Coffee-table veggie gardeners, beware!

How many backyard gardeners have studied soil science? Who knows the ins and outs of how to best maintain and use a hoe? How many different compost recipes do you know, and how successful have they been for you? Do your plans for bountiful backyard harvests turn into insect-chewed gnarled heads of broccoli, snail-devoured lettuce, and worm-ridden, blight-stricken potatoes and tomatoes? While the pictures on seed packets and nursery seedlings and many popular full-colour gardening books are enticing, actually making it all work is more difficult than many realise at the outset. I suspect many don’t get far beyond the occasional tomato and basil harvest, just big enough to impress this week’s dinner guest, then the crop is virtually finished, the plants exhausted or bolting to seed. Many of us barely manage a couple of tomatoes in pots, oSteve Solomon Growing Vegetables South of Australiar a small bed in the little corner of the lawn or ornamental garden.

Lots of people would nevertheless like to grow a big vegetable garden to get more nutritious, healthy, tasty, fresh food. Perhaps to simply claim a little bit of their personal labour, space and time back from capitalism. It may be a bit “hipster” and inner-city as a trend, but it’s a cheering trend to me. Given that the last serious gardeners in many of our families may have been over 2 generations and 50 years ago (although not in my case), there is a lack of serious knowledge passed down and Steve Solomon’s book, although it focuses on Tasmanian conditions, is good reading for anyone on the island to the north of him too.

The two things that really stand out from this book (for me) is the scale on which he advocates growing vegetables, and the systematic (and fairly scientific) way he explains how to. For our dry rainshadow climate in Bacchus Marsh, there are plenty of good ideas for growing veggies with little rainfall, too.

For ambitious growers in tiny gardens (with less than 30 square metres to dig) he suggests his methods may be unsuited. Unfortunately, that probably encompasses many suburban gardeners. On the other hand, a lot of elements in his system are still applicable even if you are practicing the “intensive” methods that he avoids. I’ve got nearly 50 square metres into garden beds now; I wish it was double that!

I use the term “system” deliberately. Steve has a system, based on both his experience and his reading of agricultural science, a system in that its elements depend on each other. Many books on vege gardens seem to advocate a long list of handy hints, from which you can pick and choose the ones that sound easy or fun to you. This isn’t one of those books! You don’t need to adopt every single method he advocates, but it is worth understanding how they support each other if you choose among them.

Some of the key elements that seem to make Steve’s system work – and which I am experimenting with, so far reasonably successfully – I summarise as follows.

1. Plants need room.

He includes wonderful scale diagrams of different vegetables’ root system, so you can get some idea of how much room they would love to use if they could. So you might get a better crop by actually planting less, spaced further, rather than crowding them in and forcing them to compete. The alternative is to supply them with heaps of compost, dug in deep, fertiliser, and water, the intensive method. You can also grow many species with limited water (say, from a rainwater tank supply) if you increase spacing. Having them further apart also means you can weed quickly and cleanly with a hoe between plants and rows. I really have found this advice invaluable.

My summer veggie garden
Spacing probably still a bit too close!

2. Plants need good nutrition to grow well and be truly nutritious.

He cites figures about the decline in protein as a proportion of overall calories in various crops, since the second world war, and suggests it’s a result of the commercial agriculture system that needs to maximise its bulk yield, not its overall nutrition. Perhaps, as he says, a lot of ill health could be avoided if we went back to growing nutrient-dense foods. Nutrition is a highly complex science and I would shy from making too many generalisations, but undoubtedly a diet high in vegetable protein and fibre is good for us (at least most of us). To this end he has a recipe for making your own fertiliser based on organic materials (principally, the seed meal left when crops like canola are crushed for oil). See below for my adaptation of his recipe.

3. Gardens should be planned and laid out in a way that makes it easy to work them.

It may not seem much work to weed 3 tomatoes and 3 broccoli plants down the side of the courtyard in an inner city postage-stamp-sized backyard, but if you are trying to garden 100 square metres (which he suggests  you should aim to work up to) then you need to get ahead of the weeds and stay there. This is where plant spacing helps, so a carefully sharpened hoe can be slid between them to slice the weeds off with little effort. He provides careful instruction, including how to sharpen your hoe which is undoubtedly as blunt as when you bought it (and therefore a real chore to use).

4. Soil science is the basis of good plant growing.

Learning soil science is normal for commercial horticulturalists, and the big farming nations like the USA and USSR developed it well. It’s often counter-intuitive, but easy to learn. Steve provides plenty of links to books online which can teach you a lot more, but also provides a good introduction on a number of fronts: soil organic matter and how to incorporate compost; how your soil absorbs and loses water; how to keep it from compacting; how to deal with different textures (sandy, clay, etc).

5. After good soil, good seed is the foundation of your crop.

Apparently Steve ran a seed business for some time in the US. He points out that a lot of the seed you can buy (“picture packet” seeds) is poor quality. The big commercial farmers have the clout to demand good seed, but most home gardeners assume that if the seed didn’t come up then it’s their fault. One of my friends encourages gardeners to avoid this: it was ungrateful seed, you did your best to provide it a home and it still didn’t grow! So try something else.

