What to sow in August (Cool-Temperate climate)

August garden

Late winter in my garden…

One more month of winter and relative calm in the garden to finish of some winter projects like my new garden/potting shed, the recycled wash station for my vegetables and yes, I’ve found another spot I can squeeze in and build one more raised vegetable bed. Once the warmer weather of Spring arrives there’ll be no more time for such projects as everything (including the lawn and the weeds) starts growing at a breakneck speed.

potato chitting

I’m chitting my potatoes in egg cartons before planting them out

Late August in Melbourne is a great time to plant your first potato crop of the year (you can plant more potatoes right through to the end of December for successive crops). It’s also time to plant Jerusalem and Globe artichokes, shallots, onion seedlings, asparagus and rhubarb crowns.  You can sow into punnets for planting out in late September the seeds of; broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, silverbeet, rainbow chard, kale, celery, leeks, lettuce, mizuna, mibuna, spinach, bok choy, pak choy, wombok cabbage and any other Asian greens. August is also time to sow directly into the garden the seeds of; delicious sugar snap peas, snow peas, broad beans, turnips and swedes.

growing broadbeans

Broad beans…I love them!

If you have a very warm spot, such as a greenhouse, and are impatient for spring to arrive, you could start sowing into punnets the seeds of tomatoes, capsicum, cucumber, pumpkin and eggplant for planting out mid Spring. They will need to be planted out into your warmest spot in the garden or they’ll just sit there until the soil warms up in late Spring. If you’re in a colder area wait until next month with these seeds.

If you have asparagus growing in your garden, keep a close eye on them…your first asparagus spears for the season should be popping up soon…Enjoy!

August seed sowing

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Soiled soils…heavy metal contamination in garden soils

Healthy soil

Healthy soil bursting with life

The health benefits of growing your own vegetables are well researched and many people dig up their lawns in favour of a backyard vegetable garden. There is nothing nicer than doing your vegetable shopping in your own backyard and nothing beats the taste of vegetables picked moments before you eat them…but have you ever wondered about the health of the soil you are growing them in?

The soil in your backyard has a long history and you don’t always know how it was used and cared for before you become its custodian. Many soils, particularly those in older urban and industrial areas and those close to main roads, are contaminated with chemical residues from past activities on that land or from pollutants from the surrounding area. Of particular concern to backyard vegetable growers and gardeners are high levels of heavy metals in your soil. The heavy metals and metalloids which pose the greatest risk to human health when found in soil are Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Copper, Manganese, Nickel, Lead and Zinc. These heavy metals when ingested have been linked to cancers, kidney, bone and nerve damage. As gardeners, our exposure to heavy metals comes less from eating the vegetables we grow and more from the accidental ingestion and inhalation of soil and dust while gardening or from soil dust brought into our houses on gardening clothes and shoes.

Digging in the garden

In urban areas, the heavy metal of most concern is lead, which may have accumulated in the soil due to the past use of lead-based paints on old houses, sheds and fences and from the emissions of cars run on leaded petrol before it was phased out. Soil naturally contains small amounts of lead in the range of 15-40 parts of lead to one million parts soil (ppm). In some urban areas however, lead levels in the soil may be as high as 500-10,000 ppm which is way above the level of 300ppm which is considered safe in Australia.

The good news however is that here is no need to stop growing vegetables in your backyard. If you are concerned about the health of your soil, there are two things you can do. The first is to have your soil tested for heavy metals and the second, is not to test it but assume it could be contaminated and take the relevant precautions. Since 2013 Macquarie University has been offering free soil testing for vegetable gardeners in Australia via their VegeSafe program, although they welcome donations to be able to continue to offer this service. For further information on how to get your soil tested for free go to the VegeSafe web link at the end of this article.

