Plants play up when we're not looking

JUDE GILLIES
Last updated 14:10 11/01/2013

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Isn't it great getting back from holiday to see what's been going on in the garden while you've been away?

Rain might have caused some stressed-out, cabin fever-type moments for those of you stuck in tents, but back home in the garden it's probably been a lifesaver, especially in the vege patch.

Chances are, though, things have got way out of hand, with zucchinis morphing into marrows and the tomatoes taking off.

Weird, isn't it, how quickly things get away when you turn your back and go on holiday, even for a week? It's as if your plants collectively conspire to go bad as soon as you're out the drive and are then waiting, gleefully, for your reaction to the chaos when you return.

When we get home from holiday, rather than unpack the car and do those other menial back-to-reality tasks like checking the mail, I much prefer to treat myself to a wander around the garden to see how things are going.

It's always so gratifying to see how fruits and veges have got on with the business of growing, and I'm more than ready to forgive the mess in the interests of exciting new developments. It's like Christmas all over again, finding ripe fruit and new flowers.

The scary thing is that although I like to kid myself that summer is still stretching out indefinitely ahead of us, in reality it's way past the "longest" day, and we should all be planning for the winter garden six months out.

And although I'm a bit late, I've just harvested my garlic. It's nothing spectacular, and I've never been particularly good at growing it, mostly because I tend to get distracted or go on holiday when I should be at home watering and weeding it.

Garlic likes plenty of sun and room to grow, and doesn't like being crowded out by weeds. So this year, I introduced an innovative new minimal intervention programme - a thick mulch of Nelson Mail newspapers to keep the weeds away while I was basking in the summer sun. And it pretty much worked a treat.

The garlic might not be outstanding, but it's definitely my best effort yet. I managed to get hold of a special easy-peel strain with plenty of flavour, and am hoping for big things come winter, when I break into garlic and pasta mode.

Meanwhile, I'm leaving the bundle of freshly harvested plants out in the sun to dry off and, hopefully, cure well for winter storage.

It's a satisfying summer ritual, and an acknowledgement that in terms of the garden year, we are definitely past high noon.

Freshly crushed garlic is also an essential ingredient in the Florence fennel and new potato salad I've adopted this summer. The potatoes have to be lovely "new" waxy types like jersey bennes or, if you're buying them, the small, waxy perlas from Northland.

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But for the best results, you should grow and dig your own spuds for this salad, which contrasts the smooth, creamy texture of freshly dug potatoes with the crunchy texture and aromatic flavour of fennel.

Rather than harvesting and pulling out whole fennel "bulbs" (given that fennel are not true bulbs, but swollen stem bases), I've implemented another minimalist growing programme for them, cutting the individual bulbs off at ground level, leaving the roots to re-sprout. It means I don't have to plant new seedlings every year, and have ended up with huge clumps of perennial fennel around the garden, like that growing wild on roadsides.

Like the garlic, my fennel "bulbs" may not be that big, but I prefer them that way, harvesting the tiny regrowth bulbs to roast or saute whole.

Later, as the shoots grow up, I use them sliced and raw in salads.

And, at this time in midsummer, fennel makes a spectacularly tall addition to the vegetable garden and flower borders, towering above the zucchinis and daisies. Soon they'll be overshadowed by the sunflowers popping up behind them.

That's how I like to grow them, scattered among the sweet peas and daisies in the flower borders as well as among the veges. I love the way their ethereal flower heads float above the garden and their pungent anise aroma fills the hot summer air. They also bring lots of beneficial bugs to the garden to feed on their tiny but plentiful, accessible flowers.

And I like them for their rampant habits.

I know it makes sense to grow veges in neat, tin soldier rows for maximum production and easy maintenance, and I love good structured garden design, but I also love the renegade ways of fennel, including that of the roadside pest plants.

To me, it always seems kind of churlish to make plants, even vegetables, endure a life stuck in unnaturally straight rows in the vege patch when it's their natural inclination to break out and grow wherever their seed ends up.

Just as fish are where you find them (as my beau keeps telling me), weeds grow where they land.

And fennel grows where it can. It gives our tiny estate a bit of unruly seasonal wildness that takes away the tame, lame urban look for a few heady weeks of summer. Later, when the first chills of autumn bite, I'll collect and save the seed to sprinkle on seasonal grape bread and add to winter comfort food.

FENNEL AND POTATO SALAD

Dig, wash, scrape, then steam a bowl full of waxy "new" type potatoes, such as jersey bennes, until just firm. While still warm, toss them in garlic aioli.

Even if you buy your aioli, you will want to add a bit of extra, freshly harvested and crushed garlic for a really flavoursome salad.

It's also essential to toss the potatoes in the aioli while they are still warm, so they absorb the flavours as they cool to make a delicious, creamy dressing. Once cooled, add two freshly chopped spring onions, using the whole plant, including the green shoots, not just the white onion base.

Refrigerate until ready to eat. Just before serving, finely slice a whole Florence fennel bulb or equivalent and stir into the potato and onion mixture. Top with a sprinkle of dill leaves or finely chopped chives.

Serve with barbecued salmon and grilled zucchini for a taste of the summer garden.

- Nelson

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