Early April 2017
The season has turned. It’s now early April and we’ve just had a week of on-and-off rainfall. At times it was heavy enough to cause areas of surface flooding - a dramatic contrast to the drought we had been experiencing!
And with all this moisture, I have decided it is a good opportunity to sow cover crop seeds (green manure crop) into the cleared and cultivated garden beds. Usually I do this next month, which allows more time and garden space to grow vegetables for the farmer’s markets. But his year is different because I am about to gather up my garden tools and personal belongings and head northeast as a "travelling gardener". And I want to leave the soil in an even better condition than it was in when I arrived here seven years ago, and one of the best ways of protecting and improving soil is to establish successful cover crops.
Each variety of cover crop has its own benefits and advantages, but a personal favourite of mine is borage, which is easily harvested for the compost heap or mulched back onto the soil with its large, hollow, succulent stems. It is known to accumulate trace elements, and it produces profuse, small, attractive blue flowers which attract bees and other beneficial pollinating insects to the garden. However, because the current owner of the property plans to graze sheep on and around the garden area this winter, I am choosing to sow clover and rye grass seeds instead.
Both rye and clover share the advantages of dense rooting systems, which ultimately help build up organic matter below ground, improve soil tilth, and allow access of air and water into the soil . Rye has a particularly dense rooting system that resists soil compaction, and the crimson clover I have sown has a tap root that can penetrate the soil to a depth of up to 51 centimetres (20 inches), which brings up and fixes nutrients for subsequent crops. Such dense and deep rooting systems in combination is an effective form of natural soil cultivation known as ‘bio-tillage’.
The warm, moist Autumn that we are now experiencing should support the rapid growth of good amounts of biomass for future forage or to be mowed and fed back into the soil. Whether it’s manure from grazing animals or grass cuttings from mowing, both will break down into garden soils and provide organic matter and nutrients to benefit soil life and subsequent crops. The quick growth of abundant biomass from both rye and clover also works to suppress weeds through competition for space and nutrients.
As a legume, clover, in association with a certain bacteria (rhizobium), has the ability to ‘fix’ air-borne nitrogen in a symbiotic relationship. These beneficial bacteria find a home on nodules on clover roots and provide nitrogen to the plants in return for nutrients from the plant roots, an exchange that can boost plant growth.
And with a week to go until my departure to the northeast of New Zealand’s North Island (Kerikeri), I’m pleased to see thousands of little clover and rye seedlings turning my field gardens back into pasture. And this will rest and revitalise the soil for whomever may arrive next to garden this fertile patch of volcanic-silt-loam soil adjacent to the mighty Kauri trees of Northland’s Waipoua Forest.
Late March 2017
All nutrients are important in the growth of healthy, vibrant plants, fruit and vegetables, but some nutrients are more often used in gardening and agriculture than others. While I do have a science degree, my approach to market gardening has been that of the layman, simply expanding ‘old fashioned’ (low-tech) home gardening up to the largest scale that I, myself, could manage. Most of the garden literature I had read referred to calcium largely in association with lime (calcium carbonate) and its ability to make an acid soil more alkaline (aiming for a pH of around 7.2), and therefore increasing the availability of soil minerals to plant roots. Then I read the old adage “lime and more lime makes for rich fathers and poor sons”, and I wondered about that. Upon researching some of the more progressive agricultural science books, I learned that calcium does far more than merely altering soil pH.
My understanding of calcium in general is that plants use more of it by weight and volume than any other mineral, and that calcium is the ‘background mineral’ that other minerals react with to release the nutrient energy required for optimal plant growth and health. So, in the old adage, the father gets rich by using lime to mobilize the minerals inherent in the soil for good crops, but will deplete these minerals if they aren’t replaced by, say, a multi-mineral rock dust/fish & seaweed fertiliser, for example, in addition to lime.
Late February 2017
The time has come for me to branch out, to spread my wings, to venture forth and bring about change, one garden at a time. Know me as the ‘travelling (kiwi) gardener’, motivated to bring food growing back to local communities, to promote the ‘preventive medicine’ of nutrient-rich food grown visibly, responsibly, biologically and ecologically.
Twenty years a gardener, seven as an organic market gardener, and I have earned my stripes, now a gardening ‘green beret’ of sorts, ready to mix it up in Northland’s trenches (garden paths between raised beds), ready to ‘throw caution to the wind’, to form partnerships with others and support them in growing food on their land.
Why would I leave my river, spring water, alluvial volcanic soil, ‘self-sowing garden’ and relative peace and solitude? Answer – a call to service and a sense of adventure, of course. (Also, my marriage broke up and we’ve since sold the property, river included.)
My master plan remains intact. I will earn my crust (nutrient rich cucumber sandwich) by teaching others, by ‘growing gardeners’, by assisting others to grow local nutrition both individually and cooperatively. This I intend to do both physically, on the ground, and online via Kiwi Gardeners educational courses.
Mid March 2017
Our elevated valley adjacent to the old growth Kauri forests of Waipoua and Trounson has its own pattern of rainfall, sometimes distinct from the wider region. Dargaville, a thirty-minute drive Southward, is back to ‘drying out’, while here it is still raining on and off, with some heavy rainfalls. At this mid-summer time of year, the return on effort put into gardening is so much higher than at other times of the year, so I’ve been out in the rain digging potatoes, planting kale and harvesting cucumbers.
As well as wet, the weather has been unusually warm, which is great for vegetable growth, but is uncomfortable to work in, especially clothed in full rain gear. So, to cool off I dove into the river multiple times, which was elevated by rainfall and coloured brown by the topsoil eroding off the neighbouring farms. Most likely the river was also carrying away synthetic nitrates and phosphates applied to farm pasture, and probably manure from the livestock trampling the riparian zone next to the river. None of that did my health any good, as I developed and ear infection after a day or two of intermittent swimming. Never mind, it was my choice to submerge myself in the cooling creek water when most others wouldn’t have, and anyway, my nutrient rich organic diet, including some extra garlic, is dealing with the ear infection, and already the pain is subsiding as healing commences.
Early March 2017
It’s Sunday morning in early March. A lively breeze is cooling down the gardens as grey clouds blow over, hurrying Westward. They provide welcome shade to my vegetable crops and sun warmed soil. Cloud cover is forecast this week and mid-week two days of rain are expected.
Excellent! Perfect weather for my last transplanting that I'll be doing in this garden. I have mature seedlings ready to plant out and have been waiting and hoping for this sort of weather. The reason being is that plants work much like a water pump, drawing water in through the roots and transpiring it out of the leaves. Even minor damage to roots during transplanting reduces the roots’ capacity to absorb soil water, and in hot summer conditions, the amount of water released through leaves can be greater than that taken in. The balance between water taken in and water released can be the difference between life and death for seedlings. Thoroughly watering gardens and the seedlings in their trays before planting will help prevent wilting; however, even with this, it is still essential for the plant roots to be in optimal condition when you transplant them so the plants can uptake as much water as they need.