Raised beds

Grow your vegetables in raised beds with new soil if you are unsure of your soils health

If you find your soil is contaminated you can still grow vegetables by using a raised garden bed with soil brought in from a clean source. Make your raised beds from white cypress and not from treated pine or recycled railway sleepers which can both leach chemicals into your soil. When growing vegetables, root crops are the most likely to contain high levels of lead as they grow in the soil and soil can get trapped in their skin. Peeling and washing these vegetables before consuming is recommended to reduce lead ingestion. Leafy vegetables may also contain higher levels of lead, but mostly due to soil particles on their leaves, so it is advisable to also wash leafy vegetables thoroughly. Fruiting vegetables have a very low uptake of lead making tomatoes, capsicums, peas and beans the safest to eat if you are unsure of the soil they are grown in.

washing carrots

Washing leafy and root vegetables well, can minimise heavy metal ingestion

As mentioned before, most ingestion of lead actually comes from ingesting soil dust particles and not from the eating of home grown vegetables themselves. To reduce soil dust from the garden being brought into your house where it can become airborne and easily breathed in, leave your garden shoes outside and wash your hands and vegetables outside before coming inside. Avoid breathing in dust particles from your soil when the weather it is dry and windy by covering bare soil areas with grass or mulch. Having your vegetable garden soil at a pH of 6.5-7 (which is the optimal pH for vegetables anyway) and adding lots of organic matter such as compost (also great for vegetable growing) means that any lead in your soil will be bound to soil particles in a way that it is less likely to be taken up by your vegetables. So its best to be informed and get to know your garden soil. Growing your own organic vegetables in clean soil and harvesting just before eating, is still hard to beat for quality, taste and nutrition.

Winter salad leaves

For information on getting your soil tested visit VegeSafe Soil Testing:

https://research.science.mq.edu.au/vegesafe/how-to-participate/

References:

https://research.science.mq.edu.au/vegesafe/advice-on-soil/

http://www.lead.org.au/fs/fst6.html

http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/soils/lead-in-home-garden/

Urban Gardening, Managing the Risks of Contaminated Soil, Environmental Health Perspectives • volume 121 | number 11-12 | November-December 2013

Upcoming workshop – An introduction to organic vegetable growing (Bookings for this event are now full)

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For those of you in Melbourne a chance to visit Mascha’s Garden;

An Introduction to growing organic vegetables at home.

1st October 2017 1pm-4.30pm

This workshop teaches you what you will need to know to successfully grow organic vegetables in your own garden:

  • Get to know your garden soil by analysing a sample of your own garden soil and learn how to improve it
  • Learn the basics of composting, setting up a wormfarm and green manure crops to improve your soil fertility
  • Make a no-dig garden
  • Learn how to successfully sow seeds in the gound and in punnets
  • Included on the day will be a tour of Mascha’s Garden, a 2 acre permaculture property, which combines fruit and vegetable growing with chicken, goat and bee keeping and native habitat conservation.
  • Finish the day with afternoon tea (provided) and question time

For bookings and ticket information click below:
Eventbrite - Introduction to organic vegetable growing workshop

The big chill…frost protection in the garden.

frost damage on capsicum

Although surviving to mid-winter in the protected environment of the poly tunnel, overnight temperatures of -5ºC were too low for these capsicum plants as they finally succumbed to frost.

We recently experienced three consecutive nights where the temperature dropped below 0ºC, yes winter is here and with it comes frost. While frost is welcomed by some plants in my garden such as kale, broccoli, carrots, parsnips and cabbages, which taste much better after a frost and also by our apple trees and berry plants, which need a period of cold weather to set good fruit the following season. Other plants, such as the last of our warm season vegetables and our more temperate, sub-tropical plants can suffer if not protected from frost.

frost damage on arrowroot

Typical blackened, droopy foliage of a frost damaged plant… in this case Arrowroot.

When temperatures drop below 0ºC the water inside a plants cells freezes and expands causing the cell walls to rupture, creating droopy often blackened looking foliage. Young plants and those with large soft leaves are more susceptible to frost damage. Plants which are classified as frost hardy have adapted to cope with frost by having small, tough, leathery or dense foliage which is more resistant to damage from frost; while other plants are protected by being deciduous and dormant during winter.

frost damage on pineapple sage

The foliage on this Pineapple sage planted in a frost pocket had no chance surviving three nights in a row below freezing, but will bounce back from new growth produced in spring.

To minimise the damage frost can do in your garden there are some measures you can take. Frost often settles in low lying areas, so don’t plant frost prone plants at the bottom of a slope or uphill from a thick hedge or wall which can trap cold air coming down the hill and create a frost pocket. Here in Melbourne, a north facing brick or stone wall can act as a thermal mass, radiating warmth for frost sensitive plants planted near it. A large body of water can also act as a thermal mass, so having a large pond or dam can provide some protection for plants nearby.

frost damage on chilli

Even the chillies in the poly tunnel got chilly!

