The old adage of planting garlic on the shortest day and harvesting on the longest day has stood the test of time. However, in New Zealand, we can leave garlic in the ground a month or two past the shortest day. So, don’t be too quick to pull it out just yet you have until the end of February or until all the leaves turn yellow. The bulbs will still be actively growing if the foliage is green once it turns yellow it is harvest time. Gently lift the bulbs with a fork, trying not to bruise the bulbs if the bulbs get bruised they won’t store well. To dry, lie them on the soil, in the sun, for a week or two. If heavy rain is forecast, they can be laid out somewhere sunny and under cover. I use the woodshed, as it’s open and airy, but the garage or something similar works, too. Once the skin dries out and turns a translucent white, they are ready for storage. A tip to make plaiting easier is to moisten the stems.
The sweetest member of the onion family is one of my favourites. I always find myself eating the bulbs I have set aside to plant each winter, therefore I never have enough. As the leaves begin to turn yellow and die back, scrape away the soil from around the top of bulbs to allow the sun to penetrate and ripen them. A few weeks later, once you notice bulbs going a golden colour, dig up as you would garlic and onions. Shake off excess soil and let them sit in a dry spot, for a couple of weeks, to cure. The flavour intensifies as the shallot dries out.
You won’t have to wait long to enjoy your first crop of radishes it is normally about a month from sowing seed to harvest. This is one crop you cannot let get too big. Splitting and cracking are signs radishes are turning woody, bitter and astringent. A good rule of thumb is to eat them between marble and walnut size. Once picked, they do store well in the fridge. Wash off the soil and seal in a plastic bag.
Beetroot is such a multitalented crop – all parts of it can be eaten. Being packed full of essential vitamins and minerals, it has to be a contender for top crop. The foliage is sweet and adds colour to salads, slaws and rice dishes. The roots can be enjoyed fresh, boiled, steamed, pickled, roasted and juiced. Harvest the beets before they get too large. For the round ball types, fist or tennis-ball size is ideal for the long, cylindrical varieties, once the neck is egg-sized or more, they’re good to go. Beetroot is a crop that will store well once picked. Remove the leaves, wash the roots, and, once dry, store in the fridge or somewhere cool and dark.
Spuds tell you they are ready in a couple of ways. With early varieties, once the plants have flowered the crop is mature, but, just to trick you, some of the quick growing early varieties don’t flower. With main crop varieties, leave in the ground until the stems wither down, back to the soil. For the sneaky gardeners among you, try exploratory harvesting by “bandicooting”. This involves wriggling your hands into the soil to feel for spuds and picking a few without disturbing the tops. Once dug, get potatoes into the pot as soon as possible. Once you have enjoyed potatoes eaten within moments of harvest you will never look at a store-bought box of spuds again. Be careful not to leave potatoes exposed to sunlight once they have been dug. If you are storing them, place in sacks (not plastic), in a cool, dark and well-ventilated place.
Carrots are such a rewarding crop. The baby ones are so sweet and juicy, often they never make it to the pot as they are enjoyed raw, fresh from the garden, or in salads and slaws. Carrots can gently push themselves out of the soil a little when they are maturing, often because they are competing for root room and the only way to go is up. To counteract this, harvest evenly along the row – to thin as you go – picking them once they reach finger size. This will extend the harvest season and encourage the roots to work themselves deeper into the soil. Use a fork to gently ease them out of the soil. If the soil is dry, water well before pulling to avoid snapping the leaves off from the base.
As soon as the stems start to wilt and fall over this is the sign your onions have matured. However, they can be harvested at any time, as soon as they look big enough to you, eat them! Once the stem has wilted, the onion will not get any bigger. Gently lift them out of the soil and allow them to dry, as you would garlic, for a couple of weeks. The skin will become paper-like. Plait and store in a cool, dry place.