Your edible gardenHome » Latest issue » Good, issue 26 » Your edible garden
Spring is full of promise and potential in the garden – plus it's the perfect time to get a head start on composting and sowing seeds before the early summer rush
My first forays into food gardening were very free-range – the chooks went wherever they liked and crops were randomly planted (any gap would do!) A series of crop failures led me to explore what was missing from my veggie garden regime. I came to realise that what was needed was a bit of planning – and fencing for the chooks!
When it comes to gardening, a little bit of organisation goes a long way, and that’s all crop rotation is – a way to organise your garden to get the very best out of it. If you’re a list maker, a diary keeper or a planner (like me) you’ll be in seventh heaven. Food gardeners have been practising rotating their crops since the Middle Ages. It works, and is worth the little bit of time and thought it takes.
There are two main goals of crop rotation, the first being to prevent soil disease. Crops host certain pathogens, so by moving the host, the pathogens starve. A gap of three to five rotations before planting the same veggie family back on the same garden patch ensures clean soil. The second aim of crop rotation is to keep your soil balanced and to prevent it from becoming depleted. Each plant family has different nutritional requirements, so by moving them around you spread the load on the soil.
Keeping a garden diary revolutionised my gardening. My diary helps me keep track of vital details such as what I’ve grown on which bed and when. I use my diary to draw up my crop rotation, recording any soil amendments, such as when I add compost or lime. I also note down the weather, which crops worked, which didn’t and why. This record has probably taught me more about food gardening than any book or workshop.
There are many different styles of crop rotation. If you find it too hard to create one from scratch then give one of the existing templates out there a whirl until you develop your own. Here’s one I learned from my time with The Soil & Health Association. It's an easy rotation for beginner gardeners and works well in a small back garden. You can tweak it each year to make it your own.
The only thing missing from this crop rotation plan is a compost crop. Each garden bed needs to grow a deep-rooting crop to the dry stage once a year. Once you've uprooted and composted it, return it to the bed it grew on. Winter is a great time to do this – choose from wheat, rye, oats, alfalfa, broad beans or barley to keep your soils alive with microbes and well aerated.
You’ll also notice I haven’t included spuds. Potatoes take up such a lot of space in a small garden I think you're better off growing them beside the garden in tyres, buckets or boxes. Use the soil they grew in beneath your fruit trees or in the compost heap. If you have the space, include them with the fruit section of this rotation.
Having a crop rotation gives you a plan to work to. It gives me peace of mind to know exactly how to treat the soil each time I prepare a bed, which seeds to order (no more seed catalogue seduction!) and which crop is going where. I don’t miss those free-range days at all.
Follow the crops through your garden bed in the order below:
Double-dig or broadfork your bed. Choose from lucerne, lupin or alfalfa, or use an edible legume crop like peas, snow peas, broad beans or beans, or even the deliciously fragrant sweet pea. Legumes fix nitrogen into the top soil, making it perfect for the following leafy green crop. Chop the legume down and use the resulting pea straw to mulch the next crop.
2. Leaves and flowers
Add lime plus blood and bone. Then you can choose from salads (leafy greens) or brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts and kale).
Add a 5cm layer of homemade compost and rock dust. Choose from solanaceae, tomatoes, capsicum, eggplant, cucurbit, zucchini, cucumber, pumpkin, melon or corn.
Choose from carrots, parsnip, onion, garlic or beetroot. I would add a layer of compost if I was growing onions, garlic or beetroot. Recycle all unused veggie parts into your compost.
In the orchard
Of all the damage spring winds do, the most depressing is when your future fruit blows off. If your fruit blossom ends up all over the lawn, make a note to build a fence or plant a hedge before next spring. Give your fruit trees a layer of homemade compost and a dose of rock dust for good spring growth. If you grow comfrey beneath your fruit trees it will all be up by now, just in time to do its job of keeping your fruit trees mulched through the summer. If you don’t have comfrey you’ll need to mulch your trees.
Don’t rush to plant crops out. Garden centres will tempt you with seedlings, but let your own experience guide you. Check your garden diary to see what happened in previous years. When heat-loving summer crops struggle through wind and cold they bear less and are magnets for pest and disease. The only warm lovers I grow outside are short ones that fit under cloches such as dwarf beans and zucchini.
Peaches prone to leaf curl will need a copper spray now as the buds start to move (you’ll start to see pink through the buds as they gear up to open). Spray again in a fortnight. Once the leaves curl up and distort it’s too late to do anything. If you don’t like the thought of spraying copper then a monthly regime of seaweed sprays combined with a thick layer of seaweed mulch can work over a period of a few years. Seedling peaches have the best resistance to leaf curl. Forgotten Fruits sell these. But if your peach is in the wrong place it may never correct. Peaches need free drainage and light soils – not cold soggy spots.
