Dig that green crop in two weeks before planting the garlic. This, allied to late autumn warmth, will give them a real kick start into growth.

Always plant only the biggest and the strongest cloves from the garlic bulb and never but never plant the cheap, imported Chinese stuff (wrong hemisphere so out of season, may be carrying virus which threatens the local strains of garlic and will have been chemically treated). If you follow Kay Baxter’s advice and plant at 10cm diagonal spacings, you can get 100 plants to the square metre. We prefer a wider spacing of up to 15cm in parallel rows. Cover the cloves with a couple of centimetres of soil. Keeping the area free of weeds stops competition but also keeps the soil well cultivated, thus helping with drainage in the wet months. Some gardeners liquid feed regularly. We don’t, but we mulch with compost which is effectively a form of slow release. It is important that the crop never dries out or it will stop growing so be particularly vigilant from November onwards. Garlic can be harvested as soon as the tips start to turn brown.

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

Grow it Yourself – oregano and marjorum

I am not alone in getting these plants confused. Marjoram is the sweeter, milder, softer option but they are all members of the origanum family and related to mint. Origanum vulgare is what is usually regarded as oregano while Origanum marjorana is marjoram (sometimes referred to as sweet marjoram). It also has smaller leaves. I grow both and tend to use them in tandem when cooking. It appears that in the wild and in harsher climates, oregano develops a much stronger taste and the flavour difference is marked. But in our soft and lush conditions, the flavours of both are very mild.

The relationship to mint gives a clue as to growth habits. These are clumping perennials, easily increased by division once established. In colder climates they are largely deciduous, but grown in a well cultivated garden border, I can harvest from them for most of the year. It is best to divide them in spring or summer when in full growth. If you are growing oregano for cooking, don’t succumb to buying the golden and variegated forms which lack the flavour. You can plant these herbs as ground cover in herbaceous borders though they can be so enthusiastic in growth they may swamp more retiring neighbours. They will grow happily in sun to part shade but the flavours will be intensified in harsher conditions – full sun and poorer soil. I have decided I am being too kind to my plants and am getting masses of lush leafy growth at the expense of flavour. Their Mediterranean origins are an indicator that they will take harder conditions. What is sold as Greek oregano is reputed to have the strongest flavour.

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

Grow it yourself: spinach

Silver beet and spinach are close relatives. Indeed, somebody very close to me claims they taste the same when cooked, which I can’t argue against because it is so long since I have eaten the former. Texturally, I much prefer the finer, softer leaves of spinach and will happily eat those. Spinach is a winter vegetable. It will continue growing in colder temperatures but as soon as the weather warms in spring, it will bolt to seed. It is not quite as amenable as silver beet to grow and while you can leave plants in the ground and just pick as much as you need, it does not have the same cut and come again characteristics.

Well cultivated, well drained soil rich in nitrogenous fertiliser and full sun are the keys. Spinach is usually direct sown from seed and most of us now know to pick the thinnings and eat them as micro greens in salads or stir fries. The final spacing is in the 10cm range. In the right conditions, it is a quick crop because it will mature within a couple of months and you may have been eating immature leaves all that time. Some gardeners like to sow successive crops every few weeks to ensure continued supply.

There are a number of different spinach varieties, including New Zealand spinach or kokihi which is a different plant altogether (though similar taste and texture) and is our one great contribution to the global world of vegetables. While most spinach are spinacia, it is Tetragonia expansa. We recommend shunning the heirloom strawberry spinach (Chenopodium foliosum), being of the opinion that the reason it has been around for over 400 years is because it seeds so freely it is nigh on impossible to eradicate once you have it. The leaves are pleasant enough but the so-called strawberry seed heads are not.

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

Grow it yourself: silver beet

Call it silver beet, chard or Swiss chard. It is what you start planting as space becomes available from now on to offer a reprieve from frozen peas in winter. In fact you can grow it pretty much any time of the year but there are more delicious crops to eat in summer. Some of us think there are more delicious crops to eat in autumn, winter and spring as well but it is the proven ease and reliability which has made silver beet such a longstanding vegetable garden staple. Some people even claim to like it.

Being a leafy green, silver beet likes lots of organic matter, nitrogen and water. This is a crop where you can dig in animal manures, preferably composted first (and definitely composted if it is poultry manure). Sow the seed and cover lightly to a depth of a couple of centimetres. You can eat the thinnings as fresh salad greens when young, achieving a final spacing of around 30 to 40cm per plant. Silver beet can be a handy plant for tucking into odd spaces instead of a uniform row. It will sit there for a long time until it bolts to seed in spring because usual practice is to harvest a few leaves as you need them, rather than picking the whole plant at once. It is that cut and come again ability in cool conditions that makes it so handy. Just don’t cut too much at once or you will weaken the plant.

The rainbow coloured chards with red, yellow and pink stems and leaf ribs may add a decorative element in the garden and to raw salads when young, but they taste no different to the usual white stemmed version and the colour disappears entirely if you do more than the lightest blanching. However, they may encourage children to take a more kindly attitude to what is essentially an obliging but utility vegetable which is dead easy to grow and high in iron.

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

Grow it Yourself – Broccoli

Ssh and I will make an admission. I am not keen at all on broccoli despite understanding that it is terribly good for me. There is just something about the taste and texture that does not appeal, though I concede it is acceptable in a creamy soup with blue cheese. But, it is a staple vegetable and so easy to grow that it is a mainstay for most vegetable gardeners. We avoid growing it over summer here because it is a magnet for white butterflies and we don’t want to have to spray it but as the cooler weather of autumn approaches, it is planting time again. The white butterflies peter out when cooler weather comes and in the interim, it is easier to keep small plants insect free.

If you start from seed, it is usual to sow it into small pots or a seed tray to get the plants growing strongly before planting them in the garden. Unless you have a huge family of voracious broccoli eaters, buying an occasional punnet of seedlings is the easy way to go. They need the usual well cultivated soil rich in humus and with plenty of sun. Being a leafy green, they also appreciate fertiliser. We prefer to give this through extensive use of compost (nature’s very own slow release fertiliser) and blood and bone or you can feed with any number of cheap and cheerful proprietary mixes if you prefer. Aim for one rich in nitrogen. Keep the water up to the plants if we get a dry spell – leafy plants need plenty of moisture. Allow about half a metre of space around each plant. It seems a lot when the plants are small but they need room to spread and they don’t appreciate competition from neighbours. Plant them a little deeper than they are in the seed pots to encourage them to develop more roots higher up the stem.

Broccoli is generally cold hardy and will hold in the ground in winter to enable you to harvest as little or as much as you want at a time. Plants may need protecting from birds while they get established.

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