April is a good time to plant garlic in most areas. 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. Working a 5 cm layer of well-made aerobic compost into the topsoil will help to buffer the cloves from an unsuitable pH in surrounding soil.
We always sow garlic (and other bulbs) during Full Moon phase. That is from the 19th to the 24th of this month. Gardeners in areas with very mild winters can put the cloves (in a plastic bag) into the vege crisper of the fridge until then – because garlic likes a bit of a chill before starting to grow. As garlic needs dry conditions at harvest time, sowing in April usually allows the bulbs to mature before wet weather in late spring–summer.
Sow each clove (pointy end up) in a 5 cm deep hole, and water thoroughly. If sowing large quantities, place them 15 cm apart. Don’t forget to mulch the bed afterwards because garlic plants don’t like competing with weeds.
A recent article published in BFA’s electronic newsletter, The Organic Advantage, quoted recent US research comparing organically-grown strawberries with those grown by conventional methods. Not surprisingly, the organic strawberries came out best for flavour, nutritional value, health-protecting antioxidant levels and colour, and stayed fresh for longer. The research was conducted across 26 farms and concluded that, not only was the organic fruit better, but the soil on the organic farms was higher in carbon and microbial activity, and had higher concentrations of trace elements. Soils on organic farms were also 30% higher in nitrogen than soils on conventional farms where synthetic nitrogen fertilisers were used.
There is nothing like the taste of organic strawberries. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that organic strawberries do not contain residues of the systemic pesticides and fungicides that are used on conventionally-grown strawberries.
I remember reading that strawberries were first discovered growing at the edges of pine forests in the northern hemisphere. This fact indicates three things, – that they will appreciate some shade from Australia’s intense summer sun; that they prefer a soil that is on the acidic side, and that they are dependent on mycorrhiza fungi in soil to assist them to absorb nutrients and moisture. Mycorrhiza-dependent plants absolutely thrive in organic cultivation because the humus in organic soils provides a habitat for beneficial mycorrhiza fungi.
When your strawberry plants start to flower, give them a drink of seaweed extract diluted to weak black tea strength. Kelp provides a good supply of potassium and a range of trace elements that are important in the formation of sweet fruit. The potassium also strengthens plant cells to improve disease resistance. Eco-cweed, Acadian, and Natrakelp are all products registered for use on organic gardens.
Water plants early in the day, too. Wet leaves at nightfall provide more suitable conditions for fungal diseases to establish.
As soon as asparagus foliage has dried off, cut off stems to a few centimetres above soil level. The yellowish-brown colour of asparagus stems means that the plants have withdrawn nutrients and carbon compounds into their crowns to provide energy for new spring growth. Cutting back the stems while they are still green will gradually weaken the plants, and reduce the number of asparagus spears in coming seasons.
After cutting back the stems, remove any weeds from the bed, apply a generous drink of seaweed extract tea to the bed, and add a dusting of dolomite or agricultural lime. Asparagus are heavy feeders with a high nitrogen requirement. Give the bed a 3-5 cm layer of mature compost, or a 2 cm layer of worm castings, or a generous application of poultry-based organic complete fertiliser and a 3 cm layer of aged manure. Then cover the bed with a 5 cm layer of fluffed-up organic mulch. Fluffing the mulch allows rain and irrigation to trickle through to the soil. That done, apart from an occasional watering in during dry spells, you can leave nature to do its thing until spears start to poke their heads above ground in spring.
Last Saturday’s ‘Gardening Australia’ program made the claim that you won’t find the tip to use Epsom Salts to assist germination in any gardening books. That’s not true!
You will find that tip and lots of other tips for getting the best germination and growth from young seedlings in ‘Easy Organic Gardening and Moon Planting’ pages 132-136.
Epsom Salts is a fast source of magnesium for plants. Magnesium, as well as being an essential part of chlorophyll – the green colouring in plants, performs a range of tasks in plants including dissolving the germination inhibitor that coats seeds. Use a half-teaspoon of Epsom Salts dissolved in 2 litres of water to dampen seeds after sowing.