For those of you who didn’t get a chance to summer prune your stonefruit – now's your moment. Choose a dry day and open them right up so there is no growth in the middle or pointing towards the middle. Reduce them to outward facing laterals, to a workable height. A fun spring job is to grow a patch of wildflowers. Choose a mix of flowers and herbs to provide beneficial insects and bees with nectar and a welcoming habitat – try www.wildflowerworld.co.nz. Even if you only have one or two fruit trees this is still worthwhile. Here’s how to do it without spraying: • Lay a polythene sheet over the grass – leave for a few months, or until the grass and weeds have died. • Remove the sheet and let the next lot of weeds sprout – once the soil has another generous green covering, cover with the polythene until these weeds have also died. • Go over your soil with a nail rake – don’t dig deep or you'll disturb more weed seeds. Mix one handful of seeds with ten handfuls of sand and scatter sow your wildflowers. Water gently and lightly sprinkle with old hay or straw to retain moisture. Keep it moist and in about three weeks' time your wildflowers will start to sprout.
Gardening guru Zoe Carafice answers your questions
Q We've been planning our garden for seven years now. Our relocated villa took longer than we thought to finish! I've always wanted a scented garden – what do you recommend? –Fiona
A Growing a garden that provides fragrant flowers all year round is easy and the possibilities are endless! Here are a few of my favourites: There's nothing quite as delicious as the smell of daphne in the winter. When everything is cold and wet, this small flowering shrub is bursting with lemony scented blooms. Cut a few for a vase and they will fill your home with fragrance.
Another winter favourite is the underappreciated violet. This lush green groundcover has tiny flowers with the most divine scent. It’s perfect for under camellias or hedges as it likes shade and requires very little care.
Spring bulbs such as freesias and erlicheer daffodils add the magic of seasonal change to your gardens as well as an intense fragrance. Remember to plant these in autumn, and once they’re in they'll appear each spring. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with a decent frost, you could grow lilacs. These shrubs are covered in gorgeous purple or white flowers with a strong perfume. Lilacs in bloom are a signal that summer is on its way.
In summer and autumn the garden is spilling with scents, but when it comes to flowers, few can compare to the rose for fragrance and beauty. My favourites are old-fashioned climbers such as Madame Alfred Carriere or Alchemist, which look amazing when rambling along a fence or over a pergola. Lavender also looks stunning mass planted and will bring bees throughout summer and autumn. Try growing Lavandula angustifolia, or English lavender, which is used for drying and in cooking.
Your gardening calendar September/October
Spring gardening is usually a wet and windy affair, yet I always feel inspired to put boots and coat on and get out amongst it. Perhaps it’s all that irrepressible spring energy in the air – or it’s the thought that if I don’t get stuck in, our table will be bare!
In the veggie patch
Is your vegetable patch protected from those big spring winds? You can stop your crops being flattened each spring by adding extra shelter. It needn’t be expensive; stacked tyres or haybales make great instant shelter for cold spots. Wooden pallets can also be used as an instant (and free) fence. If you’re prepared to wait a few years, rosemary can be grown into an attractive hedge and can provide fragrant shelter for your veggie patch.
It can be tempting to go through the spring veggie patch like a whirlwind – cleaning it up to the point of barrenness. Consider how you might use spent winter crops as shelter for new ones while they get established. You can use your old crops to:
• provide fodder and nectar for bees and beneficial insects
My autumn broccoli have been flowering for a couple of months now and are covered in honeybees and bumblebees.
• create a wind break in spring
With some forethought you can plan this when you plan your crop rotation. Tall, robust spring crops like globe artichokes, broad beans and flowering broccoli make excellent wind shelters during the equinoxal winds.
• protect your soil
If you have nothing to sow or plant, leave old crops in. It’s more important to keep your soil covered than to look tidy.
• make compost
Do this once your crops have outlived all these other uses. It's the ultimate in recycling and top soil food for your garden.
Spuds: Lay out seed potatoes for sprouting. Find the side with the most eyes facing up and lay them in egg boxes. Leave to sprout in the light.
Compost: Spring is a top compost-making season. There’s such a lot of material to recycle, and any compost you make this spring will feed your summer gardens. You can also make another batch of liquid feed to get you through the peak growing season.
Cloches: These are coverings to protect plants from the cold. Put them up to warm the soil while you sow seeds for courgettes, cucumbers, and, if you live in the north, bush tomatoes and dwarf beans.
Seeds: Seed sowing begins in earnest. Make sure your trays are scrubbed clean before you reuse them.
Tray sow: lettuces (sow a few each month), spinach, Asian greens, mizuna, silverbeet, cabbage, artichokes (globe and Jerusalem), spring onions, Welsh bunching onions, leeks and parsley. Under cloches you can sow cucumber zucchini and dwarf beans.
Direct sow: carrots, red onion, beetroot, rocket, parsnip, radish and coriander.
Edible flowers and companion plants: nasturtium, calendula, marigold, borage, cleome, sweet pea, alyssum, snapdragon, aquilegia, cornflower, carnation, cosmos, delphinium, viola, wallflower, zinnia, larkspur, lupin and hollyhock.