August in the veggie patch
[Circa August 2004: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer]
I’m always surprised at the burst of feverish activity down the local plant nursery once the first sunny days of spring appear – my own feeling is that the busiest time of year in the veggie garden is often through the winter months, preparing the ground for spring, and bringing along the seedlings that will be transplanted out once the soil warms up again. I too have rushed down the nursery in many a preceding spring, stocking up on seedlings that get dropped into ground occupied only hours before by sour-sobs, grasses and nettles. But as the price of seedlings has gone up (and the size of the veggie patch expanded) I’m trying harder to make use of a packet of some hundreds of seeds costing half that of the dozen seedlings one gets in a punnet. This all takes planning, and a “year-round” attitude to the veggie patch.
Where I live (Magill) there are still many older homes with veggie gardens lovingly tended by their Italian owners, and I’ve learnt many a trick in watching them and talking with them. So it was a real thrill last year to be picking tomatoes before Christmas, ahead of my neighbours. In this I was aided by my compost heap and some tricks learnt from that fine old Aussie organic gardener, Peter Bennett. I run a three-heap system; one for storage of new plant material, a second “cooking” heap of moist shredded green compost mixed with pigeon manure, and a third heap of “finished” compost that’s lovely friable stuff full of humus and good organic plant food. This last heap I used as my potting material – I had pots by the hundred that are available on any suburban Adelaide footpath for a day to two after the landscapers move in and plant masses of nursery-raised plants into the decorative gardens of newly finished home-units. The pots they throw away! Once I’d raised the seed in foam boxes under old window glass in mid-winter, I was able to transplant them into these individual pots, then place them on top of compost heap number 2, making use of the bottom heat it gave off to push the seedlings along during frosty weather. If one digs down into this heap about 300mm, the heat of decomposition is almost too hot to touch (around 70ºC). Many tomato seedlings raised this way were 200mm high by early spring.
The Roma tomatoes were ready for eating first – we use these for making tomato sauce to carry us through to the next crop – great on winter pasta! (We borrow the tomato press from our Italian neighbours!) Our favourite tomato is the Ox-Heart, which are wonderful eating tomatoes along with all the other summer greens and red onions. When I pulled out last year’s riot of old and shaggy tomato plants, I was able to strip off over one hundred green tomatoes. Placed on the window-sill of our dining room, these green tomatoes ripened slowly to a deep red, and made good winter sandwiches right through until early August.
Capsicums don’t start to bear fruit until somewhere in February, even though I start these around the same time as the tomatoes. But once they start to bear fruit, they also continue to crop well into winter, and make a delicious crunchy addition to those lunch sandwiches at a time when the garden is not turning out many other salad vegetables. Last year I grew “banana” capsicums that are slimmer than the Californian globe capsicums, and go through an edible yellow phase between turning from green to red. These were prolific and tasty, and resistant to diseases and pests.
The other member of the “solanum” family that are heavy yielders are egg-plants. These have a deep glossy purple fruit that we pickle and keep for winter eating; they are becoming popular through café meals and in Italian restaurants, along with pickled peppers and sun-dried tomatoes. Now’s the time to be planting out all these solanum seeds – tomatoes, capsicums and eggplants – under glass. To grow enough of these to make a significant difference to the family food budget (there are five of us) one has to grow dozens of each type, not just one or two. This takes up considerable garden space and quite some effort during summer in staking and tying. The effort is worth it; it’s a warm fuzzy feeling to be able to send visitors away with an armful of homegrown vegetables, and have them comment that they “haven’t tasted tomatoes like that for years!”
This year I’m taking a trick out of my neighbour’s book, and leaving out that whole business of potting and re-potting the tomatoes, capsicums and eggplants. The old Italian chap over the road has given me dozens of eggplant seedlings each year; he has scattered seeds in a small spot in the garden, surrounded them with bricks and covered them with window glass. This mini-glass house served to raise dozens of seedlings at very low cost. I take the barrow over, and dig up a shovelful of seedlings (I return his soil later) to be taken home and planted out.
The thrust of a good organic garden is that if you get the soil right, all else follows. Twenty years ago, my garden was an earthen north-south tennis court, long before these became fashionable in the wealthiest of homes. Its orientation is perfect for growing vegetables, but its heavy red-clay soil needed some work. After soil test I used gypsum to make the clay more friable and dolomite in patches to balance the pH. What I really needed was to boost the organic content of the soil, to feed plants and earthworms and ultimately the family. It was impossible to produce enough compost from garden and kitchen waste to fertilize an area this size. So I’ve purchased in Organic Compost from Jeffries Garden Soils by the truckload. This is commercially manufactured compost made from the recycled green-waste of Adelaide suburbs. It’s a deep rich black in colour, and when the small tipper trucks dump it in the driveway on a winter’s morning ready for barrowing down to the veggie garden, it gives off great clouds of steam, being still warm. It’s a big investment, but will feed the garden for years to come.
The great benefit of this rich black compost is that it is weed-free, holds water well, absorbs the weak winter sunshine and can feed seedlings grown in it. So this year I am raising my seedlings the Italian way; by planting seeds into small beads behind a 300mm high wall of bricks on a east-west axis on top of this compost spread over a garden bed. The seeds I’ve sown on the north side of this wall, and placed old casement windows at an angle across the seedbeds, so that the sun shines in from morning until late afternoon. The ends of this angled “glasshouse” I’ve filled in with soil to prevent wind running around in there and cooling off the heat captured by the glass and stored in the bricks and soil. Once they are ready for planting and the weather is warm enough, I’ll dig them out of there and separate the seedlings as I space them out in rows in their final summer beds.
This black compost is best spread over bare soil after it has been dug over into big clods and allowed to absorb autumn and early winter rains. The compost is laid thickly on top, and I trench these new areas and plant red and white potatoes at the winter solstice – June 21st. The trench walls are overturned to built up soil around the growing potatoes as the season progresses, further mixing in the compost. Finally, the compost is dug in again as the potatoes are dug up in summer, leaving the beds friable and healthy for future plantings.
By the time spring comes, the backbreaking work in the garden is largely done, and the pleasures of planting lie ahead. The Italians are still one step ahead of me though; they conserve seed from their best plants, and carry these over until the next year. I’m still buying my seeds…