What on earth happened to winter? It started out just like a classic Downs cool season, with cold fronts sweeping through, followed by blustery winds direct from the Southern Ocean. Today (Tuesday 11/06), as I write this weekend’s Secret Garden, it feels more like late summer than winter. It’s been overcast for days, and a misty drizzle (or as the Scots say, “mizzle”) is falling making the garden not as much saturated as annoyingly drippy.
The official line from the BOM is that a big “blocking” high has been sitting out in the Tasman, pushing moist easterly winds onto the Queensland coast. This, combined with a warm Indian Ocean feeding moisture across the continent from the north west, is creating persistently damp conditions and as a consequence, a lack of cold nights. To date, I’ve recorded just three very light frosts. By this time last year I’d recorded nine.
What I’m hanging out to see are some crisp nights and clear days so that I can get started on a major revamp of the garden. We’re planning to grow some fruit, vegies and herbs commercially here at Thistlebrook, and to be ready for spring I really need to get into some soil prep. But the weather has put the kybosh on that so far.
Winter is the traditional time for preparing soil in our part of the world. In a typical season the clear weather and just-moist soil provides ideal cultivating conditions, helped along by some frost, which does a good job of splitting apart large clods into a finer tilth. The problem with persistent rain in winter is that the soil stays wet for an extended period of time, and wet soil is worked at your peril. When heavily cultivated, tiny air pockets within the soil get broken down to the point that the structure collapses and the ground sets rock hard.
But enough about what’s wrong with the weather. My Russell family creed, “Che Sara Sara” (yes, like the song) reminds me that what will be, will be. But while I have zero control over whether it rains or not, I can hope for some drying weather, and a few weeks spent outside in some glorious winter sunshine. If, per chance, this happens in the next month or two, my first task will be to drag the rotary hoe out of the shed and set it to work.
As far as cultivation tools go, rotary hoes have copped a bad rap in recent years. In my view the criticisms are partly justified. If they get used too frequently on the same plot of ground, their rotating blades can damage soil by: (a) whipping it up to such a fine tilth that it becomes saturated with oxygen and causes overly rapid decomposition of organic matter; and (b) creates a “polished” hard pan at a depth of about 20cm that can cause waterlogging and inhibit root growth.
But when used with care, rotary hoes can save hours of back breaking work without compromising soil quality. They’re excellent for incorporating green manures into the soil, and when used to till just a few inches deep, create a beautifully receptive bed for vegie seeds or seedlings. Two tips for using a rotary hoe wisely are to avoid using it too often, and to always break up any hard pan that forms below the machine’s tines.
For this job, nothing beats a broadfork. This a specialised piece of market gardening kit that originated in Holland, is used widely around the world on small scale vegetable farms, but is equally at home in good sized backyards. It looks a bit like an oversized digging fork, but with a few important differences.
A broadfork is wider than a traditional fork (mine is 600mm wide), which allows the user to cover the ground faster. Secondly, a broadfork is easier to use. You push it into the soil with your arms, drive it deeper by standing on it with one or both feet, jump off, and push down on the handles to gently lift, and aerate, the soil. You then slide the tool out of the ground, move it back about 20cm and drive it in again.
Being designed for “non-inversion” tillage, a broadfork simply loosens the soil instead of turning it. As a consequence it preserves soil structure and is much more hospitable to micro-organisms than more destructive tools. I purchased my broadfork through Allsun Farm, a clever market gardening operation down near Canberra (www.allsun.com.au or 02 6236 8173). After using the tool extensively in my vegie garden over the last couple of years I can suggest with confidence – if you’re half serious about growing vegies, get a broadfork. It’s a brilliant piece of gear that I hope to put to solid use this winter.
First published in the Toowoomba Chronicle 15th June 2013.