100 tips on vegetable gardening
Lynda Hallinan goes back to basics to reveal her vegetable gardening tricks of the trade.
From compost to seeds and herbs, Lynda Hallinan’s rules to grow by.
This is my 12th year of sharing my top and flop crops each month in NZ Gardener so I can say with some authority that no-one is better qualified at succeeding – or failing – in the vegetable patch than me. There are very few edible crops I haven't tried to grow in that time, and what I've learned along the way is that what works in one garden doesn’t necessarily work in another. In my former city garden, I grew an embarrassment of huge, juicy, organic ‘Black Krim’ tomatoes – so many that even the blackbirds couldn't keep up, and dozens rotted on my potager path – whereas in almost a decade of country gardening, I'm yet to grow a single full-sized tomato to maturity. Mine all get blight here in Hunua‘s wetter climate. In the city, I couldn’t grow parsnips, leeks or Brussels sprouts, but in the country – thanks to the hard frosts that linger in my low-lying vegetable garden – these winter favourites flourish.
You can’t win them all but there are some tried-and-true tips that make vegetablegrowing easier regardless of the size of your plot and your local microclimate. These are the rules I grow by.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH?
1 PUTTING IN A NEW VEGE PATCH? Deal to the weeds first. This is controversial advice but I believe it’s better to whack back perennial weeds, especially persistent grasses such as couch, kikuyu and twitch, with one good spray, then mulch heavily and build up the soil on top. Otherwise you’ll be forever invaded.
2 THE BEST SOIL IS SO-CALLED “VIRGIN” SOIL. Just dig over a patch of lawn turf and you are good to go. Enrich with compost and just start planting: in the first year, freshly dug-over lawn soil produces the biggest potatoes, the best sweetcorn, the finest tomatoes, the fattest garlic bulbs. Trust me. You will never eat so well again.
3 DON’T BUILD RAISED BEDS. Unless: your soil is heavy clay, you have mobility issues that make bending and digging difficult, you keep them low (less than 20cm high), you have a short growing season (cool springs and early autumn frosts) or you want a posh-looking potager. Raised beds are ideal for getting a jumpstart on spring sowing and for extending the autumn harvest season, but in summer the soil overheats and can dry out and become hydrophobic (repels water, even when you’re hosing it on). In summer, crops such as radishes, spinach and coriander bolt to seed in sunny raised beds. Also, the deeper your beds, the more expensive they will be to fill.
4 COMPOST IS HERE FOR A GOOD TIME, NOT A LONG TIME. If you fill your raised beds with a compost-rich mix, that compost will break down and half your soil will mysteriously vanish by the end of the season. That means every year you’ll be forking out for more soil. The solution? Build up your store-bought soil by trenching (see compost section), digging in fine grade mulch, fallen leaves, grass clippings and other home-sourced organic material throughout the season.
5 Site your vege patch in full sun, within reach of your garden hose or tap.
6 USE LOW TIMBER OR CONCRETE BLOCK EDGES, no higher than 10-20cm, to retain your vege beds, and keep the lawn and path materials at bay. This keeps the costs of store-bought soil down, but still achieves a designer look.
7 MAKE YOUR PATHS WIDE ENOUGH TO FIT a fully loaded wheelbarrow. Aim for 80-100cm wide. Grass, gravel, bark or mulch paths are a matter of personal preference. Don’t lay shell unless you don’t mind walking on it in bare feet.
8 HIRE A ROTARY HOE to work over new ground and break up compacted soil to improve aeration. Dig it over, then shovel on compost and work it in. (This will horrify advocates of no-dig gardening, but a decent no-dig garden takes time to achieve and rotary hoeing is a fast-track to soil success. So is planting potatoes as your first crop in a new garden, as their roots are natural cultivators.)
9 FEED YOUR SOIL ANNUALLY. I apply Nitrophoska for fast growth in spring, but otherwise any general slowrelease NPK fertiliser will do. Sweetcorn is a pretty good indicator of soil fertility; if your cobs are smaller than you’d like, your soil is getting hungry for nutrients.
