What to grow in February (Cool-Temperate climate)

 

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The Gawler Foundation herb garden in full bloom.

There is still a month of hot weather ahead, hopefully we won’t experience the extreme temperature fluctuations we had last month, which were not great for planting out vegetable seedlings. If you are planting seedlings this month remember to give them a regular deep soak with water and shade them from the afternoon sun.

If you have some empty spots in your vegetable beds, this month you could try planting seedlings of:

Red and Green Cabbages, Broccoli, Cauliflower (try beautiful Romanesco or Purple Cauliflowers) Brussel Sprouts, Kale, Leeks, Spring Onions, Silverbeet, Rainbow Chard, Asian greens (Bok Choy, Pak Choy, Tatsoi etc.), Lettuce, Celery.

You can also sow from seed direct into your vegetable beds:

Carrots, Beetroot, Parsnip, Turnips, Radish, Coriander, Rocket.

Remember to cover any seedlings from the Brassica family with insect netting for the next couple of months until the Cabbage White butterflies are no longer around or spray your seedlings regularly with Dipel (Bacillus thuringiensis).

 

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How to grow delicious salads on your kitchen bench…

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While doing some research in my local library for an article on growing your own sprouts, I happened to stumble upon a book by Peter Burke with the title ‘Year-round indoor salad gardening’. The book describes Burke’s technique for growing, as the title suggests, year-round salad leaves on your kitchen bench, in a simple and easy way, without the need for any specialised equipment. I immediately thought that this technique is a great solution for people who want to have the benefits of eating nutritious home-grown salads, but either don’t have space for a vegetable garden, don’t have the time to tend a vegetable garden or have physical limitations due to health issues. So before writing about Burke’s technique and putting my article on sprouting seeds on the back burner, the scientist in me thought it best to try it for myself first, just to check it really was that easy. Here’s how it went…

Burke’s technique combines part sprouting in jars and part soil sprouting, to produce edible salad leaves in the form of microgreens. Microgreens are vegetables or herbs that are eaten at a seedling stage, at which point they taste like the mature vegetable but contain a much higher concentration of nutrients. Using conventional methods to produce microgreens can take 2-4 weeks but by using this technique you can harvest in only 7-10 days.

The equipment that you will need for this indoor salad garden includes; glass jars, organic seeds, aluminium foil trays (about 15cmx22cmx5cm in size), newspaper or paper towel, a small strainer, water in a small spray bottle, seed raising mix and a little compost, worm castings or some organic fertiliser.

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Step 1 Soak the seeds in a jar of warm water for 6 hours (or overnight). You can use any organic vegetable or herb seed which has edible leaves, but seeds in the Brassica family (kale, broccoli, cabbage, canola, kohlrabi) are particularly nutritious and beetroot, red amaranth, buckwheat and purple basil add great colour to your salad. I used adzuki beans, snow peas, mung beans, fenugreek and lentils for my experiment as I already had these seeds available. For the smaller seeds you need to soak about a heaped tablespoon per tray and for the larger seeds, such as the peas, you need about 80 seeds.

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Step 2 Using one foil tray per seed variety, add a 1 cm layer of seed raising mix, with a couple of tablespoons of compost/worm casting or a small sprinkle of organic fertiliser spread over the top. Fill the rest of the trays with more seed raising mix until they are filled about 1/2 cm from the top of the tray. Level the mix but don’t pat it down. If your mix feels dry, squirt it with some water from a spray bottle (your mix should be moist but not wet as there are no drainage holes in your tray).

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Step 3 Fold a sheet of newspaper or paper towel to fit the top of your tray (a few layers thick) and soak the folded paper in a shallow tray of warm water. In the meantime strain the water off the seeds by pouring them into a small strainer and rinse them with some fresh water. Spread the seeds evenly on top of the seed raising mix, then cover with the folded newspaper/paper towel and gently press the paper down to ensure that the seeds underneath make good contact with the soil.

Step 4 Place the trays in a warm (18-21ºC), dark cupboard for 4 days, keeping the newspapers wet if they dry by squirting with some water. The sprouts should be 2-3cm high and have pushed the newspaper up by the end of this time. If temperatures were a bit too cold this step may take an extra day or two. I found this to be the case with the larger seeds of my snow peas, mung beans and adzuki beans which I left in the cupboard for an extra day.

