Gearing Up for Growing

The 23rd of September, marked one of the most important days in our personal farming calendar: the Spring Equinox.

From now on, with days longer than nights, everything – including our pasture, we hope – will really start cranking.

spring comes late here

Spring comes late here!

Our growing season up in the mountains is short, so we have to do everything we can to make the most of it.

Strategies for a short growing season

1. Improve soil quality

Optimum growth of anything hinges on soil quality, so our growing season preparations started back at the beginning of winter, when we limed all our paddocks.

Our first soil test in 2012 revealed a pH of 5.3, considered strongly acid. We began our amendment programme with a cocktail of minerals, opting for slow-release RPR (reactive phosphate rock) over superphosphate. The test also showed a deficiency of the trace element boron, so we added a minute amount of that into the mix as well. You need boron to grow both clover and brassicas.

It’s best to have soil tests carried out at the same time of year, so in November we’ll get it done again to see how the pH is looking after two applications of lime.

We’ve invested in some concentrated liquid seaweed and we’ll be applying that to a couple of paddocks at least twice this growing season. We’ll also make use of biodynamic preparations to encourage biological activity in the soil and give the worms a buzz.

2. Select appropriate species

A short season dictates what you can and can’t grow. We’re trialling pasture mixes. Last year, we sowed one paddock in a perennial mix of grasses, clovers, plantain and chicory, and another in a short-lived ryegrass and clover mix. The perennial mix is doing much better than the other, although there are factors apart from the species mix that could be influencing this. The jury’s still out.

3. Provide enough shelter

Long-term, I think the most important thing we can do to maximise our growth in the short time we’ve got is to plant more windbreaks. Being perched at the top of a mountain pass, we’re in an officially-designated “very high wind” area and the effect of wind pruning on anything we sow or plant is dramatic. Our grass grows three times longer in sheltered areas than it does where it’s exposed.

Shelter also means shade, another factor affecting growth. I think this can be managed with permeable windbreaks and careful species selection. Like everything else we’re trying to do on this block, it’s all a balancing act.

In the vege garden

If you grow your veges from seed, you have access to short-season varieties of almost every type of vegetable, ranging from tomatoes through to pumpkins.

Tunnel house lettuce and garlic

Lettuce and Garlic from our Tunnel House

Sourcing veges from garden centres as young plants in punnets does save time and energy and allows you to plant out immediately. However, you’re restricted to the selection the garden centre stocks and that can be fairly limited.

The varieties that have worked best for me include Green Salad Bowl and Red Cos lettuces, Fordhook Giant (silver beet) and Winter Giant (leek).

Where tomatoes are concerned, the cherries and pear types are probably the best choice for short season growing. However, last year I experimented with seven varieties of bush tomatoes including favourites like Roma and short-season specialists like Oregon Spring and Sub Arctic Plenty. The best performers were Green Sausage (a heritage variety) and good old Tommy Toe.

There’s no doubt that tunnel houses and cloches can extend a growing season at both ends. And if you have the room for them, hot beds are brilliant for getting a head start on spring, with the added bonus of producing amazing compost.

Wherever you are and whatever growing challenges you face, I hope the 2014-15 season provides you and your livestock with an abundance of the best-quality tucker it’s possible to produce.