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Down to the ground

down to the groundDiana Noonan is an award-winning writer who combines a life-long passion for food-gardening with a love of foreign places and international cuisine. She has published numerous books and articles on gardening and cooking for both adults and children.  Diana lives in The Catlins with her illustrator-husband, Keith Olsen, their two donkeys, a small fleet of pet chooks, and more raised vegie beds that you can shake a stick at!

You can read more about Diana and her gardening adventures on her gardening 4 real blog.


If there’s one single vegetable that has the ability to unite the favours of a dozen others, it’s celery.

Courgettes to the French, Zucchini to the Italians, and baby marrows to the Brits, New Zealanders call this versatile vegetable by any of its three names. But one rule is the same for all: a courgette is a cucurbit, a member of the squash family.

Each year, I grow approximately 90 kilos of carrots in two raised beds.

Whether your aim is to leave your seedlings in the container in which they germinated, or to transplant them out, ‘disturbing the soil’ after a few days of growth will help the young plants spring into life.

The nights are growing colder and here, in the deep south, the last cut of the lawn provides precious heat-generating clippings for the compost.

red bean seedlingIt’s just a matter of weeks before we’re all going to be clamouring for garden seedlings.

yaconwIt’s been a pretty heady week in vegie land. The reason is that I wandered into our local organic shop and there on the counter were two bags of yakon – YUM!

Careful, methodical picking is my rule for this chilliest of months.

My winter garden motto is ‘Don’t!’

My trailer is on the road several times a week this month as I haul load after load of bull kelp off the beach and onto the empty garden beds. 

Harvesting is one of the major tasks this month.

In the north, spring is well under way. Broad beans are flowering, garlic is well through the ground (and craving liquid feeding), peas are advancing up their supports and carrots may even be at the stage of requiring thinning. All

Coriander is not difficult to cultivate once you understand that it prefers to grow into cooler temperatures rather than the heat of summer.

angelicaStaples aside, I find what we do and don’t choose to grow in our gardens endlessly interesting.

gardeniaYou may find this shocking (and I hesitate to say it out loud because it makes me sound quite ignorant), but I have only recently discovered gardenias.

processorBrace yourselves, tighten your seat belts or do whatever else it takes to glue yourself to this week’s garden column because I have some news that will change your lives.

sheepsnowIt’s typical of New Zealand weather to hold back the worst until last, and this season is no exception.

While those in colder parts of the country are counting down the days until spring, gardeners in warmer climes will already have sown main crops such as carrots, beetroot, parsnips, and peas.

carobAm I the only one who get anxious about seeds germinating?

hydrangeaLike most scientists, we gardeners are curious about our natural environment.

olivesThe olives on the tree outside my window here in Greece are slowly fattening.

greekGreeks aren’t very adaptable when it comes to food. At least, not in the Arkadian village that has been my second home for the last thirty years, and where I’m now holidaying.

viburnumwLast year, while living in Auckland for three months from July-September, I was astonished to notice that for my entire period in the city, several varieties of flowering shrubs and trees were in bloom.

recyclewIt's early summer in Armenia, the southern most country of the Caucasus which separates Europe from the Middle East.

mulberrywI appear to be haunted by mulberry trees and I'm taking it as a sign that I really should plant one.

sourgrapesGardening takes a good deal of time and energy so you really don’t want to be wasting what you grow. Unfortunately, New Zealand weather can be particularly fickle and is often the cause of fruit and vegetables running to seed, producing a glut or failing to mature.

snowdropsIn winter, more than at any other time of the year, a gardener needs something to look forward to; something to lift the spirits above the drizzle, grey skies and chilly days when it’s impossible to be out and about with the spade. 

veggiegardenwWe all take a bit of extra care of ourselves in winter, whether it’s by buying a bottle of vitamin C and Echinacea tablets, including fruit juice with breakfast, or wearing a hat and scarf. 

It is a complete mystery me why so many people (even gardeners themselves) consider silver beet a ‘lesser species’.

cyclamenAfter an autumn that was more like summer, winter has finally arrived. The change came suddenly with a wild, wet and windy storm which I found oddly comforting because it meant I could at last embark on one of my favourite kinds of gardening

chiveswLawn meets garden – wham – just like that! And, suddenly, there’s a whole lot of work to do, apart from just mowing the grass.

dahliaswIf you are one of those marvellously organised lifestyle blockers who manages to have a thriving edible garden and an ornamental bed to be proud of, read no further.

soilgardenwBeginning a garden can be as simple as chipping off some grass and turning over the soil with a spade.

possum1wGood gardening practice is so much about biting off no more than you can chew. 

kohlrabiwUntil this week, the last time I saw a kohlrabi looking remotely inviting was in Austria. 

sundialwWhoever said gardening was a 'relaxing' occupation doesn't live in New Zealand's unpredictable maritime climate.

gardenpathwWhen it comes to fruit and vegetables, winter can be an expensive time of the year, even for gardeners.

shallotsI always find gardens exciting but this week they excelled, handing me a raft of interesting surprises.

potatoesOver the last 10 years there's been a change in the fresh produce section of the supermarket that's quietly 'snuck' up on us – and I don't like it. 

compostwAs with everything in nature, composting has its seasons and autumn is one of them.

garlicBright sun and a balmy breeze – that’s what newly dug garlic appreciates. And as if autumn knows it, that’s just the sort of pre-winter weather this glorious season usually brings.

dogwoodwI’ve become a fan of big flowering trees. I’m not talking rhododendrons and camellias – which I’ve always enjoyed – I mean big trees.

perfectI distinctly remember, one day, watching my neighbour (a very industrious person who always has several projects on the go at any one time) take a swing at a ragwort with his scythe as he was walking by.

March is the month for mulch. Pine needles (my mulch of choice) go thickly around the Asian vegetables sown in February.

strawberrywIf you’re dreaming over the strawberries you harvested in summer, it’s probably time you took another look at your berry patch.

spingonionswAnother year has come and gone, and for gardeners, it’s time to look back at what worked, what didn’t, and how to do it better next time.

