Our veggie patch took on greater significance during the stringent first lockdown level of the pandemic when even grocery shopping could be a fraught experience. At the very last local farmers’ market that took place just before the late-March lockdown commenced, we bought some winter veg seedlings to add to our vegetable garden.
In the subsequent months it has been comforting to have a source of fresh leaves and other items freshly picked from the garden to brighten up a sandwich or a supper. I don’t think of myself as a gardener’s gardener, as over the years we have adapted to our veggie patch more than it has adapted to us. We have learned what grows more reliably in our hot humid conditions in a soil that can tend towards clay, and have more or less limited ourselves to what grows most easily.
Of course nothing is ever truly reliable, and this past winter the usually dependable self-seeded cherry tomato were less abundant than usual, perhaps due to quirks in the weather and inconsistencies on our part tending the veggie garden.
Cherry tomatoes manage to produce at least something in our humid conditions, and a plus is that the small flowers are rather pretty. Whenever we have tried growing standard or plum tomatoes the yield has been very low – or even nothing at all – as such tomato plants are very susceptible to humidity-induced ailments.
We have much better luck with lettuce, which does best in the cooler winter months paradoxically when salad is less appealing, but during the winter months of the lockdowns we really enjoyed access to fresh lettuce. We usually grow Cos-style lettuce so that individual leaves can be harvested when needed while leaving the plant to continue growing.
Lettuce and herbs – celery, chives, parsley, Greek organum, thyme and sage – grow in a raised herb bed. Given enough sun most herbs are easy to cultivate, although we have found that sage can be a bit finicky.
Each Cos-style lettuce has a picking period of several weeks, and then we leave plants to go to seed as in the photo above, as they obligingly self-seed if we leave a patch of bare earth to allow the seedlings to establish themselves.
These self-seeded lettuce seedlings are a bit straggly as I was a bit late clearing a patch in amongst the nasturtiums and New Zealand spinach to accommodate them, but as they strengthen I will transplant them so that each plant has more space.
In a previous season these young self-seeded lettuces were planted out and mulched with dry leaves. When we first started growing veggies we would plant low-growing plants, such as pennyroyal and thyme, as living mulch but we found that this method upped our snail population. Once we stopped this practice of growing living mulch the snails almost entirely disappeared. We now try to keep the pennyroyal confined to the pathways and between the paving stones as it makes a robust and mat-like ground cover.
Displayed on a plate are a variety of “lockdown leaves” and other items that I picked today from our veggie garden. During the past winter we used the leaves for pepping up sandwiches and other snacks or for adding to stews. In the above photo, starting with the nasturtium flowers and leaves and moving clockwise we have celery, organum, lime leaves, a dried pepperdew that remained on one of the plants (as they are over now but new fruits are starting to appear), mint, cabbage, spekboom, lettuce, pansies, tomatoes, flat-leaf parsley, rocket, alfalfa (lucerne), chilli, New Zealand spinach and basil. I nearly forgot to mention the slice of home-grown lemon in the centre.
Well into the winter we had a constant supply of small pepperdews. I used to find the taste a bit disappointing, but during the lockdown they came into their own chopped up to be sprinkled on sandwiches and in mini-salads or to fry with onion and garlic as a base for a vegetable soup or stew.
Chillies grow well here and bear prolifically. We store the excess by freezing chillies whole to store in the freezer and I keep meaning to make a chilli pickle in the tradition of my father-in-law who used to pickle chillies in sherry.
These birds’ eye chillies were good while they lasted. I forgot to store seed and did not replace the plant after it died after one season.
For some reason I started growing pansies in the vegetable garden some years ago. Each year some self-seed but the variety has decreased over time and these lovely little flowers are the tenacious ones that continue to come up each year to brighten up the veggie patch. The flowers are edible yet I find that I prefer to leave them in the garden.
These nasturtiums nestle together with some alfalfa (lucerne) leaves. We grow nasturtiums in the veggie garden largely because of their cheerful and old-fashioned presence, and of course the leaves and flowers are edible. Also nasturtiums serve as a trap plant for aphids. The aphids are attracted to the nasturtiums in preference to cabbage plants, for example. If the nasturtiums become thickly infested with aphids, the plants can simply be removed and disposed of – I put them on the compost heap.
