Overcoming Challenges in the Kitchen Garden

Winter 2017, Living Well Magazine

by Wendy Neagle

After another abundant organic food growing season I thought I would share with you some of our non-success moments and challenges within the kitchen garden. And yes, we have many – organic food farming is often a process of creative and innovative problem solving.  The most important first step is the research. Learning as much as we can about the plant, pest or disease life cycles gives us the knowledge we need to make changes and improve outcomes.

Early in our tomato-growing season we found that although our plant size was on track and looking good, the leaves were looking mottled, spotty, curled and generally unwell. We did much research into nutrient deficiencies and virus effects, and concluded it could be any of these. After some deliberation, and since the growth was otherwise strong, we dosed them with a balanced fertiliser and some ‘Seasol’ and decided to wait and see. They came good over some weeks and have given us a respectable harvest.

Another tomato issue we had was splitting of the fruit for which the diagnosis was easy. This is a symptom of too much water in a short time – typically rain. The fruit growth is too quick causing swelling of the skins and splitting. This is beyond our control with the outdoor crop, however having a poly tunnel means we can have an indoor crop to maintain a supply of quality food when the outdoor conditions are not optimal.

Tomatoes are a challenge to support, as their growth can be prolific. We let them grow chaotically and trialled a new style of trellising this season.  We found it to be more effective than simple garden stakes, or wire cylinders, so we’ll be using this again next spring/summer.

We didn’t get back to one of our parsnip rows to thin them in time, so the consequences of overcrowding were misshapen, forked or round parsnips. Usually we thin them out, when they are a few centimetres tall, to about a fist-width apart. This combined with loose friable soil gives us perfect parsnips, that we are proud to deliver to the retreat kitchen.

Over the warm months, white cabbage butterflies are an issue for all kitchen gardeners.They are attracted to all plants in the brassica family (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, wongbok, pak choi, brussel sprouts etc.) and lay their eggs on the leaves.  The telltale leaf-green caterpillars then eat their way through the leaves and can eat entire small leaves causing irreparable damage to young plants. To avoid this we simply net our brassica crops during the warmer months with insect netting, taking care to seal the gaps at ground level with bricks or metal pegs (we make from wire), as cabbage butterflies are very good at finding even the smallest gaps. We did end up with an infestation in one of our tunnels so we had to resort to a spray of ‘Dipel’, which is a bacterium that attacks caterpillars’ digestive systems, and is safe for all other insects.

We also had an issue with cutworm in our brassica tunnels – a caterpillar that lives in the soil (the larvae of a night flying moth), which chews through the young stems at night. We opted to replace the seedlings and fortunately our second plantings survived.  However leaving the ground open to birds (and/or chickens) between cultivating and planting is also helpful.

Corn can be a problematic crop, especially in the home garden due to low pollination rate. The symptom of this is when a cob has only some kernels yellow and juicy and the remaining kernels are white and small. Each hair in the tassel at the end of the cob corresponds to a kernel and each needs to be fertilised. As the pollen is a fine powder that is spread by the breeze, having the corn plants in a block rather than a row ensures better pollination.

Understanding the growth patterns of plants helps us to know how to alleviate most issues. All plants grow to produce seed and continue the life of that species. Most vegies are annuals so they flower then set seed in one season. If the temperature fluctuates too much or the watering is inconsistent the plant’s natural seasonal responses are triggered and the plant will start the flowering and seed maturing process earlier than usual.

A few hot days in early spring then a cool start to summer triggered our celeriac (a biannual, which usually goes to seed in the second year) to skip the bulb maturation stage and go straight to flowering. Some of the onions were also affected in this way. If the onions grow a flowering stem (a hard central stem) before the bulb has fattened up, we will fold that stem over to slow it down, giving the bulbs time to mature.  Our onions continued to flower after harvest while drying so we chose to cut the stems off so the energy would stay in the bulb.

We had some disappointing results with some of our summer silverbeet, with smaller plants and yellowing leaves, before we realised that the irrigation lines to that row were not working. After rectifying this we have found that particular row has not thrived for the whole season. Inconsistent watering like this can cause them to go to seed too early. We have checked the pH levels to ensure that the nutrients present are available to the plants, and as that is at about 6.5 we are now querying the levels of available nitrogen, which is needed for strong leafy growth. A green manure will be grown and dug back into soil in that area before future planting to improve the fertility of the soil.

Birds can often be an issue in our garden. In autumn we find our lettuces being eaten by our resident bower bird population. Netting them is an effective solution. Our amazing garlic crop is vulnerable to playful cockatoos over winter who like to pluck them out and toss the plants around.  Again netting works to stop this damage and as the crops aren’t tall the netting doesn’t need to be very tall.

Our head gardener, Mascha, has a wonderful blog with instructions and great photos to help with building of insect tunnels and other useful info, visit www.maschasgarden.wordpress.com