My summer sown silverbeet is going to seed which is just as well as I now need that garden space for sowing Asian radishes. Japanese daikon is a favourite. Growing almost as long (and thick) as my arm, I call it the ‘cucumber of winter’, and space seeds well apart to give the plants plenty of room to develop

blackberryThe blackberry season has arrived and, for once, I’m going to be honest with myself: I really, really don’t like blackberrying.

agingMany years ago, Edna Peterson, a well-known watercolourist, lived in our village.

compostWe’ve all heard of ‘dead waterways’: streams, channels or rivers where life no longer exists.

broccoliwIn the excitement of growing your own food, it can sometimes be tempting to ‘grab and go’

rainThere’s not a lot we gardeners can do about our climate.

peasFor many gardeners, mid-summer can feel like a time of limbo.

strawberrywChristmas has come and gone and I can honestly say that without the help of my garden I could never have hosted 8 extras for morning tea and thirteen for Christmas dinner in such grand style.

garden forkThere’s been a lot of finger crossing going on in my house this week.

january 1stThe eve of January 1st is traditionally be the time for making new year’s resolutions.

compostCompost can be a great messy pile onto which, haphazardly, you throw everything you pull out of the garden, sweep off the path, or mow off the lawn.

cornflowerThe frenzy of spring sowing has at last come to an end.

debrisGardening is fun, exciting, relaxing and rewarding. It is also, at times, repetitive, exhausting and disappointing. That’s life.

weather vaneThe wind this week is intolerable. It’s blowing the clothes off the line, giving me a headache, and knocking the seedlings for six (especially when combined with warm temperatures).

radishWe buy the seed and so and grow them, but how many of us actually like radishes? Not many, if the comments so often heard are anything to go by.

geraniumI’m a vegetable gardener – and a busy one at that. This doesn’t mean I can live without flowers.

carrotI’ve just come inside from inspecting the germination success of my carrots, parsnips and beetroot and I estimate it to be around 100 percent.

beeI do a lot of thinking in my garden – a garden is a thinking kind of place. I also do a lot of wondering.

wateringPlants are too precious to loose to drought so, as promised, here are even more ways to quench your garden’s insatiable thirst during the long hot months of summer.

hoeingSummer is a’comin’ – blue skies, sunny days at the beach, and for many of us, not enough water for the garden.

vegetablenetwIt’s sowing and growing time again and if you’ve done a little spadework in the garden and added some compost, animal manure or fertilizer, and a sprinkle of lime where required, there’s no reason in the world why you shouldn’t have a successful harvest.

lettuceIt’s official, the world’s gone mad. My Proof? An article, this week, in one our major daily newspapers warning us against eating lettuces.

mint1wIn the big smoke, everything has a price. While on my city sojourn here in Auckland, I decided to make marmalade from the citrus growing in my backyard.

herbsdryingwI don't have a lot of time to look at my garden. Not when I'm head-down-bum-up weeding, tipping barrow after barrow of animal manure onto the brassica beds, lugging trailer loads of kelp onto the compost, tossing great clouds of pine needle mulch over the hibernating rhubarb or scrabbling among the strawberry plants looking for runners.

leekseedwIt's not a happy experience going out into the garden on a balmy autumn afternoon only to discover that an entire bed of one of your staple winter vegetables has suddenly run to seed. I'm talking about my leeks – all 150 of them. One minute they were short, fat and dark green; the next they'd turned an ominous yellow and were reaching to the sky with little bobbles at the end of their tall central stalks.

succulentwI am so not a succulent person! But before all you succulent-fans hold up your hands in horror, let me rise to the defence of these (and other) plants which I have shied away from for so many years because they appear to alter very little in appearance from season to season. The reason for my recent change of heart?

arrangementwI'm not sure quite when I first realised I'd missed out on the 'floral art' gene. Perhaps it was at my primary school spring show when my wilted sand saucer failed to receive even a commended certificate, or when my Brown Owl suggested I go for the shoe cleaning rather than the flower arranging badge.

celerystalkwIt's difficult for someone like me who adores celery: crisp, flavoursome and picked fresh from the garden, to acknowledge that there are others in the universe who don't much care for it. This week, I was particularly distressed to hear from a friend that when she requires a few celery leaves to flavour some cooking (a soup or casserole, for instance) she buys a bunch and then actually ends up throwing away the stalks!

gordoniawPart of the pleasure of an established ornamental garden is greeting old friends (I'm talking about flowers, here) season after season. I couldn't be happier to see my blousy perennial phlox towering over dependable astilbe, or old-faithful-the-wallflower chumming up to sedum spectabile. And to this week lay eyes a seedling of the pale lemon-green hollyhock I thought I'd lost, not only growing but in flower, was sheer joy.

carrotseedw"It's life, Jim, but not as we know it." Don't you just love that famous line from Star Trek (actually it's from a song about Star Trek rather than the series itself, but it's become so popular that we all assume Dr Spok actually said it!)? I've been muttering it to myself a lot this week after a fascinating discovery in the vegetable garden made me realise I don't necessarily recognise 'life' even when I see it with my own eyes.

cucumberwCharles and Camilla are past their best: dry, withered and droopy. It's time to give them the chop. It's with mixed emotions that I farewell our indoor cucumbers (which we always name) at the end of each summer. Their gorgeous slender green fruits, growing 20-30cm long on vines trailing right around the window frames have fed and amused us, decorated the living room, and given rise to many an admiring comment from visitors.

nasturtiumw"Nasturtiums!" gasped my husband when I told him what I was planning to sow for this year's annual. He's not the most knowledgeable person when it comes to flowers (although he does appreciate them) but it seemed that even he had heard of nasturtiums. "They're not for gardens!" he said. "They're wild things. They climb over piles of rubbish. You see them at the sides of the road. They're those orange things that creep through dumped cars!"

carrotgrowingwI like my garden so much more now that I've got over the need to control every aspect of its appearance. It used to be, once upon a time, that I couldn't enjoy the vegetable beds if a seeding carrot or beetroot was towering in a haphazard way above everything else, or if a spring onion spike suddenly became swollen and fat, developed a lean, and popped out an inflorescence the size of a golf ball.

