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The winter garden

By Frank and Muriel Newman

A reader recently contacted us saying that they are recent oily rag gardeners and that they enjoyed the summer harvest so much they are planning a winter garden. Winter vegetables include: cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, celery, lettuce, spinach and silver beet. Since we too enjoy feasting fresh from the garden, we decided to include in our winter crop "mini" cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower - so we are looking forward to lots of single-meal harvests.

Some regions have started harvesting olives. An oily ragger up north says they have some mature olive trees that are providing them with enough very tasty olive oil to last a whole year. This is how their numbers work. A mature olive tree will produce up to 20kg of fruit. The yield to oil is usually between 15% and 20%, so 20kg should produce between 3 to 5 litres of oil. The trick is picking them - which can be time consuming if picking by hand - and finding a local olive press that will handle the quantity. Most processing companies have a minimum quantity - depending on the size of their press - so it may be a case of finding other olive tree owners and combining crops to meet the minimum requirement. In any case, don't just let your olives go to waste!

John has a tip for raised gardens. "I make them, out of discarded pallets. There is a business not far from us that puts them outside their premises for people to have free. I dismember them and re-cut the timber to suit. The result is about 800mm by 500mm by 300mm high. It takes about three pallets to make each one. The timber is not treated so it won’t last forever, but the price is right (!) and there’s no shortage of them."

Mary has a trick for winter gardening. "We have a number of raised garden beds. This is an ideal base to add a mini green house. We built one that was only about 500mm high with a sloping lid which can be propped up with some old casement stays we had in the shed (my hubby never throws anything out!). It's perfect for winter greens, and a great way to utilise beds that would otherwise sit empty over winter".

Speaking about beds sitting idle over winter, if you have unused space in your garden, why not grow a green nitrogen crop like lupin and mustard seeds to add goodness ready for spring planting.

For many oily rag gardeners comfrey is an essential part of their gardening regime. The leaves are rich in nutrients and break down quickly in a compost bin. To make comfrey fertiliser soup, half fill a container with comfrey leaves and top it up with water. Put a cover over and let it brew for a month or so. It's quite powerful so dilute it before applying to plants. Plant comfrey under fruit trees to draw up nutrients from deep in the soil.

Seaweed can also be made into a soup for the garden. We sun-dry the seaweed, then stomp on it with heavy boots. The bits are then placed into a drum of water and left to brew for about six to eight weeks. We draw off the syrup into plastic milk bottle containers and store for use later. We dilute the concentrate about five to one and apply to leafy vegetables and fruit trees. The result is vibrant and healthy plants that are disease resistant.

Winter is a good time for making compost to use in spring. Bev writes, "There are a couple of kitchen waste products that are also good fertilisers for the garden. Egg shells are high in calcium so do the same job as lime. I store the shells for a week then bake them for about 20 minutes in a moderate oven (after the roast comes out). I grind them up into a fine powder and spread directly over a garden bed. Coffee grounds have a high nitrogen content so I spread them on leafy crops or add them to our compost bin."

Those are great tips from Bev. Why not see if your local coffee shop has grounds available for free. It means they will not have to pay for the cost of disposal and you will have free fertiliser. Worms like coffee too, so the grounds can also be used for worm farms.

Now is also a good time to tend to last year's strawberry crop by removing and planting the runner plants. The best runners to plant are the ones closest to the mother plant. It’s good practice to replace about a third of your weaker or older plants every year. Strawberries also suit being planted in large pots, so if you have an excess of runners that's a good way to use them. One oily ragger has written to us to say they are using their runners to create a vertical garden by hanging pots of strawberries on a wall in their garden.

To share your tips – or ask your questions, please drop us a note via or write to Living off the Smell of an Oily Rag, PO Box 984, Whangarei.

*Frank and Muriel Newman are the authors of Living Off the Smell of an Oily Rag in NZ. Read our wealth of tips on the Oily Rag website at

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