How to grow delicious salads on your kitchen bench…

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While doing some research in my local library for an article on growing your own sprouts, I happened to stumble upon a book by Peter Burke with the title ‘Year-round indoor salad gardening’. The book describes Burke’s technique for growing, as the title suggests, year-round salad leaves on your kitchen bench, in a simple and easy way, without the need for any specialised equipment. I immediately thought that this technique is a great solution for people who want to have the benefits of eating nutritious home-grown salads, but either don’t have space for a vegetable garden, don’t have the time to tend a vegetable garden or have physical limitations due to health issues. So before writing about Burke’s technique and putting my article on sprouting seeds on the back burner, the scientist in me thought it best to try it for myself first, just to check it really was that easy. Here’s how it went…

Burke’s technique combines part sprouting in jars and part soil sprouting, to produce edible salad leaves in the form of microgreens. Microgreens are vegetables or herbs that are eaten at a seedling stage, at which point they taste like the mature vegetable but contain a much higher concentration of nutrients. Using conventional methods to produce microgreens can take 2-4 weeks but by using this technique you can harvest in only 7-10 days.

The equipment that you will need for this indoor salad garden includes; glass jars, organic seeds, aluminium foil trays (about 15cmx22cmx5cm in size), newspaper or paper towel, a small strainer, water in a small spray bottle, seed raising mix and a little compost, worm castings or some organic fertiliser.

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Step 1 Soak the seeds in a jar of warm water for 6 hours (or overnight). You can use any organic vegetable or herb seed which has edible leaves, but seeds in the Brassica family (kale, broccoli, cabbage, canola, kohlrabi) are particularly nutritious and beetroot, red amaranth, buckwheat and purple basil add great colour to your salad. I used adzuki beans, snow peas, mung beans, fenugreek and lentils for my experiment as I already had these seeds available. For the smaller seeds you need to soak about a heaped tablespoon per tray and for the larger seeds, such as the peas, you need about 80 seeds.

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Step 2 Using one foil tray per seed variety, add a 1 cm layer of seed raising mix, with a couple of tablespoons of compost/worm casting or a small sprinkle of organic fertiliser spread over the top. Fill the rest of the trays with more seed raising mix until they are filled about 1/2 cm from the top of the tray. Level the mix but don’t pat it down. If your mix feels dry, squirt it with some water from a spray bottle (your mix should be moist but not wet as there are no drainage holes in your tray).

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Step 3 Fold a sheet of newspaper or paper towel to fit the top of your tray (a few layers thick) and soak the folded paper in a shallow tray of warm water. In the meantime strain the water off the seeds by pouring them into a small strainer and rinse them with some fresh water. Spread the seeds evenly on top of the seed raising mix, then cover with the folded newspaper/paper towel and gently press the paper down to ensure that the seeds underneath make good contact with the soil.

Step 4 Place the trays in a warm (18-21ºC), dark cupboard for 4 days, keeping the newspapers wet if they dry by squirting with some water. The sprouts should be 2-3cm high and have pushed the newspaper up by the end of this time. If temperatures were a bit too cold this step may take an extra day or two. I found this to be the case with the larger seeds of my snow peas, mung beans and adzuki beans which I left in the cupboard for an extra day.

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Step 5 You now need to green your sprouts by taking off the newspaper covers and placing the trays on a sunny bench near a window, they don’t need direct sunlight. I placed mine on a workbench in my garden shed which is under a north facing window, but a kitchen bench would work well too and you don’t necessarily need a window that faces north. Over the next three days water the soil in the trays everyday with about 2-4 tablespoons of water and rotate the trays each day so that the sprouts grow straight and not towards the light.

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Step 6 After only 7-10 days from when you first soaked your seeds, your salad is ready to harvest. It really is that quick and easy! To harvest simply cut your greens about half a centimetre above the soil level with a pair of scissors. Give them a very gentle rinse under some cold water to remove any soil particles and seed husks and they are ready to eat.

