What to grow in December (Cool/Temperate Climate)

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I’ve been so busy with my garden at home and at work lately that before I knew it, the first week of December had already passed…so apologies for this late blog on what to grow this month. We’ve had a very high rainfall so far in December (a bit too much in some areas) and combined with the warmer temperatures, your vegetables should be growing right before your eyes.

If you’ve got some space left in your vegetable garden here’s what to grow this month:

You can plant: potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers, capsicum, chillies, eggplant, zucchini, squash, spaghetti squash, pumpkin, corn, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, spring onions, lettuce, leeks, basil and other herbs.

You can sow from seed: kale, silverbeet, lettuce, beans (bush and climbing), beetroot, Asian greens, corn, cabbage, carrots, leek, spring onions, zucchini, squash, spaghetti squash, turnips, swedes, parsnips, smaller pumpkin varieties, cucumbers, perennial spinach, radishes, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi and celery.

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What to grow in October (Cool/Temperate climate)

pumpkin seedlings

The warmer weather is finally here and now that the soil is also warming up you can get busy planting out your vegetable beds with a huge variety of vegetables and herbs.

Early October you can plant/sow:

Silverbeet, Rainbow Chard, Broccoli, Kohlrabi, Cauliflower, Asian greens, Cabbages, Spinach, Leeks, Lettuce, Celery, Endive, Spring onions, Radish, Carrots, Beetroot, Parsnip, Swede, Turnips, Peas, Snow peas, Rocket, Celeriac, Yacon, Potatoes and most herbs.

Late in October you can continue to sow/plant the vegetables listed above, as well as sow/plant into a warm part of the garden:

Tomatoes, Tomatillo, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Corn, Pumpkin, Squash, Bush and Climbing Beans, Chillies and Capsicums.

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

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Spring into the garden

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The weeping cherry blossoms are abuzz with bees

It’s the fourth week of Spring and it’s finally safe to say that winter is now behind us. The bee hive is buzzing, there are flower buds opening everywhere around the garden and the goats are shedding their winter coats.

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The back vegetable garden late September

Even though we’ve had plenty of rain in the last month, the increased temperatures heading into summer will mean the ground can quickly dry out. Now is the time to get your vegetable beds mulched using pea straw, straw, sugarcane mulch or if you can afford it, lucerne hay, which will also feed your vegetables as it breaks down.

september- potatoes

The potatoes which were planted mid August are growing strongly and have been hilled up with soil and then mulched with pea straw.

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I don’t usually mulch the garlic, but the soil in this bed dries out quickly (thanks to our gum trees) so I’ve given them a light cover with pea straw.

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The brassica bed with Tuscan kale, Red Russian kale, broccoli and cauliflowers will hopefully mature before the Cabbage White butterflies emerge and lay their eggs on the leaves, so won’t need netting. 

I love the start of Spring when vegetables nursed through the Winter start to mature. We’ve been feasting on asparagus the last few weeks, both green and purple. If you haven’t grown asparagus before, have a go, the two year wait before harvesting is worth the many productive years that follow of the best tasting, freshest asparagus you’ll ever eat.

September- broadbeans

The broad beans are worth growing just for their flowers delightful scent and the leafy tips of the plants make a wonderful addition to a spring salad.

Broad beans and snow peas are starting to pod too and we’ve eaten the broccoli and cauliflowers with a succession planting maturing soon. There’s plenty of kale, silverbeet, spinach and red chard and the endive is ready to be lightly steamed and mashed with potatoes (it’s a Dutch thing-don’t knock it until you try it!)

oranges

Planted at the top of the driveway in a our best sunny spot, the oranges and grapefruit are thriving and we are juicing and eating citrus galore. Our citrus trees love the spent straw from the goats pen as a mulch.

How to grow potatoes…

chitted potato

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.

potato bed ready to plant

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.

potatoes laid out

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.

potato trench

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 sow in August (Cool-Temperate climate)

August garden

Late winter in my garden…

One more month of winter and relative calm in the garden to finish of some winter projects like my new garden/potting shed, the recycled wash station for my vegetables and yes, I’ve found another spot I can squeeze in and build one more raised vegetable bed. Once the warmer weather of Spring arrives there’ll be no more time for such projects as everything (including the lawn and the weeds) starts growing at a breakneck speed.

potato chitting

I’m chitting my potatoes in egg cartons before planting them out

Late August in Melbourne is a great time to plant your first potato crop of the year (you can plant more potatoes right through to the end of December for successive crops). It’s also time to plant Jerusalem and Globe artichokes, shallots, onion seedlings, asparagus and rhubarb crowns.  You can sow into punnets for planting out in late September the seeds of; broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, silverbeet, rainbow chard, kale, celery, leeks, lettuce, mizuna, mibuna, spinach, bok choy, pak choy, wombok cabbage and any other Asian greens. August is also time to sow directly into the garden the seeds of; delicious sugar snap peas, snow peas, broad beans, turnips and swedes.

growing broadbeans

Broad beans…I love them!

