What you need to know about mulch in your summer garden

Thanks for your many questions on mulching the garden – you have been asking what to use and most importantly, what is safe to use out there.

To me, mulch is so important in the summer months, as it helps retain the moisture in the soil and keep plant roots from drying out. Mulch enables the roots to go deeper into the soil to get their moisture. The question these days is what mulch is safe to use, due to the heavy use of pesticides on crops.

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I can personally recommend the following four sources of mulch, which I regularly use with great success:

Leaf mulch is a layer of either shredded leaves or leaves that have been collected from a previous season and allowed to partly break down. These will enrich your soil in many ways, so it makes for a great option.

Seagrass is a fantastic free source of mulch if you are lucky, like me, and live near a beach that dumps this on your shores. I’m not sure where the name seagrass came from, but it looks very much like fresh cut grass clippings. It has hardly any nitrogen content but is packed full of minerals and is especially high in boron, which is great for olive trees.

Organic straw seems to be a hard mulch to get hold of these days, so when it is available, I buy 5 or 6 bales to last me the season. Organic straw can be expensive but if you compare it to the bags of pea straw available in the shops, it is actually extremely good value as the quantity of a bale is 10 times more than a bag of pea straw.

Home-grown beans or peas can be used as another alternative source of mulch. I usually let these plants go to seed and die off in my garden before breaking down all the stems and mulch around my plants.

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Why should I bother to mulch?

Mulch is such an important part of your gardening armoury, as it protects the soil from drying out; it keeps the roots of your plants cool in the hot summer months and protects them from soil splashes when the rain is heavy. It also keeps the weeds down – bonuses all around!

Top tip: One thing to remember is not to mulch right up to the stem. It is advisable to leave a space around the stem of each plant – otherwise you can suffocate the air flow and create a ripe environment for breeding pest and disease. This gap also creates a great space to water your plants directly in the early hours of the morning. Always water at the base!

Remember your fruit trees too – mulch can both protect them from the dreaded weed-eater nicking the trunk and also to keep their roots cool, especially surface-feeder roots like citrus trees.

My advice when buying mulch would be to only buy organic. Ask yourself what the pea straw has likely been sprayed with, considering commercial peas are prone to a lot of diseases. Fungicides are used aplenty; the dreaded Roundup is used between the rows and they are probably grown from chemically-treated seeds.

Your garden deserves better and so do you!

There is so much carbon around so do collect it up – leaves, seagrass and dried grass are great around the plants and will help keep the soil cool.

Happy gardening!

Pests: Top tips for organic control of passion vine hoppers

Over the past weeks, I have seen a lot of fresh bugs and insects around, which is a great reminder to remain vigilant – so let’s take a closer look at a these over the coming weeks so that you know how to protect your garden and summer crops from pesky pests the organic way.

Where did all these passion vine hoppers come from anyway?

The passion vine hopper can be prolific in our gardens and people often remark that, all of a sudden, there are so many – where did they come from? The passion vine hopper only lays one load of eggs a year. The eggs can be laid from February onwards and can overwinter as eggs on host plants.

Nymphs hatch in late spring when the weather warms and then they grow into adults in the summer months and usually stick around into winter, depending on your climate. A good cold snap can put an end to the adult cycle and kill the eggs too.

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An egg ready to hatch

What damage do passion vine hoppers do in my garden?

Both the nymphs and the adults attack new young growing shoots, feeding on the sap of the plants, thus destroying new growth and causing damage to the plants. September to April is their biggest feeding time, so this is the time that the most damage is caused.

Adult passion vine hoppers are about 6mm long and have triangle wings that have a slight pattern and are see-through. Passion vine hoppers have three pairs of legs and two pairs of wings – hence that is why these insects are such good jumpers and can fly very quickly. Adults only take two weeks to mature and, when dusk arrives, this is when they mate. They also lay their eggs in the late afternoon/evening, when the cooler part of the day arrives.

The female tends to lay its eggs in dead plant matter and garden stakes, but will also lay its eggs in the midribs of new young plants. The eggs are laid in neat rows. When the nymphs hatch, they feed straight away on young shoots.