Annie recently e-mailed me her mother’s method of selecting fruits and pods for saving seed, and I thought it might be of interest to other readers. “My mother grew upon a farm in the south of Italy and she has always told me little gardening tips which I don’t always see written about. This summer that just went by for various reasons she left it too late to grow her own tomato seedlings, so she purchased them at great expense from a nursery. The plants looked healthy and grew vigorously until they were quite tall and we expected a bumper crop but the plants only produced flowers – near the very tops of the plants. She had some nice tomatoes but not many and they were all at the top of the plants. She then realised that these plants were grown from seeds from tomatoes that must have grown at the very top of the plant. Because her father always told her that the seeds should only be saved from the best tomatoes near the bottom of the plant. My grandfather said that if you keep the seeds from the tomatoes near the top of the plant the genes in those seeds only produce other plants that will grow tomatoes at the tops of the plants. This is the same for beans and other climbers.”
That is a good point, Annie. However, many gardeners remove the side (axillary) shoots on tomatoes until the plant gets close to the top of the stake, and the fruit forms on the side shoots – so they won’t have fruit forming low on the plant. Another point to remember is that warm night air has an effect on the amount of fruit set on tomatoes – have you noticed that they set little, if any, fruit as nights become cooler. In many parts of this country, warm nights only start to occur when the plants have reached a good size.
It is, though, long-standing gardening advice to try to save seed from the first fruits or seed pods to form, particularly corn, beans, broad beans, peas and tomatoes, so you will have to remember to leave some side shoots on your tomato plants if you want to save seed. Seed Savers recommend saving seed from the lower three hands of fruit, but add that you can save seed from anywhere on the bush. This relates to another important seed-saving adage: “Save the best and eat the rest“.
Consequently, when saving legume seed, I only select lower pods if they are well formed and full of seed. If lower pods are small, or have gaps between the seeds, we eat those; because seed from these pods could carry the characteristic of partly-filled pods. With corn, I only save the lowest cobs if they are a good size. Your corn and legume plants will probably need netting if you want to save seed because birds are very fond of seed left to mature on plants. Keep the netting well clear of the pods or cobs you want to save, as some birds are quite clever as hooking seed through netting.
Saving pea seed Click here
Saving tomato seed Click here
Looking for the perfect Christmas gift for someone who enjoys gardening?
The new edition of my book, ‘Easy Organic Gardening and Moon Planting‘ would be an excellent choice. This book is not just about growing food – all your garden will benefit from organic cultivation. It has 500 pages packed with easy-to-follow guides and secrets on how to maintain good health in your whole garden so that all your plants become naturally pest and disease resistant, and more tolerant of climate change while saving water.
The monthly gardening diary of what to do when for all climate zones can be used with or without moon planting, and there are spaces in the diary for you to add personal notes and reminders. For more information about this book, see: Recommended reading.
Cara at WAHMania has a small quantity of stock and, for Australian orders placed before this Friday, books will be sent by Express Post to ensure that they arrive in time for Christmas. To order merely click on the ‘Buy the book’ panel on the right hand side of this page.
We all know that an adequate supply of phosphorus is essential for healthy root growth but, during hot, dry months, we can further assist some of our vegetables to produce extra roots.
Pumpkins produce a huge amount of foliage – too much for the original root system to supply adequate water to the entire vine. Consequently, these plants and some other members of the squash family have evolved to produce roots at nodes (stem joints) along their runners. (See photo below.)
We can assist this auxiliary root formation by carefully lifting the runner and scratching the surface of the soil beneath where roots buds appear. Then cover this with a shovelful of compost and settle the runner back onto the compost. Encouraging extra roots to form will increase your crop.
These sections may be hidden by foliage but it will help to identify them if you place a soft drink bottle or large juice bottle (with the base removed) neck down beside this area. When watering, water not only around the base of the plant, but also into the bottles to supply water directly to the extra roots without wetting the foliage.
Tomatoes in their natural state, grow along the ground and will also form auxiliary roots along their stems, but our method of growing tomatoes tied to stakes prevents this. However, you can give them a helping hand to produce extra roots before planting out by lying potted seedlings on their side when they are 10-12 cm tall. Leave them like this for a week or so, depending on the growth rate, and remember to stand them upright for watering. As you can see in the photo, the main stem with make a 90-degree turn, and root buds will form on the horizontal part of the stem. Plant them out with the growth tip vertical and the horizontal stem just below the soil surface.
You can also hill up soil around tomato plants (a little at a time), and sweet corn plants to encourage extra roots to grow on the lower parts of the main stem.
Garden peas that we sowed in early May have performed very well again this year and we have been able to freeze quite a lot. We have to net our peas to protect them from birds. We use arches of polypipe supported by garden stakes to hold the netting well clear of the plants, as King Parrots are clever at hooking the pods and pulling them through the netting. Pea flowers are self-pollinating, so netting won’t affect the size of your crop.
