Christmas is done and dusted now and many have time off to rest, relax and do a few jobs around home.
The garden is a rewarding place to be and a few hours' work can really smarten up an area. Whether you want to create a private oasis for your own solitude or an area for entertaining friends, the garden centre has loads of ideas and advice to help you.
As we are into the start of our summer period there are a couple of, dare I say it, winter vegetables that should be planted around Christmas - leeks and brussels sprouts.
Leeks traditionally are planted between Christmas and New Year (a bit like the tradition of planting tomatoes at Labour weekend). While planting is definitely not limited to this time, planting during December and early January tends to produce larger more robust plants than those planted later.
Leeks are a hardy vegetable that has very few pests/diseases that affect them. The bigger the leek, the more flavoured it is. Leeks are best planted in free-draining, organically rich soil. Apply generous amounts of lime to the soil, a few weeks before planting if possible.
Plants can be purchased in stores or grown from seeds. Seedlings grown in trays can be transplanted easily, but leave them until they have grown to 20cm high. When transplanting, trim 8cm off the shoots and about 2cm off the roots before planting out. This is usually not necessary on seedlings bought from garden centres, as they are already prepared.
Dropping more than one leek per hole is fine, but the leeks will be smaller. Alternatively, the plants can be thinned as if growing carrots and the thinnings can be added to soups and salads.
To achieve pure white leeks, draw soil (not wet) up around the stems, being careful not to get soil caught between the leaves. Cardboard cylinders (toilet roll tubes) dropped over maturing plants, leaving leaves exposed, achieves the same results. Keep leeks weed free as they hate competing for light and moisture.
Leeks can be safely left in the ground until needed or alternatively dig up the crop and place them in a container filled with soil (cover the stems, leaving the leaves free) and store until needed.
Brussels sprouts are adored by some and detested by others. Brussels are one winter vegetable that needs to go in really early to get good height on the plants before the growth stops in cooler weather. The number of sprouts you get is almost 100 per cent determined by the length of the stem. Planting in January is ideal.
Like its brassica cousins of broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, brussels sprouts will perform best in rich fertile soil. The addition of well-rotted animal manures, mushroom compost or soil conditioners, such as Yates Dynamic Lifter, will do much to enhance the soil structure and fertility and you will have a good chance to harvest a decent crop.
Like leeks, brussels sprouts prefer an alkaline soil so the addition of lime prior to planting is beneficial. The biggest pest to brussels sprouts is the white cabbage butterfly and caterpillar which can be easily treated by the use of derris dust or a spray with Yates Mavrik or Yates Success Ultra.
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A non-spray alternative is to completely enclose the plants with a fine netting where the butterflies cannot reach the plants to lay eggs, thus preventing caterpillars from gaining access to the plants. Companion plants said to deter white cabbage butterfly and keep the caterpillars away from brassicas include oregano, mint, hyssop, thyme and rosemary. Planting sage and dill with your brassicas is said to improve their growth and growing with chamomile is said to improve the flavour.
When planting any of the above, prepare the soil with iCan Real Blood & Bone and then feed monthly with iCan Organic Vegetable Food. If the growth is slow, fertilise once a week with liquid fertiliser such as Ican Fast Food.
If you haven't yet planted many summer vegetables, there is still time. Tomatoes, capsicums, cucumbers, corn and pumpkins are best planted prior to New Year otherwise they may not crop before the cooler autumn weather arrives. Seeds that can be sown direct into the soil now include carrots, corn, butter beans, dwarf beans and radishes. Continue with successive plantings of other vegetables including lettuce varieties, celery, spinach and silverbeet, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.
Cucumber is a warm season vegetable that loves the hot weather. If you haven't got any growing, plant one now - they will grow quickly in the current hot spell. The flavour of these when they are fresh picked from your garden surpasses those that can be bought in the stores.
Plant climbing types spaced 40cm apart and bush and trailing types on the ground about 75cm apart, firm in, then water. Grow them in a sheltered site in fertile rich soil that is well-drained, but moisture retentive. The roots must not be allowed to dry out. Feeding with Tui Tomato Food gives good results. Cucumbers grow very successfully in pots. I grow mine in 35 litre tubs and use Tui Vegetable Mix as the potting medium and supplement with Ican Fast Food liquid fertiliser. In pots they are best staked and tied up regularly. They have no frost tolerance and most are damaged at air temperatures below 10C.
Crown pumpkin is a popular and reliable variety that produces oval grey pumpkins with sweet, dry textured, bright orange flesh. It stores well and is particularly good roasted, for use in stir fry and of course the traditional pumpkin soup. The rambling nature of the plant growth can be excessive for growing in a smaller garden. However, a good method of growing pumpkins for smaller gardens is to trim the stems at the fourth leaf. The plant will still crop well but will not take up so much room.
Butternut is a pumpkin-like vegetable which produces 1kg-2kg of cream coloured pear-shaped fruit and bright orange flesh. Harvest when stems start to shrivel in autumn. It can be used in a wide variety of hot dishes and can be blanched and frozen for later use.
Enjoy the garden and outdoors.
Gareth Carter is general manager of Springvale Garden Centre