The nymph has five stages of development and the most common one we observe is when they develop their fluffy bums. When touched, these jump so quickly, but miraculously seem to land on a plant nearby. Have a look under your plant leaves for clusters of these fluffy bum nymphs.

The adults have very sharp, piercing mouth-parts, which are pushed into the tender part of the plant to suck the plant juices out. Any excess juice is secreted as honeydew that puts a coating on the plants’ leaves. This coating can then cause sooty mould to grow, thus suffocating your plant, and the plant leaves may also appear sticky.

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An adult passion vine hopper

How do I control passion vine hoppers in my garden?

Controlling these insects is extremely hard, unless you can spot where they lay their eggs.

Tip #1: My biggest tip is observation – check your plants regularly by looking underneath leaves and between young shoots for any signs of eggs – then you can remove the leaf they have laid on.

Sometimes, we can be fooled into thinking there is nothing to be done in the garden but, in these times, I recommend going around your garden and checking cracks in the bark of your fruit trees and looking on the underside of leaves for eggs and bugs. Another good way to spot these is if your leaves are all curled up – then you can pretty much guarantee that something is happening on the underside of the leaf.

Tip #2: A good way to start your control of these pests is to grow plants that attract predator insects such as borage, alyssum and lavender. By planting these beneficial plants, it attracts the right kind of insect that will pray on the nymphs and eat them. These insects are hard to kill as they move so quickly, so it’s helpful to leave it to their natural-born predators. Nature always has a way.

Tip #3: I use a potent organic combination of EnSpray 99 oil and Liquid Kelp – my secret weapons! Spray in the evening, as these pests are much less active then. I spray under all leaves and over every part of the plant, as they seem to be everywhere. I also recommend spraying the air before the plant, as they jump or fly straight away. I repeat the spraying weekly until the infestation reduces.

It is all about breaking the cycle and reducing the numbers.

If you’re looking for more guidance on pests and disease, along with companion planting, you might want to consider joining my membership site, The Grow Inspired Academy. Here, I can teach you how to manage your pests the organic way through a whole host of methods; along with detailed coaching on how to grow food and compost. We’re still accepting new members – but not for much longer! Discover more here!

Happy gardening!

Five tips to prevent rust on your plants

What causes rust on my plants?

Rust is a fungus that is spread by wind, which affects a variety of different plants including garlic, onions, silverbeet, beetroot, roses and leeks.

Rust starts on the foliage of plants and spreads by leaves touching each other or by the wind blowing the spores from one plant to another. Before you know it, your whole crop or plant is affected by rust!

The most common causes of rust is moisture in the air or soil, or from planting your crops too close together, so that there is not enough airflow. Rust is a force of nature and can’t be controlled in the way some people like to think it can. If you live in a cold area, you are likely to escape this dreaded fungus. However, a mild winter will enable spores to remain rather than being kept under control by the cold.

What damage does rust cause on my plants?

Rust can destroy your whole crop if it gets a bit of momentum. When I see the first signs of rust, I am ruthlessly quick to pull the plant out and salvage what I can to eat. I then burn the rest. If left in the ground, this disease will spread from one plant to the other.

Occasionally, even this fails and the rust will still infect your whole garlic crop; while your onions stay safe – another mystery of nature! Rust is specific to its own crop so garlic rust won’t spread to your roses and vice versa.

If your crop is nearly ready for harvesting, you can remove most of the leaves to try and help the disease slow down. Remember to wash your hands and gloves afterwards just to be doubly sure not to spread the bacteria.

How can I prevent rust from developing on my plants?

There is NO fail-safe way to successfully control rust, however there are some actions you can take to minimise the risk of rust.

Tip #1.

Water in the morning and not at night, as the water will sit there all night until the heat of the day, which will give the rust spores time to take hold.

Tip #2.

Water at the base of the plant and not overhead. My recommendation would be no overhead watering for any plants during spring/summer.

Tip #3.

Give your plants room to breathe and try not to overcrowd them by planting too close. Good airflow is the key.

Tip #4.

