Springing to Life

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Words and Photography Matt Allison 

Spring is here and it’s officially time to dust off your gloves and shovel and dig in. If you’re a novice, here’s how to get started, and if you’re having problems, you’ll probably find the answer here.

A NORTH-FACING GARDEN IS BEST

As with real estate, a gardener’s mantra is ‘location, location, location’. Most vegetables and herbs need at least six hours of direct sunlight a day for optimal growth. So positioning your garden in an unobstructed north-facing direction is ideal, although many plants such as lettuce, spinach and Asian greens will thrive in lower light conditions. Spend a day or two watching the sun’s movement to find the optimal position. Be aware of any tall trees, shrubs or objects that may cast shadows over the potential plot.

PREPARE YOUR SOIL

Once you’ve located the plot, it’s time to prepare it. Healthy, nutrient-rich soil promotes healthy plant growth, which in turn makes veggies less susceptible to pests and disease—it is one of the pillars of ‘organic gardening’. You want to avoid clay-like soils, which retain water and compact easily. Ideal soil is light, has good drainage, and is nutrient rich.

If you are planting in pots or in a raised bed, you can use ready-made potting soils or mix your own. An ideal potting soil ratio is one part compost, one part sand and one part peat. A ‘greener’ peat option is coir, which is extracted as a by-product of coconut husks and sold as ‘palm peat’ or ‘coir bricks’ at your local nursery.

ADDING NUTRIENTS

Adding a worm farm to your garden is an easy way to green your home further, as it serves as a great way to discard vegetable/plant scraps, minimising your household waste. Once earthworms break down the vegetable matter, you are left with castings, nutrient rich ‘pellets’ that can be mixed into the soil, and ‘worm tea’, which is a natural fertiliser. Mix one part tea to four parts water and feed it to the plants on a monthly basis as a tonic. You can also mix your filter coffee grounds into the soil. Contrary to what you may think, once the beans have been used, their acidity is reduced, leaving behind a nitrogen-rich substrate with an almost neutral pH—perfect for soil conditioning.

START PLANTING IN SPRING

Now is a great time to start planting seeds. Try starting indoors, as this will allow you to raise successive crops over the planting season. I tend to use an open seedling tray positioned on a sunny windowsill, transplanting seedlings from there. One thing to remember is that these young seedlings require ‘hardening off’, gradually transitioning them to ‘full sun’ conditions before transplanting them into their new bed. Young seedlings are particularly susceptible to cutworm, and to prevent them from being mown down, I use old cardboard toilet rolls, which I cut in two, placing a piece over the seedling and around its base. 

GROW CROPS TOGETHER

I prefer sowing ‘root crops’ directly into beds and combining slow- and fast-growing crops together, in the same space. This process is called ‘inter-cropping’. A classic combination is radishes and carrots. Radishes are quick growing (early crop), ready to harvest in roughly four weeks; carrots, on the other hand, take 60–90 days (late crop). This allows you to harvest the radishes ahead of the carrots and also helps to define plant spacing. 

GET THE SPACING RIGHT

Plant spacing is crucial, and there is a tendency to over-plant. While the seedlings may look small now, you must understand that the 10cm tomato seedling will grow into a 50cm wide bush that will attain heights of over 1m in months to come. The same goes for planting seeds. If they are planted close together, it may become necessary to ‘thin’ them out as they grow. Typically, one waits until seedlings are about 5cm high, removing the weaker ones by nipping them off at their stem base. This allows space for the stronger ones to grow up, which is particularly important with stem crops such as beets, carrots, radishes and onions.

SOME PLANTS GROW BETTER WITH OTHERS

Combined with ‘inter-planting’ or ‘inter-cropping’ is ‘companion planting’. A companion plant is essentially any plant that is mutually beneficial to another. Many flowering plants offer both colour and pest-resistant qualities—such as marigolds, which keep nematodes at bay. Other examples include nasturtiums, violas and pansies, all of which have edible flowers and are great for bringing colour to your kitchen salads.

ADD ORGANIC MATTER

Once you’ve planted the seedlings and they reach 10cm high, it is best to mulch the bed. Mulching is essentially adding organic matter to the surface of the ground. It serves several purposes, including regulating soil temperature, suppressing weed growth, and preventing rainwater runoff. You can use various materials to mulch including compost, grass clippings and leaves. I avoid using bark chips in my beds. They may be attractive, but they remove valuable nitrogen from the soil.

HOW TO DEAL WITH PESTS

Pesticides kill indiscriminately, being poisonous not only to all insects, but to humans too. I believe plants can be successfully grown without the need for pesticides, and there are simple, natural ways of dealing with pests. A favourite general-purpose ‘organic’ solution is a garlic-and-chilli spray. Take three crushed cloves of garlic and one crushed chilli, mix them with one tablespoon of vegetable oil, a teaspoon of liquid dishwashing soap, and a litre of water. Garlic has both antifungal and antibacterial properties, and is a known insect repellent, while chillies are effective at warding off ants, aphids and soft-bodied insects.

DON’T FORGET TO WATER

The best time of day to water is in the early morning. Over-watering plants can lead to fungal attacks such as mildew and root rot. A general rule of thumb is to keep the soil damp to the touch, using your finger inserted 3–5cm below the surface as a gauge. A great water-wise tip is to reuse old plastic bottles, perforating the lower part with a hot needle or nail, then submerging them in the soil. When watering, pour directly into the bottles. This feeds the plants’ roots directly, avoiding water runoff and cutting down on water bills.