Old sayings can ring true in the garden

Prepare land now for vegetables. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
Prepare land now for vegetables. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

One day fireworks, next day frost. Typical, given the hot and cold unpredictability of our weather these days. Good for this coastal gardener living in a dream world of milder winters, but having had a wake-up call, feeling a sense of urgency.

Frost-affected dahlia leaves and stems is taken as the sign to lift tubers, dry them off thoroughly and store in a cool place.

Those who seek guidance will often approach the subject as follows: “They say that dahlia tubers should not be dug up until frost has blackened the foliage, is that true?” Like most of these sayings, yes, there is more than a grain of truth in it.

Given a mild autumn, flowering can continue into November. Premature cutting down growth would be wasteful in flowering potential and allowing nutrients in stem and leaf to be re-absorbed. Going along with nature until frost calls a halt makes sense.

I was asked last week: “Why not leave tubers in the ground and offer an extra layer of cover over that spot for winter protection?” This has always been my approach with bedding-type dahlias, and it works.

However, if you’ve paid a substantial amount for a special show cultivar or grow one that has sentimental value, it makes sense to lift, offer frost protection, then encourage tuber growth early in the year.

Seasonal gardening sayings passed on through generations can be helpful when you’re discovering the basics of tending a plot because they relate to fruit, vegetables and ornamental features. For example, “One year of seeds equals seven years of weeds” is a warning to keep on top of the hoeing and hand-picking of unwanted plants.

As we move towards winter, there’s a reminder that it’s time for soil replenishment in farming and gardening: “In October manure your field, and your land its wealth shall yield.” This is supported by: “You get out of the land what you put into it.”

Digging bulky organic manure or composted garden waste into certain vegetable beds now gives it the chance to break down over winter, preparing the soil for new spring sowings. Take it a step further and mulch fruit trees and bushes, herbaceous perennials and rose beds.

“Never mix manure and lime” reminds us that although an annual application of bulky manure is good for your soil, it also contributes toward the acidity. This can be neutralised by adding an alkali substance, lime being the most popular.

However, if you add them both at the same time they’re cancelling-out each other’s effect so leave a gap between their introduction.

Furthermore, use a simple pH testing kit to determine the exact nature of your soil. This is based on numbers; pH 8 and above being alkaline, pH 6 and below acid, and pH 7 neutral.

Given such information, proceed accordingly, but as a general guide on land where brassicas are to be grown, a handful of lime to the square metre is a useful precaution against the dreaded club root disease.

Combine this with growing cabbage, sprouts, indeed all vegetables, on a different patch of land each year to avoid a build-up of pests or diseases specific to that plant.