Rotate your crops, or resign yourself that some things you just can’t grow in your area, climate or soil type – humidity and clay soils are definitely high on this list (sorry Waiheke!). If you have space, I strongly urge you to wait seven years before you put the same plant in the infected spot.

Tip #5.

Sterilise your tools to prevent spreading the disease from one plant to another. Also wash your hands or gloves after dealing with plants contaminated with rust.

Good luck and long may your garden continue without rust!

Happy gardening

The secret to growing delicious food WITHOUT pests and disease

What the gardening industry doesn’t want you to know…

To celebrate the launch of the Grow Inspired Academy – my new online membership site to learn how to grow food, compost, protect from pests and disease and much more – I have released a free downloadable guide packed with insider knowledge from my 30+ years gardening.

I reveal my organic gardening secrets to keeping pests and disease away WITHOUT the chemicals. Gardening centres would happily have you believe that you need to buy a plethora of expensive mixes, sprays, oils and magic fairy dust (!) to protect your garden from these plagues…

BUT at the Grow Inspired Academy, I show you how to achieve this without chemicals, and without spending lots of money. This 11-page guide gives you a sneak preview of the rich knowledge and essential tips I share throughout my membership site, designed with easy-to-follow bundles on these important topics and skills.

This topic isn’t one we cover for a few months yet inside the membership, but here I am giving you access to get ahead of the class!

And it’s yours for free!

Simply click below to get your hands on your own copy of this must-know download…

GET YOUR GUIDE FOR FREE HERE

Essential gardening: Three easy steps to fix nitrogen in your soil over winter

This month, it’s important to focus on soil regeneration and how the planting of legumes helps fix nitrogen to your soil.

Why do I need to fix nitrogen to my soil?

Nitrogen is an essential nutrient that plants need to grow. During a season of growth, plants will be consuming this nutrient so, at the end of the season, you need to replace it ahead of your next crop.

What will fix nitrogen to my soil?

Peas, beans, broad beans, buckwheat, lupins, vetch, and clover all fix nitrogen to the soil and are sometimes grown as cover crops or green manure crops in over-wintering beds.

The legume family contain symbiotic bacteria called rhizobia in the nodes of their root system. These produce nitrogen that helps the plants to grow and also helps them to compete with other plants. When the plant is spent, the fixed nitrogen is then released into the soil. It makes this essential nutrient available to follow-on plantings, along with nearby plants, and helps to fertilise the soil.

We could get really technical here however, sticking true to my principles of keeping it simple, I will explain only the basics to you the average gardener.

How does it work – what do I need to know?

Legumes release organic compounds from their roots which attract rhizobia to them. The rhizobia is attracted to the root hairs of your plants and the hairs curl around the rhizobia to create a pathway to travel into the root cells.

Rhizobia is an important bacteria in the soil that has the ability to make the nitrogen that is in our atmosphere available to our plants. In exchange for the nitrogen, the plant provides carbohydrates to the bacteria. They form nodules attached to the roots of your legumes.

The nitrogen fixing bacteria can also help to increase the soil fertility for all plants. This is why it is so good to do your crop rotation with any of the above plants. After harvest, you can leave your roots in the soil and, when they break down, they provide nitrogen to the next crop.

Nitrogen top tip #1: 

If you pull your plants out, be sure to cut off the roots and dig back in otherwise you will lose all the valuable nitrogen from these plants.

Nitrogen top tip #2: 

It is always good to interplant with other crops – even in between rows – as this will help keep your soil restored of nitrogen and enable you to have a healthy garden without your plants stressing out.

Nitrogen top tip #3: 

Please remember that all legumes also like plentiful supplies of phosphorus and calcium, which can be added with the addition of lime, rock phosphate or gypsum. So if your crop didn’t do so well last year, take these factors into account before your late spring / summer sowing.

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As the daylight hours start to get longer, it is good to get one of these crops in before summer planting. 

Happy gardening!

How to rescue your citrus from pests right now

As citrus are ripening now and over the next few months, I thought it would be a great idea to talk about a few of the pests associated with these plants, and most importantly, what you can do to protect your citrus from them.

