Preparing a spring/summer or autumn/winter vegie garden
Part 1 – Preparation and care
There are three keys to establishing a flourishing edible garden whether spring/summer or autumn/winter: soil preparation, watering and site selection.
1. Soil preparation
Soil preparation is everything. Soil needs to be rich in organic matter, free draining, friable and able to hold moisture well. The main types of soil are: loamy, sandy and clay. As Banyule is built on clay, we’ll concentrate on clay soil here. The best way to lighten and add nutrients to clay soil is first to add gypsum (available at your local nursery) which breaks up the clay and provides calcium. Then dig in as much compost as you can. This will add nutrients, aerate the soil, improve drainage and help retain moisture. You may even want to order some bulk Vegie Mix, (a combination of loam, cow manure and mushroom compost), to add to your soil. Vegie Mix is also useful if you are building raised beds or wicking beds. Clay soils in Banyule lack boron and molybdenum so add these trace elements as well.
Test your soil with a pH testing kit. These cost about $25 and last forever. You might even want to share one with friends. The pH scale is from 1 – 14 with 7 being neutral. Below 7 is acidic, above 7 is alkaline. Most vegies grow in the 6 – 7 range but some will grow with alkalinity up to 8 and some with acidity as low as 5.5. Generally there is a chart in the kit showing the pH range appropriate to different vegetables. If your soil is too acidic, add lime or dolomite and if too alkaline add sulphur. Both dig and water these in. It is quicker to turn acidic soil alkaline than vice versa. Mushroom compost is alkaline so this can work as an additive but too much will turn your soil too alkaline. Follow the instructions on the additive packets carefully.
I cannot stress how much lack of water impacts development. Less than 10 mm of rain any day does not count at all. All seedlings need to be well watered at least every second day until well established and then watered deeply twice a week throughout autumn – winter – spring – summer. Water on to the soil not the leaves. This may mean placing the hose underneath cabbages or cauliflower, for example. These will not benefit from rain or overhead watering due to how dense the bed will become with leaves. Plants primarily take water up through their roots so that is where you need to get the water. Watering the leaves should be avoided.
3. Site selection
Some vegies need 6 – 8 hours of sun a day. This is what is meant by ‘full sun’. Some need only 3 – 6 hours per day. If they need afternoon sun this is referred to as ‘partial sun’, if they need morning sun this is called ‘partial shade’. The darker the leaf the less sun is needed so if you need to plant in shady areas (i.e. partial shade), plant spinach, silverbeet, rainbow chard, cress, and other dark leaved plants there. Coriander and chervil which bolt quickly in the sun would also be good choices. For more information, read the article ‘How much sun do my vegies need?‘
Part 2 – Spring/summer garden
Tomatoes (Deadly Nightshade family)
Plant September – December. Choose a site with full sun.
Dig over the soil with a fork, loosening it and breaking up clods. For a 2 x 1 metre bed dig in a barrow load of compost, a bag of cow manure and 2 handfuls of blood and bone. 4 – 5 handfuls of gypsum will also add calcium and break down clay. Also, sprinkle some potash around each plant after planting and again at the time of flowering. Choose the third hottest part of the garden for tomatoes, reserving the hottest for eggplant and capsicum.
Sow seeds in punnets and plant out as seedlings. Sow in June and plant out in September. Protect seedlings if frost is expected. To get a head start, plant seedlings into large pots with compost in them, and plant out well-established plants when you are certain frosts have passed. When planting, bury seedlings up to, even including, the lowest leaves. This anchors them well and produces a strong root system which will deliver more water to the plant, and result in more tomatoes. Plant seedlings 1m apart in rows 1m apart. Stake seedlings and, as they grow, add ties higher up the stake. As the plant grows, progressively remove leaves until the lowest 30cm of the stem is clear.
Water directly, softly, onto the soil. By doing this, and through the removal of lower leaves, you will prevent septoria spores in the soil jumping onto the lower leaves, and making their way up the plant. Always keep tomato roots moist. If they dry out the plant will die. Water deeply several times a week.
Capsicums, chillies and eggplants (Deadly Nightshade family)
Plant October – December. Choose a site with full sun.
Prepare the bed as for tomatoes (see above). These vegetables need long, hot summers. If you are germinating seeds at home without a heat mat, germination will be late and the plants will not have time to fully mature so I recommend buying seedlings from a nursery. Seeds germinate at 28C.
Plant in the hottest spot in your garden. They need full sun and more heat than tomatoes.
