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Garden Gifts from the Vegetable Garden

Many food gardeners have mixed feelings about the December holiday season.

It is peak harvesting season for summer vegetables, weeds are rampant in the summer rainfall region and everywhere pests are active. In the western provinces, summer time is when the need to keep an eye on irrigation is at its peak. So being away is not a good idea. On the other hand, your family needs a break, business has come to a standstill and the holiday mood is infectious. If this is your dilemma, then there are ways to keep the garden ticking over without seeing all the hard work of previous months coming to naught.

Harvesting

Make sure that there is very little to harvest while you are away. Pick as much as you can before leaving, even if it means picking tomatoes just as they are turning. Root vegetables, like beetroot and carrots, can be left in the soil for an extra two weeks but it is a good idea to take out the bigger ones. Bush beans and baby marrows produce so quickly that one needs to arrange for the house-sitter or gardener to pick them while you are away.

Alternatively, if both have given a good harvest, pull them out and re-compost the soil in preparation for a new crop when you return. Cover the soil with a thick mulch or shade cloth to prevent weeds germinating.

Although it’s too late to do so now, it may be a good idea to start planning your spring sowing for next year so that your vegetables are ready to harvest either before or after your annual holiday.

Watering

Do not allow your garden to dry out. This may mean installing an automatic mist or drip irrigation system, or arranging for the gardener or neighbour to water while you are away. A timer fitted to the tap makes manual watering much easier. Before you go away, arrange to meet the person looking after your garden and show them how and what to water. Cover the beds with a thick layer of mulch to reduce heat stress on the roots.

Weeding

Make sure your garden is weed free because they can take over in two weeks and compete for the water. Mulch your beds after weeding.
 
Pruning

Prevent vine type squashes, tomatoes and runner beans from growing too wildly by pinching off the growing tips. Inspect the root system and let that dictate the extent of growth that you think it can support.
 
December tasks for stay-at-home Food Gardeners

  • Daily picking or picking at least twice a week ensures that you harvest the best possible quality.
  • Water daily and avoid wetting the leaves.
  • Check for pests and either remove by hand or use an organic insecticide on a weekly basis if the pest load is high.
  • Spray with an organic fungicide if you notice evidence of mildew on the leaves of baby marrows, butternut, gem squash, cucumbers and pumpkin.
  • Plant the last succession crop of bush beans.

Start Planning Your Autumn Garden

Start planning your autumn vegetable garden because most of the autumn and winter crops (cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts) need to have been sown by the end of February or early March. Other autumn crops to consider are lettuce (where the beans were planted), spinach, carrots and beetroot. As beds of summer vegetables are cleared, renew the soil with fresh compost. If beds are to be left fallow for a month, cover them with shade cloth, weed guard or mulch to prevent weeds from germinating.
 
Gifts From Your Food Garden

Sharing your harvest is an age old value enshrined in the ethos of food gardening. In that sense Christmas couldn’t be at a better time, when there is plenty from the garden that can be converted into gifts for family and friends.

The easiest and most popular gifts to make are herb vinegars or herb infused oils. Start preparing them early in December so that the vinegar or oil is ready to use over the festive season. Sweet basil, dark opal basil and rosemary are the most popular herbs used, especially the purple leafed basil that produces beautifully coloured vinegar. Bruise the herbs lightly and place them in a screw top bottle. Fill the bottle with a good quality oil or vinegar and let the herb steep for about two weeks. You should use grape or apple cider vinegar and your oil should be a light, good quality olive oil. Keep the bottle in a cool place and shake it daily. Strain the liquid after 14 days and if the oil or vinegar is not flavourful enough, add fresh herbs and allow them to steep a little longer. Strain and pour the liquid into attractive, sterilised bottles with a cork or airtight seal.

Other gifts that can be made from your garden harvest are tomato relishes or sauces for pasta, pesto’s (basil or rocket), pickled beans, jams and chilli sauces. Be sure always to use sterilised bottles with airtight seals. Dress up the bottles with handmade labels and anything else that looks festive. Make up a basket of goodies, adding some homemade biscuits or fudge for a sweet tooth. Encourage friends to start food gardening with gifts of a starter kit of seeds, basic garden tools or a garden diary for planning and record keeping.