A tale of two vege gardens
Jenny Maidment makes winter in her Auckland garden every bit as rewarding as any other season
Our sparkling 2016 autumn idyll has finally been ousted by falling temperatures and wet, leaf littered days, and our oh-so productive gardens are suddenly looking sad, bug-eaten and cold nipped.
So, what to plant in the vegetable garden that will not only survive, but laugh at the wintry days to come? Northern districts gardeners have to be especially determined as our winters generally don't get arctic enough to completely kill off the battalions of bugs and fungi bent on consuming our food before we do. But every locale has its advantages and challenges; the range of growable veg, salad greens and herbs expands the higher temperatures remain over winter, but carrots, swedes, turnips and parsnips never taste sweeter than when grown in some of our coldest regions.
Wherever you live and garden, it’s very possible (and fun) to beat the odds with a bit of imagination — combined in my case with absorbing hours spent on Google when it’s dark or pouring down outside, discovering just how many gardeners of genius there are on the planet.
Want to build a plastic bubble-wrapped teepee, dome or tunnel to protect tender lettuces when frost threatens? See just how many and how beautifully mixtures of food plants can be grown in a single generous pot or raised garden? Need a recipe or neat trick for discouraging slugs and snails? Just check into the world’s biggest library.
That old chestnut
When choosing what to grow there are the old chestnuts. Yes, we all have an automatic “not again” response to silverbeet in our culinary DNA, but it’s indispensable, dead easy to grow, a mine of nutrients and can be harvested over a very long season. Mixing it with other greens, thinly sliced peeled braeburn or granny smith apple or a few condiments or spices when cooking helps to reduce the boredom factor, and steaming or LIGHTLY boiling in minimal water before a second cooking in a stir fry, a veg pie or a soup reduces the “metallic” factor. Ford Hook is the standard variety but there are others, like the dwarf and beautiful rainbow strains.
Some of us are brave and persistent enough to beat off all comers in the way of insects and fungi to grow members of that big family called the brassicas. Among them are cauliflower, broccoli, sprouting broccoli, cabbage, kale, cavolo nero, brussels sprouts and others, all identifiable as cruciferous by their simple, cross-shaped flowers.
Other vegetable heavy hitters to plant now are beetroot, broad beans, carrots, celery, onions, shallots, parsnips, peas, spinach, swedes and turnips. Be guided when planning and planting by notes on seed packets and seedling punnet tags.
Among what I call “salad veg” for planting now are lettuce — apart from very tender cold sensitive varieties — like oakleaf, mizuna, endive (invaluable), florence fennel, radish, rocket (especially the peppery “wild variety” for salads, stirring into steamed or boiled root vegetables or dropping generously on to a molten hot pizza) and snow peas.
Don’t forget microgreens, which can be grown in a well-drained box or seed tray indoors or a sheltered warm corner outside. There’s an entire universe of them out there. How could you resist a selection of bull’s blood beetroot, cress moss curled, amaranthas mekongor garnet red, or red russian kale? And just about any food plant seed will yield edible microgreens, so dredge through your leftover seed packets from spring and sow in single varieties or interesting mixes.
Hot, spicy, mild, nutty, super nourishing, colourful, pretty — the criterion for choosing is entirely up to you, or you can buy seed mixes off the shelf. The trick is to provide good ventilation, plant sparingly and often, and, if you don’t shave them to soil level and keep a few leaves intact on each stem, you’ll get repeat crops. Also in the leftovers and veg recycling department, I keep 2cm ends of spring onions, trim the roots lightly and replant them outside in Auckland, year round. They re-sprout almost overnight and voila, more spring onions!
Some plants will reward you by growing year round and withstanding regular harvesting until they finally fade out. In my own garden these include a radicchio with green cos-shaped leaves, wild rocket, and curly endive. Silverbeet withstands the same treatment and sprouting broccoli can be harvested progressively. One that stars year-round in my garden is the dark green peppery version of rocket mentioned above. I trim it carefully with the hedge clippers every month or two and weed out the ones allowed to seed when they become too numerous.
Winter is a good time to replant a number of herbs. Chives, garlic chives, oregano, coriander, parsley, rosemary, sage, mint and thyme should be readily available in garden centres, and can be grown in containers if necessary and moved into open soil as spring advances.