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You may want to grate some carrot or beetroot through your sprouts, or add a handful of chickpeas or finely chopped tomatoes. Your sprouts are also great as a garnish on top of a lentil Dahl or in rice paper rolls. If you sow a new couple of trays every few days you could have a continuous supply of sprouted salad greens.

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This indoor salad only took 8 days to grow!

Enjoy!

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How to sow seeds

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When you’re new to vegetable gardening the easiest way to get started is to buy some seedlings from a garden centre and plant them out. However the range of things to plant and the varieties available are very limiting, so sowing from seed is the way to go. There are many organic seed companies that you can order from online, or you may have a gardening friend who saves their own seed and is happy to share some with you. Beware though, looking through seed catalogues is addictive and often results in you buying more seeds than you have space for in the garden!

Here is my guide for some common vegetables and how best to sow them:

Seeds that should be sown directly into a garden bed:

Parsnip
Swede
Beetroot
Carrot
Radish
Beans
Peas
Turnip

Seeds that are best sown into seedling punnets and planted out as seedlings:

Tomato
Capsicum
Eggplant
Broccoli
Cabbage
Brussel sprouts
Kale
Cauliflower
Celery
Onion

Seeds that can either be sown direct or into seedling punnets first:

Rocket
Pumpkin*
Corn
Zucchini*
Squash*
Cucumber*
Leek
Spring onion
Spinach
Lettuce

*Careful not to disturb the roots of these seedlings when planting out

It’s also important to plant seeds at the correct depth, generally 2 to 3 times their width. Keep soil moist after planting but not soggy; if you let the soil dry out after the seed germinates it will die, if the soil is too wet the seed may rot before it even starts to grow. And remember to sow your seeds in their correct season!

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Sowing peas directly in the ground

How to grow potatoes…

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A chitted potato ready for planting

As a Dutch-born Australian my diet while growing up featured a lot of potato meals: curly kale mashed with potatoes, beetroot mashed with potatoes, carrots and onions mashed with potatoes, sauerkraut mashed with potatoes…you get the picture! As an adult I still love potatoes (and I still serve them up mashed with other vegetables from the garden) but now they taste even better as I grow them myself.

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A colourful variety of heirloom potatoes

There are many more varieties of potato available to home gardeners than the small selection of commercially grown ones you’ll find at the supermarket. Heirloom potatoes come in many different shapes and colours and  you may want to try some of these great heirloom varieties: Bintje, Burgundy Blush, Brownell, Kipfler, Pink Fir Apple, Purple Congo, Red Norland, Russian Banana, Salad Rose and Sapphire to name a few. To get started purchase certified disease-free seed potatoes (google heirloom seed potatoes in your country or state to find a retailer), this way you won’t risk introducing soil born pests and diseases of potatoes into your garden. These pests and diseases can also be prevented by not planting any vegetables in the Solanaceae family (potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, chillies, eggplant and tomatillos) in the same garden bed each year, but have them on at least a 2-3 year rotation instead.

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Potato bed ready for planting

It is time to plant potatoes once there is no more risk of frost in your garden. I plant in late August here (as my garden is protected from frost) and by the time the potato shoots emerge above the soil, spring has arrived. You can sow successive crops of potatoes throughout the warmer months here in Melbourne by choosing a cooler part of the vegetable garden to plant them in during summer, that way they won’t get heat stressed. Make sure though that the last sowing has at least three months to mature before the first frosts arrive in late autumn. The instructions below are for growing potatoes in the ground or a raised bed but you can also grow potatoes in cylinders made from chicken wire, in hessian sacks or in a no-dig garden.