Large plants can be protected by covering them with hessian, horticultural fleece, old sheets or weed matting on nights when frosts are likely. Small plants or seedlings can be protected by placing an empty pot plant over them at night, but make sure to remove any covers during the day. If it’s too late and frosts have already damaged your plants don’t be tempted to cut the unsightly and damaged foliage off straight away. The damaged foliage can protect the rest of the leaves and any new growth underneath from further frosts, potentially saving the plant. Prune frost damaged plants once there is no more risk of frosts (which here in Melbourne may not be until mid spring). After a frosty night, wetting the foliage of plants with a hose early in the morning, before the sun is out, can slow the thawing process and therefore minimise frost damage too.

frost damage

Ginger Lily damaged by frost.

A seedy business

Seeds

To start with a seed…that you plant into the soil and nurture as you watch it grow into a plant…then to harvest from this plant food to feed yourself and your family and friends… then to save some of the seed to start the cycle again the following season…this would have to be one of the most satisfying, rewarding and empowering experiences you can have.

There is so much to write about seeds so in this post I’m concentrating on highlighting some of the different types of seed you may come across and what some of the terminology on your purchased seed packet means. I’ll follow on from this with a post at a future date which will cover: how to sow seeds successfully and another on how to save your own seed.

Seeds can be classified into Open-pollinated, Heirloom, Hybrid and Genetically Modified.

Open-pollinated seeds are from plants in which pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms. This means that if you want to save your own seed, these seeds will be true to type (produce very similar characteristics as their parent plants), as long as they are not crossed with other similar varieties of the same species. They also produce exceptionally tasty crops that have a staggered maturing time (great for successive harvest in a home vegetable garden). The only down side is that some varieties produce less bountiful crops. However if you save your seed from your strongest plants from each crop, over time you’ll start to get seed that is adapted to your local soil and climate and produce better plants each season.

Heirloom seeds are all open-pollinated but are also seeds that have a history of being passed down within a family or by a community.

Version 2

A bright selection of heirloom tomatoes bursting with flavour.

Hybrid seeds are seed that have resulted from cross-pollinating plants. This can happen naturally in nature, but has been taken to the next level in modern agriculture where plants with specific desirable characteristics are cross-pollinated over many generations to produce highly inbred new hybrids. These hybrid seeds are specifically favoured in modern agriculture, mainly for their high and often earlier yield times, disease resistance and general uniformity in harvesting times. The down side is you can’t save seeds from hybrids as the seeds you save will generally not breed true and revert to the parents’ traits. The popularity of hybrids has also meant the loss of many heirloom varieties and a loss in the diversity of food crops for future generations.

Genetically Modified seeds are produced in laboratories by combining the genes from one species with that of another (think chicken genes in wheat and rat genes in soybeans!) to produce seed with herbicide resistance or other desirable traits. These genetically modified seeds would never naturally occur in nature and the health and environmental impacts these seeds pose are enormous. Most GM crops also contain terminator genes which means seeds are sterile and farmers are required to purchase new seed each year from the companies that own the patent rights for them. Luckily GM seeds are not (yet) available to home food growers but their use in major agricultural crops such as wheat, corn, canola, cotton and soybeans and the inconsistency in labelling on food products means we may all have consumed GMO’s at some time without realising it.

Treated seed has to be labelled as such on the packet you buy it in and is usually covered in a bright pink or blue fungicide or pesticide dust or coating. These coatings are restricted to those seeds which are particularly susceptible to attack by soil borne fungus or insect damage in the pre-germination stage. Vegetables that often have treated seeds include corn, beans, peas, pumpkins, squash and cucumbers. Some seeds are treated with neonicotinoids, a group of chemicals which can be absorbed by the whole plant and are potentially carcinogenic and can make the pollen from the plant toxic to bees who forage on the flowers. When the seed packet warns ‘not to eat the seed or feed to animals’, would you even want to plant them in your garden and eat the vegetables grown from them?

corn seed treated with fungicide

Treated corn seeds

Certified Organic seed is produced using organic farming practices and standards allowable by an organic certifying regulator. These seeds are always non GM and untreated. They are the best seeds to buy to ensure you minimise your exposure to harmful chemicals while also supporting farming practises which minimise harm to our natural environment.