In this exciting edition of Stoep Harvest, planting time is here again! This is a fun time of the year where we can dream of crops to come. It is hard work, however, and is a busy time of preparation before the actual seeds go into the ground. This article will look at preparing the ground and then at the winter plants that we can look forward to eating.
In the March Garden – Preparing
Before we plant the seeds and seedlings into the ground, it is imperative to prepare the soil first. The last of the summer crops can be harvested – remove the old tomato and squash plants as they finish producing fruit and cut off bean stalks at soil level so the roots can decompose (they add nitrogen). Remove any unwanted plants and weeds.
About two weeks before planting, mix into the ground some good organic compost. I roughly add 50% compost to one spade’s depth across the garden (this works out at about two bags of 30dm compost per square metre). There are some other excellent organic fertilizers available too – look for worm pellets, called vermicompost, or volcanic rock dust. I find these two work especially well.
Level the soil and leave it to sit for two weeks so that the compost is not too strong and burns the young plants. Remember soil preparation is critical – it should be your main focus or ‘investment’ into the garden.
In the March Garden – Planting
The official planting day for winter is the 21st March. This is the day the sun has ‘entered’ the northern hemisphere and we in South Africa move into Autumn/Winter. This is known as the Autumn Equinox, and is a helpful reminder of when we should start planting the new season’s crops! Personally, I believe this is a flexible guideline rather than a static rule. There is freedom to plant around the date of the 21st.
There is a full list below on what plants are seasonal for each province in South Africa. I will focus here on the Western Cape, although the principles for planting are the same.
Direct seed planting is by far the cheapest way to plant, although it is a higher risk as many seeds do not germinate and some young shoots can suffer on a hot day. Alternatively, you can plant seeds in containers while the compost is settling in the bed. Then after two or three weeks, transplant the home-grown seedlings into your garden.
One tip is to fill an old toilet roll tube with potting soil and plant your seeds into that mix. Keep it moist and it will grow very well. When it comes to transplanting, you can simply place the tube into the ground as the cardboard will eventually decompose, leaving the plant to grow into the garden soil. This works particularly well with the brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli etc). Try it also with swiss chard, parsley and lettuce. Note that these are all plants that grow above ground.
Most winter crops are root vegetables. I remember this by thinking of traditional winter fare – stews and heavy soups, full of turnips and potatoes! Root vegetables are better suited to direct sowing. Having spaced your rows accordingly, plant your root vegetable seeds such as carrot, beetroot, potato, radish and turnip.
The onion family (alliums) grow well in winter. A useful tip is to plant alliums around the perimeter of your vegetable garden, like a ring of defensive, smelly, pest control. We have done this successfully with spring onions, leeks, brown onions and red onions. And another great benefit is that the moles do not like the smell too!
Winter companionships include rosemary with the brassicas, peas with carrots, parsley with lettuce, beetroot with swiss chard, and potatoes with mint – although remember mint’s invasiveness warrants it be planted in a submerged pot. Note – when laying out your garden, put the tallest plants in the south of the garden so they do not cast a shadow on other plants.
In conclusion, remember that well prepared beds will make the biggest difference for the plants –the healthier the soil, the healthier the plants. Have fun and experiment with different varieties and different companionships. Happy planting!
March Planting Table (seeds)
- Western and Southern Cape: beetroot, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, leek, lettuce, parsley, potato, radish, swiss chard, turnip.
- Inland (Free State, Highveld, Northern Cape, the interior of KZN): beetroot, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, leek, lettuce, onion, parsley, potato, radish, swiss chard, turnip.
- Coastal KZN: bush bean, beetroot, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, cucumber, eggplant, leek, lettuce, onion, parsley, pepper, radish, squash, swiss chard, tomato, turnip.
Sam runs Living Green, an organic food gardening company in Cape Town.