Toowoomba and the Downs: scorching one week, saturated the next. As I write (Monday afternoon on the 28th), another shower is passing over my Hampton garden, contributing a bit extra to the whopping 435mm of rain we’ve received since last Thursday. Thankfully, we haven’t had the flash flooding that converged at our front gate in 2011, but after having a look around this morning, I can confirm that the soil is swampy and the plants appear slightly dumbfounded as to what’s just happened. So am I.
Last week, deciduous trees were colouring prematurely and dropping their leaves because of extreme heat. Now they look surreal. Leaves are still colouring, but under grey skies and falling rain in the middle of a Queensland summer. The vegie garden is full of winners and losers. Winners include rhubarb, strawberries, blueberries, salad greens, basil, beans and corn. The losers – tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. Based on BOM climate outlooks for summer 2012/13, I planted about 30 vines in one of the wetter parts of the garden, thinking the extra bit of soil moisture would help them along. It did, until yesterday. Now my tomato patch looks more like a pond, fruit is starting to split, and the plants themselves are turning yellow thanks to rotting roots.
It might be bad weather for toms, but there’s usually a silver lining to events like this. Kylie spent the weekend preserving. Roast tomato sauce is now stocked in the freezer, while jars of blackberry jam and bottles of verjuice are tucked away in the larder. Besides a leaking roof, we haven’t suffered any major damage and in time, the rain will prove to be a blessing, not a curse. Our rainwater tanks are chockers and the soil has a full moisture profile.
One downside to such prolonged rain is that the soil will take time to dry out enough to be worked. Depending on your situation it might be days, or weeks before you can safely get a tool into the ground without destroying the soil structure, so take it steady. Before doing any planting, wait until the soil is just moist. When the time’s right, however, there’s a long list of vegies that can go in.
Root vegies such as carrots and parsnips are the priorities. Sown directly into moist soil at this time of year, the seed germinate much faster than in spring, and the swelling roots will be ready to harvest just as winter starts to bite. This is good timing in two ways. One is that frost actually converts some starches into sugar, making root vegies sweet and delectable. The other is that roots are ideal for winter dishes such as roasts and stews. Some suggestions for varieties worth trying – ‘Lubyana’, ‘Purple Dragon’ and ‘St Valery’ carrots, ‘Hollow Crown’ parsnips. Dig the soil deeply, add no extra fertiliser and sow them direct for best results.
In frost prone areas, late February is the ideal time to sow brassica seed. As with roots, seed sown into warm soil germinates in no time, and the seedlings have a chance to grow strong and tough before frost arrives in late autumn. Unlike roots, brassicas love some extra nutrients. Start by liming the soil, especially if you’re ground is slightly acid. Use ordinary garden lime (not dolomite, which can make Downs soils stickier) at a rate of about a generous handful per square metre. Then two weeks later, to avoid a chemical reaction between lime and fertiliser, throw around a double handful of pelletised chook manure, or blood and bone. Some well rotted manure wouldn’t go astray either.
Either sow the seed direct, or start in punnets before planting out in a few weeks. Varieties worth trying include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Asian greens, kale, and rocket. Hold off for a while on English spinach, which likes a cool soil, and keep an eye out for cabbage white butterflies. Dipel will clean up any caterpillars (as will birds and eagle eyed children), but a simple means of control is to throw a vegie net over the plants to stop the butterflies laying their eggs on the leaves.
Other plants to start now include beetroot, silverbeet, radish, leeks, short day onions (such as ‘Barletta’), and lettuces. In warmer areas there’s still time to get in bush beans, basil, even a late crop of sweetcorn. One overlooked beauty that is ideal to plant now is Florence fennel. This wonderfully aromatic vegie has a reputation for being hard to grow, but the secret to success is timing. Plant it out toward the end of the month, and it will bulb up beautifully as the weather is cooling. Happy late summer veg growing!
First published in the Toowoomba Chronicle 2nd February 2013. Photo – late summer corn.