Be Still My Beating Heart – Spring is Sprung
It’s every gardener’s dilemma (particularly in the mountains) – when to plant the tomatoes? Joe Tabone from Urbavore Blue Mountains, pictured above in his Springwood verge garden, learns that patience is a virtue when it comes to the vagaries of spring weather, and shares some sage advice about potting up and hardening off.
The wind is blowing outside, bending the tall green bamboo that waves through my bedroom window. This is a warm wind, filled with the heady scent of citrus blossoms, swirling pollen and the promise of a new growing season. And with each new season, Mother nature reveals her own unique lessons to be learned in the vegetable garden. I have already learned a valued lesson this growing season. Patience and the power of “potting up”.
Each year I begin our tomatoes from seed in the hot house in late July. I sow the seeds in forestry cell trays, then place them on top of our hot compost pile, which is the equivalent for a tomato seed to a quick vacation to the Whitsundays in mid winter. They germinate wonderfully, and so the tomato race begins. I water them gently and check on their progress each day, wondering if, maybe this year, we will have tomatoes earlier than the last.
Then comes that balmy day in late winter when the weather puts on a spring preview! You will recall, it’s the first day after a long cold winter that you cast aside your ugg boots as you make your morning coffee. There’s an excitement in the air and it feels like spring. Then, in a moment of bewitchment, those wicked sirens of the false spring whisper seductively in your ear: ”Go on… plant the tomatoes!!!”
You know you shouldn’t listen to them but look how warm and sunny it is. Surely I could plant just one, or two, or forty-seven? I suspect every vegetable gardener has been stung by this pre-spring folly, for some of us, more than we would like to admit.
This year it was August 18th when the madness struck, and yes, I found myself giddily planting out a whole row of tomatoes. “Spring has come early this year!” I lied to myself. Of course, it had not. I had just temporarily lost my mind. And lo, within a few days the seedlings struggled, yellowed and stopped growing.
Luckily, the rational part of my brain predicted this, so luckily I had “potted up” half of my tomato seedlings into larger pots some weeks beforehand. I kept these potted up tomatoes safe in the greenhouse until September and didn’t plant them until spring had officially arrived.
These tomatoes were noticeably bigger, greener and healthier than those I had planted in August, despite having started them at the same time. They had kept growing in their larger pots, while my first planting of tomatoes struggled through the bi-polar climatic swings of spring, akin to suffering through a shower while someone does the washing up.
The lesson to be learned of course is patience. Nature runs at its own pace, and knows when it is best to put out new leaves on the willow tree, or for the broad beans to begin setting their pods. Therefore, it is far wiser to “pot up” your beloved seedlings, rather than indulge in wild early planting follies.
Prepare or prepare to fail
When you feel that planting itch before the time is right, invest your energy instead in preparing your garden beds with care. Add some aged chook manure where fruiting crops will later be transplanted and loosen the soil with a fork. Remove weeds and add a generous layer of compost. Early spring is also a great time to begin composting again so that you have plenty of finished compost by the end of summer in preparation for your winter crops. Although we compost year round, it’s spring and autumn that we are consciously upping the compost ante. A good compost layer will not only add a wealth of biology to the soil, but also increase water capacity and minimise weed germination, saving you a lot of time and resources for the season ahead.
Beat crops for spring planting
Over the years I have found that the best crops to transplant first in spring are lettuce, beetroots, spring onions, silverbeet, broad beans and radish. These are hardy and can handle the ups and downs of early spring weather. We loosen our beds using a broadfork and then add a good layer of compost before planting. You can keep bare soil covered with damp cardboard or black tarps until the time has come to plant out your seedlings. Tarps also make great slug traps, where these slimy gastropods like to gather for social events during the day. Each week, simply lift the tarp and whip out your slug scissors to slice them in half. Hasta la vista slug social club!
Tomatoes are best “hardened off” before transplanting. This is a simple practice of acclimatising your seedlings to spring conditions of wind and fluctuating temperatures for a week or so before transplanting them directly from the cosy comforts of your greenhouse ‘day spa’. Yes, it requires yet more patience on behalf of the gardener, but it saves time in the long run. Seedlings that are hardened off will inevitably grow faster than those that are not. It helps toughen them up and get them battle ready for the realities of the season ahead.
Another tomato tip is to choose cold tolerant tomato varieties including Siberian and Stupice which may be more suited to the cooler mountain climates. Saving your seed each year from the most robust and productive plants is also a great way of acclimatising your favourite varieties to your region.
Last to go in are our beloved cucurbits. Big leafed zucchinis, cucumbers , melons and pumpkins are best planted in mid to late Spring, once the weather has become more predictable and Spring has found its warmer groove. Planting cucurbits too early will only break hearts. With a little care, cucurbits can also be potted up and kept growing in a greenhouse or windowsill while you await mother nature’s nod of approval.
We leave brassicas also until after the spring equinox. Others may have better luck with early plantings, but we have found that they are either devoured by slugs or bolt to seed if planted too early in spring. While they are hardy, their growth is often slow during early spring, making them easy targets for snails and slugs. In our experience, Brassicas perform best when planted in late summer or early autumn, when the number of cabbage moth are starting to decline, and the warm weather allows them to establish quickly.
We begin most of our crops in seedling trays in the greenhouse during August and September, including beetroot, spring onions, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, chard, kale and corn. Crops that produce a fruit can be seeded into larger pots, while leafy crops and root crops will do well in smaller pots or trays. Toilet rolls also make great makeshift seedling pots. It’s always a good idea to plant more seedlings that you think you may need, just in case the first plantings don’t take. It happens to the best of us.
We sow carrots, salad crops, beans and turnips directly into the garden beds by mid to late September as these crops, in our experience, do better growing in place.
Every season will have its bumps, and as gardeners and food producers, it’s important that we develop strategies to be more resilient and adaptable to each season, more so than ever, with the increasing effects of climate change. Last year, summer was desperately overcast and drizzly, while the year before it was choked with smoke, severe water restrictions and record high temperatures, the climax to a long and unforgiving drought. Despite this, there are valued lessons learned even in these extremes, and like all living things we can learn and adapt. A great exercise is to keep a garden journal to record your successes and failures. Record the times of year that you plant and harvest, the difficulties you faced, and the strategies that worked! Over the years, this will become a great tool in fine tuning your gardening. Let’s see what lessons await us this growing season. Whatever the case, remember to hold on tight and enjoy the ride.
Joe will be opening his Springwood garden as part of The Edible Garden Trail in March 2022. Follow him @urbavorebluemountains for more great tips and videos. And check out his Farmgate Stall and news of upcoming workshops on his website.