January top & flop CROPS
Lynda Hallinan’s regular roundup of the best and worst seasonal performers in her Hunua vege garden.
The golden rule for stonefruit tree pruning is to snip the branches down to size as soon as the fruit is picked.
Although plums are reliable croppers in my orchard – especially ‘Damson‘, ‘Fortune‘, ‘Sultan‘, ‘Satsuma‘ and golden ‘Shiro‘ – their other cousins in the Prunus clan are notoriously unpredictable. One year I‘ll harvest bucketloads of peaches and nectarines, but the next I‘ll be lucky to pick enough for a bowl of fruit salad.
The key issue is stonefruit pollination, though brown rot is vexing too. These trees blossom in late winter, when the weather is at its worst, and, for the past few years, it has rained heavily on their petal parade, keeping the bees in their hives and hindering pollination. But last winter the skies stayed clear and the difference is plain to see. All of my trees are laden and even the notoriously shy ‘Elephant Heart‘ and ‘Spring Satin‘ plumcots, which have been repeatedly threatened with the chainsaw, have a reasonable haul of fruit.
In fact it has been six years since my last sensational stonefruit crop. I can say this with certainty because in 2013, I spent the summer picking plums (above) for our feature in NZ Gardener.
I better get all my late grandmother‘s Agee jars out of storage in preparation for bottling. ZUCCHINI:
The spiraliser attachment I bought for my food processor was worth every cent as we’re now eating oodles of zoodles (zucchini noodles). Zucchini are so easy and prolific that even one plant can feel like one plant too many, so I’m always keen to find new ideas.
Overgrown zucchini are bland and watery but if you pick them young, they are delicious in stir-fries, fritters and fridge pickles. Make a simple pickling solution using equal parts water, sugar and cider or white wine vinegar, with celery seed, turmeric and mustard powder. Bring the pickling liquid to the boil, then cool. Peel zucchini lengthwise into wafer thin strips (use a cheese slicer or potato peeler) and marinate in the pickling solution in the fridge for 2-3 hours before serving. Or use rice wine vinegar, sugar, chilli, fresh grated ginger and coriander for a similar pickle.
When is a top crop also a flop crop? When it‘s held on branches so high that I haven‘t a hope of harvesting it.
Eight years ago, I planted a mixed grove of 16 almond trees on the steep bank behind our house. (I put in 24 more in our exposed orchard but they all got the chop a couple of years ago, as the windy location didn‘t suit them.) I was told when I planted those trees that they‘d grow to 4-6m, and they did. They hit that height in three years and have never looked back; I‘d guess the tallest are now well over 10-12m high.
Pruning would have kept them at a manageable height but that has never seemed a priority because, despite a stunning show of blossom each spring, I rarely get more than a handful of nuts.
This year, however, they are all covered in fuzzy fruit (almonds have an outer shell of hard green flesh, like an unripe peach) which I haven‘t a hope of harvesting unless I take to the trees with a chainsaw in late March/early April, when the nuts will be ripe enough to dehusk and dry. ‘BUTTERCRUNCH’ LETTUCE:
I’ve already given up on ’Iceberg’ lettuce in late summer, even though it’s my favourite. It seems impossible to grow crisphead lettuces in hot weather; mine either fail to thrive or get tip burn and rot from the outside in. So I switched to ’Buttercrunch’ – it germinates reliably and flourishes without any special attention. So what’s my beef with ’Buttercrunch’? It wilts so quickly that by the time I get it to the kitchen, the leaves have already gone limp. I suppose I could start harvesting dinner in the morning, so those droopy greens can be revived in a bucket of water (add the juice of half a lemon or a splash of cider vinegar), but who can be bothered? I think I’ll stick to ’Cos’ and rocket salads from now on. HAZELNUTS:
Last spring I tried to play matchmaker in my hazel hedge, hand-pollinating the tiny pink female flowers on one variety with the dusty male pollen catkins from another. Did it work. In a word, no. Eight years, no nuts.