The April Garden
I love Autumn - blue sky and purple shadows and a gentle gold light. In autumn the soil cools down and things start growing. Autumn flushes are as marked as spring flushes. Fruit swells as much in a week as it did in the previous month and new soft shoots appear all over the place.
While in most respects this is good- after all, you do want things to grow- it can cause problems. Sappy new growth is attractive to sap sucking pests. Luckily these are less of a problem that they are on spring new growth- there are more predators around after a summer's breeding to cope with them. If you are worried by aphids and other sap suckers try a reflective alfoil mulch to deter them, or companion planting with nasturtiums or marigolds right around the plant. Glue spray is effective- mix flour with boiling water till it's just sprayable. Use before it sets into clag.
Mostly I just squash aphids or leave them alone- they'll disappear soon enough in cold weather anyway.
The other reason for leaving the aphids alone is that they will help regulate that soft sappy growth, which is liable to be blackened by frost- and dead material can host fungus and other disease that might start die back along the branch or twig. Don't always assume that pest damage is bad in the long run.
Bedding Your Garden Down for Winter
Mulching stops roots freezing- it insulates them. It will also increase frost damage to the leaves above. So choose- frozen roots or frozen leaves.Instead of mulch, plant ground covers around your frost sensitive plants- like marjoram or dyers camomile or very early bulbs that will provide living insulation.
A better alternative to mulch is just to plant very thickly, so that the leaf cover both insulates the roots and other plants around. I keep masses of foliage turnips and radish and parsnips in our garden over winter- far more than we need- just to help protect the other plants around.
Crowded brocolli plants and crowded silver beet plants in our garden continue to produce long after the 'spaced' ones have stopped.
Don't clean up the garden
Leave those corn stalks, radish going to seed and patches of weeds alone. The weeds probably won't seed or run about till spring anyway - and they'll protect the soil and help insulate your plants. Gardeners who recommend you spend your peaceful winter months 'tidying up the garden' just have a fetish for straight rows and nice chocolatey bare earth. This may help their spirits but won't help the garden. Gardens are wasted on people with a passion for sweat and blisters. Gentle pottering and a bit of contemplation are more effective than maniacs with mattocks.
Autumn is the time to prepare for the hungry gap. The hungry gap is spring to early summer. It's the time when you have eaten most of the surplus from last autumn- the apples, pumpkins, old carrots and parsnips in the garden- but the new seasons crops are still months away from maturing.
A few hundred years ago the hungry gap was the starvation time, the scurvy and plague time, when the weather was warming up but people's diet was still poor.
If it isn't in your garden now you won't be eating it in spring. The carrots, celery, silver beet etc you planted last spring will have to last you to the next one, the pumpkins and melons ripening on the vine will be stored through winter, the cauliflower and other brassicas should be steadily maturing.
If you don't have enough crops in now you will either be hungry or shopping at the supermarket. If you want fresh food in spring it should be growing now.
It's a bit late now for most things. Anything you plant now must either be quick maturing, or the sort of plant that will go quickly to seed as soon as the weather heats up - like peas, cauliflowers, brocolli- the sprouts and pods you eat are the immature seed heads.
If the soil still feels warm when you stick a couple of fingers in it, try spinach- real English spinach, not the smaller new Zealand spinach or big leafed silver beet. The leaves are smaller softer and more delicate than silver beet and run to seed in hot weather, though new varieties are a bit more bolt resistant. The taste is delicate and delicious and they are worth the effort,
Pick the leaves as young as you want. Steam them, stuff them or saute them in butter. There is an old gluttonous french recipe that I have never tried. You pick a kilo of spinach. Saute in butter till the butter has disappeared. Next day- add more butter and saute again. Do this for a week. At the end of the week eat the resulting buttery puree- very rich, very delicate, and just enough for one.
Without going to these extremes though well buttered spinach puree on toast is a winter delicacy.
Onions can also be sown now, and right through the colder months. Cold weather means bigger bulbs. Summer onions are all green tops and no bottoms.
Start putting in the brown skinned long keeping onions now till the end of winter. Pukehoe is a fine textured good tasting excellent keeper- but there are so many onion varieties it is fun to experiment. Like spinach you've never eaten onions till you've had fresh ones. Many gardeners don't bother growing them because they are slow, hate weed competition and are so cheap. But when you can only buy white red or brown onions in the shops a true onion taste is a luxury.
Other Autumn crops include:
.kale, or borecole, very easy to grow with dark green curly leaves
.chinese mustard, with thick succulent stems- very fast growing and easy to germinate. it will keep producing when your silver beet has slowed down- and shouldn't go to seed till late in spring.
.collards- a leafy cabbage like green traditionally cooked with bacon grease but better just steamed with butter. These can be planted from spring through to late Autumn.
