Cheat your way to a healthy vegie garden
So much has happened in the last twelve months, and many things may never return to how they were before COVID came into our world.
One of the positive outcomes from this crisis is an increased interest in people growing their own vegies and herbs. Food security has been talked about before, but for many people, it didn't become real till the start of the pandemic, when as a result, vegie seeds and seedlings became as scarce as toilet paper.
If you have not yet started your own productive patch yet, or if you want to expand what you are doing, or get better at it, now is a great time to get started.
Once you have some success, it motivates you to keep going and try more, however if you don't get the basics right, it may not be rewarding. So, in this column I want to go back to basics of how to set up a vegie patch from scratch.
GET THE SITE FOR YOUR VEGIE GARDEN RIGHT
Choose a position that receives full sun if possible.
For summer crops, especially in hot dry climates, a position which gets some afternoon shade may be preferable. Alternatively, be prepared to cover the beds with 50 per cent pale shade cloth when the temperature soars above 35 degrees.
The site of your vegie patch must also be free from the root competition of trees and large shrubs, unless you are using large pots or a raised vegie bed where you can add a root barrier underneath before you add the soil, or created a closed system such as a wicking bed.
If you live in a hot dry climate, be aware of radiant heat off brick walls, paved or concrete driveways and paths, and metal fences.
CONSIDER THE AVAILABLE SPACE YOU HAVE
If it is limited, be sure to choose good value plants that will produce well and be worth growing in the space you have. A garden bed around 3m by 1m wide will allow you to grow a reasonable selection of varieties, however even a bed just 1m x 1m will allow you to grow a highly productive salad, stir-fry or herb plot.
GREAT SOIL PREPARATION IS ESSENTIAL
If working a vegetable garden in the ground, dig over the soil to fork's depth, adding plenty of organic matter in the form of compost and aged animal manures.
If the soil is heavy and contains clay, add plenty of gypsum. If your soil is sandy, add plenty of organic matter and treat it with a clay slurry, made from dissolving clay in a watering can or bucket of water and watering it over the area. Fork through some slow-release pelletised organic fertiliser. If you are concerned about possible contaminants in the soil, send a soil sample off for free soil metal and metalloid contaminants testing via Macquarie University.
Consider creating a raised vegetable bed if your soil is unsuitable, the ideal site is covered with a hard surface, or you want to save on bending. This can be done by using hardwood sleepers or corrugated iron, however, be aware that these can get quite hot in harsh climates like SA.
Another option is to use wicking beds, likened to a giant self-watering pot for vegies. The main difference between in ground vegie beds and wicking beds is that in ground vegie beds need watering daily (or perhaps twice a day of the heat is extreme), while wicking beds can get by with being topped up once a week (or twice in extremes).
When purchasing soil to fill any raised vegie beds always choose a good quality blend suitable for vegetable growing. Improving your soil will become an ongoing process and each time you replant a garden bed, add more organic matter in the form of compost or aged manure, and more organic based fertiliser pellets.
VEGIE PATCH MAINTENANCE IS VITAL
Keep garden beds free of weeds as they compete with your vegies for space, light and nutrients.
Feed your plants regularly to keep them strong, healthy and productive. Watch out for snails and other insect pests and always be sure to use organic pest control.
GETTING THE MOST OUT OF YOUR HOME VEGIES
These five vegies will deliver bang for your buck which can be planted now.
Loose leaf varieties with attractive coloured leaves and leaf shapes can be grown all year round. Fresher than anything you will get in a bag from the supermarket, you can pick exactly the quantity you want, so there is no wastage, and you can pick a few leaves at a time from each plant. Grown from seed you can start picking leaves in four to six weeks, and sooner if you start off with punnets. If possible, pick your salad leaves in the morning when the sugar content is up to 50% higher and before the white sap rises in the leaf stem which can give lettuce the bitter taste. Do not allow the plants to stress for water or they will run to seed and become bitter.
Another salad green often purchased in bags leading to wastage, yet its so easy to grow and harvest the quantity you need, when you need it. The leaves have a delicious peppery taste and even the pretty yellow or white flowers are edible and have a sweet peppery taste.
If you love using bok choy or pak choy in your cooking, you won't believe how amazing the homegrown produce is. Its crunchy and tasty, and if you happen to pick more than you use in a meal, it lasts in the fridge for week or two. There are many varieties of Asian greens to choose from outside of the ordinary including red pak choy, tatsoi, Tokyo bekana and yukina. Individual leaves can be harvested when young or pick the whole head as required as they grow. They are best covered with insect exclusion netting to keep the caterpillars off in the warmer weather.
