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Our market garden is flourishing!

23-Dec-2016

Kay in the Pinetrees market garden on Lord Howe Island

Easy! Whoever said that organic gardening was tricky must have had worse luck than us (and we’ll no doubt have our turn). But for the time being, our garden is flourishing.

We started harvesting radish, lettuce, coriander and rocket within 6 weeks of sowing the seed in early September, and a few weeks later, our bush beans came online. We’re now in full production of all crops with a box of cucumbers and zucchinis most days, and copious amounts basil, parsley and dill being added to everything from salads to stir fries. And the food? Well, without talking the chefs up too much, it’s gone to another level. The fastest way to make really good chefs excited and motivated is to give them organic produce picked daily, and of course, to give them lots. Why add a few leaves of basil to a dish when you can add four handfuls?

We’ve learned some good lessons in our first few months of market gardening and can share the following tips.

1. Use green manures. No amount of purchased fertiliser can do what green manures do in a garden. Not only do they add the full range of nutrients in a form that’s available for plant growth, but they also add bulk organic matter which retains soil moisture like a sponge. We haven’t had substantial rain for 7 weeks and our soil moisture (even on crappy sandy soils) is still good. Yes, it takes longer to get your final crop of produce if you have to spend 4 months growing a green manure, but it’s a great return on investment.

2. Remove crops that are struggling with pests or disease. Every crop species has multiple varieties that do better at different times of the year (or different times of the season). When a variety is planted outside of its optimum time, then it can become a magnet to pests and disease problems. For example our spring radish crop was excellent until the Brassica-loving moths started to fly and created a caterpillar problem that was unmanageable. We tried using Dipel and other organic treatments, but the caterpillars spread to the rocket, beans, rhubarb and just about everything else. Funnily enough, when we gave up and removed the radish (even though they weren’t quite ready to harvest), the caterpillar problem disappeared. Sometimes you’ve got to cut your losses and move on.

3. Experiment with varieties. We’ve planted multiple varieties of lettuce, beans, basil, zucchini and cucumber, and some do much better than others. You won’t know which do better in your particular combination of microclimate and soil, unless you try. Again, you take longer to reach your optimum harvest, but it’s a great return on investment.

4. Make compost. It’s so easy and the end product is the Rolls Royce of soil. It’s dark, rich, silky and full of life. We use a recipe of 30% chicken manure and 70% Lucerne (and grass clippings), and after mixing it together, wetting it, and piling it into Monet-style haystacks, we leave it for about 8 weeks and then it’s ready.

5. Maintain diversity. An organic garden requires a diverse range of vegetable and flower species and a diverse range of age groups (i.e. seedlings through to mature plants that have gone to seed) and plant structure (i.e. small plants, tall plants, bushy plants and flowering plants). Such diversity mimics natural ecosystems and provides a range of environmental services, including a moderated micro-climate and habitat for ‘good bugs’, birds and lizards.

6. Practice successional planting and crop rotation. Many vegetable species belong to the same plant families (e.g. Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Brussels sprout, Kale and Turnip are all part of the Brassicaceae family, while Tomato, Capsicum, Eggplant and Potato are all part of the Solanaceae family). Many pests and diseases are attracted to plants in the same family, and growing related plants in the same position over and over can lead to problematic pest and disease outbreaks. This can be minimised by rotating plants from different families through each planting position over time. An example is Snap Pea (Fabaceae) in winter, followed by Tomato (Solanaceae) in spring, followed by Celery (Apiaceae) in autumn, followed by Broccoli (Brassicaceae) in winter.

7. Use seaweed sprays regularly. Seasol and Maxicrop are both seaweed-based plant conditioning sprays that are amazingly effective at maintaining healthy and vigorous plants. We spray our plants every fortnight.

8. Avoid unnecessary handling. Many pests and diseases spread from plant to plant via you! Sap sucking insects and fungal diseases are good examples. One way to prevent the spread of pests and disease is to avoid all unnecessary handling of your plants. This includes brushing plants with your hands or legs when you walk past. Make sure that your garden layout includes enough space to walk between your garden beds.

9. Spend time in your garden. This is essential – the more time you spend in the garden, the more you’ll observe and the more you’ll learn. On a warm spring or summer morning, you’ll count dozens of life forms in your garden. Learn to identify them and watch what they do. Use an identification guide (The Garden Guardians by Jane Davenport is excellent) to help you distinguish between ‘bad bugs’ and ‘good bugs’. It’s also important to monitor ‘bad bugs’ and determine if they’re a problem or not. Sometimes they can be present in large numbers but not doing any serious damage. White fly is a good example - swarms can appear from under your zucchini or basil and make you run for the Pyrethrum bottle, but more often than not the damage is minimal.

10. Use broad spectrum organic insecticides only as a last resort. Pyrethrum is a great organic insecticide, but it kills ‘bad bugs’ and ‘good bugs’ indiscriminately. If you have an unacceptably large population of aphids or caterpillars that need to be removed, make sure you spray them at dawn or dusk when many of the ‘good bugs’ are not flying.

11. Manage risks. Good organic gardeners understand, accept and plan for unexpected events, seasonal variability and pest and disease damage through simple risk management. This involves the use of multiple varieties of vegetables and flowers planted at regular intervals. Good organic gardeners are also prepared to accept a percentage of crop loss (i.e. the better the gardener the lower percentage) and plant excess quantities to cover any unexpected losses.

Stay tuned for our next update. Unless we get substantial rain soon, our confident start may come to a slow withering demise…

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