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It’s best to plant your potatoes 30cm apart in rows about 50 cm apart

Potatoes prefer a soil that is rich and free draining with plenty of organic matter, such as compost, added and some pelleted organic fertiliser. To plant your potatoes dig a trench about 20 cm deep and plant your seed potatoes 30 cm apart in rows of 50cm apart. Fill the trench with soil and hill soil up around the potato plants as they grow and emerge from the soil. Keep your potatoes well watered especially during the warmer months. When the plants get even bigger, spread straw thickly around the potato plants to exclude any light from getting to any potatoes that may be developing just under the surface of the soil. Potatoes exposed to sunlight will develop a green colour, which is chlorophyll and enables the potato to photosynthesise and sprout. At this stage it also develops a poisonous chemical called solanine which makes the potato taste bitter so animals are discouraged from eating it. You should therefore never eat potatoes that have developed green patches on their skins.

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Your seed potatoes should be planted about 20 cm deep as most of your potato crop will develop above the original seed potato.

Potatoes are usually ready to harvest in around 12 weeks after they’ve flowered and start to die back. If you have trouble waiting that long, you can harvest a few early potatoes by carefully digging around the base of your potato plant with your hands after about 8-10 weeks, but you’ll get a bigger harvest of larger potatoes if you’re prepared to wait! Once harvested, let the soil on your potatoes dry so you can brush most of it off and store your potatoes in a cool, dry and dark place. Don’t wash your potatoes before storing as this will make them more prone to developing rot during storage, the aim is to keep them as dry as possible. To store, you can put your potatoes in a hessian sack or in a cardboard box underneath a few layers of newspaper to exclude them from any light but still allow good air circulation. Any potatoes whose skins were cut or damaged during harvest should be eaten first and not stored with the rest of the potatoes. Regularly check your stored potatoes and discard any that develop rot. Stored properly your potatoes should stay good for at least 2-3 months.

How to start a vegetable garden…advice for first time vegetable growers

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If you’ve always wanted to grow your own vegetables but have never got around to it because you are waiting until you have more time, or until you have a bigger garden, or until the kids move out, or until you retire, then stop procrastinating…the best time to start a vegetable garden and reap the health benefits is now!

So now that there are no more excuses and you’re actually committed to starting a vegetable garden, here are some of my tips to making your vegetable garden a success.

Start small-It’s easy to get carried away when you’ve finally decided to grow your own vegetables, but limit yourself to one or two beds that you will have time to weed, water and learn from and if after a year you are going well and want to add more beds…go for it!

Raised beds, in the ground, in pots or join a community garden?-This is the next decision; if you have great garden soil and don’t mind some initial hard work to dig the soil and a bit of bending to tend to your vegetables, then one of the cheapest options is to make your vegetable beds directly in the ground. Many people however, decide to use some type of raised garden bed as these are at an easier height to work with and if your garden soil is no good, you can fill a raised bed with more suitable soil. Better still, you could start a No-dig Garden in one. There are many prefabricated raised garden beds available these days or you can make your own. Just remember to use a non-treated timber sleeper such as white cypress and stay clear of recycled railway sleepers which may have chemical residues left on them.

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Building the part-raised beds in the slope of the home-vegetable garden at the Gawler Cancer Foundation

Another option is to have a potted vegetable or herb garden and this is a great option for people who may not be able to make a permanent vegetable bed somewhere because they either don’t have the space, are renting, live in an apartment or only have a balcony to garden on. Many vegetables and herbs will thrive in pots and they can be moved around from season to season to follow the sun in your garden. Alternatively you may have a community garden in your area which you can join and either tend your own garden plot or share a growing space with others. Community gardens are also a great place to get to know other people from your community and there is usually always someone around who’ll be happy to share their gardening knowledge with new gardeners.

Where is the sun?-Vegetables like a bit of sun, preferably 6 hours, but don’t be dismayed if your garden, like mine, gets less than this. As you can see from my blog there is lots you can still grow if your garden gets filtered or only part sun for most of the day, you just need to learn where your micro climates are. As a rule morning sun is more beneficial to your vegetables than afternoon sun, so keep this in mind when deciding where to make your vegetable garden. Many vegetables, especially leafy greens, grow better when shaded from the hot afternoon sun in summer. I find that silverbeet, rhubarb, carrots, spinach, kale, lettuce and peas grow fine in my vegetable beds that only get 4 hours of sun. Other vegetables like tomatoes, capsicum and eggplant really need the heat and so it’s best to plant them in the warmest spot in the garden, in pots, or in a small greenhouse (if you have one).

