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Growing vegetables

There's nothing like home-grown vegetables for freshness and taste - and kids often take a greater interest in vegetables they've helped grow. We look at 5 easy-to-grow vegetables and provide helpful advice for successful vegetable gardening.

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Top vegetables

We asked our members to suggest vegetables that are easy and rewarding to grow. Here are their top 5 picks. All these vegetables can be grown outside and they're suitable for containers (see below) as well.

Silverbeet

"If I can grow it, anyone can!"

Silverbeet, also called chard, is easy to grow and you can pick what you need at any time of the year. You can add small tender leaves to stir fries or salads, or substitute it for spinach in spanakopita or cannelloni.

Look for the coloured "Bright Lights" variety: the crimson, orange or yellow plants are attractive enough to go in the flower garden.

For a small garden you only need 3 plants, 1 in each colour, so it's easiest to buy a punnet of 6 from your garden centre. Or you can raise them from seed - start them off in seed-raising mix in a punnet.

Tip: If you have problems with wind, slugs or snails ... use soft drink bottles with the neck and base cut off to protect your new seedlings.

Lettuces

"Convenience and ecology" were one member's reasons for growing loose leaf lettuce varieties.

They don't come wrapped in plastic, they're always on hand, and you only pick as much as you need. Sow a few seeds, then more at 3-week intervals to ensure a continuous supply.

Keep the soil moist in warmer weather or lettuces may go to seed.

Harvest them with scissors about 2cm above the soil line when leaves are 8 to 10cm tall. The stumps should regrow for second or third cuts.

Tip: Keep an eye out for slugs and snails - they love lettuces.

Beans

"Best fresh from the garden to maintain crispness and taste" and "far cheaper than shop ones".

You have a choice of dwarf or climbing bean varieties. Climbing beans give bigger crops, maybe too much for a small household. They also need support - with a wire or bamboo "tepee", or against a trellis or fence.

Beans need warm soils to germinate so wait for warm weather to sow them. After you've sown the beans, cover the patch with netting so birds and cats won't disturb the soil, and protect the new shoots from slugs and snails.

Climbing beans crop over 10 to 12 weeks if they're regularly picked, but you need to sow dwarf beans in short rows at monthly intervals to get a continuous supply. Make sure you water them in dry weather - and water deeply, not just on the surface.

Tip: Pick the beans frequently, while they're young and tender. If you let the pods get too big (and leathery), the plant produces fewer flowers and fewer new beans.

Tomatoes

"There's nothing to beat a tomato off the vine, warmed by the sun."

Cherry tomatoes are easier to grow and more prolific than larger varieties. They also make great lunchbox snacks.

They need lots of sun and regular feeding with a special fertiliser to produce heavy crops with bunches of 15 or more tomatoes. You'll need to support the plant with two or three stakes.

Labour weekend is the traditional time to plant out tomato seedlings, but in colder areas it's better to wait a couple of weeks. You can grow them in containers in a porch or on the sunny side of the house.

Tip: It's usual to keep the plant to a single stem by pinching out side shoots. This means you won't be faced with a leafy tangle.

Carrots

"The taste of a carrot straight from the garden is unbeatable."

Growing carrots in the ground can be tricky, but it's easy in containers. Choose a quick-growing variety and sow a few at 3- or 4-week intervals.

You can pull out baby carrots as soon as they're about 1cm across. Take as many as you need and leave the rest to grow on.

Tip: Keep the soil mounded up around the plants to stop the "shoulders" from turning green.

Containers and raised beds

Raised beds

If you're starting a vegetable garden, putting in a raised bed or planter box is a good idea. There are several advantages:

  • Raised beds allow better drainage and you can put in a good growing medium from the outset.
  • You don't have to dig a raised bed or planter as you would a traditional vegetable patch.
  • You can design the plot so that everything is within easy reach. Keep it to no more than 1.5 metres wide.

Because drainage is better, you may find you have to water more often. It's easy to install a watering system around the edges of the bed. Use plenty of mulch. Growing plants close together helps to shade the soil, reduce evaporation, and keep the roots cooler.

Container growing

Freedom from weeds and many pests and diseases makes growing vegetables in containers an attractive option. You can move the container to take advantage of sun or shelter - lettuces, for example, need warmth in winter and spring but in hot summers they do best in shade.

The downside is that at the height of summer some container-grown vegetables (tomatoes, for example) need daily watering. If you're planning a holiday you'll need to set up an automatic watering system or ask for a neighbour's help.

You can grow carrots, lettuces or 3 or 4 plants of silverbeet or dwarf beans in containers which hold 10 litres of potting mix (about 25cm diameter). For tomatoes you'll need at least a 15L container, about 30cm in diameter. Don't use containers less than 20cm deep as they dry out quickly. Line terracotta pots with plastic to retain moisture, and make some drainage holes in the bottom of the plastic.

Look for a potting mix suitable for outdoor containers. Keep the bag - vegetables will soon exhaust the nutrient supplies in the potting mix and you'll need to check the label for information on when to add fertiliser.

Report by Bev Frederikson

Vegetable growing tips

  • Fertiliser: Liquid fertilisers are easy to store and apply. You can buy a general purpose fertiliser or one suited to the type of vegetable you're raising. Use a "flower and fruit" fertiliser or a specialist tomato fertiliser for fruiting crops like tomatoes and beans. Leafy crops need a fertiliser rich in nitrogen.

  • Mulch: Stressed plants, especially leaf vegetables, will go to seed when conditions are dry. A layer of mulch (at least 2cm thick) will help the soil or potting mix retain moisture, so you won't have to use your hose every day. If you don't have a compost bin, you can buy a bag of mulch from your garden centre. Water the garden thoroughly before mulching.

  • Timing: Seeds won't germinate until the soil is warm enough - and young seedlings can be killed by late frosts. Just because seedlings are available doesn't necessarily mean it's time to buy them - garden centres tend to stock seedlings a little earlier than the ideal time for planting. Consult a New Zealand gardening guide, your local newspaper's gardening column or a garden centre to find the best times to plant in your area.

  • Surveillance: Check out your garden at least once a week, so you can deal with problems as they arise. Pick leaves which are showing signs of disease or insect damage - you can take them to your garden centre for diagnosis if you think there's a serious problem.

  • Slugs and snails: When we tested snail control methods in 2001 poisonous bait pellets came out tops. Repellents, in liquid form or granules, were a safer but less efficient option. Spreading a barrier such as sand wasn't very successful and neither was that old favourite, the beer trap. One lure that did work was marigolds - the snails preferred them to the lettuce on offer.