Mac McVeigh has kindly agreed to provide this website with weekly, seasonal tips. Mac is a qualified horticulturalist from Eltham who can do most skilled tasks around the garden. He is one of the people on our list of local people who build wicking beds or raised garden beds.
Ok, your pumpkins now look ready … but maybe don’t pick them just yet. The longer you leave them on the vine, the sweeter they will get, and the longer they can be stored. It is best to wait until the vine dies off and the stem to your pumpkin withers and goes brown. Don’t worry if frosts arrive – they will only kill the vines. Pick with as much stem as possible – some people keep up to 1m of vine attached if they plan to store the pumpkin for months. Many growers also keep the pumpkins in a sheltered outdoor spot for up to a week to mature before storing in a cool, dark well ventilated area. Hanging in a bird net sack in a dark shed works well … and it also keeps the rats at bay. Finally, note that most pumpkins are best kept for at least a week or so before eating, although Japs can be eaten as soon as picked.
When to pick a pear … well, about now actually. Pears are best picked before they are fully ripe. Picking about 2 weeks before full maturity is best, just when the skin color is starting to change and, if cut, the seeds are turning black. Here’s how to test: if the stem breaks off with the fruit when you lift them upwards to be horizontal, then they are ready. If kept at room temperature, they will then (like tomatoes) continue to ripen. If you press your thumb into the neck of the pear and it yields a little then your pear is ready to eat.
Editor’s note: fruits that ripens after being picked are called ‘climacteric’. Banana and tomato are the classic examples. Other climacteric fruits include apricot, avocado, custard apple, peach, pear and plum. Fruits that don’t ripen at all after being picked are called ‘non-climacteric’ and they include all citrus, cherry, grape, pineapple and strawberry. Full lists are included in the fruiting schedule on the website.
Although our official European calendar says that summer ended at the end of February, we are definitely not yet in Autumn, so don’t rush to plant ‘Autumn’ seedlings just yet. No doubt, (I hope), you have all heard that Melbourne in fact has 6-8 seasons, and we are still in late summer. Our true locals, the Wurundjeri, knew that there were 6-8 seasons, and they signalled these by when certain plants would flower, animals would breed, eggs would hatch, etc. Even today, some fisherman apparently use the flowering of the Coastal Tea Tree in early November to mark the entry of snapper into Port Phillip Bay. So keep watering, probably until April, and don’t plant your autumn/winter crops too early.
It’s time to remove (and maybe tag for next year) most of your bird netting now that your fruit has been harvested. In so doing, you may need to prune any growth that has come through the netting. In fact, why not keep going and give your fruit trees a good ‘late summer prune’ rather than wait until winter dormancy, as is more traditional. This can be particularly beneficial for stonefruit or any espaliered/trained trees where you do not want vigorous spring growth (water shoots) to ruin your desired shape. At this time of the year, wounds heal quickly and, whilst there will be some re-growth, it won’t be the vigorous, unproductive, vertical growth (water shoots) often seen after hard winter pruning. Until next time, remember: dirty hands are still good hands in 2017.
If you have not done so already, all your fruiting crops would probably appreciate another dose of potash or other fertilisers high in Potassium. This will maximise your plants’ flower production and fruit quality (and also strengthen cell walls to fight off disease). Note that regular watering over summer can often leach out some nutrients that have not already been taken up by your plants.
Whilst in the midst of your peak harvest period, take time to appreciate the ‘star performers’ in your veggie patch. If one of your plants is far more vigorous or productive than the others then, hey, why not collect the seed from that plant to sow in future years? Beans, capsicums, chillis, lettuce, peas and tomatoes are considered the easiest to save because they all produce seed in the same season as they are planted and all are self-pollinating. Only the seeds from open-pollinated, non-hybrid plants will produce a similar crop; in other words, they are the plants most likely to produce offspring (in the form of seed) that closely resemble their parents.
As Mac points out, you should keep back the best seed for planting, rather than follow the obvious course of eating the best and planting the dross. Incidently, Richard Dawkins said (in The Ancestor’s Tale) that his father found this one of the hardest lessons to get across to farmers in Africa in the 1940s.
If you want to know more about seed saving, an excellent book is The Seed Savers’ Handbook. Both readable and comprehensive, it would be a nice gift for anyone at $32.
