Autumn harvest and planning
This is a time to look forward to spring. We are heading towards winter and currently hibernating away. While this is new to us, it is actually something people have been doing forever. I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmothers at the moment. Grandma used to ring my Dad from New Plymouth to tell him “you have to get your potatoes in this weekend” or “you need to plant your tomatoes.” I’ve always been more of an “I should plant” sort of gardener but with my garden now being more than an oasis and actually the heart of our families food and the freshness and the flavour, I’m starting to think like my grandmothers. I must plant my broad beans and sow my spinach because they are things I know will look after us.
Spring will come, I can actually promise you that. This is a certainty and now is a wonderful time of year to look forward to this. To plan and harvest for the new season and the promise of things to come.
Harvesting from our garden mainly depends on what we have in our gardens ready to go, and for the converted gardener, you will be well used to making the most of your crops with bottling and preserving, but you might not be so used to harvesting seed. Autumn is a wonderful time for seed harvest!
For the new gardener, while you might not be able to harvest now, you are in a great position to begin to prepare new beds for spring and to look at your garden in a new way in the months that come which will see you off to an abundant summer.
Choose your best performing plant in terms of both health and flavour and select a nice ripe tomato. Cut in half and scrape out the seeds onto a paper towel and smear it across. A paper towel is good because it absorbs the moisture and seeds need to dry out. Write the name of the plant on it. Leave it on the windowsill or a warm place to dry out. You can also leave them on the dry paper towel and when you come to sow these in the spring you can just pop the paper and all into the seedling tray.
Sunflowers are food! Some of the things we now just grow for fun are actually food OR we grow them for the bees but after you’ve watched the bumblebees roll around drunk in them, you can benefit too.
We have a row of sunflowers coming to the end of their splendour and they are now head down and ready to be harvested and it's really fun because the seeds sort of pop out easily. (Read more about harvesting sunflower heads here)
Collect your bean seeds. Let them dry on the plant and pick them just as the dry pods are looking ready to pop and starting to crinkle.
This gets me onto harvesting for the soil. I’m starting this conversation with beans because they are full of nitrogen. They have these nodes in their roots which host a bacteria that generates nitrogen which is the most important base nutrient for growth in our gardens.
Compost is not just about kitchen waste which on its own is too rich. It's about balance. The plant material, leaves and dry matter that are coming out of your garden now are essential to making good compost for the incoming spring.
Letting it go
In my garden now, half of our salad is all from self-seeding, a mix of coriander, rocket and bok choy. Letting your plants such as parsley and rocket naturalise in the garden is so easy and they will constantly renew if you allow them to go fully to seed. You can also collect the seed yourself so that you can control the spread of the harvest. This is easily done by shaking the seeds as they dry naturally on the plant into a brown paper bag. You will collect hundreds of seeds from a single shake which will be far too many for the average garden, but also remember that seeds can add wonderful flavours to food as well. For instance, at the end of summer, my daughter and I spent a morning gathering coriander seed which is flavoursome in cooking and once the plant has gone to seed, the roots are also an amazing flavour base with coconut cream and fish sauce and a little sugar. This also applies to the seeds of fennel which are delicious in breads or toasted for salads or a flavour base for soups and stews.
Remember to always label your seeds with the date, variety and ideally store them in sowing seasons so you don’t forget to sow them!
Try to grow everything from seed! One of the most important lessons I can give to a new gardener is that everything you read is only part of the truth. So much information that you consume online will be written to a local audience. Even though I'm here talking to New Zealand, I garden in Auckland on volcanic ash and what I can do in my garden is different to my parent’s garden which is only 20 minutes away by car. Don’t let knowledge limit you, let it guide you but don’t take anything as an absolute. Gardening is about getting to know your own limitations and that experimentation is the fun part.
Being a gardener is about being an artist and a scientist at the same time.