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Autumn action in the garden

28 May 2021
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Productivity spreads from ground level to branch tips in this wonderful season. Words Rachel Vogan of Kiwi Gardener

Do you remember when your love of gardening started? Or who it was that sowed the seed that led you up the garden path? I do, it was my Nana Vogan and her brother Edward, my beloved Uncle Teddy. These siblings both had to live off the land, only ever eating what they grew or what was shared by neighbours and family. Being self-sufficient wasn’t a lifestyle choice, it was the only way of life they knew. Hence, ‘grow it, cook it, eat it’ is nothing new, but to so many it is. The message I want to foster and grow is that more people need to do it, especially young people. It’s a fact children are more likely to eat something if they know where it comes from or, better still, if they have grown it. So, if you can, please take time to offer some help, support, guidance and most of all encouragement to anyone you know starting the journey to growing their own food. The rewards will speak for themselves.’

Seeds of mesclun mixes and microgreens can all be sown now. Speedy salad greens, such as rocket, mizuna, mibuna and cress, will all germinate within a week to 10 days and will be ready to harvest within four to six weeks. Keep the seedlings moist to ensure even germination.

Add rows of beetroot, carrots and radish while you are at it. If you find seeds fiddly try using seed tapes, these are impregnated with seeds at the correct spacing distance and are easy to handle and manage.

Broad bean seed can be sown directly into the ground, but make sure there is protection from wind and the area gets plenty of sun. A good crop for large tubs and barrels, too.

Sow new rows of peas – sugar snaps and snow peas are quick and easy to grow.


Seedlings of spinach, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage can all be planted now. To give them a head start while the roots get established, plant them under a cloche or portable fleece tunnel house, or prop up a couple of old windows to create an ad hoc shelter.

Broad beans seedlings can go in, too. Try planting the red-flowering varieties for something a little different.
More punnets of spring onions can go in, too, as fresh onions are always welcome in winter, and remember they are perfect for tubs and planters as they don’t take up a lot of root room.

Pick the last tomatoes, peppers, chillies and eggplants that are still hanging on. Once the plants begin to wilt and wither they are done for the season. To encourage a bit more heat in your chilli crop, reduce the watering by half. They won’t get any bigger in size, but they will pack more of a punch in terms of heat and flavour.

Rhubarb will be looking to hunker down under the ground, so pick the last stems before they wilt away. Harvest yams once the tops die down and a few frosts have sweetened the deal. Store as you would potatoes, in a cool, dark place. Cauliflower hearts can burn in the sun, so fold over the outer leaves to protect the heads from bleaching and bolting. Thin parsnips if you haven’t already done so, the roots start to fatten up quickly over the next few months. Swedes will need a bit of extra water if the temperatures are still hot. Harvest scallopini and courgettes as soon as they get to size, both store well in the fridge.

Dig up any potatoes still in the ground, especially in areas where the soil can become soggy over winter. Mature potatoes that sit in moist soil will re-sprout and become inedible.

Jerusalem artichokes are fat and ready to harvest, this knobbly knuckle-like crop is both sweet and yummy, but be aware they can pack a punch on your digestive system, producing a little extra gas, so you may prefer to restrict how much you eat in one sitting, or dine alone!

Save seeds of any beans and peas that may still be on the vine – this is a great project for kids.

For those with asparagus beds, now is the time to cut back the fronds to just above ground level. If you are wanting to divide your clumps, this can be done any time over the next two months. Dormant crowns are available in the shops in winter; prepare new beds by blending in plenty of well-rotted animal manure now.

Beetroot signals it is ready for the plate once it starts to push itself out of the ground. The tapered, long varieties can easily sit 10cm out of the ground. Don’t leave them like this too long as the roots start to become woody.

If what you thought were spring onions start to look rather large, it could mean they are actually onions. When seedlings are young it is easy to confuse them as they look very similar. If left alone now, these clumps of onions will bulk up by another 50 per cent or so. It is too late to try and split them now, they won’t transplant well once at this size.

Pumpkins need plenty of water over the next six to eight weeks to fatten up the maturing crop. Deep watering twice a week is better than a little every day. The skin on pumpkins and gourds will be tightening up to protect the flesh over months to come; leaving them outdoors to soak up a few frosts will help sweeten the flesh. Remember always to leave the stalk or handle on pumpkins when harvesting.

Kamo kamo are putting on rampant growth. Keep picking these as more flowers will keep forming and, in mild areas, harvest may continue through until mid-May. Kumara is ready to harvest in some areas, lift carefully with a fork.

With winter brews and stews on the menu, it’s time to freshen up the herb patch. New batches of coriander and parsley can be planted now – don’t be put off by their delicate appearance, these are both hardy herbs. Give thyme, rosemary and sage a haircut to stimulate some fresh growth and, while you are at it, apply a side-dressing of general fertiliser or drench them with Seasol.

A number are dropping to the ground, indicating their maturity. Look out for walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and chestnuts growing in parks and on vacant land. Fat now and just falling to the ground, chestnuts are just delicious, but you do need to be careful when harvesting the nuts from the prickly husks. (The spines are lethal – leather gloves are recommended. All nuts are best stored in a dry place.) Once the leaves drop the trees can be pruned to shape.

Loads of summer berries are easy to propagate now. Some, like boysenberries, tayberries and blackberries, root easily from stem cuttings taken now. Strawberry runners can be cut off from the parent and transplanted into new areas or replanted where they are – the key thing is to separate the baby plant from the parent. Raspberry suckers can be lifted and divided now, too. Cut down the tops when transplanting and keep the water up to them over the next few months. Little new shoots should appear before winter if this job is done soon. Gooseberries and currants strike well from cuttings taken in late autumn or when the leaves fall. Insert these into the soil or pots where you can keep an eye on them. In spring, once the new leaves appear, roots should
have formed.

The sweet ruby berries of the Chilean guava – or New Zealand cranberry – are ready to pick and eat. These can be used in exactly the same way as the American cranberry. Bake in pies, muffins or cakes; juice them, and, of course, preserve them. Being a hardy evergreen shrub, they are a good choice for an edible hedge.
Another highly aromatic and hardy evergreen fruit is the feijoa. Like the New Zealand cranberry, it can be grown in orchards or planted as an ornamental in garden borders, coping well with trimming. When picking feijoas leave them to fully ripen on the tree, waiting for them to fall on the ground is the easiest way to harvest them.
Pears and apples are pretty much done now. Leave any extras on the trees, not only will they look pretty, but the waxeyes will love them once winter arrives. To store them, place in single layers in trays or boxes and keep somewhere cool in a dark place. Check the fruit often for blemishes, as once one begins to rot it will infect the whole lot quickly. In young trees, while the stems are still flexible, they can be trained along wires or frames to make shapes. Doing this now, before the wood stiffens, makes the job easier.
Crab apples not only look a picture but make the best jam and jelly. Any left on the trees will feed the birds in winter.

Spend some time on your lemons and limes before it gets too cold. In warmer regions, apply citrus fertiliser, but hold off doing this down south until late spring. A layer of well-rotted animal manure will give plants a boost, too. Prune back any dead or twiggy growth and add a thick layer of mulch around the base of the plants – this will protect the root zone. With freshly planted citrus, be ruthless and remove any small fruit that may be on the plant, this will enable the plant to focus all its energy on getting established in the soil, rather than trying to support fruit and flowers. This only needs to be done for small trees, some citrus can almost fruit themselves into stunted/dwarf habits by over-producing.

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