In My Kitchen Garden
Carol Cunningham’s suburban garden is entirely given over to growing food, flowers and fun for her three children.
Here she shares her top crop for autumn, and a timely tip to boost tomato and capsicum harvests come summer.
Words and pictures: Carol Cunningham
My dad was a keen gardener and growing up I remember summers of endless sweet corn - and taking bundles of excess spinach to our neighbours. Despite his example, gardening was never something that really interested me, and I never imagined I would voluntarily spend any time in the garden, let alone love it.
I started growing food after the birth of my third child, and I discovered something all gardeners know to be true: gardening is therapeutic for the soul. I started reading books on organic gardening, attended workshops, and became a member of our local community garden. I am now studying horticulture, and last year became a volunteer supervisor of the community garden.
I live in Western Sydney where we have a small suburban backyard and grow a variety of fruit, herbs, and vegetables. I started out with one raised bed filled with lettuce, and now have six raised beds and perennial plants throughout the garden, as well as three compost bins, two vertical wall gardens, a small greenhouse, a worm farm, and a trampoline.
Top crop: peas
Peas are, hands down, our favourite autumn and winter crop. Actually I reckon they are great for any season -even if you don’t get pods in the heat of spring and summer, the tendrils are edible, and look and taste great in a salad.
Sugar snap peas are a firm favourite in our house, with their crunchy, sweet, edible pods, and we grow them from late summer through to spring. Last autumn, we grew willow peas for the first time (at our community garden), and even though the shell was tough, it was a heavy cropper with lots of sweet, crunchy peas inside, and no mildew issues. I have grown purple podded peas in previous years, and while they were easier to find on the vines than green peas,they lacked the sweetness of the sugar snap. Snow peas are great as well, and probably my favourite, but I am outnumbered, so sugar snaps it is.
Peas can grow tall! A sturdy arch or reinforced trellis must be set up prior to planting. I sow peas directly into the soil, or into empty toilet rolls that can be planted into the ground. Unfortunately our Jack Russell dog loves peas almost as much as us, so elaborate structures made of old chicken wire, and bamboo, are built to keep the vines out of his reach. In strong winds, pea vines can easily topple over, so I use twine to keep the stems upright and attached to their support.
I love being out in the garden on a cool crisp autumn afternoon, watching the children searching for the hidden pods, sticking their heads and hands into the vines, and snacking on them in the garden. Not many peas make it inside to the kitchen but those that do make a great addition to any stir fry, or added to a curry just before serving. Fresh shelled peas are also delicious baked into a quiche with rainbow card, garlic, rosemary and parmesan cheese.
In late spring, when the peas are finished, and I need to make room for the summer veg, I make sure that I search through the dried out vines for the pods that were left behind, keeping them safe until next autumn. It is bittersweet knowing that another season has passed, and that next time I will be out in the garden searching for peas with the children, they will be another year older and be able to reach that little bit higher.
Time to: grow a cover crop
Autumn is the best time to grow a cover crop, which you you can grow, then dig in, to provide benefits to the soil after the vigorous growth of summer. I usually sow peas, saved from dried pods found on the vines, plus any leftovers from opened seed packets. After removing the summer veggies and chopping it all into the compost bin, I push back the mulch, gently fork the soil, then broadcast the pea seeds and lightly rake them through the soil.
Most legumes, (including peas, lupin, broad beans etc), make an excellent cover crop, because they can add nitrogen to your soil. Nitrogen in the atmosphere is not available in a form that plants can use.Bacteria in the soil forms lumps (nodes) on the roots of legumes and these bacteria, known as nitrogen fixers, convert the nitrogen found in the atmosphere (including air in the soil) into a form that plants can use, increasing the available nitrogen in your soil for successive crops.
I also grow a cover crop in the heavily shaded areas of the yard that don’t get any direct sunlight in the winter months. The pea shoots in these shady areas don’t grow very big and we don’t get any pods, but the plants are protecting the soil, feeding the microbes and are much easier to remove at the beginning of spring than grasses.
This year I will also be growing a bio-fumigant cover crop in the raised beds that grew our summer tomatoes and capsicums. Tomatoes and other members of the Solanaceae family (such as eggplants, capsicums and chillis) are often hosts to parasitic nematodes, which lay eggs onto the roots. The nematode larvae then enter the roots of the plant and remain there, causing the root to swell and affecting the plant’s ability to absorb water and nutrients from the soil.
A bio-fumigant crop is a cultural way of managing these microscopic pests. Mustard greens (Sinapis alba) and marigolds (Tagetes sp.) are planted in the garden (either direct sowing or transplanting) and allowed to grow for a few months, before they are dug back into the soil. Their leaves release chemicals as they break down which are lethal to soil pathogens. This autumn I am planting Tagetes lemmonii (Mexican marigold) and will turn it back into the soil in late winter so the beds will be ready for spring and summer plantings after the last frost.
Mexican merigolds (Tagetes lemonii). Photo - komsan kanpanom/Shutterstock
Tagetes lemonii has highly fragrant leaves that is reminiscent of pineapple cordial, the bright yellow flowers attract bees (and toddlers) and it is frost tolerant. It is easy to propagate from cuttings. If you can’t get your hands on Tagetes lemmonii, any of the other marigold species would also be beneficial as a bio-fumigant.