Seed sales for edible plants have boomed as many house-bound people have adopted the ‘green therapy’ of gardening. Organic gardening has long been respected for providing healthy outdoor exercise and mental health benefits while providing healthy, pesticide-free produce for your family.
My book Easy Organic Gardening and Moon Planting has been helping gardeners get the best from their gardening efforts since 2006. It provides practical advice on what to grow when in the perpetual monthly diary, and how to get good results in both your vegetable patch and ornamental parts of your garden. It can be used with, or without, moon planting. There are also sections on compost making, worm farming, drought-proofing your garden, and much more. See reviews: My book
Easy Organic Gardening and Moon Planting is available as both a paperback and e-book, and can be ordered on-line, so you don’t have to leave home to find it. Happy gardening, everyone.
Have you ever wondered why they were called eggplants? This variety is the reason. The small white fruit, which look like hens’ eggs hanging on a bush, has a delicious flavour but has been very difficult to find in recent years and I was delighted to finally find some seeds. Yates has ‘White Star’ and there is a variety called ‘Easter Egg’ available from an Australian grower on eBay.
Aubergines (Solanum melangena) are a member of the tomato family and require a similar position, soil preparation, and soil pH. However, they require warmer conditions for germination than tomatoes and are usually sown 1 cm deep in small pots in a warm, protected position. The small, white variety produces a compact bush and can be grown in beds or pots. Aubergines need staking because the stems are brittle, and they appreciate a light application of poultry-based, complete fertiliser as buds form. Regular harvesting increases production. Cut fruit from the plant with a 2 cm stem when the skin is firm and shiny.
A strong, healthy root system that allows your tomato plants to absorb enough water and nutrients is essential for producing a good crop and allowing your plants to produce their own pest-deterrents. Tomatoes in their natural state, grow along the ground and will form auxiliary roots along their stems, but our method of growing tomatoes tied to stakes prevents this.
However, you can give them a helping hand to produce extra roots before planting out by lying potted seedlings on their side when they are 10-15 cm tall. Leave them like this for a week or so, depending on the growth rate, and remember to stand them upright for watering. As you can see in the photo, the main stem with make a 90-degree turn, and root buds will form on the horizontal part of the stem. Plant them out with the growth tip vertical and the horizontal stem just below the soil surface. Or, you can remove the seed leaves and plant them up to just below the next set of leaves, then hill soil around them slightly as they grow.
Compost is made by combining organic waste than provides nitrogen and/or carbon. The advice to make compost from waste that is green (provides nitrogen) and brown (provides carbon) is a bit confusing when manure contains a lot of nitrogen, but most of it is brown. When suitable dampened materials are combined in a heap that has contact with the soil, heat is generated and millions of aerobic bacteria get to work transforming the fuel into a compost-making factory.
Manure from animals that eat grass (lots of nitrogen)
Chicken manure (lots of nitrogen)
Weeds without seed heads (nitrogen and carbon)
Lawn cuttings that have wilted (nitrogen and carbon)
Green prunings – shredded (nitrogen and carbon)
Raw vegetables and fruit – chopped for fast break down (nitrogen and carbon)
Uncooked kitchen waste – including tea bags and coffee grounds (nitrogen and carbon)
Old plants – chopped for fast break down (nitrogen and carbon)
Bedding straw for animals that eat grass or seeds (lots of nitrogen and carbon)
Straw and hay (lots of carbon)
Cardboard boxes and egg cartons – shredded (carbon)
Undyed wool, feathers and hair (nitrogen and carbon)
In Small Amounts
Newspaper and waste paper – separate sheets crumpled or roughly shredded (carbon)
Woody prunings – shredded (carbon)
Wood shavings – (very slow to break down and tie up a lot of nitrogen)
Seaweed – well-washed (helps factory work faster)
Herbs – comfrey, yarrow and chamomile (help factory work faster)
Egg shells – crumbled (keep compost smelling sweet and earthy)
Do Not Add
Plastic or foil containers, wrapping or disposable nappies
Fruit or vegetables that have been attacked by fruit fly or codling moth (larvae can pupate in factory)
Plants with diseases
Cat, dog or human faeces* (these can spread diseases through compost)
Rats or mice* (can spread diseases through compost)
Grey water (upsets pH balance and slows process)
Soil – makes compost heavy and harder to turn (amount clinging to weed roots is sufficient)
Earthworms – the initial heat will kill them. Earthworms know when to move into a compost factory.
Synthetic fertilisers (delays process and deters earthworms)
If you only have small quantities of organic waste to recycle, a worm farm would be a better solution. See Compost Worm Farm.
For information on how compost makes garden soil healthy, see Compost. ** Cat and dog faeces, and vermin, can be composted anaerobically in a small pit or container, but this compost should not be added to garden beds.