Water deeply several times a week. Never let the roots dry out. As the fruit gets close to maturing, reduce the water to ensure better quality fruit. Stake the plants and fertilise with chicken pellets every 6 weeks.
Cucumber, zucchini and pumpkins (Cucurbit family)
Plant September – December. Choose a site with full sun.
Plant these as seed or seedlings on mounds of compost. Avoid nitrogen based fertilisers. Until the plants are well established, cover the mound with wire netting to prevent birds scratching them out or small rodents eating the tender shoots. Snail bait is useful to protect seedlings from snails. Plant 3 lots of 2 seeds per mound and thin out weaker seedlings later if necessary (or transplant them). Mounds for cucumber and zucchini should be 40cm apart and for pumpkins 80cm apart. Rows for both should be 1m apart. Climbing cucumbers will need a frame. When cucumbers have 6 leaves pinch out the growing tips so that they develop lateral branches and more fruit. Add potash at flowering time for all three cucurbits.
Water deeply several times a week.
Plant September/October – December. Choose a site with full sun.
Dig over the soil with a fork, loosening it and breaking up clods. Add compost and well rotted manure. Sow seeds directly or transplant seedlings after frosts have passed. Plant in a grid pattern as corn is wind pollinated. Plant 45cm apart in rows 50cm apart. Plant a minimum of 5 x 5 rows. Corn requires full sun, protection from strong winds, and good drainage. It grows poorly on unimproved clay soils. For the best crop, hill up around the roots with compost.
Corn needs to be well watered but since a grid layout makes this difficult a dripline is recommended. Harvest close to full ripeness and before the rats are attracted to their sweetness. Rats and possums can strip a plant overnight!
Plant year round. Choose a site with partial shade.
Salad greens are tastiest and softest if grown quickly. Grow in any good soil. Keep beds and their surrounds free of weeds to prevent transmission of viruses from the weeds. Salad greens are shallow rooted and require plenty of water.
Water regularly every second day in summer. Spray with Maxicrop or Seasol every 2 weeks. Salad greens include all varieties of lettuce, corn salad, green and purple mizuna, rocket and arugula, and other exotic leafy greens.
Plant August – December. Choose a site with partial sun.
Root vegetables need a fine tilth i.e. fine, powdery soil with all clumps broken up, and roots, sticks and stones removed so that nothing interferes with root development. Soil should be light, sandy and well drained and should contain well decomposed compost but no manure. Soil needs to be dug to a depth that is deeper than the mature vegetable, eg. an 18cm carrot needs a depth of at least 24cm of fine tilth. (A spade’s depth is about 30cm so preparing soil to a spade’s depth is ideal).
Sow seeds directly into prepared beds at a depth of 1-2cm and water well. Place a fence paling over the row to protect the seed from being scratched out by birds but do check regularly for emerging shoots and remove the paling when that occurs. Water again once the seedlings appear. Check seed packets for correct depth of sowing.
All seedlings will require thinning. Thin to the width of the fully grown vegetable plus a bit more. Thinnings, if small enough (2cm), can be transplanted. In general, however, root vegetables do not transplant well and punnets should be avoided. Carrots will not germinate if the temperature is over 25C so plant these early in the season. Do not add manure as this will cause the root vegetables to split and fork.
Inadequate watering in summer will also cause splitting and forking. (Root vegetables are ideally grown in wicking beds in summer as the consistent moisture produces excellent vegetables). The main summer root vegetables are carrots, radishes, daikon and beetroot but kohlrabi and turnips grow well too.
Plant August – September. Choose a site with full sun.
Beans need well dug, well-drained soil, prepared to a depth of 30cm. They do not require fertilising. Beans come in bush and climbing varieties, and in green, yellow and purple colours. They need to be planted after frost as they burn easily. While they need full sun early in the season to develop, they do badly in full sun in midsummer and will need shade protection to continue flourishing. Climbing beans need frames for support or a teepee (eg. made of bamboo sticks). If using a teepee, plant 3 seeds at the base of each pole 5cm deep. For bush beans broadcast the seeds and cover with 5cm of soil. Planting at this depth prevents rodents eating the seeds. Pick beans often as this will increase the crop and young beans are more tender.
Water at the time of planting and then every day during flowering and pod development. Beans need 2.5cm water per week, which is a lot.
Plant perennials year round and annuals in spring (or autumn, see below). Choose a site with full sun except for coriander and chervil. Annual herbs such as coriander and chervil should be planted in the shadiest part of the garden and well watered as they bolt easily.
Herbs grow well in poor soil and require very little water. This makes their essential oils stronger.
