With the winter solstice behind us, daylight lengthening and jonquils flowering, signs of Spring are everywhere.
It is hard to summon the courage to brave the cold weather. However, if you are looking for a garden task, now is the time to plan your Spring/Summer veggie garden – all from the comfort of your favourite chair with a few gardening catalogues in hand.
A veggie garden plan
Consider what you enjoy eating, how easy it is to grow and how much you need to keep yourself in weekly produce. For example, if your family eats two lettuces a week, you could plant a punnet of mixed lettuce seedlings every few weeks to keep up supply. However, if you don’t have success at growing, e.g. broccoli, even though you enjoy it, you may decide it is best to devote the space to another vegetable, and obtain your broccoli from others.
A few zucchini plants will generally provide more than enough zucchinis for a family plus some for the neighbours. With tomatoes, check yields and consider planting high-yielding varieties such as Gross Lisse (large, round tomato), Tigerella (medium size, red tomato with orange stripes) and Tommy Toe (cherry tomato) – mixed with lower yielding tomatoes for colour and flavour in salads (eg: Black Russian, Black Cherry, Green Zebra, Snow White). Generally two tomato plants can share a stake to save space and if you run out of room in the veggie patch, try ‘patio’ tomatoes (e.g. Tatura Dwarf), which grow happily in a large pot. Around 10 tomato plants can feed a family of four through summer, but it is always tempting to put in more.
Map out the area you have for growing veggies – a diagram can be helpful which allows for spacing around plants. Place tall veggies so they won’t shade smaller ones.
Unless you have a large veggie patch, you may run out of space. Container gardening is easy for small things like lettuces and rocket. Often household containers can be recycled, like children’s outgrown ‘clam shell’ sandpits – just drill holes in the bottom and fill with potting mix/compost etc.
Potatoes can be grown in ‘potato bags’ – many garden suppliers have these. Try strawberries in hanging baskets – the birds will have difficulty getting them.
Keeping a steady supply
After munching on winter veggies for months, I long for Spring/Summer produce. Look for early producing varieties, but also do late varieties and stagger plantings to take you through to April.
For example, bush beans produce quickly and are cold hardier than climbing beans. Plant in October and you’ll be harvesting in December. Then plant climbing beans in November – they give a bigger yield around early February. Try Blue Lake (green) beans, Purple King beans and butter beans for a three colour mix.
Tomatoes are a strong favourite and some people race to have them ripen by Christmas. To do this, start seeding in September, however you will need to protect them from the cold nights (e.g. bring indoors or put an upturned bucket or cloche over them) until mid-October. Quick producing and flavoursome varieties include Stupice (medium size, red tomato) and Juanne Flamme (medium size, yellow tomato) – look for ‘potato leaf’ varieties as an indicator of early cold hardiness. If you don’t want to protect your tomatoes at night, wait until mid-October to plant – you tomatoes will just arrive a little later.
Stagger plantings every few weeks, so everything doesn’t come at once.
For example, to have tomatoes well into May, plant another batch of cherry tomatoes in January – they will keep producing well into the colder weather, however flavour diminishes.
Growing from seed
Many people buy seedlings to plant so the initial propagation work is done for them. However growing from seed is rewarding. Start seeds in small containers indoors in a sunny window. As seedlings emerge, give them plenty of sunlight, taking care not to let them dry out. You can put them outside during the day at this stage, but bring indoors at night if cold. Once seedlings are a few centimetres tall and have secondary leaves, either pot them up into larger pots or plant in the garden.
Most veggies and herbs enjoy a sunny spot – at least half a day, with morning sun better than the scorching afternoon sun. But a few things, like mint and watercress, prefer more shade, so check requirements. If you can’t avoid the very hot sun in February/March, hook up shade cloth to drape over plants: it is disappointing to have your tomatoes cook on the bush and lettuces frizzle.
Perhaps one of the most difficult tasks to get around to is preparing the soil. There are many ways of doing this – some people like no dig gardens, some favour traditional methods, some have raised beds or grow on straw bales, and some judiciously crop rotate beds. In general, make sure your soil is friable, with a good dose of manure (e.g. chicken manure), compost and lime. Mushroom compost is an excellent soil conditioner and provides bulk. Use gypsum to break up the soil if your soil is heavy.
Sometimes your winter crop will still be producing and if you have no alternative space, you may want to wait until it’s finished before rejuvenating the soil.
And finally …
Commit to regular weeding – your crops will be more abundant. Mulching with straw or mushroom compost is one way of keeping weeds down, with the added advantage of keeping soil moisture content up and plant roots protected from the hot sun of Summer.