Enemy number one: Scale

Scale are sap sucking insects that are found on the leaves and branches of your citrus trees. If your tree is looking unhealthy, inspect the branches for ants climbing up and down your tree. This can be a sign of scale, as they secrete sugar which attracts the ants.

There are different types of scale, from the hard shelled brown ones to the soft white ones.

Scale insects attach themselves to the leaves or stems of your citrus and start to suck away at your plant. They excrete honeydew that is attractive to ants, which in turn creates sooty mould. When your plant is infested with scale, the leaves usually turn yellow. Also if you have cracks in your bark, scale can live in these, which are quite hard to see. It pays to examine your tree thoroughly.

If scale is left unchecked, your tree could become very weak and unhealthy.

Remedy number one: Fight scale organically

To treat scale, spray with a good oil. I use EnSpray 99, as I have had great success with this. Spray the infected areas and this will suffocate the scale and cause the scale to die. When you touch it, it will fall off the tree or you can rub off with a cloth. Repeat spraying if the infestation is bad. This year, I have found scale on many, many plants – even natives – so it is not really specific to tree varieties.

Enemy number two: Borer

How do you know if your citrus tree has borer?

The tree will lack vigour and have holes along the branches. In some cases, you will even be able to see mounds of sawdust.

Remedy number two: How to remove borer

Borer grubs are dormant for the next couple of months, so it is an ideal time to cut out and remove any borer. This is your time to act! Really, when it is dormant is the only time to cut it out, otherwise the grub will lay egg on new cuts and then they will bore into the new growth of your tree.

It is SO IMPORTANT to remember to either burn or dispose of your infected branches. The totally organic way of dealing with borer is to insert a G string from a guitar down the hole to pierce the grub, however this could take some time (and patience!). At Grow Inspired, we typically use a squirt of CRC down the hole, as this smothers the grub and causes it to die, without harming the trees. Following this, apply pruning paste over the holes or wounds to protect them from further infestation.

Last year, I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to see three borer grubs and I was shocked to see the size of them. Fat and juicy, and half the thickness of my pinky finger!!!

Borer can kill citrus trees if left untreated. Also you can keep your tree alive by removing the dead wood and keeping an eye on your tree, looking for new sawdust trails. Over the past year, I have had a client lose a huge branch from their lemon tree due to borer, where the wood was completely eaten through.

Take action and save your trees. 

If you inherit land with an old lemon tree full of borer, you might well be wise to invest in a new one in case the old one is not able to be brought back to life.

Sign up to my newsletter for tips, tricks, and to access even more learnings.

Happy gardening

#Isogardening at this time of year – how you can make it work for you

I thought this month we would talk about gardening in #isolation. I have enjoyed being at home in peace with my garden and nature. Gardening at this time of year offers its own charms and challenges, but doing so in isolation offers an opportunity to us to get creative.

I’m delighted to see that many new people have started to grow food and start bokashi since isolation hit our countries. Of course, during a time when shops have been shut, the common cry has been: “Ahh but I have no potting mix, seed raising mix or plants!”

But did you know that there are many ways you can grow plants without any of the above?

Lockdown or not, I always recommend that seeds are the best way to grow your plants, as you never know what you will get from the garden centres (which can sometimes include an unwanted friend or two) or what the seedlings were grown in.

To source my soil during isolation, I have been foraging in the edges of the bush and found plenty of useable bush soil underneath the leaves.

The key is that whatever you sow in needs to be kept moist for your seeds to germinate.

Top tip: I usually sow, water and cover them either with a paper towel or cardboard. This really does the trick to speed along the germination of seeds.

If you are a person like me that lets your plants go to seed, as they are from organic seed, then you will observe that they literally pop up in the strangest of places. Rocket, lettuce, calendula, mizuna will all come up in the cracks of concrete, in path ways and even around the garden!

The key here is identification in the 2 leaf stage, so you don’t pull them out in error.

So, what should you be doing now to prepare for your winter garden?

As we are in the first quarter of the moon, it is time to get your garlic and shallot beds ready and also to think about cleaning up and repositioning your strawberries. I hardly ever replace my strawberry plants. If they have runners, I will cut those off and replant; clean the strawberries up and give them what they need for winter. I transplant my strawberries to a new bed every three or so years.

