In Act One, we covered the importance of great dirt for growing veggies. Now that you (hopefully) have excellent soil on your side, it’s time to look at two other key bits of know-how, thanks to our returning guest blogger, Alice Glare.
See the light
Plants need sunlight, but how much depends a lot on what they are. While your maidenhair fern is perfectly happy with the few scraps of bathroom light you deign to throw its way, most food plants need full sun. Growing all the nutritious, edible parts we like to eat requires energy, and sunlight is the form plants use.
Yeah, but what does “full sun” actually mean?
Confusingly this doesn’t mean they need sun ALLLLL day, but does mean aiming for a solid 6 hours. Basically, don’t plant under a tree or on the shady side of a wall if you can help it (and if you can’t, check this out). Be aware sun angles change seasonally, with the winter sun lower in the sky, so the south side of a fence that gets summer sun will be shady in winter.
Planting in pots is awesome if you don’t have a backyard, but they’re also great because you can move plants seasonally to the best light. They’re also handy if you know a hectic week-long heatwave is coming, or your friend invited you on a too-good-to-miss summer camping trip (cos you can temporarily shift them to a shady spot, where they won’t need as much water).
Which brings us to…
Water (is life)
Everyone knows plants need watering. I mean, duh, the universe is full of stories of people forgetting and winding up with a collection of dead plants. But have you ever thought about why plants need water?
For plants to successfully pull off the magic that is turning sunlight and a few bits of carbon into sugar; water is crucial. It’s one of the key ingredients of photosynthesis, and lots of photosynthesis is ultimately what’s going to get your tomatoes on the table.
When it’s sunny plants use more water in their photosynthetic machines and in hot weather also lose a lot of water through their pores. This essentially means hot and sunny weather – the kind Australian summers are renowned for – is a dangerous time for your plant babies!
Some plants can’t hack drying out and if you disrespect their hydration needs, they’ll certify you a brown thumb before you can say “forty-degree scorcher”.
Even if they don’t die, being dry just for a day makes some plants hit the panic button, think they’re in a massive drought and start to make seeds (instead of leaves) to ensure the survival of their species. Heroic, but not good for salad.
The leafy things we like to eat (lettuce, coriander, spinach) are generally water-sensitive and need a consistent supply of H2O. Woody, leathery plants like rosemary are more forgiving of occasional neglect.
How often should I water?
Plants take in water via roots, so they need water in the soil. With so many things at play (sun + wind + temperature + humidity + your lax attitude to watering) the best way to know if you need to water is to check the soil. Poke your finger in the dirt and see if it feels damp. If yes, you can probs get away with not watering. If no, give ’em a drink.
Waiting until plants are wilting isn’t the cleverest way to remember to water. Some plants wilt when they’re already badly stressed and some plants temporarily wilt on hot days even when the soil is damp (pumpkins and tomatoes I’m lookin’ at you).
If your version of watering is giving leaves and soil a quick, cooling spritz, this is for you: Watering leaves is like spraying a dehydrated person with a hose – fun, but not very effective.
If you scratch the surface of the soil it’s often still dry underneath and all those plant roots are left thirsty.
So how can I water better?
Water early in the morning or late in the afternoon (so you don’t waste water from evaporation). Using a hose or watering can, soak the surface of the soil until underneath is damp. Great soil full of organic matter is like a sponge and can hold heaps of water, so if it’s dry it might take a while to re-hydrate.
But if you don’t already know the joys of after-work-refreshing-drink-in-hand watering, then you haven’t lived! On a summer afternoon with friends and snacks, it’s the perfect casual hang. Solo, it can become meditation, mindfulness or whatever soul-nourishing thing you like, because staring at plants is officially good for you.
Before you get stuck into some urban agriculture, here’s one last thing to propel you to gardening glory.
You’re going to dive down the google rabbit hole at some point with questions like: “what’s this bug and how do I get rid of it?”
When you do, find local info – there are veg gardeners from all over the world on the interwebs, but their advice from -30°C Canada may not be relevant to your never-minus-anything Melbourne. Ask your green-thumbed friends, befriend your garden-savvy neighbour, join a community garden, go on a weed date or turn to your grandma’s favourite program (and website), Gardening Australia to get advice that’s relevant to you.
Good luck and may your crops be bountiful!
Need a refresher? Read Part 1 of this vegie patch tutorial.