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Step 5 You now need to green your sprouts by taking off the newspaper covers and placing the trays on a sunny bench near a window, they don’t need direct sunlight. I placed mine on a workbench in my garden shed which is under a north facing window, but a kitchen bench would work well too and you don’t necessarily need a window that faces north. Over the next three days water the soil in the trays everyday with about 2-4 tablespoons of water and rotate the trays each day so that the sprouts grow straight and not towards the light.

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Step 6 After only 7-10 days from when you first soaked your seeds, your salad is ready to harvest. It really is that quick and easy! To harvest simply cut your greens about half a centimetre above the soil level with a pair of scissors. Give them a very gentle rinse under some cold water to remove any soil particles and seed husks and they are ready to eat.

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You may want to grate some carrot or beetroot through your sprouts, or add a handful of chickpeas or finely chopped tomatoes. Your sprouts are also great as a garnish on top of a lentil Dahl or in rice paper rolls. If you sow a new couple of trays every few days you could have a continuous supply of sprouted salad greens.

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This indoor salad only took 8 days to grow!

Enjoy!

What to grow in December (Cool/Temperate Climate)

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I’ve been so busy with my garden at home and at work lately that before I knew it, the first week of December had already passed…so apologies for this late blog on what to grow this month. We’ve had a very high rainfall so far in December (a bit too much in some areas) and combined with the warmer temperatures, your vegetables should be growing right before your eyes.

If you’ve got some space left in your vegetable garden here’s what to grow this month:

You can plant: potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers, capsicum, chillies, eggplant, zucchini, squash, spaghetti squash, pumpkin, corn, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, spring onions, lettuce, leeks, basil and other herbs.

You can sow from seed: kale, silverbeet, lettuce, beans (bush and climbing), beetroot, Asian greens, corn, cabbage, carrots, leek, spring onions, zucchini, squash, spaghetti squash, turnips, swedes, parsnips, smaller pumpkin varieties, cucumbers, perennial spinach, radishes, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi and celery.

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Spring into the garden

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

What to sow in September (Cool-Temperate Climate)

Spring seedlings

Nothing signals the arrival of spring more than blossoming fruit trees, a greenhouse bursting with vegetable seedlings waiting to be planted out and the birth of baby animals. However with a very cold winter behind us, don’t be too quick to plant out all your spring vegetable beds in the first week of spring, as we may have more cold weather to come. Staggering the sowing and planting of your crops throughout the growing season will also give you a more gradual harvest and helps to prevent getting caught with a glut of vegetables.

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Our new Spring chickens are still a bit camera shy!

It’s still too cold outside too for our new additions to the hen house and they are keeping warm inside the shed until the temperatures outside become a bit more pleasant and their feathers have fully grown.

There are lots of sowing calendars available online for different climate zones, but really the best way to learn what to sow in your own garden is to take the advice given and then experiment a bit with your garden’s own particular micro-climate. In my garden I might plant a particular vegetable in a different month of the season depending on whether it’s going into my front or backyard vegetable beds or in the greenhouse, as they all have very different micro-climates.

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Parsnips and Red Chard

My work garden is a certified organic vegetable garden (with NASAA) so I’m required to keep notes on what I’ve sown, when I’ve sown it, how much I’ve sown and what garden bed it went into. For my own information I also add notes on how well things grew or if there was any unseasonal weather or pest/disease problems. It sounds like a lot of work but really it doesn’t take that much time at all to record it on a chart and it has become a valuable tool to look back on when planning what to sow the following year. You can do something similar for your home vegetable garden and over time this will allow you to see what does and doesn’t work and you’ll create your own sowing calendar. Remember too that each year is a bit different, weather and pest wise, so don’t be disheartened if something doesn’t grow well, take notes, learn and try again the following year.

Seedlings ready to plant

Here’s what seeds you may want to sow into punnets in September for planting out later in Spring:

Kohlrabi, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Asian Greens, Spinach, Silverbeet, Rainbow Chard, Leeks, Lettuce, Tomatoes, Tomatillos, Eggplant, Capsicum, Chillies, Cucumber, Zucchini, Pumpkin, Squash, Celery, Endive, Spring Onions.

