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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What to sow in September (Cool-Temperate Climate)

Spring seedlings

Nothing signals the arrival of spring more than blossoming fruit trees, a greenhouse bursting with vegetable seedlings waiting to be planted out and the birth of baby animals. However with a very cold winter behind us, don’t be too quick to plant out all your spring vegetable beds in the first week of spring, as we may have more cold weather to come. Staggering the sowing and planting of your crops throughout the growing season will also give you a more gradual harvest and helps to prevent getting caught with a glut of vegetables.

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Our new Spring chickens are still a bit camera shy!

It’s still too cold outside too for our new additions to the hen house and they are keeping warm inside the shed until the temperatures outside become a bit more pleasant and their feathers have fully grown.

There are lots of sowing calendars available online for different climate zones, but really the best way to learn what to sow in your own garden is to take the advice given and then experiment a bit with your garden’s own particular micro-climate. In my garden I might plant a particular vegetable in a different month of the season depending on whether it’s going into my front or backyard vegetable beds or in the greenhouse, as they all have very different micro-climates.

Spring

Parsnips and Red Chard

My work garden is a certified organic vegetable garden (with NASAA) so I’m required to keep notes on what I’ve sown, when I’ve sown it, how much I’ve sown and what garden bed it went into. For my own information I also add notes on how well things grew or if there was any unseasonal weather or pest/disease problems. It sounds like a lot of work but really it doesn’t take that much time at all to record it on a chart and it has become a valuable tool to look back on when planning what to sow the following year. You can do something similar for your home vegetable garden and over time this will allow you to see what does and doesn’t work and you’ll create your own sowing calendar. Remember too that each year is a bit different, weather and pest wise, so don’t be disheartened if something doesn’t grow well, take notes, learn and try again the following year.

Seedlings ready to plant

Here’s what seeds you may want to sow into punnets in September for planting out later in Spring:

Kohlrabi, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Asian Greens, Spinach, Silverbeet, Rainbow Chard, Leeks, Lettuce, Tomatoes, Tomatillos, Eggplant, Capsicum, Chillies, Cucumber, Zucchini, Pumpkin, Squash, Celery, Endive, Spring Onions.

You can also sow directly into your vegetable beds the seeds of:

Radish, Carrot, Beetroot, Parsnip, Swedes, Turnips, Spring Onions, Peas, Snow peas, Rocket and Endive

You can plant out seedlings of:

Kohlrabi, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Asian Greens, Spring Onions, Spinach, Silverbeet, Rainbow Chard, Leeks, Lettuce, Celeriac, Globe and Jerusalem Artichokes and Rhubarb.

September is also the time to plant more seed potatoes as well as most herbs.

Note: This advice is based on my experience in growing vegetables in Melbourne’s Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges areas.

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.

What to plant in June (Cool-Temperate climate)

 

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My greenhouse increases the variety of crops that I can grow over winter…and is a great place to potter on a cold, wet winter’s day.

June, being the start of winter and cooler weather, marks the start of a quieter time in the vegetable garden. There are some crops though that need to be planted now; it’s time to sow onion seed (brown, red, white and spring onions), sow a succession crop of english spinach, broad beans, snow peas and broccoli (in punnets). It’s also time to divide or plant asparagus crowns which are now dormant, as well as rhubarb, artichokes (Jerusalem and globe), shallots and chives.

If you are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse with vegetable beds to extend your growing season, then you can still plant out any of the seedlings from the May planting list into these beds. Lettuce, rocket and other salad greens as well as herbs such as dill, chervil, parsley and coriander will all thrive and give a regular harvest over winter in this protected environment.

 

 

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.