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Satisfying that greed for speed

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It can be helpful if you know how to give your backyard a nudge, Jackie French writes

Tomatoes are one of the first crops to harvest

Tomatoes are one of the first crops to harvest

One of the grand traditions of the Araluen Valley used to be the race for the season's first ripe tomato. Old Bill Mather even lugged manure and buckets of water 300 metres up the mountain to a small protected flat from where, with immense sweat and pride, he would emerge with a fat red tomato in about the first week of November. The late Ned Wisbey also held the title for decades (he said my early little red cherry tomatoes were cheating).

A hundred years ago, having early-ripening fruit and veg was more ''need'' than ''greed''. After a winter diet of cabbage, stored pumpkins, onions and potatoes, the first peas and broad beans were a joy. I remember being asked to Sunday lunch once, roast rooster and all, just to share in the bounty of ''spring peas''.

These days, spring is no longer ''the hungry gap'', winter's harvest having been eaten and summer's not yet in. Asparagus beds are no longer the prerogative of the rich; you don't need a silver artichoke fork to guzzle deep-fried tiny ones in the Italian manner (and you can only get them tiny and tender enough if you grow your own - or have a generous next door neighbour).

These days, a few punnets of ''mesclun salad mix'' give you tiny-leafed salads in three or four weeks from planting; soft-hearted red mignonette lettuces will be ready in about eight weeks, and broccolini can be munched year round. But it does help, in our climate, to know how to give your backyard a nudge to get the first ripe tomatoes and zucchini.

1. Place vegie gardens near hot concrete/brick/Colorbond walls. These reflect heat and light onto your crops, and speed them up remarkably. The exact amount depends on how hot it is. Just remember that they'll need more watering and feeding both to grow fast and to cope with the extra heat.

2. Paving. An enterprising neighbour once concreted in between his narrow vegie beds to provide that extra reliable warmth during fickle spring weather. He did get ripe tomatoes three weeks before the rest of us, but, oh dear … the next occupant dug the concrete up.

You can, however, get an almost equal effect by heaving up a few sunny paving stones and growing your ''fast'' vegie patch in the gap. Paving both retains and reflects heat. Your veg will zoom. They'll also break up the large patches of paving, especially if you go for the more decorative veg: cherry tomatoes in a cascade of red balls or yellow pears, mini red capsicums, yellow globed bush pumpkins or Ronde de Nice round, pale green zucchini, plus, of course, frilly red lettuce you eat a few leaves at a time, bronze fennel, or a froth of parsley.

Home-made miniature wicking gardens

I longed for basil this winter - enough fresh basil to make almond pesto. Given that the only place our lemongrass survives the winter is on top  of the barbecue (which has not grilled meat for roughly a decade), I asked Bryan to tape half a dozen plastic milk cartons together - the big two-litre kind - cut the tops off, place a few drainage holes about 10 centimetres from the base, fill the bases with gravel and the tops with potting mix.

Result: Miniature ''wicking gardens'' on top of the barbecue, now renamed ''the plant stand''. The bottoms stay filled with water, the roots slowly draw it up, the gravel stops the soil turning sour and the drainage holes stop the pots overflowing when it rains. The basil seedlings are growing tall and strong and are about 10 times as large and succulent as those in the vegie garden, even though I plant each year's basil in the sunniest, most northerly-facing spot that I can find.

It's worth trying. Canberra has no shortage of old milk cartons and hot sunny niches in which to put them. The water at the base means you don't need to water more than once a week, though lack of root room will mean I'll need to feed my basil every fortnight or so if I want to keep guzzling it. And, yes, it looks a bit tatty for a while, all elderly plastic milk bottles and masking tape, but I reckon once the basil leaves are crowding every which way, it's going to look really good.

 

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