By Jodie Eden

In my Tablelands veggie garden I love the autumn months of March, April and May. These are the best months to start a garden. Spring may be prime growing time elsewhere, but what others do in spring works very nicely for us in autumn.  

You can find past What’s On articles online – beginner gardeners might enjoy my article from March 2022. Over-achievers, weeping over growing onions, might check out my April 2023 article. For those of you in the middle, read on to learn where I focus my effort in March: getting broccoli and carrots started.

20 years ago, you would have found me each week at the supermarket buying broccoli and carrots. I vaguely noticed that sometimes they were cheap, sometimes more expensive. I didn’t really think about their price, or how far they had travelled in cold storage because I liked eating them. After putting in a serious effort to grow my own, I now understand what ‘eating in season’ means. 

Broccoli and carrots do not flourish in hot weather. I only plant them from March to August, which means I only harvest them from May to November. At other times I use my frozen stores, or I eat what’s ‘in season’. 

Broccoli is in the brassica family. Did you know that broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale are exactly the same species? They are all highly attractive to cabbage butterflies, and therefore not worth growing in warmer months when butterflies go berserk. 

There’s lots of entertaining advice out there about dealing with cabbage butterflies, from chasing them down with nets to decorating your garden with fake butterflies, plus all sorts of companion planting. If you want quality brassicas with few caterpillars, ignore the cute and ineffective and focus on three things: (1) grow in cool months, (2) net seedlings, and (3) spray with Dipel.

I plant most seeds in punnets, then transplant the seedlings into cut-off milk carton pots. This is a good way to grow brassicas because protecting them is easy. Fine fruit-fly netting works, but bird mesh is good too, so long as a butterfly can’t get through a hole to lay eggs on your seedlings. You’d be amazed how quickly a tiny caterpillar can demolish a tiny seedling! When the seedlings are quite large, 6-8 weeks old, I plant them out in the garden. 

Yes, butterflies will certainly lay eggs on brassica plants in the garden, but it takes time for caterpillars to grow up and cause real damage. Every week I check the plants for tell-tale holes and poop, picking off handfuls of caterpillars for the chooks. 

I rarely use sprays because they tend to kill the good along with the bad. However, I really like Yates’ organic spray Dipel, a powdered form of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki. I need several days of fine weather to ensure that the spray doesn’t get washed off the leaves before the caterpillars start munching. Dipel is not harmful unless you’re a caterpillar. If you are, and you eat a leaf sprayed with this, you get a tummy ache and die several days later. 

When I plant broccoli, I plant carrots. Carrots also struggle in warm weather and grow well in the cooler months. Sugar is an antifreeze, so as the weather gets colder, plants like carrots and beetroots push sugars into their roots as a protection against freezing. If you’ve grown carrots that were not particularly sweet or large, the weather was probably too warm. 

You are wasting your money if you buy a punnet of carrot seedlings because they hate being transplanted, and they let you know by developing multiple twisted roots. They also form this weird root tangle if the soil is too rocky, or too rich in nitrogen. Carrot seed must be planted directly into unfertilised soil and so much can go wrong! Too hot? The seed dries out before it germinates. Seed planted too thickly? Fiddly thinning is required. Soil full of weed seed? You’ll be faced with an agony of weeding. Carrot seedlings pull out so much more easily than weeds. And remember, they do not transplant well!

I’d almost given up on carrots when I read Jules Hartmann’s excellent advice: use sawdust. First rake your soil smooth and sprinkle carrot seed as evenly as you can, ideally spacing them 2cm apart.  Cover the seed with sawdust, about 2cm thick and smack it down with your hand! Water very well. The weeds hate this treatment while the carrots love it. Since doing this, I consistently grow excellent carrots. I have very rich garden soil, but I think the sawdust effectively draws nitrogen out of the soil, so I rarely get twisted carrot monstrosities. The occasional amusing odd fellow just goes to show that my veggies no longer come from the supermarket.