Thursday, 23 August 2012

Derek's Garden Diary

by Derek Onley


Over the winter months it has been a bit of a struggle to find enough to write about to fill half a page of the Blueskin News, and a relaxed attitude to gardening -- 'slack' maybe if you weren't feeling so generous -- seemed to prevail. There are no more excuses; September is the month you have to get out there.


Mid- to end of September you can try planting peas, carrots, spring onions, radishes, white turnips, beetroot, and various small-leaved salad mixes like mesclun. Plant seeds of these directly into the garden.  Don't be tempted to buy those little containers of pea seedlings; you need hundreds of peas to get a good feed. Plant them barely a couple of centimetres apart in a shallow trench the width of a spade and be prepared to support them with sticks or netting, for a taller variety will be far more productive than dwarf types, most of which were developed for machine harvesting in paddocks. Pre-soaking peas between a couple of sheets of damp newspaper until they produce roots helps them to get a head start on slugs and is also a useful way of checking if those old packets of seed are still worth sowing. 'Onward' is a good older variety. Plant out plants of lettuce, silver beet, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage (you should have some of these sitting ready on your sunniest window sill) and sow a few more seeds in containers so as to keep the supply going over summer.


In fact, you can plant almost any vegetable that doesn't hint at the Mediterranean, though wait a few months longer to plant leeks, parsnips and purple sprouting broccoli, otherwise they will be ready well before winter at a time when they will have to compete with the pleasures of tomatoes, courgettes and summer salads.


Despite what the planting guides on your seed packets might say, don't get carried away by a couple of fine spring days. Forget the zucchini, scallopini and beans. New Zealand is a long country and if you travel south from Auckland you will be one third of the way to Antarctica by the time you reach Dunedin. I get the impression that most writers of the backs of seed packets have their head office in Taranaki or South Auckland, either that or they are horticultural optimists. No bad thing, but down here such optimism all too often ends in tears.


Not that there won't be a few tears shed over September-sown carrots and the like. In my garden last September there were three days of 20 degrees or more, an afternoon of sleet and seven nights of frost including one on the last day of the month. Not exactly guaranteed growing conditions.


Strangely enough, at the time when spring is getting going, the vegetable garden is at its least productive. Leeks are sending up flower stalks so their centres become tough and almost inedible Any left-over carrots and parsnips are similarly hard-hearted and hairy with it. Winter brassicas, kale, sprouts and cabbages will all be trying to flower, though you can forestall their procreational ambitions by picking off the young flower shoots and eating them as you would broccoli. They will beat you in the end and you will have a garden full of dancing yellow cruciferous flowers and attendant cabbage white butterflies.

So why not consider gathering seed from all this fecundity?  Some things are relatively simple. You can leave the likes of parsley, rocket and coriander to get on with it themselves. You don't even need to collect the seed as seedlings will pop up throughout the garden. Just don't get too enthusiastic about weeding. Others like parsnips, carrots, silverbeet and beetroot can be left in the ground for a further season and will produce tall flowers and seeds by late summer. As long as they are not F1 hybrids they will usually 'come true' -- produce offspring much the same as their parents. F1 hybrids being first generation crosses will rarely do so. Nor will anything that is closely related to and likely to be fertilised by a similar cultivated or wild form growing close by. In order to get good seeds from brassicas you need to ensure that only one type and often one variety, be it cabbage, cauliflower, sprouts or broccoli, flowers at one time. Otherwise they will cross pollinate and much of the progeny will look like their open leafy ancestor on the sea cliffs of Europe. The onion family can be equally as promiscuous and appear to be particularly fond of onion weed (Allium triquetrum), the small white-flowered, snowdrop-like flower that smells strongly of sour garlic when you walk on it. According to Hugh Wilson, the bulbs are edible but the resulting straggly crosses are unlikely to sustain you through the winter. Maybe I was lucky but I have grown good leeks from my own seed and, like a lot of seeding vegetables, the globular flowers on a metre or more of stem are impressive and attract lots of bees.


Do be prepared though to sacrifice a fair amount of space. Seeding parsnips can grow 2 metres tall, parsley plants can spread that far and many brassicas (cabbagey things) can be mistaken for shelter belts. Small plot owners beware.  The solution to the promiscuity and space is to get together with your friends, so to speak, and each leave one or two different, unrelated vegetables to go to seed.

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