Living mulches very beneficial
SOW EDIBLE GREEN MANURE CROPS
When vege beds sit empty over winter, it’s an invitation for weeds to move in, and for the soil to wash out, which is why we sow cover crops in autumn. These living mulches – usually legumes such as blue lupin – are beneficial on several fronts. They fix nitrogen, prevent nutrient leaching, look tidy, provide a habitat for insects and provide valuable organic matter to improve your soil when they’re dug in ahead of spring planting.
This year I’ve decided to take a slightly different approach in my vacant vege beds. I’m thickly sowing (one packet of seed per 2m x 2mbed) things I can eat – in soups, side dishes or vegetarian meals – as well as dig back in.
I’m sowing living mulches of mesclun, perennial arugula or wild rocket (it’s frost-hardy, unlike annual large-leafed rocket), broad beans (you can steam or stir-fry their tops), kale and native spinach. New Zealand spinach is an underrated groundcover – it’s fleshy and fast to sprawl over bare soil. Plus, once lightly steamed, it turns vibrant green, so it must be good for us!
FIGHT WINTER COLDS WITH FRESH VITAMIN C
I’ve just had a flu jab (just in case) but my main defence against winter colds and chills is to crank up my vitamin C consumption – and not by taking pills from health stores.
The most obvious homegrown source of vitamin C is citrus fruit, and with the first mandarins starting to ripen, we don’t have long to wait for the onslaught of zesty citrus.
Pick a mix of varieties and, in mild areas, it’s possible to harvest fresh citrus almost year round. Citrus trees are subtropical but you can protect them with frost cloth, or use the organic waxbased Liquid Frost Cloth (also sold as Vaporgard). Spray this over the foliage every 6-8 weeks. It’s worth getting on with this task now if you live in an area where early frosts can strike without warning.
The easiest citrus tree for Kiwi garden is the hybrid ‘Meyer’ lemon. It’s relatively hardy (compared to true lemons) and very prolific. My trees have fruit for 11
months of the year. Tahitian limes can be slow and shy to fruit but given how expensive limes are to buy, they’re still worth it. The fruit starts to ripen next month.
If you’d rather drink your vitamin C, plant tangelos, Navel oranges (for winter fruit) or ‘Harwood Late’ or ‘Valencia’ for spring and summer.
You could also start your own patch of native scurvy grass, actually a type of brassica. This is the little scrubby plant that Captain Cook ordered his men to chow down on when they landed here. Cook’s scurvy grass, Lepidium oleraceum, is endangered in the wild but seeds are available for home gardens (order online from www.topseeds.co.nz). In the wild, this plant was fertilised by coastal guano (bird poo); use chook manure to make it feel at home.
Sow miner’s lettuce now too. This fleshy, hardy salad green (Claytonia perfoliata, www.kingsseeds.co.nz) got its name during the Californian gold rush, when miners ate it to prevent scurvy.
RAKE IT UP!
Raking up leaves is a manysplendoured thing. It’s an opportunity for gentle exercise, an autumn excuse to practice the art of Zen meditation, necessary horticultural housework and an important task to stockpile carbon to keep your compost heap chugging along. Do you enjoy raking leaves? I do. Or at least I do once the job is done. We have a leafy driveway lined with liquidambars, pin oaks, English oaks and horse chestnuts and if we don’t keep on top of the leaves as they come down, they turn to sludge. But an hour’s raking every few days from now until June makes it manageable.
If you have heavy clay soil or light sandy soil, scatter autumn leaves over it and cover with compost to build a new layer of fertility. Or use the leaves as a weed-suppressing mulch around fruit trees or winter-dormant perennials. I gave the dry soil where I’m trying to grow hostas a generous 10cm-thick blanket of half-rotten leaves last autumn and it has already made a difference.
Layer fallen leaves between vege scraps and grass clippings in your compost, or bag up leaves, tie off and let them rot for 6-9 months to make leaf mould. This column is adapted from the weekly e-zine, get growing, from New Zealand Gardener magazine. For gardening advice delivered to your inbox every Friday, sign up for Get Growing at: getgrowing.co.nz