It finally feels like autumn has arrived in Northern NSW (only a month and a bit late!). I love this time of year - crisp, fresh air that still has a warmth to it that makes the days oh so dreamy and perfect for gardening.
We let the beds go towards the end of summer. Intense sun, either torrential rain and humidity or (like this summer) not enough rain, hoards of green grasshoppers, and sandy soils are not favourable for tender veggies and so we pull out most of what has grown over spring, tops the beds up with manure, compost and mulch and let them sit. I find we an grow a lot of 'summer' vegetables up here through our mild autumn and winter with more luck than in the warmer months so this is the time we really go for it.
My hubby always says that plants are like people - they need the same things we do in order to flourish - a healthy and happy environment, food, water, sunlight and love. Leave any of these out and they may survive, but they risk getting sick with viruses or attacked by bugs or they just don't grow to their full potential - just like us. It's a great analogy to remember when nurturing your outdoor space.
certainly is the key to a happy garden! With sandy soils like ours I prefer to go with the no-dig method of layering cow manure, compost and a topping of sugar cane mulch on existing beds. Sand acts like a filter - eventually all the goodies get sifted through until you end up with sand at the top again, especially if you are digging the good stuff in. By laying on top, you slow this process down and eventually end up with a more humus rich soil full of wriggling worms and less backache. The sandy base provides excellent drainage and is much easier to work with than clay or rocky soils. I like to prepare mine at least a month before planting to let is settle, however this doesn't often occur and I usually plant straight in. Pick a spot that gets full sun - most veggies need a full days worth to thrive.
2. Choosing The Right Plants
The best advice I can give for which vegies to grow is to plant the ones you eat! Having a fresh supply of yumminess is great inspiration for cooking healthy meals and you will emerge daily to see what is ready for harvest and base tonights meals around what is in supply. Some of the fastest and easiest to grow veggies include beans, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, silverbeet, spring onions and herbs. Experimenting is great fun though and there are some really cool unusual varieties of your good old traditional veggies available these days. I prefer to buy seedlings over seeds as I don't have much luck (patience) tending to seeds and you are usually a few weeks ahead. Try your local nursery, bunnings or big w and see what is in season. Trial an error is the only real way to tell what will grow in your garden so give it all a go and you will know for the next year. I have NEVER had any luck with carrots :( and after years of trying in several gardens have resigned to the fact that they are just not for me. When planting think of how you would like your garden to look - are you more of a "rows and tallest to shortest" person (i.e. hubby) or a "freeform wild-meadow flowers and veggies all in one bed" person (i.e. me) - this is your chance to get creative and personalise your space (hence why hubby and I have separate designated areas of the garden). Make sure your plants are well mulched but still have room to breath (airflow is important to avoid fungal diseases) and water in immediately. A drink with a seaweed liquid fertiliser after planting will encourage root growth and set them up for a happy life.
Most veggies love full sun and a daily watering. The only ones I can think of that don't mind partial shade are spinach, coriander and mint (I'm sure there are others but these are probably the most common) and you can tuck these into an area where they will be partially shaded by some of the bigger plants. When it comes to food, they love manure which should have been laid down in your beds in the beginning to feed them slowly from the roots up. I also aim for a weekly feed with an organic liquid fertiliser such as fish or seaweed emulsion (or a combination of the two!). Steer clear of powered or liquid chemical fertilisers on edible plants as they contain a lot of nasties and one of the bonuses of growing your own is that you can grow organic without the price tag that come with buying organic. Organic fertiliser pellets and dry blood and bone type mixes and also great food, just be careful to sprinkle them on the soil around your plants as they can burn if they come in direct contact. Get to know what is happening your garden by taking a look at everything everyday or every other day. You will see what needs staking, or harvesting, or what is being attacked by caterpillars and your garden will feel cared for. There is some amazing stuff out there on the net about plants that are spoken to, or sung to, or played music to and how they positively respond so go nuts and give your neighbors something to talk about (from memory I think heavy metal has the opposite response so opt for Mozart over Metallica! or on second thoughts just water and feed like normal people).
4. Pest Control
Even the healthiest gardens will get the odd attack of bugs or diseases. The most common I experience in this area are those little green grasshoppers in summer which I do not have a remedy for (they usually go away as it cools down. I have heard that homemade garlic/chilli spray might work so if anyone has a recipe let me know), little green caterpillars in autumn winter that are laid by the white cabbage moths and particularly love your winter cruciferous veggies such as cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower which I pick off by hand (and throw into the neighbours garden) and those large 28-spotted lady bugs that eat holes into the leaves of my tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants which I also also pick off by hand and leave in a jar of water in the garden to warn off their fellow bug friends (why I can kill these but not the caterpillars I do not know!). I stay away from chemicals at all costs and go for the good old methods of pest control. It may be slower, but you do get to know your garden this way and feel a sense of pride in playing protector. Encouraging predatory bugs such a spiders, whitefly and lady beetles (the good kind) is an awesome way to keep he nasty bugs down. If we get a lot of rain things like my zucchinis, pumpkins and cucumbers will often get a cloudy looking fungal on the leaves however this is usually towards the end so I just pull them out and start again.
This is the best bit - enjoying the fruits of your labour! (literally). Here is where you impress your friends with delectable dinners that would make even Jamie Oliver swoon, give you surplus to friends or trade for other veggies (or baked goods as is the case with a good friend of mine) or even try your hand at chutneys and jams (see my cumquat, lavender and vanilla bean jam tutorial here) .