Maintain living roots year round
Living roots in the soil are important for feeding the micro organisms at the base of the soil food web. Plants and soil microbes have a very close relationship, where plant roots exude ‘exudates’ (excess sugars generated by the plant photosynthesizing) that feed the microbes, and the microbes in turn can break down minerals and make them available to the plants. In order for the microbes to keep doing their work in the soil, they need living roots to live on and feed from!
This is a challenge for many of our farmers in WA, as living roots year round require water year round. As most of our rain falls in autumn to spring, it can be difficult to keep plants growing through our hot dry summers. Our wheatbelt farmers take advantage of summer thunderstorms by planting opportunistic summer cover crops, such as a mix of sunflowers, millet and maize. Those with a bit more rainfall, such as on the south coast, are planting deep rooted perennials such as chicory, plantain and lucerne. These plants can keep growing through summer with irrigation, or go dormant, but spring back into growth with a summer thunderstorm or the first of the autumn rains. This is what happened with one of our clover plants pictured above, which has sprung back to life after the rain we had a couple of weeks ago.
In your veggie patch, this means try to keep growing crops in your veggie beds, throughout all four seasons. As one crop starts to die back, try planting new seeds or seedlings in between those rows to get new roots growing into the soil. Or plant a cover crop to get growing before the main crop is harvested. Planting different crops together, also known as multi species cropping, helps with varying harvest times as well as keeping those roots growing.
Here we’ve grown our chillies and capsicums, and underplanted them with alpine strawberries and chives. I’ll get some rocket and bok choy growing to fill in the gaps. When I harvest the rocket I’ll pick it one leaf at a time, allowing the roots to remain and the plant to keep growing, and when it is finished I’ll cut it off at ground level, again leaving the roots, and plant the following crop next to it.
For our winter brassica crop I harvested the last of our pumpkins, then decided to leave the zucchinis in as they were still fruiting, although they were scraggly and all over the ground. So I staked them up, and planted the broccoli and cauliflower underneath. In another month when the zucchini is finished I’ll just cut the plant off at ground level, and let the brassicas take over.