Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's the soil, stupid.

It is hard to believe after the intense heat wave earlier this year that winter is almost upon us. The nice thing about living in this part of the world is that despite the very cold winter nights we can still grow a surprisingly large variety of winter vegetables. I started planting about six weeks ago. The first crop is coming along nicely - red and white cabbages, silverbeet, rainbow chard, spinach, bok choy, tatsoi, snow peas, broccoli and kale. Some of the plants, including the broccoli and some of the chards, are from my own seed!

The following picture was taken in late March after I put the first plants in. I have been experimenting with both direct sowing and growing seedlings in large polystyrene boxes for later transplanting. I have to say that so far, I have had more success with transplanting seedlings. It is easier to plant them out as I don't have to try to space the seed (which I am not good at) and I don't have to worry about seeds all pooling in one spot after a heavy rainfall or birds digging in the seed bed. The plants get "intensive care" for the first few weeks of their life and do well in the polystyrene boxes where they are a bit sheltered and receive good and even moisture. Once I transplant them, I can space them the way I want them - and I realised that a bit more space (but not too much) actually does help the plants grow better.

These pictures were taken early last week. I am pleased to see how much everything has grown!

Leafy vegetables need a lot of nitrogen to grow well and I put a lot of effort into preparing the beds.I noticed that the soil was in many areas pretty much devoid of life, apart from the odd beetle grub which I collected in a bucket and fed to the chooks. I dug up the heavily compacted soil and added masses of chook manure and created slightly raised beds about 1 meter wide, enough for four rows of plants. In addition, I have been feeding the plants with a mix of blood and bone, seaweed and cow manure, and I can finally see some real results: not only are the plants doing well, but now I find earthworms, too!

This time I also added a soaking hose so that I can water the plants some of the time without actually having to stand there holding a hose. However, winter crops need the odd watering over the top, particularly in areas with limited rainfall, as this will help reduce the number of aphids that simply love cabbages of all kind (most annoying!)

I have also dug up the 80m2 summer bed and put in a cover crop of mustard and clover for winter. The mustard helps fight various pathogens that may build up in the soil, the clover makes an excellent mulch once it dies down in spring/early summer. There are various ways of using a cover crop once spring time comes - you can either let the clover die down and plant straight into it, using the clover as a mulch, or alternatively dig the cover crop in and then plant the new seedlings.

A third vegetable bed with another variety of winter crops is also in preparation. Unfortunately, I don't have enough chook manure left to give it the same productive boost as with the first one, but I am planning to try regular top dressing with a mix of manure and straw and see whether that will work as well.

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