Feeding soil for a healthy garden

20:15, Apr 24 2012
Ray Murray
STRAWBERRY SUCCESS: Ray Murray will be known to followers of Blokes in Sheds, and his gardening and engineering interests have just produced this ultimate strawberry drum, on a rotating platform, ready for next season's fruiting.

Comparing south Invercargill to Findhorn may seem a little bit extreme, but personal experience of gardening in at least one of these places qualifies me to think it is not entirely unreasonable.

Cold, salt-laced winds straight off the pole, make similar challenges for gardeners at opposite ends of the earth.

But horticultural wonders can still happen at the hands of talented people who learn how to manage conditions.

So when Ray Murray got in contact to report successfully orcharding outdoors in Newfield, there was good reason to investigate.

Murray was responding to an earlier story about a gardener growing tender fruits in Gore, mostly within the cosy confines of customised structures.

He was claiming to be growing them outdoors – nectarines, feijoas and more.


Investigation was in order, especially when a visit via Google Streetview showed his property occupies no cosy hollow (is there such a thing in Invercargill?) nor hides behind a big sheltered hedge.

As Murray himself admits, the wind whistles through just like so many other southern gardens, where its hard to keep blossom on the trees, let alone fruit.

By the time of my visit two weeks ago the nectarines had all been eaten, the gooseberry and currant crop was stashed in the freezer, the apples all picked, but the feijoas were forming and true enough on outdoor trees.

Admittedly the fruit is to be found on the wind-sheltered sides, but it's there all right, and in no more shelter than from a conventional corrugated iron fence.

Having grown up in Pukekohe where feijoas are even used as hedges, he wasn't inhibited by southern folklore when it came to giving them a try.

They're actually a very hardy tree, he says, recommending the variety Kaitere as his best performer.

Much of his other fruit is grown on miniature forms, and in containers, which of course makes it easier to give them shelter – thornless blackberries, dwarf apple and crab apple.

The only significant failure has been a plum tree, (and one with three varieties grafted to it) which has fallen victim each year so far to the equinoxial gales.

There are plenty of other horticultural wonders to admire – the cranberry crop for a start, impressively large berries on very heavily laden bushes.

Then the massively productive outdoor tomatoes (and on an east, rather than north-facing wall).

And rhubarb stalks some 60 centimetres long.

And yes, the secret is in the soil, and growing strong plants.

People think you get a bit of some ground, dig it over, plant it and get disappointed by lack of results, Murray says.

Soil needs help, with good nutrition for plants to draw on.

"Plants are like people, you have to feed them."

And feed them he does, by means of a massive composting system involving the output of a friend's pigeon loft (feathers and all), seaweed, and clippings from a large lawn.

Household scraps go into separate bins, as they take longer to break down.

There is also lots of seaweed dried and chipped for direct application around plants, or made into liquid fertiliser.

It is carted home by the trailerload from western Southland, where friends report when storms have brought a good supply to the beaches.

The focus on soil nutrition is also apparent in the vege garden, where all the foliage is glossy with good health.

The potatoes grown in pea straw are another wonder to behold, especially as harvesting is more like robbing a chooks hidden clutch than digging.

His method is simple: set seed potatoes in a box of sawdust, keep covered and damp, then set out straight on well-composted ground in September.

On goes a sprinkle of superphosphate, potash and gypsum, then he tucks them up under pea straw, and every time they poke their heads through adds another layer.

Getting them in so early, before the frosts are even over, makes for a long growing season, but again, the secret lies in the soil.

"Spuds are heavy feeders, you've got to give them plenty to eat," he says.

This method does mean having to buy in straw.

"But I'm getting old. I don't like digging. And you get clean spuds."

These days Murray teaches gardening in a project for adults, and he's an advocate for everyone knowing how to grow their own good food.

His garden tour is punctuated with praise for the flavours of homegrown produce.

Growing potatoes is a great way to get children involved, especially if a bit of competition is involved.

"They love nothing more than beating Dad."

Story suggestions or feedback are welcome at timesgardening@gmail.com

The Southland Times