Gardening in February 2019

It’s harvest time! All over town the roads are sticky from spilled grape juice. Tractors, bakkies, trucks and some often un-roadworthy modes of transport are groaning under their loads of grapes, plums and peaches. Even in the home garden February is a month of absolute abundance. Don’t let the heat put you off – this a month of great gardening joy and activity.

Watering is obviously important this time of year. Unfortunately there is no blanket recipe for optimal irrigation. I have always advocated irregular deep watering, but have found that it is often not the most effective way. Whilst we have mostly clay soil here on the farm the top few centimetres dries out within hours. This often leaves the plants wilted and stressed in the late afternoon. A finger test still shows moisture deeper down, but this is not where most root hairs are situated. Even with a thick layer of mulch the plants still stress. It is as if the dry mulch on top sucks moisture out of the plants. To combat this, I have now started to cut my deep watering (10 – 15mm) down to once or twice per week – this stimulates deep root growth. I then water for short cycles daily – depending on the weather even twice daily. This tends to cool down the plants and keeps them healthy and actively growing. The important thing is to experiment – find what works best in your own garden and in your own soil. Despite good winter rains we are still in a water crisis – I don’t foresee the water restrictions ever being removed completely – and rightly so. Most towns still enforce an irrigation system ban – you will have to be creative in how you achieve optimal watering for your garden.

Your vegetable garden should be filling your pantry with the most amazing array of veggies and fruit. It is fig season – one of the great joys of late summer. Not many fruit comes close to a sun warmed ripe fig straight from the tree. I might try my hand at making ripe fig jam this year. Fresh ideas for using summer squash are always welcome – I swear I can hear mine grow! Beans should be picked regularly – almost daily. The same goes for cucumbers, courgettes, brinjals and tomatoes. Process as soon as you have enough for a batch – one of the secrets to good preserves is fresh produce. Pick up spoiled fruit regularly – the last thing you want is to provide a breeding ground for fruit fly and codling moth. I hate spraying against pests, even with organic sprays, but this year we seem to have a major problem with fruit and pumpkin fly. We use GF120 – a “safe” organically certified bait – on a weekly basis, but still find fruit that are stung. We can only hope that the experiments with releasing sterile male fruit flies will have the desired effect. Other pests that might be a problem are various beetles eating away at your berries, beans and roses. These are easily removed by hand and drowned in paraffin or squashed underfoot. If you find aphids you have done something wrong – probable added to much nitrogen to the soil.

February is not really a planting month, but it is a great month for preparing your seed beds for autumn sowing. All bare areas should be mulched with a thick layer of compost – fresh manure is not a good idea in summer. Weeding will keep you busy, but weeds are still better than bare soil. Try to prevent weeds from going to seed though. I have started to embrace weeds and see them as adding organic matter to the soil. I have a pull and drop approach – leaving the pulled weeds on the surface of the bed roots and all. This serves as decent mulch and will slowly add back nutrients to the soil. Most weeds are deep rooted and mine precious minerals from deep within the soil.

The February irony is that the kitchen is the last place you want to be in the heat, but it is the month with the biggest glut of vegetables and fruits that needs preserving. With time such a scarce commodity I focus most of my energy on items we use regularly. Like pasta sauce. All excess tomatoes, even the cherry ones, simply goes into large pots with salt and basil and get cooked down to a thick sauce. A quick blitz before bottling ensures the right texture for pizzas and pastas. Excess cucumbers can go into gazpacho – a refreshing lunch on a hot day.