And here is a free booklet: A Guide to Seed Saving, Seed Stewardship & Seed Sovereignty.
Although we have been a bit spoilt with rainfall and cooler temperatures, we are now officially in summer. Your plantings will soon require a greater focus on water needs and water conservation. In planning your watering requirements, make sure that you have mulched all your crops and note that:
- Wilting is normal on hot days, it’s what your plants look like in the evening and morning that counts.
- Morning watering is best.
- Regular moisture levels is the key … to check, a finger in the soil is better than a stick.
Check out the following article that Mac wrote for the SGA website a few years ago: a busy person’s guide to watering systems for vegetable gardening.
Admit your broad beans have come to their end … time to remove them and plant leafy crops like basil and lettuce to make use of the nitrogen that they have supplied. How much self-seeded parsley do you need? [Ed: I think this is what is known as a rhetorical question.] Time to cut back / rip out and use that space.
The Three Sisters
It is called the Three Sisters. If space is limited, or even if not, the sisters get on well and help each other out (i.e. companion planting). Maize, climbing beans and squash (aka sweetcorn, beans and pumpkins) – a very old combination. Plant the sweetcorn first as structural support. Then, once growing, plant climbing beans around the base, maybe 4 per corn; the beans climb the corn while also adding nitrogen to the soil to help the corn. Once beans have grabbed hold, plant the pumpkins, which then shade the soil to retain moisture, gain nitrogen from the beans, and may also climb the older corn. Messy but very productive in a small space. Google for more info. Until next time, remember: dirty hand are good hands.
Editor’s note: I first read about the Three Sisters in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which is a fascinating book about why Eurasian civilizations, rather than anyone else, conquered the world. Part of his theory is that, whilst the Native Americans had cultivated sources of protein in both beans and sweetcorn, both the pulses (e.g. peas and lentils) and the edible grasses (e.g. wheat) in the Fertile Crescent were better sources of protein. So, the people in the Fertile Crescent could live closer together and could form more complex societies.
Remember to train your tomatoes! Now that they are growing fast, you will need to tie them about every 20cm of growth. As they are starting to flower as well, best to tie loosely above the cluster of flowers. If you have single stakes, and planted close together, best to train to a single stem. This means pinching out side stems (aka branches) that are growing in the crotches between the leaves and the main stem. If you have a cage or trellis, or have spaced wide apart to allow more support stakes, allow maybe four main stems but pinch out further side stems. Older heirloom varieties often do better with multiple stems rather than a single. By training you will not only get a tidier plant, but also less fungal problems and quicker fruit, as your plants put more energy in to flowers and fruiting rather than to stem and leaf growth. Potassium is a key to success and liquid tomato food is full of it, as is sulphate of potash.
Read Helen’s guide on how to grow tomatoes.
It’s time to buy ear plugs! It does not happen every year but, from the few I’ve seen emerging, it may be a good year for the iconic (and loud) cicada. Sure, they have been pupating underground, sucking sap from your tree roots, but they have been down there for the last 6-7 years, waiting for a good year. Adults only survive for 3-4 weeks, trying to find a mate to start the cycle again. And yes, as always (so I have been told), it is the males that are the ones making all the noise.
Now is the time to start checking your grape vines for the caterpillars of the grapevine moth. These black and white day-flying moths (not butterflies) lay their eggs on the under-sides of the leaves and it doesn’t take long before the holes appear. As they grow, these caterpillars can eat up to 6 leaves a day each as well as the developing grapes, and severe defoliation can therefore happen. Hand pick as often as you can. If you can’t reach, or numbers are too many, you can use low-toxic, organic bacterial sprays such as Dipel or Success. For those of you with young children, or are still inspired by the wonders of nature, put some caterpillars in a ‘bug catcher’, or large container with air holes. Feed them your chosen leaves and watch them grow and pupate.
It’s time to get the bird netting out on your fruiting trees and berries, now that the fruit are developing. Also, take the time to smell the roses.
With the horse racing season upon us, I happened to be chatting to a jockey the other day at a gathering. I said it must be a wonderful feeling leading the pack but he said that, unfortunately, he mainly sees the backsides of the other horses. So, I turned the conversation to horse manure. Did you know that horse manure usually has more nutrients than either cow or sheep manure as horses are often fed supplements as well as grass? Also, mushroom compost typically starts its life as horse manure plus stable sweepings – and we know how good that is for our veggies. However, fresh horse manure often contains weed seeds and can burn roots. The trick is to use aged horse manure … and I don’t mean from an old horse! Heat from composting kills most weed seeds, and mixing horse manure into your compost gives great results. Ideally let it age 2-3 months.
