18 August 2018

Basic spring vege-growing guide for NZ

Here's a  very basic guide on how to grow key vegetable crops from seed this summer. Yay! I've been doing this for 15 years or so. There are other ways, but here's how I do it.

Dee-licious tomatoes

Why?

It's cheap, satisfying and delicious. Homegrown cucumbers are like a different species to bought ones - so sweet and juicy!

There are bigger reasons, too. I have been reading a book called Drawdown, which prioritises the best ways to not only halt global warming, but to reverse it by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Home gardening doesn't get its own category, but the book says that "Home gardens represent a form of small-scale agriculture that has been practiced in many parts of the world since time immemorial. ... Home gardens hold higher carbon sequestration potential compared to monocrop production systems, with sequestration rates comparable to those of mature forest stands."

Sequestration means removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Mature forests do a spectacular amount of it, so it's a flattering comparison.

Let's go!

I recommend, in the North Island at least, getting some seeds of at least the following:
- tomatoes
- zucchini
- cucumber
- lettuce

If you don't have old punnets to start growing the seeds in, you can use scissors to cut off the bottom of two litre plastic milk bottles and punch some drainage holes in the bottom. You want the walls of punnets created this way to be about 5 cm high.




Fill them with seed-raising mix. This is not a zero-waste ingredient, because it comes in plastic bags. It's more expensive than potting mix, so sometimes I fill the punnet two-thirds full of potting mix, and top it up with seed-raising mix.

Photosynthesizing in the sun.

A family of four will be happy with about six tomato plants, four cucumbers, two zucchinis and a dozen lettuce. Lettuce need to be sown every month or so for replacement crops, although you can make them last longer by just picking outside leaves as you need them (I only grow loose-leaf varieties for this reason). Sow double the amount of seed as you'd like plants in case you have some dud seeds.

Sow the seed

You can buy seeds from supermarket or hardware shop. Moneymaker tomatoes are reliable and productive. Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes are meant to be excellent, too.

Make little dents in the seed-raising mix with your finger, pop in a seed and cover with the mix (which I'll now call soil). Bigger seeds need deeper dents - about twice as deep as the longest bit of the seed. Plant seeds about 3 cm apart so that they don't have to compete with each other. Wash hands well afterwards - that stuff can have nasty germs in it.

Sit the punnets in a tray of some sort. Fill the tray with water. This waters the soil from below, which avoids disturbing the seeds. Make sure the soil gets really moist, then drain away the water from the tray so that the soil can drain. Ideally you'd water them this way until they sprout, but I can't be bothered lifting the punnets out to drain away the water each time! Gentle watering into the edge of the punnet with a mini watering can or a bottle is generally fine.


Sprout the seed

Water stimulates seeds to sprout. Keep the punnets moist but not sodden. A day or two of subsequent dryness will probably kill the seed.

At this time of year (August) my seeds sleep inside at night to keep them warm. I just lift the whole tray in. Once the seeds have sprouted, they need to go outside each day to catch the sunlight and photosynthesize. They still need careful watering so that they stay moist but not sodden.

Egmont Seeds' gourmet lettuce mix - my favourite, and only $2 a packet!


Enjoy watching your plants get bigger by the day! Separate out everything but lettuce so that there is just one per container (you can use plain potting mix or compost in the pots you transfer them into).

I like to put tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers into quite big pots - maybe as big as your spread-out hand - so that I don't have to re-pot them again before planting out. I like them to grow big and healthy before they go into the garden, and they don't like their roots to be squashed.

When the nights warm up in September, you can stop bringing them inside.

For an excellent, cheap e-book on seedlings, check out Green Footprint's Growing Great Seedlings guide.

Planting out

You can plant out lettuce into the garden in September. Just put compost on top of weeded soil, and plant into that. We have a lot of slugs and snails, so we reluctantly put out slug and snail pellets. It's either that or bought lettuce!

Tender, delicious lettuce.


Keep the other things until mid-October unless they grow so fast that they simply must go out. This can happen with zucchini and cucumber! Plant them out earlier if you must, but be aware that those planted too early might not give the best crops all summer, although you'll get nice early crops. My trick here is to sow some more seed in November for replacement plants. I want free, delicious veges right through until mid-autumn.

To plant out the bigger things, soak the plants in their pots in a bucket of water for an hour or so. Dig a hole bigger than the pot, put compost in it, plant the plant, refill the hole and press down the soil around it.

Cherry tomatoes to eat every day in summer. I think this one was 'Tomaccio', which is one of our family favourites. The seed can be hard to find, though.