I photographed this butterfly, one of the Blues, visiting an alfalfa flower last summer. Alfalfa is deep rooted and is reputed to be rich in minerals and other nutrients. It makes a good tea (I chop up fresh sprigs to use as a tea), and sprigs can be added to salad or stews. Clippings from alfalfa plants can be used to improve the compost heap, or to use as mulch around vegetables and other plants.
Comfrey is another herb we grow in our herb patch – not to eat but to add its leaves to our compost heap as it is said to a good bio-activator. It is also very decorative when in flower.
This wild rocket is currently flowering. It survived through the winter just enough to produce leaves to add to salads and to have on bread with tomatoes. A friend divided one of her plants over a year ago to give us a rooted slip that has gone on to thrive in our garden.
In a previous summer I photographed this coriander (dhania) plant in flower. We find that coriander plants quickly pass their best from the point of view of picking leaves to flavour curries and other dishes. However, leaves picked in their prime can be chopped and frozen in water using ice cube trays so as to keep a stash in the freezer to use in cooking when needed. I discovered some tiny self-seeded plants developing in our herb patch today. Hopefully they will continue to grow and provide us with leaves as we progress into summer.
Although not photographed, we did grow carrots through the winter. They don’t do well in our soil so we grow them in large posts with quite a high percentage of sand added to the soil and they do much better. The peas that we got at the farmers’ market matured to bear pods, but not prolifically so each pod was a small treat of sweet peas to share and eat raw.
In a previous year we grew some peas that had purple pods. As far as I remember they were marketed as an heirloom variety. The flowers were very attractive, having pink and purplish hues.
These purple peas were most productive and did very well – but even though they were prolific, they were so nice and sweet that we only ever ate them raw.
Although the pods were purple, the peas were green! We kept some peas to dry to plant the following year, but sadly none of them germinated. I have not seen these peas available in the seed shops since so I should really look to see if they are sold online.
One aging grapefruit tree and two lemon trees grow in our garden. We bought a few oranges and of course sugar to combine with grapefruits and lemons, and I made a few jars of ‘three fruits’ marmalade during the winter. I used a recipe for small batches of marmalade that can be cooked by using the microwave oven rather than boiling the mixture on the stove top. The photo is of the last remaining jar of the two batches that I made.
At the last farmers’ market we took a chance buying broccoli seedlings because broccoli is known to do best where the winters are cold, which is why with our mild winters we have not tried growing it before. Somewhat fortuitously we had an unusually cold winter and the broccoli did unexpectedly well. Having read that for broccoli to flourish it should not be allowed to dry out, I watered the plants every second day, sometimes using the stored rainwater from our water tank.
Two of the broccoli plants with heads nearly ready for picking can be seen in the photo. Behind them are some Cape spitz cabbages. The cabbages have not formed the conical heads we expected, but the leaves are still very tasty. A great way of cooking cabbage is to lightly fry chopped garlic in olive oil before adding shredded cabbage leaves. Turn the shredded leaves in the oil adding a few tablespoons of water if necessary so as to kind of braise and stir-fry the cabbage for a few minutes until cooked to taste. Add some black pepper and enjoy.
The broccoli plants all became ready for harvesting simultaneously. One head got left behind on the plant and very quickly it flowered. The flowers are rather attractive, and this honeybee thought so too.
And as a sweet ending, Cape gooseberries most beautifully wrapped in their lantern-like papery casings provide a fruity delicacy to be enjoyed while gardening or at the end of a meal. We never chose to plant Cape gooseberries in the garden but seedlings just appeared, probably due to seed being dispersed by birds. We left this plant to get quite large in a corner of the veggie garden where it screens the green plastic water tank that can be seen in the background.
This week we have had quite good and very welcome rain with more forecast along with colder temperatures, and even light snow falling in parts of the country. We are hoping that the drought-stricken parts of the country will also be blessed with rain that is set to be widespread, falling in both the winter and the summer rainfall regions. If I have an excuse for posting a day late this week, perhaps it is the colder weather?
Another self-sown delight currently brightening up the veggie garden is this cheerful sunflower, which provides for visiting insects and birds.
Since the first severe lockdown period of the pandemic that started in late March, over the past six months less severe levels of lockdown have gradually been introduced, and the September easing of regulations saw the local farmers market reopening for the first time since March – in good time for us to source summer vegetable seedlings to bring home to plant in the garden.
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Posted by Carol