Watering in drought conditions

This week, two readers have asked me about garden problems caused by lack of water. As you know, it is extremely difficult to keep gardens well-watered in drought conditions. However, as plants can only absorb the nutrients they need for healthy growth and ripeness of crops as water-soluble ions, inadequate water is the cause of a wide range of problems, including pest attack.

Bare soil in garden beds and around trees, shrubs and vines allows a lot of soil moisture to be lost to evaporation. A 5 cm layer of organic mulch over beds and around larger plants (keeping it a hand span from the trunk) will prevent water applied to the soil from being wasted. Lawns are greedy and as their roots are close to the soil surface, they take water and nutrients intended for fruit trees and favourite ornamentals. Keep lawns beyond the outer canopy of trees and cover the area under trees with mulch.

wtrbttle.jpg A method that we have found very helpful to water mulched beds is to use plastic soft drink and juice bottles to funnel water through mulch directly to the root area of susceptible plants. This is a quick and very efficient way to hand water during drought, water restrictions, heat waves or windy weather. Limp tomato seedlings will freshen up in about 10 minutes after watering by this method.
Simply cut off the base of each container, remove the lids and bury the necks of the containers about 8 cm deep near outer edge of the foliage of plants. Large shrubs may require several containers. Pour water into the container until it begins to drain slowly – an indication that you have dampened the soil in the root area.

Seedlings and pot plants are usually the first to suffer during heat waves, and you can find advice on how to revive stressed pot plants here: Pot plant stress

Compost worm farms

compworms.jpg For organic gardeners who don’t have enough recyclable waste for a productive compost heap, a compost worm farm is the answer.

Compost worms are different from earthworms that tunnel through soil and move into compost heaps after organic matter has been partly processed by microorganisms. Consequently, the term ‘compost worms’ can be confusing to new gardeners. Worm farm (compost) worms require a moister and cooler environment than earthworms (10–30° C.), and feed on a wide range of organic matter, including vegetable and fruit waste (except for citrus and onions), wet paper and cardboard, grass clippings, aged cow and horse manure, soft weeds and hair. Chopping waste into small pieces provides a larger surface area for worms to feed on and speeds up production. The digested waste (worm castings) are a clay-like humus that contains all the nutrients and trace elements that plants need for good health in a form that plant roots can absorb immediately.

Worm castings are Nature’s slow-release, complete organic fertiliser. The more varied the worms’ diet, the better the fertiliser. Simply rake the worm castings into the topsoil on garden beds. As they do not smell, they are the perfect fertiliser for both indoor and outdoor pot plants. They are also a great addition to seedling mixes and, when diluted to very weak black tea strength, the liquid that drains from the worm farm is a fertiliser that gets seedlings off to a flying start.
Worm farming has become a very popular method of recycling and various commercial worm farms are available to suit different situations. Most children find worm farms fascinating and enjoy looking after them.

  • Commercial worm farms come with complete instructions, a starter colony of worms and edible bedding for the worms. Small commercial farms with several tiers are easily moved into a shed or garage in areas where frosts occur. Or, in frost-free areas, if you can find an old hip bath or large sink, you can make your own worm farm as we have here. Worm farming
  • Containers with a drainage hole prevent moisture build up in the base of the farm and a waterproof cover excludes light and rain. (Avoid using old carpet or underlay as a cover as these are impregnated with pesticides.)
  • Add a little water to the farm when necessary to keep the food and bedding damp.
  • A light dusting of dolomite every few weeks will keep the worm farm smelling sweet and the pH close to perfect.

HARVESTING WORM CASTINGS
Worms in farms with stacked trays will move up into the next highest layer when all the food in their tray has been eaten, and it is time to collect the worm castings.
Uncover the worm farm and leave the surface exposed for 15-20 minutes. The worms will move down through the castings away from the light. The castings will contain worm eggs. These are easily recognised as you can see in the photo. They are about the size of the head of a match, or a little bit smaller. Worms don’t lay their eggs in groups like some insects do. They lay them one at a time through the worm castings, but usually close to where they can find food when they hatch.
Harvestcastings1 Use a scoop to collect a layer of castings from the top of the farm. A scoop can be made from a 2 litre juice bottle with a handle. Spread the castings onto an old tray by lightly brushing the castings with gloved hands. Check for worm eggs and any small worms that might still be in the castings and put them safely back into the farm. Cover them with a layer of food.
Then tip the collected worm castings into a bucket and collect another scoop full of castings until you have enough to put into your garden bed, or to make ‘worm tea’.

Flies around fruit bowl

Drosophila-wikipedia Column 8 in today’s Sydney Morning Herald stated that Sydneysiders’ kitchens have been infested by fruit flies, stating that, “They emerge from fruit and hang around all summer”. The flies referred to are not fruit flies, they are the very small vinegar or ferment flies (Drosophila). Genuine fruit flies are kept out by fly screens. Vinegar flies emerge from fruit, tomatoes, etc. as grubs (larvae) and require pupation outside the fruit in order to complete their life cycle as a fly. If these tiny pests are a persistent problem, there must be a breeding ground nearby or the kitchen needs more regular cleaning.
Vinegar flies are attracted to the smell of yeast in fermenting organic materials and drains. To eliminate the problem:

  • Do not keep fruit at room temperature in warm, humid weather
  • Cover compost and garbage containers
  • Regularly rinse out garbage containers
  • Rinse beer and wine containers before recycling
  • and treat drains with an enzyme product to break down thick scum where they can feed and reproduce.

