Over the years, Mac McVeigh has provide this website with seasonal gardening tips 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.
Bare-rooted trees (June)
Bare-rooted trees (May)
Mulching (early spring)
Mulching (late spring)
Watering (spring) Watering (summer)
Sugar snap peas
The Three Sisters
Tomatoes (planting) Tomatoes (training)
|Pests and diseases
Citrus gall wasp
Pear and cherry slug
Keep an eye on your peaches and nectarines for bud swell as you will soon need to spray to prevent curly leaf.” [Editor’s note: As Agriculture Victoria says, “Most effective control is achieved by spraying when the buds are swelling but before they have opened.” If you need help identifying bud swelling (as opposed to just buds), have a look at this video from Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens. Here is what Gardening Australia says on the subject.
Citrus gall wasp
The citrus gall wasp can start hatching in late Winter so now is a good time to prune off existing galls (i.e. those galls without holes) and consider hanging sticky traps. I wrap my traps in bird wire or mesh: 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. Leaf, Root & Fruit have blogged about an alternative approach to treating citrus gall wasp, which involves both less pruning and less fertilising. Sustainable Gardening Australia also has an interesting article about citrus gall wasp. And Karen Sutherland has a 6 minute video.
It is a good time to consider spraying your deciduous fruiting plants and citrus with Pest Oil (or Neem oil) to give them a clean start in spring. This should clean up any scale or mites over-wintering on your trees. It is also good for citrus leaf miner, aphids, mealy bug and caterpillar eggs, to name a few.
You might have a few blackened leaves and tips on your plants due to frost burn. As tempting as it may be to prune off the brown and unsightly damaged foliage, it is best to leave it there to protect the lower growth from more frosts yet to come. Wait until after the last frost to remove.
Now is a good time to divide your perennial herbs and veggies. Dividing your plants will: help stop their spread into areas they are not wanted; promote more vigorous growth; provide you with more plants for other parts of your garden; and make for great gifts to others. The list that can be divided is long, but includes: asparagus, blackberries, chives, globe artichokes, marjoram, mint, oregano, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries and watercress.
It seems hard to believe that we have already reached the winter solstice and that the days will soon be feeling longer as we head out of winter towards spring. So, with that in mind, have you done your winter pruning yet? Some people like to wait until late winter (mid-July) but, if you have the time and inclination, now is as good a time as any, particularly if all your leaves have fallen. It’s also a great time to clean and sharpen your secateurs and pruners. A decent sharpening stone and some vegetable oil or lanoline spray is all you need for this. In fact I know someone with dirty hands who just spits on his sharpening stone! Another common practice is to sterilise your pruners when moving from one tree to another to minimise transfer of diseases. This is done by dipping them in bleach or tea tree solutions or by spraying with metho and wiping clean before moving on. Some garden centres (and most mower shops) will also sell ‘all-in-one’ cleaning/lubricating/disinfection sprays for your pruning tools. Editor’s note: here is a very watchable video about how to remove rust from your tools.
It’s now time to purchase your bare root / deciduous fruit trees, vines and berries. Garden centres and nurseries seem to be well stocked up.
Although it’s probably now too cold for direct seeding, you can still plant spring onions from punnets. Once soaked in water, you can sometimes tease apart as many as 100 seedlings from a punnet. You can harvest them in the same way as chives: rather than pulling out the entire plant, just cut off about 1cm above ground level, take your harvest, and watch them re-grow. Similarly, you can plant the bases of your store-bought spring onions as well – leave 1-2cm of base stem with the roots, plant out and keep damp; they will be off and growing again in a matter of weeks. Editor’s note: different people mean different things by the term ‘spring onion’. Some use the term to refer to varieties of normal onion (Allium cepa) which don’t form substantive bulbs, whilst others use it to refer to any normal onion which is harvested before it forms its bulb. But the official definition, as set out by Onions Australia, is that it is a different, but related, species (Allium fistulosum). As such, they can also be called bunching onions, scallions or Welsh onions.
It’s probably time to cut back your asparagus. When the foliage has turned yellow, or even brown, it’s time to cut it back to ground level. If this has not happened already, expect it over the next few weeks. In late winter / early spring (I suggest Thursday, 17th August at 2.40pm), spread blood and bone or cow manure to feed the-soon-to-emerge spears.
It’s probably time to harvest your olives. Here’s how to tell: when your olives start to change colour from green to black, it’s time to harvest. Yes, you can wait until they go completely black but they are ripe when they start to go black. Here’s another way to tell: 20 corellas or parrots visit your tree, scoff all the olives and make a complete mess of your garden. Editor’s note: there are several different ways of curing olives. For example, see wikiHow or My Green Garden.
