In the veggie patch

Winter’s cold crisp days lure us outside to get dirty, planting, pruning and preparing for spring. Warm up this winter with some great projects that will jump start your vegetable growing. Winter is a great time to kick-start your patch. Compost bin? Worm farm? New raised bed? Chicken coop? Citrus wall? Now’s the time to get into it.

Do Now

• Spray stone fruit for disease such as leaf curl (distorts leaves with blisters), shot hole fungus with apricots, peaches and cherries (causes gumming of fruit buds), rust, brown rot and freckle. Spray at early bud swell with Yates fungus fighter or Eco-fungicide.
• Watch for swollen stems on citrus — this is the work of the citrus gall wasp. Prune off affected stems and burn them.
• There is no better time to start a worm farm. Worms turn kitchen scraps into wonderful fertiliser in a mess-free way.
Simply acquire a worm farm from your local council or hardware store. Find a spot in morning sun.
Feed you worms daily – they like greens, melons and leftover salad.
• Buy potatoes ready for spring. Hmmm, hot chips! Interesting heirloom varieties such as Kipfler and Ruby Lou are available by mail order from the Diggers Club, while King Edward remains a tried and tested spud for all culinary occasions.
Allow them to sprout in an old egg carton before planting (after frost) in a few weeks. Dig a long 40cm deep trench and plant 20cm apart on a thick bed of compost and manure. Feed and water well (think Ireland!) and you will be harvesting bucket loads of potatoes for Christmas.
• Grow your own salad bar. Hearting lettuce include Mini Cos and Butterhead. Allow enough room for the lettuce to heart up nicely and don’t crowd them by planting them too close together. Harvest by cutting out the heart of hearting lettuce to allow another to regrow in its place — cut the plant to 2cm above the ground and leaving a few of the bigger leaves around the outside and the plant will reshoot growing a new plant from the centre. You repeat three times!
• Plant rhubarb crowns. As soon as leaves appear mulch them with compost or cow manure, but not too close to the stems. Rhubarb needs regular applications of fertiliser, manure and liquid fertiliser. Every few years dig up your clump, divide them choosing the strongest pieces for replanting. Soil should always be well drained in winter.
• Prune passionfruit after the threat of frost has passed. Prune back by at least one third. Watch out for rootrot in heavy, poorly drained soils. Top up with potash when the weather warms.

ORGANISE THE SHED

• Wash down and disinfect all gardening tools. Sharpen cutting tools. Hang them up and reorganise the shed. A pegboard organises tools, rakes, spades and brooms. • Store seeds in jars to keep them fresh. • Keep unruly balls of twine in line with big aluminium funnels, which serve as organisers and dispensers. Hammer a nail through each funnel near the top lip, attaching it to the wall of a shed or back of a door. Place a ball of twine or string in each one; run the ends out the spouts. • A sand-filled trough will keep small garden tools from vanishing — and keep them in good working order. Fill a trough or other container with sand to 2cm from top. Pour in about 1/4 cup of motor oil (sand should have a slightly moist texture); stir. When returning tools to the trough, wipe them with a rag. The sand will keep tools clean and sharp, and the oil will keep them rust-free.

IT'S TIME TO:

Harvest buckets of limes, oranges and lemons. And you don’t need an orchard to do it. We grow an espaliered wall of citrus. Find a fence facing north or west. String up horizontal wire every 20cm. Plant citrus one metre apart. Train branches along wires. Prune at the top of the fence. Water in. Spray with our Magic Mix!

