I have recently started reflecting on where plants in our garden are originally from, because people often ask me the same question about myself. Since I started writing this series of blog posts, I have been looking forward to covering India. It is a place which is very close to my heart as it is where I am originally from. I’m not sure if things have changed now but traditionally people in India shopped for fresh produce in farmers markets even if they lived in large cities. This is also true of a lot of other countries even on other continents, such as France.
The vegetable okra is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Indian vegetables and cuisine. I hate to disappoint fellow Indians but according to my research, okra is native to Africa, not India. However, there are many wonderful plants that do originate from India. Here are a few of our favourites that we grow in our garden in Auckland.
Five years ago, we planted a dwarf Bearss lime in a large container. Considering that it was bred to remain compact and the roots are restricted to the pot it is in, it provides us with quite a few limes every year. Limes are extremely versatile and are of course an essential ingredient in cocktails. We don’t drink, but find limes an extremely tasty addition to Thai dishes. We also have a dwarf Kaffir lime tree which is planted in a large container. The highly aromatic leaves are also wonderful for flavouring Thai dishes. I know that’s not a very nice name for a plant, but that is what it is called.
I was surprised to learn that cucumbers are native to India. Last summer, our cucumbers didn’t do well at all. While they mostly consist of water (96% so I read somewhere), there was maybe a bit too much rain for their liking. Prior to that, cucumbers have always cropped reliably in our garden and the summer before last was our best season to date.
As with all plants, breeders can come from any country these days. My favourite cucumber variety is a hybrid called Iznik, which was bred by a German. The seeds might be considerably more expensive than other cucumber varieties and there are only a few in a packet, but sometimes you get what you pay for. This plant produces an unbelievable amount of cocktail sized fruit with edible smooth green skin. They are perfect for snacking, platters and lunchboxes. Iznik does very well when grown vertically.
In recent years, I have started growing all our cucumbers that way. They love to climb and I’ve noticed they crop more prolifically than when grown in the ground. Keeping them off the ground also helps prevent rot. Even larger cucumber varieties are suitable for growing vertically, provided they have adequate support.
Like all melons, rockmelons require a long hot growing period in order to crop well. Our best rockmelon season ever was the summer of 2016/2017, when we harvested 38 rockmelons grown on our front lawn. Since then, I haven’t had much success. Everyone’s microclimate is different, but I have noticed that for us, summer starts later every year and temperatures are considerably cooler than in previous years. There is also more variance in temperatures, especially between day and night in mid and late spring, when I usually plant young seedlings. Fluctuating temperatures can cause a lot of stress to plants. Sometimes they don’t bounce back and end up dying. By the time you want to start over, it might be too late in the season, you might have run out of seedlings you started from seed and there are no rockmelon plants in the garden centre. This is why I have decided not to grow them anymore.
I would like to share a couple of tips for growing rockmelons successfully for those that wish to give it a go. Don’t let what I said put you off. Everyone’s microclimate is different. Even if you live next door, you might have very different gardening experiences. Just about our entire garden is on our front lawn and the section is unfenced. It is very exposed and we struggle a lot, especially when there are cool southerly winds. If you live in a temperate zone, you might find it helpful to lay down black polythene on the soil first and make holes for planting your seedlings. This helps keep the soil temperature considerably warmer, which is especially beneficial by the time it is evening as there can be a huge disparity between daytime and nighttime temperatures as mentioned above. The flipside is that black plastic isn’t good for soil, but you can’t win in every way. If you are determined to grow rockmelons successfully in a moderate climate, this might help.
You can increase your potential yield by hand-pollinating flowers. Rockmelon flowers are very small and sometimes they end up being missed by bees in favour of edibles which produce large flowers, such as zucchini and pumpkins. While it is time consuming and uncomfortable as you have to crouch in the patch and take care not to stand on any plants and damage them accidentally, hand pollination itself is not as difficult as it sounds. There are videos on Youtube which you can watch if you are interested in learning how to do this and it is easier to understand than a written explanation, even with photos.
Both of these tips were passed on to me by a fellow gardener who lives in Motueka, a town near the top of the South Island. We got to know each other through a gardening group on Facebook. If you are a keen gardener and feel comfortable using Facebook (not everyone does), I highly recommend gardening groups as a way to learn from more experienced gardeners as well as share what you have learnt to help encourage and inspire others.
From my research, I discovered that bananas are native to India. Our banana tree was planted in 2017 by an American couple from California who stayed with us under the wwoofing scheme, which allows travelers with working holiday visas to stay with locals and help them around their garden. The variety we planted is called Misi Luki and is one which is suitable for growing in Auckland.
Over the past five years, our tree (which is now many trees clumped together as I didn’t bother removing and replanting the new pups) has produced so many bunches of bananas, each containing up to 80 fruit. Last year alone, we harvested a whopping 14 bunches of bananas!
Bananas are incredibly versatile and can be used in so many delicious and tasty ways. I have written a blog post containing ideas for using bananas, which you can read here.