Its time for you to start thinking about what bare-rooted fruit trees you want to purchase this year, from whom, and when. Mid June is the best time to buy bare-rooted trees but the risk is that your favoured source might have sold out by then, or at least sold their best specimens. So, perhaps you should try and place a forward order with them. When you purchase, you must not let the bare roots dry out. Some suppliers will have covered the roots with damp newspaper or sawdust (a process called ‘heeling in’), or even have them potted up in potting mix for you – this means a lot and is good. Otherwise heeling them in yourself can do the trick for a time but it is still best to get them into the ground asap. And don’t sit them in a tub of water until you get around to them – even though dormant, the roots still need access to air. Hard pruning in the first year leads to more vigorous growth and better framework. So, try and get the tree pruned at the time of purchase by someone who knows what they are doing. Note that, if the tree in question is an apricot, the pruning should be deferred until leaf sprout to avoid gummosis. When planting, look at the colours of the root system and trunk to try and discern the line where the tree was previously planted up to. If in doubt, don’t plant too deep. Finally, note that bare rooted almond trees are notorious for not coming out of dormancy. So, keep your receipt!
Frosty mornings normally begin from about now (early May) so it’s time to start thinking about whether or not any of your plants will be needing any form of protection (moving into the greenhouse, shade cloth, etc).
If you haven’t done so already, now is the time to turn your irrigation off.
This week (the week of ANZAC Day), my topic is that iconic plant called Rosemary. Tough, hardy, colourful, historical, culinary, medicinal, and (although not native) a very Australian plant. It comes to mind now because it can be found growing wild on the Gallipoli peninsula. But it also grows very well in the ‘soils’ of Nillumbik! Plant it now, water in well, and never water it again! And it will be one of your favourite garden battlers for years to come.
Rosemary is believed to have properties to improve the memory, so the link with Anzac Day and Remembrance Day continues. Remembering our past, especially wrongs of our past, can only guide us to new understanding, and approach, to our future. ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them’.
So, there are many reasons to plant a rosemary in your garden.
I have been amazed by how many people have been having trouble with rabbits in their gardens recently. I often suggest a mix of rabbit-proof fencing and barriers on individual plants. Rabbits are also deterred by the application (smell) of blood and bone, and dislike chilli sprays.
If you haven’t already, now is a good time to prune your apricot trees. Winter pruning of apricots is not recommended because the dreaded gummosis (aka dead arm) disease can enter your tree via the pruning ‘wounds’ if the tree is dormant. Rather, always prune when the sap is still flowing.
April is a common month for citrus leafminer around at the moment so head out and check the new growth on your citrus for the telltale tracks. Google ‘citrus leafminer’ for more info and organic control methods.
[Editor’s note: I googled as Mac suggested and two of my favourite sites have articles on the subject: Gardening Australia and Sustainable Gardening Australia. Then I noticed something very odd – both articles contain the following statement: “Spray with horticultural oil to deter the moth from laying new eggs. The oil won’t kill the larvae which is why it’s important to remove any infested growth. Spray first thing in the morning to avoid spraying beneficial insects which are less active at this time. This also reduces the chance of burning foliage.” Yes, that’s right, two articles by different (named) authors and one has clearly copied material from the other. So, as I said and Sophia Loren then copied from me (or was it the other way round?): “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.“]
Although March is officially the start of Autumn, we are definitely (in 2018) having a late Summer period. With mid to high 30s forecast for next weekend, and still no real sign of rain, don’t rush out to plant your autumn seedlings just yet. To quote myself: “the early bird may find a fried worm“. Better to keep watering or simply prepare your soil for when true Autumn arrives. If you’ve already jumped the starting gun, pull out that shadecloth!
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.
[Editor’s note: see the discussion on this page.]
It’s time to remove (and maybe tag for next year) most of your bird netting (obviously only from those trees where the 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 has been 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. Broadly speaking, winter pruning promotes vigorous growth whilst summer pruning inhibits growth. So, while winter pruning is recommended for newly planted trees up until the tree has achieved the desired framework and height, summer pruning is a great way to control the size of your tree once established.
All the growth made since Spring should be cut back by at least a third noting that, for some fruit trees, it is this new growth which will carry next year’s crops. [Editor’s note: the fruiting schedule on our website includes a column which, for each type of fruit tree, summarises where the tree fruits. Where it says, ‘1-year-old wood’, this means that it is this year’s growth which will carry next year’s crops.]
