It’s about time to harvest pumpkins again. Our pumpkin vine this year was a volunteer that sprang up in the chook run from the remnants of an old compost heap. It didn’t get any TLC because we half expected the chooks to trample it before it became established. However, it defied the odds and performed magnificently – which only goes to show how good compost is for growing vegetables.
I think it was only watered once but it received plenty of rain during its growing period, and the vine has produced at least 14 JAP pumpkins that we have found so far. JAP pumpkin is closely related to butternut pumpkin, gramma and trombone squash (Cucurbita moschata). These are thinner skinned and don’t keep as long as the Queensland Blue types (C. maxima).
Because we couldn’t spare the water last year, we bought all our pumpkins and some of them weren’t the best because of the drought. Consequently, we were curious to see what we could expect from our volunteer plant and picked one of the pumpkins early. (As you can see in the photo below, the stem is still moist.) Pumpkins picked at this stage do not keep well but we are using this pumpkin immediately, so it doesn’t matter. Now that they are nearly ripe, we will put a broken piece of foam box or thick cardboard under each fruit to keep them drier and clear of the ground, so they are less likely to rot. We will be leaving the rest of the crop until the vine dies off, and the stems become brittle, as that is when they develop their full flavour and store well. If you can’t wait that long, at least wait until the tendril closest to each pumpkin browns off.
Don’t worry about frost on your pumpkins, it will only kill the vines, and it is said that frost toughens the skins so that pumpkins keep longer.
P.S. When the vines had died back a bit, we realised that the vine had produced 28 pumpkins. Not bad for a volunteer vine! There were, of course, more than enough to supply family and friends, and we were able to sell the rest through our local organic greengrocer.
In our area, propagating strawberries is usually a February job, but plants were late sending out runners this year due to the cooler summer. I like to use runners to grow some new plants each year, as vigorous, young strawberry plants are healthier and more productive. Once the new plants are growing well, I can thin out some of the older plants that are no longer performing well.
While our strawberry plants are fruiting, I put a plant marker next to the best producers. As soon as our strawberry plants finish fruiting and start to send out very long thin stems, I clear away the mulch to make it easier for the plants to take root. I then give the bed a drink of seaweed extract tea. Seaweed contains compounds that encourage root growth and build disease resistance.
At the end of each runner a small plant will form and tiny white roots will appear at the base (see photo A). Vigorous runners can produce two or three plantlets along each runner. I anchor plantlets from the best parent plants to the soil surface by placing a stone on the runner on the parent side of the plant. If the plantlet does not make good contact with soil, the roots will brown and the plantlet will die or grow poorly. Merely anchoring the plantlet to the soil surface allows the crown of the plant to sit on the soil surface where it should be. Strawberry crowns that become buried will rot.
When the plantlet has produced a strong root system (see photo B), the runner connecting it to the parent plant can be severed with secateurs or a sharp knife.
The new plant can then be left to grow where it is, or moved to another part of the bed so that all the plants have good air circulation. If I move new plants, I dig a wide shallow hole for each plant so that I can spread out the roots before covering them, and ensure that the crowns sit on the soil surface. I also remove all but one or two of the youngest leaves as this reduces any wilting after transplanting. I usually pot up some runners for spares too, just in case. Then, all that is required is regular watering and an occasional drink of manure tea until the plants are growing strongly. I don’t usually mulch them in autumn as the bare soil stays warmer and encourages the plants to produce plenty of healthy foliage so that next season’s berries will be hidden from birds.
Purists advise that runners should only be taken from plants that have not fruited because other plants are likely to be infected with strawberry virus. An aphid spreads this virus and we have never had aphids on our strawberry plants. As long as you use only runners from healthy, vigorous plants and use organic cultivation methods, there should not be a problem with runners that have fruited.
All about traditional moon planting
Traditional Moon Planting is an ancient agricultural practice that has been used by farmers for several thousand years and is still practiced today. It is based on the synodic period of the Moon from one New Moon to the next, an average period of 29.5 days.
