Tropical rains sweeping in with the fading Summer heat have set the stage for the return of real gardening weather. As these moisture laden warm winds mix with the cooler air now returning, gentle and often generous rains follow.
The ground is again becoming moist after the prolonged period of intense sun, heat and dry conditions of Late Summer.
And because soil temperatures are still high, this insures good and rapid seed germination. The air is still warm and humid and there is plenty of strong sunlight full of rich, life giving ultraviolet rays to feed on growing plants.
These conditions usually return around the time of the Autumn Equinox which occurs this year on March 20. When the rains arrive early, some celebrate that the new gardening season is a few weeks ahead while others will point out that the season has cooled down several weeks too soon! It is all in how one views their world, and what advantage one takes of the opportunity.
In any case, it’s here and it’s time to get out your gardening tools and get stuck into the garden and backyard plot. Perhaps of greatest importance is preparing all garden beds for Autumn, Winter and Spring plantings. Some people will also be planting perennials, shrubs, trees and vines as well as brambles and canes that will produce next Summer and in the years ahead.
If you plan to let your garden beds rest and enrich themselves over the Winter, now is an excellent time to start planting cover crops on the land that can be dug back into the garden later in the year as “ green manure”. While those with well-planned gardens still abundant, floriferous and verdant; just keep on enjoying those bountiful rewards for a job well-done.
But wherever gardens are fading with the season, now is an excellent time to pull them out. If the plants are healthy, they can be cut down in very small pieces with hedge clippers right where they stand. Soon these pieces will begin to break down and return to the soil exactly what was taken out of the ground to grow them. In the meantime, they will act as protective mulch, keeping the garden beds, aerobically active and moist, plus covered, which will greatly deter the emergence of weeds which also love this idyllic Autumnal weather. Alternatively, chop-up and remove these plants to a compost pile.
Older soils, those that are heavily worked or continuously planted and areas that need to be especially enriched like the vegetable plot all benefit greatly from green manure cover crops. Most commonly sown are Barley, Beans, Buckwheat, Clover, Lupins, Mustard, Oats, Peas, Wheat and other legumes or vegetative crops high in Nitrogen.
Those Gardeners who really want to boost soil fertility first spread a layer of fresh compost over the soil. Upon this is often added a variety of soil-enriching materials which could include: Blood and Bone or Bone Dust; a well balance General Garden Fertiliser, Dolomite and/or Garden Lime; well-aged cow or stable manure; Trace Minerals or a variety of organic substitutes. These are either dug in roughly or allowed to age and weather in the open for a couple of weeks.
Then plant the green manure crop right over the top. Broadcast the seed rather heavily and then lightly rake this in. Wherever conditions remain dry, water this in to speed germination. Later on in Mid Winter, dig in the cover crop plus the compost and soil enrichments and leave this to decompose and ‘cure’ for at least several more weeks. By then the soil will have an entirely new ‘lease on life’. This is how experienced and wise Gardeners year-after-year create those bountiful and fabulous Spring/Summer gardens.
Gardeners with established garden beds of hardy annuals and perennials; shrubs, trees and vines that are not meant to be replaced now, may not be able to dig over their gardens so easily. But it is not overly difficult to mix in a wheelbarrow all those soil enriching materials: the fertilisers, lime, etc. with good quality light compost. Add in proportions of one cup of enriching ingredients to one bucket of compost. Mix thoroughly in the wheelbarrow and then apply a bucket at a time throughout the garden in between the established plantings. Wherever there is room between plantings, a small mound or pile can be allowed to stand and settle.
Wherever plantings are thick, just apply a skim of this dry mixture right over the top and add heavier applications around the sides between the plantings. Make sure the plants and enriched mix are dry. That way, with a quick brush-over with a hand-in-glove, the mixture can be worked in between the foliage without damage. Avoid piling the mix directly over green, living foliage to the depth that it is permanently buried!
This is especially important on plants with a depressed central crown where the enriched ingredients could collect and ferment. A few minutes coverage won’t hurt, but then work in the dry mix between the leaves and stems. Later water this into place so any chemical residue does not rest against vulnerable stems for too long.
The only real caution when enriching an established garden bed is to avoid deep piles of this enriched mixture to drift up against vulnerable stems or collect into crowns as this might result in caustic chemical burn which could cause stem rot. Wherever possible, lightly dig in this mixture between plantings and leave this to cure and settle through the cooler months.