Composting recycles organic waste into a product that makes garden soil healthy. Mature compost is a dark brown, sweet-smelling material that can be added to topsoil.
There are two ways to make compost – aerobic, which requires aeration during the process, and anaerobic, which is a slow, rather smelly process. Mature aerobic compost can be produced in about 6–8 weeks in most areas of Australia.
How does compost make garden soil healthy?
Compost keeps soil more moisture-retentive, yet better-drained.
Compost provides food for earthworms that increase the depth of fertile topsoil by leaving digested food along their deep tunnels.
Compost provides food and a home for the many helpful bacteria and fungi that help protect soil from soil-borne diseases.
Well made compost has a pH of 6.5 – where all plant nutrients are fully available, and the perfect pH for the majority of plants.
Compost buffers plant roots from an unsuitable pH in surrounding soil.
It also insulates plant roots from temperature extremes so that soil stays cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
Compost contains all the minerals that plants, animals and humans need for good health, most of the soil’s nitrogen, plus lots of humus that forms the most stable part of recycled organic waste.
Humus and the minerals that plants need both carry a weak electrical charge. The electric charge holds the plant food minerals close to plant roots and prevents them from washing away in heavy rain.
Humus is able to control the release of trace elements needed in tiny amounts, and block absorption of poisonous metals in soil so that they do not end up in our food.
Humus stores carbon in soil for very long periods of time.
Humus, in compost, provides a habitat for a soil community of billions of beneficial bacteria and fungi that perform important functions.
Some bacteria species in humus make a ‘glue’ that is able to hold soil particles in a way that improves the flow of water and air through soil. This improves the structure of soil so that plant roots grow more easily. Strong roots help plants to resist the effects of drought and storms.
Mycorrhiza fungi in humus stick like hairs to the roots of plants, helping them absorb water and nutrients in exchange for sugars produced by plants during photosynthesis. Some 95% of perennial plants rely on mycorrhiza for healthy growth.
This method of frangipani propagation is becoming popular with readers, and one of our readers, Margaret, has been kind enough to share some photos of her very successful efforts.
Why choose this method of propagation? Frangipani grown from seed grow more quickly than trees grown from cuttings and, in the same way a family of children or animals can inherit different combinations of their parents’ genes, plants grown from seed may demonstrate different characteristics of parent plants, sometimes resulting in spectacular new varieties. Plants grown from cuttings are an exact copy on one parent. Not only may the flowers vary in colour or form, we have found that the perfumes of different-coloured frangipani also vary.
We have multiple trees of four different frangipani and the orange one reminds me of the smell of ripe peaches, while the deep pink one has a sweet citrus smell, and the pale pink one hardly any perfume at all.
If your frangipani tree has produced a seed pod or two and you would like to try this method of propagation, you can find more information here: Frangipani trees from seed.
Occasionally, garden gurus will say that “beans will grow on the smell of an empty fertiliser bag because they will fix nitrogen in the soil”. This is not true in Australia, where the soil bacteria that is necessary for these legumes to fix nitrogen does not occur naturally. Gardeners are often then disappointed to find that the lower leaves of their beans and peas have yellowed.
French or green beans (and peas) will benefit from the addition of some mature compost and a light application of complete fertiliser when preparing the planting area. Plants need more than nitrogen to be healthy and produce good crops, and compost in soil helps beans resist bean fly.
French beans do well in a sunny position with a soil pH not lower than 6. However, they may need some temporary shade during our heat wave conditions. Regular, deep watering and a 5 cm layer of mulch over the bed will help to keep them growing strongly. Bush varieties of French beans grow best when sown in a block rather than rows, and can be ready to harvest in eight to ten weeks after sowing.
For a continuous supply, sow a small quantity each month listed in the monthly planting guide for your climate.
Bees love lavender, and because French lavender* flowers during winter, it provides them with nourishment when there is little else in flower. Lavender is known for its calming effect on people and it has the same effect on bees. A hardy plant, French lavender prefers a gravelly soil with a close to neutral pH. It is an efficient water user and requires little complete fertiliser, suits warmer climates, makes an attractive hedge, and is happy in beds or a large pot. All it needs is a light hair cut when flowering has finished.
Bee numbers are declining around the world. This is a matter for concern for all of us as we rely on bees to pollinate a good number of our fruits and vegetables. As well as growing some French lavender or some winter-flowering annuals, please ensure you keep some clean water available in your garden as bees need clean water, too. Many drown each year from trying to drink chlorinated pool water. A bird bath or large plant saucer, regularly topped up with clean water, is all they need.
* French Lavender (Lavendula dentata) is also known as Toothed Lavender, so named for the edges of its leaves.
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. 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’.
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.