FLOWERING NOW — HELLEBORES 

If there’s one flower that’s both shamelessly promiscuous and awkwardly shy, it’s the winter rose, or hellebore. She loves freezing cold temperatures, the crisp frost and chilling air that come with winter. I find it incredible that such delicate beauty can withstand such bone-crunching cold.  The winter rose (Helleborus) is actually not a rose at all, but a low ground cover with shy, nodding flowers from China. I’ve been collecting hellebores for years — I fell in love with their muted plum and green blooms, pretty speckled markings and papery texture. Their mad promiscuity results in a wonderful array of differently toned and marked flowers. Hellebore orientalis can cross pollinate not just with themselves, but with other species as well, resulting in offspring that can be anything from the prettiest of freckled progeny to muddy hybrids. Bin the rejects and nurture seedlings popping up near existing favourites in the hope these new plants will retain their parent’s qualities. They are perfect to pick, good to float in bowls and will last forever. Fill a bucket with cold water and head outside! You’ll notice that some flowers have stamens with their pollen still intact; they will need to be picked on short stems so they don’t flop in the vase. Other flowers have dropped their pollen and you’ll see the beginnings of a seed pod developing like this. Empty flowers or those beginning their seed pods can be left long stemmed. Put all the flowers straight into a bucket of cold water and head back to the kitchen so they don’t have a chance to wilt. Strip off any foliage that would sit below the water level so they don’t rot. Then dip all lower 4cm of all stems into boiling water for 20-60 seconds. Plunge them straight back into the cold water. Short stemmed hellebores — those filled with pollen — can be simply overturned, freckles facing the sky, and upended in a float bowl. They last four to five days this way. We love Nana Alice’s old silver platters which hold less water. This extends the flower display seven to 10 days as the flowers don’t come in contact with too much water. To get hellebores to last in floral hair arrangements (gorgeous for winter weddings!), use ones that have a visible seed pod. The more developed the seed pod, the sturdier the hellebore will be. This is because the sepals become stiff and waxy as the seed pod develops, which helps them resist wilting. A really mature hellebore can actually hold up beautifully out of water for a day or more. They’re great for boutonnieres and hair flowers. Hellebores are easy to grow and not demanding. Plant them in soil enriched with compost or manure and give them light-dappled shade. They’re perfect beneath deciduous trees such as magnolias, crepe myrtles and maples, where winter sunshine will encourage more flowers and the summer canopy will protect them from too much heat. Or just cram them into pots and bring them out when in flower.

What to do in winter

• Prune dead foliage on dahlias to the ground. Use a small stake to mark the site of the dahlia and its name. Spread a layer of cow manure around. Dahlias will re-shoot in late spring. • Protect budding magnolias against possum damage with a sonic device such as Strayban. • Plant a shade tree for future pleasure and protection. • Deep-water camellias to prolong flowering; add some seaweed to the watering can to promote plant health. • Plant tulips in the garden and in pots. • Colour the garden with annuals. Choose from pansies, snapdragons, larkspur, primrose, cineraria and alyssum. • Old roses flower well in winter and it’s a great time to plant them. “Marechal Niel” is a climbing tea-noisette with soft yellow, scented blooms. “Safrano” is an old tea rose with long, pointed buds opening to fragrant soft apricot. • Lift and divide summer-flowering perennials that have been left alone for a few years. Discard old, woody centres. Replant new shoots and runners from the perimeter of the clump into soil enriched with compost and manure. • Turn out the compost bin and spread it over the garden to feed the soil. • Prune plants that have finished flowering, including hydrangea, salvia, buddleia, angel’s trumpet (brugmansia), sedum, pokers and ornamental grasses. Leave frost-tender plants like hibiscus until spring. • Feed daffodils, jonquils, ranunculus, anemones and bluebells with bulb food. • A sudden frost can damage frost-tender plants. When frosts are forecast wrap newspaper around the base of potential victims. Get up early and hose off any frost before the sun hits. • Most plants are dormant during July so it’s an ideal time to plant or to move plants that are in the wrong place. • Prune roses. For best results, take a light touch with old roses and with climbers – prune just enough to keep them under control. • Love mushrooms? Buy a kit and grow your own. • Gather fallen leaves from your garden, the nature strip or the roadside and add them to the compost. • Treat tall bearded iris to a dose of rose food, which performs the same great service to iris as it does to roses. • Borer alert: while trees are bare check them for sawdust-like ‘frass’ surrounding holes in the trunk. This marks borer action. Squash the grubs inside the hole with a length of wire, then inject some insecticide into the hole. • Prevent petal blight turning azaleas to mush by spraying with a fungicide such as Eco Fungicide from OCP or Zaleton from Yates. • Check for swellings on the stems of lemons. These signal the presence of gall wasp. Cut off affected stems. Do this before the end of August to prevent a new generation of this pest. • Plant a grape vine or fruit trees such as apple, pear, fig, peach, nectarine, apricot and plum. All are available now, bare-rooted, and ready for planting. • Repay camellias for their great show with a feed of specialised camellia food. ❐