bananapalmwUnless I'm heading for a film festival or something equally exciting, I don't much enjoy going to the city. Hustle, bustle, appointments, meetings, and the dreaded trek around the supermarket (brief though mine usually is) just don't meet my definition of 'quality time'.

strawberryYum! I've been eating strawberries – and for the first time in 30 years they're from my own garden. Not that I grew them myself! I've tried every year since I started gardening and always, my 20-30 plants have failed to produce more than a cup a small berries. This year's secret? I got my husband to take charge of the strawberries!

ladybirdwThe last thing I want to be accused of is being a party pooper so although I garden organically in my own vegetable garden, I hope I never sound over-the-top when it comes to 'do's and don'ts' for others. That said, I do have just one tiny organic plug to make this time round.

tomatowHow was your holiday season? Mine was enjoyable because for the first time ever I carefully orchestrated it to be as stress-free as possible. Consequently, apart from having to shed a kilo or two as we all do at this time of year, I'm feeling great. Not so some of my friends who went all-out – too much drink, too much spending, too many visitors, and not enough good food and relaxation.

steviaDon't tell anyone, but I've been sleeping with my husband's best friend! 'Steve' (the object of my attentions) has been whispering sweet nothings into my ear for over a year but it wasn't until late this spring that I finally succumbed to his charms. In case you think too badly of me, I should say right now that 'Steve's' real name is Stevia – Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) to be exact.

rainwA couple of years back, I had the interesting experience of being in the UK during what was, officially, the wettest-spring and summer ever recorded. I say 'interesting' because that's what it was. Ground-nesting birds failed to raise chicks in nests swamped with water. Butterflies went into decline as, month after month, the wild flowers that are their main food source either failed to bloom or lay drenched and flattened on the ground.

flowerswI don't often write about flowers. In my 'Next-stop-Antarctic' climate here at the bottom of the South Island, I'm much too busy sowing get-me-through-next-winter basics – carrots and leeks and swedes – before the chilly spring and too-short summer whips away any chance of reasonable success.

sunflowerwThe sun is shining! After 12 weeks of continual rain, a non-existant spring where temperatures were akin to those in August, and a local A & P show being cancelled for the first time in 130 years, the heat is here. Our community celebrated yesterday with a barbecue during which, I am ashamed to admit, few heeded sun-safe warnings but rather, ditched the umbrellas and lounged in the warmth.

wateringcanwSummer's just around the corner (forget the fact the some of didn't have a spring this year) and the biggest headache of the season is approaching. It's not Christmas shopping and what to buy Uncle Jim, and it isn't how you're going to keep cousin Margaret away from the brandy on Christmas day.

broccoliEach spring, right up until not so long ago, I used to buy a packet of Nitrophoska – not a large one, but just enough for a little sprinkle on each vege bed.

urnI don't 'do' frivolous. So how come, in the space of just one week, there has appeared in and around my home a lime green candelabra (it graces the writing desk), two Italian urns (balanced artistically, one each side of the path leading into the perennial boarder), and a rather gorgeous garden 'feature' (which I've hung behind the potted colour on the deck)?

tuscanwHow many languages do you speak? If I'm honest, I'd say one – English (along with a 'get-by' smattering of Greek, and the sort of French that helps me find a loaf of bread and the loo!). Unless, of course, you count 'garden talk', in which case I can probably lay claim to Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Albanian, Russian, Japanese, Berber, Bengali, Thai, Malay and several others.

unclewangwIt hasn't been the easiest week in the garden, and I'm feeling weary. Actually, let me re-phrase that: it's been a downright difficult, utterly demanding week (in fact it's felt two) and I'm bone tired. And I've got an aching back.

lilacwI planted a lilac bush this week, one which I grew myself from a cutting. I'm happy to say it brought back some wonderful memories of my old neighbour, Mr Craig. He was in his eighties when I first came to the village 25 years ago, and I would often hear his walking stick rapping on my front door (he always refused to come inside and preferred, instead, to chat on the deck, whatever the weather).

shallotsI think it may be a sign of the times that being unable to discover the answer to a question through a Google search, is a cause for great excitement. But this was the case for me not long ago. The big question in our house has always been: "How do you grow really large shallots?"

sweetpeasEach year, toward the end of October, I find myself sighing as signs of Christmas begin appearing so early in the shop windows. This year, however, in an endeavour to give commercialism the heave-ho, I'm beating everyone to the startling of the festive season – and I'm doing it with living garden gift-boxes.

cuppaWe hear a lot, these days, about 'citizen scientists' – people who, often from their own backyard, make astonishing observations about the natural world that even the professionals have failed to pick up on. They may be avid bird watchers, hobby bee keepers, home-propagators or amateur astronomers.

diggingWelcome to part 2 of decoding garden jargon so that you can use your initiative and common sense to help you grow great veges and attractive ornamentals instead of being 'blinded' by science and having to rely on the 'experts' for advice and garden products. Today we're demystifying "NPK", those three letters you so often see on the back of bags of fertilizer and compost-mix.

loamI've always thought of myself as a fairy independent, self-reliant sort of person (I suspect my friends may say this is an understatement!) so I tend to get rather cross when jargon of any sort stands in my way of understanding. Although I don't have an academic science background, I'm super-interested in all things scientific, and place high value on good science-communicators – the kind of people who are able to share with the layperson complex scientific concepts in ways that makes them easily digestible.

carrotswAt this stage in the season, almost everyone (with the possible exception of those way down south and those way up high) will be right in the swing of garden prep., sowing, or planting. So here's an important reminder. Have you remembered your basic food groups? Not that I'm suggesting serious gardeners aren't allowed to have fun. After all, there's always something novel in the seed catalogue that you want to try.