Over time, farmers observed that all aspects of farming were affected by the interaction of the gravitational forces between the Sun, the Moon and Earth. These are the same gravitational forces that affect ocean tides around the world. Because the Moon is closer to Earth, its effects are more noticeable. These observations were handed down to younger generations as their community’s survival depended on getting the best results from their crops.
Scientists have more recently confirmed that variations in sap flow, biological functions in plants, and subtle changes in Earth’s electro-magnetic fields, correspond to the Moon’s gravitational pull. Scientists have also confirmed that the Moon has an influence on breeding and feeding cycles of many life forms on this planet. As plants contain a high proportion of water, it is not surprising that they would also respond to a force that can move huge bodies of water. And, when you consider that plants absorb nutrients as ions that carry either a positive or negative electric charge, you can see how changes in electro-magnetic fields can affect the growth of plants.
The Lunation Cycle
Each lunation cycle the Moon passes through four phases – New Moon, First Quarter, Full Moon and Last Quarter. The number of days between each change of phase can vary from 6 3/4 to 8, so to make it easier for you, the current moon phase and its duration can be found by clicking on the ‘Current moon phase’ icon in the menu bar.
The Waxing Moon
During New Moon and First Quarter phases, the Moon is increasing in light. In these two phases, sap flow increases in the above ground parts of plants, and these are the most suitable phases for sowing and transplanting annuals (and biennials). Flowering annuals, grains, melons and spring onions do well if planted in either phase but, generally, New Moon phase is best for leafy annuals and First Quarter is best for fruiting annuals. Liquid fertilisers will take effect more quickly if applied during the waxing phases. Shrubs and trees can be pruned in First Quarter phase when you want to produce new growth quickly, such as pruning spring-flowering shrubs or summer pruning of roses. When pruned while sap flow is high, sap is quickly diverted to the lateral shoots. When sap flow is low, regrowth is slower and dieback is more likely to occur in some plants. First Quarter phase is also good for grafting and budding because these require a high sap flow for successful results.
The Waning Moon
During the Full Moon and Last Quarter phases the Moon decreases in light and sap flow in plants is more concentrated in the root area. As sap flow gradually slows during these two phases, Full Moon phase is best for sowing and planting because germination is lower, and regrowth slower, during Last Quarter phase. Because sap flow is lower in the foliage part of plants, crops or seed harvested for storage or drying are less likely to rot if harvested during the Moon’s waning period.
Full Moon phase is best for the sowing and planting of both root crops and perennials (plants that live longer than two years). All trees, shrubs, vines (including fruit trees and vines), globe artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, herbaceous perennials, bulbs and lawn grasses are perennials. The reason that these plants are planted (or sown) in the root vegetable phase is that perennials have a different type of root system from leafy and flowering annuals. Roots of perennial plants have, like root vegetables, the ability to store carbohydrates and nutrients, and this type of root system is important for the longevity of perennials.
Because Full Moon phase favours root growth, this is also an excellent phase for taking cuttings, or for aerial layering, because root growth must form to support new foliage growth. This is also the best phase for dividing plants for the same reason. Prune dormant plants during Full Moon phase. Last Quarter phase is best for cutting back rampant shrubs and vines, – regrowth will be less vigorous.
Fertile and Barren signs
Traditional moon planting uses the tropical zodiac that divides the celestial belt into twelve equal parts of 30 degrees, named after the constellations that were closest to them in the second century B.C., and ignores that fact that the actual constellations vary widely in size. The twelve segments were also given labels of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. The equal divisions were basically markers for degrees of tension from the major permanent points of reference (the Solstices and the Equinoxes), which occur within 24 hours of the same days each year.
Negative segments are considered ‘fertile’ and the best days within a phase for sowing, planting, taking cuttings, budding and pruning to encourage growth. Positive segments are considered ‘barren’ and best days within a phase for collecting seeds, harvesting crops and for storage and weeding.
Does traditional moon planting work?
