Preparing Soil for Autumn/Winter Vegetables [Mar 2017]
Soil should be prepared well in advance – at least 5 weeks before planting – so start now for May planting.
There are 6 main categories of vegetables to be planted for an autumn/winter garden and each require particular soil preparation and for this reason they are generally sown in separate beds. If you want to distribute individual vegetables randomly through the garden, make up a mix that resembles the suggestions below, dig a deep hole, place some mix in each hole, cover with 2-3 cm of soil and plant seedling on top and backfill with soil.
The main categories are:
- brassicas – cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli
- leafy greens – lettuce, kale, spinach, chard, silverbeet, and mustard greens including mizuna, giant red Japanese mustard, the choys and Chinese cabbage
- broad beans and peas
- onion family – garlic, onions, leeks and shallots
- root vegetables – carrots, beetroot, parsnip, turnip, swede, radish, celeriac
Before preparing your beds, test the soil pH (its acidity/alkalinity). Kits are available from Bulleen Art and Garden for $19.95. Dig down deeply to obtain a soil sample and remember pH kits are not suitable for testing organic material including compost, manure and mushroom compost. Some vegetables such as brassicas fail in conditions that are too acidic so soil testing is important. However just because you read that lime* or dolomite should be added for a particular crop, don’t follow this without first testing the soil which may already be sufficiently alkaline and additional lime or dolomite will make it too alkaline resulting in stunted growth. If you need to add lime or dolomite, you need to introduce this about 5 weeks before planting and add manure 3 weeks later as the lime ties up the nutrients in the manure.
Brassicas – fork over the soil, opening it up and remove stones and break up lumps. Add compost or well decomposed manure such as cow (not chicken as it is too high in nitrogen which promotes leaf growth at the expense of heads) and rock dust for minerals. Water well and make sure your soil remains moist. Ideal pH is 6.0 – 7.5 for cabbage and cauliflower and 6.0 – 7.0 for broccoli.
Leafy greens – fork over the soil to both aerate it and allow moisture to penetrate. Add nitrogen rich manures, and for lettuces potash. Soil needs to be well drained, moist and as most leafy greens have shallow roots, the nutrients need to be close to the surface. Ideal pH betwen 6.0 – 7.0.
Broad beans and peas – fork over the soil, remove weeds, lumps and stones. Add compost but not manure which causes spindly, weak growth (too much nitrogen). Both need conditions that are well drained and slightly alkaline which can be achieved, if required, by adding mushroom compost or lime. Mushroom compost is alkaline. Ideal pH peas 6.0 – 7.5, broad beans 7.0
Onion family and root vegetable family need soil cultivated to a fine tilth. Dig over, breaking up or removing all lumps and stones, and weeds. Continue digging and raking until the soil consists of very fine particles and is somewhat sandy as there will then be nothing to cause obstacles, splitting or forking of these vegetables and the soil will be light, loose and well drained. Onion family require a soil rich in organic matter such as compost but not manure unless very well decomposed. It is important to avoid nitrogen rich or fresh manures. Root vegetables require well drained conditions with very well decomposed manures to avoid excessive nitrogen that will cause forking, or rich compost. Ideal pH 6.0 – 8 leeks, 6.0 – 7.0 onions, 5.5 – 7.5 garlic and shallots.
Herbs – perennial herbs can be planted in autumn and are unfussy about soil though prefer it well drained especially sages and lavenders. Annual herbs such as coriander, chamomile, chervil, florence fennel and dill do well in the cooler weather and are best grown in autumn and winter rather than summer when they often bolt.
* Steve Solomon, author of The Intelligent Gardener, says that clay soils, which is what Macleod has, need lime rather than dolomite as lime ‘loosens’ the soil, making it easier to work while dolomite has the opposite effect. Worth experimenting with.
Fruit and Vegetable Storage Tips [Jan 2017]
Zucchini, squash, eggplant, peppers and cucumber – store in an airtight bag or container in the fridge. (Without protection, these foods rapidly pit and deteriorate as the cold, dry air in the fridge sucks moisture from them).
Alternatively they will keep well on a bench for several days but keep out of direct sunlight. Eggplant will last 5 days in the fridge when stored as above and the others a week. Tomatoes – store uncovered and away from direct sunlight. In the fridge they lose flavour but once they are ripe they are better in the fridge than on the bench as this will slow further ripening and deterioration.
