Dig for Victory is a primer for the kitchen gardener. Every few weeks or so we’ll publish a new post to build on our technical knowledge of gardening. You’re under the capable hand of Steve here. Let me know what you think and if you’d like anything in particular to be covered. Enjoy!
Generally speaking, Botany is the study of plants, Zoology the study of animals, Biology looks at all living things and Ecology is the relationship between all of these parts. Some field-based knowledge of these sciences will help you understand plant identification, plant needs, nutrient cycling, water cycles, the importance of micro and macro fauna, weed control and well, pretty much everything you need to grow healthy vegetables.
Over a couple of hundred of years scientists have identified and named a multitude of living things, including plants. While you may consider plant scientific names to be irrelevant, knowing them actually helps you make practical gardening decisions. You can collect true to type seeds, provide the right nutrients and avoid pest and disease problems. So don’t be put off, let’s get stuck in!
A family describes a general relationship between similar plants. For example, the Myrtaceae family—including the Eucalyptus trees, the Feijoa, Cloves and Tea trees—are linked by the presence of oil glands in the leaves, simple leave shapes, similar flower structure and other similarities.
Planning rotations is the best example of decision-making based on families. Lay people consider the radish to be a root vegetable, yet it is actually a member of the Brassicaceae family. To prevent the build up of pests and diseases in the soil, it shouldn’t be planted following or preceding other Brassicas; this family includes broccoli, cauliflower and many Asian vegetables. Likewise beetroot and silverbeet are genetically very similar, so much so that they are both Beta vulgaris and should not be preceding or following each other in a bed rotation.
Genus and Species
Genus and species are more specific ordering that contains much closer similarities. A genus is a group of species. For example, the Genera Eucalyptus contains several hundred species that are all different in their height, shape, flowering time, bark, habitat preference and overall shape.
Importantly for breeding, different species pollinate differently—so a Eucalyptus sieberi probably won’t pollinate an E. blaxlandii—whilst those of the same species will cross pollinate.
There are at least three different species of pumpkin: Cucurbita maxima, C. pepo and C. moschate. If you grew a few different varieties of the one species, say C. maxima, at the end of the season the saved seeds would not be necessarily true to variety as they may have cross pollinated. But if you grew one variety of C. maxima, C. pepo and C. moschate, they could be all tangled up together and you could safely collect the seeds for next season.
However, sometimes you do get hybrids that can eventually stabilise and become a new species; the characteristics will then vary, including taste, size, fruiting time and the ability to withstand temperature changes.
Plants are autotrophs, that is, they take basic ingredients in their surroundings and use sunlight to turn it into food to build cells. This is why we ensure the nutrients that they require is available in the soil, and that the soil itself isn’t too alkaline or acidic.
There are several different types of plants—trees, shrubs, herbs, vines and grasses—yet they share similar features like the stem or trunk, branches, leaves, a vascular system, chlorophyll and roots. Because each part plays an important role and we like to eat different parts, we must consider what we are growing for. Do we want healthy leaves, like in a cabbage or a lettuce? Or do we want healthy roots, like a carrot or a beetroot?
Carrots are a tap root; they have a main root heading down, looking for food and water. If we overwater and overfeed the carrot they’ll look marvellous above ground yet the root formation will be less than ideal; this is because it needn’t burrow too far to find nutrients and water.
In botanical terms—as opposed to culinary—fruits are defined by their reproduction and seed dispersal; hence tomatoes, bananas, watermelons, eggplants, corn, wheat, walnuts and beans are fruits. Like all the fruits, tomatoes are full of water, and thus they require lots of water. They also need lots of nutrients to create the lovely tastes, colours and smells; this is nature’s way of saying, “Hey! Here I am—come and eat me and spread my seeds.”
In refusal of cheap fast food at university, Steve Fleischmann began growing vegetables. He is pragmatically organic with 20 years’ experience in Australia and overseas. Once a bush regenerator and project manager for youth environmental projects, he now works at Mamre Farm in Western Sydney with refugees, people with a disability and youths. Building soils, encouraging biodiversity and growing heritage varieties allows Steve the opportunity to feed his family, develop small scale enterprises and pass on knowledge and skills. Follow Mamre Farm on Facebook.
Dig for Victory
1. Soil I: soil type, improving soil and soil health test
2. Soil II: soil compaction and ph test
3. Soil III: nutrients
4. Plants and naming
5. Adapting to a new climate
6. Dig for Victory: Planning for the win