Planting your summer veggies
Ok, we have waited long enough for Spring to come. If you haven’t done so already, it is now time to plant those chillies, eggplants, tomatoes, zucchinis and other summer harvest delights. Yes, we had a frost last week … but days over 20°C are coming at last. Maybe add a dose of lime to help minimise blossom end rot (Calcium helps, but regular water is actually the key).
Click here to read an SGA article on blossom end rot.
Unless you want the seeds or fruit, the time to prune is immediately after flowering. That goes for almost any ornamental plant: prune after flowering to skip the seed development phase and jump straight to the growth phase. If hedge trimming, prune on a dry day so that water weight does not affect the line of your cut.
Have you got aphids on your new spring growth? I have seen them thick on some roses and on the odd fruit tree. Step one is to simply rub them off with your fingers or squirt them off with the hose – as most don’t yet have wings, this it may do the trick. Check again in a week and then maybe apply a soapy water / neam oil / or pyrethrum spray if they are back. However, always hold off nuking them with stronger insecticides as before you know it the weather will change and populations will subside anyway. Also, lady bugs and lacewings eat aphids, so make sure none are in sight as pyrethrum is a contact (low impact) insecticide that will kill them too!
Ok, so you’ve now weeded, fertilised and mulched … well done!
If your peaches and nectarines have curly leaf (and you didn’t read my earlier tip!), pull off all the affected leaves and bin them. It’s too late to spray now and, even if you almost defoliate your trees, they should start to grow uninfected leaves as the season progresses.
It is pretty much spring planting time so look at which of your winter crops are coming to their end and can make room for your summer harvest. For those of you that have already planted tomatoes, well done! For those of you that haven’t, don’t worry as the temperatures aren’t warm enough yet for real growth, but best to start soon. [Editor’s note: would you support a petition to change the aphorism from “plant your tomatoes on Cup Day” to “plant your tomatoes on Grand Final Day”?]
No rest for the wicked – it’s now weed and mulch time! Lock in that moisture in the soil by applying a good layer of mulch. 5cm min to 10cm max. Larger mulch particles (10mm plus) insulate the soil and still allow summer rain to get to the soil, whereas finer particles may lock in your moisture but block rainfall. When mulching, take care to clear mulch from stems/base of plants to prevent collar rot. For veggies, you can, if you want, wait until you plant your summer crops and then apply short term, but soil building, mulches such as pea straw or lucerne.
After good winter and early spring rainfall, it is now time to spread a bit of fertiliser. I prefer organic, pelletised for slow release or powder for a quicker supply of nutrients if your plants are crying out. Organic not only feeds your plants, but also your soil micro-organisms which then, in turn, help your plants.
Yes, it depends on what you are feeding. Natives may need nothing … or a light sprinkle of blood and bone. Yellowing native leaves might call for a shot of Iron chelate. For fruit trees, perhaps ample slow release pellets. Vacant veggie beds could have cow manure and/or mushroom compost/pellets dug through for future spring plantings.
It is time to prevent codling moth on your apples, pears and quinces, especially if you have had infestations in the past. Use pheromone traps, trappit glue or corrugated cardboard wraps around the trunk. Perhaps spray with Dipel or Success. Google “codling moth lifecycle” to gain more knowledge. Act now!
Citrus gall wasp
The citrus wasp gall is now beginning to hatch. So, prune off existing galls (without holes) and consider hanging sticky traps. I’m thinking of wrapping my traps in bird wire or mesh this year: the traps seem to attract all insects (and birds that eat them), which can unfortunately also stick in the traps, but the wire/mesh should keep many of them out. By contrast, gall wasps are only 2-3mm and so will still get through. An experiment worth trying until the end of November, when they can be removed. Finally, if you haven’t yet sprayed your peaches and nectarines with copper, do so now.
All winter pruning should largely be completed now, with eco-oil sprayed where needed. It is also a good time to prune off more wasp gall on your citrus. Keep an eye on your peaches and nectarines for bud swell as you will soon need to spray to prevent curly leaf.