How to water?-Our summers can be hot and dry and as a result watering your vegetables can become a bit of a time consuming chore; forgetting to water vegetables is a common reason they fail to thrive. So my advice, if you are going to have a sizeable vegetable garden, is to invest in putting in a drip irrigation system with an automatic timer. I have this set up at work and it saves a lot of time as well as being one of the most efficient ways to water a vegetable garden. At home I’m still hand watering and using hoses and sprinklers from our water tanks, but an irrigation system is definitely on the wish list.

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Drip irrigation is an efficient way to water

If you’re only starting off small you can hand water in your first season and see how you go, but I do advice that you invest in a rainwater tank so that you can harvest your roof water for the garden. Having a water source close to your vegetable garden will also make watering easier. Regardless of what you use to water your vegetable garden, watering deeply (to encourage deep, strong roots) a few times a week when the weather is dry, is better than a little bit of water every day as this will encourage weak, shallow rooted vegetables.

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My rain water tanks water all our vegetable beds

Great soil is the key to healthy vegetables-If you are planning to plant directly into your garden soil it’s worth spending the time to get your soil right before planting your first vegetables. Firstly learn about checking the pH of your soil and make amendments if needed. Vegetables also like a well structure free draining soil so dig in plenty of organic compost and maybe some gypsum if you have a heavy clay soil. However don’t dig your soil while it is very wet or very dry as you will collapse your soil and destroy its structure instead. Planting a green manure crop (a crop that is grown and then cut before flowering and dug back into the soil), will also greatly improve your soil structure and fertility. Depending on the time of the year, suitable green manure crops include oats, peas, vetch, broad beans, rye corn, lupins or clover.

What to grow-This is an easy one; grow what you buy and eat most. Surprisingly some people get this one wrong and end up growing vegetables their family either won’t eat or know what to do with. If you buy broccoli and carrots every week, then grow broccoli and carrots. If after a few seasons of growing your regular crops, you want to experiment with more unusual vegetables you can’t buy locally, go for it, but remember to have a few recipes in mind that will incorporate these new vegetables. And as for what to do with fussy eaters in your family, the rule in my house is… if I’ve grown it, you eat it…no further discussion.

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Be inspired…the home vegetable garden at the Gawler Cancer Foundation where I work

Crop rotation-In your first year of growing vegetables you don’t have to worry about this one. Once you’ve had your first season of growing it is worth learning though which vegetables belong to the same plant family (I’ll be listing these in a future blog post), so that you can avoid planting related vegetables in the same soil, season after season. Plants in the same family are often susceptible to similar diseases and pests and if planted in the same soil over a long period of time these pests and diseases can build up in the soil and become a problem. It’s therefore best to move vegetables from the same family (eg. potatoes and tomatoes) around to a new garden bed each season with at least a three year rotation.

Start with healthy seedlings-discounted seedlings or ones that have been sitting around a retail nursery for many months, looking leggy and pale, will rarely thrive when planted and often run straight to seed. When buying seedlings look for young healthy seedlings, which have not been allowed to dry out and which don’t show any sign of disease on the leaves. Alternatively you can grow vegetables by sowing from seed directly in your garden beds or into your own punnets for planting out later.

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healthy tomato seedlings

Plant seeds and seedlings at the correct spacing and depth-This is an important point to remember especially when planting out your very first vegetable bed. Don’t try and squish everything you’ve ever wanted to grow into this first bed. Some vegetables need a fair bit of space to grow to full size without competing with other vegetables for light and nutrients. Cabbage for example, requires a 50-60cm spacing between seedlings, so a punnet of eight seedlings takes up a fair bit of space in your vegetable garden. If space is limited it is sometimes better to only plant half the punnet and share the other seedlings with a neighbour (unless you are planning to make sauerkraut, you probably don’t need eight cabbages which are ready to harvest at the same time).