If you have a very warm spot, such as a greenhouse, and are impatient for spring to arrive, you could start sowing into punnets the seeds of tomatoes, capsicum, cucumber, pumpkin and eggplant for planting out mid Spring. They will need to be planted out into your warmest spot in the garden or they’ll just sit there until the soil warms up in late Spring. If you’re in a colder area wait until next month with these seeds.

If you have asparagus growing in your garden, keep a close eye on them…your first asparagus spears for the season should be popping up soon…Enjoy!

August seed sowing

A seedy business

Seeds

To start with a seed…that you plant into the soil and nurture as you watch it grow into a plant…then to harvest from this plant food to feed yourself and your family and friends… then to save some of the seed to start the cycle again the following season…this would have to be one of the most satisfying, rewarding and empowering experiences you can have.

There is so much to write about seeds so in this post I’m concentrating on highlighting some of the different types of seed you may come across and what some of the terminology on your purchased seed packet means. I’ll follow on from this with a post at a future date which will cover: how to sow seeds successfully and another on how to save your own seed.

Seeds can be classified into Open-pollinated, Heirloom, Hybrid and Genetically Modified.

Open-pollinated seeds are from plants in which pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms. This means that if you want to save your own seed, these seeds will be true to type (produce very similar characteristics as their parent plants), as long as they are not crossed with other similar varieties of the same species. They also produce exceptionally tasty crops that have a staggered maturing time (great for successive harvest in a home vegetable garden). The only down side is that some varieties produce less bountiful crops. However if you save your seed from your strongest plants from each crop, over time you’ll start to get seed that is adapted to your local soil and climate and produce better plants each season.

Heirloom seeds are all open-pollinated but are also seeds that have a history of being passed down within a family or by a community.

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A bright selection of heirloom tomatoes bursting with flavour.

Hybrid seeds are seed that have resulted from cross-pollinating plants. This can happen naturally in nature, but has been taken to the next level in modern agriculture where plants with specific desirable characteristics are cross-pollinated over many generations to produce highly inbred new hybrids. These hybrid seeds are specifically favoured in modern agriculture, mainly for their high and often earlier yield times, disease resistance and general uniformity in harvesting times. The down side is you can’t save seeds from hybrids as the seeds you save will generally not breed true and revert to the parents’ traits. The popularity of hybrids has also meant the loss of many heirloom varieties and a loss in the diversity of food crops for future generations.

Genetically Modified seeds are produced in laboratories by combining the genes from one species with that of another (think chicken genes in wheat and rat genes in soybeans!) to produce seed with herbicide resistance or other desirable traits. These genetically modified seeds would never naturally occur in nature and the health and environmental impacts these seeds pose are enormous. Most GM crops also contain terminator genes which means seeds are sterile and farmers are required to purchase new seed each year from the companies that own the patent rights for them. Luckily GM seeds are not (yet) available to home food growers but their use in major agricultural crops such as wheat, corn, canola, cotton and soybeans and the inconsistency in labelling on food products means we may all have consumed GMO’s at some time without realising it.

Treated seed has to be labelled as such on the packet you buy it in and is usually covered in a bright pink or blue fungicide or pesticide dust or coating. These coatings are restricted to those seeds which are particularly susceptible to attack by soil borne fungus or insect damage in the pre-germination stage. Vegetables that often have treated seeds include corn, beans, peas, pumpkins, squash and cucumbers. Some seeds are treated with neonicotinoids, a group of chemicals which can be absorbed by the whole plant and are potentially carcinogenic and can make the pollen from the plant toxic to bees who forage on the flowers. When the seed packet warns ‘not to eat the seed or feed to animals’, would you even want to plant them in your garden and eat the vegetables grown from them?

corn seed treated with fungicide

Treated corn seeds

Certified Organic seed is produced using organic farming practices and standards allowable by an organic certifying regulator. These seeds are always non GM and untreated. They are the best seeds to buy to ensure you minimise your exposure to harmful chemicals while also supporting farming practises which minimise harm to our natural environment.

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!

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.

yacon plants

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.

yacon rhizomes and tubers

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.

yacon ready to harvest

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.

yacon uncovering roots

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.

yacon rhizomes

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

broccoli

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).

Romanesco broccoli

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!