Karen Sutherland’s regular permaculture tips.
Spring is the peak planting time in the vegetable garden, so put some time aside to get your patch prepared. Weeds need to be thoroughly removed, soil needs to be readied for planting and, importantly, your planting records need to be checked so you know what you’ll be planting where this season. Crop rotation is an essential practice for any serious organic vegetable gardener, as it helps to prevent last season’s problems returning. By choosing and rotating different plant types each season for each garden bed, you minimise the carry-over of pests and diseases that target those types of plants. To practice crop rotation, you therefore need to understand the plant groupings used in each method. The simplest, and perhaps most suitable for small spaces, is the three-bed rotation, which specifies planting according to three different plant types, which are then planted into three separate beds or pots. Brassicas are the first group, and include not only broccoli and bok choy but also radishes and turnips, which are often classed as root vegetables in other rotation methods. The second plant type is root crops, such as carrots, beetroot and potatoes. The third grouping is classified as “other” and includes a large mix of vegetables, from tomatoes to peas to lettuce. So, in spring, plant bok choy in garden bed one; carrots and beetroot in bed two and tomatoes in bed three. Next time you plant each bed, rotate to the next plant type.
Many plants fare better when their seeds are sown directly into the garden, such as beans, zucchinis and pumpkins, as they don’t like being transplanted. However, there are several things that can get between seed-sowing and harvest. You may not be certain of the viability of your seeds, and waiting for infertile seeds to geminate can mean missing a planting window if you need to replace them. If seeds dry out after initially taking in water, or after germination, they will almost certainly die. Once seedlings emerge, your tender babies are vulnerable to snails and slugs amongst other garden thugs.
Pre-sprouting is a great method to get your seeds growing in a more controlled environment without these concerns. It can also be used at this time of year to get summer vegetables growing earlier than normal, as once the seed has germinated, it will continue growing, even if it’s too cold for it to have normally germinated at this time of year. Use a recycled clear plastic take-away food container, and line it with one-two layers of damp kitchen towelling. Lay your seeds over the paper, making sure to space them at least one-two centimetres apart, and cover with another layer or two of damp paper. Cover with the lid, and place the container in a warm light place such as a window sill. In around seven-10 days, depending on the types of seed, your little babies will be ready to plant out. To help their transition, try to plant in the warmer part of the day, and you could protect them with homemade mini-greenhouses made from recycled PET bottles for the first week.
Native sage, Prostanthera incisa, stands out at this time of year in the garden with its mass of purple flowers. The strong-tasting flowers are edible but it’s usually the leaves that are used in the native food industry. Make a unique and tasty herb butter by blending finely chopped leaves with room temperature butter or vegan butter and leave for an hour or so in the fridge to infuse its earthy flavour. Melt native sage butter over vegetables, meat or pasta for a taste of the Australian bush.
Aphids can be pesky in spring, when new plant growth is more vulnerable to attack. Treat them in the least toxic way, by simply hosing them off. As they are soft-bodied, this can be enough to kill them. If you have a healthy garden with abundant flowers, you could find that after reducing the aphid population, ladybirds may move in to eat the remaining aphids. Look out for the appearance of ladybird nymphs, which look like ladybirds with mermaid tails. Often mistaken for pests themselves, these tiny creatures are the midway point between small yellow eggs and adult ladybirds. By not using sprays, even organic ones, in your garden, you allow more beneficial insects to establish and help to protect your plants.
Loquats are the earliest stone fruits, filling a gap in the fruiting calendar at this time of year where few other fruits can. Despite this, they are often ignored and thought of as fruit not worth defending or harvesting, mostly due to their large seeds and only small amounts of mild, peachy-tasting fruit. Most loquats grow into the big evergreen trees common in many southern suburban gardens from self-seeded plants, so have very variable fruits. However, there is a range of grafted varieties that may change your opinion, producing loquats with a large fruit to seed ratio, and with better flavour than many backyard trees. Look out for Bessel Brown, although this variety may produce only every second year, or Herd’s Mammoth, an Australian variety that tastes best when picked quite ripe.
With the start of warmer weather comes the return of cabbage moths. These just love brassicas of all types, such as broccoli and kales, and make it difficult to grow any without small green caterpillars and lots of holes in their leaves. Growing land cress (Barbarea verna) amongst brassicas as sacrificial plants helps to attract white cabbage moths away from your crops and onto the leaves of the land cress. Land cress also makes a spicy addition to salads and is a long-lasting plant that tolerates some shade and also self-seeds easily, making it a great permaculture plant for food forest gardens. It isn’t often sold as a plant or seedlings, so you may need to buy seeds online.