Genuine fruit flies, the Mediterranean Fruit Fly (Ceratitis capitata) and Queensland Fruit Fly (Dacus tryoni) cause a lot of destruction in gardens. They require pupation in soil after the maggots emerge from fruit. To reduce the problem of genuine fruit flies, collect all fallen fruit, put it in a sealed black garbage bag and leave the bag in the sun for three or four days to cook the larvae (and encourage your neighbours to do the same). Never put infected fruit in the compost container.

Corn – improving pollination

All types of corn are pollinated by breezes that blow pollen from the male flowers onto the silk threads that emerge from the top of each ear of corn. This is why it is better for home gardeners to grow corn in a block rather than a long row. Each strand of silk is connected to a separate immature seed and is covered in tiny sticky hairs that collect the pollen. If some silk strands don’t receive pollen, kernels may not form along one side of a cob, or near the top of the cob. (Female part of corn plant in photo at left.)

Male flowers form at the top of the corn plant as an upright spike and lower branches that open out like umbrella spokes. Pollen forms in small yellow ovals (anthers) that release their pollen mid morning after dew has dried from the flowers (between about 9 and 11 am). The centre spike is the first part to release its pollen. Pollen release may only last from 3 to 5 days and the released pollen is only viable for up to 24 hours. (Male flower in photo at left.)
It can help when growing small quantities of sweet corn or popcorn to pollinate it by hand, to ensure that the cobs your plants produce are full of juicy kernels. In nature, silks are rarely pollinated by the same plant.

To ensure good pollination, you need a sheet of A4 paper and a clean, dry, soft paintbrush. Fold the paper in half lengthways and open it out, then fold it in half the opposite way and open it out. This helps the paper to form a shallow well. Or, you can use a small clean shallow tray – something easy to manoeuvre between the plants. Hold the paper under a male flower and gently tap the spike and lower branches of the male flower with the handle of the paint brush. When tassels are ready to be pollinated, plenty of bright yellow pollen will fall onto the paper. Collect some of the pollen on the hairs of the paintbrush and dab it onto all sides and the centre of silk strands of other corn plants. Repeat this process over several days. Once a tassel has been pollinated, the ends of the silk strands will start to turn brown. As the cobs mature, you may have to net your corn crop as birds know when corn is perfect for eating.
Corn anthers won’t release pollen when conditions are too wet or very dry, the plants will wait until conditions are favourable. In areas of Australia that experience long periods of rain, it is best to plan your corn crop to avoid the wet season.

Ladybird larvae

Stressed plants attract pests and where you find pests you will also find beneficial insects that feed on pests. During extreme weather conditions you may notice some of these strange little creatures on various plants in your garden.

LBtransverse_lvLBcommspot_lvLBstriped_lv

LBsteelblue_lvLBmealybug_lvLBfunguseat_lv

These are not pests – they are juvenile ladybirds

Both juveniles (larvae) and adult ladybirds eat vast amounts of aphids, various types of scale and mites. One species eats fungus, including powdery mildew. The white, fluffy species eat mealy bugs. They are difficult to distinguish from the pests they devour. Australia exports this variety of ladybird to the USA to help with their mealy bug problem.

These are some images of the pupa stage, just before adult ladybirds emerge. Ladybird larvae have an attachment at the end on their abdomens that allows them to stick to a leaf surface while they pupate.

LBsteelblue_pLBfunguseat_pLBcommspot_pLBvariable_p

 

 

 

 

Lady bird larvae often seek shelter from birds in the curled leaves that citrus leaf miners produce. Remember, if you decide to use chemical or organic sprays to treat pests that you will also kill beneficial insects and their offspring. There is only one species of ladybird that is not helpful in the garden: 26 or 28 spotted ladybird.

 

For lots more information about lady birds, see: Ladybird Field Guide

Spring onions – saving seed

Spring onions or shallots as they are sometimes known often run to seed when weather warms in spring.
Onionseed1 Seed of green onions does not keep for long and seed collected for sowing next season will produce a vigorous crop as this seed will have come from plants that have adapted to your local soil and climate conditions. Leave several of your green onion plants to produce seed from their globular flower heads (umbrels). As seeds develop the umbrel appears like a globe of tiny greenish-white ‘buds’. As the seed matures the heads change to a pale grey and the buds begin to open and ripe, black seeds can be seen inside the buds. Not all the seeds ripen at the same time.

