The world is an entirely unpredictable place right now. Over the decade I’ve dreamed of owning a lifestyle block, I’ve sometimes joked with friends that it was going to be my ‘zombie apocalypse bunker’. There is an aspect of prepping to my wanting to go rural, but I never, ever dreamed we’d be facing something like COVID-19 within the first six months!
I consider myself incredibly lucky, and weirdly I’m experiencing a lot more gratitude and hope than usual right now. But I’m also worried about what the future holds. For me (and judging by the seedling aisle at my local Mitre 10, for many others as well), the garden is a huge priority right now. It’s beneficial for mental health, provides fresh food, and can be done in sweet, sweet isolation.
But in New Zealand, we’re heading into winter. Days are getting shorter and the temperature – especially at night – is dropping. It’s not entirely conducive to growing stuff – but it doesn’t mean you can’t grow anything.
Given we are facing extraordinary times, I thought I’d break from telling stories of my life here. Instead, I wanted to do something helpful. I’ve decided to write about what you can grow right now that will be ready ‘quickly’. Even if you have limited space.
Your garden won’t solve all the world’s problems, but it might provide a nice distraction, and some fresh food in the coming weeks and months.
So, in the order of how quickly you can get them on your plate:
Microgreens and sprouts
These are going to be ready in a few days to 2 weeks. They’re highly nutritious, there’s just not a lot to them. You’ll be able to get these going quickly indoors at any time of year for fresh greens.
These aren’t my specialty, but here’s a great intro to sprouts, and here’s one for microgreens. You can do microgreens simply with supplies you probably already have. For sprouting, you might need a special lid to go onto a glass jar. There are also a myriad of kits available online and from hardware and garden stores. Kings Seeds sell in bulk lots especially for microgreens and sprouting.
Radishes will grow in containers, small spaces, and in the gaps. They mature super fast, you’ll be amazed (I always am). 4-6 weeks from now you’ll have fresh radishes. I’m trying out some (giant) daikon radishes this season, as well as the more usual small ball-type ones.
Both the leaves and root of the radish are edible. You can pickle them, ferment them, roast them, or eat them raw. Seed tape is an easy way to get a perfect harvest. But direct-sowing the seeds works too.
Pak choi, gai lan, chinese cabbage, tat soi – all great to get in now. They’ll be a fantastic accompaniment to any giant bags of rice you happen to have tucked away. I’ve been growing pak choi for a few years now, they take 4-6 weeks from seed to plate. I personally sow into containers, and prick out later. You can re-sow these every month in most regions right through until about September to keep supplies up.
I like the smaller varieties of pak choi (like you get in the supermarket in packs of 2 or 3). But if you’ve got a lot of people to feed, the larger varieties can get pretty big. The mini ones can be planted as close together as 10cm, so they’re best for growing in containers or small spaces. They’re great in gaps in larger gardens as they mature quickly.
Grow chinese cabbage alongside your daikon radishes and you’re almost set to spend an isolated afternoon making kim chi!
Silverbeet (and spinach)
I’m lumping these two together, but they are quite different species. All my own experience is with silverbeet. I find it easy to grow – too easy sometimes. Sow into containers now, then prick out about 2 weeks later. They’ll be ready to start picking in about 8 weeks.
Harvest individual leaves off the outside of the plant, rather than harvesting the whole bunch. This will keep them going right through the winter and spring. Grow 1-2 plants per person. Both are high in nutrients, are hardy, and can be grown in containers.
If you don’t like beetroot, I wouldn’t recommend planting it. My first rule of gardening is ‘only grow it if someone’s gonna eat it’. But if you do enjoy beetroot, now is the time to direct sow it. It’ll be ready in 8-9 weeks.
Both the leaves and the root are edible. The leaves taste a lot like silverbeet and can be prepared the same way. The baby leaves are good in a salad, but I only ever grow beetroot to make relish.
Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage
Depending on the variety, these are going to be 12-16 weeks away from harvest, and I wouldn’t recommend you grow them in containers as they need space. It is possible (I’ve done it before), but you don’t get much for the time and space. If you want to try it anyway, I recommend going for a sprouting variety to maximise your harvest.
You can plant radishes and small pak choi around your broccoli/cauliflower/cabbage to save space. They will mature early while the plants are still small, and when the plants get bigger you’ll have already harvested the pak choi and radish below them.