Also remove rubbing / crossing branches. All major structural pruning should, however, still be saved for when the trees are dormant and less prone to stress.
Early Autumn is also a great time to cut out summer-fruiting raspberry canes that have completely finished fruiting. Cut out all dead canes, right down to ground level. All remaining (up to 5 or 6 per plant) healthy canes can be loosely tied together and, if necessary, secured to a trellis / wires or stakes.
With continued summer weather ahead, and minimal rain, your watering duties are not yet over. Where there is still growth and flowering, there is more produce to come so keep the water coming. But for those plants which do seem to be coming to their end (e.g. tomatoes?), you can now reduce the amounts of water so that the plant begins to focus on producing fruit rather than on growing new foliage. When you reduce/stop watering such plants, the fruit will ripen quicker too.
Beware the common paper wasp! After years (too many to mention) of daily garden work, I have recently noticed an increase in the numbers of paper wasps nesting in our area. Last summer was my first painful introduction, and then another two nests this summer. Yow! The introduced asian paper wasps (Polistes chinensis) only tend to be aggressive when defending their nests and are otherwise beneficial insects to have around the garden. The adults catch caterpillars to feed the larvae, but otherwise feed on nectar. They form small colonies and make paper nests under tree branches, in shrubs such as westringia, and in the eaves of houses. The nests are shaped like inverted cones, and consist of a cluster of hexagonal cells made from wood fibre mixed with saliva. The wasp larvae are maggot-like and develop inside the papery cells of the nest.
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.
[Editor’s note: 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. Incidentally, 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.]
Blossom-end rot looks like a discoloured/black, watery, sunken spot at the blossom end of the fruit. The spot will start out small but grow larger and darker as the fruit continues to grow.
Often a problem with tomatoes, capsicum, cucumber, eggplant and zucchini, blossom-end rot is an environmental problem (not fungal) most often caused by either extremes in soil moisture levels (either too dry or too wet) or by calcium deficiency. Even if you have spread lime etc, uneven watering can interfere with the uptake of calcium. Too much nitrogen fertiliser and rapid growth can also make things worse. Mulch helps, but 40 degree days don’t.
The good news is that blossom-end rot will not spread from plant to plant, and will not necessarily affect future fruit. As a stop gap measure, try spraying plants with a calcium or kelp solution but recognise that consistent water supply is the key.
Some varieties are more resistant than others. For example, I know of one gardener that has a mixed planting of Roma and San Marzano tomatoes. All the San Marzano have blossom-end rot, while the Roma show no sign of it. For tomatoes at least, larger fruit are more susceptible than smaller.
Sugar snap peas
Consider planting sugar snap peas in the summer. Our veggie patch is strictly based on a crop rotation system which means that we always have two spots available for legumes. In winter, we make the obvious choice of broad beans and peas. In summer, beans are always planted but that leaves a second spot up for grabs. Peanuts are one possibility and soybeans are another but we had difficulty sourcing either this year so we decided to consult our local nursery. They said that their experience was that sugar snap peas (but not standard garden peas) could be grown all year round. So, we planted some seedlings in December and this week, less than two months later, we have just harvested a bountiful crop. [tip written by Guy Palmer]
If you have not done so already, all your fruiting crops would probably appreciate another dose of potash or other fertilisers high in Potassium (except, of course, those stonefruits whose fruit has already been harvested). 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.
With another burst of extreme heat on its way, it’s time to drag out your old sheets (or shade cloth if you have it) to protect your crops as well as you can. Even with mulch, and a good water in the morning, most produce plants run the risk of sunburn and obvious wilting when it gets to around 40°C. Ideally a tent type cover is best, rather than just laying over the foliage. So, some tall stakes, some twine, and a few pegs can make all the difference.
[Editor’s note: Robin Gale-Baker provides some complementary advice: “With more very high temperatures in the near future, it is important to understand the purpose of watering. The purpose is to hydrate plants before the hot weather hits. This means deep watering in the week before the day the temperature soars. Deep watering means watering onto the earth around the roots of the plants or under the drip line of fruit trees.”]
With bursts of hot summer weather starting to challenge our crops, remember to remove any damaged fruit that are unlikely to recover and develop. Energy and nutrients can then be directed to those that remain or are yet to come, rather than wasted on inedible compost material.
All produce gardeners should have a clump of bamboo. Be it potted, contained in an old bath, or a controlled clumping form, these plants can be very useful. No, I don’t mean eating the shoots. I mean for homegrown stakes, climbing frames and edging. If you want to be sustainable, why buy stakes when you can grow your own? And the plants look good too!