Pumpkins – store on a bench or wooden deck with good ventilation and shelter such as under eaves. They need to ‘harden’ for 6-8 weeks which means the skin toughens up and the stem shrivels, preparing them for successful storage. Also the sugar in the pumpkin develops making the flesh sweeter and tastier. In fact the only vegetables that should be left out of the fridge are onions, potaoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and squash, and tomatoes.
A further complication is ethylene given off by some vegetables (ethylene producers) that can cause deterioration of other produce (ehylene sensitives) if stored together. Ethylene producers include apples, apricots, avocado, bananas, kiwi fruit, mangoes, melons, nectarines, papaya, passionfruit, peaches, pears, persimmons, plums, onions, and tomatoes. Ethylene sensitives includes watermelon, beans, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, capsicum, carrots, cauliflower, cucumber, eggplant, peas, squash and sweet potato.
NB Kiwi fruit and bananas are ethylene sensitive when unripe and ethylene producers when ripe.
January Garden Tips [Jan 2016 & 2017]
1. Without a doubt mulching, shading and watering are the most important garden tasks in January. These in turn lead to better quality fruit and vegetables, and save money by both greater productivity and not having to replace plants.
2. Deep water most fruit trees at least once a week. Citrus trees which have shallower roots, closer to the surface need to be watered twice a week. Continue to check for gall in fruit trees and remove it.
3. Keep berries well watered for plump fruit.
4. Water mints deeply and often to prevent the lower leaves drying out and looking ugly. If this does happen, cut them back to ground level, remove dead leaves from the ground or pot, add some fresh soil or potting mix and water well frequently.
5. Begin collecting seed. Some seed heads can be harvested directly from the plant in situ while others may need to be pulled and hung upside down in a paper carry bag. If plants are wet when pulled, leave them in the sun to dry before doing this to avoid them going mouldy in the bag. It is a good idea to tape signs to the plant stems well before the seed is ready to harvest so that you can correctly identify the seed. Many plants look quite different when they are growing but very similar (including the seeds) when dried.
The Art of Watering [Dec 2016]
Imagine for a moment that you are parched with thirst. Would a teaspoon of water quench that thirst? Or a tablespoon? Or would you need at least a full glass? Chances are that it will be the latter and yet often we do not apply the same principle to plants – especially edible plants. Under watering can be as detrimental as over watering. A plant, like us, needs to be adequately hydrated to stay alive but also it needs to be hydrated so it can transport nutrients particularly calcium to the whole of its being, and to thrive sufficiently to produce the edible parts: leaves and stems, fruit and flowers, roots and seeds. Here are some tips and some photos that will illustrate some things to watch out for:
Hose, nozzle and tap fittings
It is worth purchasing a good quality hose and trigger nozzle AND good quality tap attachments both for water efficiency – no leaks – and for being able to deliver water at the correct and appropriate strength. A nozzle with an extended arm and a head that can be adjusted up and down and a range of capacities such as stream, soak, shower, spray and mist is ideal. These settings are very useful as they fulfil different functions. For example using a fine spray on a punnet of seeds prevents the seeds being ‘shot’ out of the punnet but using this on a tray of 7cm tubes of well developed tomatoes would mean that the water lands only on the leaves and the soil in the pot does not receive adequate or sometimes any water. On the good quality nozzles, there will be an adjuster that fans from low water pressure to high pressure so you need also to adjust this to whatever you are watering. Some plants such a basils have quite fragile stems and these can be split or broken by pressure that is too high. The reason for having good quality tap attachments is that poor quality ones with good quality nozzles often leak especially if the nozzle can tolerate high water pressure and the fitting cannot.
Edible plants in pots and punnets
Always watch what you are doing and ask yourself where did that water go? On to the leaves, into the soil, onto the path? Did I give the plants at the back or front or to the sides an even amount? Are any of them in a draft or next to a glass or plastic surface that will heat them up quicker than those in the middle of a greenhouse? If so they will need extra water.
Make sure you water the entire soil surface. Say you are growing some seedlings in
a large pot or polystyrene box, look down at the edge closest to your feet and make sure that that edge is as watered as the back edge. Often we don’t water what we don’t see. Water right to the edges. If you don’t do this, the soil will dry out, shrink away from the edge and then water will run straight down the sides of the pot and out the bottom. And if the whole pot is not evenly watered the drier soil on the edges will draw water from the middle.
