The autumn garden
Mixed summer weather brings failures and successes to Ray McVinnie and Jenny Maidment's garden
For gardeners who like to grow their own produce it’s been a mixed summer. Complaints about tomatoes failing to ripen, beans yielding poor crops, or spinach producing for no more than a few short weeks have been frequent, with different localities often producing unpredictable results.
But it has been a spectacularly good season for the tropical and heat-seeking end of things. Shell ginger (alpinia zinzibar) has flowered for the first time in my own garden after several years, lemongrass has grown waist-high, and Auckland has been saturated in places with the perfume of frangipani and gardenia.
In Auckland Domain’s glasshouses, cocoa and jackfruit trees produced crops this year, and my 2017 basil crop, grown, parsimoniously, from the residue of a supermarket herb pot, is still flourishing and has the resinous intensity always craved but rarely delivered. Berry crops have generally been on the light side, but the very high quality of New Zealand’s justly famed pip and stone fruit testifies to ideal growing conditions. So the summer season has been far from a total washout.
As I write, and after a week of monsoon-like rains, the sun is out again and I hope we may be at the beginning of a long Indian summer. So there is still time to be planting quick-maturing crops such as lettuce and dwarf beans but, as always, with the proviso that winter could arrive at any time.
If you are the cautious sort you’ll be preparing to plant the brassicas, broccoli, cauli, kale, cabbage et al, along with other hardy crops such as leeks, carrots, spinach and silverbeet. And as for those greenish/pinkish/reddish tomatoes still on the vine, well I’d be harvesting them for a big shared weekend breakfast, melting them down for freezing to go into winter soups and stews, or preparing them for the chutney pot.
And while we’re on tomatoes, they ripen depending on the length of hours of darkness, not sunlight. So ripening them on a warm window sill is not nearly as effective as placing them in a paper bag in a dark cupboard. Current research also suggests tomatoes and cold don’t mix well, so refrigeration produces a longer lasting but disappointingly bland fruit, which can’t be brought back to deliciousness by defrigeration.
Surplus or overgrown zucchini also make good bulking material for preserves at the end of summer, or you can squander the last of the crop on autumn salads by slicing them very thinly, blanching in boiling water, draining and flavouring with fresh herbs, good olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice.
Capsicums can be roasted and peeled easily once the skins have blackened, then sliced and put in jars with garlic and basil “sott’ olio”, under oil, but again make it a good one so you can use it to dress salads or drizzle over a pizza before cooking.
It’s time also to review the herb plot, and to replace anything exhausted or overrun by fungal or insect life. For me mint, thyme, marjoram and oregano are all on their last legs, so I’ll replace them while the soil is still warm enough to establish strong root systems.
Planting parsley now will pay good dividends when there is often a shortage of greens for the pot over winter. Basil is best preserved by making pesto, and large quantities of parsley can be usefully wrangled into easily usable form by chopping it finely in a food processor, adding water to form a slurry and freezing it in ice cube trays. A plastic bag full of these in the freezer provides for the months when fresh herbs are in short supply.
As the vege garden has worked hard all season, it’s time to beef it up with good compost and some long-term fertiliser if you are replanting. As always, avoid replanting anything in the same spot; inevitably there will be a build up of pathogens and insects waiting for the next round of nourishment.
- Jenny Maidment
I learnt this way of making a soup from Ursula Ferrigno’s great book, Bringing Italy Home. It is very easy, the only time-consuming part is cutting the vegetables. I always boil kale before using (except when roasting it) so that it becomes tender otherwise it is like eating paper. Get the recipe
These are my version of Italian giardiniera or vinegar pickled vegetables, which are great with barbecued or panfried pork, chicken or beef; with cheese in a sandwich or as part of a salad. They are also good with boiled potatoes and crumbled feta. This makes more than you will need but they will keep for a week in the fridge but bring to room temperature before serving. Get the recipe