Friday, 23 January 2009

DEREK'S GARDEN DIARY: The February garden

DEREK'S GARDEN DIARY

The February garden

It is now a year since I first started writing this column so not only
do I risk repeating myself but from now on evidence of my inconsistent
approach to gardening will accumulate monthly. Letters to the editor
are welcome.

By the first week or so of February you should have organised all of
your winter vegetables. It really is too late to plant seeds of
brassicas (cabbagey things) so now you will have to buy, beg or steal
plants of broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbages and cauliflowers
and plant them out as soon as possible. Likewise leeks and celery. All
of these like the soil slightly alkaline, so toss on some lime before
planting. Brassicas also like seaweed and are not averse to the salty
unwashed stuff (wild cabbages grow on sea cliffs) and if you collect
it from the shelly part of the beach, you may well be able to dispense
with the lime.

You can still sow seeds of carrots, spring onions, speedier leafy
greens like lettuce, silver beet and the increasing variety of
vegetables eaten when little more than spindly seedlings. My dad, who
grew good solid cabbages big enough to threaten the suspension of his
Morris minor, would have called them rabbit food. Mesclun is a mix of
these leafy greens and includes mizuna, mibuna (brassicas again),
kailaan and tatsoi (types of chinese broccoli and cabbage), lollo
rossa, romaine, curly, oak leaved, frilly, red and green lettuce,
endives, raddichio, rocket, cresses, beets, purslanes and parsley . .
. all of which can be sown now and grown separately if you prefer.

My runner beans are entwined with sweet peas and flanked by sunflowers
which provide support for the more wayward vines, but which in turn
can be tied up to the bean poles in their heavy-headed,
round-shouldered old age. It's a good idea to have your vegetables all
jumbled up together, and jostled by flowers and herbs. This variety
and chaos ensures that different things are sucked out of and put back
into the soil. Unwanted insects are confused; the scent of carrots is
hidden from carrot fly with essence of calendula, feverfew and onion.
The flowers attract beneficial insects, predatory hoverflies and bees
to pollinate beans and peas.

For Pieris rapae, the cabbage white butterfly, your garden is an
insect heaven; fast-food nectar and pollen, and larval food plants.
This pale, ethereal beauty was first found in Hawkes Bay in 1930 but
within six years, cabbage and turnip growers throughout New Zealand
had to deal with its green caterpillars. Unless you do something about
it those caterpillars will demolish the small brassica plants you
should be planting now and, by winter, only the leeks will be left
standing.

When the plants are small, the caterpillars and the tiny yellow eggs,
which are usually found underneath the leaves, can be squashed with
finger and thumb but as the plants grow there are far more interesting
things to do on a warm summer evening than to hunt amongst cabbage
leaves for well-camouflaged caterpillars. Last year I suggested a
quick puff of derris dust. You don't need to do it often; twice from
January to April may well be enough. But derris is now no longer
considered acceptable in organic gardens, so you will have to resort
to the caterpillar-killing bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) if you
want to get down to the beach for a swim now and then.

Like many other controls, Bt is sprayed on to plants where it is eaten
by caterpillars and they die within a few days. As it is soluble only
in the guts of butterfly and moth caterpillars, the stuff appears to
be safe for humans, animals and most other insects.

This is the same "Bt" by the way, that you see in the "Bt crops" that
are now commercially grown in the USA; "Bt corn", "Bt potato", "Bt
cotton" and "Bt soybean". Since 1996, crop plants have been
genetically engineered to contain a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis
so that insects that feed on the crops are killed. Indications are
that the bacterium is becoming less effective as resistance develops
to the toxin due to perpetual, long term exposure. Another reason to
oppose genetic engineering of plants in New Zealand.

by Derek Onley

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