Christmas comes early for the edible gardener and it arrives in the break of spring. Just like the build up of Saint Nick’s big day, it is prolonged; drawn out by a calendar of events that keep reminding us that it’s just around the corner. And we see that corner as early as winter.
Each falls with the inevitability of a domino upon the next. The first falls early. As soon as winter breaks we start collecting our warm season seeds. Then it gathers momentum with the break of magnolias and a fragrant hint of jasmine, and then approaches path’s end with the arrival of the blossoms. It begins with the almonds, closely followed by cherries and then plums. Then comes the rest, although by that stage everyone is too preoccupied to notice. September 1 - the calendar beginning to the silly season has no doubt sprung - and we’re all too busy emptying our stockings of goodies into the edible garden.
The way you approach spring is typically reflected by your maturity as a gardener, however, just like Christmas, it has a habit of regressing us back to a childlike state. With eyes too big for our future stomachs, it’s easy to get distracted by the lights that shine brightly now. So as the dominos continue to fall towards its break this year, we present our spring strategy to help you get the most out of the season.
1. Calendar spring vs Spring proper
In some part of the country (Sydney perhaps) true spring and calendar spring fall on the same day, however in Melbourne spring proper lags about a month behind. That, however, does not mean the season needs to wait, although you need to recognise that some varieties are tolerant of the cooler conditions, while others aren’t so forgiving.
We like to begin calendar spring with the earliest of the season’s plants, namely our rhubarb and asparagus rhizomes, as well as potato tubers. Not only will they happily lay dormant until the warm rays heat up the ground, they begin to sprout in cooler soil conditions than the other spring plants.
Of course, you should be well on your way propagating seeds and preparing plants for spring proper. To make the process easier - and so more successful - use a mini greenhouse to keep young seeds and seedlings incubated with consistent temperature, moisture and away from hungry (and active) pests.
2. Grow what you love
There’s no point growing food that you don’t eat, and no one’s got the space to grow trophy vegetables. It’s therefore important to have your veggie patch filled with love, growing the food that motivates you to look after it better and look forward to meeting it at its final destination. Growing food is not a matter of life and death for the home grower, but is at risk of falling by the wayside as work and other priorities gather momentum. Love conquers all.
3. Prioritise plants that offer the best value
That being said, also look to grow produce that is either hard to find, tastes best grown at home (all you may say) or yields high value. For that reason you won’t often find us growing potatoes on our balcony garden - even though they are quite suited to growing in bags - but rather those that provide tangible value (particularly saving me time in the queues at the organic grocer). A few years ago we ran a growing challenge keeping track of monetary return of the food we grew. Let’s just say that if we opened an organic grocer we’d be specialising in salads, edible flowers and herbs.
4. What went wrong last year?
Sometimes it’s hard to recognise your own faults, however, we shouldn't need professional help identifying the shortcomings of your edible garden. While spring is, without doubt, the most fruitful season of the year, it also falls at the busiest time for us as people. Work, kids and other priorities often take precedence and as a result, the veggie patch can be forgotten and then fall over.
If that sounds all too familiar consider setting up smart garden infrastructure as a contingency for busy times. Wicking beds, automated irrigation systems, less maintenance heavy plants should all be considered before jumping into the season.
5. Plan for the three phases of warm season planting; early, mid and late
While Christmas may be over and out within 24 hours, spring is staggered over a couple of months. And spring planting should be too. In our spring manual we have three pronounced planting periods (with the mid split in two).
Early: rhizomes and tubers
Early Mid: Gourds (cucumber, zucchini, pumpkin, squash) and Beans
Late Mid: Tomatoes and basil, Sweet corn
Late: Chilli, Capsicum, Eggplant
6. Prepare your soil for the tilt - in ground or in pots
Soil is, without doubt, the hard working commodity of any garden. If you want your soil to work hard for you, you need to give it the energy and capability to do so. That’s regardless of whether you’re working in ground or in pots.
If your soil has been grown in for years, it’s likely to be a hub of underground activity and ready for action. Mature soil is blue chip; plants just find a way of growing in it. It’s typically pH balanced and full of micro organisms that help nutrients find their way to the plant. The larger the body of soil you work in the more life there will be below. This is why small pots are problematic. Not only will they dry up and use up nutrition too quickly, the environment isn’t the ideal breeding ground for underground life.
Most spring plants are hungry feeders and will need a big release of nitrogen over the season. Some slow releasing chook poo will help with this, along with a splash of blood and bone to assist with strong root development. We’ve found that a little bit of lime goes a long way helping the fruiting varieties such as tomato, capsicum and eggplant; providing much-needed calcium.
When working in pots, ensure you do a little extra work clearing out matted root zones and reinvigorating with a fair dose of compost and slow releasing organic fertilisers.
7. Protect from the early season pests
We all know that early spring is typified by warmer and wetter than usual conditions. While that is ideal for plant growth, it also creates the perfect habitat for pests. Sucking pests such as aphids, thrip and whitefly thrive and we see the return of the white cabbage moth (and its caterpillars). Possums are still at their hungriest best, however, they simply have more variety of tender, new growth to choose from.
With such a hive of activity, it’s best to insure with exclusion nets. Much finer mesh that regular bird netting, exclusion nets will keep out pretty much everything. While this is welcomed in the earliest part of the season, as plants that rely on pollination begin to flower, insects and bees will need to be allowed in to play their part.