After a wet, wet winter many of us are itching to get gardening, says Meg Liptrot.
Spring is finally here and I'm looking forward to balmy summer days ahead. Spring and summer are key gardening times, but although it's not quite toasty enough to sunbathe, you can be active outdoors and get gardening, then reap the rewards come summer.
Now is the prime time to get seedlings in the ground as the soil begins to warm, the daylight hours increase and plants come alive.
After Matariki, in late July, it is possible to see a slight change in the garden so, in September, things are really under way. Deciduous trees are covered in blossom, magnolias blooming and limey green spring leaves are making an appearance.
If your vege garden soil is still cold and heavy, you can use a fork to aerate the ground then apply compost. If you have access to one, a broadfork is an ideal tool for this chore. They have two handles and you can stand on them with both feet and use your body weight to do the work as you rock back and forth.
Green manure crops can be dug in now. Soil protected from winter rain this way should be nice and friable, with the green cover and plant roots ensuring the soil structure is maintained. Chop up the plants with a sharp spade and turn over. Add lime and dig over well. Leave for at least three weeks before planting.
Garden soil does well with a handful of dolomite lime per square metre, particularly in rainy areas where the soil will likely be more acid. The magnesium in dolomite supports healthy leaf growth. Each year you can alternate between lime and dolomite to ensure balance in your soil. Veges prefer neutral to alkaline soil. Liming helps to alkalinise, adding calcium and unlocking nutrients for plant uptake.
Basalt rock dust helps remineralise the soil. I added rock dust to spent potting mix and planted liriope, strawberry and several lobelia in a pot in January this year. The plants are as lush as can be; the lobelia drapes thickly over the pot nine months on.
A great all-purpose organic fertiliser sold at good garden centres is Environmental Fertiliser's Nature's Garden. Their recipe makes life easy for gardeners by incorporating rock dust and other ingredients including seaweed, humic acid and vermicast and is based on the principles of biological agriculture for increased soil life and healthy plants.
If tender seedlings are feeling the cold and hesitant to put growth on, cloches can be put to great use in the garden. A cloche, like a mini-glasshouse, will also protect young vege seedlings from birds that often appreciate a bite of salad in their spring menu, or blackbirds keen to flick up the soil for tasty morsels underneath.
It is easy to build your own cloche by constructing a simple lightweight timber frame and gun-stapling thick clear polythene tightly over the top.
Alternatively, buy a few bars of 10mm-thick iron reinforcing rod at a building supply shop, and get them cut down to the lengths you need while you're there. These should be about 1m long.
Bend the bars into half hoops. Allow enough length to bury the ends in the ground and ensure the hoops stay upright. Their height should allow space for a full-grown plant. Broccoli, for example, grows half a metre high. Drape lightweight clear polythene over the hoops and tie at each end of your tunnel. Secure in place with weedmat pegs.
The advantage of the hoops is that you can remove the plastic after several weeks and replace with fine bird netting in the warmer weather. This will protect your tasty plants from pesky birds and egg-laying white butterflies, and ensure a fine summer harvest.
Dig in sheep pellets or home-made compost. Plant summer flowering annuals and lightly mulch. Sprinkle eco-friendly snail bait into budding clivias, day lilies and renga renga lilies where snails love to chomp away. Once spring bulbs have flowered, allow foliage to die back naturally (don't cut). Mark where they are so you don't dig them up in summer. Get a head start on weeding before the task becomes huge. Mulch straight after weeding.
Plant seedlings now for your main summer vege crop. Sow tomato seed in punnets and leave in a warm spot under cover, then prick out into larger pots and into the ground in a month. Direct-sow peas, beans, corn and pumpkin. Sow carrots and mesclun greens in very fine soil or seed-raising mix applied on top of soil. Plant sprouted seed potato in trenches. Last chance to plant deciduous fruit trees.
Get your riparian and revegetation plantings in. Early spring is really the latest time to get plants in, or you'll be faced with a huge watering bill come summer (or face plant losses). Look out for sales as native plant nurseries look to sell old stock before summer arrives. Ask for eco-sourced plants appropriate for your region.
Spring is the time to mulch to ensure water is retained before summer comes along. Mulch woody plants with shredded tree mulch. Vege beds and annuals are better mulched with straw. Chopped lucerne straw is ideal. Alternatively, pick up a couple of bales of spent hay from a local farmer. Remove seedy dock stems before spreading around your garden.