Rachel Vogan shares her top tips on what to pick, eat and plant this month in the edible garden.
As a new year dawns, I get excited about what food I have growing in the garden and all the produce I am harvesting (and about to harvest!). Growing your own food is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do. For me, it is not just about eating the most nutritious food, or saving money. It is the sense of pride I get when I can get something to grow from a seed or a cutting, then nurture it into production. It is that wonder of nature that continues to blow me away.
This month is more about eating than planting, which suits me down to the ground! With that in mind, there are a few essentials to keep front of mind to get the best out of your harvests.
Forget about watering a little every day. While it is tempting to do, all it does is encourage the roots of plants to stay near the surface to find water and cooler temperatures. You want to encourage your plants to bury their roots deeper into the earth, where more natural moisture exists and the temperatures are cooler. Plant roots will burn if they are too close to the soil surface, which significantly reduces plant growth and capacity.
For gardens with shallow soils, add layers of pea straw or light mulch to insulate the soil from intense heat. It saves moisture and looks good, plus it helps keep the weeds at bay.
Soak seedlings; they love it and thrive if they have the chance to get a good soaking before being planted. It makes the roots easier to separate, and the plugs knock out of the punnets easier as well.
Water the ground before planting. People look at me sideways when I say this at garden talks, but if you take a moment to think about dry soils, they can sometimes be hard to get moisture into. And it is far easier to get the ground moist before planting new seedlings or sowing seeds. I prepare my ground two or three days before planting when I can – sometimes I don’t have time, but when I do it makes a world of difference. I loosely rake or fork over the soil, sprinkling in pellets of manure and then watering two or three times before sowing or planting anything.
Transplanting anything in midsummer is stressful on plants due to root disturbance, dry soils and hot temperatures, so limit the shock. If seedlings had a choice about which part of the day to be transplanted in, they would say “Early evening, please” or “Before 10am”. Avoid asking them to move (transplant) in the intense heat of the middle of the day. If you do have to plant leafy greens in the middle of the day, throw some shade cloth or an old sheet over the area to protect the young leaves from the scorching heat and wilting under watering.
Highly productive and packed with nutrients, few crops can surpass beans for harvesting capacity. To keep them at their best, keep picking them. Yes, it is okay to leave a few pods on the plants to save for seed; however, picking as many as you can manage forces the plant to produce more flowers, which extends the cropping season. Once picked, they last for a fortnight in the fridge – slice and freeze or pickle and preserve for later use.
This nutrient-rich root crop and leafy green may be ready to eat now if it was planted a few months ago. Harvest the globe varieties when the root reaches tennis ball size, or pick the torpedo carrot-shaped ones when they begin to push their necks out of the ground.Raw beetroot doesn’t freeze that well, so cook it first before freezing. Pickles and preserves are quick and easy to do, and liquidising beetroot makes it easy to freeze as well. Sow rows of new seeds now or hunt out some fresh seedlings to go back into the ground this month. Select smaller rather than larger seedlings for midsummer planting as they seem to transplant better.
The more often basil is picked, the longer it will produce leaves. Nipping out the tips encourages more branches, which equals more leaves. A new batch of seeds can be sown now, too, and they will germinate pretty quickly as this tangy herb loves the heat. While basil prefers full sun, it will cope with a couple of hours of shade a day. I am loving the new basil from Zealandia called ‘Evergreen’. I planted mine in October and it is still producing cupfuls of aromatic goodness. Basil is also easy to grow from stem cuttings in a glass of water. Roots will appear in a few weeks.
With the longest day well and truly behind us, the stems on garlic plants will be wilting, indicating it is ready to harvest. Carefully lift cloves out of the soil, brush off any excess dirt, and leave the heads to dry somewhere away from water and rain for a fortnight or until the skins are dry and paper-like. Avoid washing the garlic with water as this can limit the cloves’ ability to store for lengthy periods. Hang to store in a cool, dry place.
Cut-and-come-again lettuces are hardy to heat, making them ideal to plant and sow in summer (while hearting lettuces are at their best in spring and autumn). They can be planted out as seedlings now, or seeds can be sown. Seeds will germinate in the ground or in punnets of seedraising mix. Transplant them once they are about finger length.
Harvest the leafy types of lettuce just before using – rinse under the tap, and dinner’s done. Salad bags are a wonderful way to share any excess lettuce and leafy greens with friends, family and neighbours. Keep leaves fresh by picking in the morning, rinsing lightly, draining off excess water and then bagging. Add a few calendula or chive flowers for a pretty mix of vegetable goodness.
In most regions, the following crops can go in the ground. Obviously, there are regional variances with a few things, but overall, unless you are sub-arctic or sub-tropical, these crops are all good to grow now.
Courgettes can go in
New plants can go in the ground now, or pop a few seeds in the soil and they will pop up within a fortnight. If space is limited, they will happily grow in a bucket – simply poke drainage holes in the bottom of a kitchen bucket, fill with good earth or potting mix, and plant. Eventually, after a few months, the plant will be too big for the bucket, but by then it will be late autumn and the plants will be dying off in the frosts.
Potatoes for autumn spuds
A summer planting of potatoes will produce an autumn harvest of spuds. As the ground is warm, there is no need to sprout the seed potatoes. If using ground where an earlier crop was grown, ensure the soil is well dug over and enriched with some goodies to replenish the soil with nutrients. Work in potato fertiliser – some people skip this step, but it is a game-changer in my world. It does the thinking for you. Many people are not aware that potatoes prefer a slightly acidic loose soil rather than a heavier sweet soil; therefore, avoid adding anything that will sweeten the ground.
Brussels sprouts for winter
Get your mini cabbages underway now. It always sounds ridiculous to bang on about Brussels sprouts in the middle of summer, and you might be rolling your eyes as you read this, but it is worth noting they are a long-term crop. They take six months to mature, and that takes us to June/July for a harvest. And once the weather cools down, you will be looking for these sweet miniature mouthfuls of goodness! Sow seeds now in trays in the shade, and the wee plants will appear in a fortnight. Harden the seedlings off and plant out in rows or in large tubs early next month. Alternatively, look for seedlings to plant out now – heaps are in the shops and available online through seedling stores.