.edible Chinese chrysanthemum you harvest the leaves after 35 days, and eat them steamed or in soup or stews. You can get the seeds from Minara Pty Ltd, PO Box 69, Aspley, 4034- ask for their catalogue, as they have the best range of oriental vegetables I've come across, including large green radishes, yam bean root, and a variety of snake beans.
.Corn salad or lambs lettuce is a traditional European salad green, also used for cooking. It should be grown in autumn rather than spring-it's less bitter in cool weather and won't run to seed till spring. It is slightly too strong for many tastes. Cover the plant with a large pot or box for a week before picking to lessen the strong flavour.
.swedes can be grown in temperate to tropical areas now. Don't confuse home grown swedes with the rank disasters available commercially. Swedes should be picked small and young- unless you want to feed them to the cow- and they lose their strong taste if grown in cold weather. Sow thickly and eat as small as possible or they'll taste like stock food.
.carrots and leeks and beetroot and silver beet can be sown as long as the soil still feels comfortable on your wrist they'll germinate. But they won't grow much till spring- and then they'll jump to seed, leaving you with spindly veg that tend to toughen.
.broad beans will crop in spring- try planting them against wire so they don't fall over and picking is easier. The extra light will also encourage more flowers.)
.peas- try dwarf sugar snap, a very quick maturing pea- eat the whole pod like a bean; snow peas- eat the flat pods ;
.turnips-these need cold weather for sweetening- plant mini varieties now so they mature before bolting)
.watercress ( keep snipping so it doesn't go to seed).
Warm and subtropical areas might still try quick yielders like- .tampala (chinese spinach or leaf amaranth). you'll get edible leaves in about six weeks of warm weather.),
.chinese cabbage ( about eight weeks to maturity- they're good even if they bolt without hearting in spring)
.cauliflowers ( early and late varieties will tend to crop about the same time in spring if sown now)
.kohlrabies if you don't expect a frost for the next ten weeks ( big cabbage flavoured roots, incredibly easy to grow; try them cooked or grated raw), .red mignonette lettuce ( if it bolts in spring don't worry- you've just got free seed for summer planting )
.cos lettuce ( pick off the leaves and eat them as they grow)
. brocolli (it may not grow much now but it'll be ready sooner in spring).
In colder regions Autumn is the harvest season, frantic with bottling. Here most harvests are in summer. Autumn harvests are gentler: late apples, late pears, pomegranates, medlars, quinces. The fruit is full of summer sun without that almost frantic fermented sweetness that crops get in high summer.
This is the time for gathering up whatever will be spoiled by winter cold- green tomatoes to ripen on newspaper indoors or make into green tomato pickle, immature cucumbers and pumpkin to slice and stir fry or hang by their vines in the garage to keep ripening for a few weeks.Dig up tomatoes and capsicum bushes with as much soil as you can, and try to pot them for a continued crop.
Ripening Immature Vegetables
Pull up tomatoes, capsicum, vines etc with as much soil as possible. Hang them in a shed or verandah. The crop will continue to ripen.
Even green tomatoes will keep ripening on newspaper indoors- check for bad ones often. Don't dig root crops till you're going to use them- they'll be sweeter for the cold. If the ground may freeze mulch over them, or try to shelter them with tall plants around them (move some potted plants next to them- I use a prolific climbing geranium in pots to protect small vulnerable plants.)
What to Do in April
. wander around your suburb to see what trees look stunning this autumn - then dash to the garden centre to buy one;
. move your garden furniture to a sunnier spot for winter;
. water camellias thoroughly so flowers don't drop prematurely;
. gather seeds from flowers and trees to germinate and grow your own spring seedlings;
. rake up fallen leaves to use for mulch; and
. cut back dead stems and summer flowers.
What to Plant in April
Food garden: Fruit trees, pots of herbs, artichoke suckers. Coriander rushes to seed in hot weather - try it now! Plant seedlings of broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, leeks, mustard, silverbeet, spinach, seeds of broad beans, onions. In frost-free areas you can also plant beans, capsicum, parsnips, carrots, beetroot, scorzonera, burdock and potatoes.
Flower garden: Ornamental shrubs and climbers, Spring bulbs; in cold areas plant seedlings and in frost free areas plant seeds or seedlings of allysum, amaranthus, balsam, bellis perennis, calendula, California poppy, honesty, Iceland poppy, larkspur, pansy, primula, snapdragon, statice, sweeet pea, viola, Virginia stock and wallflower. Frost-free areas only: nasturtium, petunia, ornamental chilli, salvia and sunflowers.
How to Plant Bulbs
Dig a hole twice as deep and wide as the bulb. Plant the bulb with the pointy bit upwards, the flat side down and with the claws pointing down for ranunculus.
Remember not to plant bulbs against hot concrete walls nor to leave pots of bulbs in full sun. Bulbs need cool soil or they'll bloom and die before you can blink.