10 BUY ONE TYPE OF TOMATO FERTILISER and use it on all your fruiting crops, from tomatoes to eggplants, capsicums and beans. If you’re growing edible crops in pots, opt for a liquid fertiliser.
1 COMPOST BUILDS HEALTHY SOIL for better harvests. Dig in compost prior to planting, or use it as a moisture-retaining, weed-suppressing mulch to keep the roots of fruiting crops such as tomatoes and beans cooler in summer. Lay it on thick.
2 THINK BIG. Compost is much easier to make in bulk than in small quantities because small heaps can’t generate as much heat, and therefore break down, as quickly as large ones. Keep small piles chugging along by covering them with a plastic tarpaulin, or locating them in a sheltered, sunny spot.
3 ALL GARDENS HAVE AN ABUNDANCE OF GREEN WASTE. Stockpile carbon to balance this out. Use the plain paper and cardboard boxes otherwise destined for your recycling bin, bag up fallen autumn leaves and hire a mulcher once a year to deal to fruit tree prunings and small branches.
4 A TRIPLE BIN SYSTEM WITH REMOVABLE SLATS between each bay is ideal. Make each bin roughly one cubic metre, or adjust to suit the size of your garden. As a rule of thumb, each bay needs to hold at least one month’s worth of garden waste. When the first bay is full, fork or shovel the semi-composted waste into the second bay, mixing well to combine. Refill the first bay at your leisure. When you run out of room again, fork the contents of the second bay into the third. Once the system is working well, you’ll have compost at three stages: starting, progressing, and ready to use.
5 Cultivate the soil under your compost heap. Encourage earthworm activity by digging in a couple of bags of store-bought compost before you begin. Don’t build compost heaps over concrete or compacted soil.
6 A COMPOST HEAP NEEDS warmth, water, aeration and roughly equal quantities of green (nitrogenous) and brown (carbon) waste. Dry compost won’t break down. Nor will overly wet compost. If your compost heap reeks, it’s probably anaerobic (lacking oxygen). Heavy layers of grass clippings can often smother a compost heap, causing it to stink. Layer grass clippings no thicker than 5cm.
7 DON’T BUILD A HEAP UP, DIG IT DOWN. This is trenching and it’s the best no-fuss, no-smell, compost-as-you-go solution for large and small gardens. Dig a trench at least as wide and deep as your spade head. Roughly chop up your green waste and food scraps (including meat, onions and eggshells), filling up to one-third of the trench, and cover with soil. Plant straight on top. Either work one trench at a time, backfilling with the reserved soil, or fill in the first trench by digging out a second. Note: don’t plant deep root crops on newly buried scraps as they may not have rotted down sufficiently.
8 EXTEND YOUR FAMILY with a few thousand tiger worms to bung into your compost bin. You can order composting worms from garden centres.
9 WEEDS CAN BE COMPOSTED. Well, most of them. Chop the seedheads and rot down perennial nasties such as wandering tradescantia, ivy and convolvulus in a bucket of water for a couple of weeks first, then tip their slimy remains into your heap.
10 WILT GREEN WASTE in the sun before you compost it. Pile it up on a concrete path for a couple of days to reduce their volume by as much as half. That means you fill your bin at half the pace.
1 SOW DIRECT wherever possible at this time of year. They might take a little longer to germinate, but you save all the hassle of caring for them in trays or punnets. It also eliminates plastic waste and transplant shock, is much quicker (sow a whole packet in minutes), makes for easy spacing and all your plants grow at a pace that suits them.
2 HOW DO YOU KNOW when the soil is warm enough to sow direct? Watch for weeds. When bare soil starts to sport a green stubble of annual seeds, that’s a sign the growing conditions are right. Also, when the woody crowns of perennial ‘Scarlet Runner’ beans burst back into growth, the time is right to sow annual and dwarf bean varieties.
3 THINK LIKE SANTA: make a list and check it twice. Write a wishlist of what you want to grow, then check which seeds you already have. Use up open packets from the previous season. Ignore the best-before dates. Swap and share too – no-one needs a whole packet of zucchini seeds!
