Attention to soil brings rich rewards

Growing vegetables or fruit in your own back yard has made a comeback. Rosie Manins learns how it's done.

Somewhere in Ray Williams' Mosgiel house is a gardening certificate he received in 1948.

It was his last year of primary school and the Broad Bay youngster's mixed vegetable selection won him second place.

''I can't remember if there were only two gardeners or not, but it doesn't matter, it's still second,'' he jokes.

As a child he had a small section of the family vegetable patch, which was a necessity for most households in those days.

''It was a compulsory sort of thing to have in a large family, and it was a little bit compulsory that the children had to play their part, whether by choice or by demand.''

It sparked his interest in growing vegetables and when he married and had children of his own, it only made sense to establish a vegetable garden.

Mr Williams and his wife, Ann, bought their quarter-acre (0.1ha) section in Mosgiel about 55 years ago, when the former farmland was divided for residential development.

''It was the place to come in those days. A lot of new growth was going on in Mosgiel.

"I remember coming out here when the framework of the house was being put in and I staked out an area for my vegetables then.''

He has enriched the soil through his gardening ever since and says most crops seem to flourish.

''You have your good seasons and your bad seasons with growing vegetables. Some years you might get a good crop of something and the next year it just doesn't work, but you can generally plant most things in Mosgiel.''

His flat section used to be swampy riverbed, like much of Mosgiel, so it needed regular doses of nutrient-rich manure and compost.

''You have to add to the soil and it takes time. If you keep planting and putting nothing back, you're going to get what you deserve.''

Mr Williams used potatoes first in his vegetable patch, as they grew well and helped break up the virgin ground.

Carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli soon followed, and he now has about 25 different vegetables growing most seasons, including tomatoes, capsicums and cucumbers in a glasshouse.

He prefers cliff kidney potatoes for their flavour and ability to grow quickly.

The early crop is usually planted about late August or early September, depending on the weather, and is ready for eating in early December.

''We always have carrots, peas and spuds for Christmas.''

Food scraps and most green waste is used in Mr Williams' three-bin composting system, but never any material from his wife's roses, which he says are more likely to carry disease and chemicals.

''The only spray that I use on my vegetables is pyrethrum, to keep the aphids down. Occasionally I use a bit of seaweed, and a bit of blood and bone doesn't go astray.''

Small bags of sulphate of ammonia and lime last in his garden shed for up to four seasons.

Mr Williams has expanded his growing operation to make use of some bare land on another Mosgiel section, and there he has planted red and brown onions, potatoes and pumpkins.

''Those are the sorts of things you can put in and virtually leave. Last year I tried corn there but it needs a bit more attention, so I've brought that home this year.''

In his five small home plots he also has strawberries, beetroot, rhubarb, garlic, lettuce, runner beans, broad beans, courgettes, spring onions, leeks, dwarf beans, baby carrots, radishes and an everlasting onion with a long history.

''It's from the family garden in Broad Bay and was planted here in Mosgiel in 1959. It's like an overgrown chive and multiplies under the ground. You just have to give it a haircut.''



Top tips


• Potatoes do well in virgin soil and break up hard ground.

• Regularly enrich soil with manure or compost.

• Rotate crops.

• Cliff kidney potatoes are sweet, tasty and quick to mature.

• Keep rose material out of compost.

• Pea straw keeps strawberries off damp soil.

• The occasional ''green crop'' like oats or mustard replenishes soil.

• Potatoes don't like lime.



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