If there’s one thing we can rely on in spring, it’s unpredictable weather. Calm and sunny one day, howling gales and torrential rain the next. Looking back at last October’s pictures I saw cherries ripening on my tree, while this year the buds are only just starting to open.
The impact of the recent storms varies widely depending on location, with wind exposure, altitude, soil type, vegetation cover and proximity to creeks and rivers all playing a significant part. While market gardens north of Adelaide faced devastating floods, we’re relieved and grateful that our home garden got off pretty lightly. It was largely protected from wind damage by the surrounding fences and dense shrubs, so even the young avocado tree didn’t suffer any damage. The garden itself is fairly full, with meandering pathways that slow the wind on its way through, and fruit trees pruned to a stocky, compact shape that helps them resist the wind. Deep mulch let the heavy rain gently filter through to the soil without compacting it too much. But we are not used to quite this much sustained moisture (we’ve had over 100mm in a week and clay soil really holds that water), so fungal diseases are having a field day. We lost a few snow peas that were planted in the ground (while those in raised beds benefited from the improved drainage and ventilation there), and the stone fruit trees that usually show a bit of leaf curl have vastly more than usual. An exception is where Mum has been grafting more resistant varieties onto the trees, so we’ll expand this approach in future.
So now we are left with soil that is deeply charged with water but warming more slowly than it usually would in spring. Raised beds, containers and beds near north-facing walls and paths are likely to warm most quickly, while in-ground beds, shaded areas and low patches take longer. This is worth remembering when considering where to plant those spring-summer seeds that really like heat to help them germinate. Usually I would advocate sowing seeds of pumpkins, melons, climbing beans and zucchini directly in the ground, but given how cool the soil is at the moment and how long a growing season some of these veg like, this may be the year for starting them in containers. Deep cardboard toilet rolls, old yogurt containers or cut-out milk cartons would be better than little punnets for these vigorous plants, as they soon put on rapid growth if started in a warm place and you don’t want to disturb their roots too much when planting out. Remember to keep them moist while germinating and starting to grow, but try to avoid wetting the leaves or keeping their area too humid as they are prone to fungal problems. Remove any unhealthy seedlings at the first sign.
Tomatoes, chillies, capsicum and eggplant also need warmth for germination and growth, so they may be stunted for a while unless they are growing in a protected spot. Again, a north-facing masonry wall behind them provides a useful heat bank, particularly keeping the ambient temperature a few degrees warmer at night. The capsicum and chilli plants I grew from seed last year are looking ratty at the moment, but the fact that they have an established root system will give them a head start over any grown from scratch this spring. So as soon as I see their new leaves coming, I trim the old stems back to the new growth and in another month or two they should be nicely re-established, with good strong stems to support the fruit. The same principle applies to trimming citrus trees and passionfruit – once the new growth starts to appear, they’ll respond rapidly to a haircut. So it makes sense to start fertilising them at the same time – and continue this regularly (every month or two, just a little at a time) through summer and into autumn.
The biggest dilemma with a wet spring is when to remove the winter vegetables to make space for the heat-lovers. If you like to clear a whole bed at a time and dig in organic matter, you’ll be facing a bit of a sacrifice, as the leafy greens are probably growing like topsy right now. But if you can be bothered with replenishing each little patch with a bit of compost, blood and bone, etc and filling the gaps with your next seedlings, this approach can keep a small area continuously productive. It also means that the existing vegetables act as nurse plants for the new ones, sheltering them from the wind and sudden sun exposure on the hot days. But if established plants like silverbeet are growing too quickly they can smother the babies, so choose your spots carefully and keep an eye on how the plants are getting along from day to day, harvesting a big leaf here and there to maintain little clearings for the seedlings.
Many of the stone fruits have now set and need to be thinned to improve the size and quality of remaining fruit and to ensure that branches aren’t overloaded as the fruit grows. Watch any grafts that have been made in winter to see whether the scions (new wood) are growing, and remove any fruit to allow the grafts to strengthen this year before bearing fruit next year. You may also need to remove some growth on the rootstock below the graft, to keep plenty of sap moving up through the graft.
Grapevines have now burst into growth and would benefit from training onto wires or strong trellis, especially if you are establishing the framework of a young vine.
Thistles have put on lush growth and started setting seed, as have stray grasses – all great chook food if you can get it, and worth pulling out before the seed falls. Weed-prone areas may need mulching, and if you lay cardboard first it will help to eliminate the light that triggers weed germination. It is surprising how quickly clay soils start to set rock-hard as the surface moisture dries out, and then it is so much harder to get those weeds out!
So, what else to plant on a balmy weekend like this? Almost everything! How about basil, beetroot, carrots, celery, chives, coriander (a teaspoon full of seeds every month is ideal), cucumber, dill, eggplant, fennel, spring onions, lettuces, mint (cuttings), mizuna, mustard, pak choi, parsley, parsnip, potatoes, pumpkins, radiccio, radish, rocket, silverbeet, tatsoi, turnips and zucchini. Keep seed raising mix moist and semi-shaded during germination, gradually transition into sunshine as they grow up, and remember to thin out (i.e. snip off) excess seedlings leaving just one or two per pot or cell for transplanting into garden beds. Preferably plant out in the evening to allow plant roots to settle in overnight without the stress of wilting in the sun.