dandelionI grow dandelions, and not just in the lawn! I sow the seed in long rows in my vegetable garden because dandelions are the main ingredient in one of my favourite dishes – agria horta. That's Greek for 'wild greens', and Greece was where I first encountered this delicacy. A frequent visitor to the Mediterranean, I'd noticed, on several occasions, shepherds with small knives and baskets, combing the mountain slopes while their sheep and goats nibbled nearby.

rhrododendronFood gardening fanatic that I am, you can be sure that when I write about an ornamental, it's because something significant has happened. As indeed it has. Earlier in the year, a very dear gardening friend of mine died. She was a day short of her 87th birthday and, like so many of the old people in my tiny isolated community here in The Catlins, what Lillian didn't know about gardening isn't worth mentioning.

vegetable juiceGrrr! Just how am I supposed to get the garden in shape for spring when the carrots are still occupying the bed I want to pour compost onto, the leeks are where the manure is supposed to go, and the parsnips are in the way of the seaweed? It's an annual headache – as it is for everyone. You don't want to waste the vegetables that are still growing but it's now that the garden needs enriching for the next crop!

sundialIf you're involved in the international WWOOF movement (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) then I'm sure you'll know what I mean when I say that hosts are often on the receiving end of some far-reaching insights from the young people who pass through their homes, even if these pieces of 'wisdom' have seemingly nothing to do with gardening.

herbseedlingwIs seed-raising on your mind? SNAP! Me too, and what could be better than some personal seed-raising tips from one who doesn't want to count the cost of buying seedlings from the garden centre come spring!

barrowofwoodIs it just me, or is the big 'O' being talked about more than anything else these days? I'm referring, of course, to 'obesity'. I'm not suggesting that we ignore the issue but, as gardeners and life-style blockers, I suspect we may very well have a lot less to worry about, where weight is concerned, than most.

walnutswSometimes it feels like we live in an instant society, a 'see it one minute, have it the next' sort of world where to wait for anything seems an imposition. Even we gardeners can find ourselves yearning for things to be faster: cabbages which heart in half the time, apple trees that fruit earlier in the season, seed companies that offer next day delivery...

ninjaiceSpin-off technology is one of those fun (not to mention highly useful) things in life. I'm talking about the kind of products that are developed first for a specific use (usually in a highly specialised area) and which then find an application in everyday life and end up in the commercial marketplace.

skygardenwAn avid food gardener can get a little claustrophobic in London – at least that's what I find when I'm there for more than a few days, staying in my friend's third floor apartment in Crouch End. There's Kew Gardens, of course, and though it's a little out of town and built on a rather grandiose scale with few vegetables in sight, last time I visited I stumbled across a dozen or so domestic-sized allotments under the management of Kew's student gardeners, including one which was being cared for by a young Kiwi on a horticulture scholarship!

smoothieI don't think you have to be poor to have a good vegetable garden, but, from past experience, I do believe it helps! There's nothing quite like trying to cut back on the grocery bill to make you pull on your gumboots, grab the fork and spade, and make everything you do in the garden count.

cuminThey're coming thick and fast – hitting the in-box, flooding the mailbox, blaring from the TV, and sprawling across the newspaper. Yes, it's that time of year again, when grey skies and chilly temperatures have every travel agent in the country advertising holidays to exotic, sun-drenched destinations.

strawberrytreewDon't you just love it when you discover a completely new use for a fruit or vegetable that's so totally familiar you've taken it for granted? In my student days, I once threw pine nuts and raisins into silver beet that I just couldn't face stir-fried (again) and my flatmates thought they'd died and gone to Heaven!

campinggasFit for a King – the final in a 3 part saga in which Diana Noonan attempts to fulfil her life-long dream of visiting Prince Charles's Highgrove Gardens.

When a matter of security raises its head, Britain is not America. And, where trouble at Highgrove is concerned, that's just as well. My husband and I were strolling dreamily around what is quite possibly the most intimate of Highgrove's garden "rooms" when the first inkling that something was amiss began to surface. As we gazed in wonder at the neatly trimmed buxus hedges with their many alcoves displaying busts of the prince himself, our tour guide, dressed as you might expect, in long Driza-Bone riding coat and buckled green wellies, glanced over her shoulder as if she had heard something unexpected.

tentFit for a King – part 2 of a 3 part saga in which Diana Noonan attempts to fulfill her life-long dream of visiting Prince Charles's Highgrove Gardens.

The discovery that the tickets sent to the non existent Tewsksbury post office were unrecoverable sent me into a flurry of frantic and fruitless phone calls. Thank goodness for the staff at Highgrove who, when I contacted them, said that we should arrive, as planned, on the Sunday afternoon, carrying our New Zealand passports as identification. Replacement tickets, they assured us, would be waiting.

highgroveGood stories take time to tell and as I have it on the highest authority that this one is fit for a king, I hope you won't mind hearing it in installments! It begins a very long time ago when I first became aware that His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, was opening to the public his organic gardens at his Highgrove home, deep in the UK's Cotswolds.

wheatGardeners are such individuals which is why no two gardens are the same. We all make plans and plant and sow for different reasons. Just the other day I was visiting a city friend who invited me to look in her vegetable garden. I managed to supress my surprise when I found myself peering out over a sea of long grass.

pineconesI'm not sure why I've reluctant to venture into the garden this week but I'm blaming the sudden arrival of cooler temperatures and the ever-beckoning warmth of the fire. Thank goodness for the gentle nudge into action which nature has given me on more than one occasion lately. The first came while I was leisurely gathering pinecones.

walnutsIt's been a windy old week here in the south and for several nights, now, I've been woken by the pleasant sound of protein dropping onto the tin roof of our house. Thanks to the possum culling team working in our area this last year, our walnut tree has a bumper crop and is now happily delivering its fruit to the ground (or the roof!).

cabbageleafHelp! I think I'm turning into a "grumpy old woman", and it's all because of some very good news which arrived recently via the media. To be fair, it's not so much the fabulous announcement that we should all be eating seven rather than the previously recommended five-plus fruit and veg a day that's got me fuming (after all, we gardeners have known for years that the more fresh produce we can get the better), it's the associated hype that I can't take.