Steve goes one step further. A lot of seed you buy may be old, or  it may be inbred and lacking vigour.  The supplier may not have even bothered to do a germination test. Even if it does germinate, many old “heirloom” open-pollinated varieties may not have been carefully bred to maintain robust and true genetics; so the crop you get may be inferior tasting, lack vigour, or have other problems. At the same time, the varieties on offer (particularly in Tasmania) may not really suit your local conditions well. So Steve has a bit of advice on where to get good seed, better varieties (including the more expensive F1 hybrids), and how to save seed (and which species need special conditions, like a minimum number of parent plants to prevent inbreeding). It’s an eye-opening exposure  of the seed industry, if nothing else.

6. Organic concepts, not dogma.

Steve generally recommends organic methods, and his method of building soil organic matter with compost and organic fertiliser is very compatible with the general methods of organic farming. On the other hand he has no qualms in recommending the chemical fertilisers you can get from hydroponics suppliers in some circumstances, or a bit of mineral phosphorous, or the use of hybrid seed, all of which may be considered inappropriate by some purists. Actually, I’m against the use of a lot of mineral phosphorous, but not on the basis of its organic status. I’m against it because a lot of it in Australia is stolen goods, mined in illegally occupied West Sahara, a Moroccan colony. If your soil needs phosphorous, bonemeal  (or blood-and-bone) is a reasonable supply of it.

The earlier edition of Steve’s book that I read (2012) had a bit of its own dogmatic tone at times when Steve appeared to be telling the reader they had to adopt everything in his system without exception at times; this has been toned down and he even acknowledges the value of the very different intensive methods for small gardens in the December 2016 edition.

7. Garden for your climate
For the non-Tasmanian gardener, a lot of the advice on the specific vegetable species are not useful, unfortunately. While the root diagrams (for example) are invaluable, suggestions of what to plant when in Tasmania’s mild island climate are mostly irrelevant just a few hundred km north in Melbourne, where average temperatures are several degrees higher, maximums as much as ten degrees, and rainfall possibly lower. For example, Steve suggests you avoid straw mulch because it harbours slugs and insects that eat your crop. True. But in a dry summer at my place, that straw provides a vital reflective and insulating barrier to the sun’s rays, reducing the soil evaporation significantly. A week of days above 25 degrees C is a heatwave in Hobart. Three or four days above 40 degrees C is, although not an annual occurrence, something a Melbourne summer garden should be prepared for. So I mulch in summer not in the cold wet months when more slugs are around. It seems to work OK.

But if you’re on the north island here, the advice on other topics is well worth considering and trying out. Steve’s writing style is his own. He digresses into asides and bits of personal history and so on. I think this makes a long book longer but also more readable, perhaps others will find it tedious. I can’t vouch for every scientific theory he builds on, but mostly they seem legit.

At over 200 pages, it’s not a light read! For the coffee-table gardener, it will be hard going due to the lack of  pretty colour photos and feelgood advice about how easy gardening is. On the other hand, if you leave it on your coffee table, you can keep coming back to it because it’s quite readable and there’s too much in it to learn it all from one reading. It also has a great bibliography, much of which is old  out-of-print books you can download for free from Steve’s  Soil and Health website.

Steve’s Complete Organic Fertiliser (COF); my adaptation
You can get Steve’s original  COF recipe here.

Steve bases his fertiliser on seed meal – typically used as stock feed, you may have to locate a farm supplies outlet to order it in for you. That’s where I get it from in Bacchus Marsh. I get canola seedmeal in 20kg sacks. Seedmeal will apparently supply a good N:P:K ratio (around 6-2-2, depending on what seed it is), breaking down slowly and encouraging beneficial soil animals. To this you add significant quantities of micro-nutrients and trace elements to boost the health of the plants (and, we hope, those that eat them).

So based on what I could source easily, I mix up the following and apply at about 0.5L per square meter for most crops (Steve has recommendations for how much to apply for specific crops).

4L of seedmeal;
1L of blood-and-bone for a fast release nitrogen/phosphorous hit (omit if everything is doing fine without it);
0.5L dolomite lime for calcium and magnesium
0.5L gypsum for calcium and sulphur
0.1L sulphate of potash for a bit of extra potassium
0.5L Munash rockdust for a bit of potassium, plus micro-nutrients and trace elements
0.5L Alroc extraphos, for extra phosphorus, plus other micro-nutrients and trace elements

Steve suggests also adding 1L kelp meal; great if you know where to get it around here (please tell me!).

EDIT: correspondence from Steve points out that the rockdust (Munash/Alroc) is slow-release, not soluble like the small amounts of mineral sulphates and borax he uses in his fertiliser to supply trace elements, so not really comparable. Make of that what you will; I’m not an organics purist and happy to give it a go. So I intend to add 1 teaspoon borax (for boron) and 1.5 teaspoons each of zinc, manganese and copper sulphate powders to the mix. I might keep up the rockdust too.


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