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How to save water in the garden this summer

In these times where water is the new gold and having our own food security is essential, we find ourselves wondering how to keep food growing in our backyard throughout summer with water restrictions in place and sky water at a minimum.

Awareness and mindset are important. It starts in the soil – the more alive your soil is, the more water-holding capacity it has. Thick mulching and knowing how and when to water your plants for maximum absorption is a great place to start.

Watering plants at the root source enables the soil to absorb all you give it, rather than overhead watering where there’s a high rate of evaporation, leaf burn and plant stress. This in turn creates an open invite to pest and disease, and is a waste of water.

A good mulch keeps the moisture in the ground and encourages roots to go deeper into the soil layers where the water is held. It also stops the topsoil from drying out and going hard and crusty where water will then run off rather than be absorbed. When mulching, be sure to leave space between the plant’s stem and the edge of the mulch – this is the space to apply water.

Remember to water your plants in the cool of the morning, before the sun gets too hot. Watering in the morning also provides moisture to plants all day long rather than at night when your plants are sleeping. When the sun is shining photosynthesis is happening -a process where plants convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into energy stored as chains of sugar (also known as plant starch). At night, plants burn up this sugar while they sleep which gives them fuel for continuing their growth the following morning.

Top tips for saving water

There are many ways to save water from the home to water your plants each day. Adjust your mindset to consider that every drop you save helps towards the survival of your plants. You’ll be surprised how much water you will save by following these tips:

  • Arm yourself with a few 10-litre buckets and vessels to place in sinks and anywhere there is a tap. Place a bucket in your shower and catch the water while waiting for it to reach your desired temperature. In some homes, you can save as much as 8 litres per shower!
  • Put bowls in sinks to catch every drop that would otherwise go down the drain. When you turn the tap on to clean your teeth, wash your vegetables, rinse your hands or rinse your dishes, be sure to catch every drop. When the bowl is full, tip the water into your bucket – and be amazed how much you water you can collect.
  • If you use environmentally-friendly products, you can use this water for fruit trees, however, vegetable plants prefer water without these products.
  • Tip the collected water into a watering can and give each plant about a cup of water each day, or three cups every three days at the stem only. Little and often is much more productive for your plants’ growth, rather than a big drink once a week.

This article was published in the New Zealand Herald’s food and wellbeing magazine, Be Well. Look out for my monthly column in the New Zealand Herald’s Monday food and wellbeing magazine BeWell and on EatWell.co.nz.

Pests: Why insects really attack your plants – and how to prevent infestations organically

Did you know that insects sense vibrations? Rather than looking at your plants and thinking ‘mmm, they look tasty’, they instead feel the vibration of your plant to determine whether it is healthy or not.

If your plant is struggling, weak or diseased, it will have a much lower frequency vibration than a plant that has great health and a strong cell structure. When insects feel the lower vibration, they will lay their eggs on that plant and the plant will become a host for their eggs to grow. This is why infestations can occur at hatching time. They are attracted to the lower vibration. Nature always preys on the weak – it is nature’s way.

So how do you ensure your plant has a high-frequency vibration that repels insects? With great soil health – which in turn nourishes your plant and supports production.

It all starts in the soil, HEALTHY SOIL = HEALTHY PLANTS.  Also remember what grows in your area at each given time of year, with the given climate you have to work with. Now as the climate changes, we are all seeing that we must adapt what plants we grow. Some plants may no longer be suitable for your areas due to climate change, so it is better not to fight against nature with this and suffer disappointment – change the mindset and embrace the new things you will be able to grow.

Top tip: If buying a plant from a nursery or garden centre, it is imperative to check the plant carefully and really look into the plant itself and under the leaves for any sign of disease or insect presence. You don’t want to make the mistake of introducing a problem you didn’t already have by choosing the wrong plant, so this is really critical. Plants are typically weakened by travelling from their nursery to the garden centres, and so it is easy for them to fall prey to one of these along the way…

It is also good to check to make sure the plant isn’t root-bound in the pot. By this, I mean that the roots are growing out of the bottom of the pot or round and round in the pot, which is an indicator that they have been in the pot way too long and they have become stunted in growth, thus making them more susceptible to pest and disease.

I strongly encourage you all to get to know your plants. Over this summer period in New Zealand, I have received many messages about whitefly infestations in kale and what to do about it.

