Tag Archives: vegetable gardening

Garden lore

If you are digging a new garden in a grassed area, you will save yourself a lot of trouble if you deal to the grassy cover from the start. You can spray the grass with glyphosate to kill it. Wait three days after spraying before you dig. Alternatively, you can skim the top layer of turf off to a depth of 5cm and stack the layers upside down to rot down. This will give you fertile topsoil to spread back on the garden in due course. Or, if you are digging deep enough, you can spread the top layer at the bottom of the trench, preferably upside down, and cover it with soil to stop the grass from regrowing.

Cicely: When I see a spade, I call it a spade.
Gwendoline: I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

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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.

Raised beds and to dig or not to dig, that is the question.

Raised beds have their place, but not necessarily every place (Photo Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons)

Raised beds have their place, but not necessarily every place (Photo Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons)

Maybe the gardening world divides into diggers and non diggers. The non diggers favour raised vegetable beds and no dig gardening methods. We old diggers, on the other hand, are closer to our peasant ancestry.

Digging is not an activity to be feared. The physical effort is terribly good for you and it is only hard the first time. The more you work the soil, the easier it becomes. One of our vegetable gardens has been tilled for anything up to ten decades in some places and it is like working in potting mix. While Mark prefers to dig with a shovel, I swear by a good, sharp spade. People often neglect sharpening their spade but it makes a huge difference if you keep a good cutting edge on it.

Being of the digging persuasion, we have never felt the need for raised beds. If you put some effort into turning over the soil of your raised bed, it will fly in every direction, spoiling your surrounding paths. Lesson number one, should you decide you want them, is to keep the soil level lower than the surrounds and leave room to build up further as you add compost, green crops and all the additions which keep it fertile and friable over time.

Raised vegetable gardens have their uses in certain situations. Obviously they are of inestimable value for disabled gardeners or those who cannot bend comfortably. They can be useful where you are trying to garden in an area choked with old tree roots or with really bad drainage. They are, my daughter tells me, particularly useful in Canberra where a combination of clay, a new puppy and a heavy population of ground birds named choughs (pronounced chuffs) condemn any vegetables at ground level. But in the main, if you have halfway decent soil, I think it is actually easier to follow the traditional way and garden at ground level. The current vegetable garden craze has seen a building boom for raised beds and too little questioning of the rationale.

For starters, there are issues related to the construction of raised beds. Brick or concrete block is permanent and relatively expensive – devilishly difficult if you change your mind about your garden layout further down the track. Hardwood railway sleepers are expensive and heavy to handle. Most people end up with pine. Herein lies a major problem. If you use untreated pine in a high rainfall climate, it is going to start breaking down within a couple of years. Don’t forget it is permanently wet on the inside of the bed. So what about tanalised pine?

“No,” said my scientist daughter in Canberra. I trust her judgement in these matters and she did spend one summer as a chemistry student looking at sap staining on tanalised timber. She comments that the information on the internet is not particularly up to date, and in the absence of scientific evidence proving safety, she certainly would not want to be growing anything edible near tanalised timber. She points out that the preservative was, and may still be, a mixture of arsenic and chrome and plants are very good at absorbing and holding heavy metals. She wouldn’t risk it. She is constructing her raised beds out of untreated pallet timber which will break down in due course but is at least free, recycled and will last longer in her dry climate than here. She has also coated it with linseed oil.

The conventional approach to vegetable gardens, though one hopes the timber sides are not tanalised

The conventional approach to vegetable gardens, though one hopes the timber sides are not tanalised

Once you have built your raised bed, you have the problem of filling it. Too often, I have seen people on TV wheeling in large, heavy grade plastic bags, each containing 40 litres of soil mix bought from the garden centre. I can’t think of much that is less environmentally friendly. If you are not going to go down the expensive, convenience route, you are going to have to find or create your own soil. It takes a much greater volume than you would ever dream of to fill a raised bed. Then you have to shovel or lift the soil in. Don’t underestimate the size of the task.

At this point, some advocate going the no dig route. I know the theory, but being diggers, we have never done it. It consists of layering a mixture of compostable materials and leaving the worms to do the task of breaking it down. So you layer green material (but avoid weeds, seeding plants and anything diseased such as mildewed tomatoes) alternately with dry matter (fine twigs, newspaper, even old woollen carpet, straw and the likes). Essentially you are building a cold compost heap. It takes time for it all to break down and form a tilth and longer term, it matters a great deal what your proportion of green matter to dried matter is. Kay Baxter of Koanga Institute has written about this and why she chose to abandon the no dig approach after many years to return to old fashioned double digging.

If you want to hasten your no-dig garden, you end up adding large quantities of compost and humus and this is where my vegetable growing husband draws the line. We make large quantities of hot compost here and as far as he is concerned, that compost is destined to be spread annually to a depth of no more than 5cm across as much garden as possible – thereby feeding and conditioning the soil while acting as mulch. There is no way he will allow a single garden bed, whether raised or not, to absorb more than its allotted share just to avoid having to dig the soil.

Raised beds and no dig gardening require higher inputs for the same, or often less output. We are waiting for practitioners with several decades of experience to convince us that these gardening techniques are an improvement, rather than recent converts.