purplepodsEvery couple of years, usually in autumn when there's a bit of a spell in the gardening calendar, I pause to reflect on which crops have really been worth growing and are likely to become firm favourites, and which are going to get the chop (and I don't mean into the pot!).

quincesWednesday in The Catlins is freight truck day and, this week, I can't wait! That's because I'm expecting a carton of fresh quinces, produce from the orchard of a Queenstown friend whose summers are hotter than ours and who doesn't battle possums in the same way that we do.

deckchairWhen you enjoy gardening as much as I do, it's a rare thing to find yourself putting off routine outdoor tasks. Which is why, this week, when I found myself yet again looking for excuses to avoid cleaning up an overgrown raised bed at the bottom of the section, I knew it had to be something big that was standing in the way of activity.

growingupI imagine it's because my planting and sowing is confined to the glasshouse at this chilly time of the year that I'm always thinking about how to increase the indoor space I have available. It just such a waste to have a small glass-walled room filled with warmth and sunshine, and to be using only one horizontal surface – the ground!

coverupI've lost count of the number of times some ugly and immoveable edifice has spoiled my otherwise attractive garden. I'm sure you've had the same experience – the tree stump that refuses to budge and which you know will take several years to rot away, the concrete pile you just can't knock down to ground level. How about that half-buried bath the previous land owner was using as a goldfish pond?

child gardeningIf you're a follower of Lynda Hallinan's Sunday Star Times gardening column, you may have read, a few weeks back, of her disappointment with the discovery that kids and gardens don't go together quite as well as she once thought. In her childless years she confesses to having offered readers all sorts of encouraging advice to get their little ones out in the dirt – from growing sunflowers to sowing baby carrots.

snailIt's been a long, cold, wet summer in my part of the world and, from what I've been reading in the paper, some of you have been battling equally difficult conditions in the opposite direction (too dry). I guess it all boils down to living in a fickle, maritime climate which is why, at this time of year, all many of us want to do (once the jam and chutney has been made) is put our feet up and take a long break.

lupinGreetings, fellow gardeners – from the big smoke! I've left garden and animals in the care of my husband for a few days (I hope he remembers to top-up the slug bait on the daikon radishes) and I'm having a ball, jogging round the streets, poking my nose over fences to gawp at backyard city gardens. Gosh, we have it lucky it the country.

community gardenI'm a self-confessed travelaholic whose pulse is set racing at the mere hint of a special-deal airfare – and all because of food gardens. My addiction to finding out what fruits and vegetables people grow in their own parts of the world, and how they go about it, has seen me hiking, cycling, hitch hiking and even climbing over forgotten passes to reach some pretty far flung parts of the world. And then there are the more accessible spots!

notebook"Planted five rows of potatoes ... and put old thatch in four of the trenches, and peat dust in one for experimental sake... Those planted on old peat dust were superior to those on old thatch."

So wrote Gilbert White, the famous middle-class gardener whose kitchen garden diaries, written in the mid seventeen hundreds, were published in 1975, and give a detailed account of English gardening in this period.

mintIn my early days of gardening, I made a few mistakes. Most were fairly minor and rectifiable, but there were one or two where I lived with the unfortunate results for a very long time. I'm talking about invasive plants – the sort that beginning gardeners, especially, are inclined to make a bee-line for because they usually come with the exciting tag: "easy to grow".

vegetablegardenI was standing in my vegetable garden this week, completely befuddled as to where I could find a spare square metre to plant out my winter brassicas (yes, I know I shouldn't have raised 22 kale seedlings but there are so many interesting varieties nowadays) and bemoaning the fact that there wasn't a jot of space left for sowing the winter Daikon radishes or the new Watermelon variety I'd ordered from Kings Seeds.

seedlingsI wonder how many of you out there are gazing at a mass of weeds where your vegetable garden should be? Perhaps the summer got all too busy and, despite your best intentions, there just wasn't enough time to tend the plot you so carefully sowed in spring. Or perhaps everything was going smoothly until you were suddenly overtaken by drought/ torrential rain/ white butterfly/ convolvulus/ the calves breaking down the fence/ the chickens scratching up your carrot seedlings/ the children demanding to be taken to the pool just as you were about to start thinning the beetroot ...

turnipJust before Christmas, my neighbours delivered to me a bag of fresh white turnips. It was a particularly memorable gesture, not only because white turnips are so succulent and delicious, and I adore them drizzled with melted butter and smothered in ground black pepper, but also because they are one of the few vegetables with which I seldom have any success. I know exactly why this is and yet, frustratingly, year after year, I insist on making the same mistake.

gooseberry jamI've recently returned from the Leonard Cohen concert in Christchurch, and I'm still on a high! That 79 year old icon of pop-poetry still runs (and skips and dances) onto the stage, sings for a solid four hours, and has his audience crying out for more at the end of the show. Leonard may have been around forever, but we still can't get enough of him.

zucchiniMy "zucchini" moment occurred in Italy, not in a romantic "Tuscan villa" as the travel cliché terms the experience we now all equate with that region, but in the low-ceilinged kitchen of a little summer house deep in the Tuscan hills. We were visiting a friend we had met in New Zealand many years before.

laptopI've got a new gardening tool (well, two, actually) and I couldn't be more pleased with them. What's more, they didn't cost a cent! I didn't get them for Christmas and I didn't get them for my January birthday. They came as a tip-off from my mountaineering son.

runner beansI get so cross when I hear people spreading misinformation designed to make gardeners give up or, worse still, to deter would-be vege growers from ever starting their own plot. One particularly common piece of nonsense is that growing veges isn't cheap. " By the time you've paid for everything you need," say the spoilers, " you'd be better off buying what you want at the supermarket". How ridiculous!