These sap-sucking pests are what look like ‘flying dandruff’ when heavily infested plants are disturbed. At the moment, that may well be many of your veggies. As they suck the sap on the underside of your leaves, you will see yellow or white mottling on the upper surface. Ladybirds, lacewings, hoverfly, parasitic wasps, spiders and birds can be natural predators, but often you may have to get involved as the whitefly population explodes.
Squirting with a hose, especially the undersides of the leaves, while shouting ‘GET OFF’ or ‘BE GONE’ at least once a day for 3 or 4 days can quite often work and gives great satisfaction.
Hand picking older leaves to remove young whitefly stages also helps.
I have also heard that vacuuming (seriously) your plants in the early morning (when whiteflies are cold and slow moving) can remove many of the adults before they have a chance to lay many eggs. I would, however, suggest that you don’t drag out the Dyson but instead use a smaller battery car cleaning type vacuum device instead.
If spraying becomes necessary, be sure to spray underneath the leaves, preferably late in the afternoon when predators are less active. Suitable organic sprays include Natrasoap, Eco Oil, and Eco Neem.
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? [Editor’s note: I think this is what is known as a rhetorical question.] Time to cut back / rip out and use that space.
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.
[Editor’s note: My Green Garden’s take on pruning: as your seedlings get bigger, you need to decide whether to prune out the laterals or leave them to grow. The answer to the question will determine how many tomatoes you end up with (don’t prune = more); the size of the tomatoes (do prune = larger); and whether or not you are prepared to use several stakes for each plant (don’t prune = more supports needed). Also, the laterals pruned out can be rooted in water to create another plant if you need one.]
Also, read Helen Simpson’s guide on how to grow tomatoes.
Pear and cherry slug
I have started to notice the odd case of pear and cherry slug on a few trees. As their name suggests, they are commonly found on pears and cherries, but also on quince. On rare cases, they can also be on apples, plums and apricots. They are in fact not a slug, but the soft-skinned larvae of a glossy black sawfly (Caliroa cerasi), and will quickly skeletonise leaves if allowed. After feeding on leaves, they fall to the ground and pupate before appearing again as adults and re-starting the cycle. Control is recommended. You can treat initially by hosing them off. Also predatory insects like hoverflies, paper wasps, lacewings, spiders and insect-eating birds may help you out. Dusting the tree with dry ash, builders lime or even flour can often clean them up but make sure you stand up wind! If you can’t reach, or numbers are too many, you can use low-toxic, organic bacterial sprays such as Dipel or Success. Alternatively spray with organic pyrethrum or neem.
With the recent burst of hot weather, it’s all about keeping water levels up on your veggie patch. If you have an irrigation system in place, it’s time to switch it on. If not, you need to be on the end of a hose most mornings if temperatures are forecast to be above, say, 25. Sure you can water in the evenings after work, which is a nice way to unwind, but humidity overnight can sometimes encourage fungal problems. Water thoroughly, rather than a light mist. Wilting at the end of a hot day is normal – it’s what your plants look like in the evening and morning that counts. Regular moisture levels is the key; to check, a finger in the soil is better than a stick.
[Editor’s note: 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. Also check out the following article that Robin Gale-Baker, from Sustainable Macleod, has written: the art of watering.]
Now that most of us have our spring / summers crops planted, and with the arrival of warmer weather on the horizon, get mulching if you haven’t already. For veggies, mulches such as pea straw, lucerne or milled sugar cane provide insulation to retain soil moisture and minimise weed germination. Although not long lasting, they will last your crop cycle and provide beneficial organic matter to your soil as they break down. The remnants after harvest can mostly be dug through your soil before your planting starts again in autumn. Keep clear of the stems of your plants and spread 5-8cm deep. For those with ‘food miles’ on their minds, note that pea straw and lucerne will generally come from Victoria or NSW whilst sugar cane is transported from Queensland.
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.
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.
Read Leaf, Root & Fruit’s post on the Three Sisters.
[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.]
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.
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.
When it comes to fruit trees, it is often a case of less is more! Now that your fruit tree flowers are ending and the fruit is starting to form, it is a great time to remove some of the fruit! When a tree is carrying a very heavy crop, the fruits are often small and of poor quality. Fruit thinning can improve fruit size and quality on many fruit trees, including apples, pears, plums, peaches and nectarines. Simply remove some of the fruit by hand. Thinning will also stop your fruit trees bearing biennially (i.e. a heavy crop one year is followed by a light crop the year after) plus you will prevent branches breaking from bearing too much fruit and allow better air flow (which helps protect your fruit against both fungal disease and insect attack).