As someone who has obtained certificates in both astrology and horticulture and had been working in horticulture for some 40 years, I felt competent to test and assess the various moon planting and gardening guides available to the public. Over a period of eight years, I experimented with and compared different forms of moon planting against detailed records of sowing, germination, growth, harvesting and pruning.
Some moon or lunar calendars and guides advised readers to plant all plants that produce fruit above ground during First Quarter phase. This ignores the different root system of perennials. Other guides totally ignored moon phases and focused on the astrological signs. The tray below on the left was sown during Full Moon phase, which is an incorrect moon sowing phase for leafy annuals. The tray on the right was sown two weeks later during New Moon phase. Both were sown in the same seedling mix and received the same amount of care.
I found that most moon planting guides in women’s magazines are prepared by astrologers who have used the astrological ‘rulership’ of plants rather than moon planting methods that have been handed down through the centuries. These interpretations have produced some results that make no horticultural sense and must be confusing for readers.
The designation, by traditional moon planting farmers, of fertile and barren ‘signs’ varies slightly from the fertile/negative and barren/positive labels applied in astrology, and I feel there had to be a reason for this variation to remain constant through the centuries. Although there has been no scientific study into this part of moon planting, I believe it relates to the changes in the Earth’s electro-magnetic field and the absorption of plant nutrients, which must be absorbed as water-soluble electrically-charged ions.
Some moon or lunar planting guides will tell you to avoid watering your garden on ‘fertile’ days while others will advise to avoid watering on ‘barren’ days. A perusal of rainfall records will show that Nature doesn’t follow these rules. Gardens should be watered when they need it.
After comparing the various methods of Moon Planting, I came to the conclusion that the traditional moon planting method, although the simplest to follow, made the most horticultural sense, and it works best for us. The basic rules, or principles, are described below.
Traditional moon planting ‘rules’
1. Avoid sowing, planting or taking cuttings from 12 hours before to 12 hours after the exact change of moon phase.
The twelve hours immediately before and after the exact change of each phase is not a good time for sowing, planting, or taking cuttings. We have found that the increase or decrease of unfavourable energy is gradual and it will not have an obvious effect if you run an hour or so into this period when you have a lot of sowing or planting to do. While this is not a good period for sowing or planting, this time can be used to prepare beds or compost heaps, apply mulch, etc.
2. NEW MOON PHASE – the best time to sow or transplant leafy annuals (we eat the leaf or stem), and flowering annuals. Also sow annual grasses, green manures, and apply liquid fertilisers. Mow lawns to encourage growth. This is the second best phase to sow or transplant fruiting annuals.
3. FIRST QUARTER PHASE – the best time to sow or transplant fruiting and flowering annuals (we eat the fruit or seed bearing part), and grains. Also sow annual grasses, green manures, and apply liquid fertilisers. Prune to encourage growth and deadhead roses and flowering annuals. Carry out grafting and budding. Mow lawns to encourage growth. This is the second best phase to sow or transplant leafy annuals (we eat the leaf or stem).
4. FULL MOON PHASE – the best time to sow or plant out root crops and all fruiting and decorative perennials, including fruit trees. Also sow lawns or lay turf, harvest for storage, take cuttings, divide plants, prune dormant plants and apply solid fertilisers. Mow lawns to slow growth.
5. LAST QUARTER PHASE – no sowing or planting during this phase. This is a good phase for attending to your soil; weeding, applying mulch, making compost, preparing manure teas, applying solid fertilisers and digging or ploughing, if necessary. Prune to restrain growth, and mow lawns to slow growth during this phase.
A current, colour-coded, easy-to follow traditional moon planting calendar is available for purchase here.
It is still a bit too early to plant garlic in most areas, but not too early to prepare soil. Garlic needs a soil that is rich in humus but doesn’t require a lot of nitrogen so avoid adding manures to the bed. Uncomposted manures can cause garlic bulbs to rot, although processed poultry fertiliser is quite suitable for garlic. Garlic needs a full range of plant nutrients and trace elements for healthy growth. A drink of seaweed extract tea over the whole planting area will supply a full range of trace elements. Garlic also needs a soil pH of that is close to neutral. If you know that your soil is acid, give the bed a dose of dolomite or agricultural lime. Dissolve a generous handful in a full watering can and apply this to each square metre of the bed. Repeat again in a week or so for very acid soil.
