In the Vegie Patch

20 November 2014
Hits: 9426 Written by Kath Irvine
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To plant or not to plant?  Kath tackles this daunting almost-summer gardening question with  thoughtful advice that will keep you busy whatever the weather 


The great gamble is upon us. Do we plant our summer crops or don't we? As I write this I'm in woolly socks and a thick hoody - thinking even of getting the fire going, but the truth is tomorrow could be blue skies and back into shorts. It's anybody's guess and up to us all to get to know our own particular microclimate. If you have summer crop fever and just cannot wait then at least go forth gently, plant out one tomato plant a fortnight perhaps. That way if we get hammered by some cold nasty weather all will not be lost.

Give your seedlings the best chance at making a go of it

● Take the time to build a cosy wee house around those heat loving plants you plant in the cold. Use an old window, some clear plastic stapled to stakes, or a clear bucket with its bottom cut out.

● Grow your seedlings on so they have a good size root system - one that fills their container out; and at least 5 or 6 leaves.

● Gradually get them used to being outside, this is called hardening off. Leave them outside during the day, then back inside at night. Do this for a couple of days. Then give them a couple of nights outside in their pots before planting out. 

If your tomato seedlings are bursting out of their pots, but you think it's still a bit cold out, pot them up into the next size container and keep them under cover a bit longer.

Outside in the garden I've been sowing lots of green things like rocket, coriander, mesclun and spinach; root crops of beetroot, radish and carrot. The soil has reached 15 degrees so the first lot of climbing beans are direct sown inside cut-off pots for a bit of extra warmth (not to mention bird protection). A new lot of parsley and silverbeet has been planted, as have lots of lettuces (which seem to get eaten as fast as they get planted!)

As well as all of the above plant kumara and yams, direct sow pumpkins; and your first lot of corn, cucumbers and zucchini. If it's still a bit cold at your place just cover them with a cut off bottle or cloche. Get summer companion flowers going too - like zinnias, sunfowers, marigolds and cleome.

Main-crop potatoes can go in now. After last summer's experience with psyllids I'm going to invest in crop covers. Redpath in Palmerston North have a product called biomesh, which you drape over susceptible crops using a cloche frame (or homemade equivalent). You can buy it by the metre. As well as psyllids it also works for carrot fly, aphids and white fly. Don't waste your money buying cheap crop covers.Spend the money on something robust that's going to last. Cheap ones tear easily and one hole undoes the whole thing. To me it's a worthwhile investment as it means a good crop without all the expense (and time) of managing wily pests. I'm dreaming of encasing my whole vegie patch in it!

November is the weedy season. The combination of warming soils and spring rain make it so. I know it's a soul-destroying job with the same repetitive, recurring vibe housework has. But (unlike housework) weeding is really important. Weeds will nick off with the fertility and moisture you've s (carefully crafted to feed and nourish your vegetables, they'll block light and airflow too.

There are (like in every good story) good weeds and bad weeds; and the list on either side differs for all of us. My good weed guild consists of chickweed, dandelion, yarrow, plantain, nettle - weeds that are mineral rich and useful in meals, medicine and the compost. They require no cultivation and when they get a bit rambunctious in a particular spot they're easily removed and added to the compost. Yes, these kinds of weeds are our friends.

Convolvulus, buttercup, dock, kikuyu - these weeds are not so friendly when it comes to the vegie patch. Over time as you build and improve your soils the new free-draining, mineral-rich environment won't delight these weeds in the same way it used to. Combine this with diligent removal as soon as any of these weeds pop their heads up, and you're on a winning streak! It may take a few years, but once you prove your commitment said bad weed will eventually exit with grace. What a noble goal - a vegie patch with no undesirables in it! At no other time in your life will you be able to do this - remove all the things you despise, keeping only the things you love. Go on, make yourself a haven.

Getting rid of the problem weed before creating your vegie garden is the smart option. Not with spray please. This is a false shortcut, because you'll now have toxins in your soil ergo in your vegies. You'll also have the long road of rebuilding your soil microbiology and beneficial insect population.

Smothering the area in carpet works a treat. Lay the carpet now and leave until autumn rains begin again. Roll it up with all the weed attached to it and have an autumn harvest bonfire. The soft soil beneath makes it easy to remove any remnants of root. Build a massive compost pile atop and bring on the spring planting

Make one weedy edge around the outside by mulching your paths and keeping all your beds either planted or mulched - the strategy here is to not let those weeds get a foot in the door. Remove them while small (the easy way) by taking that hoe in hand; no bending, kneeling or tugging required. A stitch in time, saves nine--my friends.

Yes they are starting to arrive - the sucking insects. The first flutter of whitefly in my greenhouse dwarf beans and the first few aphids on the unopened buds on my roses. There may also be scale on your citrus and soon we'll be on the look out for psyllids on the solanaceae. The answer for all of these is the same - Neem (don't you adore it when one bottle = many solutions!)

Two roads to travel here

1.  Have trust in your garden's resilience, in your carefully crafted strength and diversity and leave nature to run its course. Perhaps giving a helping hand by squashing a few sticky suckers in situ.

2.  Or if your garden is young and still on its journey to this most heavenly of places then you must do something early. As in now, as in November! Neem is your friend. It ruins the child bearing abilities of sucking insects only - it's not a knock everything dead killer like pyrethrum, or rhubarb, or garlic. I know, advertised as natural and even worse a handsome article on how to make your own reassures you. (By the way arsenic is also natural, so is hemlock.) Cast all those indiscriminate (albeit it natural) poisons aside and reach for the Neem.

Spray every fortnight in a religious fashion to keep up with new eggs hatching until the aphids/ thrips etc ebb away. Then again at the first stirrings of new populations throughout the summer (take care to spray before or after the heat). The earlier you catch them the less work for you (as in less repeat sprays) and more importantly, the less damage they do to your precious garden.


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