[Editor’s note: Yvonne Ashby commented: I followed Mac’s tip to thin out half of my heavy laden nectarine tree a few weeks ago, but half of the remaining nectarines have subsequently dropped onto the ground so the net result is that only a quarter of the original fruit remain to grow into bigger size. I am definitely getting much better quality nectarines than I expected. I will not be thinning them out next year but let the nature do the work. Mac responded: I think that nature has done its work this year as well and that Yvonne’s fruit drop was not caused by her thinning but would have happened anyway. Indeed, by thinning a couple of weeks earlier, she may have actually helped the tree to retain the ‘quarter’ of the fruit that remains. Fruit dropping is a natural thing for a tree to do if there are not enough ‘food reserves’ for all the fruit to develop and set seed. The practice of thinning allows the grower to interfere and decide which branches are the strongest to support fruit, space the fruit for ventilation, and allow all stored ‘food reserves’ to be directed to the remaining fruit. Sure, you don’t have to thin fruit, but it is good practice on younger trees and helps to improve fruit quality on more established trees. Applications of potash can also help the quality of the fruit. Fingers crossed for your remaining nectarines.]
[Editor’s note: Leaf, Root & Fruit’s contribution: For fruit that is already set on your trees, thinning of fruit is an important task. This ensures good size and quality of remaining fruit. You should gradually thin the fruit until you have one every 10cm along the branch. Thinning should be completed over the next month. Many fruit trees can go into a biennial fruiting pattern. This is where they have a massive crop one year, followed by a very small crop the next year. Thinning of fruit can help to avoid the tree getting into a biennial cropping pattern.]
[Editor’s note: Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens’ contribution: Fruit thinning is the practice of pulling some of the fruit off the tree by hand, while the fruit is still tiny. It can be really hard to make yourself do it (and to take enough off) but it’s very much worth it. One of the least understood reasons for doing this job is to try to break the cycle of biennial bearing that many fruit trees naturally adopt. The good news is that, if you do this job early enough you are sacrificing very little actual fruit production as the tree will put the same amount of energy into the fruit you leave on the tree as it would have to the big bunches of fruit. The second main reason to do thinning is to protect the structure of our trees. Most fruit is carried on the small side shoots, or laterals, that grow from the main branches. Left to its own devices, the tree will frequently set so much fruit on a branch or lateral that the weight of the fruit breaks the branch. Usually a short lateral can only bear the weight of one piece of fruit, and a longer or stronger lateral can bear two or more pieces.]
With the long awaited arrival of Spring, I have spotted a few aphids starting to appear on fresh new growth. Luckily, I also noticed some hoverflies in those same areas indicating they too have spotted a food source area to lay their eggs. Everyone knows that ladybirds eat aphids, but many don’t know about the hoverfly (or lacewing for that matter!). Often confused with a form of bee or wasp due to their yellow and black bands, hoverflies have a characteristic flight pattern – hovering in one spot, moving suddenly forwards or sideways, then hovering again. They are also important pollinators in your garden. So my tip this week is not to rush for sprays because the humble hoverfly and others may well make a meal of the situation for you if you let them.
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!
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.
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.
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”?]
While pruning a bay laurel (Laurus nobilus) hedge this week, I had to admire how versatile this Mediterranean plant really is. It is able to cope with drought, frost, poor soils, pretty much anything once established, and can be grown in full sun or in the shade. I have even heard that it can even survive bushfires! Although, if let go, it is classed as a tree or tall shrub, when hedged, it can provide excellent screening and be kept at your desired height (up to 6-8m, or less) and a mere 60-80cm wide if trimmed both sides. More moisture will give quicker growth. Dry leaves are generally the preferred option for cooking as the fresh leaves can be a tad pungent. So, if you can sauce one, don’t stew on the decision and stock up now. Editor’s note: incidently, bay laurel is dioecious, like kiwifruit and carob.
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.
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’s a good month to start preparing your produce beds for spring. In other words, it is a good time to dig in cow manure and/or mushroom compost to add nutrients and condition your soil in readiness for planting.
With the wattles in bloom signalling a change of season from winter to spring, it’s a good time to start sowing your tomato seeds. They will still need protection from possible frosts so indoors on a window sill, or in an igloo or glass house, is ideal. Or you can use the bottom half of a soft drink bottle over a 14cm pot. Seed raising mix makes all the difference.
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. Act now!