The summer garden has to be my favourite garden. It feels so alive with the colours and scents of blooming flowers, the bees and butterflies and fast-ripening fruit and vegetables. It’s the season of abundance and harvest, which is welcome after the slower, quieter seasons.
We often go away on holiday for a few weeks over Christmas and return to a jungle of cherry tomatoes, basil, rocket and enough cucumbers and zucchini to feed a small village. We hate to waste, so for a few weeks there, it’s zucchini everything! The extra produce from our garden is shared around with neighbours and friends. It often makes me think of rural communities and times past where people shared what they had an abundance of and traded what they had for what they needed. There’s a beauty and simplicity to this way of life and to eating seasonally.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of your summer garden.
When harvesting your crops, consider the timing. Some veggies are best harvested at the peak of ripeness, while others can be picked earlier and will continue to ripen off the plant. Regular harvesting is also key, as many plants grow like crazy during hot weather. A lot of veggies work on a ‘the more you pick, the more they produce’ basis. Early morning is the best time to harvest in your garden as the cooler temperatures mean the produce will be at its best, before the heat of the day. The best way to harvest is to invest in some garden/herb scissors, or use a knife, and cut what you need, rather than tearing, which can damage the plant. A basket or something similar to carry your produce will ensure it doesn’t get bruised.
Collecting and storing seeds
Saving seeds from your favourite crops is a great way to ensure you get the same delicious variety that you enjoyed this year, the following season. The best seeds to save are from open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, as these plants produce ‘true to type’ (identical to their parent). Seeds from hybrids (F1 on the packet), on the other hand, will not, so be sure to check seed packets. If you want true to type, it’s also best to harvest seeds from self-pollinating plants such as lettuce, tomatoes, peas and beans. Vegetables such as peppers, onions, beetroot, carrots, kale, courgettes, cucumbers, pumpkins, radishes, sweetcorn and eggplant are all cross-pollinators and will cross-pollinate with similar varieties.
When collecting seeds to save, select them from healthy, strong plants. Harvest your seeds from seed heads that have dried out – they should be brown or black. Snip off the seed head and place it head-first inside a paper bag, with the stem poking out. Place the bag in a warm room until the seeds fall out naturally. Once out, leave them to dry for a couple of weeks before storing away. For wet seeds, such as those from tomatoes, eggplant or pumpkin, harvest when the fruit is ripe. Scoop out the seeds, then rinse them under water and place on a paper towel to dry. Once completely dry, store away both the paper and the seeds in an airtight container in a cool spot. Don’t forget to label the containers with the contents and the date for next season’s planting.
Caring for your garden during the summer heat
Summer heat combined with little rain means a bit of extra care is needed in your garden. The trick is to water deeply and regularly; this encourages the plant roots to go deeper into the soil. The best time to water is in the cool of the day, early morning or evening. Adding organic mulch such as straw, woodchips or shredded leaves to the surface of your garden will also be a huge help. This will act as a sort of sponge to hold moisture, as well as a shield from the intense heat of the sun. Furthermore, as the material breaks down and decomposes, it will add nutrients to the soil and plants. Weeding your garden will also mean less competition for the moisture and nutrients in the soil.
Long periods of direct sunlight on your garden during the hotter months can be too much for your plants. If your garden doesn’t have any natural shade, you can use a shade cover. Something lightweight and light in colour, so it doesn’t absorb the heat, is ideal. You could DIY and use cloth such as an old sheet, or mesh. Or your local garden centre will have a variety to choose from. Ideally your shade cover should be a few feet away from your plants and should be easily removable for when you no longer need it during the other seasons of the year.
What to plant
Summer is the perfect time to plant veggies such as cucumbers, capsicums, courgettes, kūmara, pumpkins, eggplant, carrots, sweetcorn and salad greens such as lettuce, mesclun, radishes and spring onions. It’s also a good time to plant herbs such as chives, basil, thyme and parsley.
Summer garden toolbox
Here’s a list of some basic equipment to have on hand for your summer garden. Depending on the size of your garden, what you need may vary a little but there are some essentials which every gardener (and garden) will benefit from. Try to choose good-quality products when possible. You know the saying: ‘Buy once, buy well’.
- Spade: the quintessential gardener’s companion. You’ll need one of these for tasks such as digging holes to plant in, turning over soil or cutting edges, amongst other things. When choosing one, make sure it’s the correct height for you and that it’s sturdy.
- Trowel: basically a very small spade, a trowel is one of the tools you’ll likely use the most in your garden for weeding and planting. Choose one that feels robust and is the right shape for what you’re wanting to use it for, whether that’s digging out weeds or making trenches for seeds.
- Secateurs: essentially these are strong, super-sharp scissors for the garden that are perfect for cutting back. There are loads of varieties to choose from.
- Hand fork: made for loosening soil and can also be used for weeding.
- Shovel: similar to a spade but has a rounded end which makes moving things such as compost or soil much easier.
- Rake: ideal for spreading soil, compost, mulch or gravel, as well as for raking up autumn leaves.
- Fork: you’ll need one of these for breaking up soil, turning compost and moving mulch.
- Hoe: when it comes to cultivating soil and removing weeds without having to bend right down, a hoe is a very useful gardening tool. Choose the blade type according to what you want to use it for.
- Loppers: great for cutting thick or woody stems and branches. Available in a variety of sizes.
- Pruning saw: useful if you’re wanting to prune large branches (over 3cm wide). You’ll probably only need this if you have lots of trees in the garden.
- Pruning knife: great for removing small branches, as well as for all those common gardening tasks, such as cutting open bags of compost.
- Gardening gloves
- Dibber: for making holes for seeds (a chopstick will work just as well).
- Cloth or gauze face mask: for when you’re handling potting mix or store-bought compost.
- Weed bag/bucket: for easy collection and transportation of weeds.