At last, a bit of relief from Adelaide’s recent heatwaves! So far this January has been the fourth-hottest on record. As I listen to the dry, papery remains of sweetcorn rustling in today’s strong wind, I’m pondering what would be the best use of my home gardening time in February and March?
Darren Ray from the BOM presented his long-range forecast on ABC 891 Talkback Gardening with Ashley Walsh and Jon Lamb on Saturday, reflecting on the lack of rain in Adelaide since mid-December and predicting that although we may now be past the sustained heatwaves for this summer we can still expect some short spikes of high-30s to low-40s heat during February, with no significant rainfall likely until at least early March.
What does this mean for our food gardens?
First, let’s think about the soil. The combination of sustained heat and lack of rainfall with the current strong wind means that unless you have been practising regular deep watering, deep mulching and have some shady areas, soil in most parts of the garden is likely to be very dry indeed. Particularly so if fruit trees have been drawing every last bit of available moisture while their fruits have been ripening. A good, deep soak would be a great start – and don’t expect this baby cool change to deliver it! Then it’s time to boost the microbial life in the soil with a combination of compost, well-rotted manures, seaweed extract, worm liquid and/or castings. Water this lot in well and cover with a good layer of mulch to protect the goodness from being baked out.
All the above steps are even more vital if you are pruning your fruit trees after their summer harvest and looking forward to some healthy new growth this season ready to bear next year’s fruit. The prunings would be useful both for making a new batch of hot compost and to provide stakes for any late summer tomatoes, bush beans etc.
Which brings me to what to plant… really I feel this depends on how much time and water you have available, and whether you have spaces in the garden that will still receive enough sunshine for your vegetables to ripen as the days shorten and the sun drops lower in the sky, casting longer shadows.
If you’re aiming for a round of late-summer planting, try climbing beans, bush/dwarf beans, beetroot, carrots, cucumbers, eggplant (worth keeping in the ground through winter for a bigger crop next summer), okra, silverbeet, sweetcorn, tomatoes (seedlings or established plants) and zucchini. You could add herbs such as basil, chives, oregano and parsley. Shadecloth will still be valuable at least on the hotter days to reduce evaporation and sunburn in the vegie garden. Make sure you have plenty to drink while working in the garden too!
If you decide to focus on soil improvement for now and wait a few more weeks before planting, then some of the cooler-season vegies will be worth a go, so include broad beans, beetroot, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, radishes, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuces, pak choi, rocket, swedes and turnips. In the herb garden, coriander will do better as we enter autumn. Also try fennel, parsley and spring onions. Perennial herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage can be picked or pruned regularly to keep them in shape. If you have lost some plants in the extreme heat, try striking some cuttings from these hardy herbs in pots kept in a moist, semi-shaded spot, and when their roots have developed, plant them out to fill the gaps.
And if you’re counting your losses, don’t forget to count your successes too. Every season we learn something new and gain ideas to make our gardens more resilient. Our soil gets better and better, our trees become more established, our seasonal routines become second nature, until eventually we have a thriving little ecosystem where all elements support one another. Happy gardening!