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

Salads Year-Round. A Planting Guide by Dennis Greville

The best thing about this book is the photography. It is sumptuous. The same cannot be said for the text, despite the author being vastly experienced and presumably knowledgeable. It does not show. You too can grow salad ingredients all year round. The recommended crops range freely and randomly from traditional lettuce and radish, across Europe (blood orange and bocconcini), through the Middle East (pomegranates and figs) and Asia (bamboo shoots, Vietnamese mint and galangal). Throw in some edible flowers like heartsease pansies and calendula and you have global salads, rounded out with the mandatory recipes. But it claims to be a planting guide. The growing information is perfunctory at best, but often woefully inadequate and sometimes entirely absent. There is no indication whatever of the range of climatic conditions we have in this country. You could not tell from this book whether you can expect to grow blood oranges in Invercargill or grapes and aubergines in Turangi. Nor will you learn anything about caring for the crop as it grows, let alone pests and diseases.

This is candyfloss gardening for the Christmas market. Leave it on the booksellers’ shelves. It should be remaindered on Boxing Day and disappear without a trace by New Year.

Salads Year-Round. A Planting Guide by Dennis Greville (New Holland; ISBN: 978 1 86966 3285) reviewed by Abbie Jury.

Grow It Yourself – Parsley

The parsley patch - naturalising nicely with the pretty but weedy forget-me-nots

The parsley patch - naturalising nicely with the pretty but weedy forget-me-nots

I am a huge fan of parsley. If you have a good big patch of it in the garden, you are never without a green veg, a garnish, a flavouring and a basic ingredient for all season pesto. Chop it through pasta, serve a thick layer on soup, use abundantly in coatings for foods – the options for use are numerous as long as you have plenty available. It is particularly useful in the depths of winter when you may have a shortage of other fresh greens. And you can feel virtuous because it is full of goodness if you eat enough.

The critical aspect of ensuring that you have an uninterrupted supply is to get it established two years in a row because this is a biennial plant. In its second year, it will set seed and die. As long as you leave at least one plant to go to seed, parsley can naturalise itself and pop up gently throughout the vegetable garden or even in the flower beds. Once you have established it two years in a row, it should continue under its own steam as long as you let some of the seedlings grow and are not too vigilant on the weeding.

There are two types of parsley – curly leafed (which is arguably more flavourful and easier to chop) and flat leafed Italian (which is allegedly sweeter and is certainly more trendy in modern recipes). Both grow in the same conditions so you can have either or both. Parsley is usually started in the first instance from seed. Be patient. It can take several weeks to germinate. While it is starting, it needs to be kept moist so if you are planning on sowing some, start before the dryness of summer. After that, just let it grow and start picking. It does not require any care and is generally free from pests and diseases.

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

In the garden this week: September 24, 2010

  • Cut the spent flowers off your hellebores to stop the likely infestation of aphids, which find them a pleasant home, and to prevent them self seeding.
  • You still have time to start your own summer veg from seed but don’t delay with tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, aubergines, capsicums and the like. These are all started off sown in trays or pots for planting out in the garden later next month. If you only want one or two plants, it is probably just as cheap to buy the plants as packets of seed but sowing seed gives you the chance to be generous and share plants with friends and family.
  • Mark will be starting his corn in baby pots here. It is too early to plant out in the open yet but this being his most favourite vegetable of all, he likes to maximize the season and to get an early start with established plants.
  • Cloches come into their own at this time of the year. They will warm the soil more quickly, so allowing earlier planting out. They will also protect young crops and keep rain splash off micro greens.
  • In the ornamental garden, dahlias can be lifted and divided.
  • Feed roses if you have yet to do so. They are in full growth now so will have maximum uptake of fertiliser. If you are laying mulch around your roses, keep it well clear of the rose crown near the ground.
  • Kumara can be chitted, like potatoes. Place them on damp sawdust, straw or even crumpled newspaper in a warm, dark spot to encourage them to start sprouting. Kumara are another crop that needs maximum growing time, so the timing of planting out is important.
  • Get a copper spray onto deciduous fruit trees as they break dormancy. This is a key application to prevent problems later and is the single most important spray of the season.

Grow it Yourself Vegetables, by Andrew Steens.

In that great surge of garden books on growing edible plants, it is a relief to see one from an author who is doing more than just documenting his or her first year of trial and error, or relying on other people’s research. Andrew Steens brings experience, enthusiasm and qualifications right across the spectrum of gardening and horticulture, focussing in this case on growing vegetables. Readers of the Weekend Gardener will recognise him as one of the panel of fortnightly contributors charting activities (of the fruit and veg persuasion) in their own home gardens. That level of hands on experience does shine through. He has written a book which will pretty much tell you what you need to know about how to grow vegetables and which crops to grow and how to manage your productive garden in a sustainable way. Unusually, he has also given his personal picks for top performing selections by name which is helpful.

On the downside, it is by no means the sharpest designed reference book I have seen. It is a little busy and cluttered which makes it harder to use. There were times I felt that more rigorous editing would have sharpened the writing and cut out some of the extraneous detail which includes preaching to the converted. The author’s recent experience is from Point Wells, north of Auckland. Writing a book to cover all of NZ, which has huge climatic variation, is a big ask. He has made a good fist of it, but I think that southern gardeners may pick more holes in it than we spotted. The big problem that Mark noticed immediately is that the diagrams showing sowing times for marginal crops are way out. If you sow your melons or aubergines in December and January here, you won’t get a crop. They need a long growing season. This appears to be another design flaw. If you read the detail of the text, Steens is absolutely correct when he says they need to be sown from seed and started in small pots well in advance for planting out when the soils have warmed. But that is not what the dinky diagrams on each page tell you because they fail entirely to differentiate between sowing seed direct into the garden or using plants that you started under cover two months earlier.

Despite those reservations, this is certainly one of the better recent publications on the topic full of practical advice and a useful reference.

(Published by Bateman; ISBN 978 1 86953 761 6.)