TOP & FLOP CROPS
Like everyone else, the Level 4 lockdown caught me largely unprepared (again), although at least this time around, we’re heading into – rather than out of – the vegetable growing season. I spent the first week tidying and weeding my garden like a madwoman, and the second week sowing all sorts of crops in trays of garden soil mixed with recycled potting mix (because I hadn’t stocked up on seed-raising mix). Consequently, I’ve never been so organised this early in spring. I’ve sown pumpkins, beans, cucumbers and zucchini seedlings, plus loads of flowers, including Keith Hammett’s supersized ‘Sunflowers’ strain of single dahlias (brilliant for attracting bees). I also used the lockdown to clear my garden shed of half-used bags of fertiliser. Consequently my roses, garlic and citrus trees have all been fed on time for once! Leeks Leeks, parsnips and swedes: why are mine always so damn scrawny compared to their storebought counterparts? This season my leeks are thinner than my spring onions, despite a generous dose of sheep manure. Refusing to feel defeated, I have photographed them in the smallest basket I own! ‘Salanova’ lettuces I know many gardeners aren’t fans of modern hybrids and prefer heirloom veges, but I can’t fault ‘Salanova’ lettuces. Every year I put in a mixed punnet, and every year they grow into frilly blobs the size of beach balls. Plus when you cut their heads off, they grow back. Let one run to seed and they self-seed readily. As an F1 hybrid, they might not grow true to type, but a free lettuce is still a free lettuce. Sprouting kūmara During the first Level 4 lockdown in 2020, my son Lachlan sprouted kūmara tubers in jars of water as a home-schooling project. Later, I nipped off the runners and planted them in a plastic pot with a mini tepee frame, intending to grow the vines decoratively over summer. In winter, the vines died down in the frosts and, while emptying the pots so I could recycle the potting mix, I was gobsmacked to harvest 1kg of potato-sized red-skinned tubers from a single 6L pot! During this year’s lockdown, we’ve sprouted some orange ‘Beauregard’ tubers and I’m going to plant them out this month in large (40L) pots to grow on. ‘Camarosa’ strawberries I have a hit and miss record as a strawberry grower. Some summers the fruits of my labours are sweet and plentiful; other seasons the slugs seem to get more berries than we do. I’m also having issues with rabbits in my main vege garden, so a couple of months ago I turned one of my raised picking garden beds (which are close to the house, and patrolled by our dogs and cats) into a strawberry bed. I planted two dozen ‘Camarosa’ seedlings from the garden centre and, although pesky pūkeko pulled a few plants out, they’re already laden with ripening fruit. Incidentally, if you’ve ever wondered why the first spring strawberries are never as delicious (or as uniformly shaped) as summer flushes, blame a lack of bee activity. Bee-pollinated strawberries develop sweeter flesh around every seed. ‘Rocket’ and ‘Swift’ potatoes Talk about lucky timing! The last thing I bought on the day of the Level 4 lockdown was two 3kg bags of seed potatoes (plus a bag of lamb milk powder for our pet lambs, Freckles and Caramel) at our local rural supplies store. My favourite earlies are ‘Rocket’ and ‘Swift’ as, in my climate, both are quicker and higher yielding than the South Island’s superstar ‘Jersey Benne’. Neither variety grows very big, so I space the tubers 30cm apart, and as soon as their leafy green tops start to yellow off and die down (roughly 70-90 days), I can start digging. Incidentally, I’ve taken “mounding up” to the extreme this season. Given that my husband was at home with time on his hands during the lockdown, I got him to use a digger to create a half-metre high topsoil mountain in a paddock and we buried all the seed potatoes in it. When it’s time to harvest, I’ll simply flatten the mountain with a spade. Cauliflowers When I was growing up, I despised cauliflower (it didn’t help that Mum boiled it until it was mushy and soggy). Having been caught secreting it into my dressing gown pockets, I enlisted the help of our cat, Biggles. If she was under the dining table, and the cauliflower was smothered in cheese sauce, my problem was solved. My children also hate cauliflower, although they reckon they’d willingly eat broccoli every night (nonetheless I get suspicious whenever I see our labrador sidling quietly under the dining table). I’ve learned to like cauliflower as a low-carb rice substitute, but I can’t grow it. The last time I grew proper pearly white cauliflowers was 2011 (Lucas was a baby), and although I’ve grown mediocre ‘Orange Cheddar’ and ‘Green Macerata’ since then, I’ve never succeeded with deep purple ‘Violet Sicilian’. My friend Deanna, meanwhile, grows them so abundantly that she’s forced to palm them off so they don’t go to waste. I mutter to myself as I accept her offerings. I know that fertile soil (dig in heaps of grass clippings) and full sun are keys to better brassicas, but often I’m too slow off the mark. Deanna’s seedlings were transplanted in northfacing raised beds at Easter (aim for even earlier in the south) and grew to a good size before winter. Watch out for white cabbage butterfly caterpillars while the plants are still small. Deanna reckons her habit of pulling off the lower leaves to feed to her chooks also helps to keep the heads clear of pests – and who am I to argue? Just before the lockdown, she gave me a couple of punnets of spare broccoli seedlings and I’m ashamed to confess that slugs and snails have eaten the lot. So I’m sowing ‘Mighty Mini’ (Egmont Seeds) for summer instead. It’s said to be a “very quick maturing F1 hybrid mini broccoli with a good dome-shaped, dark green head.” The colour purple Some years I stick to the tried-and-true in my summer vegetable garden – ‘Top Crop’ dwarf beans, ‘Sweet 100’ cherry tomatoes, ‘Black Beauty’ zucchini, ‘Cos’ lettuce – and some years I get carried away with experimental crops of gourmet varieties that (our chooks aside) no-one in my family is keen to eat. Heirloom corns, for instance. ‘Blue Hopi’ and ‘Painted Mountain’ cobs are utterly beautiful but, even after the purchase of a grain grinder and a taco press, my children could only be convinced to try my purple corn chips as a one-time-only offer. It’s still fun to mix it up with gourmet crops on a colour spectrum, though. The ‘Pacific Purple’ asparagus crowns I planted a decade ago are still a thrill to cut, their inky spears growing up to 30cm high without the slightest woodiness (this variety has very little fibrous lignin), and I enjoy digging both modern ‘Purple Heart’ and heirloom ‘Urenika’ potatoes. For many years I’ve been sowing and saving my own heirloom dutch ‘Capucijner’ pea seeds (also sold by Kings Seeds as ‘Blue Shelling’), but they’re no good for eating as a snow pea or podded pea. Even young, they’re tough. So I’m keen to grow ‘Shiraz’ (Kings Seeds) this season as well; it’s a snow pea variety that takes 55 days to start podding. Heirloom purple carrots are fun to grow, though I find them much less vigorous than their orange siblings, whereas climbing ‘Purple King’ beans are both decorative and as prolific as their green counterparts. I grow them every year and this year I’ll sow a crop of dwarf ‘Purple Teepee’ too. How cool would it be if someone clever bred a ‘Scarlet Runner’ with purple pods as well as psychedelic purple-spotted seeds?