Climate change is a hot topic at the moment (excuse the pun), in light of the awful summer, cyclones and severe flooding in some parts of New Zealand. As I have been gardening for a decade, I thought it might be helpful to share my ideas about having a garden when the summer is considerably cooler and shorter, which has become a problem in Auckland in recent years. This might also be a problem in other countries, too. In saying that, you can’t predict what the weather will be like. In previous years we have had severe droughts in Auckland. Watering restrictions were imposed, including a hose ban. It was very hot and although the summer started later, it finished quite late too, towards the end of autumn. This year has seen cyclones and flooding. Next year there may well be a heat wave, for all I know. I always try hard to look at things positively otherwise life will be completely miserable. The uncertainty is one of the things that makes gardening so interesting and challenging. While it is undoubtedly hard work and very unglamorous, gardening is never boring!
What performed well this summer despite less than ideal conditions
I had to remove our plants by February as all the rain in January proved too much for them, but up until then, we had a good crop of zucchini. I highly recommend the variety Romanesco, which is in the Franchi seeds range and is available through the NZ retailer Italian Seeds Pronto. If you live overseas, check for your local Franchi seeds retailer as it will be different in each country.
Despite less than ideal weather conditions, we also had an epic crop of cherry tomatoes. I grew the varieties Tumbling Tom Red, Tumbling Tom Yellow and Topsy Tom from seed and planted them in hanging baskets and 9 litre buckets (the type that you use around the house, but remember to poke holes at the bottom for drainage). Because they are so much smaller than large tomatoes such as Beefsteak, they ripen quickly even if there isn’t much sunshine. Our large tomatoes didn’t perform well as they require a lot of sun in order for them to change colour from green to red, and that applies even to the grafted plants I put in, which mature faster and crop more heavily than regular tomato plants in normal growing conditions.
Both our climbing beans and dwarf beans cropped well. I grew Climbing Cobra, my favourite green runner bean and the dwarf bean Golden Yellow Butter, both from seed. In saying that, we didn’t get nearly as much as last year but given the poor performance of most veggies in the garden (see below), we were thrilled with our modest harvest.
What isn’t worth growing in cool, short summers
The following plants didn’t perform well in our garden this season and I am reluctant to grow them again in future unless our summers improve dramatically and return to what they were at least five years ago, which I think is unlikely to happen when I look at the downward trend over the years. Every year, summer starts later and later, is shorter and temperatures are cooler. I keep hoping that things will be different each year but it never is.
After an epic season last year, our cucumbers were a complete flop. I planted all of them vertically along a 1 metre fence line in full sun as they cropped very well there last year, but we had hardly any cucumbers this year and most of them were misshapen. While cucumbers consist mainly of water, I don’t think the plants appreciated the deluge.
Pumpkins need a long, hot growing season in order to develop and ripen. Back in 2016, I harvested 75 pumpkins in autumn, including 25 Big Chief Butternuts, a fantastic enormous variety I grew from seed which is sadly no longer available in New Zealand. Yet last year, I only harvested a dozen pumpkins and they were very small by comparison. This year, I will be lucky if I get three or four pumpkins and I devoted two large areas in the garden to them, too.
Melons require an even hotter and longer growing season than pumpkins in order to grow and mature. In 2017, I grew a whopping 38 rock melons in one of our garden beds. I have also grown plenty of watermelon and honeydew melon successfully in the past. But as of last year, I have been unable to grow melons at all. I used to plant my seedlings in the third week of November as it was warm enough even at night then and it gave them enough time to grow before developing fruit. Nowadays, it is way too cold to do that. Planting them in December doesn’t give them enough time to grow, develop fruit and for them to ripen in time before it starts getting cooler again in autumn. To compound to that, temperatures are not as warm as they used to be in summer, which makes it difficult for the fruit to grow and ripen. I belong to a lot of gardening groups on Facebook as it’s a good way to learn and help others, too. I noticed that some gardeners have gotten around this problem by growing melons in a tunnel house and hand pollinating them, which is a good idea even if you grow them outside because the flowers are very small compared to other cucurbits such as pumpkins, zucchini and squash, and the bees often miss them.
Capsicums, eggplants and chillies
I always grow these veggies in containers in order to save ground space for root crops and veggies that sprawl and require a lot of room such as pumpkins and melons. I also find that they actually crop better if grown in containers than if they’re grown in the ground as the soil temperature is a bit warmer. This year the size and number of our capsicums was pathetic. Most of our eggplants ended up dying and the chilli plants haven’t grown at all since I planted them out in December.
Snake beans and okra
These require even hotter weather than capsicums, eggplants and chillies in order to flourish, which explains why they performed so poorly this season. The seedlings have hardly grown since I planted them.
Native to Mexico, zinnias require very hot weather in order to grow and flower well. A mistake people often make is to sow seeds too early in spring when temperatures are still quite cool and the seedlings end up dying. I tend to sow seeds in early December on my heat pad as they require the warmth in order to germinate, even at that time of the year. Normally I plant my seedlings out in late December and early January, and they flower until the end of autumn (May for us). I was very happy with our displays last year. This year, the plants have hardly grown since I planted them out six weeks ago and we will be very lucky if they flower at all.