Other tips:

  • Put in a stake next to tomatoes. This can be a long, thin branch you've pruned off something, and doesn't have to be perfectly straight. Try not to buy stakes or ties!
  • Cut some old t-shirts into strips and use them to tie the tomato plants to the stake as they grow.
  • Bury tomato plants up to their first leaves when you plant them. They grow new roots from their stalk!
  • Remember zucchinis grow huge, so allow plenty of space.
  • Cucumber plants seem to make more cucumbers if they can grow over a frame. They also take up a lot less room in your garden.
  • Put mulch all around your planted-out veg. I buy a bale of pea straw from an animal feed place for $15, and it lasts all summer. It's either that or spend all your free time weeding and watering! Mulch traps water and suppresses weeds.
  • Try not to water too much, or the plants won't grow the deep roots they need to get their own water from deep in the soil. That doesn't apply to lettuces - they need plenty of watering.

A frame idea from Hamilton Gardens' Sustainable Backyard
My cucumber plants last year. They really needed a taller frame than this.

Beans

I think everyone likes fresh green beans. My children love them raw! In October, poke some climbing bean seeds directly into the garden about 5 cm deep next to a frame they can climb up. Be aware that slugs and snails can gnaw them off at ground level soon after they sprout. This is only a problem when the plants are very small.

Beans climbing up a bamboo teepee.

Compost

Chuck as much of this in the soil as you can every year. If you don't, your plants will be spindly and unproductive. No one can grow a good garden without compost. Home-made is vastly superior, and it keeps food scraps out of the landfill where they create greenhouse gases. (Compost heaps and bins generally have enough oxygen to thwart methane production.)

No-dig

Once upon a time, no-dig gardening was for hippies. But it turns out that it is far better environmentally, according to Drawdown. Why?
1. Each time you dig or till the soil, you release carbon from it. This is a bad move for global warming, and also for soil health. You want heaps of carbon in there: it locks in moisture and feeds soil microbes.
2. Tilling disturbs the soil structure and the microbial life it houses. Soil microbes interact with plants in an eons-old system to sequester more carbon and keep their plants healthy.

Think about how nature does it. Leaf litter and dead creatures and manure accumulate on the soil surface. There is no bare soil. Seeds fall onto the litter and sprout in the natural compost that forms underneath it. The addition of leaves, dead creatures and manure continues indefinitely to provide the soil with carbon and nutrients.

And let's be honest: each time we try to beat nature's way, we mess it up.

Every plant that grows removes carbon from the atmosphere and locks it into itself.

Charles Dowding has some excellent free videos on no-dig gardening. Prepare for some serious garden envy when you see his property.

We sow the seed, nature grows the seed, we eat the seed

Each vegetable you grow and eat is vegetable that you are not paying someone to grow for you in a large-scale commercial operation. I don't want to knock people who grow food, but the evidence for the fact that it's often (but not always) done in a planet-unfriendly way is clear.

The best reason to grow your own food, however, is not because you 'should' do it, but because you just can't resist! For me, home gardening ticks all the boxes of "live a good, happy, productive life", and I do it because I enjoy it greatly. I hope this guide gives some beginner gardeners confidence to give it a go!

Part of our vegetable garden last summer, groaning with food.


4 comments :

  1. Great post Andrea. I've been looking for a comprehensive beginners plan to NZ gardening and your post fits the bill. :)

    I've had only minor success in planting from seed and have had most success using cuttings (basil, rosemary, figs) or veg scraps (spring onions). My only success from seed so far is a row of bean plants which hopefully will yield soon.

    How do you deal with soil with a lot of clay? I tried planting carrots and cauliflowers from seed and they never even sprouted! The package said to plant directly in the soil so maybe it's the soil type. I'm not sure. The soil is definitely nutrient rich as I have a few buckets of bokashi composted waste buried there.

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    1. forgot to tick the notify me box

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    2. Hi Japo,
      Carrots are hard to sprout - I share your pain there. The carrot seed tape helps a lot! If the seed dries out, it dies. You have to be very careful to keep it moist.
      I find trees grow really well in clay (we have a lot of clay, too), but not so much veges. You need to throw heaps of compost on top of the clay. I don't know a lot about bokashi, but my understanding is that it doesn't add the bulk carbon that compost does - it's more of a concentrated, fermented source of nutrients.
      I've heard it said that buying gypsum and mixing it through clay (or maybe even just sprinkling it on top) can help break it up. My feeling is that you will probably need to commit some energy to improving the clay - or else just build garden beds on top of it.
      Carrots won't like clay or compost. They like unenriched, fine soil.
      There is no need to sow cauliflower direct - sow in punnets first, but plant the seedlings out before the roots hit the bottom of the punnet, or they get all twisty.
      It is too early for beans to work in New Zealand. I'd sow them direct no earlier than late September. They need it to be above a certain temperature. They are reliable sprouters, so you should have no problems there. You can plant a second lot in December for more beans later in the season. It's incredible how many meals a few bean seeds can provide!
      Keep trying, you will get there!!

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