Garden Rambles in November
with Dave Judge from Frog Hollow Nursery
It’s all go in the garden now! Hobart Show Day has passed, so in go the Tomatoes. We like to plant them out and then straight away tap in a single stake to support a circle of ring-lock fencing wire for the bush or vine to grow up into. This keeps fruit off the ground and saves us having to come back often and tie them to wire. Whatever works for you is great, some folk let their tomatoes sprawl on mulch, while others plant in a row and have strings like a trellis to train tomatoes through. In our experience, having the fruit off the ground saves a lot of fruit loss and makes harvesting much easier.
If you are going to grow heat-loving eggplant, capsicum or chillies then make sure you plant them out in a warm site sheltered from the wind. Alternatively, these plants can be easily grown in a 30cm or 12” pot. Success with eggplants, in particular, is very dependent on the variety, with short-season varieties, such as the slender Early Long Purple a great choice for Tasmania. In our climate, Eggplants produce the heaviest crops over a longer period when grown in a greenhouse, compared to outside growing. A large range of chilli varieties grow and crop well in Tasmania. Some of our favourites are Manzano/Tree Chilli, Cayenne, and Jalapeno. The heat of chillies is determined largely by the variety, with some naturally hotter than others. However, chillies grown in hotter and drier conditions will produce fruit that is hotter than those grown with more feeding and watering.
Never fear, it is not too late to direct sow a few seeds of pumpkin, zucchini and cucumber. We enjoy zucchini so much that we even sow a few extra seeds in January to ensure the crop lasts well into autumn. Our favourite by far is the wonderful Italian heirloom, Romanensco/Costata Romanesco, a ribbed, green fruited variety with outstanding, sweet and nutty flavour. To enjoy zucchini at their best, it is important to pick them small. In our garden, fruit that gets bigger than around 15cm are cut off, chopped roughly with a shovel, and fed to the worm farm (we harvest every two days in peak season). Big zucchini fruit left on the vines takes energy away from producing more small fruit and also the resulting fruit becomes big, hard-skinned, woody and tasteless, giving zucchinis a bad name. They also become the standard fruit left on the trade table as not many folk want them. We try to use fruit young and small enough to have flowers intact. These are crunchy and nutty and also something you just cannot buy in the shops.
Sow a handful of bean seeds every 4 to 6 weeks to ensure a continuous supply of young tender beans during the season. We pre-soak the seed overnight before planting to speed up germination and also save watering in the garden until they sprout. There are some terrific varieties of fresh and dried beans available locally from a number of Tasmanian vegetable seed merchants that can be found on the internet. We grow mostly bush beans as they can be tucked into the garden all over the place without the need for trellis building. Some of the ones we favour are the green Idelight, Gourmet Delight, Sunray, Royal Burgundy (striking purple colour), Golden Wax (light golden colour easy to see and harvest) and Tongue of Fire (a delicious, red speckled Borlotti bean, which can be eaten fresh or dried).
Add some colour and delight to your garden,(and attract those good bugs), by sowing some cosmos, zinnias, alyssum, rudbeckias, sunflowers and everlastings. These can be planted in drifts or meadow-style into an unoccupied part of the garden for a mass colour effect or they can be tucked into any available space. We all know the benefits of growing a few flowers in the garden for us and useful insects. These plants are not hard to grow and can be grown year after year by letting some go to seed. You can simply let the seed drop where it will and then it will re-sprout again when conditions are optimal, or you can collect the seed when it is ripe and dry. Store the seed and sow it again where and when you wish.
Mulch can be incredibly useful and helpful in the garden. Mulch can also cause some issues in the garden too.
Organic mulches or those made up of plant material like straw, wood chips, mushroom compost, wool or sea grass will generally feed the soil life while it breaks down, adding to the fertility of the soil. These mulches can be used to keep the soil surface cooler and retain soil moisture. However, if these mulches are applied thickly to dry soil, it can take a lot of rain or water to get moisture back into the soil underneath as the mulch can act as a moisture barrier. While it can be useful to keep the soil cooler and moister in summer, the same may not be the case after winter. During spring it can be really useful to rake mulch off garden beds to warm the soil, in preparation for spring plantings, especially for those plants that enjoy warm summer growing conditions. Mulch can also provide quality homes for slugs, especially during the winter cool and damp. So clearing the mulch away for a little while during spring can give young seedlings their best chance to grow.
Some mulch types are better suited to certain plants or crops. Coarse bark or chip mulches are more suited to fruit trees, perennials and natives. Bark mulches break down slowly and as such last longer. But be careful using this type of mulch close to houses during bush fire season as it can create a fire hazard near buildings.
Mushroom compost makes a great mulch to help retain moisture, increase microbe activity and raise the pH (or sweeten the soil a little). We mulch thinly with mushroom compost around onion seedlings for great effect, snow peas, broccoli, cucumbers and beans. Never apply mushroom compost to acid-loving berry bushes, azaleas or rhododendrons.
Pea straw is a wonderful, rich mulch that boosts fertility and soil life. This mulch can be applied thickly round bigger plants and more carefully round smaller seedlings. Several cautions need to be considered with this mulch; during wet weather slugs and snails relish this mulch. Sometimes pea straw also contains seeds (friend or foe depending on how you view it). Also sometimes pea straw can contain rat poison depending on how it is stored on farm. This has been responsible for pet deaths in the past.
Sea grass (as opposed to seaweed) is often used as a mulching material. The benefits are that it is free, it lasts a long time in the garden and suppress weeds. This is often outweighed by the downside of it often forming a moisture barrier, it contains little in the way of nutrients and often contains seeds of two of the worst weeds for your garden, Twitch and Fat Hen. Sea grass can also contain reasonable amounts of salt and beach sand and this has been responsible for the rapid death of many raspberry patches.
Pebble, gravel or rock mulches are long lasting, decorative and fire retardant. They however, do not work well in the vegetable garden.
Depending on the plant, location, cost, ease of applying and desired effect of the mulch these factors will influence the choice of the mulch to be used. We often like to apply soil amendments under mulch, like blood and bone, compost, worm castings or composted animal manure. By doing this step before mulching, it helps to keep the nutrients closer to plant roots and soil microbes (and also helps to avoid the loss of nitrogen during the composting process).