Welcome to autumn, and here’s to the end of what has been a roller-coaster summer. Extreme heat, extreme wet, and everything in between has plagued us on the Downs this season, and to be honest, it’s been a tough few months for gardening. My enthusiasm has flagged in recent weeks, but I’m anticipating a much improved season ahead. The BOM is predicting average rainfall, warm nights and cool days. In other words, a mellow autumn that makes for great growing conditions. We can only hope.
Top billing on my “to plant” list for March is garlic. Why anyone still spends good money on the imported product, I have no idea. It’s usually irradiated or sprayed with methyl bromide to kill potential pests, often bleached, and regularly treated with growth inhibitors to prevent sprouting while in storage. By contrast, the garlic I grow at home is produced organically, with relative ease, in a reasonably small area (4sqm). It stores superbly, and keeps my garlic-loving household supplied for at least nine months of the year. And it tastes amazing.
Here’s the skinny: Garlic forms bulbs in response to two factors – cold weather, and more significantly, lengthening daylight hours. For these reasons Tassie undoubtedly grows the best garlic in Australia, but up here on the Darling Downs we have enough cold and just enough change in daylight hours to get decent results.
I’ve successfully grown a wide range of varieties, and contrary to some expert opinions, all have formed bulbs. The best, in my experience, are the softnecks. Gatton Research Station ran a garlic breeding program in the 1980′s, and came up with Glenlarge, and Southern Glen. Both are so called “day length neutral” varieties that fatten up nicely in our area. Other softnecks that perform well for me include Mexican Purple Stripe, Argentinian Purple Stripe (may be the same variety), and Italian White.
Hardneck varieties can also do okay. I’ve had good results with a beautiful French heirloom called Rose Du Var and a favourite with commercial growers, Monaro Purple. For the best range of varieties, try the Diggers Club (diggers.com.au) or for local garlic try Kym and Peter Sparshott (firstname.lastname@example.org), who grow lots of interesting varieties on their Ravensbourne farm. Plant cloves about five centimetres deep into reasonably rich, limed, well drained soil by the end of the month, and you’ll be harvesting in late spring.
Another allium that performs really well in autumn is the leek. Maybe it’s the Welsh blood coursing through my veins (leeks are a national emblem of Wales), but I go mad for the things, planting them now and harvesting during late winter for soups and stews. Or better still, fried gently in some butter with a handful of chopped almonds and thrown in a chicken pie. Wonder of wonders! The old Scottish variety Musselburg remains one of the best, but there are other good doers around. The French variety Jaune de Poitou is nice, and I’ve had good success with Giant Carentian. Prepare the soil and grow as for garlic.
Peas deserve a chance in autumn. Most people plant them in very early spring, and finish harvesting before the summer heat kicks in, but you can also do for edible peas, what you do for ornamental sweet peas. That is, plant them sometime near St Patrick’s Day, grow them on through autumn, harvest a few pods in early winter, and reap a bumper harvest as the plants really get going in spring.
I plant at both times of the year, but I always seem to do better with my autumn sown peas than those planted in spring. To make life even easier, I prepare the ground exactly as I do for sweetpeas – add compost and a half measure of organic fertiliser to the soil a couple of weeks before planting, followed by a dressing of garden lime when sowing the seed. Don’t worry about it burning the seeds – they absolutely love the stuff. As for varieties, my favourites are the heirloom Yorkshire Hero, for outstandingly plump pods, Dutch Capucyner for its decorative purple pods, and the traditional old snow pea Mammoth Melting.
Once the soil dries out a bit, conditions should be perfect for root vegies, and it’s high time for salad crops. Loose leaf lettuces do better in autumn than at any other time of the year, as does rocket and mizuna. Don’t ignore the lettuce relatives endive, chicory and radicchio. These too grow brilliantly during autumn, adding character to warm salads and bringing a decorative touch to the autumn garden. Radicchio starts to develop striking red leaves, which in my garden, perfectly match the autumn tones on nearby pear trees, blackberry canes and blueberry bushes. I’m hoping my fortunes in the garden change as surely as the leaves on my plants.
First published in the Toowoomba Chronicle 2nd March 2013. Photo by Justin, Mexican Purple Stripe garlic.