cauliflowerMy garden and I share a dark secret – not one I'm proud of and, until yesterday, one from which I thought I could never escape. For the last 8 years, I've been cursed with club root. This unbelievably ghastly fungal disease affects brssicas and, as we all know, that means around 80 percent of all the vegetables in the garden – especially if you live in the south

sick tomatoI'm such a garden enthusiast that it never crosses my mind to think that my gorgeous vegetables may actually encounter problems enroute to becoming a meal. But this week, as I glanced out the window and noticed that the spring-onions and dill were looking a sickly shade of washed-out green, that the spinach was refusing to grow and was, instead, turning yellow around the edges, and that the leaves on the cauli seedlings I'd planted out a couple of weeks earlier were actually pink, I was horrified.

herbs in potsI've been in seventh heaven this week. The days have been hot and sunny, the rain has kept away, and my garden is overflowing with produce. Everything seems so easy as I saunter out of the house, barefooted, with a basket and knife in my hand to gather salad ingredients, and cut the first of the courgettes.

peasI can never understand it when people say peas aren't worth growing or that they're a lot of work. I mean, why wouldn't you want them in your garden? They're one of the few sources of protein that you don't actually have to catch and butcher, and just half a bucket of fat pods is enough to produce three or four good helpings to serve with a meal.

vegetablesSummertime, and the living is easy ... That's how the song goes, but as far as I'm concerned, summertime gardening can be a touch stressful, especially when we get a long spell of very warm weather and the seedlings, which I was certain would wait at least another three weeks before requiring transplanting, are suddenly sending roots through the bottom of their punnets!

rosemaryI don't know how anyone can manage without rosemary in their garden. I know I can't, and yet that's exactly the situation I've found myself in for the last three years, having lost one plant after another (and a decent sized rosemary isn't the cheapest to buy in a garden centre!). We use rosemary all the time in our house (and we don't even eat meat) which means that every time I want to cook with it, I have to run 700 metres down the road to my neighbour who has, to my on-going frustration, no trouble growing an entire hedge of the stuff!

soybeansFresh soy beans (edamame in Japanese) are so supremely delicious that I sometimes wish I had never discovered them, especially as they enjoy a greater degree of heat than I can easily supply in my South Otago garden. I first encountered edamame in a fusion-style Wellington restaurant when they were brought to the table in their still steaming, slightly hairy, lime green pods. When I tried one, I thought had died and gone to Heaven.

celeryCelery loves water. I know because, when I was twelve years old, I absentmindedly left the garden tap turned on overnight and flooded the vegetable bed. The celery copped the brunt of it and, as a result, my stepfather swore it was the fattest, crispest, most flavoursome celery he'd ever grown! Besides which, every experienced gardener will tell you the same thing – celery does not like to dry out – never ever ever!

clocheWith such an early start to spring, I'm about a month ahead in the garden. Brassica and silver beet seedlings are planted out, young spinach is up, the Chinese greens are strong, and the radishes are growing at a rate of knots. It should all look wonderful – it's just that I can't see any of it! That's because my entire garden is covered in plastic.

rhubarbThere has been a great wailing and gnashing of teeth in our house this week, and all because of Parsley Bartowich or, rather, its absence. It's a new root crop which I spied in the catalogue of a seed company which shall remain nameless because I am so upset by them. You see, by the time I went to order the Parsley Bartowich, it was sold out and, what's more, wouldn't be available until next season. I cried when I heard.

asian greensI have a confession to make. When it comes to vegetable gardening, I have (until now, that is) been horribly Eurocentric. I have an Italian garden, a Greek garden, a French bed (sorrel, tarragon and that sort of thing) and the usual British staples such as leeks and turnips and beets. But when it comes to Asian vegetables, apart from an autumn sowing of daikon radish and a few Chinese cabbage and Bok choi, I haven't shown much enthusiasm.

carrotsTried any supermarket carrots lately? Kind of slimy when you take them out of the bag, aren't they? Kind of makes you thing, "Hmm, what have these been washed in?" As for when they're going off after a few weeks (and why do they keep so long in a plastic bag?) there's a rather nasty mushiness about the decay that has me feeling nervous. So why not take the bull by the horns and grow your own?

compostMy husband's father couldn't wait for the circus to visit. It parked in the racecourse across the road from his New Plymouth home and it was just a matter of hours before Grandpa was over there with his shovel and wheelbarrow – some of those elephants were very large and very, err, 'productive'. I know just how he felt.

chicoryWhen it comes to cuisine, we don't do "bitter" very well in New Zealand, which may explain why chicories are so overlooked as a vegetable, here. I suspect that the other reason we know little about them is that they come in such a variety of forms, each with its own use, that it all gets a bit complicated and we tend to give up on them before we've even started.

cabbageLast year, while travelling overland through Turkey to meet our son who was teaching in Georgia, my husband and I stopped for a couple of nights in the predominantly Kurdish town of Kars. Set on a high altitude steppe, a bit like something out of Mongolia, Kars is probably best known for its honey and cheese, but it was the cabbages that caught my eye. They were seriously enormous.

vegetable gardeningI know Obama has fallen out of favour recently – what with Prism and all – but you do have to admire that initial campaign slogan of his – "Yes We Can!". It has that "we can overcome" ring to it, which is exactly the sort of battle cry you need to carry you into the spring, especially if your potential garden site is not – how shall I put this – "quite what you were hoping for".

raised bedsYikes! I've just spent a hundred dollars on vegetable seed. And I've still got my sugar snaps to part out for! Admittedly, I won't use all the seed, and if I store it carefully (wrapped in tin-foil and placed in an airtight container), a lot of what's left over will do next season, but still ... a hundred dollars!

cauliflowerHip, hooray, we're past the shortest day, and with only a matter of weeks to go before sowing and planting can commence, I feel like a kid counting down the sleeps until Christmas. Much of this restlessness, of course, is due to my Kings Seeds parcel having arrived in the mail last week and, along with it, the seeds of my bright orange, purple, and neon-green cauliflowers!

sorrel in early springDon't be surprised if your supermarket bill is frighteningly higher than usual this month – and next. This late winter-early spring period has traditionally been a lean time when it comes to finding food, which is why fresh produce reaches premium prices in the supermarket. Your own garden greens will have withered under the stress of cold temperatures, and your stores of potatoes, yams, kumara, pumpkins, and onions will be all but gone.

