A Cold Start
This morning we had another -4 degree C frost. Under the light of the full moon it was a beautiful sight, reminding me that while it might stop me from growing year round tomatoes, bananas and other fruits which prefer a more tropical clime, that there is an advantage to a crisp sunny winter morning. Gardening has brought me closer to nature because of the sensation of creating a living thing, but the sight of crystalline patterns on vegetable leaves reminds me that nature displays beauty even in non-living things.
After the first frost we spend less time worrying about insect pests on our plants, especially the green caterpillar that is my enemy. Some fruits need a cold winter, like the apricot which needs a cold winter to fruit, and brussel sprouts which love the frost. I’ve also read that frost can help to break up soil through the action of the expanding water as it freezes.
Avoiding the Frost
The best way to protect against frost is to plant in frost free areas, all gardens have microclimates, areas which stay slightly warmer and stay frost free, often these are next to the house, under a tree or a wall that stores heat. Sometimes you might be lucky and a complex set of factors give you an area that gets full winter sun and is less prone to frost. That’s where you plant your vegetables! If you can’t avoid the frost, use a cloche or a bit of frost cloth. Last year we protected some plants using some discarded bubble wrap, draped over some stakes which seemed very effective. Eventually we plan to build a greenhouse, heated in part by the chickens.
Frost Hardy Vegetables
|Plants who survive:||Plants who suffer:|
For me, the simple beauty in a tiny brassica or lettuce seed is that they have wonderful complexity sleeping away in a tight little package. They lie in wait for the right conditions of soil moisture and warmth to unfold themselves into a simple pair of leaves in a few days. Each time I water them, they release a little detail of their full potential, remembered from their parent plant with all the good and bad characteristics that go with it.
We recently received two Chokos (Chayote) from a colleague, one of them has already sprouted inside the fruit, apparently the seed needs the fruit to establish its own ideal conditions. These amazing creatures seem like landing craft for introducing their sprawling vegetation from another planet. Their fertile form screams to me their nature of speedy growth and huge harvest. In return for these wonderful creatures I gave my colleague two of our best heads of garlic from last season, ready to be planted on the solstice so they can spread their successful genes across the country.
Symbiosis Between You and Your Garden
Saving, sharing and growing from seed is a great way to express your humanity as a part of your ecosystem as well as redevelop a connection to nature. Saving seed from your garden is becoming increasingly important, Agribusiness control seed through aggressive purchasing and genetic modification, killing biodiversity to protect their profits. In the US, Burpees, a large seed company, reports that they have doubled their sales in the past year and are out of stock of some species. We are saving seed from a few of our plants this year, the chioggia beetroot, buttercrunch lettuce, silver beet, and our favourite tomatoes. This will ensure we still have access to our favourites as well as improving on the previous generation to create a local heirloom we can pass on to other Wairarapa gardeners.
When to Start
Winter is such a slow time in the garden in Carterton, we have regular frosts which slow the growth down in all but the most stalwart vegetables. The leaves have fallen from all the trees that lose them, and the chickens look annoyed at the weather (although Sausage and Pearl still give us two eggs a day). But looking through our seed packets, the online catalogues and picking the best plants from which to save seed is a form of gardening that can be done inside or through a window, with a warm fire, a pot of tea and a block of chocolate. Imagining and planning the garden and the flavours we’ll taste later in the year, knowing that this year we’ll be planting from our own seed collections.
Contact us if you want to share in our seeds.
I think purple sprouting cauliflower would be a better name for these vegetables, they are not that similar to supermarket broccoli at all. In the twilight, the iridescent purple heads look like something from another planet, I think next year I’ll inter plant them amongst other things to add some colour to the garden and to help control pests. The central head is eaten first, and if you leave some of the florets sticking out the side, they will continue to grow and you should get a second harvest. They have a lovely sweet and delicate taste.
Making Life Hard
The real challenge was the white butterfly that lays its eggs on the leaves of brassicas produces hundreds of green caterpillars that devour the leaves and hide inside the bit you eat. Since we learned about the amount of insect life in a healthy garden, eating the odd bug seems almost enjoyable, but I prefer to keep it down to a minimum. There are a few ways we tried to beat these guys, first I spent ages picking the tiny yellow eggs off the leaves a couple of times a week, I slackened off for a week and came back to some pretty holy leaves. I caved in and hit them with derris dust, which is ground up roots, or rotenone, technically organic but still a bit nasty, this did the trick but I really don’t want to use pesticides if I can avoid it. Once the frosts hit, these pests disappear pretty quickly.
Chickens to the Rescue
I was reading a Jackie French book about companion planting, she mentioned that the white butterfly recognises brassicas by their silhouette and being territorial, will only land if there is no other white butterfly already on the plant. She mentioned placing eggshells under the plants as decoys. I was skeptical at first so I experimented - there is no doubt, the butterfly are scared of the egg shells. Some still land but a much more manageable amount. Inter planting can also help to disguise the brassica so I think I’ll try that next year.
How to grow them
How to eat them
Last year we tore up a part of our ornamental garden, laid down pea straw and compost and created a large vege patch as part of our main garden. We ate well over summer, lettuce and tomatoes every night, as well as silver beet, mizuna, beetroot and pak choi, from this garden and a patch of recovered driveway. Other veges we tried to grow around fruit trees failed and we soon realised that a set of raised beds would be needed to produce enough food to allow us to grow all our veges.
Kiwi Backyards in Waipukurau has 2.7m x 1.2m macrocarpa raised beds which are ideal for our purpose, Macrocarpa is very hardy and doesn’t need to be treated to stop it from rotting away next to soil. The beds are reasonably expensive at almost $200 each, but when I factor in the time I don’t have to make them myself it seems like a pretty good deal, especially when they are delivered to the backyard. We bought three and had one round the side of the house, which we’ll be moving.
Laying them out
We decided to position the beds in a row of four, with enough space to let the wheelbarrow fit between them. The row is along the back fence where the chickens live, the final plan will involve some contraption to fence the chickens into individual beds to give them some variety, fertilise the bed with their nitrogen rich poo and clear out the scraps at the end of a season.
The hardest work is actually here, preparing the ground means paving areas which aren’t already concreted driveway. A couple of years ago a builder gave us a pile of bricks which he had after pulling down an old lime-mortared chimney. The bricks add a bit of red in the garden which we like the look of and make for free paving.
The spot near the back fence also catches full sun in summer and is just far away enough from the house to get plenty of winter sun too. Positioning the beds for sunlight means a better harvest and being closer to the kitchen makes for an easy reminder of what to cook.
Filling them up
A bit of searching on the web and reading some books has taught us that we need to layer our beds with brown and green, or carbon and nitrogen materials. Autumn is a great time to do this at our place as our weeping elm drops loads of leaves for a good first layer of brown. Green can be manure, lucerne hay, or grass clippings. We don’t have any lucerne, but Precious and Buster the miniature horses from round the corner were happy to donate some of their hard work. It’s amazing how much poo a little horse can make.
Brown Materials (Carbon Rich)
Green Materials (Nitrogen Rich)
After placing down the first brown layer of leaves (and raking up some leaves from the parents house round the corner) and sprinkling the horse poo, we mowed the lawn to bulk out the green layer with some grass clippings. Next, a layer of our home made compost, some comfrey and another layer of leaves.
The first two beds are now almost there we’ll need to finish it off with a top layer of good soil, but first we need to wait for Buster and Precious to do their thing before we can empty the trailer of the rest of the leaves and fill up the last two.