4 ARE OLD SEEDS STILL VIABLE? Do a germination test. Fill a shallow saucer with water and soak a sample selection for a day or two. Viable seeds will swell up and a small tadpole-shaped tail will emerge, or a full sprout. If nothing happens after 3-4 days, buy a fresh packet. Note: parsnips are best from fresh seed.
5 USE SEED-RAISING MIX when sowing in pots and trays, especially when sowing expensive or temperamental varieties. Seed-raising mix is sterile, free-draining, less likely to promote fungal growth and has just enough starter fertiliser to see your seedlings through to the transplant phase.
6 FOR STURDIER SEEDLINGS, sow seeds in trays that aren’t made of black plastic. Black plastic pots and punnets encourage faster germination in cool weather, but can also stress those tiny roots in hot weather, resulting in weaker plants.
7 SLOW STARTERS such as tomatoes and eggplants will exhaust the fertiliser in seed-raising mix. They might be in your seed pots for 6-8 weeks before it’s warm enough to transplant them, so repot after a month into larger containers.
8 PROTECT DIRECT-SOWN SEEDS with netting, especially if you’ve cleared a large area for mass sowing. Cats, dogs and birds will scratch out seedlings otherwise.
9 IF YOUR SEEDLINGS ARE STRESSED by drought, damp, heat or cold, you can undo all your good work in germinating them in trays. If seedlings get lanky or leggy, wilt in the sun, or end up rootbound from spending too long in trays, cut your losses and start again. Cabbages, broccoli and cauliflowers will produce miniature button-sized heads if they get too stressed in trays.
10 BUY SEEDLINGS in punnets or pots when your seeds fail to come up, when you only need a few of each plant, you want to reduce the time from plot-to-plate (by as much as a month) or you want access to hybrids that aren’t otherwise available to home gardeners.
1 PREFER PUNNETS TO SOWING SEED? Make your vege beds up to 1.5m wide to allow for six seedlings spaced out at 20-30cm intervals.
2 HOW LONG ARE YOUR ARMS? Ensure that you can comfortably reach into the middle of your raised beds from all sides, so you can work the soil and transplant seedlings without having to actually climb in and stand on the soil.
3 CITRUS TREES ARE SHALLOW-ROOTED and resent having those feeder roots disturbed by frequent cultivation. If you’re including citrus trees in a vege garden, either plant at the back of beds, or in the middle, and mulch the rootzone, or plant spreading perennial herbs such as oregano, mint and thyme, rather than planting annual veges up to their trunks.
4 BIRDS STEAL BERRIES. Work out how you’re going to beat the birds before you plant strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Is a fully covered berry bed or cage feasible, or will a frame with netting stapled to the lid do the trick? Berry cages and netting cloches can be really ornamental as well as practical.
5 KEEP SOIL HEALTHY by rotating crops. A four-bed garden (if space allows), with a separate bed for perennial crops such as strawberries and rhubarb, allows for a system where no crop is grown in the same spot for more than one
year in a row. Plant root crops one year, followed by leafy crops, then fruiting crops, then give your soil a break with a cover or green manure crop, and start again.
6 FANCY SAVING YOUR OWN SEED? Reserve a bed for that. When transplanting seedlings, tuck a couple of each variety into the seed bed and leave them until they’ve set and matured their seed. The bed doubles as a feeding station for bees to collect nectar and pollen.
7 Grow in rows running from north to south, so each plant gets maximum exposure to the sun regardless of the height of its neighbours.
8 AVOID THE WINTER RAIN, HAIL AND MUD by planting up pots of salad greens and herbs to keep at the back door. No-one wants to go foraging by torchlight on winter nights.
9 NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM. Beds left empty soon fill up with weeds. If you have a bed sitting idle, sow a green manure crop to fix nitrogen, foil the weeds and provide a handy source of organic matter for soil improvement. In spring/ summer, sow buckwheat as a filler. In autumn/winter, opt for broad beans and enjoy a bonus edible crop, as the foliage can also be steamed like spinach.