Part 3 – Autumn/ winter garden
Plant March – April. Choose a site with partial sun.
Root vegetables need a fine tilth i.e. a fine, powdery soil with all clumps broken up, and roots, sticks and stones removed so that nothing interferes with root development. The soil should be dug to a depth that is deeper than the vegetable eg an 18cm carrot needs a depth of at least 24cm of fine tilth. Preferably, prepare to a depth of 30cm (a spade’s depth). Do not add manure as this will cause the root vegetables to split and fork.
Sow seeds directly into prepared beds at a depth of 1-2cm and water well. Place a fence paling over the row to protect the seeds from being scratched out by birds but do check regularly for emerging shoots and remove the paling when that occurs. Water again once the seedlings appear. Check seed packets for correct depth of sowing.
Water every second day while seedlings establish and then deeply twice a week until the weather cools. Note that March nowadays, is usually a very hot month (due to climate change, +0.25C since 1970!), and watering regularly is important for root development. Through the winter, water deeply once a week unless it is unseasonally hot.
Autumn root vegetables include carrot, parsnip, beetroot, radish, daikon, turnip and swede.
Plant April – May and keep well watered. Choose a position of partial shade.
Like root vegetables, leafy greens also need a fine tilth and plenty of compost but they do well also with well rotted manure which gives them plenty of nitrogen which causes leaves to grow quickly and therefore to taste better.
Water deeply every second day till seedlings are established and then once a week.
Autumn/winter leafy greens include lettuce, rocket, mizuna, kale, mustard greens, spinach, chard and silverbeet, and Asian greens.
Plant March – May and keep well watered. Choose a site with full sun.
The onion family also need a fine tilth, lots of compost and no manure. Weed control is important so weed well before planting, keep well weeded and mulch with sugar cane mulch. Dig furrows 6cm deep, lay the seedlings in them, back fill with soil, and water. They will stand upright within 24 hours.
Water consistently as roots are shallow. Onion family includes onions, spring onions, shallots, leeks and garlic. Garlic needs a false winter. Place whole heads in the fridge in paper bags for 40 days before planting in late May.
Plant April – May and keep well watered. Choose a site with full sun.
Dig over the soil roughly with a fork, breaking up clods and aerating it. Avoid high nitrogen fertilisers such as fresh manure. Add compost and/or some very well rotted manure. Soak peas and broad beans in a diluted seaweed solution overnight before planting. Plant at a depth of 5cm to prevent rodents eating the seed. Peas need climbing frames and broad beans need support to prevent stem breakage in the wind. Provide a form of wind break or a lattice made of strings between stakes.
Peas need the soil to be moist at all times. Water deeply once a week. During flowering and pod development water almost every day. Broad beans should be watered when planted and not again until 2 leaves have emerged. Overwatering causes germination to fail. Broad beans may be watered deeply once a week if necessary and also if they wilt, but the soil needs only to be moist.
Legumes include broad beans, green peas, sugar snap peas and snow peas. Broad beans are frost tender and not suitable for autumn/winter planting.
Brassicas (cabbage family)
Plant April – May and keep well watered. Choose a site with partial shade.
Dig soil over roughly with a fork to open it up and aerate it. Add compost and well rotted manure. Avoid fresh manure which is too high in nitrogen and will cause leaves to develop at the expense of heads. pH should be 6.5 – 7.5 so test with a pH kit. If too acid add lime or dolomite and, a month later, add some well rotted manure. This means starting bed preparation about 6 weeks before planting.
Plant seedlings deeply i.e.bury them up to, even including, their lower leaves. This results in good root systems. Wobbly brassicas will not produce good heads. (It is a common mistake not to plant them deeply enough).
Brassicas require a lot of water. Small heads result from inadequate watering as do heads that are not firm. Rain is rarely adequate. Water deeply twice weekly throughout the winter. Place the hose beneath the leaves and water directly onto the soil so that the roots receive sufficient water. Do not water the leaves.
To prevent yellowing of cauliflower, fold a leaf over the cauliflower head. Don’t worry if the leaf snaps.
Brassicas include broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, all of which have early, mid and late varieties; also included are kohlrabi, Brussel sprouts, kale, turnip and swede (but treat turnip and swede as root vegetables).
Some annual herbs bolt in summer so any time in autumn or spring (see above) is an ideal time to plant them. This includes coriander and chervil. All perennial herbs such as the thymes, oreganos and marjorams, savouries, sage and rosemary can be planted in autumn or in any other season.
Written by Robin Gale-Baker.