Robin’s veggie growing tips of the month


Robin Gale-Baker, from Sustainable Macleod, has kindly agreed to provide this website with monthly, veggie growing tips.

There’s only four tips at the moment but obviously the list will lengthen as the months go past.

Which fruits continue to fipen after being picked? (May)

Pomegranates and figs are ripening beautifully at this time of year but must ripen on the tree (they do not continue to mature once picked). How do you know when they are ready? In the case of pomegranates, look for split skins. Once this happens to a few on the tree, all will be ready. It is worth investing in a pomegranate press (available online for less than $60) to extract the juice as the press will avoid inclusion of any of the bitter pith which ruins the taste. In the case of figs, look for wilting of the stem and give a gentle squeeze for softness. Note that pomegranates and figs that look like they are ready by colour often still have a way to go.

Editor’s note: fruits that continues to ripen after being picked are called ‘climacteric’, whilst fruits that stop ripening after being picked are called ‘non-climacteric’. The archetypal climacteric fruit are tomatoes and bananas. Avocados, peaches and plums are also climacteric. The archetypal non-climacteric fruit are citrus. Grapes and all the curcubits (cucumbers, pumpkins, etc) are also non-climacteric. For each fruit, our North East Melbourne fruiting schedule lists whether it is climacteric or not. Climacteric fruit will typically only continue to ripen if kept at room temperature so you can defer this by putting them into the fridge until you want them to ripen.

Editor’s second note: have you ever seen the flower of a fig tree? The answer is ‘no’ because the flowers are actually inside the fig (and the fig is therefore not technically a fruit). Whilst common figs do not require pollination, they do not taste that good. Rather, the best tasting type – Smyrna – does require pollination. But it only has female flowers so needs to be pollinated by a wild/caprifig (whose fruit are inedible). As the flowers inside the fig are inaccessible to all normal pollen vectors, pollination is done by tiny wasps. The wasps hatch in the caprifig, then mate, then the females leave to find new figs to lay their eggs in. As they leave, they get covered in pollen, and pollinate the next fig that they enter. If it is a caprifig, then baby wasps are born but no edible fruit results. If, however, it is a Smyrna, then edible fruit results but no baby wasps are born (the Smyrna flowers are too long for the wasp to lay its eggs in). Luckily for you, the female fig produces an enzyme that digests the dead wasps completely and so the crunchy bits inside a fig are seeds, not wasp parts. For more info, watch this video.

When to pick pumpkins and how to ‘cure’ them (April)

Pick pumpkins when the stem coming out of the top of the pumpkin has withered. Leave 10-12 cm of stem but don’t use it as a handle. You can also ‘knock’ on the pumpkin and if it sounds hollow then it is ready for picking.

A pumpkin will not be ready to eat immediately after being harvested. Rather, it needs to be ‘cured’ (aka ‘hardened off’) and allowed to sweeten. To do this, rest the pumpkin on some mesh or wire so that air can circulate around it, with newspaper or straw underneath so that the skin doesn’t tear or blemish. Leave it in the sun for 2-3 weeks then turn it over and do the same for the bottom. Then the pumpkin will be ready to eat.

Herb drying (March)

A well-dried herb should be the same colour as it was in its fresh state. Those supermarket ones that are heat-dried, lose not only their colour but also most of their volatile oils. The best way to dry herbs is to cut the stems in the morning once any morning dew has dried but before watering, as this will be when the herb’s volatile oils will be strongest. Then tie them in bunches, remove any brown, dried leaves and hang them upside down in a warm but shady place to dry out. Once fully dry, strip the stems, fill the jars, screw the lid on, label and you’re done.

Some herbs don’t dry well and are better preserved in oil. These include basil (though recently someone told me that basil dried in a very slow oven retains its flavour), french tarragon, oregano, savoury and thyme. If preserving in oil, use a hot oil method as the microbes on herbs (or any other vegetable) can cause botulism (which can be fatal).

Seed saving (February)

February and March are ideal times for seed collecting – both seed that has dried on the plant and wet seed which has to be extracted, washed and dried. Example wet seeds are tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini, cucumber and capsicum. Consider collecting both early and late wet seed, particularly tomatoes, thereby selecting for plants that will produce both early and late in the season. Choose the best fruit, label clearly and plant at least one of each. You should be able to extend the tomato season until late May, if not early June.

Note that pumpkin seed will often not grow true as it can be cross pollinated by bees from as far away as 8 kilometres (but you may get a variety of interesting pumpkins on the one vine!). You can, however, keep the seed true by either bagging the flowers or hand pollinating.

As Robin points out, you should keep back the best seed for planting, rather than follow the obvious course of eating the best and planting the dross. Incidentally, Richard Dawkins said (in The Ancestor’s Tale) that his father found this one of the hardest lessons to get across to farmers in Africa in the 1940s.

If you want to know more about seed saving, an excellent book is The Seed Savers’ Handbook. Both readable and comprehensive, it would be a nice gift for anyone at $32.

And here is a free booklet: A Guide to Seed Saving, Seed Stewardship & Seed Sovereignty.