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First vegies

Helen McKerral

Helen McKerral

February 8, 2012

I hadn’t intended to plant anything in the new area until winter, and I had plenty of good reasons for this. I made many mistakes on my old block. Faced by bare soil, I rushed to establish plants – any plants! Visiting nurseries was a regular fix, and I never came away without a few pots… usually one of each (never multiples – another design mistake). Working in a plant nursery didn’t help, either: something would come into flower, and I’d fall in love! And it wasn’t until I got home that I’d think about where to put it.

I began planting close to the house and worked outwards, without any real coherent plan but meeting the plant’s needs – shade or sun loving, good or poor drainage, sheltered or open. Because I had a good understanding of plant nutrition, growth, physiology and soil (albeit not garden design!), most of my babies thrived.

Looking around the old part of the garden, I can still see a record of more than two decades of changing interests overlaid in space. Initially, there was my native phase; hakeas, willow myrtle (Agonis flexuosa), callistemons and melaleucas remain from that time, though the leschenaultias and boronias have disappeared. One favourite from that time is a Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata bought as a tube specimen with four tiny grey leaves. That yacca has for the last few years sent up a flower spike and the trunk (well, the area below the living leaves) is about 20cm high. It’s quite a thrill when I remember how tiny it was.

A decade working in a plant nursery specialising in English and European perennials spurred the next phase. I had some spectacular failures – like 99.99% of Australian gardeners, my expensive mail-order blue Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia) never produced leaves, let alone a flower! – but many other plants from that period still seed happily today. Aquilegias are one of the best, and various species of perennial forget-me-nots, salvias and hellebores pop up in places that suit them. Annuals include honesty (Lunaria annua) and the slightly weedy common forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica).

The last decade’s phase has been edible plants. I’ve always had bush currants, herbs and a few vegies, as well as feijoas and loquats and potted citrus (see my first blog entry), but I became increasingly interested in producing more of my own food.

I’m not the only gardener to feel this, I think. The sale of vegetables, fruit and nut trees in Australian nurseries has been at an unprecedented level for several years, and the trend shows no signs of abating.

I wonder about this trend. I suspect it’s highly significant, not least because houses are getting bigger and blocks smaller. My gut feeling is that it’s a nesting, survivalist instinct, with the threats of climate change, nuclear conflict and environmental damage in front of our eyes every time we watch the television news. Phosphate and water shortages, pest resistance, peak oil and other threats to large-scale food supplies loom ever nearer but, strangely, these specific issues rarely come up in mainstream conversation, though they underpin much of the sustainability and organic gardening movements. If our current civilisation is in irreversible decline, it won’t happen overnight but gradually, with a slow erosion of standards of living as food becomes increasingly expensive. Doris Lessing’s 1974 novel “The Memoirs of a Survivor” is, in my opinion, grimly prescient.

Growing our own food, food that’s not shipped in from overseas or interstate, but reliably originates a few metres from the family table, is hugely reassuring, though I’m a little afraid to articulate this feeling often or clearly, because it’s simply too frightening in its implications. How many other gardeners feel the same, I wonder? A small, safe, self-sustainable acreage is the dream of many; the London riots show just how close we are to anarchy, and how powerless we are in its face. Even urbanites are planting fruit trees in pots, vegetables on balconies, while vegetable plots in corrugated iron containers spring up on suburban lawns. Perhaps we’re all trying to create that safety buffer, a buffer that’s as big as each of us can manage in our individual circumstance. But I digress.

My new garden area is different to the old section in that I have a clear vision, not just for what I want to create, but also the processes required. My grasp of garden design is still pretty ordinary, but it’s better than it was twenty six years ago! Therefore re-contouring and weed control have been my first priorities – it’s more difficult or impossible to do either once plants are established.

As I admitted recently, however, I couldn’t resist popping in a few vegies – spuds, basil, ‘Sweet Bite’ tomatoes, red, orange and brown habanero chillies – into the fallow eastern-most terraces above the chicken coop, plus one grafted eggplant that I snapped up for fifty cents on a nursery remainders table.

But these plantings aren’t quite as impulsive as they seem. I really want to see how growing conditions compare to those in my old garden. I dug the beds to remove the rocks – the ones in each wall are all sourced from the bed immediately below – and turned all the weeds to expose their roots. The surface soil here is less clay than in my old block and of course has had no improvement; it’s more gritty and free draining. I laid a 19 mm irrigation pipe and attached drippers (more on irrigation in a later blog), then planted my seedlings with a few handfuls of organic Rapid Raiser (South Australia’s Dynamic Lifter) incorporated into the soil, plus liberal waterings of Seasol. I mulched thickly, leaving the area around the dripper clear.

My seed potatoes originate from a few random red and white varieties and kipflers sprouting in the back of the pantry, plus several ‘Purple Congoes’ initially bought from a local market and then excavated from a part of my old garden. I dug a wide trench for the spuds but added no fertiliser except a minute scatter of superphosphate. As the spuds grew, I backfilled the trench, adding another tiny dusting of super, and finishing with a thick layer of mulch.

I initially fertilised the other vegies in the same way as in my old garden (more on this in another blog).

The plants grew well, but the tomatoes aren’t as healthy as those in my old garden last year, even though they’re less crowded and receive more sunlight. This is possibly due to seasonal variation, but is probably because the soil hasn’t had two decades of improvement. One of the plants is succumbing to virus much earlier than any did in my old garden – again, possibly seasonal or microclimate, but most likely because the plants are slightly less vigorous and therefore less disease-resistant. I’ve supplemented my usual feeding regime so I’ll harvest a reasonable crop, and I’m very pleased to see the results in unimproved soil. It can only get better, and even the thick layer of mulch I’ve placed this year will improve the soil next year.

The basil also hasn’t performed as well as in my old garden, but that’s simply beca
use there’s less nitrogen in the soil (as a leaf crop, basil likes plenty of nitrogen). Again, this will improve each year.

I’ve mostly harvested spuds in my own garden when they’ve sprouted from peelings in random places, though my grandparents planted a crop each year; I’m a bit reluctant to go poking around for tubers yet but I’m confident they’ll be there – I’ll let you know when I dig the old potatoes in autumn.

The eggplant is growing relatively slowly and I’ve never tried one before because of its notoriously long growing season – too long for a block with less than optimal sun and a southerly aspect. But small fruit are already forming and I planted it in the sunniest spot along the new irrigation line, so we’ll see. Next year, I’ll try the smaller long and thin or round Asian cultivars – they should be quicker.

Many people have asked me how I’ve resisted planting, but the answer is that it’s easy, again, because of my underlying philosophy of gardening as journey, not end. Walling and weed control are an equally enjoyable part of that journey – it’s no longer just about the plants as it used to be – and I expect the ground will be ready for crops next winter and spring. If not, no drama, it just means there are a few more steps to take before I reach that particular part of the journey.

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