10 BUILD OR BUY FANCY FRAMES for climbing crops. Woven obelisks, wrought-iron archways, trellis and tepees are practical and decorative, adding height and extra growing room to a small space. Make sure they are secured with sturdy stakes and ties.
1 GROUP HERBS according to their drought-tolerance level. Mediterranean stalwarts rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano don’t need as much water as leafy herbs such as coriander, mint and basil. Annual herbs need more water, so keep these in your vege garden alongside lettuces and beans.
2 ALMOST ALL HERBS PREFER FULL SUN, so site your herb garden accordingly. Note: coriander and parsley tolerate shade, and mint, lemon balm and chervil actually relish it.
3 SOW CORIANDER FROM SEED. It doesn’t like being transplanted and prematurely bolts to seed. Coriander lasts longer in spring, early summer and late autumn; in the heat of high summer, it runs to seed. For this reason, sow fornightly in a semi-shaded spot, from now on.
4 KEEP TWO CLUMPS OF MINT ON THE GO in different parts of your garden. In summer, mint invariably gets rust so when one clump shows those telltale orange spots, cut it right back to the ground and give it a deep daily soak, while continuing to harvest from the other. When the pruned plant pops back up, deal to the other clump.
5 SAGE IS A TEMPERAMENTAL SOD. It hates wet winter feet. If, like me, you routinely murder sage in your soggy soil, just pretend it’s an annual and buy a new plant each spring, so it’s a decent size by the following autumn.
6 EVERYONE PREFERS ITALIAN FLAT-LEAF PARSLEY TO ITS CURLY COUSIN. So grow more of the former and less of the latter. I’m partial to Par-Cel too; this flat-leaf parsley/celery hybrid is easier to grow year-round than either celery or parsley.
7 HERBS AS MICROGREENS: Generously sprinkle seeds of coriander, chervil, rocket, basil, borage, chives, cress, kale and mustard in containers of potting mix on your kitchen windowsill. Keep moist; they’ll be ready to eat within 2-3 weeks.
8 DILL DOES BEST in the cool days of spring. It runs rapidly to seed in summer, but those seeds, young or mature, have the same mild aniseed flavour, so don’t fret. Dill flowers also bring in the bees.
9 THE BIGGER THE LEAF, THE BETTER THE BASIL. If you are growing basil to make pesto, sow ‘Genovese Giant’ (Kings Seeds). Keep well-watered, especially in pots, and nip out the growing tips to keep it leafy and bushy.
10 SUPERMARKET POTTED HERBS are pampered princesses. Buy them when you need heaps of herbs in a hurry, but don’t plant these hydroponic softies outdoors. Transplant soil-grown herb seedlings from garden centres instead.
CROPS IN POTS
1 PLANTING VEGES IN CONTAINERS? Bigger is better. Aim for containers no smaller than a standard plastic bucket. In fact, plastic buckets make brilliant low-cost portable planters. Tuck them inside glazed decorative pots.
2 IN SUMMER, POTS GET VERY HOT. To keep the roots of plants cool, try to position your potted plants so the containers are shaded for part of the day.
3 POTTED CROPS NEED MUCH MORE WATER in summer and all that extra irrigation has a habit of leaching the nutrients out of your potting mix, so dilute liquid fertiliser to your watering can. In the early part of the season, use a liquid fertiliser with more nitrogen to promote leaf growth, then switch to a flower/fruit formulation to foster cropping.
4 Large containers filled with potting mix are bulky to move. Do your back a favour and pot up in situ.
5 MAKE YOUR OWN STINKY BREWS OF LIQUID FERTILISER. In a large plastic barrel (preferably with a tap fitted), rot down fish guts, horse manure, sheep pellets, chook poo, seaweed, comfrey, weeds and finely chopped green waste. Stir or shake the barrel once a fortnight. After a few months, dilute (1 cupful to a bucketful) to apply.
6 WHEN REPLANTING LARGE POTS, replace up to one-third of the existing potting mix with a fresh bag. Fork in moisture-retaining granules and, after planting, cover any exposed soil with mulch to retain moisture.
