What to plant when, and how!

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for a while but two separate questions from two people I work with has made me think that now is the time. I’ll start by saying that I’m no gardener. We never really did any gardening when we were young, though I do remember lots of tree planting, and my mother has a reputation for what our family calls ‘pruning’, which explains the big space where the liquid amber tree used to be. I also don’t have any particular training in gardening effectively and still have the odd incident of getting excited by seeds, planting them and then forgetting what they are.

That said, my survival ratio for plants has improved remarkably over the last years as have my range and processes for seed raising. Even so I reckon that the outputs are not nearly as important as re-connecting with the cycles of growth and the development of skills. When push comes to shove food is one of the fundamentals for life and also one of the things that is probably most at risk in a changing climate so I think getting an idea about what works and what doesn’t isn’t a bad idea. I also believe that once you’ve tasted a fresh raspberry, strawberry or (and this was one of the most surprising ones for me) a pea picked straight from the vine you will realise how far we have got away from ‘fresh’.

So rather than just go on about it, I’ll write about what I have found to be most useful. First and foremost I’m not that organised and the idea of succession planning, rather than just planting once every 3 months, is something I’ve really struggled to get around to. Add to this some general confusion when you look at charts or read books about what to plant when and for what climate area and you end up thinking it’s all too hard. The answer for me comes from gardenate (www.gardenate.com) . This fabulous little site enables you to get free planting reminders sent monthly to your inbox that will tell you what to plant, when and even in what form (seed or direct). It will even tell you what you’re going to need to think about planting next month. There’s still some weirdness on this site and I must admit there’s some things that I still don’t understand but for me this is an essential little reminder.

I try to adopt a permaculture approach (though I still have a load to learn) which looks at how you design your growing space to make the most of what you have. It encourages thought and planning about how systems interact, and uses the principle that elements in gardens fulfil more than one use to reduce labour, input and waste by developing sustainable synergies. To give an example about how it encourages you to think differently the story goes that somebody one asked Bill Mollison (one of the founders of Permaculture) how they should control the huge numbers of slugs to which he (allegedly) replied,” I think the question is how can you overcome your deficit of ducks”.

Anyway, one of the ways that we reduce waste and also ensure greater output is by thinking about zoning. The idea is that the places that are closest to the house are the ones that you go to most frequently and so is where you should plant the things that need the most attention. I’m not a fan of buying seedlings if for no other reason than they are actually quite expensive so one of the biggest breakthroughs for me was developing a process to raise seeds and locating it firmly in zone 1 which is closest to the house.

I’m not suggesting this is the perfect solution, and I’m probably going to have a problem when I run out of seed raising mix since it’s packaged in plastic, but it goes like this.

I plant seeds in a standard, seed raising punnet in seed raising mixture. This is just loose and generally fairly benign stuff as the seeds actually have all they need already. One of the big tips is don’t plant too deep. The rule that I follow is no more than twice their diameter deep. The great thing about having this so close to the back door is it’s easy to remember to give them a little water every time I come in and out as they shouldn’t be allowed to dry out (and yes I watered them after taking the photo!). You’ll notice the little tags, these are really important as I tend to forget what I’ve planted.

Once they get their second set of leaves I transplant them into the seedling box. This is a polystyrene box filled with hollow tubes (that I make from the plastic milk cartons that I am yet to avoid (see “the problem with cows”)! Lisa Woodrow in her very good book ‘The Permaculture Home Garden’, says that these containers should contain 1/3 river sand, 1/3 mature compost and 1/3 worm castings. I feel a bit weird going down to the local creek not to mention having a couple of questions about its cleanliness so I use 1/3 compost, 1/3 soil (with bits removed) and 1/3 potting mix. You leave them in this until they are nice and established (say 15 cm tall).

When you want to plant them out you just pick up the whole tube, dig a hole and drop it in tube and all. With a bit of practice you can jiggle the tube up so that it’s only a little bit in the ground acting like a barrier to snails, slugs etc and also directing the water that you will use to water it in straight down to the roots. The beauty of this is that you don’t disturb the root system so the plant will just carry on like normal meaning it will produce faster. The other thing is that because it is such an advanced seedling you can be pretty much guaranteed that it will grow, which means you only plant out as many as you need. This avoids you have way too many of something and lets you plan your garden better.

Just a final picture to show that the bench that I do this on, that sits right by the back door, is actually an old workbench that was left in the garage when we bought the place. I took a jigsaw to it and cut the top out, built a platform underneath which I lined with bits of polystyrene that I found for insulation and then covered it with a layer of heavy duty Perspex. This makes it a table when we want one and also a little greenhouse when things get cold.

So that’s how I do it but I’m certain that as I discover what works and what doesn’t it will continue to evolve. There’s a load more ideas out there around companion planting, guild planting and even the best time in the lunar cycle to plant but my thought is that being perfect isn’t the aim but just having a crack is. So give it a shot and let me know what has worked for you because a trying things and sharing ideas is what this year is all about.