Wednesday, July 24, 2024
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Lettuce make plans for the summer

For the first time in a few years, it looks like we are in for an El Nino summer. That means we can expect higher-than-average temperatures, lower-than-average rainfall, and a whole lot of wind.

The past week or so has certainly seen evidence of the arrival of the north-westerlies that we associate with that weather pattern.

It is amazing how quickly the soil had dried out – just a few weeks ago it seemed supersaturated after the wet summer, autumn and winter we had, but things have switched around fairly quickly. Water flows in the rivers are down, and it looks like it is going to be another challenging year for gardeners, with water restrictions a certainty.

There are some things we can do to help overcome the difficulty – lots of mulching and clever plant selection will go a long way – but those annual plants of ours still need water to grow.

This is especially so for the vegetable garden. In the rest of the garden plants will adapt to having less water by shutting down their processes and waiting for water to arrive. In the main vegetables cannot do that – they are largely annual plants, germinating in the spring, growing through the summer then producing seed/fruit in the autumn.

If that natural process is stalled by a lack of moisture, plants react in different ways. Lettuces, which are a staple of the summer vegetable garden, tend to become very bitter if they suffer water stress, and then tend to bolt into flower.

I planted the first of our lettuces this past weekend. I could not find any ‘Drunken Lady’, my preferred variety, but I was lucky enough to find some ‘Frisby’. This is a bright green loose-leaved variety that can be harvested a leaf at a time, a very useful trait if you only have a couple of people in the house. The leaves are super crunchy – more so even that ‘Iceberg’ types – so it is a great variety to grow.

Irrigators are not efficient in home gardens.

The soil over our section varies from site to site, probably reflecting the parts that have had topsoil imported. Where the vegetable gardens are is very well drained – almost too well so – and is also along a fenceline with trees and shrubs, so it dries out very quickly. I have been adding a lot of compost and animal manure to it, to try and build up its water retention, with only a modicum of success. It is certainly a shock to see leafy plants like silver beet shrivel up in the heat of the day, then revive after overnight watering before desiccating again.

We have had to adapt what we grow in these beds, as some plants just cannot cope with it – brassicas are a nightmare – but others seem to flourish fine. We grow successive crops of French beans which are fine and have found cucumbers and onions grow well in these conditions.

We have made some new beds nearby, ostensibly for flower beds, but have found buttercup squash have done very well in them for the past few years, so we’ll probably grow some of them among the perennials. We have found tomatoes do best in large containers against the house. That way we can keep a better eye on their growth and watering, and it has been easier to keep them disease-free.

Most of us will be thinking about the spring planting season about a month away, so it is time to get those planting beds ready, with lots of compost into the soil, and perhaps a dollop of manure or a general fertiliser, to help lift the fertility of the soil. Adding extra humus to the soil helps increase its water-holding capacity, meaning the precious water you apply will be more likely to be used effectively.

Onions cope with dry growing conditions.

It is a good idea to spread some mulch across the vegetable beds if you can get some, as it will help retain moisture. Make sure it is well rotted – I should think any light material such as pea straw, is likely to end up helping mulch gardens in Chile this season.

You should think about drip irrigation for some plants and should definitely put away those watering devices that throw lots of water into the air – this season you probably won’t be able to use them, and a lot of the water is wasted anyway – either blown away by the wind or evaporated by the heat.

Instead, water selectively, only apply water at the ground level, and remember that it is best to do any watering either at dawn or in the evening.

This winter has been a pain for lawn mowing – the lawns did not seem to stop growing this year, and they also remained soggy enough for the mower to leave marks in the soil. This summer should see a return to much less frequent mowing, as El Nino will dry out the lawns by the start of December.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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