As a plant grows bigger its need for water will increase even if the temperature stays constant. This is for 2 reasons – first because there is more of it, and secondly because as the root ball expands, it ‘chews’ up the soil and over time the pot becomes lighter as there is more root and less soil. This means that there is less soil to hold the water and it will dry out more quickly. Either the plant needs to be planted out in the ground at this point or potted into a larger pot with fresh potting mix.
Potting mix itself is designed to be well draining and provide good aeration. By its nature, it is not going to retain a lot of water. Its purpose is to allow good, rapid root development and nutrition uptake, and will keep the plant hydrated for a relative short time in hot weather – say 24 hours if you are lucky. Take this into account and plant out into the ground as early as practical. If you need to keep your plants in pots or boxes, consider the surface they are placed on – brick paving for example will heat up much more than soil. You could also stand your plants in shallow saucers or trays of water in the hot weather, and move them to a shaded area.
Consider also the material your pot or box is made from. Terracotta itself absorbs water so less is available for the plant if your pot is terracotta as opposed to plastic. Polystrene heats up less than either. If you are using peat blocks or coconut coir pots you will need to keep them moist at all times. Coconut coir or vermiculite can be a useful addition to potting mix, giving it more ability to retain moisture. Make sure coconut coir is thoroughly soaked before adding it to your potting mix and sprinkle vermiculite through your bag of potting mix turning it right through evenly then dampen it, before placing it in your pots.
Experiment with your pot plants by weighing them when dry, then when watered. There will be a considerable difference. Often just lifting a pot in your hand, will tell you it requires water because of its lightness. You could weigh your dry pot, then add several fluid ounces, then more and so on till you get a good sense of what a watered pot weighs and how much that looks like in a measuring jug.
Edible plants in the garden (excluding wicking beds)
For 7 months of the year in Melbourne, most fruit trees, vines and vegetables will survive well enough on rainfall. It is important to start watering, generally in November, to capitalise on this and prevent the ground drying out before setting out on a watering regime for summer. These days watering needs to cover November through to the end of April.
Deep watering 2 -3 times a week is preferable to shallow watering daily. In fact people who have accidentally flooded their fruit trees and vegetable beds by leaving the hose on overnight, report that they have had tremendous cropping as a result. In our area the subsoil is clay and this, once saturated, retains water which then acts as a reserve, especially for fruit trees with their deeper root systems. If however clay dries out it is very hard to rehydrate.
Concentrate plants in particular areas and with particular watering requirements to save water.
Use mulch around trees and vegetables making sure the ground beneath the mulch is moist before laying it and continues that way.
Use shade cloth to cover vegetables and vines in high heat. A simple way is to knock 4 star pickets into the corners of a garden bed, drape with the shade cloth and push yellow star picket caps down over the shade cloth corners and onto the pickets. Otherwise drape the cloth or old sheets over the plants and hope the wind won’t below them off. Or even put up a beach umbrella!
Check when you water that the earth is really moist beneath the surface. Use a trowel and dig down to see whether water is penetrating. Once the soil becomes hydrophobic, it is really hard to saturate. Water will ‘bead’ and roll around but not penetrate. At this point it will need not only a lot of water but digging over of the soil to mix it with the water. The more organic material in the soil the easier this will be. If you face this problem, one solution is to add more organic matter.
Check where your water is going. Don’t wiggle the hose around or make figure 8’s with the stream. Focus the water where you want it – around the trunk or stem and out to the drip line (the furthest extent of the foliage) and give it enough.
Dig a shallow moat around a plant so that the water has a channel to fill and sink through to the outer roots. This also works well on slopes to prevent water run off.
Water straight onto the ground. Avoid overhead watering of vegetables in summer as this leads to mildew.
Water in the early mornings if at all possible as this will keep your plants hydrated during the day and the foliage will be dry in the evening and less likely to develop mildew.
Install a timed irrigation system but check for how long it needs to run and check constantly that it is working!
REMEMBER A HYDRATED PLANT IS A HEALTHY PLANT AND WILL NOT SCORCH OR WILT IN HOT WEATHER!