The summer garden
Most of the vegetable garden should be in place now, Sarah O'Neil says, and well on the way to a great harvest.
However, it’s not too late — good-sized tomato and pepper seedlings from the garden centre will still see a harvest in the New Year. Sowing and growing is all about succession planting — planting little and often to extend the harvest period and avoid the glut.
If you’ve been giving your garden some attention through spring it may reward you with lovely jersey benne potatoes and fresh peas just in time for Christmas. The chores in the summer garden aren’t so bad — the weed growth slows down in the heat and watering the garden can become a cool, refreshing moment at the end of a hot day.
Some crops benefit from frequent planting so you can have the freshest produce at the peak of perfection all season, especially things such as beetroot and carrots, which are gone once picked. For others it is more important to keep planting fresh despite being a crop from which you can continually harvest. Under the heat of the summer sun, many salad crops can become bitter and many of the stir-fry greens bolt to seed.
These are a landmark plant in the garden. They start off so small but are soon towering above everything else. They are there for a long time as sweetcorn can take up to 14 weeks before being ready to harvest. New seeds can still be planted through December and it is best to plant them in a grid pattern rather than a row as it will help with getting full plump corncobs at the end.
Sweetcorn is a hungry plant as it grows very tall in a few short months. So a richly prepared soil with plenty of organic matter to help retain the moisture is a must. The seeds prefer to be sown directly into the soil so their roots get the best chance to form an anchor for such an unwieldy plant.
Due to the way the ears of corn develop, through wind pollination dropping the pollen from the tassels above to the silks below, it is best to plant corn in a block. Each grid should have plants no closer than 20cm apart in rows 50cm apart. This will ensure full fat cobs. Sowing a new block every couple of weeks all summer will mean delicious sweetcorn can be served throughout the season and well into the autumn.
You generally only get one corn cob per plant, maybe two if you are lucky, and after such a big plant has taken so long to produce anything edible, you wonder why you have bothered — until you taste them. Fresh corn, straight off the plant is so sweet and wonderful. There is always a place for them in my garden.
I love to freeze much of my sweetcorn harvest as it brings such a ray of sunshine to a bleak winter day. However nothing beats a sweet juicy cob of freshly harvested corn, cooked on the barbecue in the lingering heat of a long summer day.
Enjoy the first of the sweetcorn boiled or barbecued in the husk with a Mexican butter made with a combination of butter, lime juice and zest, ground cumin, coriander, turmeric and chilli, salt and pepper, creme fraiche and feta. See Warren Elwin’s recipe for the corn with Mexcan butter.
Coriander is a notorious plant for bolting to seed at the slightest inconvenience. But it’s such a welcome addition to many dishes that it’s worth persevering.
It’s only expected to last for one season before setting seed, however stress and the heat of summer can bring about its demise prematurely. To ensure a constant supply of leaves that are luscious in flavour and size, pop in some new seeds every couple of weeks.
Ensure the soil is rich with organic matter and in the height of summer a shady spot can help slow the plant down. Make sure it is well watered throughout the growing season and a good mulch will help to keep the plant cool. When it does go to seed, all is not lost as the flowers and seeds can also be used in the kitchen.
Make a coriander pesto by whizzing together 3 cups coriander leaves and stalks, ½ cup pine nuts, ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, 2 cloves crushed garlic, ½ cup parmesan and some salt, pepper and chilli powder to taste.
Summer isn’t summer without berries lavishly releasing their juice into the whipped cream on top of a crisp yet gooey pavlova. We are quite spoilt for choice as these wonderful fruit can grow easily in most backyards and containers and are a more permanent addition to the garden.
The key to knowing when to harvest is in the colours. They should be deep reds for the strawberries, raspberries and redcurrants and deep purples for the blueberries, boysenberries and blackcurrants. They should also smell incredible and, aside from the strawberries, release easily from the plant. Most berries are quite fragile, so treat them gently.