7 SIT POTS ON SAUCERS OF WATER IN SUMMER. This not only acts as a reservoir to catch drips, it stops ants moving in through the drainage holes in the base of pots. Water pots twice a day in hot weather.
8 QUICK CROPS, preferably of compact or dwarf varieties, are best in pots. Direct sow microgreens, rocket, spinach, herbs, dwarf beans, baby carrots and beets, ‘Golden Nugget’ pumpkins, bok choy and lettuces.
9 BABY SALAD MIXES, such as kale or spinach blends, or Italian mesclun salad, are far easier to grow in pots than standard full-sized lettuces. Sprinkle and snip at the baby leaf stage, 3-4 weeks after sowing.
10 YOU’LL NEVER GO WRONG WITH A ‘SWEET 100’ cherry tomato in a container.
BEST VALUE VEGETABLES
1 SOW OR PLANT CROPS THAT ARE EASY TO GROW but expensive to buy, such as asparagus, new season’s spuds, herbs and salad greens. Gourmet baby ‘Jersey Bennes’ cost up to $10 per kilogram before Christmas, whereas you can grow your own for as little as $1-2 per kilogram (that’s just the cost of the seed spuds).
2 GRAFTED TOMATOES ARE WORTH THE EXTRA EXPENSE, especially if you live in an area with late spring/early autumn frosts and cool summers. Grafted tomatoes hit the ground running, start producing earlier and are more disease-resistant due to their vigour.
3 POTATOES ARE ALWAYS A GOOD INVESTMENT. Plant ‘Rocket’ and ‘Swift’ for speedy crops of waxy earlies (they‘re ready to dig in 70-90 days) and ‘Agria’ or ‘Red Rascal’ for winter keeping. If you want huge tubers for chipping or baking, ‘Summer Beauty’ is an improved version of the already-improved ‘Summer Delight’.
4 HEIRLOOM ZUCCHINI are harder to grow than prolific modern hybrids. Depending on how much you like zucchini, this can be a blessing in disguise. Once the plants are fruiting, ease up on the water for zucchini or you will soon have huge swollen marrows.
5 PUMPKINS ARE EASY TO GROW and keep for months. In small gardens, sow the non-rambling, bush variety ‘Golden Nugget’ (Yates
Seeds) for 6-8 baseball-sized fruit per plant. I can’t recommend this highly enough; it’s fabulous in a pot and the fruit matures in February when most pumpkins are yet to ripen. For winter storage, stick to the tried-and-true Crown types. 6Cold- hardy Asian greens take a third of the time from plot to plate as their classic brassica cousins. Sow tatsoi, bok choy and gai lan.
7 ALL BEANS ARE BONZA. My favourites include dwarf ‘Top Crop’ and butter beans; climbing ‘Blue Lake Runner’, ‘King of the Blues’ and ‘Shiny Fardenlosa’, perennial ‘Scarlet Runner’, plus speckled red borlotti beans for drying. Climbing beans produce bigger crops over a longer season than dwarf beans, which tend to have one big flush then a smaller secondary crop.
8 HOMEGROWN SWEETCORN is a must-have. Always sow corn in square blocks, rather than long rows, for better pollination (it’s wind-pollinated). Keep corn well-fed and watered for juicy, succulent kernels.
9 CLIMBING PEAS are easier to grow, and harvest, than dwarf peas. In my experience, dwarf peas are more susceptible to fungal diseases. Sow ‘Sugarsnap Climbing’ for plump pods.
10 IF YOU’RE A FAN OF SPICY FOOD, grow your own chillies. A single ‘Wildfire’ or ‘Serrano’ plant produces hundreds of hot chillies. Plant in a pot and you can bring your plant indoors at the end of summer and keep picking chillies almost year-round.
PEST & DISEASE CONTROL
1 PHYSICAL BARRIERS are effective for all crops that don’t need bees for pollination. Fine-grade insect mesh can be bought by the metre from garden centres and stapled to a simple wooden frame to sit over your vege bed. Growing potatoes under insect mesh eliminates psyllid damage to the tubers and, trials at Lincoln University have shown, seems to make the plants less susceptible to blight as well.
