Get your own Hamlin Road-style vege garden off to a productive start by sorting out your soil and choosing the right seeds, says Lynda Hallinan.
The eco-friendly gardening methods used at Hamlin Road Organic Farm work just as well in backyard vegetable gardens. If you’re wanting to start your own organic vege patch, try these tips:
Nurture your soil
At Hamlin Road the soil is as dark, dense and crumbly as a chocolate cake, but it hasn’t always been that way. Originally a no-dig approach was favoured, but it proved impractical to maintain as demand for the farm’s vegetables grew. The soil is now gently tilled to incorporate “heaps of seaweed, compost and lots of love”. They also grow comfrey in the orchard and make their own potash to improve fruiting performance.
When first starting out, it’s worth getting a soil test to identify any deficiencies. Hamlin Road’s Sarah Hewitt sends off soil samples to Environmental Fertilisers in Paeroa; they blend organic fertiliser that’s specific to the farm’s unique requirements.
Working with real soil – the stuff underfoot – should always be your first option over raised beds filled with expensive store-bought soil mixes that need topping up each season. Raised beds look nice but they aren’t necessary, unless your soil is heavy clay or you have mobility issues, as they tend to overheat and dry out.
Sow from seed
Raising your own vegetable plants from seed, rather than buying seedlings in punnets, is cost-effective and reduces plastic waste. Save your own seeds, or buy organic selections from mail order suppliers such as Kings Seeds in Katikati. Organic seeds are untreated, which means you can also safely eat the baby seedlings as sprouts or microgreens.
At Hamlin Road, the vegetable seedlings are raised in a covered propagation house that some staff have taken to affectionately calling “the uterus”, for it’s here that all life on the farm begins. Row upon row of seed trays, all neatly labelled and methodically spaced, are cared for under cover until it’s time to pot them up or transplant them outdoors.
Although root crops (such as carrots, beetroot and radishes) do best when sown directly where you want them to grow, most other seedlings benefit from being raised in 5-10cm deep trays of seed- raising mix, especially in gardens where slugs and snails are an issue.
Try not to sow seeds too deeply (just lightly cover with a sprinkle of seed-raising mix) and make sure the growing medium stays moist until germination. Use a mister to maintain surface soil moisture; don’t sit the trays in saucers of water or the seeds are liable to rot.
Choose the best varieties.
Organic gardeners tend to favour heirloom vegetables over modern hybrids, but it’s worth pointing out that there are no genetically modified crops grown in New Zealand, so all our seeds, hybrid or heirloom, are safe. Although heritage varieties are undeniably more romantic, modern hybrids have been bred for better vigour, higher yields and disease resistance, and shouldn’t be discounted, especially in a small garden where every crop needs to earn its keep.
Sarah says she’s learnt a lot from Pakaraka Permaculture’s Niva and Yotam Kay, authors of The Abundant Garden (published by Allen & Unwin). “After hearing them speak a few years ago we decided to shift our focus to growing higher yielding, more nutritious produce, and that has included sourcing commercial seed lines, such as Harrier beetroot.”
I mix it up in my own garden, sowing hybrid high-performance crops such as Iznik snacking cucumbers, Grape Sweet Hearts tomatoes and self-pollinating Partenon courgettes alongside heirloom pumpkins and squash.
Don’t spray with pesticides. Stomp, squash and squish, or use physical barriers such as cloches, insect mesh and grow-tunnels to foil egg-laying butterflies, green shield beetles, passionvine hoppers, slugs and snails. Or, if you have a severe infestation, choose eco-friendly alternatives such as soap, oil or pyrethrum-based, low-toxicity sprays or buy in good bugs to fight the baddies.
At Hamlin Road, a proactive preventive approach is favoured. They order beneficial insects such as aphid-munching parasitic wasps and predatory mites (they make a meal of spider mites) from Bioforce in nearby Karaka. This innovative business sells all sorts of biological controls for everything from fungus gnats to thrips and weevils. They also sell bumblebee hives to home gardeners. See bioforce.co.nz.
Give it a rest
Vegetable gardening is intensive and, without some seasonal downtime, the soil can soon end up starved of nutrients and microbial activity. At this time of the year, given that less growing space is required over winter, employ regenerative practices to give empty beds a break.
Protect bare soil from winter erosion by mulching thickly with pea straw or sowing green manures (cover crops such as blue lupin, buckwheat, phacelia and broad beans) to sequester carbon and provide a handy source of organic material to dig in before spring planting.