The occasional drought notwithstanding, New Zealand is a pretty good place for a backyard garden; for growing a few fruit and vege plants that you can feel proud of when you incorporate their products in your daily meals.
That doesn’t mean you need to be out there cultivating every square centimetre and composting every organic scrap: that’s great if you can do it, but for many of us, we need to start small. Staying small is OK too – probably the most important thing is to enjoy your garden, especially with the kids.
So where’s a good place to start? Fruit trees are always a hit. Who doesn’t enjoy a nice fresh apple off the tree, or a pear, or (if you’re a North Islander) an orange or a mandarin? Even a small back yard will have room for a fruit tree or two, particularly now that many varieties are grown on dwarf rootstocks. If you have a nice concrete wall you can even take advantage of the warmth it holds and espalier an apple tree or two along it on wires. The children will enjoy helping you plant the trees, learning about digging holes, adding compost, mulching to keep the soil moist and watching the new trees grow each year. They will often fruit quite quickly, producing a small crop within a year or two.
And if you’re thinking about the evening meal, there’s nothing to beat a good home grown spud. They taste different to the commercial ones and of course you can eat the skins with no worries at all. They’re pretty forgiving vegetables – just dig over the garden, open up a trench and add some sheep manure (the pelleted kind from the garden centre is fine) at the bottom, then space out the spuds. They don’t need to be special seed potatoes – if you’ve got leftover ones that are sprouting well, they’ll grow! Cover them with soil and mound it up a little, and you’re away. If you can get some well-aged untreated sawdust to mound up round them as they grow, it encourages more potatoes to form without turning green from exposure to the light. Harvest time is always a treat, like digging for treasure!
Other tasty treats that take little effort, and which kids will enjoy helping out with include a patch of sweetcorn, a few climbing beans on a bamboo tripod, and of course some home grown carrots. Even if you have horrible soil that carrots don’t like, you can cheat! Carrots will grow happily in a big (really big!) flower pot, filled with a mix of organic compost and good quality soil. Because the soil is nice and light, they’ll develop good long roots and pull up really easily. The only problem is remembering to water them during the hotter months because they will dry out rapidly.
Then in January or thereabouts, you can cook up a nice platter of home grown veges – you might be so excited by them you’ll even forget the meat! Potatoes are great scrubbed when new, cut into chunks and steamed, then smashed (not mashed, just very lightly broken up with a fork) with a dribble of melted butter, and the addition of some chopped parsley and some salt and pepper. Corn can be either microwaved whole in its husk then skinned, or for those who get it stuck in their teeth, shave the kernels off the cob and microwave in a covered bowl for a minute or two. Those carrots can be pulled out of their pot, scrubbed, and either eaten raw or very lightly steamed. If you want to try something a bit different, toss them in a little butter and a touch of curry powder. And the beans, climbing up their pole, just need slicing and steaming. Again, if you want variety, toss them in a little butter and some nutmeg (just a pinch). If you like meat, the mixture goes very well with a small serving of crumbed Wiener schnitzel, but it’s very satisfying just as a vegetarian meal (and you don’t even need to go to the supermarket).