Onionseed2 The usual method of collecting seed from these plants is to wait until most of the seed has ripened, then cut off the seed heads into a paper bag and leave the heads until the rest of the seed ripens and drops to the bottom of the bag. After all the seeds have been collected, they can be separated from the papery debris in the bag.
However, with this method, quite often the first seeds to ripen have dropped to the ground. I prefer to take a medium sized bowl or brown paper bag with me when I go to check the vege patch and while holding the bowl under each seed head, I give the seed head a gentle shake. The collected seed is then transferred to a labelled paper bag until all the seed has been collected. I get more seed with this method and it avoids having to separate the seed from the debris.

Bees welcome

Beelvdr2 Although we do not use pesticides, in recent years we have noticed fewer bees in our garden. In response we have set up a hive under a white mulberry tree, and added a ‘bee garden’ in a corner of our vege patch. I’ve planted a short hedge of French Lavender (Lavandula dentata) that flowers from late autumn to mid spring, when few other flowers bloom. I’ve also added some Borage (Borago officinalis) as a treat for bees, and some Manuka shrubs (Leptospermum scoparium) to add its healing benefits to our honey.
The decline in bee numbers has become a global problem, with the United States losing  45 per cent of their bees and Europe has 13 million less bee colonies. It is a very serious problem because many of the foods we eat depend on bee pollination to produce crops or seed. If bee numbers continue to decline you can forget about having honey, the cost of manual pollination of crops would be exorbitant and many foods will become a luxury (See list below). Colony Collapse Disorder is the most puzzling aspect of this decline, where bees leave their hives and just disappear over winter.
In the past, CCD has been blamed on diseases, mites, poor nutrition, or Manuka Shrubpesticides, particularly the neurotoxic neonicotinoids. Last year, research at Harvard University found that long exposure to small amounts of two neonicotinoids (imidacloprid and clothianidin) are the likely cause of CCD. The European Union has already banned the use of three neonicotinoids, Unfortunately, Australia, that lags behind Europe in environmental issues, still allows the use of these pesticides.

TO ENCOURAGE BEES TO YOUR GARDEN:

Borage They need clean water, pollen and nectar. Keep a shallow container of clean water (e.g. birdbath) in your garden, and choose shrubs and annuals that flower in different months to provide a continuous supply of pollen and nectar. Both native bees and honey bees love our native shrubs. And, don’t use pesticides that harm bees. Read labels and Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) carefully before use. Your garden will benefit greatly from the presence of these tiny, hard-working creatures.

Common foods that need bees to produce, fruits, nuts, vegetables and seed
Apple, Apricot, Blueberry, Boysenberry, Cherry, All Citrus, Cranberry, Cucumber, Currants, Custard Apple, Elderberry, Feijoa, Gooseberry, Grapes, Guavas, Kiwifruit, Melons, Nectarine, Papaya, Passionfruit, Pawpaw, Peach, Pear, Persimmon, Plum, Pomegranate, Quince, Raspberry, Starfruit, Strawberry, Almond, Brazil, Cashew, Chestnut, Coconut, Hazelnut, Macadamia, Walnut, Marrows, Okra, Pumpkin, Squash, Zucchini.
Common foods that need bees to produce seed
Beetroot, Broad bean, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Buckwheat, Cabbages, Canola, Caraway, Carrot, Cauliflower, Celery, Chinese vegetables, Clover, Coriander, Cotton, Cowpea, Dill, Fennel, Linseed, Lucerne, Mustard, Nasturtium, Onions, Parsley, Parsnip, Pigeon pea, Radish, Rocket, Scarlet runner, Sesame, Silverbeet, Turnip.

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/harvard-study-links-pesticides-to-colony-collapse-disorder-2014-5
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/08/uk-food-security-honeybees

False spring

cloche Chilly days and nights after a brief period of perfect gardening weather occur every year in many parts of Australia. Australia is the only place where spring is said to start on the first day of September. Everywhere else, spring starts at the equinox when day and night are of equal length. This year, the spring equinox occurs on September 23rd.
Unfortunately, Australia’s deviation from world-wide practice tricks some gardeners into planting out seedlings while nights are still longer than days and soil is still too cold for root growth of warmth-loving plants. The problem can be solved by placing this simple cloche over beds that contain cold-sensitive seedlings. See: Cloche for seedlings.

Microbats

Microbat This odd little character often hangs out on our front verandah. He is one of the many species of microbat found in Australia and is 6 cm long when he is all tucked up and asleep. The reason he is odd is that he is always alone, eschewing the company of the colony of microbats we see dashing between the tree tops at dusk, and he sleeps on our verandah at night when bats normally forage for food.

Microbats are very helpful in the garden as they consume a huge quantity of mosquitos, moths and other insect pests. If you are fortunate enough to have a colony of microbats on your property, please avoid using chemical pesticides.

Windy weather update

Transpiratiion Predictions are for more cold, windy weather on the way. Keep a close watch on your garden as wind can dry out soils faster than summer heat, resulting in cell collapse of soft tissue plants. To discover why this happens and how to protect your plants, see: Windy weather
Seedlings and many vegetable crops are vulnerable to wind damage in winter and early spring. Ripening citrus are also easily damaged by strong winds.