Rachel Vogan hoes into what to get busy with in the vegetable patch, including food sharing and six speedy veges to sow.
Autumn is such an abundant time in the vegetable patch. Maturing crops keep the fridge full and the menus varied. Capsicums, chilli, eggplant, tomatoes and more are ripening on a regular basis. Part of the challenge at this time can be finding room to plant autumn and winter crops, as the garden is still full of summer crops. One option, to get around this, is to plant up seedlings in pots (think coffee cup-size) to get them growing while you wait for space to become available in the garden. This allows the plants to get a bit of size on them, and they easily transplant once room opens up. I find it works a treat.
For anyone who may have more food than you can use, preserve or freeze, an option before letting produce go to waste is to consider donating the excess to your local pātaka or community pantry. Sometimes these can be found near schools, churches or on main thoroughfares through suburbs and villages. The essence of food sharing is nothing new, but for many years there were few vehicles for distributing excess crops. Over summer I donate excess crops like cauliflowers, cabbages and plums to three local pantries and pātaka. It’s neat to see what others donate and sometimes I come home with something quite lovely in return.
Years ago, most vegetable patches were found at the back of the house beside the washing line in part of the lawn. As families grew in size, more lawn was often dug up to produce more food. Then, as house sizes and gardens began to shrink, and the age of the raised bed arrived, gardeners began to lean towards raised planters. Roll on another decade or two and now we see portable raised vegetable pods and planters everywhere. Vege pods are ideal for areas where space is limited. To keep them ticking along, it is wise to replenish the soil every six months. As one crop finishes, clear away the old roots and plant debris and cultivate the area, and add new soil or compost. Water and plant the next crop.
Sweet corn is ripe for the picking – ensure the cobs are mature before you do as corn will not ripen if picked too soon. The plant indicates the cob is ready to harvest when the tassels turn brown and shrink, and the cob angles itself away from the main stem to sit at an angle of 45 degrees (see photo 2). Upright-facing corn cobs are not ripe, so give them more growing time before you pick.
Save a few pods of each to sow next spring. Both peas and beans are easy to dry and store. Leave the pods on the plants until the skins are dry and paper-like. Once dry, the seeds will be mature and ready for storage. Shell the seeds, label carefully and store in an airtight container or envelope. Seeds will keep for a couple of years.
A kūmara crop indicates it has stopped growing by its leaves turning yellow. When they start turning yellow, the stems begin to wilt. Once this happens, ease the crop out of the ground using a fork; the tubers may be sitting 20–30cm below the ground, so dig carefully. Little growth happens once the tops start to wilt. Cure the crop by allowing the skin to dry in the sun, which toughens up the surface and enables you to store the kūmara for longer.
These speedy vines are covering the ground at breakneck speed. Keep the fluids up to the plants and remove excess flowers if the plant has already set a good number of fruits. If growing a giant pumpkin is your goal, remove any other pumpkins or flowers on the stems as soon as you spot them.
Gourds are natural overperformers and will keep pumping out flowers until May.
All of these meaty brassicas take a good three months to mature, so I recommend getting them underway now to have a good supply ahead of you. Choose seedlings over seeds to speed up the growing time. If space is limited, consider planting them in small pots (like a takeaway or unused coffee cup) until room becomes available. For smaller gardens, consider planting brassicas closer together than recommended, but if you do this, it’s vital that the soil has plenty of nutrients and that the plants are kept well-watered. It is risky overplanting, as pests and diseases can easily appear, so keep an eye out for anything attacking your plants.
How to extend the harvest season Ripe fruit should be in abundance in many areas now. Jars and sauce bottles will be at the ready to preserve and pickle these summer staples. Remove the lower leaves of the plant, which are pretty much redundant now. This encourages the plant to put its effort into ripening its fruit, rather than maintaining leaves. Taking them off also allows more sunlight in to ripen the fruit. If the leaves look pale or are starting to yellow off, feed the plants with sheep pellets, seaweed tonic or tomato food.
Many herbs can be split and divided in autumn for free to bulk up numbers. If you are short on herbs and you notice a friend has plenty, ask for a snippet or division or two to get started on something new.
Chives, those onion-flavoured powerhouses, are super hardy and very tough. Clumps can be lifted and divided this month to bulk up numbers. In most regions, chives die down over winter, therefore splitting them now will enable them to get established before they die down.
Mint, like chives, prefers to hibernate underground over winter. Cuttings or divisions can be planted out now to increase production. Mint can get a bit invasive in the right spot, so to keep it under control it helps to grow it in pots.
Thyme, packed with flavour, is one of my absolute ‘go-to’ herbs. I use it more than any other herb, except mint, therefore I need a lot of it. Thyme easily roots from cuttings, and often roots will be found on the stems where the branches meet the soil. These small, rooted pieces can be snipped off and planted for new plants.
Lemongrass is a quintessential Asian herb and ingredient for teas and tonics. Lemongrass is best divided into new clumps in autumn. Either dig up the plant or knock the plant out of a pot if it’s been grown in one. Tease out all the roots and divide the plant up into sections, then plant or repot them. If the roots are long, trim them back to 5–10cm. Keep the new plants moist but not wet, leading into winter. Lemongrass does need some protection from frost over winter.
For those of us who were not gifted with patience as a virtue, try some speedy vegetable crops that can be harvested within a matter of weeks from sowing and planting. Those hot to trot include:
• Radishes are one of the best to try. Simply sprinkle seeds on some loose earth or potting mix and within a week the leaves will appear. Within a month you will be crunching on spicy nuggets of goodness.
• Bok choy is another speedster, ready to harvest within 4–6 weeks of planting. These will cope with being planted very close – think a handspace apart.
• Rocket rips into it as well, and once planted out from a seedling it can be ready to harvest, leaf by leaf, within a fortnight. Regular picking prevents rocket from running to seed and flowering.
• Mizuna, mibuna and tatsoi are all members of the brassica family (and commonly called Asian greens). From seedling to smoothie, salad or slaw it takes about 30 days.