Spring into the garden

weeping cherry blossom

The weeping cherry blossoms are abuzz with bees

It’s the fourth week of Spring and it’s finally safe to say that winter is now behind us. The bee hive is buzzing, there are flower buds opening everywhere around the garden and the goats are shedding their winter coats.

september- back vegetable garden

The back vegetable garden late September

Even though we’ve had plenty of rain in the last month, the increased temperatures heading into summer will mean the ground can quickly dry out. Now is the time to get your vegetable beds mulched using pea straw, straw, sugarcane mulch or if you can afford it, lucerne hay, which will also feed your vegetables as it breaks down.

september- potatoes

The potatoes which were planted mid August are growing strongly and have been hilled up with soil and then mulched with pea straw.

september- garlic

I don’t usually mulch the garlic, but the soil in this bed dries out quickly (thanks to our gum trees) so I’ve given them a light cover with pea straw.

september- brassicas

The brassica bed with Tuscan kale, Red Russian kale, broccoli and cauliflowers will hopefully mature before the Cabbage White butterflies emerge and lay their eggs on the leaves, so won’t need netting. 

I love the start of Spring when vegetables nursed through the Winter start to mature. We’ve been feasting on asparagus the last few weeks, both green and purple. If you haven’t grown asparagus before, have a go, the two year wait before harvesting is worth the many productive years that follow of the best tasting, freshest asparagus you’ll ever eat.

September- broadbeans

The broad beans are worth growing just for their flowers delightful scent and the leafy tips of the plants make a wonderful addition to a spring salad.

Broad beans and snow peas are starting to pod too and we’ve eaten the broccoli and cauliflowers with a succession planting maturing soon. There’s plenty of kale, silverbeet, spinach and red chard and the endive is ready to be lightly steamed and mashed with potatoes (it’s a Dutch thing-don’t knock it until you try it!)

oranges

Planted at the top of the driveway in a our best sunny spot, the oranges and grapefruit are thriving and we are juicing and eating citrus galore. Our citrus trees love the spent straw from the goats pen as a mulch.

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How to grow potatoes…

chitted potato

A chitted potato ready for planting

As a Dutch-born Australian my diet while growing up featured a lot of potato meals: curly kale mashed with potatoes, beetroot mashed with potatoes, carrots and onions mashed with potatoes, sauerkraut mashed with potatoes…you get the picture! As an adult I still love potatoes (and I still serve them up mashed with other vegetables from the garden) but now they taste even better as I grow them myself.

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A colourful variety of heirloom potatoes

There are many more varieties of potato available to home gardeners than the small selection of commercially grown ones you’ll find at the supermarket. Heirloom potatoes come in many different shapes and colours and  you may want to try some of these great heirloom varieties: Bintje, Burgundy Blush, Brownell, Kipfler, Pink Fir Apple, Purple Congo, Red Norland, Russian Banana, Salad Rose and Sapphire to name a few. To get started purchase certified disease-free seed potatoes (google heirloom seed potatoes in your country or state to find a retailer), this way you won’t risk introducing soil born pests and diseases of potatoes into your garden. These pests and diseases can also be prevented by not planting any vegetables in the Solanaceae family (potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, chillies, eggplant and tomatillos) in the same garden bed each year, but have them on at least a 2-3 year rotation instead.

potato bed ready to plant

Potato bed ready for planting

It is time to plant potatoes once there is no more risk of frost in your garden. I plant in late August here (as my garden is protected from frost) and by the time the potato shoots emerge above the soil, spring has arrived. You can sow successive crops of potatoes throughout the warmer months here in Melbourne by choosing a cooler part of the vegetable garden to plant them in during summer, that way they won’t get heat stressed. Make sure though that the last sowing has at least three months to mature before the first frosts arrive in late autumn. The instructions below are for growing potatoes in the ground or a raised bed but you can also grow potatoes in cylinders made from chicken wire, in hessian sacks or in a no-dig garden.

potatoes laid out

It’s best to plant your potatoes 30cm apart in rows about 50 cm apart

Potatoes prefer a soil that is rich and free draining with plenty of organic matter, such as compost, added and some pelleted organic fertiliser. To plant your potatoes dig a trench about 20 cm deep and plant your seed potatoes 30 cm apart in rows of 50cm apart. Fill the trench with soil and hill soil up around the potato plants as they grow and emerge from the soil. Keep your potatoes well watered especially during the warmer months. When the plants get even bigger, spread straw thickly around the potato plants to exclude any light from getting to any potatoes that may be developing just under the surface of the soil. Potatoes exposed to sunlight will develop a green colour, which is chlorophyll and enables the potato to photosynthesise and sprout. At this stage it also develops a poisonous chemical called solanine which makes the potato taste bitter so animals are discouraged from eating it. You should therefore never eat potatoes that have developed green patches on their skins.

potato trench

Your seed potatoes should be planted about 20 cm deep as most of your potato crop will develop above the original seed potato.

Potatoes are usually ready to harvest in around 12 weeks after they’ve flowered and start to die back. If you have trouble waiting that long, you can harvest a few early potatoes by carefully digging around the base of your potato plant with your hands after about 8-10 weeks, but you’ll get a bigger harvest of larger potatoes if you’re prepared to wait! Once harvested, let the soil on your potatoes dry so you can brush most of it off and store your potatoes in a cool, dry and dark place. Don’t wash your potatoes before storing as this will make them more prone to developing rot during storage, the aim is to keep them as dry as possible. To store, you can put your potatoes in a hessian sack or in a cardboard box underneath a few layers of newspaper to exclude them from any light but still allow good air circulation. Any potatoes whose skins were cut or damaged during harvest should be eaten first and not stored with the rest of the potatoes. Regularly check your stored potatoes and discard any that develop rot. Stored properly your potatoes should stay good for at least 2-3 months.