Successful gardeners are never discouraged by the odd failure because they know there is just too much fun to be had messing round with plants. An experimental gardening flop costs next to nothing, there’s always a new plant (or mixture) to discover and grow, and endless ways to get around the challenges.
Down Queenstown way, the snow and frost mean Will Eaglesfield doesn’t get out quite so much
It can be hard to get excited about gardening in Winter. When I open the curtains in the morning to see snow on the mountains and frost on the ground it looks very pretty, but I am in no way tempted to go out into it and start digging.
However winter does have its warmer days and that’s all it takes to keep a vege patch slowly ticking along. With a little planning, as winter hits you can already have a range of well-established hardy plants that will keep chugging along through the coldest months producing tasty treats for you.
Even with no planning whatsoever, your garden or patio can still be productive. I, for example, put no work into my vege patch over Autumn, and am surveying a sorry expanse of dead courgette plants and thinking “bugger!” But it’s not too late. A trip to your local garden centre will reveal a variety of seedlings that can still be planted even at this late stage of the year. I have a few winter favourites that I grow every year, and there is always new ones to try out. Here are some of my tried and tested winter wonders:
As the name suggests, this plant keeps giving and giving. Technically a variety of chard, you can pick the outer leaves as they get large enough and then do the same again a week or two later. In the kitchen, treat it just like regular spinach; it’s also a great winter alternative to lettuce for salads and sandwiches. Any bolting heads should be snapped off to keep the plants productive, and these are my hens’ favourite wintertime treat. Unfortunately, the rest of the plant is my neighbour’s hen’s favourite treat – their bird is an escape artist to rival Houdini and is usually to be found in my garden chatting to my girls and helping herself to some juicy leaves. I’m starting to scream stuffing recipes at her as I chase her away, and soon I may make good on my threats.
The flamboyant sister of silverbeet. Another cut-and-come-again plant, I’ve been harvesting my little row of them since early summer and they’re still going strong! Laughing in the face of frost, they’ll keep going until spring, providing a splash of colour both in the garden and on my plate. Great when sauteed slowly in either butter or cream; either way add some garlic and finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Purple sprouting broccoli
My all-time favourite vegetable to grow, even though they take up heaps of space for absolutely ages, much to my wife’s distress. In theory there are two varieties, one of which you sow in Spring and harvest in Summer, and the other you sow in late Summer and harvest the following Spring.
In my experience, at any time of year both varieties quickly grow into impressive-sized plants which then sit there stubbornly until Autumn, at which point they do nothing. My wife usually suggests we tear them out and plant something useful. I tell her to wait and see, and sure enough all through Winter, nothing happens. They just stand there, impervious to both snow and frost. Eventually Spring starts to rear its head, the ground thaws, and it’s time to consider planting for the Summer. The broccoli stands unflinching. My wife trys to murder them when I’m not looking and I have to pry the seccateurs out of her fingers and lead her away to a cup of tea.
Suddenly BOOM! A month before any other vegetable has realised it’s time to wake up, slender purple-topped stems of broccoli shoot out like fireworks! I eat broccoli almost every day for a month, so do my neighbours, my friends, and anyone eating specials at my restaurants.
Once steamed until tender it’s delicious whatever you do to it, I like it with preserved lemon or quickly charred on a griddle with romesco sauce. Two plants I haven’t put in yet but still plan to are kale and rocket. Rocket I have grown over Winter before with success – it’s been frosted and even buried in snow for three days and still kept going. It just grows way, way more slowly than during Summer. In the past I’ve planted kale in Autumn so it’s already well established by Winter.
This year I was too distracted by the bumper mushroom crop in the local woods, so I’ll start it late and hope it grows slowly and steadily like the others.
Those of you who are more organised than me will already have kale to hand, as well as your pumpkin crop stored away somewhere cool and dark, in which case I have a great wintery recipe for you: pumpkin bruschetta with feta and kale crisps, which we are currently serving at No5 Church Lane. The rest of us will still be able to harvest everything we need from the supermarket, we’ll just be missing out on that extra home-grown flavour.
British-born, Queenstown based, Will Eaglesfield is executive chef of No5 Church Lane and Eichardt’s. Out of the kitchen you will find him foraging for bounty for his impressive range of preserves or pottering in the garden with his chooks.