In cool climates, the second half of winter is a time of promise. Even if it might not seem like it when the wind is howling and the woodfire is cranking to stave off the chill. Gardening is as much about anticipating the future as it is about embracing the present. Rest assured that the earth hasn’t stopped spinning. It continues to orbit the sun. The seasons will inevitably change and spring is on the march. With it, comes a flurry of planting activity in preparation.
In temperate climates, where Jack Frost can hang around well into October, August is the month to sow “shoulder season” crops. These don’t mind germinating in cold, late winter soil (though if the soil is very wet from winter rains, wait another month before sowing) and they like growing in the gentle warmth that builds as our arc toward the sun gets ever closer. Try peas, leeks, carrots, radishes, beetroot, broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, wombok and loose leaf greens like lettuce, spinach, kale, Tokyo bekana, mustard and rocket. Grow the greens fast with plenty of nutrients and water, harvest them a few times using a knife (leaving the roots intact), and allow new leaves to regenerate. By late spring they’ll be pretty well spent and can be replaced with summer crops.
Arid/semi arid, warm temperate and marginal subtropical areas aren’t as prone to late season frosts. This is a boon for growing potatoes, because it means you can get an August jump start on planting these frost sensitive staples. Go for disease free, seed spuds you saved over winter, or buy certified disease free spuds from a reputable supplier. There are some good choices online if you search for “seed potatoes”. Plant them now into 20cm deep trenches enriched with compost, well rotted manure or chook pellets, backfill to cover the tubers and give the bed a single deep watering. To avoid rot, don’t water the bed again until haulms (potato shoots) appear on the surface of the soil. From then on keep the bed just moist.
If garden space is limited, try no-dig spuds. You can use a wire cage, a purpose made potato growing bag (available online and from nurseries), or simply throw some seed spuds on compost enriched ground and cover them with enough straw to exclude light. Keep adding additional layers of straw as the haulms grow - new tubers will form along the growing stem. The longer the stem, the bigger your crop. One downside to no-dig spuds is excessive drainage. You’ll probably have to water every day or two.
The genuine subtropics and tropics aren’t ideal places for growing potatoes. Late winter and early spring is the driest time of the year, and it’s often stinking hot to boot. As an alternative to potatoes try growing what Jerry Coleby-Williams calls “starch substitutes” - things like yams, sweet potato, arrowroot and yacon. You can buy tubers online and from some nurseries, and now is a good time to plant them into soil enriched with organic matter.
Other crops to plant now in warm climates include bush beans, basil, tomato, beetroot, cucumbers, watermelons, zucchini, okra, lettuce, and corn. For something different, try planting a flour or popcorn variety. These heirloom types are more drought tolerant than hybrid sweetcorn and with just a little supplemental moisture, do well in hot, dry spring weather.
By: Justin Russell
First published: July 2015