Make the Most of Winter

Each season we take a look at what’s happening in the Soil for Life garden. Soil for Life is an NPO in Cape Town that educates people all over the city how to grow their own at home. The rich bounty of their demonstration garden proves their eco-friendly, easy-to-apply methods work!

Green manures

Green manuring is the best way to fertilise your garden naturally. It takes minimal time, effort and cost, and is especially useful when traditional manures and other materials are not available. Legumes, grains and grasses are grown specifically to dig into the soil once they have germinated and reached around 10-15cm in height. Once they’re turned (dug) into the soil, they provide plenty of nutrients and organic matter to build humus and improve soil structure. Even in a small garden with limited space, just growing a few rows of the different crops, or even broadcasting the seed between other plants, will be a step in the right direction. Once you’ve dug the plants in, leave the ground for about four weeks before planting vegetables. This allows for the first stages of decomposition to take place and prevents subsequent crops from having very pale green leaves and stunted growth.

Good green manure
Legumes: alfalfa (lucerne), clover, cowpeas, beans, broad beans, peas, soybeans, vetch, lupins
Non-legumes: barley, buckwheat, millet, teff, rye

Mulch with wood chips

Mulching is so important, creating a protective covering over the soil and helping to protect plants and retain water. Pile wood chips all over your garden, in the paths and on the beds. It takes very little effort and any type of wood chips will do. To get rid of water-guzzling lawns, simply lay overlapping sheets of newspaper over the lawn, and keep adding wood chips. The chips slowly break down over a year or so into a magnificent layer of humus-rich, spongy soil. It holds water, feeds the soil from the top and suppresses weed growth, and earthworms love them. This is lazy man’s gardening! You can even plant directly into the chips. To do this, add a little soil and compost into a small hole and plant cabbages, broccoli and kale seedlings, or pea, broad bean, Chinese cabbage and beetroot seeds.

Growing in tyres for winter
Winter is on its way, and out will come your woollen socks, leggings, boots and fleecy pyjamas. Winters are cold and, in the Western Cape (dare we say it), wet. Days are short, and
the nights ever so long. With low temperatures and reduced light hours, plants grow very slowly. You can use tyre ‘hotboxes’ to start off seeds and seedlings in the cold winter months. Raised beds (about 20cm above normal soil level) are much warmer (around 8-10°C) than the soil below. Tyres are ideal to provide a raised bed for your vegetables, and black tyres also absorb heat from the sun. Be careful not to end up killing your plants with too much sun, even in winter.

Preparing the tyre

  • Lay the tyre down on its side and cut off the top to create a bigger planting area. Turn the tyre inside out (you will need strong hands to do so).
  • Place the tyre on the ground in a sunny spot, preferably near a north-facing wall. The reflected warmth will stimulate growth.
  • Fill the tyre with a mix of sifted compost and soil.
  • Scatter your seeds over the surface, cover them, press them into the ground and water them carefully. The seeds and seedlings should germinate and grow very quickly.
  • Use shadecloth (or orange mesh bags stitched together) supported by a central stick to protect tiny plants from heavy rain and very cold conditions.

Harvesting and storing seeds
Seeds are expensive, so always leave a few of your healthiest plants to go to seed (healthy plants are best suited to your location and climate). Tie a piece of string around the stem so you remember not to eat the fruit or pick the flower. When the seeds are nice and dry, carefully cut off the dry flower heads or pods into a paper bag and hang the packet in a cool, airy spot. Alternatively, hang the flower heads over a baking sheet or a cardboard lid until they have dried out completely and the seeds have dropped out. Don’t pull seeds or pods off the plant – most will end up being shaken onto the ground. Small, sticky seeds like tomatoes, granadillas and pumpkins can be smeared onto newspaper or a paper plate to dry.
Once dry, place seeds in envelopes, labelled anddated. Store in a cool dry place.

Edible Weed Salad
You can make a delicious salad from edible weeds that pop up in yourgarden. Young, freshly harvested weeds are best. They include blackjacks, lamb’s quarter, chickweed, amaranth, purslane, dandelion, milk thistle, wild sorrel, dune spinach, spekboom and wild garlic. Take five big bunches of leaves and chop them roughly, then place them in a salad bowl. Add a chopped up fruit of your choice, be it prickly pear, Natal plum, apple, pear, nectarine or grapes. Toss the salad gently.

Make a dressing by blending the following ingredients:

Juice and finely grated zest of 3 lemons
½ teaspoon of mustard powder, or 1 teaspoon of mustard
2 teaspoons of honey, or to taste
8 tablespoons of olive oil
Blend in some wild garlic (leaves and bulbs) and/ or nettle leaves to the dressing for a wild and green flavour

Growing beets, carrots, turnips from a stump

One man’s waste is your wealth (and health)! You can use vegetable tops to grow your own baby greens. Turnips, beetroots, radishes and carrots are usually grown for their roots, but their leaves are delicious – especially when theyr’e young. Next time you prepare these veggies to eat, cut off the crown about 1cm from the top. Put the crowns in a shallow tray with water and place it in a sunny spot. Keep moist, and within a week the first new leaves will start to grow. Pick the leaves while they are still small, about 10cm long, and use them in salads or sauté them like you would spinach. You can also transplant these young plants into composted soil and you’ll be getting two plants for the price of one!

The Gardener