To me, winter gardening is far less labour-intensive than summer gardening and there are definitely less pests to deal with. Plus there is the added bonus of less intense heat that your plants can really benefit from.

What do I recommend you should plant now for winter?

This phase of the moon is the best time to sow broad beans and green manure crops to cover your soil that will rest and rejuvenate over winter, ahead of next summer. Even if you dislike broad beans, they are such a tonic for the soil and appreciate a side dressing of potash from your fire.

For me, this will be my last sowing of flowers for spring and of winter crops, as in June, everything slows dramatically due to the reduced daylight hours. Also, at this time it is good to get your beneficial flowers going to bring in the good insects for spring/summer and create a more diverse culture for your garden to enable all aspects of nature to work together. Eventually when the balance is right, the good insects will eat the bad and you will create a harmony that your garden will really benefit from.

Top tip: Over the next couple of weeks, get your above ground seeds in and then after the full moon, plant your carrots, Florence fennel, radish etc.

I also like to sow quick turnaround crops while I am waiting for the broccoli and cauliflower to mature. Great quick turnaround crops for this time of year are rocket, Chinese greens, Pak and Bok choi, radish and micro greens. These all mature in about 14-30 days so you can eat fresh from your garden while other plants are growing.

Happy #isogardening !

How to set up your autumn / winter garden ready for sustenance over the coming months!

Anyone who knows me or reads my blogs will know that one of my fundamental philosophies is that anyone can grow a garden……

All we need is already there in our back yard, balconies or even inside our houses! That and a MINDSET!

We are now living in very interesting times and the way you choose to think is important.

How many of you were prepared before the panic set in?

How many of you panic-bought?

Please don’t think you have missed the boat for your garden, as autumn/winter sowing and planting has just begun.

Growing food is an essential part of living now. It has been an essential part of my life since I was a young girl. My grandparents grew food for their families which was a lifeline during the war, as a garden was how you survived and fed everyone.

For those of you in a panic about your winter or summer garden, the home life couldn’t have come at a better time with the seasons. Autumn is here and it is the perfect time for growing winter sustenance and in the Northern Hemisphere, Spring is upon you.

How can I set up my garden?

If you are starting from scratch, look at what resources you have at home.

Collect all your brown leaves into a pile, pull the grass out and put it in a separate pile, keep your lawn clippings separate too. There you go – you have the start of a club sandwich garden. How easy was that!

What shall I plant?

With the moon rising now, is the time to sow seed/plants that grow above the ground.

Lettuce, Rocket, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Spinach, Kale, Micros, Mesculun, Silverbeet, Herbs and flowers, land cress to name a few.

Kings Seeds is still open and you can order what you need online – I highly recommend them for quality and service!

Below is a chart to give you a little insight into what your plants require of you. I suggest digging in your bokashi or compost in preparation for planting some of the above plants and give it a good water, sticking your finger in the soil to check that it is wetter than the surface looks.

How do I take care of my plants?

My top tip is to soak in EM (effective microorganisms) or worm juice prior to transplanting.

When transplanted, I recommend to water or spray with kelp or worm juice and then feed every two weeks with EM and Kelp.

If you are growing broad beans, a side dressing of potash will be beneficial through the growing season.

Mulch when big enough – this will protect from soil splash from the rain.

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Three things you need to know about the ‘soil sponge’ in your garden

How dry is your garden?

Over the past few weeks, I have visited many food gardens on Waiheke and in the Coromandel to discover that most of them have suffered or been pulled out due to the drought, and the lack of water-holding capacity in the soil.

Water is the new gold.

It is the essence of life and is essential in growing food. The reason that a lot of our soils dry out is because our soils are depleted and abused. The soil sponge has disappeared which in turn means our soils have no water-holding capacity. Therefore, what water we do receive is not able to be fully absorbed into our soils and just runs off.

Soil and the soil sponge are the key to holding valuable water in our soils, which will then become available to our plants in times of drought and be there for the roots to take up to produce our very valuable food.