Ladybirds, except for the leaf-eating 26 or 28 spot ladybirds, are an asset to any garden. Both adults and larvae consume a considerable quantity of pests such as aphids and scale, and one type of ladybird feeds on fungus.
Most people know what adult ladybirds look like but ladybird larvae are strange looking creatures and many people confuse them with garden pests. As a result many of these hardworking pest predators are killed by pesticides, including organic sprays, and a decline in ladybird numbers is always followed by a pest outbreak. A common victim is the larvae of the Cottonycushion Scale ladybird which disguises it self so well, it is often mistaken for scale. A Brisbane web site has an excellent range of photos of ladybirds and their larvae. Check before you spray so that ladybirds won’t become an endangered species.
This family, called the Brassicas, tend to be more susceptible to attack from the Cabbage Moth and the Cabbage White Butterfly when conditions are too warm for them or when the soil they are growing in is too acid for their liking, especially while the plants are young.
The cabbage family includes Brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, mizuna, mustard greens, swede, tatsoi, turnip, watercress and stock, and is also related to radish. These plants need both boron and molybdenum for healthy growth and these are only available to plants when the soil pH is close to neutral. If you know that your soil is acid, and your Brassica plants are being attacked, give the bed a drink of dolomite or agricultural lime. Dissolve a generous handful in a full watering can and apply this to each square metre of the bed. Repeat the application if pests are still hanging around in two weeks.
In the meantime, remove all pest eggs from under leaves and leave crushed caterpillars on the leaves. This helps to deter further egg laying.
To improve the quality of your tomato crop next year, save seed from one or two plants that have cropped well for you this year because these seeds will be from plants that have already adapted to your local growing conditions.
It is easy to save tomato seed from plants that were grown from open-pollinated seed. Hybrid seeds are unreliable because seed from hybrid varieties can be sterile, or revert to the traits of only one of the parent plants. A wide range of open-pollinated seed for tomatoes is available, with varieties to suit all Australian and New Zealand climate zones. You can order them by mail on the internet from companies including Greenpatch Seeds, Green Harvest or Eden Seeds.
To save tomato seed, first select one or two fully ripe tomatoes that you would like to grow next year. For medium to large tomatoes, one fruit is usually enough for the home gardener. For best results, keep them at room temperature until they are just beginning to get soft.
Then cut the tomato into segments and use a teaspoon to transfer the seeds and their surrounding jelly into a clean glass jar. For Italian type tomatoes that don’t contain a lot of jelly, you can add a very small amount of water to keep the seeds moist, but don’t drown them.
Leave the jar undisturbed in a warm place, out of direct sunlight, where you can observe fermentation. Within two or three days a foamy mould will form on the surface of the tomato mixture and it will look as though something has gone horribly wrong. Don’t worry. This is a beneficial fermentation process that kills off several diseases that can affect tomato plants, but the mould can cause premature germination of the seed, if it is left too long.
As soon as the thick foam forms, scoop it off and fill the jar will clean water. Viable seed sinks to the bottom of the jar. Carefully pour off loose jelly floating at the top of the jar, then pour the jar contents into a sieve. Wash the seeds thoroughly in the sieve to remove all the jelly, then tip the seeds onto a sheet of smooth paper. Avoid using paper towels for tomato seeds because they are hairy and difficult to remove from absorbent paper. Allow the seed to dry for thoroughly, indoors. After they have been drying for a few hours it is easy to rub them between your hands to separate any clumps of seed. I usually leave them to dry for a week before packaging in a paper envelope and storing in a biscuit tin in a cool place, until they are needed.
Sometimes home grown vegetables crop so well the family gets tired of eating them. If you find yourself with more tomatoes than you and your friends can use, freeze them for use during winter months. Vine-ripened tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene. This antioxidant helps keep the reproductive system healthy, and is said to be particularly beneficial to the prostate gland.