The other way to tell whether they are ready is that birds begin to show an interest, so it’s a good idea to use a fine net to keep the fruit safe.
If you want to keep some berries for later, freeze on a baking sheet so they are free flow then pop into a labelled freezer bag, make some jam, or even better put them in a large jar with a sprinkling of sugar and topped up with vodka and leave for 3 months. Another new favourite of ours is marinating strawberries in a chocolate mint syrup.
See our summer berries recipe collection for more ideas.
The old wives’ tale has us planting our onion and garlic on the shortest day and harvesting them on the longest. Having said that, the longest day is only a few days before Christmas and so we can be forgiven for harvesting a little early or a tad late. Although too early will mean tiny bulbs and too late will mean they don’t store well.
The best time to dig up garlic is when a third of the leaves are brown and drying out. Once harvested, store in a dry, well-ventilated place. Protect from the sun as this can deteriorate the flavour and reduce the quality. Fresh garlic straight from the garden has an amazing flavour that you just don’t find in stored garlic and is such a treat.
Menu-planning and grocery shopping in the backyard is what makes growing your own food a real treat for Sarah O’Neill — and the choice on offer in summer makes it all worthwhile.
There is nothing like an overabundance of courgettes to let you know summer is here. Under the warmth of the sun these things appear on mass as if by magic. With the glut of the previous season a distant memory, it is very easy to get carried away on a spring day with the seed packet in hand and think “what the heck” and sow a couple more.
The recommended number of plants for a family of four is probably about four. If the kids don’t like them then even this is too many. I have found hiding them in a chocolate courgette bread is a great way to use up a load of them in one go and the kids don’t know they are in there.
The key to these prolific vegetables is to harvest often — every day. They can go from fingerling sized courgettes, to store-sized zucchini, to giant marrows almost overnight. And have a good look, because they love to hide. You can slow the production by eating the flowers, stuffed with soft cheese and then fried up.
We don’t like beans that much, but a garden without beans somehow seems incomplete, so every year I sow more. To ensure the crop doesn’t go to waste I have begun to experiment in the kitchen and found pleasures in pickled beans and nicoise salad. However it was a search through the pantry revealing a large supply of canned beans that changed everything and now I grow beans for their seeds, not for their pods and we get to enjoy home-grown chilli con carne and heart-warming winter cassoulets.
I let them my beans dry on the plant until the pods are brown and crisp enough for storage in a cool, dark, dry place. If they aren't dry enough when they go into storage they can go mouldy. Spreading them out on a baking tray in the sun for a day or two can help dry them out. I use haricot, pink beans, pinot and kidney beans for drying.
It is not advisable to eat kidney beans raw. To use your dried beans ensure they are soaked overnight or at least 8 hours to remove the hard to digest components that could result in tummy aches and flatulence. Soaking also reduces the cooking time and helps retain the nutrients in the beans that would be lost in longer cooking. I am a bit disorganised so I soak my dried beans overnight and put them in the freezer so they are ready to use on a whim.
Beans can be sown right through summer although the seeds don’t like to be overwatered and can rot away. Just ensure the soil stays damp. You should begin to see a harvest in eight short weeks.
I have yet to master the art of making cucumbers last all summer. It all comes down to greed, spacing and timing. I have limited space in my garden so I grow cucumbers up a trellis. But even then my eyes are bigger than my garden and I fill the length of the trellis with small seedlings that promise a bountiful harvest and then it comes — too bountiful.
I end up with more than I can eat and there is only so much bread and butter pickle you can make. Then powdery mildew strikes and my supply of cucumbers is abruptly cut off. But not this year. I have left space along the trellis and have planned two extra plantings — one in early December and another in January — so I will have a manageable amount of crunch in my salads to last the entire season.
Sarah O’Neil, hubby the Un-Gardener and their two boys have planted a large garden as part of their journey to discover “the good life”. Visit sarahthegardener.co.nz for more.