spinachThe last thing I want to be accused of is being a garden snob but (and I'm afraid there is no easy way to say this) when it comes to things culinary, silver beet is not spinach. Of course, this fact in no way diminishes silver beet (which I am always the first to defend). Its hardiness means it is capable of providing year-round greens for both home and hen house, even in the coldest parts of the country, and its versatility in the kitchen (in a robust, hearty sort of way), is second to none.

bookGhastly weather isn't something a gardener usually welcomes, but it does afford time for reading and, back in June when Wellington was brought to its knees by that Wahine-like storm, I was curled up on my sofa with a brilliant garden-read called "Sons of the Soil" by Lily Lee and Ruth Lam.

free vegetablesWhat is it about gardeners that makes them such "givers"? I don't know about you, but my garden – edible and ornamental – is jam packed with bits and pieces that have been passed onto me by friends, family, neighbours – even complete strangers whose fence I happen to have poked my nose over.

microgreensGardening's supposed to be relaxing. I must admit, although it's my number one interest and I adore it to the exclusion of almost everything else, I wouldn't exactly describe it that way. Perhaps that's because I'm "digging for victory" or, put in more contemporary language, "trying to live out of my vegetable garden", and that includes raising all my own seedlings.

buxusWinter's well and truly here, and you're not alone when it comes to despairing over that nasty cold, damp, dank, slippery spot outside the house where the sun just never, ever shines. It's the sort of place where moss thrives and no amount of water blasting will ever quite get rid of the algae. If you have the misfortune to have this horrid spot occupy a rather public place (the main entrance to the house in my case) you'll be doubly despairing

hang itI adore gardening – there's nothing I'd rather do more. Alas, like many others, I also have a day job, which is why it's so important that when I do get a spare hour or two in the garden, I don't waste it on peripheral tasks such as weeding (I mulch, instead) or edge trimming (I use raised beds and permanent paths).

shallotsIf there was an award for the person least likely to be "in fashion", I would get it, so I'm always chuffed when I accidentally hit the jackpot. Last month it was with my hand-knitted socks (I hadn't even realised sock-knitting was in vogue as I've always done it purely for reasons of comfort and thrift).

dianaI'm not a naturally envious sort of person but when a friend from the big smoke invited me to dinner last week, and didn't begin preparing the meal for eight until an hour before we were due to eat, I did feel the green-eyed monster hover above my shoulder.

spring onionsIf you're a spring onion devotee, as I am, it can be absolutely infuriating, when spring finally arrives, to find the supermarket shelves displaying bundles of long, fat, crisp spring onions at a ridiculous price, while your own are no more than seeds still in their packet. It can also seem kind of crazy to be sowing spring onion seed just as the world is going into hibernation but, believe it or not, that's what it takes to have those fresh green delicacies ready when you want them most.

yamsIt's not often that I find myself wishing for a good hard frost but, this year, that's exactly the situation. It's all because of my yam crop and its (still) thriving, bushy, green foliage. I adore yams (not really yams, at all but, rather, a South American tuber known, variously, as oca, oka, Oxalis tuberosa, Oxalis yam, or Oxalis crenata).

brussels sproutsWe take most brassicas (caulis, broccolis, and cabbage, especially) so much for granted that it's tempting to think they don't require any particular attention other than a standard garden bed enriched with animal manure, compost, and a scattering of lime. But, in fact, brassicas have a few special requirements, and they vary between different members of the family.

potatoesI've just harvested my main crop spuds and re-made my vow never to return to growing potatoes in the ground. It's a backbreaking job: breaking up the soil, digging the holes, planting the seed, covering it up, then earthing up the rows at least twice during the growing season

swedeAnyone who knows me will tell you that, when it comes to vegetable gardening, I am one hundred percent focused – some might say obsessively so! We never, for instance, run out of carrots. My lettuces are always hearting just as the supermarket prices for them soar.

berriesThank goodness for wild blackberries – and for the long hot autumn that has kept them flowering and ripening for a month longer than usual. I can’t live without fresh berries in my morning muesli and late autumn is always a difficult time for finding my fix. Up until now, it’s been easy. Starting way back in late November, tayberries, that fascinating cross between a gooseberry and a blackcurrant, came on stream with a vengeance.

knittingHave you heard of Loani Prior? You must have. You know, Loani Prior the tea cosy lady – the Australian woman who's taken the knitting world by storm and lifted tea cosy creations to new heights. Her patterns are simply wild but the thing I love most about her is that, when it comes to passions, 'excess' just doesn't feature in her vocabulary

leeksIt's been a tough old summer for gardeners. For those in drought affected areas it's been difficult enough not having water to refresh the garden, but even harder to watch what will grow run to seed before maturing, a common event when plants become stressed. Whatever the cause of vegetables "bolting", be it overcrowding, under-feeding, dramatic ups and downs in temperature, or dryness, you can't help but feel down when you think of all that cultivation, soil-enriching, and hard-gathered mulch going to waste, not to mention the cost of seed.

preparing for winterHave you any idea just how many spiders (large ones) are living under your floorboards? I do, because, like droves of other New Zealanders facing the approach of winter, I've been crawling around the foundations of my home installing under floor insulation to ward off the cold and to help minimise the expected increase in electricity consumption.

compostwI once burned my finger by poking it into a compost pile. It was winter and the fermenting heap was in the middle of an allotment in the north of England. Apart from a few plumes of steam escaping from the top, it looked for all intents and purposes like a haystack. The chap whose pile it was seemed very pleased with himself and, burned finger aside, I have to admit I was impressed with his style

romantic gardenerLast week, a rather well-heeled friend with a flair for design passed onto me her pre-loved copies of House and Garden. Looking through the gorgeous glossy pages at French and Italian country houses, I was reminded all over again of why I adore rural Europe and farm house kitchens festooned with fat plaits of garlic, strings of dried chillies, and bunches of golden shallots hanging above the Agar – it's all so deliciously romantic!