My advice would be to use nature. This is a host plant in summer for your whitefly and they will stay on this plant, so simply let it become a sacrificial plant. The ladybirds will love you forever – they lay their eggs in here and their nymphs will munch their way through about 1,000 whitefly per day.

Learning to understand nature is very, very important to the organic gardener and remembering that there is a reason for everything.

Happy gardening!

Growing a healthy crop of tomatoes this summer

I recently visited my local garden centre and couldn’t help overhearing how many customers had questions about growing this wonderful summer fruit. Let’s take a look at how to grow healthy, juicy, and delicious tomatoes, and keep them producing all summer long.

Types of tomatoes
There are two types of tomatoes — plants that grow in a bush and plants that cascade (which need staking). The bush varieties are self-supporting (no staking needed), produce early in the growing season and tend to produce a lot of fruit at once. The staking varieties produce more consistently and have a longer growing season.

Pests and diseases
To prevent pest and disease attacking your tomatoes, a key action to take is to create airflow around the base and throughout the plant. This lets the wind through and can keep your plant free of pests and disease.

To thin the leaves, remove the first 30cm of lateral stems and leaves from the ground by snapping them off at the main stalk. Try to do this on a windy day to enable the “wounds” to heal and prevent them being infected by disease.

Remove unwanted lateral stems regularly, unless you are using these to espalier (attach) your plant along a trellis, where one tomato plant can produce along a two-metre span.

Feeding
Tomatoes are hungry plants and need regular feeding on a weekly or fortnightly basis. However, they don’t like too much nitrogen, which encourages excessive leaf growth. They prefer phosphorous and potassium in higher quantities, which can be found in a kelp and organic fish emulsion fertiliser. These nutrients will improve the fruit crop and aid in preventing blossom end rot.

If you have a fireplace, a side dressing of potash (wood ash contains potash) throughout the growing season will give you a natural supply of potassium; apply at the base of the plant and water in well. Chopped up banana peels around the base are also a great source of phosphorous. Liquid feeding your plants over the summer months is preferable as the plant can absorb this more effectively than a solid fertiliser.

Tomatoes also love a feed of themselves! When removing leaves from the plant, soak in a bucket of water overnight, or for up to two days, then pour it back on around the base. You can also add kelp and fish fertiliser to this mixture.

Watering
Watering your tomatoes on a regular basis is essential for even and productive growth. Watering three times a week is enough; this encourages their roots to go deep into the soil where it is cool. If you’re growing tomatoes in pots, fill the base tray with water so the plant can pull it up from the bottom.

Always water the base of the plant and not the leaves as this can cause pests and disease,
and wastes water as there is less absorption. And to help prevent pests and disease, always water in the cool of the day, preferably in the morning.

Top tip
Remove yellow and diseased leaves from your tomato plants and dispose of them separately from your compost to prevent the disease cycle repeating itself. Happy gardening!

Look out for my monthly column in the New Zealand Herald’s Monday food and wellbeing magazine BeWell and on EatWell.co.nz.

Pests: How to protect from woolly aphids without chemicals

Woolly aphids can present quite a problem at this time of year, so here’s how to protect your garden and summer crops from these pesky pests the organic way.

What are woolly aphids and what are they doing to my garden?

Did you know that there are more than 4,000 types of aphids worldwide? The woolly aphid is just one of these, but they seem to be everywhere right now – so let’s get cracking!

Woolly aphids are white and fluffy and often look like blobs on your trees, but when you take a closer look and get your hands in there, you will find lots of tiny white threads which, if you pull apart, reveal the aphids sheltering underneath. Woolly aphids generally appear on older trees and also on trees that have suffered stress, too much shade, not enough food or lack of water.

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Woolly aphids

How do I know if I’ve got a woolly aphid problem?

Woolly aphids are particularly fond of apple and pear trees, often laying their eggs in the cracks of bark or damaged wood. They can form bubbles in your young wood and, if you cut this bubble, you will see thousands of eggs inside, which can then split to form cankers on your trees.

After the summer months, these damaging pests can move down to the roots of your trees where they can create untold damage out of sight from your vigilance.

What damage do woolly aphids do in my garden?