Some vegetables such as peas, beans, parsnip and carrots will do better if sown from seed. Take note of the suggested planting depth on the packet though as burying the seed too deep or too shallow can be the cause of it failing to germinate. Some larger seeds, such as beans and peas, don’t need to be watered again after planting until after they start to emerge or they can rot; whereas some small seed, such as carrots and parsnip, need constant soil moisture to germinate.

Build a compost heap-Every vegetable gardener needs a compost heap-in fact every household regardless of wether they grow vegetables or not should have a compost heap. For more information on composting, I’ve covered how to make a compost heap here in a previous post. When growing vegetables, a compost heap is a great place to recycle all your crop waste (the bits you can’t eat) and turn them into beautiful compost brimming with humus and beneficial microorganisms to add to your vegetable garden soil.

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You can never have too much compost!

Use a mulch in summer-As mentioned earlier, summer can be hot and dry, and covering your vegetable garden soil with an organic mulch of straw, pea straw or sugarcane mulch will help keep the moisture in your soil and keep your vegetables and the beneficial microorganisms and worms in your soil happy.

And lastly…if a crop fails, don’t give up, but try and try again-Even the most experienced vegetable growers will have some season that a particular crop fails for one reason or another. Try and learn from your failures and grow your knowledge along with your garden.

And remember I’m always here happy to answer any of your questions, either through the comment option at the end of each blog post or if you prefer, you can email me via the Contact page.

Happy growing!

How to grow Yacon…the apple of the earth

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A good harvest of Yacon tubers all from one plant!

Resembling a sweet potato, Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is sometimes referred to as ‘the Peruvian ground apple’, an apt name for this crisp, sweet, underground tuber that can be eaten raw like an apple. This ancient-looking plant from the Asteraceae family, originated in South America and is grown for its sweet edible tubers which were known to be valued and cultivated by the Incas and are a staple in the diet of South Americans today.

I first started growing Yacon about fifteen years ago by planting a small rhizome bought from an online nursery. I instantly fell in love with this amazing plant after tasting the tubers from that first long awaited harvest. Since then I always grow some each year both in my own garden at home and my garden at work; where I love introducing new food gardeners to Yacon’s tasty tubers.

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A row of yacon plants in my garden at work

Yacon is an impressive plant, growing up to 2m in height with large arrow shaped furry leaves and small yellow daisy flowers which are produced in autumn. It is relatively easy to grow and can be grown in most mainland areas of Australia. Around the base of the stem of a Yacon plant, clusters of small rhizomes are produced which are very different in appearance to the larger edible tubers which form below.

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Purplish coloured rhizomes that form at the base of the stem, just below the ground, are used to propagate new Yacon plants

These rhizomes can be divided and planted out mid to late spring after the last chance of frost or when they start to sprout. Each plant produces many rhizomes, so there are always plenty of extras to share with other gardeners; once you have a Yacon rhizome you’ll never need to buy more. Plant rhizomes, containing a few growing sprouts, about a 70-100cm apart, a few centimetres below the surface, into deeply cultivated soil enriched with plenty of compost and manure.  Yacon requires a long growing season and will take 6-7 months to reach maturity (after flowering). Water regularly and consistently as sudden changes in moisture levels can cause the tubers to split.

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Yacon’s less than impressive small flowers are dwarfed by the size of the rest of the plant…people often think my Yacon are very strange sunflowers

Harvest Yacon after the foliage dies back in winter after flowering, by carefully loosening the soil around the plant before easing the entire root system out of the ground.

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The edible tubers can then be snapped off from around the crown and the rhizomes kept and divided for a new crop. The edible tubers can grow up to 30cm long and weigh as much as 1.5kg. It’s not unusual to get twenty or more tubers from one plant. Allow them to dry in the sun and store in a dark cupboard for a week to sweeten further. Don’t wash them, but just brush the excess soil off before storing, they will keep for a few months.

