In the garden ... Owen Pidgeon says it is time to get winter vegetables underway.
As I write this column, the summer westerly is bearing down on us and the sky remains thick with the colour and smell of bushfires. It is not a good time of year when the temperatures are soaring, to the point of leaving fruit sunburned and dropping.
But even in the hardest of times there are moments of joy. The first ripe tomato or apricot, apple or pear. And, for our family, our first granddaughter, born on January 10 in Griffith, to Stephen and Katrina, taking me back beyond the time that I can remember, when I was also born in a hospital in the Riverina, at Lake Cargelligo.
In midsummer, you should do some important maintenance. Watering is very important at this time of year. Trees and vegetables send their roots deep down in search for water so watering must be regular and deep. Water in the evening when the sun is setting or has already set, to avoid evaporation loss, damage to plants or risk of fungal problems. With fruit trees, a five-day or seven-day cycle of deep watering is a good plan.
Some vegetables drink gallons of water. Sweet corn is one of the thirstiest plants around, but home-grown corn is such a treat that regular deep waterings are worthwhile.
Mulch has many benefits and is the best way to help the soil retain moisture. A good application of mulch will prevent the topsoil from drying out, and it protects the soil when the summer storms come, preventing erosion. A good fibrous, loose mulch, such as the organic sugar cane or lucerne hay, will allow the rain or hose waterings to penetrate and soak into the ground without washing the topsoil away. In addition, the mulch protects many plants from the fungal problems that can come from soil splashing up on to the leaves. Many of the small, fine roots of vegetables which act to draw in the water and minerals are quite close to the soil surface, so they are helped greatly by this garden care. Mulch and water in any little plants when transplanting them into the garden. Also protect them from the hot sun for a few days with pots or shade cloth.
And there are two more benefits. Some fruits and berries tend to lie on the ground, so mulching can prevent the strawberries, cucumbers, zucchinis and similar plants from having mud set on to the bottom of the berry or vegetable. Plus, a good thick mulch is one of the best ways to keep weeds and grasses at bay. Preventing weeds from growing close to plants helps the plant from having to compete for nutrients and moisture.
But you will still have to weed and the early morning is a good time for this. Where there is space between the rows, I can chip out with a narrow mattock. When I am close to plants, such as tomatoes or sweet corn, I will take either a ho-mi bladed tool (available from Gundaroo Tiller) or a wide-bladed chisel to cut through the roots just below the surface of the soil. With couch grass, you need to follow the white roots right down and remove them completely or the remaining root section will grow back rapidly. Cherry and apricot trees should be pruned at the end of the harvest, rather than in winter, to avoid bacterial infections from weeping cut lines, which can happen in cold, damp conditions. Where your tree has grown too high, prune back to the desired height. Remove any small branchlets that have died - somewhat typical with stone fruit trees. If the trees are spreading too far, prune off the ends of the willowy branches. Apple orchardists also do some summer pruning of trees that are very crowded to let sufficient light into the centre of each tree.
Thinning of most fruits should have been completed in late spring. However, where your nashi, apple or pear trees have branches that are heavily laden with a burgeoning crop, you will need to thin again or those branches will break from the weight of the crop before the fruit is ripe.
There is another option and that is to support important branches that you don't want to prune back. This can be done by hammering in a 2.4-metre steel post alongside to serve as a support. I use leather straps wrapped around the branch, secured back to the steel post by small gauge wires. You need something with some width, even part of an old pair of jeans. Do not wrap wire around any branch of a fruit tree or it will ring bark the branch over time.
Tomatoes grow much better if you can keep tying up the branches of the vine to garden stakes. Use natural jute twine or old stockings and do not tie too tight, to allow the plant to expand its trunk dimensions over time. We are also removing most of the laterals that are appearing on our tomato bushes.
In the garden
Consider planting vegetables now that can produce a crop within two months, such as beans, frilly open lettuces, radishes and beetroot. Zucchinis will also produce well in March, if planted now.
Keep hilling up the sides of your potato crops to ensure the newly formed tubers are not exposed to the sun.
Little finger and purple dragon carrots could be planted into a garden bed that has been harvested over summer. Create plenty of depth, do not add any fresh manure and keep the topsoil moist until germination by regular watering and covering the bed with hessian.
Get your winter vegetables under way by planting broccoli, winter cabbages, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts seeds into punnets. This will give them time to become well established before the cold nights set in.
- Owen Pidgeon runs the organic Loriendale Orchard near Hall.