Gardening: The cat's out of the bag

By Leigh Bramwell

When I was a kid we travelled frequently between Dunedin and Christchurch and Dad always stopped at a fruit and vege stall just near Oamaru, which was the highlight of the trip.

Not that I was remotely interested in vegetables at the age of 10, but the stall, as well as having the best Kakanui tomatoes and Jersey Benne potatoes, also grew ginger cats. On any given day there could be between 10 and 20 cats lounging around the building, and on one or two occasions we came away with a ginger kitten as well. Bliss.

Now that I'm a grown-up I still love Kakanui tomatoes, Jersey Benne potatoes and ginger cats but, sadly, I only have space to grow large quantities of the first two.

Potatoes are uppermost on the list at the moment because The Partner has involved himself in a roast potato challenge and is determined to take first place. Consequently I have gained several kilos from sampling and assessing far too many splendid spuds cooked in various blends of exotic oils, Lurpak butter and, dare I say it, duck fat.

Now, of course, the race is on to decide which potatoes will be given space in our spring garden.

We grew potatoes last year without much care or interest and while they did quite well we were too busy with other things to truly appreciate them. This year it will be different.

Three sites for potatoes have already been chosen and much scientific research is under way to decide which varieties will be accommodated.

Obviously I am angling for Jersey Benne, not purely because of the cat association but because in my mind there's no question that they make the absolute best new potatoes in the world. Bluff has oysters, Kerikeri has citrus and North Otago has new potatoes. I rest my case.

Growing potatoes is very basic.You can stick them in the garden or plant them in a bag, a pot or, heaven forbid, a stack of old tyres.

They grow from seed potatoes. However, don't be tempted to plant those wizened things sprouting in the bottom of the vegetable drawer. Buy middle-sized models about the size of an egg from the garden centre. I'm sure our parents never did this but evidently you should buy certified potatoes - certification tells you the spud meets quality standards and won't spread diseases to your soil. No, I don't know whether you get an actual certificate. I suspect not.

Put them in a tray or an egg carton with the eyes (buds) facing upward, keep them warm in a light room, and wait until the shoots are about 2cm long before planting them.

Like people, potatoes are hungry. Unlike people, they like rotted organic material so dig plenty into your soil before you plant. They will not thank you for planting them where last year's crop was, or where your tomatoes were last year. Provide deep, rich, free-draining soil, dig trenches about 15cm deep (and maybe 60cm apart if you have more than one row) and space your seed potatoes, with the green shoot facing up, about 30cm apart. Cover them up with a low ridge of soil and wait.

When the shoots push through the soil, cover them up, leaving just a few centimetres of new leaves poking through. Don't feel bad - potatoes like it dark and damp so "earth up" about once a week, and water regularly when it's dry. Try very hard not to dig around down there to see what they're doing. Nothing's going to happen for weeks and it will be close to three months after planting before any will be ready.

If you do everything right, little white flowers will appear. When they die off and the leaves wither you can start harvesting, hopefully in time for Christmas dinner.

How best to cook them? One Kakanui cook says to rub the dirt off under running water, put in a pot, cover with water, add mint, bring to the boil, turn the heat off and leave them on the element until they are tender. Serve with butter and chopped parsley. No duck fat required.

On show

Just to offset the rather prosaic nature of the potato, feast on this. It's Hofmans Garden in Eltham, in Taranaki, and it's just been given Garden of Significance status by the Garden Trust.

It's an expansive country garden with meandering lawn avenues leading to a bridge over a brook, native wetland areas, mature exotic specimens and a variety of colourful rhododendrons. There are also formal aspects to the garden with garden rooms, a wisteria-entwined trellis walkway and contemporary garden art. It will be open for viewing during the 10-day Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular from late October to early November.

New gardens in the 51-garden line-up include Oak Valley and Sentiments Garden, both in New Plymouth, as well as Valentia in Okato on the Taranaki coast. Check out the chamomile lawn at Oak Valley - it releases its fragrance when you walk on it. Sentiments Garden draws its inspiration from an interpretation of a gold-medal winning garden in the 2010 Chelsea Flower Show, with dense groupings of sub-tropical trees, impressive succulents and bold sculptures.

Valentia is a tranquil country garden around a two-storey, century-old villa. Formal in nature, it's full of flowering varietals from roses to rhododendrons.


- Hamilton News

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