But many Gardeners are far too hooked on eating and growing to wait until Spring to plant. After all, in some parts of the world (like milder New Zealand; much of Australia; milder Asia; southern Europe; the Mediterranean; most of South African; subtropical South America; and similar climates, especially coastal margins and under glass, one of the blessings of gardening is that we can have grow plants all year!
This does take a bit of effort. But it is so well worth it! Cool season gardens are not only distinctly different from those of Summer, but often delightfully beautiful, often fragrant and produce some of the most beneficial and healthiest of crops! So clear away those fading Summer flowers plus the final warm-season vegetables. And start by digging over the garden beds deeply and thoroughly as soon as possible.
Be sure and add as generous enriching soil ingredients because cooler conditions make absorption of minerals slower so soils must be richer. And also be sure to ensure better drainage in all climates that experience some sustained period of cool or cold and wintry wet weather. Once dug over, then let the beds stand idle for a week or two to “cure” in the sun.
If weeds have been a problem, turn the beds repeatedly to stimulate unwanted weed seed to germinate. Add compost, lime, blood and bone and a good complete fertilizer as per normal but be prepared to turn the soil repeatedly. Let the weeds germinate, then dig them in while they remain small. Now even the weeds become a rouge green manure that helps enrich the soil. On ‘new’ land or land which has been uncared-for, several such diggings may be necessary to ‘sterilise’ the top layers of soil from predatory weeds.
Go a little heavier than normal on these depleted and ‘older’ soils as fertilisers are often slower to release as conditions cool toward Winter; and this is just when the plants need extra strength to survive. Often depleted older soils have lost their mineral balance due to over cultivation of crops or failure to enrich as they should. No matter who good the plant material, if the soil is lacking in proper nutrition, the plants will suffer or even fail.
If the garden soil is at all heavy, especially wherever there is a clay base, be sure to add plenty of round river gravel, pumice, river sand or similar drainage material to insure perfect drainage and good air circulation within the soil. Round gravels tend to ‘roll’ in the soil whereas pointed and sharp gravels will tend to bind with the clay and lock against one another creating concrete.
Poor drainage is one of the biggest killers of Winter flowers and vegetables so make sure that at least the top several centimetres/inches drain well. This way even if deeper roots rot away in a sustained wet spell, the plant can still recover from strong roots running through the gravels nearer the surface. Raising the beds or planting on mounds above the level ground also is very beneficial. Just remember that in climates experiencing Winter freezing that raised beds will freeze first so will need frost protection and/or mulching.
Another possibility with poorly draining land and heavy clay soils is to generously dust the planting site with Gypsum. Gypsum is a rather fast-acting Lime with a near neutral pH of 7.0 that acts as a coagulant which amalgamates mineral particles within the soil. Because of its neutral pH Gypsum can be used around almost all plantings with very little risk of damage. Once the Gypsum is applied (enough to whiten the ground but to no depth) it is then watered in to the consistency of whole milk.
Try and be sure that this liquid does not run off the site, but sits there and slowly seeps into the soil. Once it does, the chemical properties within the Gypsum will attract mineral particles held in the soil into small balls or clusters which will allow air and water to enter much more easily. This takes a few weeks to a few months to really become apparent. But soon, plant roots will be able to penetrate along with air, fertiliser and water to a greater depth than before.
After the first crops finish, cut the plants back and leave their roots intact in the soil to rot in as humus and then a few weeks later possibly turn the soil. If it is still heavy and difficult to work, then reapply the Gypsum. Gypsum is especially effective when applied over roughly dug ground.
And if fungus or bacterial rot have been a problem in the past, a drench with a Copper spray, all-purpose fungicide, or the old-time Jays Fluid will certainly help to kill off fungal spores. First wet the ground thoroughly and let this soak in for at least an hour before pouring the fungicide solution. This will insure a deeper penetration into the soil. Then let the land cure for week or so before planting. In heavy infestations, dig and reapply several times before planting anything fresh. Avoid applying strong applications of Jays Fluid or other fungicides over growing plants.
While inexperienced Gardeners often overlook this aspect of Autumn soil preparation, and so many more have never considered planting an Autumn or Winter garden, the rewards are well worth the effort. Even for those planning to wait until Spring for the next garden planting, it is this advanced preparation of the soil which often spells the difference between a nice garden and a greatly successful one that wins the prize. After all nothing much comes to those unwilling to put in the effort that deserve rewards!
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