We are four days away from the beginning of winter in New Zealand and an icy blast is bringing snow to some South and North Island communities. Even up here in “the winterless Northland”, smoke can be seen rising from several chimneys – ours included – and we have a chilling wind, rain and hail beating down on us.
Today I am taking stock of where my vegetable garden is at and making plans for expanding – yet again – into a much larger affair come spring. This is something that I have done every year for the last six years, with the grand vision of establishing a kitchen garden large enough to stock the many vegetables and herbs that I love. There are three other aspects to this dream. The first is to grow enough of the herbs and vegetables that have become our staples, with enough to preserve for the off season. The second is to keep the garden stocked all year round with the plants that will survive the mild, wet winters and long, dry summers that we experience. The third is to propagate from my own plants and plant in succession to maintain a continuous supply.
My first vegetable garden season (2008) was a scrawny little patch that I hand hoed in Hamilton and which comprised a few lettuces, herbs and carrots. It was a very miserable effort, as I was quick to put the delicate seedlings straight into the freshly dug dirt, irrespective of the season or quality of the soil. The patch saw very little sun until the late afternoon, where it dropped below tall pine trees after a very short time. However, against the odds, a few garden salads crossed our table and produced proud moments. But my lack of knowledge, commitment and planning meant that supplies ran out quickly and the enjoyment was short-lived.
My second vegetable garden season (2009) was a much better effort. By this time, we had moved to the Far North of New Zealand which has the perfect climate for growing anything that did not require a good, hard frost. I read a little, thought a bit and developed a longer term plan. My goal was to start small and grow big over a number of years. I started with the vegetables and herbs that we eat regularly and set about gaining some experience before branching out. I found a very sunny, well-draining spot on the north east side of the house that fielded sun from early morning until late afternoon. The surrounding tall flaxes, hebes and manukau trees provided shelter from the wind, as well as attracting honey bees during spring and summer, which is vital for pollination. I planted a salad garden of mint, bay tree, coriander, basil, chives, lettuces, carrots, radishes, tomatoes and spring onions. I planted a couple of potatoes too, which had sprouted in our pantry.Radishes and carrots as seeds went straight into the grown as seeds and everything else went in as bought seedlings. Overall, it was a great success, but the supply soon ran out without planting more in succession. However, I was chuffed and happily left my empty patch alone until the following spring, after gathering and storing seeds where I could.
My third vegetable growing season (2010) was equally as successful and started with a little surprise. Having left my garden alone all winter, I was surprised to find 20 lettuce seedlings sprouting up around the garden (on top of the 12 that I bought, I had a new problem that required some creative thinking). I spread the garden out a little, moved the herbs out into a three-tier wooden planter to provide room for the extra lettuces, and added spinach and celery to my collection. I even planted additional lettuce seedlings as the original ones grew larger and were eaten. However, in the height of summer we holidayed for the odd long weekend and my “succession lettuces” shot to seed and the leaves turned bitter. My coriander quickly joined the lettuces and flung seeds all over the place, which was not necessarily a bad thing. I made a mental note to create an irrigation system the following year and packed away seeds again where I could. Again, I left the garden alone over winter and planned for the spring.
My fifth vegetable garden season (2011) was great success. I installed a large raised vegetable bed and moved my salad garden into that, so that the carrots could stretch their roots out and the lettuces received some late afternoon shade. I raised a number of plants from my own seeds, which was truly exciting! My herbs went back into the original patch beside the house and I planted more tomatoes and my first patch of strawberries. I added rocket, cabbage, broccoli, sage and lemon grass to my growing list of plants and remembered to succession plant lettuces, rocket and spinach. Sadly, my celery had not grown much since the year before, but I kept it in anyway to see what would happen (which was very little, unfortunately). I ditched the potatoes (although they still continue to sprout today) and I installed homemade irrigation with a timer that my husband dusted off after five years in storage. The salads lasted longer than the previous years and we were still eating the odd lettuce in winter. Broccoli and spinach grew well and I decided to chuck the celery that stayed small and stringy. The downside of the success is that I wasted the overflow rocket and spinach when our taste for them left. I made a note to plan for preserving – or at least find some new recipes – next season. Sadly, my rhubarb died and next time I will plant it in the sun (rookie mistake).
My sixth vegetable garden season (2012) has been the best yet! I installed a second large, raised vegetable bed and moved my herbs out of the little patch by the house and back into the three-tier wooden frames. However, now I have them laid out, single tier on the ground and herbs are planted according to the planter sizes. I purchased a second three-tier herb frame and laid it out this way also, adding more chives, parsley, lemon balm, thyme and oregano. I planted more spinach (determined that I would put it ALL to good use this season), capsicum, chili peppers, broccoli, peas, snap peas, dwarf beans, rhubarb – and 12 tomato plants (it’s a long story, but let’s just say that I couldn’t pass up a bargain at the time). Again, I used some of the seeds from the previous season, which is a great feeling. In the original patch beside the house, I planted six strawberry plants and built a wire mesh cover to keep the birds at bay. I also planted swan plants to attract pretty monarch butterflies (purely for my visual enjoyment) and a number of flowering plants to attract bees for pollination, on top of the prolific flowering manukau tree that overhangs the vege boxes. Come autumn (just a few months ago), I planted silver beet, lettuce and more spinach as seedlings with the aim of providing during the winter time.
The spring, summer and autumn harvests from my sixth season have been plentiful and are still going. Right now, the capsicums, chilies, spinach, rocket, spring onions and herbs are still growing strong. For the first time, I had enough herbs to prune them back hard and dry the herbs in the oven to use in cooking. I have nailed our staple vegetables and herbs that we regularly use for salads and now I would like to grow those that I buy from the supermarket on a regular and semi regular basis. Out of my super supply of spinach has grown my love of daily green smoothies. The base for these is spinach and broccoli, with quarter of an avocado, an apple, ginger and fresh water. I have become addicted to the fibrous green goodness, which means that I now need to grow MORE spinach and broccoli all year around. No pressure! I have also run down my supply of preserves and pickles in the pantry, so I have set a new goal for the next season begining September (spring) 2013:
Expand my garden to produce our vegetable staples all year round (within reason and the season) to supply our kitchen and pantry.
This blog documents my efforts to achieve this goal and involves seed raising, planting, harvesting, maintaining my garden, preserving, and keeping seeds for propagation.
So, ahead of my new garden goal, let’s take stock of where my garden is currently at:
- two garden boxes hold all of my veges: silver beet, pak choi, capsicums, chilies, spinach, rocket, celery, spring onions and a few lettuces
- patch by the house: strawberries, old tomato plants and new rhubarb
- herbs in small boxes: basil, coriander, chives, oregano, thyme, sage, lemon balm, parsley, mint and lemon grass
- seedlings growing in my “hot cabinet”: broad beans, garlic, broccoli, spinach, silver beet, coriander, watermelon, onions, lettuces, beetroot and maybe one or two others
Although I have a number of plants growing at different stages, I have not yet successfully succession planted my staple vegetables.