We use a simple method that has no added flavourings so that the thawed tomatoes can be used in soups, casseroles, or pasta sauces, as the occasion demands. Many flavours, such as onions, garlic and other herbs taste better when they haven’t been frozen.
We chop fully ripe tomatoes without peeling them as the skins float to the top of the pan during cooking, and can be skimmed off. Nor do we bother to remove the seeds but, if you don’t want seeds, you can either scoop them out with a teaspoon before cooking or put the cooked mixture through a sieve. Removing seeds before cooking also removes a lot of moisture from the tomato pulp and the seedless mixture requires constant stirring to prevent it sticking to the pan.
Place the chopped tomatoes in a heavy saucepan and gently heat to boiling, while stirring the mixture. Reduce heat, and allow tomatoes to simmer gently, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not leave the mixture unattended as ripe tomatoes contain natural sugars and the mixture can stick if the heat is too high or the mixture is not moved around in the pan. After 20 minutes, turn off heat and cover the saucepan. Allow tomato pulp to cool, then ladle two, four or six cupfuls into separate freezer containers for later use.
This post has been updated. See Squash family not forming fruit?
The squash or Cucurbit family that includes chokoes, cucumbers, grammas, gourds, pumpkins, rockmelons, squash, watermelons, and zucchinis, produce both male and female flowers on the same plant, and rely on insects, such as bees, to pollinate the female flowers and produce fruit.
Although we eat many of this family as vegetables, in gardening terms, their produce is fruit.
With large areas of Australia experiencing prolonged overcast weather, and other areas experiencing smoke from bush fires, bee activity tends to be reduced and cucurbits may not be cropping. In circumstances like these, you may have to hand pollinate your plants to reap the benefits of your hard work. This is quite a simple procedure.
First identify the the female flowers on your vine or bush. At the base of each female flower you will find a miniature version of the mature fruit of that particular species. For example, cucumber vines produce what looks like a tiny gherkin at the base of each female flower while watermelon produce a watermelon miniature, often complete with stripes. The bases of male flowers, on the other hand,
join directly onto a vine stem.
Remove a male flower from the vine, and carefully peel back the petals so that the pollen bearing part in completely exposed. Then dab the centre of the male flower into the centre of a female flower. Repeat this process, replacing the male flower as pollen is removed. Then stand back, and allow nature to take its course.
If you can only find male flowers on your cucurbit vine, the problem takes a little longer to overcome. Pinch off the end of each long runner. This will stimulate the plant to produce side shoots called laterals. Some members of this family tend to produce female flowers on laterals. Once female flowers form, proceed with hand pollination if there are not many bees around.
If your cucurbit plant is producing small fruit that yellow and fall off before maturity, or turn mushy at the end furthest from the stem, you have a different problem altogether. Either you do not have enough calcium in your soil, or watering has been erratic and calcium has not been available when needed. Like us, plants need a good balance of calcium and magnesium to form a strong structure. Calcium and magnesium are required for growing tips of plants as well as fruit production and, if there is not enough of these nutrients to go around, growing tips will get priority. Dissolve a generous handful of dolomite (a mixture of calcium and magnesium) in a full watering can, and apply this around the root area of each plant – one full watering can per plant, or two around large vines such as pumpkin and watermelon. If you know that your soil has plenty of magnesium, you can use agricultural lime instead. §
Since completing a Landscape Gardening course thirty years ago, I have been actively involved in horticulture, garden design, writing articles for gardening magazines, and advising gardeners, including work at major retail nurseries. My husband and I are certified-organic gardeners and farmers on a small property on the lovely Mid North Coast of NSW where we grow fresh herbs for market, fruit and vegetables, and wine grapes. Although I originally learnt to garden by conventional methods, it wasn’t long before I was drawn to organic gardening because I could see the benefits for our family and the environment.
Over the years, I have collected many tips on how to get the best from gardens in Australian conditions. These have been compiled into my book, Easy Organic Gardening and Moon Planting, which was released by Scribe Publications in 2006.