You can also sow directly into your vegetable beds the seeds of:

Radish, Carrot, Beetroot, Parsnip, Swedes, Turnips, Spring Onions, Peas, Snow peas, Rocket and Endive

You can plant out seedlings of:

Kohlrabi, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Asian Greens, Spring Onions, Spinach, Silverbeet, Rainbow Chard, Leeks, Lettuce, Celeriac, Globe and Jerusalem Artichokes and Rhubarb.

September is also the time to plant more seed potatoes as well as most herbs.

Note: This advice is based on my experience in growing vegetables in Melbourne’s Yarra Valley and Dandenong Ranges areas.

How to grow potatoes…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Reconnecting with nature…no Wi-Fi required

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Nature can be breathtaking…don’t forget to look up!

Imagine a medicine that was not only free, but also had no adverse side effects, was available to anyone, anytime, anywhere, and which was guaranteed to improve your health and wellbeing within minutes. Surely we’d all take such a medicine everyday. Unfortunately many of us, absorbed in the day to day chaos of our technologically driven modern lives are forgetting to take our medicine…the restorative powers of the natural world.

My personal journey through life has been closely connected to the natural world. After many years of studying our animal, plant and marine environments at university, I am grateful to have been able to spend the last twenty years in occupations that have enabled me to work outdoors. Getting my hands in the soil and observing the many wonders of nature always revives me after time spent indoors or behind a computer. Nature has been my medicine many times in life. While completing studies in Horticultural Therapy last year, the broad application of nature as a tool to promote wellness and aid recovery from illness, was reaffirmed through the many scientific articles I read. Horticultural Therapy uses plants and gardening based activities and settings to help promote the social, emotional and physical well-being of people. It is practised today in many hospitals, rehabilitation centres, aged care facilities, disability services, prisons and in a range of community settings, including schools, community gardens and private backyards.

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Teaching the benefits of growing your own vegetables using the no-dig garden method.

The health benefits of simply spending time or actively engaging with our natural environment are well documented and go back many decades. A landmark study by Roger S. Ulrich published back in 1984 concluded “All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer post-surgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall.” Another study by Katcher and Beck in 1987 found “Too much artificial stimulation and an existence spent in purely human environments may cause exhaustion and produce a loss of vitality and health”. It all sounds pretty obvious to me but in case you are still in doubt, consider reading Richard Louv’s inspiring book “The Nature Principle, Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age” published more recently in 2012. This book is full of ground breaking research into the restorative powers of the natural world on our physical, psychological and spiritual health. Louv also stresses “The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”

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Two cheeky blue tongue lizards which have set up home in an abandoned rabbit burrow in the garden at my work.

So why does nature have such a positive effect on our wellbeing? Psychoevolutionary Theory maintains that the positive reactions humans experience in nature are programmed evolutionarily. This evolutionary biophilia is embedded in our psyche and genes through our close interaction with nature and our reliance on the natural world for our food, shelter and medicine throughout our existence. We are attracted to things which have supported our survival and we become anxious when we are around things that may put us at risk or harm. We need and are in fact a part of the natural world, something that is easy to forget in a world full of prepackaged food, bottled water and cities full of air-conditioned and centrally heated buildings.

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A quiet place to sit and enjoy my garden

So how can we apply the benefits of nature into our daily lives? Although nothing beats the real thing, if you are stuck in an office all day, simply looking at a poster of nature on your wall or an image of nature on your computer screen will have a positive affect. Even better, take a break and go for a walk in a garden or nearby park. When the weather is fine, do your daily meditation outside. If you have a lot of reading to do, again take it outside. Start a vegetable garden at home and visit it daily for fresh vegetables and herbs. Make a cup of herbal tea (from your own herbs of course) and drink it outside and just sit and take in the natural world around you. You’ll be amazed at the activities of the many insects and birds you begin to notice when you sit still. If you don’t have a garden, get involved in a community garden or a friends group that looks after a local nature reserve and make your reconnection… no Wi-Fi required!

References:

Katcher, A. and Beck, A. (1987) Health and caring for living things. Anthrozoos, 1, 175–183.

Kellert, S.R. & Wilson, E.O. (Ed s). (1993) The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, Washington DC.

Louv, R. (2012) The Nature Principle, Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. Algonquin Books, New York.

Ulrich, R. S. (1984) View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420–421.

 

Soiled soils…heavy metal contamination in garden soils

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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.

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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.

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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