Asparagus

Recent storms have not only limited gardening time; they have played havoc with our power supply and phone lines. Consequently, computer work and posting on the internet has been difficult. However, I did find time after the Full Moon to get the asparagus bed ready for spring.

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I always wait until our asparagus foliage has developed a yellowish-brown colour before cutting back the plants to several centimetres above ground level. Asparagus plants withdraw nutrients and carbohydrates from the foliage and store them in the roots during their period of dormancy; in the same way that bulbs store nutrients to provide spring growth. Cutting back asparagus (and spring bulbs) while foliage is green will weaken the plants.
After cutting back the plants, I remove any weeds and test the pH of the bed, as asparagus prefer a soil pH of 6.5 for good growth. The soil pH in our bed was 7.0 so it will not be necessary to add any dolomite to the bed this year. Then I give the bed a thorough watering and a good drink of seaweed extract tea (see post on Seaweed tea). This delicious vegetable and medicinal herb originated along coastal areas and riverbanks, and will appreciate the full range of trace elements that seaweed provides. They are also salt-resistant plants and are one of the vegetables that will do well where soils or water supplies are saline. However, they don’t particularly like heavy clay soils, and mixing some well-washed river sand through the topsoil before planting crowns will assist spear production.
Asparagus are fairly heavy feeders with a high nitrogen requirement. I fed mine with some organic poultry complete fertiliser, some semi-mature compost to provide food for the large family of earthworms in the bed, and some not too fresh horse manure. Manures are slightly acidic and will help bring the pH back a little. I then covered the bed with 5-7 cm of fluffed-up organic mulch. Apart from an occasional watering to keep the bed just damp, the asparagus will not require any attention until spears start to appear in spring.

Chitting potatoes

If you can get your seed potatoes early, it will help to harden them off before planting, especially if winters are wet where you live. If tubers are kept wet soon after planting, black leg and tuber rots are more likely to occur. The hardening process for seed potatoes involves putting them in a warm well-lit area, out of direct sunlight, for a few weeks. This process is called chitting. If your seed potatoes are large, and require cutting in half before sowing, chitting is highly recommended. Don’t rub cut potatoes with wood ash, as some experts recommend. Wood ash contains a fast-acting form of calcium, and can stimulate the disease that produces “scabby” potatoes.
The segmented parts of cardboard egg cartons are perfect for chitting potatoes. Chitting also allows you to observe whether sprouts on seed potatoes are short and thick, or spindly. Seed potatoes with spindly shoots should be disposed of as they come from plants that have been infected by a virus spread by aphids. Leaves will roll upwards and plants will not produce well.

Potato beds

In temperate and cool areas, it’s time to prepare beds for potatoes, and good preparation can avoid many of the problems that may affect these vegetables. Choose a bed that is well drained and has not grown potatoes (or any of the tomato family) for at least four years to avoid the risk of several soil-borne diseases. Potatoes need a separate area for successful growth, as the plants require regular hilling for good cropping.
Potatoes need plenty of fertiliser, but don’t use fresh manures as the higher nitrogen content in these can reduce tuber production. Avoid adding lime or wood ash either, as potatoes prefer a slightly acid soil. Too much calcium in soil increases the incidence of a disease that produces “scabby” potatoes. A moderate amount of compost or well-rotted manure mixed through the topsoil is excellent. This can be supplemented with an application of poultry-based complete fertiliser or worm castings if compost or manures are in short supply. A drink of seaweed extract tea will help to satisfy potatoes’ high potassium requirement. Make sure the fertiliser is thoroughly mixed through the topsoil to avoid hollow heart occurring in tubers. After preparing the bed, cover it with several centimetres of mulch, and keep just damp until planting time.

Strawberry table?

C & D have asked do strawberries need direct sunlight in order to produce flowers – consequently, fruit? They refer to a segment on ABC’s Gardening Australia program that demonstrated a “strawberry table” where strawberries are planted directly into slashes made in a premium bag of potting medium. C & D are concerned that direct sunlight would cook all the good nutrients out of it the soil in the bag, and ask if dappled shade would be more appropriate.