daikon radishIf you're not careful, late autumn in the garden can get you down. With the arrival of cooler weather and shorter days, the super-energetic have a tendency to think that life as they know it has come to an end and won't return until next spring (and that's months away). Slackers, on the other hand, depressed that their dreamed-of garden never got off the ground, tell themselves they've failed (again). But I have another take on the situation because I see autumn as a challenge.

parsleyParsley does it discreetly, coriander without hesitation, rhubarb is at no matter how many times you dare it not to be, and dill is just a show-off. Like it or not, plants are sexual beings and reproduction is going on in your garden in myriad ways whether or not you condone it

spidersThey're coming – in droves – creeping under the door, swinging through open windows, hanging off my jumper, and clinging to the cauliflowers that get brought in from the garden. Yes, it's spider time of year, that pre-autumn period when our eight legged friends feel the beginnings of a chill in the air and make a bee-line for the warmth of the house

hangingbasketDon’t you just love those gorgeous lush, colourful hanging flower baskets that festoon shop frontages up and down the country over summer? I positively drool over them, so much so that, a couple of years back, I had a go at making my own

compostgardenYou can never have enough compost, and that's a fact. However you can, from time to time, have too much compostable material, which is exactly the predicament I found myself in after Waitangi Weekend. Thanks to an overly damp spell (my euphemism for a rubbish summer!) which brought about rampant growth, and a holiday weekend where all my beach-house neighbours kindly donated me their lawn clippings, my compost bins were in "floweth-over" mode.

cabbagesI know you don't want to hear this, not while you're up to your elbows in tomato puree, but as one who is up to her elbows in courgettes, I feel I can say this with authority: unless you particularly want a major surfeit of garden produce, don't grow so much of any one vegetable!

This hard-learned lesson was imprinted on me when, many years ago, in the hey-day of my hippy-hood, I once had so many cabbages maturing at Christmas that I had to cart them round the local camping ground in a wheelbarrow, extolling the virtues of coleslaw and leaving them outside the tents and caravans of unsuspecting holiday makers!

winter tomatoI hate to talk about winter (or even Autumn) while we're still basking in sunshine, but we gardeners do have to plan ahead, especially when it comes to the yummier things in life. Because I'm not someone who can go for too long without a fresh salad, I'm already thinking about the chillier months of May-August when I absolutely refuse to pay out-of-season prices for tomatoes – or to buy those tasteless half-ripe things imported from Aussie! All of which means some serious lateral thinking.

garden pathYou can get away with not having a lot of infrastructure in a garden. It's not the end of the earth, for instance, if you don't have built-up beds or a bean fence. You'll survive without a tunnel house or a tool rack, or even a potting shed. But if you don't have paths, you've got problems.

Paths make life easy. They divide up the garden into undaunting, manageable sections which also help with crop-rotation.

container plantingYou fed 'em, you loved 'em, you raised 'em right, and now they're about to leave you! We're not talking plants here, folks, we're talking kids! Because, in just another few weeks, we'll be saying goodbye to the tertiary-level members of our families as they head back to uni, polytech, art school, or that grim little flat they're holing up in while they finish their apprenticeship

seedsEvery gardener has one – a motley collection of faded, tattered, half-used packets of seeds, with the contents all past (sometimes well past) their sow-by date. They clutter up the "anything" drawer, get more out-of-date by the year, and still we hold onto them! I put it down to that natural thriftiness that every serious gardener seems to have. That, and the fact that we're usually behind schedule when it comes time to sow, and not willing to chance the risk of old seed failing to germinate

broadbeanDear Tired, over-stretched lifestyle-blocker with too many lambs to crutch, too much hay to cut, too many kids home for the holidays, and a whole paddock of ragwort requiring spraying, Did you know that there's a delicious, completely undemanding, pretty-much-impossible-to-go-wrong-with vegetable out there just waiting for you to grow? Not only does it require very little of your time, but it also has infinite culinary potential and, better still, there's still time to sow it! In fact, there's almost no time at all that you can't throw its seed in the ground!

vegetable gardenI have a lot of interests and, I'd have to say, weeding isn't one of them. It's not so much that it's tedious (I can do "tedious" when there's a point to it), but weeding is such a time-waster, and such a back-breaker, and so not necessary! If you want to scrub it off your "to do" list, follow the "smart-gardening" technique I've been enjoying for years.

dillHelp! My dill is holding me to ransom! It knows I can't live without it (my addiction to Mediterranean cuisine means I require a large bunch of its foliage on a daily basis) and the plants are refusing to come up with the goods unless I expend more energy on them than I really have time for. The infuriating thing is that I thought dill would require very little care and attention. I mean, every garden book you go to is at pains to point out how undemanding herbs are. Well, not dill, trust me!

parsnipwHow many times have you re-sown your parsnip seed this spring? Twice? Three times? Maybe even four! If you're still looking at an empty row where there should be little green leaves, don't despair. Germinating parsnip seed is traditionally regarded as being so difficult that a whole collection of mysterious advice has grown up around it. Some gardeners insist that seed be totally fresh. Others swear that running a kettle of boiling water along the seed once its in its drill (seed row) will do the trick.

basilDazzled by basil? You're not the only one. Unless you're living in one of the more cosy pockets of the country, you're probably struggling to germinate or grow this tasty little treat in your glasshouse, let alone the big outdoors. Which is why I've gone in for buying a pottle of the supermarket living-herb variety – not to consume but to grow!

weedsDon't you just hate it when Spring's sprung and you haven't! Every time you look out the window, the vegie bed's more over-grown than ever, and you're another day past the due-by date! This year, I've got a great excuse for a seriously-delayed start to the gardening season – I've been swanning around the community gardens and allotments of Europe (more about that in the coming months) and the first budget flight I could find home wasn't until the end of October. But since then, it's been all go. I hit the ground running and I'm making up for lost time with a tried-and-true shortcut that won't break the bank – or my back!

Our family gardening motto is: "If it ain't in the ground, it ain't growin'", so in emergency situations, I toss time and energy-consuming garden-prep methods out the window and reach for my trusty grubber.

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