How can I improve my soil to create a better soil sponge?

The most effective and quick way to start improving your soil sponge for the home gardener is bokashi composting.

I like to call it ‘Bokashi Gold’ as it is the gold all our soils require and it is also a great circular way to process your food scraps from seed to soil – to plate to bokashi compost – to soil…

Why?

Bokashi is so much kinder to the environment than any other type of composting.

Benefit #1

It is an anerobic fermentation process that keeps all the goodies and energy in the organic material.

It holds higher nutrient and energy levels than traditional composting due to the much lower heat that is generated – bokashi is around 40 degrees and traditional and hot composting are 60 and above.

Benefit #2

In this process, when food scraps are put in the bucket, they are inoculated with EMAS (expanded EM), which is either in a liquid or inoculated bran. This makes the organic material more digestible to the soil – providing a greater soil sponge – as it holds much more moisture in the soil and helps your plants grow quickly to maturity.

By adding bokashi to your soil, you will be saving on your plants watering-needs, thus giving you a much healthier soil.

Benefit #3

In a nutshell, bokashi can increase the water retention of soil, improve drought tolerance, provide humus, prevent the growth of weeds, boost crop yields and reduce the need for fertiliser and chemicals.

The time is now…… Improve your soil, absorb more moisture, create healthy plants and do your bit for the planet.. BOKASHI is GOLD for your soil!

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If you’re keen to start trying Bokashi composting at home, discover the range of home composting bins available from Urban Composter, and my review of them here.

Top pests to combat this summer and how the organic way

The Guava Moth

With Guava moth rife in many gardens, I recently shared a very good article on my Facebook page on this pest. Discover it here, as it offers a really good description of this moth and how to handle it and the life cycle of the moth.

Personally, I have found it to be less on the plums this year and, from reading the article, it seems that one of the worst hosts for this bug is the Loquat tree, so be mindful of this if you have some growing near other fruit trees.

For more helpful hints on how to tackle the rampant guava moth, see one of my earlier blogs here.

Woolly aphids, black aphids and scale

The pests that seem rife in my part of the country are woolly aphids, scale and black aphids. The citrus trees seem to be inundated by these and are slowly sucking the life out of the trees.

Recently I visited a garden that had all three of these pests of the one tree!

Trying to wipe out these pests requires a continuing commitment. Some of you may be thinking ‘just give them a spray and that is the end of it’. This is not necessarily true. An oil spray is good to smother the bugs and their eggs and to release the scale from the stems and the leaves. However, remember that they don’t just drop off – you will need to wipe the tree to remove these pests and to find out which ones are still attached.

Continue to spray on a regular basis – spray the air first, then underneath the leaves and up and down the trunk. If the scale don’t slide off, they are still alive and ants are attracted to their sugar secretion.

Make sure your plants have enough moisture in the soil and are healthy, with enough food. This in turn will aid for a quick recovery in your plants. The reason for spraying the air first is to catch the whitefly that will immediately fly upwards with any movement of the plants or leaves. If you are on tank water like me I have found the best thing is to catch the shower water and use this on your fruit trees and vegetable plants. Remember healthy soil is the key.

How to protect your plants

Using Bokashi in the soil helps retain moisture and gives your plants plenty of food. Remember to side dress your tomatoes with potash and to keep feeding your plants with the banana skin recipe I shared in a recent blog.

I tend to not plant anything more in the garden at this time of year, as it will struggle to get a good start with the intense heat we are getting at the moment. If you live in an area where there have been low temperatures and extreme wind and rain, your vegetable garden could be late in producing fruit due to climatic conditions.

Nip the growing points off the tops of your tomatoes to help the fruit to ripen and to stop the energy going into the growing points – this can also be a great thing to do for your pumpkins and melons. Once you have enough fruit, count up two growing sections of the plant and nip the growing point off. This will transfer the energy into growing and ripening the fruit on these plants.

Be vigilant of your plants and check regularly – this way, you will spot pests and disease early and if your plants are beyond help, pull them out and dispose of them so as to prevent these diseases spreading elsewhere.

Happy gardening