We grow our peas in soil with a pH of around 6.5, and we prepare the bed with compost and poultry–based complete fertiliser because peas won’t fix nitrogen unless the suitable rhizobium bacterium has been introduced to the soil. Once the seedlings had poked their heads above ground, we watered regularly.
However, cropping is almost over. We have left some well-filled pods about half way up the plants to set seed. They produce better seed than those saved at the end of harvest when the plants have exhausted most of their fertiliser supply. We have been saving seed from our peas since 2006, and get good germination without treating our seeds with any fungicide. Pea seeds are easy to save. Select only full sized pods that are full of seeds and allow them to mature on netted plants until the pods are brown and dry as in the photo. Ideally, they should be left of the plants until the seeds rattle in the pods but, sometimes, we have to harvest after pods brown, if rain is forecast. Don’t harvest pods for seed when they are wet, or the seed is likely to go mouldy.
The pods are spread on a fly screen frame, indoors, until completely dry and a fingernail will not make an indentation on the seed. The peas are then shelled and any blemished ones discarded. Seed is hung in an open paper bag for another week before storing in envelopes in an airtight container in a cool place. The benefit of saving your own seed is that it comes from plants that have grown well in your local microclimate.
One of my favourite vegetables is winter spinach, also known as English spinach. Spinach is rich in vitamins A, C, and E, folic acid, magnesium, iron, fibre, and contains some vitamin B6. It has a more delicate flavour than silver beet and, unlike silver beet, it can be frozen for use during warmer months. Winter spinach loves cold weather and a well-fertilised soil containing plenty of compost. It has a short growing period at our place because warm weather can extend into late autumn, winters are fairly short and mild, and temperatures rise quickly in spring, causing the plants to run to seed. Sow as soon as weather cools in autumn.
Fortunately, this vegetable grows very quickly, and harvesting can begin 8 weeks after sowing seed. From then on, leaves of all varieties of spinach must be harvested every day or two, or the plants will bolt to seed.
This year, Green Harvest sent to me seeds of their new open-pollinated variety – ‘Galilee’, and it has performed very well in our conditions. ‘Galilee’ was developed in the Middle East and is more tolerant of warm conditions than other varieties of winter spinach. It has produced a lot more foliage than the other variety we grow (‘Winter Giant’) and its mid green leaves have the same flavour as other spinach varieties. It is a great variety for gardeners who have struggled to grow winter spinach.
To freeze winter spinach: I wash the spinach thoroughly, roughly chop the leaves and stems, then put it in a steamer and blanch it with boiling water, before plunging the steamer into icy water. Then drain, and pack into ice cube trays or zip lock bags for freezing. Spinach in zip lock bags is pressed out to a flat sheet on a baking tray for freezing. This makes it easier to break off sections for adding to recipes.
I love warm, still spring days when the air is heavy with the sweet fragrance of citrus and Jasmine flowers, and the lethargic buzzing of bees that seem intoxicated by the perfume.
Citrus trees produce many more flowers than the tree could support if they developed to full maturity as fruit, and a reader has asked if she should remove some of the flowers.
This is not necessary, as most species of citrus will shed the excess flowers at the end of the flowering period when the developing fruit is no larger than a pea. A further shedding of tiny fruit often occurs when they are about 2 cm across. However, there are other causes of fruit drop beyond what the tree intends. Water stress and sap sucking by Bronze-orange or Spined-citrus bugs are common causes. A deficiency of copper (which is only needed in tiny amounts) will cause citrus trees to drop small fruit, and flowering stage is a good time to give your trees a drink of seaweed extract tea, especially if your soil is low in organic matter.
Make a note of when your citrus trees flower because 3 months after flowering the final amount of fruit the tree will produce that season is established. At this time you can remove excess fruit, particularly on young trees.
On some species of citrus, flowers are well spaced as in the photo above. On other varieties flowers form in clusters and, even if only a third of the flowers in this photo developed into fruit, the weight of the fruit will cause new wood to bend downwards, resulting in a poorly shaped tree in years to come. The weight of excess fruit can also split young trees. It is worthwhile being patient with young citrus trees, and foregoing fruit until they have established a sturdy framework.
On older trees, simply pinch out any young fruit that will form a compacted cluster when mature to avoid putting too much weight on new wood at the end of branches.