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Rhizomes ready to be divided for planting out in spring after the last frost

Yacon has an interesting apple-carrot flavour with a texture similar to nashi pears. Tubers can be peeled and eaten raw, boiled or baked. The skin needs to be peeled off before eating as it can be a bit bitter. Once peeled the flesh discolours quickly so sprinkle it with a little lemon juice to prevent this and peel just before needing to add it to a meal. I love eating it just as I would an apple or pear, but it is also amazing cooked in a stir fry where it retains its crunchy texture and absorbs the flavours of the other ingredients. You’ll find many yummy recipe ideas online. Interestingly the main stem of the plant can also be eaten; it’s eaten like celery when young and traditionally the leaves were used to wrap other food during cooking.

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A tasty snack of Yacon slices (consumed while writing this blog post)

Despite its sweet taste, Yacon has a low kilojoule content and is high in fibre. It contains high levels of inulin, a form of sugar that is hard to metabolise making it a popular choice for diabetics. Inulin also aids digestion and promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the intestine. Yacon is a good source of antioxidants, contains a great balance of 20 amino acids and is high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron. What more reasons do you need to give this amazing vegetable a go!

How to grow broccoli

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Broccoli and its fancier relatives (Brassica spp.) would have to be one of my favourite vegetables to grow, both for this nutritious vegetable’s many culinary uses and for its shear beauty. Most people are very familiar with the common supermarket variety of green broccoli, however less well known (and rarely available in supermarkets) are Broccoli Raab, Romanesco Broccoli and Sprouting Broccoli (with both green and purple varieties available).

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Beautiful Romanesco broccoli with its spiralling patterns which are a natural representation of the Fibonacci sequence (one for all you math geeks!)

At home we eat broccoli several times a week and hence I try to grow it for most of the year. In our Melbourne climate this is possible if you plant seedlings every 4-6 weeks throughout spring, summer and autumn. Unless you have a greenhouse, seedlings planted in the cold of winter tend to struggle, so plant some extra throughout autumn to get them off to a flying start while there is still some warmth left in the soil. I avoid planting at the hight of summer too as seedlings often struggle with the high air temperatures. You may have some success planting into a garden bed shaded from the afternoon sun (by other plants or taller vegetables) at this time of the year.

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The vegetable garden at the side of our house with many members of the Brassica family off to a good start before winter.

Broccoli and its relatives like a nutrient rich soil with plenty of compost and some organic fertiliser added and with a pH between 6.5 and 7 , to learn how to test your soil’s pH click the link- Testing the pH of your soil . You can sow seed in seedling punnets and transplant into your garden bed once your seedlings have their second set of true leaves (the first leaves to appear are seed leaves and look different to the true leaves). Plant your seedlings deeply (right up to the first true leaves) as plants can get top heavy and are prone to toppling over on windy sites. Most varieties of broccoli will need to be planted about 30cm apart however, sprouting and Romanesco broccoli, are large plants at maturity and may need to be planted 50cm apart.

During spring, summer and early autumn you can cover your broccoli plants with an insect exclusion tunnel (click this link to learn How to make an insect exclusion tunnel ) to protect them from the caterpillars of the cabbage white butterfly. Alternatively you can spray with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) sold under the name Dipel, which is a bacteria that acts as a stomach poison in caterpillars and is an allowable input in organic gardens. You will need to spray regularly though, wetting all leaf surfaces, as Bt washes off with rain and irrigation. Keep an eye out for aphids too, especially during warmer weather. They often appear if plants are stressed from lack of water or fed too much nitrogen, so make sure to water your broccoli regularly and don’t over fertilise. If aphids do appear you can spray with soap sprays or natural pyrethrum.

broccoli in May

Once the weather is cold enough (usually in May in Melbourne) you can take your insect exclusion nets off as the cabbage white butterflies are gone and your broccoli will benefit from the extra light and air flow.

