Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Derek's Garden Diary

Optimistic Gardening

The buds on the plum tree in my garden are showing a touch of white
and the first flowers will be out by the time you read this, yet some
of the hardest frosts and heaviest snowfalls of the winter occur in
August. Around the Bay, spring is a stop-go, on-off, unpredictable,
fickle season. One minute the sun warms the earth and you guiltily
rush out into the neglected vegetable garden to plant carrots amid
daffodils dancing in a northerly breeze and the next, the daffodils
are flattened by a sleet-filled southerly and you can feel the frost
in the air the minute the sun goes down behind the Silverpeaks. If you
are determined to be outside then you can supplement your supply of
broad beans by planting more seeds now, but they are unlikely be ready
much before December. The best plan is to plant seeds indoors.
Cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, silverbeet and leafy
lettuces will be ready to plant out in 3-5 weeks by late August and
early September, so that if the Spring weather does arrive, they will
be set to get going early.

I plant seeds in rectangular plastic margarine containers with a few
holes cut in the base and put these on plastic trays that supermarkets
pack meat and the like in. Raid your neighbours' recycle bin if like
me you rarely buy these things. They line up neatly along a
windowsill. Cover with newspaper and a piece of glass, if you have it,
until germination takes place. Lettuce will germinate in a few days,
cabbages and the like take a bit longer. I usually buy seed-raising or
potting mix these days and add a little coarse sand (salt-free, from a
creek, not the beach) to improve drainage as things can get a little
soggy otherwise and seedlings may rot. Organic, non-peat based mix is
environmentally friendlier.

If you really feel spring is imminent then you can speed up the
process by putting the containers alongside the hot-water cylinder but
make sure you water them regularly and remove them before the seeds
become long, pale and attenuated in search of light. Watch out also
that they do not get too hot, as some seeds, especially those of
plants that like cool damp conditions, lettuce are a good example,
will not germinate at all. at high temperatures.

By the end of August though, it is worth being an optimist. Anticipate
a fine warm spring and plant those carrots, spring onions, mesclun
greens, maybe even peas, direct into the garden. You may be lucky or
you may have to plant all over again a month or so later.

Broad beans planted last autumn will start to show signs of flowering
soon, much too early for the long-tongued bumble bees that are
necessary to pollinate them and guarantee beans in the pods. There are
bumble bees around in August but they are the short-tongued variety
that make a hole at the base of the flower to get the nectar, opting
out of bustling past the sexual bits, picking up pollen and
transferring it to the stigma. Try slowing down the beans by picking
out the top – the couple of centimetres of buds and leaves that are
not fully expanded (you can eat these raw or lightly steamed). This
will make the plant send out new shoots from low down on the stem. It
will flower later and as an added bonus, will not get so tall and
straggly and require less string and fewer sticks to support it when
those September blizzards hit.

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