Spring garden: famine to feast
Jenny Maidment's cardinal rules for planting your vegetable garden
Spring seemed to miss its cue this year, leaping on stage with wonderful displays of early flowering bulbs, deciduous magnolias and ornamental cherries well before the end of August. This means spring gardening fever is also kicking in earlier than ever.
I was taken aback to see tomato plants in Auckland garden centres by early September, ridiculously early even by usual measures. However, the gardening signs are positive and there’s no reason not to prepare for planting time in anticipation of early spring and summer harvests.
Generous handfuls of fresh spring herbs, bowls of salad greens, new potatoes and tender beans, crisp lipstick pink radishes and juicy, grass green mangetout — for months these are the treats we have been going without or paying top dollar for.
The instinct is to gorge ourselves, in horticultural terms, by ensuring we never run out again — at least until next winter. There are a few drawbacks to this approach which aren’t always obvious when you’re scooping up seedlings at the garden centre, or sowing countless lettuces, beetroot and courgettes. Assuming you actually get it all in the ground, the reality may be that most of this potential produce will be feeding the compost heap rather than gracing the table.
Even dispersing surpluses among neighbours, friends and family has its limits. The expression on the face says it all when you present yet another bag of oversized cucumbers or verging-on-woody carrots to an acquaintance two doors down. A more considered approach will see you producing about what you need with minimal effort, waste, frustration or expense.
So here are a few cardinal rules for spring gardening.
Have a plan
Gardening is a bit like architecture: you have so many elements to get into so much space, and these must meet the needs of the client, the peculiarities of the site, the raw materials on hand, time spent and costs. Even the spatial considerations are similar — tall or short, room required, proximity of one element to another, formal arrangement or more relaxed approach.
Like poor architecture, gardening can yield disappointing returns, but a bit of planning brings disproportionately large rewards. It is bare now, but will the neighbour’s ancient pear tree shade your chosen vegetable patch? Will the runner beans you’ve planted shade the beetroot, or the rhubarb overwhelm the parsley and chives? Is the rainbow chard going to crowd the bok choy and overwhelm the buttercrunch lettuces?
On this note I have more than once moved entire rows of this or that to fix a planting miscalculation, but it is not a recommended policy.
Optimise the soil
Too wet, too dry, too heavy, too sour, undernourished, overfed — all these conditions are fatal to most plants, or are at least deterrents to them maturing properly. It pays to understand what each plant variety generally requires, and group those with similar needs together. And while you can optimise your garden conditions, it can be exhausting and wasteful to fight them.
For instance a light, free draining soil suggests a greater emphasis on more drought-tolerant varieties and a high level of soil conditioning and mulching, rather than pouring endless litres of water on parched plots. Similarly, you’ll be lucky to coax a crop of anything from ground that remains cold and soggy year round.
Little and often
When it comes to managing your garden’s productivity, calculate how many courgettes, carrots or beetroot you can reasonably use or give away, and plant accordingly. For fast-maturing crops such as lettuce, dwarf beans and Asian greens, planting small amounts in succession through the growing season works well and allows you to try out new varieties.
How much and what varieties you can grow will be largely determined by how much space you have and what you like, but the management of that space is all. It is almost miraculous what can be grown in just a few square metres, or even in a collection of well-prepared and tended pots.
Mix it up
Since good quality, standard seasonal lines are usually available cheaply and in quantity in stores, choose at least some edibles to grow that are less familiar, more expensive to buy even when in season, or harder to source because they are more perishable than others.
Many beautiful and worthy fruit and vegetable lines have gone the way of the dinosaurs, not because they are difficult to grow but because they are considered unprofitable to market. However many more lines than are available on shop shelves will make it just fine from your back yard to the fruit bowl or the pot.
Most herbs for example are a good bet for home growing because they remain relatively expensive to buy but will produce over a long season in the garden, but bear in mind that some like coriander, fennel, and dill will only have a short season, or may require successive plantings.
Play to your garden’s strengths
Over time I’ve learned what works well in my small garden and what is a waste of effort and space. For example, chervil and a dark, fine leaved peppery rocket seed themselves liberally in the local volcanic soil, so it’s simply a matter of weeding out all but a few each year.
Similarly, I grow radicchio varieties that produce over three or four years when cut back to the ground periodically, i.e. maximum return for minimal effort. Pumpkins and cucumbers I gave up on long ago as they require too much room, ventilation and sun, and are much too fungus-prone for my small section.
I grow cherry tomatoes every summer as I can raise them in containers and move them around; other varieties languish and die. This is the sort of knowledge you accumulate as the seasons come and go, and it is invaluable.
Anticipate and avoid
Thinking ahead and completing tasks will prevent most gardening disasters. Slugs and snails consider seedlings a free banquet, so put out bait sparingly, or even better apply a good sprinkling of gritty material (coarse sand or pumice, untreated sawdust or crushed eggshells) at the moment you plant.
Stake tall growing tomatoes when you tuck them into the ground, and gently apply water to well prepared, fed and mulched soil long before it resembles the surface of the Sahara and your plants are limp with thirst. Taking out these sorts of “garden insurance” makes it all a far more positive, rewarding activity.
Fortunately, great gardeners are both born and made. If you observe and take note of what works and what doesn’t, and take advantage of the unlimited gardening knowledge and experience available for the asking, you can build a beautiful and productive edible spring garden that will see you into summer and beyond.