Summer, autumn, winter, spring: what to plant and when

Not everyone is born with a green thumb! We spoke to Mat Pember, Aussie author and founder of The Little Veggie Patch Co., for advice and tips on the best times to plant and harvest veggies in your very own yard.

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Now you’ve got a home and a backyard, why not start a veggie patch? Growing an edible garden is a great way to not only boost the amount of fruits and veggies in the garden, but get the whole family spending more time outdoors. As an added bonus, it helps you live more sustainably while reducing your carbon footprint. What’s not to love?

“A lot of the common things that we eat, herbs and lettuces and such, are quite costly at the supermarket and they’re some of the easiest things to grow,” says Mat Pember, the mind behind The Little Veggie Patch Co., a St Kilda-based enterprise working to ensure the art of good old fashioned homegrown fruit and veg stays alive – literally. “If there’s such a thing as a no-brainer in life, then growing your own food is probably one of them.”

Mat has co-authored four books, is working on a fifth and has guest starred on Channel Ten’s The Living Room. Plus Mat launched a ‘pop-up patch’ just a stone’s throw from Melbourne’s Federation Square. It has certainly been a busy few years, admits this father of two. Yet Mat still finds time to spend in the garden, tending to his own family veggie patch.

“I love picking food with my kids and putting it on the table,” Mat enthuses. “And the feeling that comes with having provided something.”

We spoke to Mat about the best veggies for each season and his top tips for beginners.

Get started with greens

First, it’s important to “grow what you know”, says Mat. When choosing what’s going into your garden, plant veggies you already eat regularly and that are easy to grow. Leafy greens and herbs are ideal in this respect, because they’re commonly used, easy and fast growing. Most herbs are also perennial, which means they stay in season year in, year out.

That means, if you plant parsley and tend to it well, it should grow year round, which is unlike other veggies (where you have to plant the seeds each season). Lettuces, on the other hand, only have a short life and will need to be replaced every few months, but can also be grown all year round. Although most greens can be grown anytime, there are some that prefer the heat while others prefer a cooler climate. It’s worth asking for advice from your gardening centre.

If you’re new to growing veggies, avoid planting artichokes and asparagus because they’re hard to grow and take a long time to produce any kind of harvest.

“That said,” says Mat, “if there’s something you really want to grow give it a shot! The tomato plant is one of the hardest things to grow, but every beginner wants one, so they’re one of the most sought after plants.”

Once you’ve picked what to grow, decide whether you’ll use seedlings or seeds. There are advantages to both, says Mat, but there’s a clear winner for beginners: seedlings. “Herbs are very easy to grow from seedling, which is an adolescent plant, seeds on the other hand are really tricky, particularly when growing herbs.”

The final step? Timing, and this is where Mat’s expertise is key. Although lettuce and herbs can be grown year-round, other fruit and veg are more suited to particular climates. Australia’s a large land with numerous climate zones but there are general rules all beginners can follow to achieve sweet success. Here’s Mat’s guide on what to plant, when to harvest (pick) and pests to watch out for in every season.

Summer

“Summer really is the glory time of gardening – all your spring, summer plants are beginning to fruit – but watering can be a bit of an issue,” Mat explains. “It’s almost impossible to over water a garden in summer but it’s very easy to under water it, particularly if you’re growing in pots. Watering twice a day is really important.”

Plant: Chilies, eggplants and capsicums as the primary fruiting crops. Throw in any sort of herb other than coriander and dill (which get heat stress), and any sort of leafy green like rocket, cos or iceberg lettuce, chicory, radicchio and most root vegetables.

Harvest: At this time of year, your cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, chilies and eggplants, pumpkins, zucchini and hops are in production mode and will be approaching the end of their life cycle.

Watch out for: Rats – although you might get an outbreak of caterpillars as well so make sure you check your garden regularly. Watch out for root-knot nematodes – they burrow into the roots of plants from the nightshade family. These include tomatoes, capsicum or eggplant. You’ll notice when you pull the veggies up as they cause swelling on the roots of those plants. If you you have them, change the family of crop you plant in that spot next season.

Autumn

“Autumn is really the continuation of the warm season in Australia, which starts in early summer and continues all the way into mid-late autumn. The weather’s still nice and it’s a great time to grow.”

Plant: Any sort of onions, leek and garlic. You can also plant legumes such as beans and peas, and then the family of brassicas – broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale. Of course, you can still plant herbs in autumn, most of the lettuces and most of the root vegetables, like carrots, as well.

Harvest: Harvest your summer varieties – chili, eggplant and capsicum – along with all-year-round plants like the lettuces and some of the root vegetables. You may also be lucky enough to have some late tomatoes and some basil – depending how cold it is they can fruit all the way into early winter.

Watch out for: The main pest at this time exclusively targets the brassicas – cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc. It’s called the white cabbage moth. Netting those crops is a really good idea to stop the butterflies from landing and laying their larvae.

Winter

“Winter is the time for the bulk growing period of your autumn crops rather than planting other things,” says Mat. “That said, you can still grow things. If you’re growing in Melbourne or Tasmania it’s probably too cold to do a lot of things in the absolute peak of winter.”

Plant: Coriander, but not in the peak of winter. Kale, silver beet and spinach and those types of tougher leafy greens do really well in the colder weather. Root vegetables like beetroots, turnips and swedes are good to plant right on the cusp of winter. In Brisbane it’s the best time to grow tomatoes.

Harvest: Not a great deal other than the leafy greens as the onions, leek and garlic you planted in autumn have really long growing times – once you plant them it’s a six month proposition before you can harvest them. If you’re planting salads and kale and silver beet and you’ll start getting a harvest in winter.

Watch out for: Possums always cause problems because food sources are scarce. And when the garden is really wet and damp pests like snails and slugs are more active.

Spring

“The renewed optimism of spring is great,” Mat enthuses. “You get an explosion of everything! But be careful not to get excited and plant things too soon because if the soil’s too cold your plants will really struggle. You really need to wait until the soil temperatures rise, so spring planting is best to begin in October.”

Plant: The earliest of the spring things are all the herbs, asparagus and artichokes. Then you can move onto your early spring crops – cucumbers, zucchinis, as well as pumpkin and squash. Then it’s time for tomatoes, beans and chilies and eggplant.

Harvest: All the autumn veg. “You pull out your garlic when you’re about to plant your tomatoes – that’s the Italian myth!” says Mat. Broad beans, peas, cauliflowers and cabbages, onions and leeks too – all those things that we planted in autumn.

Watch out for: White fly, aphids and flying insects. Spring is the most conducive breeding time for pests so you’ve got to be quite vigilant – keep your garden neat and tidy with lots of airflow so you don’t congest your plants. The key is to remember that pests are seasonal so don’t launch chemical warfare on the patch just because you see a few flies.

Final tips

And the last word on planting? Mat says there are three essentials:

  1. Buy a pot that’s the correct size. If you buy a pot that is 50cm wide and deep then if you’re planting herbs, you’ll have a plant for life. If you plant that herb in a pot that’s 10cm across and 10cm deep then you’ll only get a plant for a month.
  2. Choose a really good quality potting mix. Potting mix will completely affect the way your plants grow. The better the quality, the better your plants will grow so choose the best potting mix you can afford.
  3. Just add water. Mulching the soil is really important to keep it from drying out.

It’s important to love what you’re doing, no matter what – involve the kids and get the whole family into your project so you can all learn together. “Everyone has to eat and it is relatively straight forward,” Mat says. “Just start with plants that are easier to build up your confidence and go from there.”