These are such a versatile vegetable that can be used to give an onion flavour to anything you cook. They are easy to grow, take up very little space in the garden, and can be harvested when pencil thin and slender, or left to thicken and become fat. Even if they start to bloom on you, the flowers are still edible and have a great sweet onion flavour. It is possible to keep your house stocked with fresh spring onions all year round just by buying a punnet every few months or so, as required.
While many of the large headed varieties take a long time to mature, sprouting varieties will produce many small broccolini-like heads sooner and continue to crop for a longer period. They are available as green or purple broccoli and can be used in cooking or even raw in salads. Even once the small heads start to flower, they can still be eaten. They are planted in autumn for a winter-spring crop but are also loved by caterpillars, so if you are not vigilant on hand removal, try using insect exclusion netting during the warmer weather of autumn when they are first planted and spring.
Tip of the Week - Grow your own herbs
Growing your own herbs saves all the wastage that comes when you buy bunches or packets, and the flavour is far superior to anything you can ever buy. Work out what you use in your cooking and then plant accordingly. Many herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, chives, marjoram, and oregano are perennials and live for years, while others like parsley and coriander are annuals, but if they are happy, they will self-seed and keep you in constant supply. Other herbs like sweet basil are seasonal and best grown in the warmer weather. Herbs can be grown in the ground or in pots, and you might like to consider making a mixed herb pot.
GARDENING QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q: I planted a Mr Lincoln rose in a large pot 6 months ago. It receives morning sun but a mature jacaranda blocks afternoon sun. The rose's leaves keep turning yellow and falling off. How do I remedy this? Sydney.
A. Roses are sun lovers and need a minimum of 6 hours direct sun a day to do well. Less than that they will be inclined to get pests as well as fungal diseases such as black spot, which can cause the leaves to yellow and fall off, so see if you can move it to where it gets more sun. Plants in pots also need much more regular watering than those in the ground, so be prepared to water your plant daily in warm weather if it does not rain, and even twice a day in hot weather. Plants that dry out will also develop yellow leaves which drop off. Make sure that you don't have a saucer under the pot as roses don't like wet feet. To grow any rose well in a pot, always use a premium potting mix in a pot which is at least 40cm across. However, for larger varieties like Mr Lincoln, a bigger size containing at least 20 litres of potting media would be needed. Finally roses in pots also require regular feeding, so use a small amount of a premium rose fertiliser as often as once a month. To find out more about the best roses for your conditions visit the Rose Society in your state via the National Rose Society of Australia website.
Q: My elderly neighbour has moved into a retirement home and is selling her home. I would love to take some cuttings from some of the beautiful plants in her garden, in particular a stunning frangipani tree and a deep blue hydrangea. How can I improve my chances of a successful salvage exercise?
A. While there are optimal times to take cuttings of different plants, ultimately it depends on how much time you have got. The best time to take a frangipani cutting is in late winter or early spring. Ideally take a piece of hardwood about 30cm long. Make sure there are no leaves and flower buds on it, and leave the cutting sitting in the shade for a couple of weeks to dry out callous on the cut end. Then simply push the cuttings into a pot with freely drained potting soil water in. Place this pot in a warm, sheltered position and wait for new leaves to appear.
Hydrangeas strike well from either softwood cuttings taken now (in early to late summer) or hard wood cuttings taken in autumn and winter. Softwood cuttings should be about 8 cm long, with half the leaf area removed to prevent moisture loss, and these only take about three weeks to root. Hardwood cuttings can be up to 25 cm long and planted directly into pots or the ground. These will take approximately three months to develop a strong root system.
Lose the following section if you edit the question to only include frangipani and hydrangeas:
For most other plants, there are two types of cutting you can take. New wood cuttings are those taken from the plant's new, soft growth, generally following the spring flush of growth, from lush healthy growth and not a plant that is stress. Hard wood cuttings taken from the plant's old, hard growth, generally in winter when the plant is dormant. This is ideal for deciduous plants. Cuttings taken that have flowers or buds on them will not readily root, so remove the flowers and buds. Don't take cuttings in the extreme heat, so autumn to spring is ideal.
For best results, these cuttings should be dipped in striking powder or rooting hormone (honey and aloe vera gel can work well) before being stuck into propagation mix. Now it is just a matter of protecting these cuttings from drying out, especially for the first few weeks. Many cuttings will simply root in a shady area of the garden, while in the cooler weather it helps to make a mini greenhouse over the cuttings, either with a proper frame of glass or plastic over a foam fruit box, or even a plastic bottle with the bottom cut out or a clear plastic bag over a few stakes above the individual pot. Ensure that there is still access for fresh air and ventilation, even if this is only during the day.
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Originally published as Cheat your way to a healthy vegie garden