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Autumn garden: Pest wars and forgotten flavours

Theoretically it is now autumn, despite the fact that we had our first week of summer weather at the beginning of March.

It’s the time for gathering the crops, but everything is late, ripening sluggishly, palely awaiting warmth like sunbathers on an English beach.

Usually at this time of year I’m trying to think of ways to use my surplus tomatoes, but tomatoes have been a disaster. The weather was so cold early in the season that the plants didn’t put on any growth and they’ve only produced a modicum of fruit.

In the Manawatu, where I am, grapes are just starting to colour, and the blackbirds are just starting to take notice. They don’t know that when they are pecking at my grapes they can’t help making a continuous chirping noise, which brings me rushing out hurling imprecations and missiles at them. The vine is Black Hamburg, very vigorous, but with luscious flavourful black grapes. I had an online conversation with someone recently who wanted to plant a vine which has grapes like supermarket ones – namely crisp, slight sweet but essentially tasteless. Are we raising a generation who actually prefer bland supermarket food? She said home grown grapes have a perfume that she dislikes. Wouldn’t you call that flavour?

In the vegetable garden I’ve planted a mixture of cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower, and I’m skirmishing with the cabbage white butterflies. I’ve covered the small plants with a cloche which has fine wire mesh, and it’s gratifying to watch the butterflies hover over the top of it, unable to get in. When the plants are too big to fit underneath it I’ll have to resort to hoops with old net curtains stretched over them. It doesn’t hurt to have a look at the backs of the leaves and mash any little green caterpillars you find there too, or they’ll reduce the leaves to fishnet.  In Auckland it might be possible to leave planting brassicas until white butterflies have hibernated or whatever they do in winter, but here in the lower North Island they need to be planted out now, as if they’re left any later they won’t have put on enough growth before the (really) cold weather.

The greengages went mainly to the blackbirds. Although they look like a green or yellow plum, the flavour is completely different – like biting into a mouthful of honey! My Red Doris plums are nearly finished – a delicious, yellow fleshed plum for eating raw. Plums always seem to turn sour if they’re cooked, but a good way to use tart fruit, including windfall apples, rhubarb or gooseberries, is to make a fruit fool. Gently cook about 500g of fruit in sugar syrup and purée it. Mix in 125mls of thick custard, made with eggs or custard powder, and then lightly stir through 125mls of whipped cream, so it shows in streaks. The dairy produce takes the tartness off the fruit.

The dwarf beans I planted last month are all but ready to pick – an easy and successful crop. Globe artichokes have been a new experience. I bought the plant at our local market and I’m still making up my mind whether I like them.  I’m overwhelmed with gem squash, which don’t have quite such a good flavour as usual, no doubt down to the lack of sunshine as well. Walnuts will be ready soon, and my avocados, which were only the size of ball bearings, have increased to the size of baked beans.

Date modified: February 18 2021
First published: Mar 2017

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