How does your winter garden grow?

By Meg Liptrot

Careful planning and planting the key to success, says Meg Liptrot.

Heritage carrots. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Heritage carrots. Photo / Meg Liptrot

Although the summer garden is winding down, there's no time to rest on your laurels because right now it's action stations for serious gardeners. Take your pick from the planning or planting menus below - there's bound to be something you can get on with in your garden.

Planning

Keeping it green: Take stock of areas on farms or lifestyle blocks you would like to revegetate, and put in your orders now with a native plant nursery for winter planting in time for Matariki. Remember to ask for eco-sourced natives where possible. The only way we will claim back the "clean and green" mantra for Aotearoa's streams, lakes and rivers is for those with adjoining land to keep the stock off and revegetate. Most planting of natives for revegetation happens throughout winter into early spring. These plants are usually bought in smaller grade potting bags (PB for short) or root plugs. Revegetation plants require high levels of natural soil moisture during crucial establishment time, so mulching after planting will ensure the plants don't dry out. Order mulch from arborists.

The Waitahurangi stream in Avondale, an example of an urban revegetated stream. Photo / Meg Liptrot
The Waitahurangi stream in Avondale, an example of an urban revegetated stream. Photo / Meg Liptrot

Orchards and food forests: Food forest plantings can be treated much the same way as native revegetation. Pioneer or "nurse" shelter species are planted first in exposed sites during autumn and winter, and fruiting species are planted once the shelter has grown, a year or more later. Tagasaste, also known as tree lucerne, is a good example of a food forest pioneer. The small tree is a nitrogen-fixer and it flowers in late winter so is a valuable nectar source for bees.

When we established the food forest at the Unitec Hortecology Sanctuary, the first step with the bare paddock was to place thick wads (as much as a quarter bale) of spent hay directly on top of the spot where we planned to plant and leave it for several months. By the time we came to plant in winter the grass had rotted, and the soil beneath was rich and friable with plenty of worms. Now is also the time to order bare-rooted deciduous fruit trees for winter planting. Check out heritage fruit-tree growers' catalogues to find something of interest.

Planting

Planting in autumn gives the plants time to get established while the soil is warm. In general, plant growth is triggered by heat, moisture and daylight hours. Plants take a long time to establish if planted in late winter or spring when the soil is heavy, cold and wet. Digging then can damage the soil structure and make it harder for delicate plant roots to grow. Remember that plant roots need air spaces in soil, as well as moisture, so a crumbly soil texture is essential.

We've just bought some large-grade native trees and we'll get them in the ground in the next few weeks. That way the tree roots will have more chance to take hold through autumn, winter and spring, making them less vulnerable to drying out next summer. We'll make sure we water and mulch them well, as the soil is still quite dry this autumn.

Winter greens: Early autumn is a key time to get seeds sown or seedlings planted if you intend to get a decent haul from the winter kitchen garden. Plant brassica seedlings such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower or kale in well-composted, rich soil. Home-made compost, bokashi or wormcastings are ideal. Dig in slow-release nutrients such as sheep pellets, rock dust and seaweed to keep your plants growing strongly.

Incorporate dolomite lime to sweeten the soil for brassicas.

Plant cool-tolerant lettuces such as cos, plus iron-rich spinach, silverbeet and endive. Also plant leeks and herbs such as parsley.

Root crops: Sow carrots after your summer crops (such as beans and zucchini) have done their dash. Carrots are suited to soil that hasn't been freshly composted or fertilised.

Sow seed directly in the garden bed after the soil has been well cultivated to a fine tilth, and be sure to keep the soil moist. Laying a damp hessian sack over the carrot bed until the seed has germinated is one way to ensure the surface doesn't dry out. Check regularly for signs of germination, then remove the sack. Protect any recently sown or planted crops with netting, or blackbirds will spoil your efforts.

Flower garden: Extend late summer flowering by pinching out and deadheading salvias and penstemon, and annuals such as zinnia for repeat-flowering. Some roses will also give a final flush in autumn. Refrain from deadheading so you get rosehips for winter interest. Cut back summer-flowering perennials such as lavender once they've finished, and trim star jasmine.

Start planting winter or spring-flowering shrubs such as camellia, rhododendron and azalea, water, then mulch well.

We planted bedding plants zinnia, echinacea, rudbeckia and portulaca in our bee garden a month ago for the bees and butterflies. There's still time to get some annuals in for autumn interest. I was thrilled to see a yellow admiral butterfly in the garden for the first time last week, as they're quite uncommon in urban areas.

Give spring bulbs as a present this Easter. Flowering bulbs will light up the garden in late winter, and getting them planted will help burn off the Easter chocolate.

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- Herald on Sunday

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