The flowers are starting to bloom normally again and I am reliably informed the honey is now flowing. This means the bee keepers can stop feeding their bees sugar, which they have been forced to do since cyclone Pam.

I am sure many people have never considered how these essential garden workers survive a major climatic event like cyclone Pam. Have you ever stopped and thought, what would happen if bees died out? Every fruit and seed that requires bees to be the pollinator could no longer reproduce and would eventually die out. These little creatures are vital in the role they play, as pollinators to our food and pasture crops.

Vanuatu is blessed with great bee health so we need to protect and nurture our bee populations. Most of the rest of the world is not so lucky and farmers are struggling with decreased production because of their bees’ failing health. I read somewhere that America’s stone fruit production is down by up to 25 percent due to their bee health issues. Also you probably don’t know, Vanuatu’s honey not only tastes good but is also very good for you. Just ask my friend Cornelia and she will tell you all about the nutraceutical values of our honey, just like the famed Manuka honey.

Growing your own veggies

But now I’d like to share with you the importance and fun of growing your own vegetables. I have had a vegetable garden for years but since moving to Eden on the River outside Port Vila in 2009 I have been procrastinating about making a vegetable garden even though I have got as far as buying the seeds a couple of times. This year I have actually got my vegetable garden finished and planted, this is some feat given the hours I am currently working to help finance the damage from cyclone Pam.

There is nothing more rewarding than going outside and picking a basket of beautiful fresh vegetables, straight from garden to plate, vine-ripened tomatoes, crispy colourful lettuces and other interesting leafy greens and root crops. I say interesting because over the past 15 years the types of vegetable seeds readily available has been growing, so now the choice is absolutely amazing. You can spend hours just trying to decide which variety of tomato or lettuce you want to grow. I have to admit I’m hopeless, I just can’t choose, so I go for the mixed packs and then wait with much excitement to see what interesting colours and shapes will eventually appear.

On top of the many different varieties of the more traditional vegetables, there are now many different weird and wonderful vegetables that originate from all over the world. This has come with the growing interest in international cuisine and with increased migration and mobility of the world population. We now find in our local green grocer, fruit and vegetables you would have only found by travelling to South America, Europe and Asia.

The seeds for many of these exotics are now available from your local seed merchant. Please check the requirements of any seed you purchase, just because the seed is available doesn’t mean that it will grow, and it may only be suitable for particular parts of the year in your area. Having said that I will also tell you that sometimes you just need to experiment, I have successfully grown rhubarb in Vanuatu. While it never achieved that deep ruby red it would have in the cool of New Zealand, it was tasty and my rhubarb and apple crumble was to die for. Unfortunately it didn’t really like the damp tropics and didn’t persist for more than two years. Must be time to try some more.

Exotic varieties

This year I decided to experiment with some of the more interesting seeds I found and I have to say, so far, I have been impressed. I love kohlrabi grated in my salad and the young leaves of the red mustard have been a great addition to salads as well. One word of warning about the mustard leaves, as the leaves mature they become very peppery and I am yet to have the time to research the uses for them at this stage. I am also looking forward to tasting the Florence fennel (finocchio) that I have grown without any problems as well.

Still to plant are several different varieties of beans as well as winged peas and spinach. I’m really not sure why I’m bothering with spinach, it has always been my least favourite vegetable. I can still remember as a child, the nights I had to remain at the dinner table until I had finished the silver beet on my plate, yuck! Perhaps I can give it to my friends.

This year in the markets of Port Vila there are all sorts of different vegetables. This comes from the huge range of different seeds that were donated after the cyclone. One I have particularly enjoyed is wong bok (a variety of Chinese cabbage) and I have rediscovered my love of wong bok salad, I think it could be all the sugar in the dressing. I also found a lady selling kohlrabi, and asked her if she knew what to do with it, of course she didn’t, so I told her how I was using it, she really appreciated the help and gave me a cabbage for my assistance.

You really need to consider what you want or need to grow in your garden. If there is a good and cheap supply of a particular vegetable in your local markets, why not support the local growers and buy it. This way you can use your time and effort to grow something that is either different or hard to find or that is normally expensive. In Vanuatu a good example of this is pak choi (or bok choy) or white bon as it is locally called. You can buy this all year round very cheaply, almost less than you could grow it for if you consider your time and effort, so why bother? At the moment tomatoes are a bit like this but there is something nice about going out and picking your own, fresh from the vine.

Organic best practice

There is one more thing that you need to think about, and that is how to control pests and diseases. With the increased publicity about the dangers from the overuse and misuse of chemicals, many people are keen to farm as organically as possible. Now I use organic in a very loose way, there is a huge difference in certified organic and growing using organic methods. As everything grows well in the warmth of the tropics and sub tropics, so do pests and diseases. Unless you completely net and screen your garden you will have pests and they will need to be controlled. Some types of vegetables have very few issues, like beetroot, capsicum, radish and lettuces, but others will have a wider range of insect problems. The worst of these are your Cucurbita (pumpkin, melons) and Brassica (cabbage, broccoli) families. For the dedicated, organic sprays can work, but remember during periods of rain you need to be spraying after every fall. There is a huge range of make-your-own sprays (check Google) and some that are commercially available like the pyrethrum-based sprays. If you do decide to use chemical sprays do watch and abide by the withholding periods, this means that you do not eat anything that you have sprayed for the prescribed period. Also you need to realise that even some of the chemical sprays will be adversely affected by rain, so do read your labels properly.

Also our moist climate is a great home for moulds and fungi. When watering it is much better to put water directly onto the soil instead of onto the leaves of the plant, this helps reduce the incidence of mould and fungi. Another thing is to install an underground water system, this delivers water directly to the roots of the plant and so helps control these diseases as well as reducing your water usage. If you garden in an area that suffers from water shortages or expensive water prices you might like to consider using grey water for your garden. My sister has done this and now pumps directly from her washing machine to a large garbage bin that acts as a holding tank then pumps out to the garden. This was all done with minimum expense and the purchase of a cheap sump pump.

Bed building

These days there are many different ways to make your garden beds. I was fortunate to purchase a large number of old bath tubs when one of the local hotels was being renovated. These have been transformed into animal feeders and water troughs, garden seats and now the last of them have been made into raised vegetable garden beds. This has allowed me to use my best compost and soil to make a truly fertile garden soil mix. There is also the added bonus of no longer having to bend over or kneel in the wet soil when I’m planting or weeding, just one of the issues we need to consider as we get older. These raised beds are now available in a huge range of shapes and materials at your local hardware shop. But you don’t have to buy them, you can have them built out of block, stone or wood or make them yourself from old tyres, old railway sleepers or corrugated iron. These raised beds are good for a number of reasons; ease of access and maintenance, improved drainage and the ease of improving and maintaining soil fertility. Also remember to add some charcoal to your garden beds regularly as it is great for improving all types of soils.

Pest protection

We also all have different issues with trying to garden, mine was my dogs, they like to help me garden and then there are the stray chickens that think the garden is a great place to find worms and bugs. But of course it was also the new seeds and young seedlings that tasted good as well, so I had to build a fence around the vegetable garden to protect it. I am currently attempting to grow orchids up it, as well as train my cucumber and beans to use it as well. While in Brisbane recently, I found that my sister-in-law’s big problem was the possums, they made vegetable gardening an impossibility. So using the same technique as you could use to make a shade house, I made a possum proof vegetable garden cover. Using lengths of plastic pipe as supports then covering it with chicken wire, her vegetable garden is now protected and she can easily access it without having to bend down under a temporary cover.