Here’s a quick guide to getting the most out of your garden over summer.
Every year, just as our gardens are coming into their prime, cities empty out as many people shift to the coast for their holidays. From the tail of Maui’s fish to the prow of his canoe, tomato plants laden with fruit bend with their unplundered bounty. Pots quickly stuffed with potted colour to impress relatives in the week before Christmas finally look splendid just as the party moves to another town. And beans that were ready to pick have just enough time to get leathery and stringy before your return.
So, how can you benefit from your season of hard work? Here’s a quick guide to getting the most from your garden, and tips on how it can be taken care of without engaging a housesitter.
Picking and packing
Wherever you are off to, your first job is to prepare for a feast by stripping the plants of their crop. Homegrown produce is best eaten straight from the garden, so fill a chilly-bin with everything ripe enough to eat. That will provide a good source of food, as well as fooling plants into thinking they have not yet bred. And removing the crop before you go is your best chance of finding a fresh supply on your return.
Once green tomatoes have a blush of pink, they can be picked and allowed to ripen while you’re away. The same goes for lettuce that’s poised to bolt. Dig it up, wrap wet paper around the roots, then pop it into a plastic bag to store in the fridge. That way it will keep fresh.
Pick flowers, as this encourages a second round. The question then is what to do with all these blooms when your neighbours and loved ones are out of town as well. What about taking a bunch to a local rest home? Fresh flowers are always appreciated.
Remember to take a bag of hard herbs. No barbecue has flair without rosemary and thyme. Even as they dry, these fresh herbs have more spunk than dried ones from the supermarket.
Pick a bag of lemons off your tree. Whether you like a stiff gin, mild punch or a non-alcoholic refresher, they all taste better with lemon. (And when your aunt has had one too many, put a good squeeze of lemon into her glass and she won’t notice you’ve left the gin out. It’s worth a try.)
Although it’s hard to think much past the lazy days ahead, it pays to remember life will return to normal, and you could find yourself wishing you’d tossed in some seedlings and left them to get established while you were away. Now’s your chance. Make sure you have a watering system in place, and put lots of pea straw around your seedlings to give them the best chance in your absence. Don’t confine your TLC to the vegetable garden. Bare soil is unlikely to stay that way, so mulch or plant empty areas. If it’s a garden waiting to happen, sow wildflowers. Better to have the weeds you want.
If you have soft plants such as a vegetable seedlings, herbaceous perennials, groundcovers and ferns, you need a watering system. If you’re hesitating over the cost of a timer, just remember all those receipts from a year of trips to the garden centre. As well as installing irrigation, try making rain catchers out of old plastic bottles and filling them up before you go. Use one- or two-litre bottles and cut out the bottom. Drill a hole in the lid, upend and the water will slowly seep into the soil over time. Surprisingly effective, this system can be useful for young and establishing fruit trees, but it is also good for tomato plants and the like if you are away for just a few days. With a top-up system like this, your friendly garden waterer won’t need to visit quite so often.
Decide whether you are going to protect or serve. The birds will be grateful to feed on your strawberry patch and other ripening fruit while you and your moggy are away, but you may not feel such generosity of spirit. If you want to come home to at least the remnants of a promising crop, place netting over susceptible plants. It is no guarantee, of course, as birds are quickminded, and the longer you are gone, the more likely they are to find a way in.
Stake all plants prone to being wind-damaged, because every summer comes with a tropical storm of sorts, especially if you’re in the northern parts of the country. When staking vegetables or perennials, remember stakes formed into pyramids are always stronger than single stakes, and you can’t beat old pantyhose for tying up plants. For husbands reading this, ask first.
Weed, Mulch, and Trim the Hedge
After a bellyful of food, and with a holiday in sight, the last thing we feel like doing is a day’s work in the garden before packing our bags. However, there is nothing more dispiriting than arriving home to a wreck of a garden. For security reasons, too, it’s best to leave your home looking tended rather than abandoned.
The garden tour
New Zealand is home to some real garden treasures and they are often in the most obscure places. Check out www.gardens.org.nz, a site that gives you an indication of the quality of the gardens on the map. Gardens of national or international significance have been so-labelled because of their interest as plant collections, their excellence of design and management or their historical value, so along with the registered gardens they are well worth visiting. It’s an ideal opportunity to steal or borrow ideas, too.
The Garden is a Holiday
There are those whose idea of bliss is to drift through the summer at home in the garden, enjoying the peaceful streets and post-Christmas calm. There is nothing better than weeding in the cool shade while your husband sleeps under the cover of a magazine – a Christmas subscription for which he was given by his mother – as the children giggle in gaggles among the bushes before another feeding cycle begins.