This time of the year in South Australia the sun becomes less intense and the nights are cool, making it the perfect time to sow seeds and plant seedlings for autumn and winter. With a bit of luck, there will be some rain soon and the earth will be able to relax and breathe again. People consult vegetable gardening books and catalogues to decide what to plant but don't forget there are lots of other edible and useful plants that are often ignored by authors of books designed specifically for vegetable growing.
If you observe the birds and the seasons and the insects and the weather you will see that the more diverse your garden is in flora, the more diverse it will be in fauna. Rather than keeping out pests we need to encourage all life in, and allow it to keep an equilibrium by itself. It is in this mimicry of nature that we can best reach a point where our gardens are in tune with the life within it.
Insects "see" in various ways. I read about this once and it changed the way I plant my vegetables, from neat rows, to organised chaos! Some insects fly over, looking for patterns of colour or texture, for example a patch of green lettuce or just-hearting cabbages. Others are attracted by scent, and others crawl along the soil and just come across a whole row of young seedlings which can be demolished in one night.
Nature is not orderly and rarely is one species decimated in whole area of bushland, so this is how I grow my vegetables too, as if it were all a self-sown field. I mix up the plants, some grow fast and some slow, some are dark green, others pale, some are staked and left to flower while new seedlings are planted below. All this higglety-pigglety patchwork confuses the patterns that insects are looking for. Added to this I grow some herbs and flowers in the mix too, and some nearby for the beneficial insects and the birds. The food gardens at my place are surrounded with native plants and trees, to attract the biggest range of life possible. Then I leave them to it. The only thing I do use are the snail pellets made from iron, made by Multiguard, at the time of planting out new seedlings.
There are lots of plants you can use in and around the vegetable garden that have more than one function. And this is another important method I use, as I first read about in my discovery of permaculture. Every plant choice I make should have several reasons for its inclusion in the garden. For example, I love flowers but instead of just choosing a plant for its flowers I make sure it is either also edible, has leaves suitable for making tea, provides habitat or feed for birds or insects, provides shade for something else, creeps along the ground and stops weeds, can be picked and dried and placed inside cupboards, attracts bees, benefits the soil in some way, self-sows or has runners for easy propagation etc etc.
There are lots of plants that fit these categories and salvias is one that I love. They come in so many colours, the nectar-eating birds love them, they are drought hardy, some have edible leaves or leaves for tea, they attract bees, the seeds can be eaten by birds. Some have leaves, flowers and seeds that can be eaten. They can be pruned hard, the prunings run over with the lawn mower and provide compost-making material or kept for lighting winter fires..... the list goes on and on.
In the March/April 2009 edition of the ABC's Organic Gardener magazine there is a comprehensive list of salvias and their useful properties. This is what gave me the idea to write about the natural habitat vegetable garden. Salvias are not native to Australia but there are salvias suitable for every garden in Australia. Native birds and insects love them as much as we do and now is the perfect time to be thinking about planting some in or near your vegetable and fruit gardens.