Broccoli can take about three months to grow (depending on the time of year), before it is ready to harvest. With broccoli that forms a main head, once you harvest, leave the plant in the ground as you will get a second harvest of smaller side shoots. Sprouting broccoli forms many small florets that can be harvested as needed but are best harvested before the florets open up. Any broccoli heads that aren’t harvested and that flower are not wasted as the yellow flowers are edible and make a great addition to salads and stir fries and the bees love them too!

Tomatillos

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One of the best things about growing your own vegetables is that you can grow things you usually can’t buy at the local grocery store. Unusual vegetables are great to add interest to meals especially when cooking for your friends and family. One such vegetable I discovered a few years ago is the tomatillo (pronounced to-ma-TEE-yo). I recently gave a fruit to my sister to try and she’d never heard of them, which got me thinking they’d make a great topic for this blog.

Tomatillos, like tomatoes, are best planted in spring. I’m harvesting the last of our tomatillos at the moment in early May now that the weather is getting colder. They’ve managed to outlast the tomatoes which gave up a couple of weeks ago already. As the name suggests tomatillos are related to tomatoes and are native to central America, they are a must-have for any Mexican cuisine. The plants have a bushy sprawling growth habit and are best supported with stakes or mesh to keep the fruit clean and off the ground. Care for them as you would tomatoes. You will need two or more plants to get fruit for cross pollination as the plants aren’t self-fertile. Tomatillos are very prolific and three plants will provide you more than enough fruit for an average family. They grow very easily from seed, so save some seed from your fruit before the season ends to use for next year.

tomatillo bush

Tomatillo fruit develops in an inedible papery husk which eventually turns a tan/brown and splits when the fruit is ripe and about the size of a golf ball. Tomatillos have a citrusy, sweet-tart flavour and the flesh has the texture of an unripe tomato, but isn’t as juicy. I grow the purple tomatillo which starts of green and develops a purple blush when ripe. It is a little sweeter than the more common green tomatillo which is traditionally used for salsa verde. Leave the husks on until you are ready to eat the fruit as they store longer that way. You can store fruit on the kitchen bench or for up to two weeks in the fridge. Once you remove the husk, the fruit will feel sticky but this sticky coating simply washes off.

When to harvest pumpkins

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Waltham and Hercules Butternut harvest at work yesterday

At what stage do you harvest a pumpkin? This is a question I’m often asked and so I thought, as mid Autumn most pumpkins are about ready, this would make a good post for my blog today.

To develop the best flavour and increase storage life, pumpkins need to be left on the vine until fully ripe. There are a number of indicators that will show you when this is. Firstly the pumpkin starts to get a harder skin. You should get some resistance when pressing your finger nail into the skin. Secondly the pumpkin’s colour develops (the butternut pumpkins went from a pale lime/yellow to a more beige/orange colour). Thirdly the vine starts to die back and wither.

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A beautiful Butternut pumpkin in my garden which is almost ready for harvesting

Sometimes the weather can get quite cold and wet before your pumpkins are ready. You may need to lift them onto something like a plastic seed tray to keep them dry and stop the underside which is in contact with the ground from rotting. When the pumpkin is ready cut them from the vine with a sharp knife or secateurs. It’s important to leave some stem attached (50-75mm) because as this dries it will seal the pumpkin and prevent rot from getting in during storage. After drying and wiping off any dirt, store your harvested pumpkins in a dry, well ventilated shed or cupboard. Depending on the variety, fully ripened pumpkins can store for about 5 months. Don’t store any pumpkins with cracked or damaged skins as any rot that develops will quickly spread to other pumpkins. If you have room store your pumpkins so they don’t touch each other.

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Jap pumpkin harvest

How to grow garlic

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Garlic plaits

Sharing my harvest with friends and family is one of the many joys I get out of growing my own food. Garlic plaits would have to be one of my favourite things to gift my friends and family out of our garden. The best thing is, if you plant your garlic now they’ll be ready for Christmas.

