Thursday, 13 September 2007


When presenters talk about a healthy vegetable garden, they usually concentrate on the soil. That is like the meat in your dinner but the meal is a whole lot more delicious with a recipe that includes herbs or spices and other things like salad and vegetables.
It is the same with the garden. Once you have a beautiful patch of soil to work with, you have to decide how to make the most of the whole experience to produce the best food you can. So, people think of the design and they usually mean 'how it looks' - with lovely rows of things all neat and tidy so it will look like a show piece. But here is the problem. That scheme will work if you are prepared to be God and intervene every time you have a pest problem and go out there armed with 'organic' sprays and traps and a myriad of other things they tell you that you can 'safely' use (the hardware shops are full of 'safe' things to buy).
To spend more time planting and enjoying the produce from your garden and less time worried about a pest invasion you need to imagine that the space you are about to plant into is a little patch of bushland or a forest, where the whole is better than the sum of its parts. By that I mean that the health of each plant, or group of plants, is related to its spot in the whole patch and everything becomes a total ecosystem - no-one goes out and sprays the scrub to keep the pests away and everything more or less sorts itself out.
Here are some things to consider before you plant, this spring:

  • Plant little groups of eg lettuce here and there. Firstly, that means that the first snail that comes along won't eat them all, like a smorgasbord. Secondly, the soil and sunlight will vary over the whole area and some will grow better than others. A shame if you plant all the lettuce in a sunny place that then gets so hot in a heatwave they all shrivel. Or it turns out that the bean frame falls over and squashes them all etc. Thirdly,insects seek out food in various ways, using patterns of shape and colour as well as scents. Confuse them by mixed planting and you show that humans really are smarter than insects !

  • Always have plants at all stages of their life-cycle in the garden at once. In the bush, this is what you see - never are all the plants either seedlings or fully grown and never is the entire area bare, awaiting re seeding, and there is always something about to flower or developing seeds. Aphids are attracted to the flowers of broccoli and would much prefer them to young broccoli so, when you see hundreds of aphids all over the old plants, I always smile as I know everything is in balance. Don't pull them out thinking you will get rid of the aphids as they will still be there and will just move over to the new plants because there is nothing else for them ! Look at things and wonder about it before ripping in with the 'I'll fix you' attitude.

  • Plant natives outside your growing area to attract the goodies, including bees for pollination, parasitisng insects that lay eggs inside some leaf-eaters, spiders that eat all sorts of things and helps to complete the ecosystem and keep everyone happy.

  • Don't forget there are insects and micro-organisms below the ground too so don't disturb the soil if you don't have to. In a patch of bushland what happens when a person disturbs the soil? Weed seeds germinate. In nature, falling leaves, animal droppings, dead animals and plants etc ever so gently drop onto the forest floor and rot away to give back what they took out of the soil while they were alive. Vegetables won't self-seed if you keep burying those seeds beneath too much soil because you feel you must dig.

  • Think carefully about nature before you begin - mother earth has spent many millions of years doing it to perfection before we came along so observe and try to copy rather than dominate.

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