Old stuff is often ditched in favour of new, but some traditions never go out of fashion. Home-dug potatoes and freshly picked berries, peas from a pod and eggs collected from the chooks - these used to be standard Christmas occurrences.
It's possible to replicate these homegrown treats given the range of knowledge and product available today. Anyone with a patch of soil, a bit of gardening nous, determination and luck can grow goodies for the Christmas table.
Seed potatoes are available right now. There's still time to sneak in strawberries - although whether they are ready in time depends on weather. Source pea seedlings or seeds. Begin to organise spots in the garden for salad ingredients like leafy greens, tomatoes, capsicums, cucumber, beetroot and red onions. Summer spuds
Bruce Bryant has already sown a row of 'Ilam Hardy' potatoes in his New Plymouth backyard. There's nothing to see at the moment, save a long, slightly raised mound of soil, topped with dried grass and a netting tunnel.
"We'll be eating them on Christmas Day," he proclaims before talking me through the process of planting. Potatoes need to be sprouted, which means insuring green shoots have appeared before they go in to the soil. Bruce left his 'Ilam Hardy' in a warm, dry place for about three weeks before gently transferring them to the garden so as not to knock the baby shoots. Some gardeners recommend a hot water cupboard; others leave seed potatoes by a window so they receive a steady amount of warmth and light.
Once in the ground Bruce placed grass clippings and the wire mesh on top to stop birds and cats flicking soil and unearthing spuds. When green shoots gain height, he'll remove the wire tunnel and start piling more soil around the potatoes to create mounds that blanket the spuds.
Planting any old supermarket potato won't suffice. Sometimes table potatoes start to loose some of their characteristics and vigor by the time you get your hands on them. Certified seed potatoes are generally stronger, more aggressive growers and are a lot more resistant to disease than non-seed potatoes. They won't transfer any diseases to your healthy plants, and are selected to give the best results.
Bruce has been growing 'Ilam Hardy' for years. It's an early crop potato and that's important. Spuds are generally broken into two groups - early and main crops. If it's Christmas taties you need, select an early crop to plant, as they're ready in about three months. 'Rocket' and 'Swift', as their names suggests, are hasty harvesters, usually ready in between 60 and 70 days.
I opted for 10 'Liseta' during my garden centre trip this week but about 15 other early crop varieties are available. That's not counting the heritage or Maori potatoes or a cultivator called 'Russet Burbank', renowned as a good 'chippie' spud. The fast-food industry favours it for its high levels of antioxidants, and when used for making potato chips, it produces dark-coloured chips due to its caramelisation.
Later, Bruce will plant a second lot of potato tubers - perhaps 'Agria' or 'Moonlight', two potatoes classified as main crops. Both take between 90 and 100 days to grow and he's found them to be tasty eaters suitable for boiling, baking and chipping.
Retirement village resident Fred Crafer has planted 15 seed potatoes in pots and black bags, opting for another early variety, 'Jersey Bennes'.
He started sowing spuds decades ago, although on his first attempt he scattered blood and bone by the handfuls over the top. "All the bugs in New Zealand went for the blood and bone and I had no potatoes," jokes the 87-year-old.
Despite the spud setback, he persevered and Christmas potatoes are a tradition in his household. He once grew them in his New Plymouth backyard but finds pot growing sufficient. He half fills the pot with soil or garden mix and as the potato foliage grows, adds more until the pot is fill with soil. "They grow well like that. I've had quite a bit of success in [horticultural] shows using that idea."
Later in the season Fred will grow another early crop, such as 'Heather' before moving to the main crop of 'Rua'.
Setbacks aren't uncommon he says, cautioning other gardeners to watch out for late frosts, blight and the potato pest psyllid. Still, nothing will deter him from potato production. "It's a way of life.
"I seem to prefer my homegrown ones. Heck yes - they taste much better. A bit of mint on them and they taste like heaven."
His advice to others? Plant the tubers 15 cm deep to protect from frosts. Ensure soil is well fertilised and don't use lime because it can spoil the look of a spud.
- © Fairfax NZ News