Inspired living

Encouraging spring plants


The air warms, the light turns golden, gardeners get a gleam in their eyes and start raiding garden centres for seeds and punnets of seedlings. All too often, though, warm spring breezes don’t mean the earth has warmed up. too. Seeds in cold soil may rot; seedlings may die in frost, or have such a poor start in life that they are slowly growing or don’t thrive.

Over thousands of years, though, canny gardeners have learned how to encourage their spring plants. European kitchen gardens were often enclosed in stone-walled plots. The stone absorbed heat to keep the night-time temperatures warmer, and radiated heat reflected from the sun, too. Crops in these pottager gardens could be harvested a month earlier than those grown outside.

Cottagers learned to “start them on the window sill”. Tomato seedlings, pea seedlings, chillies or even zucchini can be placed on a sunny window sill indoors and planted out when the soil is warm. How do you know when the soil is warm enough to plant? Sit on it, preferably bare-buttocked. This isn’t part of an ancient pagan ritual; it’s because when your bare skin feels comfy on bare ground – especially the sensitive skin of your buttocks — it will be warm enough for seedlings, too.

I take several of my plants indoors each winter: the lemongrass, the coffee bushes grown in pots and a few others are easily wheeled in and out each year. Our summers are quite hot enough for them to grow happily, as long as they aren’t put out till after the frost danger is over.

Speed up spring crops

Protect your plants from the wind. You feel colder when a high wind is blowing – and plants dry out or burn, too. A windbreak can be a hedge or row of trees. You don’t need to build a stone or even a brick wall to make a courtyard. Surround your vegie garden with bales of hay, then when summer comes, use the hay for mulch.

Add a greenhouse to the side of your house so you can share its warmth. Friends have what I think is the perfect greenhouse, where they slide in the windows each autumn and slide them out each summer. The hot air from the greenhouse arms their kitchen and keeps their plants not just alive but giving crops of tamarillo and lemongrass and peppermint even in the coldest months. You can also make a temporary greenhouse out of a frame of semi-circular polypipe propping up sheets of plastic, weighted down by stones so it doesn’t blow away, or held in the soil with stakes. Try old windows propped up on bricks over your plants.

Mulch with a heat-absorbing and reflecting mulch, such as stones. One of the best garden designs for cold areas has metre-wide garden beds surrounded by gravel or stone paths, or even concrete paths. All three reflect more light and heat onto the crops. You get a much larger crop, and much faster.

Use a seaweed spray or a commercial frost-proofing spray: both appear to increase frost resistance and root growth, which makes plants hardier. Add potash to your plants in early autumn for hardier new growth. Avoid high-nitrogen fertilisers that promote soft, sappy growth.

Try a frost cover using a woven fabric that protects from at least three degrees of frost and helps trap warmth next to plants during the day.

I sometimes make plastic “seedling greenhouses” by cutting off the bottoms of old softdrink bottles (first find your plastic softdrink bottles — this can be difficult if you avoid plastic). I place a bottle over each seedling. It’s especially great for cabbage or cauliflower seedlings as they grow fast and large in their tiny greenhouses; and, as the moisture condenses and runs down the plastic, you may not even need to do any extra watering. The “greenhouses” also keep off cabbage whitefly and cabbage moth caterpillars.

Repairing frost damage

The worst frost damage occurs when plants thaw rapidly. It’s not so much the freezing that injures the plants as the thawing, when the frozen cells expand and burst. If you are an early riser, give your plants a thorough, gentle watering before the sun hits them. This way, the plant cells gradually relax instead of bursting. Even totally frozen plants can be restored this way.

Also try covering your plants to increase the thawing time — either do this in the evening or race out and do it as soon as you see frost on the ground. Use anything — blankets, old newspaper — but just get your plants covered. This may often save them.

As a last resort, rely on frost-hardy plants and those that have been hardened to your area. Any plant bought from an area hotter than yours, or from an indoor area in a nursery, may tolerate less frost than a local plant. You can harden plants gradually by leaving them outside for longer and longer periods each day. Better still, raise your own from cuttings or seed taken from plants that grow happily in your area.

Most importantly, though, don’t be in a hurry with your garden. Learn to enjoy each season. Gardens have their own seasons. Not spring, winter, summer and autumn, but planting time, harvest time … aaarrrgh how am I going to cope with all this harvest time, planting for winter time, pottering-about time and enjoying-the-cold-weather-break time?

Just now, it’s daydreaming-about-planting time. Sit in the spring sunlight and dream of what you’d like your garden to be like: the veg you’ll harvest, the flowers that will delight you and all around. Gardens need a bit of daydreaming. And the best time to do it is now.



Jackie French

Jackie French is a gardener, ecologist, honorary wombat, 2014-2015 Australian Children's laureate, 2015 Senior Australian of the year and passionate believer in the need for all humans to feel part of the earth around them, by understanding the plants that sustain us.