2 INVEST IN A POPADOME to fit over a whole bed. These pop-up tents come with a range of covers from plastic to frost cloth and bird netting. Move them around to protect raspberries from birds, brassicas from white cabbage butterflies, potatoes from late frosts and so on. See trulux.co.nz.
3 BE KIND TO BEES. If you are going to use sprays, wait until dusk on a still day, when the bees are back in their hives, and never spray plants that are in flower. This is true of both chemical and organic pesticides.
4 USE YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF PEST LIFE CYCLES to foil them. The tomato-potato psyllid, for example, overwinters on nightshade weeds and tamarillos. If you love tomatoes and potatoes, get rid of your tamarillos. Also, the cabbage white butterfly is at its worst in summer, so don’t grow brassicas then and caterpillars won’t be a problem.
5 POWDERY MILDEW is a fact of life in late summer. Don’t worry about it. When cucumbers, courgettes and pumpkin vines succumb, they’re usually nearing the end of their life anyway.
6 FUNGAL DISEASES are far worse in small, sheltered gardens that lack air flow through them. Keep this in mind when deciding where to site your vegetable garden, and whether to hedge or fence it.
7 SLUGS AND SNAILS cover more ground on wet nights. Keep numbers in check with a nocturnal patrol with a bucket of salty water. If you want to use a store-bought bait, Tui’s Quash – made from iron – is the kindest option, especially if accidentally consumed by pets. Always lay slug baits in pet proof containers.
8 EARLY INTERVENTION is the best prevention. Squash aphids and green vege bugs before they get out of control.
9 THROW THE BUG-INFESTED FOLIAGE OF OLDER CROPS TO YOUR CHOOKS. They’ll deal to them quick-smart. They’re also pretty partial to slugs and snails.
10 FOLIAR FISH FERTILISERS, SURPRISINGLY, DOUBLE AS NATURAL PEST REPELLENTS. Use fish fertiliser to foil whitefly on citrus and greenhouse crops, and deter possums. The smellier, the better.
WORK WITH THE SEASONS
1YOU CAN ONLY PUSH MOTHER
NATURE SO FAR. Don’t try to get too far ahead of yourself by transplanting tomatoes or sowing pumpkins outdoors before Labour Weekend.
AHEAD. As well as planting all your summer favourites now, get cracking and direct sow parsnips, leeks, celery and celeriac for next winter. All these crops take at least six months, and up to 10 months, from seed to plate. 3Now’s the time to plant and sow pretty much everything, with the exception of brassicas (the white cabbage butterfly will nail them). Get busy!
4SILVERBEET GROWS YEAR
ROUND but who wants to eat it year-round? Sow spinach for the shoulder seasons of early summer and early autumn, or ‘Perpetual’ spinach, which is actually a mild silverbeet variety. All beets can get a bit spotty (a fungal disease called cercospora) in summer but the leaves are still edible. 5RADISHES SHOULD BE REPEATSOWED OVER SUMMER, preferably in a spot that gets some afternoon shade. If your radishes bolt to seed without forming round bottoms, you can still eat the flowers and immature seed pods for the same peppery flavour in salads.
6FROM APRIL TO SEPTEMBER,
growth slows dramatically as the soil temperature drops. The old adage that it’s better late than never doesn’t hold true in a vegetable garden. Seedlings transplanted after Easter, especially of slow maturing celery and brassicas such as broccoli, cabbages and cauliflower, won’t come to anything until spring, so it’s better to concede defeat and sit out a season if you’re running really late.
7ALL IS NOT LOST IN A HARD
FROST. Some plants taste better with frostbite, including parsnips, swedes, Savoy cabbages and Brussels sprouts, which all taste sweeter after a freeze.
8STAGGER YOUR HARVESTS,
rather than your planting and sowing schedule. By this I mean plant as much as possible in one go, then eat what’s mature, when it’s mature, before moving on to the next (slower growing) crop. In my vege patch last summer that meant eating lots of spinach and radishes in November, early potatoes and sprouting broccoli in December, an abundance of zucchini and beans in January, carrots and beetroot in February, and so on.
