Berry plants pegged in place. Photo: Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Berry plants pegged in place. Photo: Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

KaiApril 2, 2020

Lockdown gardening: How to grow plants when you can’t buy them

Berry plants pegged in place. Photo: Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Berry plants pegged in place. Photo: Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

One way to pass time, which we suddenly have a lot of, is gardening. But where can you get seeds? And what do you plant in autumn? Josie Adams finds out.

While it seems many New Zealanders are exercising a newfound love of jogging, some of us are more sedentary. For those looking for a happy medium between sitting on the deck and training for a half-marathon, gardening is the answer.

For a total novice, staring out at the backyard and trying to visualise growing a miniature ecosystem is daunting. Thankfully, the experts were on hand to give some lockdown gardening tips.

Growing from cuttings

Guy Morris, a professional landscaper in Hawke’s Bay and passionate home gardener, suggested starting a garden during lockdown might require some imagination. “It’s all about being resourceful”, he said. “Cutting and propagating would be a really cool thing to get into.”

While out on your daily constitutional, keep an eye out for plants that pique your interest. Give ‘em a scan with a plant identification app like iNaturalist, and then a Google; if they seem easy enough to grow, take a cheeky scissor to them. A small piece of stem — not a flower — is what you need.

“Some of them might work out, some might not”, said Morris.

Jo McCarroll, editor of NZ Gardener magazine, also recommended giving cuttings a go: “[Take] a short stem, and effectively just put it in the soil”. She recommends rosemary bushes and hydrangeas for an easy grow.

(Note: you must get permission from the plant’s owner before taking a cutting. This includes plants in public parks and sanctuaries.)

Growing from seeds

Some supermarkets sell seeds and little pots of herbs, and a few nurseries are considered essential services as they provide to the food industry, so buying a plant seed outright isn’t impossible. However, it is more difficult than before; you can’t just pop to Palmers for a quick shop.

You don’t need to. You probably have seeds lying around in your cupboard. “If it’s been irradiated it might not grow, but you’ve lost nothing by trying”, said McCarroll. A spokesperson for MPI confirmed that most seeds imported into New Zealand were ‘devitalised’ and wouldn’t grow. Those that remained whole could pose a biosecurity risk if planted in the ground. However, the ministry said there are no biosecurity concerns with seeds listed as ‘basic’ on the Plant Biosecurity Index.

She also recommended using what you’d usually put in the compost. Carrot tops, spring onion ends, the seeds inside your apple, even a lonesome lettuce leaf can all grow into flourishing plants. “If you put a lettuce leaf in water on a sunny windowsill, it will grow roots”, she said. “You don’t realise how much plants want to grow. You just need to give them the opportunity.”

Coriander : controversial, but easy to grow. Photo: Getty

Planting for the apocalypse

While flowers and trees and native bushes are lovely and rewarding to grow, some of us are thinking ahead. Whether you have supermarket anxiety or the burning sense that society as we know it is about to fall apart, having a garden you can live off is a comfort.

Morris is already thinking ahead. “If you haven’t got a lot of space, then plant two or three different fruit trees and they can be great for trading,” he said. “If you have a very productive apple or orange tree, or a passionfruit vine, you can make a lot of friends.”

For those of us seeking to bunker down instead of establish a bartering system, McCarroll recommended crops you can harvest from more than once.

“Something like beans that you pick from again and again. You could grow lettuces that you harvest leaf by leaf. You might only have half a dozen or so lettuce seedlings in a pot, but that could keep you going for a couple of months or so.”

She said that even those not aiming for self-sufficiency could benefit from a plot of veges. “Even though you know the food supply system in New Zealand is robust, you still feel panic that there won’t be enough for your family. So to be able to go out and pick a bit of lettuce, it just gives you a feeling of being in control.”

What to do right now

Ayla Hoeta, author of our monthly maramataka, is an expert gardener. “You can plant silverbeet and kale most months of the year”, she said. She also recommended growing herbs right now, because once winter comes they’ll struggle.

In the Auckland region, in March-April, the maramataka (Māori lunar calendar) recommends planting basil, kale, bok choy, blueberries, and feijoa — among masses of other stuff. “Around June and July, it narrows down”, said Hoeta. Make the most of the lockdown for your planting. 

The most significant days of April for gardeners will be the Rakaunui and the Tangaroa days. “Rakaunui is the full moon”, said Hoeta. “So three days around the full moon, which is next Tuesday.” Rakaunui days are high energy and great for planting.

“Any day from now until the 8th — plant”, she said.

Morris said your best bet for a quick crop right now is spinach, lettuce, rocket, and cos lettuce. However, if you’re in the north you have more options.

“Auckland and the north have quite a different climate to the rest of the country. There’s been a big shift in the weather conditions for us, but I think you’d be able to grow some of those summer crops for a bit longer up there.” 

He doesn’t think you need to design a vege plot or focus on fruit. You can grow whatever looks nice to you. “I’m a no rules kind of a gardener”, he said. “I just let things naturally progress in the garden, and then I’ll rotate certain crops around, but some people have more formal rules.”

McCarroll recommended broad beans, peas, carrot, radishes, beetroot, and brassica seedlings in addition to the leafy greens. She said planting during lockdown could be a good way to keep kids occupied, too. “Kids are a pretty mixed bag when it comes to a labour force, but they do like planting things.”

Like Morris, she endorsed embracing lockdown chaos gardening. “You don’t need to do ‘best practice’ gardening”, she said. Paper cups, old newspaper origami’d into pots, and some standard dirt from the ground you walk on will all do, in a pinch. 

“You’ll be home, you’ll be safe, you’ll enjoy yourself”, she said. “It’ll give you a sense of control without breaching the lockdown or putting anyone in danger.”

Keep going!