This year, I bought a couple of punnets of broccoli seedlings. If you do this, try get different varieties as they’ll probably mature at different speeds. This will help spread your harvest out. Alternately, plant a punnet now, and another punnet next month.
Ensure the soil gets a good feed of compost and some blood and bone before you plant – they are heavy feeders. You may also need to protect them from white butterflies/caterpillars for the next couple of months.
For broccoli and cauliflower, after you pick the main head, leave the plant in the ground and smaller florets will start growing along the stem. These can still be harvested and eaten, making your efforts go a bit further.
Broad (fava) beans
Broad beans love to grow in the cold, and you’ll be eating them in 12-18 weeks. They grow straight up, and when they are grown in clumps, they support each other stand tall. This makes them great for containers too.
Beans should be direct sown into the soil about 20cm apart. The seeds are large and easy to handle, and should be buried about 2cm under the soil. This is another one you can sow each month right throughout the winter for a continuous crop.
Growing beans is both good for your tummy, and your soil. Beans are nitrogen-fixers. Once you’ve done harvesting them, cut off the tops for your compost or worm farm, but leave the roots in the soil to break down and provide nitrogen to your next crop.
In New Zealand, we call them broad beans, but when you’re searching for recipes and/or growing tips try ‘fava beans’, which is what much of the world calls them.
These always take longer than I think they will to be an edible size. If you direct sow some seeds now, they will last from early winter, all spring, and into summer. You just harvest what you need, as you need it.
They can be grown in patches, or mixed with radish, asian greens, carrots and parsnip. These things all mature at different speeds, so as you harvest the earlier crops, the later crops will grow into the space.
I’ve grown them in containers successfully too. If you want them a bit quicker, you could try growing them on your windowsill.
These won’t be ready until the spring, but they’ll be happy to stay in the ground for most of summer – just harvest as you need them. If you harvest selectively, the ones left will grow out to fill in the gaps.
They can be grown in containers. A bucket with some holes in it will give you the depth you need, but if you only have small containers, the ball -type carrots will do the job. Grow from seed by direct sowing. Use seed tape if you want the easiest option – they’ll grow uniformly and you won’t have to thin them out later.
Unfortunately, gardening is not cheap. It has taken years to build up my collection of plants, tools, seeds, and equipment.
Here’s some tips on where I get my stuff.
Seeds and seedlings
You can read my guide on when to use seeds, and when seedlings might be a better option.
If you can’t afford seeds, get in touch with me via a comment on this blog. I won’t publish it, but I’ll email you directly and we’ll see what we can sort you out with. If you have the time, space, and enthusiasm, then I wouldn’t want money to be the thing holding you back.
Depending on where you live, you might need some hoops and some kind of cover. If you’re living somewhere cold, for instance, frost cloth or PVC will help extend your growing season. If you’re somewhere warmer like me, then you still need to keep the bugs and birds off.
My favourite place for affordable, reliable gardening supplies – and who still do online orders – is The Warehouse. They’re not paying me, but heaps of my stuff comes from there and it’s performed well over numerous growing seasons. Plus you pretty much can’t beat their prices.
Keep in mind that containers don’t have to be fancy. When I lived in Auckland, I had a patio container garden using old council recycling bins with extra holes drilled into the bottom. We currently have flexibins and 10l buckets with holes in them in our ‘pot’ collection too.
Compost and growing media
I guess get in quick if you need growing media like compost, or potting mix. My advice is hit your local hardware store first thing in the morning. It’s usually very quiet.
Be very careful handling compost and potting mix if you don’t have access to face masks. Legionnaires Disease is real and we don’t need you coming down with that right now. Avoid working with any growing media in enclosed spaces. Use a scarf to cover your nose and mouth. Watch your breath as you work with it. And wash your hands, obviously.
Good luck to you all in the upcoming upheaval. The garden is a nice place to be if you find yourself isolated. It can be your calm little island when you need to not think about the onslaught of information right now.
And perhaps like our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, it might be the thing that pulls us through. Fresh vegetables are essential for immunity, so anything that can give you a boost right now, has to be good for us all in the long run.
If you have any questions about your garden throughout the crisis, feel free to leave a comment or ask away on Twitter. I don’t always have the answers, but I have a decent library I can always consult for you.
Pandemic Growing Guides
During the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, I'll be writing a pandemic-themed growing blog every week. Here's a handy list of what's been published so far if you'd like to catch up: