Tips on how to grow your own vegetables and herbs over a long, hot summer

The productive garden behind Jardin Tan at the Royal Botanic Garden. Photo: Supplied”Make friends with herbs” cajoles Hetty McKinnon in her salad book that I have been cooking from all summer. There isn’t a recipe in Community without a cup of coriander, handfuls of basil leaves, masses of finely chopped dill fronds, sprigs of rosemary or any other herb you care to think of and – best of all – can easily grow yourself.

McKinnon, who describes herself as a “modest” gardener and who first made her name making and delivering salads to offices and homes in Sydney but now lives in New York, details how to make colourful, beguiling dishes that are all about “the process of cooking and the art of eating together”.

American artist and “Salad for President” blogger Julia Sherman is on the same page. On her blog she has artists and other cultural figures make a salad and share the stories behind them. A few months ago she made a productive-garden-cum-ephemeral-art-installation in the grounds of the Los Angeles Getty Center.

“For me, making a salad is like keeping a sketchbook. It’s not about the final destination,” she told the LA Times after the garden opened in October. “And it connects with art in the way that you compose the ingredients.”

American performance artist Alison Knowles agrees. In August 2014, using produce from the previous garden Sherman made – on the roof of MoMA PS1 in New York – Knowles restaged her 1962 piece Make a Salad. So big was this dressed concoction of lettuces, radishes, cucumbers, herbs and more that she mixed it on the floor with a rake.

What’s not to inspire those of us growing our vegetables in residential backyards and mixing our salads with boring old salad servers? Which is good because, as anyone tending a productive garden through a dry, hot southern-hemisphere summer will know, it can be hard growing sweet, lush, leafy greens in January.

My dill and parsley have bolted and are now all showy flower rather than fragrant leaf. Those lettuces yet to run to seed are becoming tough and bitter, the leaves of the cardamom are burnt around the edges. This week I did notice it was a very different story in the kitchen garden behind the Royal Botanic Garden’s Jardin Tan café where there is richer soil and more consistent watering. It’s a lesson.

Thick blankets of moisture-loving Vietnamese mint sprawl over multiple beds and young coriander seedlings are full and thriving and with no hint of the red-purple blush in the leaves that is a sure sign that the herb is thirsty. That the café’s coriander is hitting its stride at this time fits with Simon Rickard’s advice in his book Heirloom Vegetables to hold off planting this day-length-sensitive herb until after the summer solstice, which this year was on December  22. That way he says coriander responds by making “big, leafy rosettes” right up until the following spring.

It’s also about routinely digging in compost and well-rotted manure to keep the soil a soak for water and thereby making the most of any irrigation. And, while on the matter of compost, if you are using a worm farm, for which extreme heat can be deadly, keep it in a shady spot and on hot days place moistened hessian over the farm for extra cooling.

Just as cloches and greenhouses are used in cold climates to extend the growing season, water-conservation strategies – including mulching and introducing some shade over growing beds – can lengthen harvesting times in the heat.

Growing lettuce (really best grown in the cooler months) out of the full summer sun, for example, stops it going to seed as quickly. There are also a number of heat-tolerant, slow-to-bolt varieties (Diggers, for example sells Lettuce Goldrush, Grandpa Admire’s, Royal Oakleaf) and by sowing seeds every couple of weeks you can be guaranteed a constant supply.

While it’s down-and-out too hot for spinach right now, silverbeet, being tougher and more heat-tolerant, is slower to run to seed. Alternatively Warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides), which are native to Australia, flourish in the heat and produce edible leaves through summer (McKinnon, who had it growing on her inner Sydney verge garden, instructs on how to blanch the leaves and use them for pesto).  And then there is red Malabar spinach (Basella rubra), which is not a true spinach but a warm season vine hailing from tropical Asia and Africa that grows well in hot – albeit humid – climates. But even something as summer-loving as a tomato plant will turn out cracked or split fruits if the plants are not kept evenly moist. Capsicums and chillies, too, love heat but are quick to weaken and wilt with insufficient water.

Requiring no such cossetting, however, are weeds, which positively thrive on no care and provide salad fare to boot. Fat Hen stands up to dry heat and the young leaves and growing tips can be harvested and cooked while the young leaves of mallow, which grows year-round, can be used raw in salads. Although dandelions generally germinate in spring and autumn they flower most of the year and the petals too can be added to salads.

So whether you are a summer grower, a forager, both or neither, it’s the season to, as McKinnon puts it, “think creatively about vegetables”.

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