Growing vegetables


Robin Gale-Baker, from Sustainable Macleod, discusses growing various vegetables. She has also written articles for this website about growing broad beans, cauliflower, eggplants and capsicums, apricot trees, persimmon trees, other fruit trees and herbs. Also articles on mulch and growing techniques.

Planting asparagus (June)

Asparagus is a perennial vegetable lasting, 30 years so it provides excellent value. July is when asparagus crowns are commercially available from nurseries. Asparagus bed preparation is time consuming so June is a great month to prepare a new bed, ready for planting in July.

Asparagus can be planted either in the ground or in a high-sided raised bed. Either way, trenches need to be dug to a depth of 30cm below the soil surface, 30cm wide, and with 30cm between trenches. At the bottom of each trench, make a small hill of soil down its length. This is to fan out and drape the roots over. Snip off any damaged or broken roots before planting (they will grow back quickly). Place the crowns around 30cm apart. Cover the crowns so that there is several centimetres of soil above them with no roots visible. Combine the soil with a mix of well rotted manure and compost (asparagus are heavy feeders).

As the crown shoots, keep covering the shoots in the same way until you reach the surface. This will take 3-4 months.

In the first year, do not cut any spears; in the second, cut 2-3 per crown; and in the third, cut as many as you like. Water well both during the establishment phase and thereafter. Asparagus does not like competition from weeds or other plants so mulch and weed regularly.

[Editor’s note: asparagus is dioecious (separate male/female plants). From an eating perspective, at least anecdotally, one would like all male plants, as their spears tend to be both fatter and more numerous. Over time, this can be achieved by replacing the females. During Autumn, you can tell which is which because only the females have berries.]

When to pick pumpkins and how to ‘cure’ them (April)

Pick pumpkins when the stem coming out of the top of the pumpkin has withered. Leave 10-12 cm of stem but don’t use it as a handle. You can also ‘knock’ on the pumpkin and if it sounds hollow then it is ready for picking. A pumpkin will not be ready to eat immediately after being harvested. Rather, it needs to be ‘cured’ (aka ‘hardened off’) and allowed to sweeten. To do this, rest the pumpkin on some mesh or wire so that air can circulate around it, with newspaper or straw underneath so that the skin doesn’t tear or blemish. Leave it in the sun for 2-3 weeks then turn it over and do the same for the bottom. Then the pumpkin will be ready to eat.

Vernalising your garlic (March)

[Editor’s note: Robin and I debated garlic planting in some of the newsletters a couple of years ago. If you plant garlic too early (i.e. when it is too warm), the resulting bulbs may not divide into separate cloves. If you plant too late, the bulbs may remain small (because, driven by length of day, the garlic starts trying to form bulbs when it is too young). One potential way around this dilemma is to keep the garlic in the fridge for some time before planting. I experimented with different timings and different refrigerations and one of the conclusions was that refrigeration did, indeed, allow for later successful plantings. Read the results of the experiment.]

In the ‘old days’, before climate change, garlic would often be planted in March but these days the ground is too warm then (the perfect time to plant garlic is when soil temperature is 10°C at a depth of 8cm at 9am in the morning). Arguably, this is also becoming the case in April. So, commercial growers are increasingly giving their garlic a ‘false winter’ by refrigerating it for 40 days and then planting it out in May. This process is called vernalisation and helps late-planted garlic to develop large bulbs. If you want to copy these growers, you should be purchasing your garlic soon and refrigerating (not freezing) it in mid- to late-March. Buy from reputable sources (probably online or at farmers’ markets as nurseries won’t yet be stocking garlic heads) and do not use imported garlic as this may well have been sprayed with methyl bromide and a shoot inhibitor.

When preparing your garlic, select healthy heads, do not separate the cloves (as this could result in infection when removed from the basal plate), place in an airtight container in the fridge and remove 40 days later in May. Plant the large outer cloves at a depth of 2cm (i.e. the tip has 2 cm of soil above it) at 15cm intervals in rows 15cm apart, and apply a thick layer of loose mulch.

Garlic requires regular watering and, with drier winters, this needs to be done by hand, dripline or in wicking beds. In November or early December the plants will be ready to pull. Water up until 2 weeks before harvest. Ceasing watering then will allow the garlic to dry out, but also check the likely rainfall when planning when to harvest and adjust accordingly.

There are many varieties of garlic. They are broadly divided into soft-necks and hard-necks, with the soft-necks having a stronger flavour. Different varieties can have very different shelf lives.

For more information, read Helen Simpson’s guide to growing garlic.

Crowns (September)

Some fruit and vegetables are grown from crowns and these require careful planting. A crown is defined as a part of a plant where stem and roots meet. Examples are rhubarb, strawberries, asparagus and horseradish.

For rhubarb and strawberries, it is important that the eye or bud of the crown is planted at, or just above, soil level as this prevents crown rot. Each is best grown in a dedicated bed in sunny, moist, well-drained conditions and both do well with a generous mix of well-rotted manure and compost. Rhubarb should be divided after a number of years when it is clear that its production is waning. Use a sharp spade to cut through the crown making sure that each piece has an eye, and re-plant. Strawberries are grown from runners which develop from the original plant. Cut the stem between the original plant and the new plant, trim the runner of dead leaves and the runner stem, and re-plant. Both will produce in the season in which they are planted.

Unlike rhubarb and strawberries, asparagus needs to be planted deep in trenches and backfilled as the shoots emerge. The first spears should not be cut until the following season and then only 2-3 per plant. The season after that as many spears as you like can be harvested. Horseradish, on the other hand, needs little attention. It is grown from root cuttings – either small pieces of root that can be buried, or crowns. Plant the crowns so that the shoots are just above ground, and leave for a couple of years before harvesting, and remember that it is quite invasive!

Early heritage tomatoes (August)

At this time of year – late July/early August – Bunnings sell a small range of heritage tomatoes from Diggers. You will find them in the indoor nursery section and this is for a very good reason: it is far too early to plant them out. However, if you have a greenhouse, or perhaps a sunny verandah, planting these early tomatoes in large pots of compost will give you advanced plants for putting in your garden in October, or even September if the weather is good and frosts unlikely. One advantage of doing this is that, as the plant grows, laterals will develop. Laterals are the shoots that grow between the main stem and a side branch. Normally they are pinched out to strengthen the plant. However, leave them until they are around 6cm long, pinch them out, plant them in potting mix and water well. Water each day and, within a week or two, you will have new plants with strong roots to plant out for no extra cost. A second advantage is that you could have tomatoes by Cup Day in early November! Traditionally, Cup Day has been the day that Melbournians are advised to plant out their tomatoes so you could be harvesting whilst your neighbours are only just planting!

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