Time it right for a bountiful crop. Photo: Eddie Jim
PICTURE this: it's a lovely sunny day and you walk into the garden with a basket on your arm. Spread before you is a vegetable patch, abundant with home-grown produce, ripe for the picking.
It's an attractive scenario but not one I share, being restricted to growing vegetables in pots, from a space perspective and also because I don't have the patience, or dedication, to commit a section of the garden to grow my own. But there are plenty who do and I take my hat off to them. It's an organic way of providing cheaper, vitamin-packed produce for their families and reducing their carbon footprint. Throw in an orchard and some chickens and it's the good-life situation.
So what's happening on the vegetable front now we're in the last month of winter? Well, things are a bit quiet between seasons, with spring the big planting time once the weather and soil warms up.
Beetroot can run to seed if planted too late in autumn or winter. Photo: Jennifer Soo
Brassicas - cauliflowers, brussels sprouts and broccoli - are cool-season vegetables, therefore you should have had a bumper crop because they thrive in cold conditions and we've had plenty of cold days this winter. Turnips, broad beans, onions and peas (including snow peas) also fall into the cool-season category.
It's not too late to sow pea and snow pea seeds but be quick, otherwise you'll miss out. Hurry them along by sowing the seeds on damp kitchen paper, put in a plastic container and leave in a warm spot such as on a sunny window sill. Once the seedlings have sprouted, plant them out. You can use this technique with a range of vegetables such as radishes and broad beans if you want to move them along.
Leafy greens, including Asian vegetables, are perennials in the vegetable garden. Think lettuce (some varieties can run to seed if sown in warm weather, so choose carefully), bok choi, pak choi, silverbeet, rocket and kale and either sow seeds or plant seedlings and you'll have a constant supply for salads and stir-fries. Spring onions, too, can be planted all year.
Warm-season vegetables need temperatures of 20 degrees or more and include beans, capsicums, potato, sweet corn, sweet potato and tomatoes. Root crops such as carrots and parsnips can run to seed if planted too late in autumn or winter. Beetroot falls into this category and, if you are planting it now, soak seeds overnight so they swell with moisture, then direct sow. Another group of vegetables needs temperatures of 15 to 25 degrees - cabbage, celery, leek, parsnip and radish - so sow seeds at the right time, otherwise they can bolt. For zucchini and cucumber, sow seeds in late September when it's warmer.
Karen Sutherland is an advocate for the grow-your-own brigade, having turned her garden into a vegetable nirvana. She says growing produce is a plus for the environment, especially if you adopt organic principles. She holds classes on how to create an edible garden in the suburbs.
At the moment, you can still plant asparagus, strawberries and rhubarb as well as brown, Spanish and cream gold onions. Potatoes can be planted later in August, when the danger of frost has gone. Sutherland recommends dividing herbs such as parsley for a more productive supply in spring and summer. Plant coriander in the cooler weather rather than summer, when it bolts.
If you're hunting for bare-rooted fruit trees, it's imperative that you buy them now because home orchards are so popular, Sutherland says. ''The nurseries sell out very quickly these days, so you need to get in early. Plus, if you've got a peach tree, spray with a copper fungicide for curly leaf.''
Which leaves the perennial question: when to plant tomatoes? According to tradition, tomato seedlings should be planted out by, at the latest, Melbourne Cup Day. But such is the race to get tomatoes in that many gardeners have sown seeds and are protecting them in glasshouses or a warm spot until they're ready to be planted out.
These days, more gardeners are turning to organic produce and Digger's Seeds offers a wide range of organic heritage fruit and vegetables.
Yates has introduced 16 vegetables and three herbs to its organic seed selection. They include Nantes carrots, jalapeno chillies, Black Beauty eggplants, dark green zucchinis and a butternut pumpkin. There are three organic tomatoes: Roma, best known for its use in Italian cooking; Cherry Sweet, which develops masses of bite-sized fruit; and Black Krim, an heirloom-type tomato with flattened, dark-red purple fruit with a greenish tinge.
The Oasis vegetable range also includes a selection of the better-performing heirloom varieties, such as Tuscan kale. Mr Fothergill's mail-order range of heirloom vegetables includes capsicums, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and cabbage. Nurseries also stock a range of organic and heirloom vegetables.
■Karen Sutherland's garden will open for Open Gardens Australia in March and also next July so people can see what can be grown in a winter garden.