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I save my largest garlic bulbs each year and plant out the cloves for next years garlic crop

Garlic is best grown by dividing an existing bulb and planting out the cloves. If you are growing garlic for the first time make sure you purchase your bulbs from a nursery or an organic source as the imported garlic you buy from the supermarket is usually fumigated to stop it sprouting. Garlic is divided into two main types, hard neck and soft neck. The main difference between these two is that hard necks produce a flower stem (called a scape) which can also be eaten, they have fewer but larger cloves which are easy to peel, have a well developed flavour but don’t store as long (usually 4-7 months). Soft necks usually don’t form a flower stem, they have more cloves but are smaller and more difficult to peel, however they store longer (usually between 8-12 months). At home I grow a hard neck variety called ‘Flinders Island Purple’, which is my favourite garlic, similar varieties include ‘Italian Purple’ and ‘Tasmanian Purple’. At work I also grow the soft neck garlic varieties ‘Australian White’ and ‘Italian White’ for their longer storage life.

galic growing

Garlic growing at the Gawler Cancer Foundation in late autumn

In Melbourne, April to early May is the best time to plant your garlic cloves. Garlic needs a free draining soil with plenty of organic matter and a pH of between 6 and 7. If you don’t know what soil pH is and how to test it, click here: Testing the pH of your soil

galic bed prep

My scarecrow is looking at a well prepared garden bed ready for planting garlic

Divide your garlic bulb in to cloves and select the largest ones to plant out. Plant garlic cloves flat side down, a few cm below the soil surface and space them about 15cm apart with 20cm between rows.

planting garlic clove

Plant garlic flat side down and pointy side up

When you’ve planted your garlic give your garden bed a light watering then don’t water any more until your cloves have sprouted and you can see the first bits of green sticking up above the soil. Only water your garlic over winter if the soil feels dry. Now comes the waiting time…it will take about 7-8 months for your garlic to be ready for harvesting. In the mean time keep your garlic bed weed free as garlic doesn’t like competition. Good luck with your garlic growing and let me know how you go.

I’ll follow up this blog closer to garlic harvest time (late November) with advice on how to harvest garlic and also show you how to make your own garlic plaits.

Our first avocado!

Version 3

I’m so exited we have our first avocado growing on one of our trees! About three years ago I planted two avocados, a Hass and a Bacon variety under the Stringybark gums at the edge of our forest. Here the gum trees protect them from frost while still allowing enough sunlight to get in. With the help of a mulch layer of goat manure and spent hay and an occasional bucket of water they have grown from small tube stock to about 1.4m tall. Although they had lots of flowers last Spring followed by small fruit, only one fruit on the Hass is maturing and we can’t wait to eat it later this year. I hope we’ll have some more fruit next year!

Although sometimes thought of as only growing in warm climates, avocados can be grown in most capital cities of Australia, with the exception of Canberra and Hobart (let me know if you have managed to grow avocados in these cities). To thrive avocados need a sunny, frost free spot with slightly acidic and free draining soil. If you protect young trees from frost in the first few years of growing, they will cope with some frost as they mature and are bit taller. Mulch the trees well with organic matter and feed them with your homemade compost, manure or organic fertiliser pellets.

Avocados can reach 10m tall and 8m wide, so they need a bit of space. To contain them and make harvesting easier, regular pruning can keep them to around 3m. There are A and B cultivars and both types can be self pollinating in Melbourne’s variable spring weather (fluctuating temperatures ensures both male and female flowers on the tree at the same time). If you have constant temperatures above 20ºC in the day and 10ºC at night you will need to plant both an A and B type to get good pollination. My Hass avocado is type A and can be harvested from September to January and my Bacon avocado is type B and can be harvested from June to July. Fruit ripens only once it is harvested and this can take 7-10 days.

Avocados are a naturally nutrient-dense food that is high in fibre and healthy monounsaturated fats as well as being rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. There are many great ways to enjoy eating them so why not give them a try in your garden.