It's time to feed your garden

JUDE GILLIES
Last updated 15:28 24/08/2012
garden kit
GOOD TO GO: The complete spring garden starter kit.

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Home and Garden

Life's a bach Be on lookout for brassica wrecker Pumpkins and possums Poisoned pines to be felled Signs of Autumn Palm-spotting in Ponsonby Made in the shade Are chemtrails ruining Golden Bay gardens? Weaving through lives Relish the fruits of home garden

Heard of nutrient transfer? Even if you haven't, you'll be well aware of taking the rubbish out each week. And, dare I say it, flushing the loo several times a day.

With each of these actions go lots of nutrients in one form or another. It's the way of the world. Pasta and peanuts we eat from some far-off place end up as waste here, either down the loo or, if uneaten, possibly out with the rubbish bag.

Most farmers, especially those in dairying, know all about nutrient transfers, from fertilisers to stock food, and how to minimise that which exits the cow as waste, mostly nitrogen.

In the garden, you introduce nutrients as fertiliser from, say, the garden centre, and plants from perhaps another part of the country, which, when blended with water and sunlight, give you your home-grown supply of nutrients.

Just where the garden centre fertiliser came from is often anyone's guess. If it's from a farmer's paddock or woolshed, it will have whatever nutrients the farmer fed the stock, combined with whatever was in the soil, as well as the basics from sunshine-boosted photosynthesis in the grass.

That relates to the carbon cycle and the now vexed issue of carbon credits and taxation. Once you start thinking about how nutrients move around in one form or another, it's easy to see how they are constantly mobile currency.

It's what I got to thinking about after a little foray to the garden centre this week.

Among my purchases were several sources of fertiliser, a bag of seed raising mix, some "seed" potatoes (potatoes, of course, are tubers used as starter "seed"), a couple of packets of sweet peas and a bottle of hormone herbicide.

It's what I regard as the complete home garden starter kit for spring, although I'm acutely aware there are plenty of organic, permaculture gardening friends who would cringe at some of the items on my shopping list. But I have good reasons for my choices.

Firstly, the simple stuff like the seed raising mix simply makes life in the home garden a lot easier and ensures that, with expensive seeds and "early start" tender crops sown indoors, I'll get a good strike. The mix is how it should be; low in nutrients, free draining, but with moisture-holding granules to keep the vulnerable little seedlings going, and with an added dose of gypsum to help promote early root growth.

Then there are the seed potatoes. Everyone has their favourite, and Jersey Bennes are mine. And, because I like to dig new potatoes all summer, I'll just keep planting them right up until Christmas.

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While I regard Anzac Day as the ideal time to sow sweet peas, I sow more in spring for an extended flowering season.

Among my choice of fertilisers, pelleted "sheepy do" is one of my favourites. Not only does it come with an appealing rural aroma and in pleasant, user-friendly pellets which add organic matter to the garden, it also offers readily available nitrogen that's washed into the soil over several weeks. I find it's ideal in the vege and flower gardens, and for nitrogen-demanding roses and citrus. The Nitrophoska Blue I bought is another readily available, concentrated nitrogen fertiliser of choice for leafy spring growth. It might be anathema to some, but it's probably the point where I start to depart from gardening solely the organic way.

Permaculture gardeners in particular would probably say a system should be self-sufficient through crop rotation and the use of fallow ground, but being totally self-sufficient in nutrients is something I regard as almost impossible in a small urban section. Invariably, nutrients will need to be imported into the system in one form or another.

What I do readily concede is that concentrated fertilisers are foreign to the organic nature of the soil and its vulnerable micro-organisms. I admit there can be few things more unpleasant for worms to encounter in the soil than a dose of concentrated fertiliser, which is why I always apply it to the surface, where it has to wash its way in.

Then there's the slow-release fertiliser (with trace elements) for fruit and ornamental trees and shrubs. If you check the pack, as I did before purchase, you'll find it's got N, P, K (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) percentages of 15, 5.2 and 10 respectively, plus the valuable trace elements. Nitrogen feeds leaf growth, phosphorous boosts root growth, and potassium feeds the fruit. It's like a crop insurance policy so my trees get the nutrients they need to produce and sustain good crops. When the fruit is harvested, so are the nutrients.

The sulphate of ammonia is for the lawn. With advancing age, I admit I've become something of a lawn addict, a condition I've often observed in other mature gardeners. Even though I readily acknowledge the absurdity of lawn monoculture, requiring an inherently unnatural regime, what limited area of lawn I do have I like to keep as a luxurious sward for barefoot summers.

And that means keeping the dreaded Onehunga weed away. There are two ways of doing this - by choking it out with thick, healthy grass, or spraying it with selective hormone herbicide.

The sulphate of ammonia keeps the lawn green and growing fast and furious, while the hormone herbicide is a last resort. After years of hand weeding the lawn, I've resorted to using hormone herbicide - which, if you weren't aware, works by killing only the dicotyledonous (ie Onehunga weeds and dandelions) whilst leaving the monocot grasses unaffected. Any organic grower would be horrified - and again, I admit it's not ideal. In fact, I regard it as an insidious solution to the problem of weeds in the lawn, so I'll use the absolute minimum, applying it only where it's needed.

The insidious part is that the long-lived hormone herbicide remains in the plant tissue for weeks, and is why it's essential to not put the subsequent lawn clippings on the garden or in the compost, but send (transfer) them away via the refuse (not recycling) system.

It might mean my urban oasis might not meet organic or permaculture requirements, with nutrients transferred in and nasties out, but as a realist, I reckon finding informed choice is the best option.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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