AND BEETROOT are a good investment as both store well in the soil without bolting. Two sowings of each, one now, the other in late summer, should keep you supplied year-round.
10KEEP IN MIND HOW MUCH SEASONAL PRODUCE
FLUCTUATES in price when choosing what to plant. If it’s out of season, you’ll always pay more for it (capsicums in winter, strawberries in autumn). On the other hand, although homegrown, sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes are scrumptious, they take a long time from seed to fruit, take up more room than beans or salad greens, are susceptible to a range of pests and diseases… and are comparatively cheap to buy by the time yours ripen.
10 FINAL THOUGHTS
1WORK OUT A WEEDING STRATEGY BEFORE YOU PLANT. In a small garden, you might want to reduce the spacing between individual vege seedlings, and crop rows, to crowd out competing
weeds. In a larger garden, take the opposite approach and open up the gaps between rows to accommodate a push hoe, so you can whip up and down the rows to quickly knock out emerging weeds.
2 PLANNING TO BE FULLY ORGANIC, or use permaculture principles? Invest in a soil test to see if there are any deficiencies that need remedying with trace elements. Homegrown compost — even trailerloads of it — can only return what’s already there to the soil.
3 SCHEDULED A LONG SUMMER HOLIDAY? Plan your vege garden around your absence. If you’re going to be away for three weeks, delay direct sowing of quick maturing crops, such as radishes, dwarf beans, spinach and mesclun salad, until the week before you depart, so you don’t waste anything. Don’t sow seeds in pots or trays if you’re not going to be home to cosset them along prior to transplanting.
4 TAKE A SHOPPING LIST TO THE GARDEN CENTRE, just as you would when going to the supermarket. Then stick to it! This way, if the seedlings you want aren’t available, you can substitute for seeds, or vice versa, rather than just buying whatever happens to be looking good (or unsold) on the day.
5 IF YOU MUST USE SPRAYS, seek out low-tox biocontrols over chemical insecticides. Fight nature with nature. For instance, white cabbage butterfly caterpillars, guava moth and codling moth larvae can be controlled organically with Kiwicare’s Organic Caterpillar Bio-Control, which is BioGro-certified and uses the naturally occurring soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki to give caterpillars a fatal gut ache. It only hurts caterpillars and has no withholding period. (Incidentally, thinning apples so they aren’t touching significantly reduces fruit damage from codling moth larvae.)
6 MORE FERTILISER DOESN’T MEAN HEALTHIER PLANTS. Stick to the guidelines on the packet. Overfeeding encourages leaf growth at the expense of fruit and flowers. Lush, leafy foliage also needs more water in summer and attracts sap-sucking bugs like aphids.
7 MULCH, MULCH, MULCH! Healthy plants are less susceptible to attack than stressed plants. Mulch edible crops as well as ornamental trees and shrubs. Fruiting crops such as tomatoes appreciate the extra soil moisture and insulation from temperature extremes provided by a generous layer of mulch in summer. Lay mulch after heavy rain, or after a long, slow soaking of the soil.
8 WATERING IS CRUCIAL IN SUMMER. Without a consistent level of moisture, lettuces turn bitter, beans stop producing pods and tomatoes, eggplants and zucchini are susceptible to blossom end rot (a calcium deficiency exacerbated by fluctuations in water flow). A good deep soak once a week, and mulching, does a world of good, whereas a daily light shower only serves to encourage shallow rooting, making plants susceptible to drought stress.
9 BE REALISTIC about both what you grow and what your family will eat. If you don’t like silverbeet, don’t plant a whole bed of it (unless you have chooks; they love it). Ditto courgettes and cucumbers in summer. If your garden is hit by hard winter frosts, avocados aren’t for you. And by all means, plant a pomegranate for its novelty value, but don’t expect it to ever fruit!
10 Share your surplus or freeze it. As a guide, if it’s available in the frozen section at the supermarket, it’s worth doing at home. Rinse, pat dry and pack (raw or blanched) into family-sized portions in freezer-safe plastic bags. Crops that don’t thaw out well can still go in the freezer to add flavour to soups and stews.