5 tricky vegies
Dealing with popular but problematic crops
These can be difficult little beasts. The problem isn’t so much in the growing – that part is relatively easy. The main issues lie in the soil and seed. Carrots love deep, well-dug soil that’s free of rocks, otherwise the roots end up stunted or forked. Turn the soil with a fork prior to planting, working it to a fine, crumbly tilth. Don’t worry too much about fertility. While carrots struggle in very poor soil, they’re fine in moderate to rich ground.
For good germination, use the freshest seed possible – old seed can be hit and miss – and because carrots transplant poorly, sow directly into the garden bed. Make shallow furrows, no more than 1cm deep, scatter seed generously, backfill lightly and water well.
For excellent germination, you must ensure the bed is kept moist until seedlings appear in 2–3 weeks. Letting it dry out will have a detrimental effect on your germination rate. To keep the ground moist, cover the surface with a piece of shadecloth or hessian. Check it every day and water if necessary. Once seedlings appear, remove the cover, water the plants regularly, and you’ll be harvesting lovely fat carrots in about three months.
I have to admit to being something of a celery loser. Although I have grown the plants reasonably well, I’ve never managed to harvest the kind of crisp, plump, apple-green stalks that you can find at shops and farmers’ markets.
In the wild, celery grows in marshland, with a constant water supply. Some of the commercial growers replicate these conditions by growing celery hydroponically, but the easiest home garden solution is to grow it in fertile, well-drained soil, with a daily supply of water. Don’t allow your plants to dry out, or the stalks will be dry and stringy.
Celery prefers mild temperatures, so timing is everything. In cold areas, start celery in either late summer or early spring. In warm, frost-free areas, sow your seed in autumn so it grows through winter.
The humble brussels sprout is notorious on the dinner plate and equally so in the garden. While its unsavoury reputation on the plate is a bit unfair, its reputation for being difficult in the garden is well-deserved.
Brussels sprouts are very finicky about climate. They are commonly grown in winter, and a hint of warm weather in spring causes those lovely tight sprouts to become loose and blowsy, effectively ruining the crop.
It’s helpful to know that brussels sprouts grow best in temperate areas, particularly where it’s frosty. You would struggle to grow them well in the subtropics. Also, you should start the plants early; don’t wait for autumn. In most areas, seed should be sown around Christmas. That way, they are forming their sprouts when conditions are cool.
When starting them in summer, you may encounter the leaf-munching larvae of cabbage white butterfly. To protect crops, cover with fine-weave netting or spray with organically approved Dipel.
This is widely considered to be the world’s most difficult food plant to grow, and two years of wasabi growing have taught me that, indeed, this fascinating plant does present a challenge.
Common wisdom says that wasabi requires a very cold climate, plenty of moisture and a shady position to do well – think Tasmania, hydroponics and climate-controlled greenhouses. In reality, however, wasabi is somewhat more adaptable.
Cool to cold winters and reasonably mild summers are important for success with wasabi, indicating that any temperate to cool subtropical climate is suitable. As for moisture, a regular supply is necessary but the plant is fine when grown in reasonably fertile, well-drained soil or potting mix. Mulch helps keep moisture levels even. A growing position with dappled shade is ideal.
The main issues I’ve encountered are summer fungal diseases, especially mildew, and cabbage white butterflies. I’ve also yet to get my plants to produce a stem, the part that’s grated to make true wasabi paste. That might happen next spring, but until then, I’m happy to harvest winter leaves and spring flowers for a taste of that amazing flavour!
It took me years to crack the onion-growing code. I’m not one to give up easily, but considering the miserable crops I was producing and the cheap price of onions in the shops, I came very close. I’m glad I persevered. Onions are a delicious staple in my family’s kitchen, and I now confidently grow everything from torpedo-shaped Italian heirlooms to traditional brown keeping onions.
The main secret to success is choosing the right variety for your location. Onions form bulbs in response to increasing day length. Short-day (early) varieties form bulbs when days increase from 10 to 12 hours. These can be grown in latitudinal areas between Coffs Harbour and Bundaberg, when planted in autumn. Intermediate varieties, sown May to August, need 13–14 summer daylight hours, and suit latitudes south of Port Macquarie. Long-day (late) varieties, planted from June to July, need 15 hours or more to form decent bulbs, so are generally restricted to southernmost parts of the country. Fresh seed and a fortnight’s worth of patience ensures good germination.
Next month: five tricky fruits