The answer is this question is that a lot depends on the climate where the strawberries are grown. Some warming of the potting mix could be helpful in areas with a short growing season, such as Tasmania. Or, where strawberries are grown in winter to avoid fungal diseases encouraged by high humidity in summer. However, dappled shade would be more suitable in areas where days can be quite hot while strawberries are growing, flowering and forming fruit, in order to prevent not only cooking the mix, but also the plant roots.
In warm conditions, it is not necessary for strawberries to be in direct sunlight to form ripe fruit. If you observe how strawberries form, each flower cluster sits above the foliage. After pollination, the weight of the developing fruit pulls the cluster downwards until, quite often, the fruit is completely hidden by the foliage, and it reaches full ripeness.
In fact, as soon as our strawberry plants start forming flowers in mid spring, we place a 50% shade cloth canopy over them, positioned high enough to allow good air circulation. Otherwise, fruit not hidden by foliage becomes sunburned and inedible. The canopy also deters birds from eating the fruit. We have also had potted-up spare plants produce sweet, red fruit when grown in our shade house where they only received 50 % light through their entire growth period.
I can see a couple of problems with growing strawberries in a “table”. First, strawberry roots should be fanned out at planting, and this could be difficult to do if you have restricted access to the medium. Secondly, the bag would need holes punched along the underside to prevent the mix becoming waterlogged. Poor drainage will weaken the plants. Also, you would have to slash the bag open when runners start to form if you wanted to increase the number of plants. Strawberry plants should be replaced every two or three years.
If you would like to try this form of strawberry cultivation, avoid using a potting mix that contains a lot of mushroom compost as this is usually heavily limed and strawberries prefer a slightly acid medium. Debco make a certified-organic potting mix that would be suitable for this type of project. It is available from Bunnings stores. Unless conditions are cool, position the “table” where it gets any direct sun early in the day, rather than afternoon, and pack straw around the plants and the bag, if you feel the mix is getting too warm. However, I think growing strawberries in hanging baskets would be easier in warm conditions if lack of space were a problem – and the fruit would be safe from snails and slugs.

A bit about me

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.

About the book

Easy Organic Gardening and Moon Planting is an essential reference for all gardeners who care about their family’s health and the environment.

Written for Australian gardeners to assist them in addressing the challenges of climate change and improve the health of their gardens, Easy Organic Gardening and Moon Planting is packed with information and easy to follow step–by–step guides on:

how to drought-proof your whole garden
getting the best results from water restrictions
how to convert water-repellent dirt into healthy, productive garden loam
how to make top-quality fertiliser from worm farms
making excellent compost, quickly
using green manures to maintain the health of your soil
how and when to grow your favourite fruit, vegetables and culinary herbs
how to garden in pots and boxes
how to care for trees, shrubs and flowering annuals
how and when to prune
propagating from seeds and cuttings
coping with frost, hail and bushfires
how to treat garden pests and diseases without using poisons.
This practical handbook also includes a perpetual monthly gardening calendar advising you on what to do when in your garden for all Australian and New Zealand climate zones, plus space for you to add personal reminders. And, for those who follow the ancient gardening practice of moon planting, a listing of the best days for different gardening activities up to the end of 2010.
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Scribe Publications 512 pp. PB – ISBN 9781920769666 $ 50.00
Order your copy direct from: WAHMania

Some Reviews
“Lyn Bagnall has produced a reference work of incredible proportions … It should become a benchmark among the many smaller and not-so thorough ones on the subject … Aspiring and experienced gardeners of all kinds will find the wide range of this book extremely helpful.” – Pat Coleby, author of Natural Farming

“If you had to reduce your organic gardening library to just one book, this would be a good choice.” – Warm Earth

“This book certainly has a good crack at covering all the basics of organic gardening plus much more … a very enjoyable read, written by an experienced, passionate organic farmer and gardener … A useful reference tool for novices and experienced gardeners.” – Josh Byrne, Gardening Australia

“This is the most comprehensive guide to complete organic gardening with the added bonus of a moon planting guide … a fabulous resource both for the beginner and the more experienced gardener.” – Earth Garden

“An immensely readable primer written in a friendly way … this organic lark is not tricky at all.” – Your Home & Garden NZ

“I recommend this comprehensive text to the dedicated gardener … the fundamentals are well covered … a great guide to drought-proof plants … Bagnall makes a good case for adopting moon planting.” – National Parks Journal

“This is really the only kitchen gardening book you’ll ever need.” – Habitat Australia

“This terrific book shows you how and why it can and should be done … It could answer all my queries – in a straightforward, practical sort of way. “ – Readings, Melbourne

“A detailed guide to organics ranging from seed germination and nutrition to practical pest and disease control … The moon planting guide provided is simple enough to plan a year’s production in advance (for all climate zones of Australia) … Get growing! – The Organic Gardener

“This book gathers all her knowledge and experience, providing an essential reference for all organic gardeners, and for those thinking about it.” – SA Life