We’ve been having some absolutely gorgeous days recently. Cool evenings and lovely warm sunny days.
After a couple of years of building up the little veggie patch, it’s finally getting somewhere. And I’m getting to know the soil and the local climate. Dry and depleted, heh. It actually took three heavy treatments of lime to sweeten the soil up. Then I discover that a large proportion of Australia’s soils have acidity problems. In fact, in areas not far from here where there was flooding a few months back, the ground water that’s come up has been so acidic it’s killed paddocks. Farmers are ploughing in crushed limestone to treat it. Of course, artificial fertilisers really don’t help and we’ve been using those for years.
In the home garden Ag lime should do the trick. (Not builders lime.) Add a couple of handfuls to every square metre and turn it over. Add lime before fertiliser or manure so it doesn’t lock up the nutrients. Give them a week or so between and then another week or so before planting. If flowers and fruit are starting to rot before they fully develop, or if the veggies are getting “blossom end rot”, then the soil needs more lime. Blossom end rot is a condition where the flowers begin to die and rot before the fruit or vegetable body is ripe, and the rot extends into the veggie. You see it most often and obviously in things like cucumbers and zucchini. The cucumber never gets to full size before it’s going soft and turning yellow from the flower end down.
This time of year is good for digging stuff in or making changes in the garden. A lot of flowers and deciduous trees and shrubs are losing leaves and winding down for a dormant period over winter. There’s still a few more warm days left for manure and compost to break down a bit and enrich the soil. If you have plans to expand garden beds or veggie patches, it’s a good time of year to take the turf off the top and start building the soil up to prepare for spring planting.
In established gardens, pruning is probably the biggest autumn job. The next couple of months are a good time to trim off the last of summer’s flowers and shape trees and bushes. Clean secateurs and pruning saws with metho to avoid spreading diseases, if there’s any mildew around. (Or even if you can’t see it.) If you’re in a frost prone area, don’t prune sensitive plants back too hard as they’ll lose some leaves and young growth to the cold. It might be worth having a look at which plants in your garden are affected either by too much heat or frost and if you want to move them, now’s the time to do it.
Cut the pruned branches up into small pieces and unless they’re diseased, they can go into compost. If there’s a fair bit or if there’s large branches, run over them with the lawn mower or put them through a mulcher or chipper. Except in the case of diseases like black spot, don’t burn off. Seriously. It’s like burning money.
Burning weeds and off cuts not only contributes to air pollution that can cause asthma and respiratory problems, it’s taking nutrients out of the soil that will have to be replaced later with expensive supplements and fertiliser. A much, much better option is to find a damp, out of the way corner and start a compost heap.
There are plenty of good options for composting. If you’re in a small home garden perhaps consider a commercial compost bin or even one of those barrels that can be turned over. Apparently they help things break down quite quickly. If you need more space or don’t want to spend that much money on plastic devices, how about a metal or wooden frame lined with a bit of pond liner? The cheapest and easiest option is to simply dig a bit of a hole and pile leaves and small branches into it. As the cuttings begin to dry and decompose they’ll gradually reduce in volume and settle down. Throw in a few handfuls of lime as you go and add a couple of handfuls of soil from a fertile garden bed to add beneficial bacteria that will help break down the vegetation. Cover with a bit of hay and then, if you like, put a tarp over the top to speed the decomposition. By Spring you’ll have some great compost to add to gardens, veggie patches or around trees. And it’s free!
In addition to off-cuts, prunings and leaves, you can add lawn clippings but they need to be turned in with a fork so they don’t compact and form a dusty impermeable layer. If your soil is particularly tough or if you’d like to experiment with something extra, green manure crops like mustard, kale, peas, alfalfa and comfrey can be grown and either added to the compost pile or turned back into the soil. Mustard and red clover are sometimes also grown as bio-fumigants as they help reduce bacterial wilts in soil. Hay or straw from the chicken coop is great for composting, as is stable manure. If you use a fair bit of these raw manures, be sure to add some lime to the mix to control acidity. Ash from the fireplace or barbecue can also go in and that acts like lime in balancing acidity.
Compost is hugely beneficial because it adds carbon and vegetable matter to the soil. Most soils in Australia are quite depleted simply because of the age of the continent we live on. In addition, there’s quite a few diseases like bacterial wilt and some viruses. By adding humus (composted leaves and stuff) to the soil, for water is better absorbed and remains available, clay soil is broken up to encourage root growth and sandy soils are enriched for greater fertility. Seeds sprout more reliably, plants grow faster and produce better. Worms and other beneficial organisms are also encouraged by the more fertile, friable soil.
Aside from pruning and composting, more established garden and veggie beds might like an addition of manure or compost before winter. Roses in particular are traditionally fertilised at this time of year after pruning. Now that the weather’s cooling down, there’s not going to be a whole lot of growth going on until spring, unless you’re planting winter veggies.
The ABC Gardening website has a fantastic Australia wide planting guide that is a great help if you’re looking for new ideas for the veggie patch this year. I’m going with beets, onions, four or five varieties of lettuce and Asian greens like pak choy and wom bok. There’s a few broad beans that have self-sown in a couple of places. They didn’t do very well last year, but we’ll see how they go now that the soil’s been built up a little. Broccoli and cauliflower are winter staples, as are peas. Peas are particularly good because the plants themselves compost really well after harvesting. Chards (coloured silverbeet) are another great idea as the leaves and stems can be used in so many dishes and they’ll pretty much grow all year round. Plant them somewhere they can stay and just pick the leaves off as you need them, like lettuces.
At present the rest of the yard here is a bit over grown. The bloody mower started falling apart just after the warranty expired. There is, however, now a free paddock on the west side which is looking pretty good after that rain. There’s a couple of dozen willow cuttings out the back, just forming roots and starting to sprout. A hedge of white willow will look absolutely gorgeous and help shelter the rest of the garden. When the local orchards start pruning their fruit trees, a few of the off cuts can be used as cuttings to get some fruit trees going in there as well. Ideally in this climate you’d want swales but the budget won’t extend to earth words just at the moment.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of lovely autumn days.