Aphids are known for their power to suck the life out of your plants. Not only will they weaken and destroy plants, they can also spread disease as they go. They secrete honeydew which in turn attracts ants and wasps, who feed on the sugary substance. Sooty mould will more than likely grow on the honeydew.

Over the past few years, I have had a few clients battling with these insects and, sadly, no matter what we have done, the tree has not recovered, as the infestation is so big and most of it unseen.

What can I do to control woolly aphids in my garden?

You can try to remove these pests with your fingers or a stick, squashing them as you go, which creates a real sticky red mess, but usually they will reappear in a week or two.

There are a few things you can try like EnSpray 99 and Pyretherum, but I find these only keep the population at bay.

Here are my top five tips to prevent woolly aphids using organic methods:

Tip #1: The best preventative is to plant your tree well in the first place – mulch around the outside, plant with beneficial plants underneath it, and keep your soil and plant in optimum health.

Tip #2: Planting nasturtiums in your garden, somewhere away from your fruit trees, can act as a sacrificial crop, with woolly aphids infesting these plants instead and keeping them away from your trees. When the nasturtiums die back from infestation, carefully remove the plant and burn or dispose of wisely.

Tip #3: Members of the allium family, like onions, garlic and chives, can help repel many aphids and planting alyssum and borage around your garden will help attract beneficial insects that will eat up thousands of aphids a day.

Tip #4: In the summer months, plant a barrier of marigolds around or nearby your trees as the smell will repel woolly aphids.

Tip #5: The best advice I can give here is to keep your plants at optimum health, inspect them thoroughly when buying them and plant beneficial and sacrificial plants in your garden.

Good luck and happy gardening!

Harvesting your garlic

With December upon us, many of you will be harvesting your garlic this month. Harvesting garlic is such a rewarding experience – there is a feeling of delight when you pull that bulb up from the soil to see the fruits of the past six months of growing.

Growing garlic in the garden
Growing garlic is a rewarding experience for the gardener. Picture / Pixabay

There is nothing like the taste of eating your fresh garlic pulled from your garden bed. The question is what are the best practices for drying and storing garlic for the months ahead.

Harvesting garlic needs to be done carefully – if your soil is dry and hard, you will need to use a fork to loosen the soil around the bulb. Otherwise you could pull the garlic and end up snapping the stem from the bulb.

Once pulled, garlic is best hung in a dry cool place with lots of airflow. For those of you that plant and dry with the moon, pulling your garlic in a fire or earth sign will have the best drying qualities. Fire signs are Aries, Leo and Sagittarius and the Earth signs are Capricorn, Taurus and Virgo. When you pull garlic in one of the above signs, it won’t hold as much water as opposed to pulling it in a Water or Air sign. The 11th and 16th of December are perfect days for your garlic harvest this year.

When you have pulled your garlic, gently shake off the dirt and either hang or lay on racks in a shady breezy area to dry for 2-3 weeks. Remember not to bang the bulbs as this will cause the cloves to bruise.

After drying, shake off the any dirt and store in shady breezy area for optimal drying
After drying, shake off the any dirt and store in shady breezy area for optimal drying. Picture / Pixabay

After this drying time, your garlic skins should be dry. It is good to cut off the roots close to the bulb and remove any yellow leaves. At this time, you can also cut down the stems to a smaller size and bundle together in 4-6 bulbs, tie and hang until the garlic bulb can be twisted off of the stem. If you have soft neck garlic, it can now be plaited and hung in a cool dark place.

Be mindful to brush all the dirt out of the root stubble and to eat any bulbs that are damaged -otherwise you could be prone to mites getting in and ruining your garlic. Remove any rotten bulbs as this can affect the rest of your crop.

Garlic will store for 6-8 months if given the right conditions of a cool dark airy place. Remember to check periodically for soft bulbs and mites.

When stored in a cool and dark place with plenty of fresh air, garlic will last for at least six months
When stored in a cool and dark place with plenty of fresh air, garlic will last a good amount of time. Picture / Pixabay

I save my best-looking bulbs for next season’s planting and keep in a separate paper bag so as not to be tempted to eat them. I have found that bulbs keep better as a whole rather than splitting them up into individual cloves.

I wish you all a successful harvest and a happy Christmas.

Happy gardening!

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.

lacewing egg
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.

lacewing adult
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!