Spring into soil preparation

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

According to Providore gardener Jane Hilton, spring is a time to get soils prepared to ensure a bountiful summer harvest.

"Some of our summer crops were quite heavy yielding and they take quite a bit out of the soil, so the beds that had zucchini, corn, eggplants and tomatoes in the summer needed a bit of replenishing," she said.

"It's good to prepare the ground in advance of planting so we've added a bit of soil conditioner and compost to the soil.

"Winter was a good time for us to plant a green manure crop, normally of either broad beans, peas or mustard greens.

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"We had some peas in but anything that is leguminous can be used as a green manure.

"Mustard has the advantage of cleaning the soil of any viruses."

Jane said green manure crops could even be planted in spring in southern areas but it was important to turn them back into the soil before flowering.

"The most nitrogen-fixing advantage is gained before they flower - once they flower they're putting their growth and development into the flower and after that the seed," she said.

"Until then it's all the leafy growth and that's where all the nitrogen is."

Green manuring is an organic method of adding not only nutrients but humic matter back into the soil - and healthy soil means healthy plants.

By September, Providore's green manures are turned in and the main planting spurt for the summer harvest can begin.

"You've got to wait for the soil to heat up - it's more about the soil temperature rather than the air temperature - but when you're planting out you have to wait until the late frosts are finished, otherwise you tend to risk losing little tender seedlings," Jane said.

"By late September I'll start to put the early tomatoes in and I'll aim to plant another crop just before Christmas.

"If we're lucky, we should get the fruit from the early crop before Christmas, which is quite tricky down here because it rarely gets warm enough to get them going.

"The second crop will keep on fruiting right through until after Easter.

"Cherry tomatoes are always really reliable and quick, just because they produce so abundantly.

"Capsicums will also go in and I'm going to plant a new section of eggplants.

"They are technically a perennial, although they're a bit of a tender perennial, so if there is any frost they will fall prey to that."

Jane said that as an experiment she had pruned back last season's eggplant to strong growing buds to compare them with the newly planted ones as to which produced fruit soonest and yielded best.

"Zucchinis will go in during October and then corn, if we decide to grow corn," she said.

"Once the weather gets warmer we won't grow brassicas any longer because then the white cabbage butterfly will lay its eggs and produce green caterpillars which wipe the plants out.

"There's not a set rotation of where things go but I prefer not to plant the Solanaceae family - tomatoes, capsicum and eggplant - in the same bed year after year.

"It's advisable to rotate those because they're gross feeders and will strip the ground of certain nutrients.

"Instead, move them to another plot where something more leafy or fruiting, like zucchini or beetroot, has been planted.

"Growing something repeatedly year after year results in more change of viruses or disease build up in the soil and also the depletion of certain elements that those plants will have absorbed."

The next stage is to protect seedlings from two of their main pests - slaters and cellar dog Sindu, which loves to stroll through garden beds and over fragile seedlings.

"To prevent against slaters, which can really decimate newly planted seedlings, I use a flower pot with the bottom cut out so it becomes like a collar," Jane said. "I put one around each seedling.

"That has the added advantage of providing it with a little bit of added protection from dogs in the garden.

"For slugs and snails, I tend to just pick them off as I see them and feed them to the chooks - they love them."

As for other pests, Jane believes healthy soils, plant diversity and a little help from companion plants will keep many pest incursions under control.

"If you're creating health then you're raising stress-free, healthy plants," she said.

"Generally, bugs and disease will only attack the weaker plants or things under stress already.

"Companion planting helps - we had marigolds in the summer and calendula in the winter.

"They attract the beneficial insects and repel some of the less desirable insects and aside from that it creates diversity in the garden.

"Another reason I planted the calendulas, borage and another little flower called heart's ease, is because they're edible.

"They're lovely for spring salads, not only as a garnish but a lot of chefs are also using very delicate floral touches in their salads."

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