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.
The four-bed crop rotation
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.