Jane's Delicious Garden Blog

Leaves glorious leaves

Posted in Grow Your Own Veg! Tips & Techniques by Jane Griffiths on the May 23rd, 2011

Leaf mould is another way of enriching our soils.

Leaves in pile in leaf bin

Leaf mould is just what it sounds like – fully decomposed leaves. Often we have more leaves than we can use in our compost, particularly in autumn. Dry leaves can take a lot longer to decompose than other compost ingredients. It is better to compost them separately, especially when there are deciduous trees in the garden providing us with so many at once. Leaf mould is an excellent mulch, a nutrient-rich soil conditioner and good addition to seedling mixes.

Leaf mould bin

Simply pile your leaves in a sheltered, inconspicuous part of the garden and leave them for about two years. Or pack them in black bin bags, make a couple of holes in the sides for aeration and tuck them away until rotted. Or put them into a container where they can be turned every month. Even not fully decomposed, I dip into my leaf mould regularly to mulch a new seedling bed or cover up an area which is looking a little bare.

And that brings us to mulching, Adding organic matter to the surface of the beds is known as mulching. It is one of the simplest things to do yet it makes a world of difference to your garden.

leaves for mulch collecting from bin 3

A mulched surface:
· Regulates the temperature of the soil, keeping it cooler in summer and warmer in winter
· Reduces weeds, as long as the mulch is weed free and deep enough to prevent weed germination or smother existing weeds
· Prevents the surface of the soil from cracking or eroding
· Prevents rain water from running off the soil and uselessly disappearing into a storm water drain
· Prevents water from splashing up onto plants, helping slow the spread of soil-borne diseases
· Retains moisture
· Prevents the soil from crusting or compacting
· Increases and strengthens root growth
· Creates a natural forest floor environment
· Provides food for earthworms which in turn improve the health of the soil
· Improves and adds nutrients to the soil.

Mulching 3

When you look at this list of benefits – how can you possibly not mulch!

A variety of materials can be used as mulch – some people even use newspaper. I prefer using organic mulches such as compost, leaf mould, grass clippings, leaves from the autumn creepers and clippings from my shrubs – especially artemisia, sage and lavender, which constantly need trimming. Artemisia has the added benefit of repelling bugs, which hate its smell. Other organic mulches include hay, shredded bark and nutshells. Inorganic mulches such as plastic or gravel can be used; however, the advantage of organic mulches is they improve the soil as they break down.

Mulch should be applied when seedlings are about 3–5 cm high. Depending on the material, mulch can be anything from 5 -15 cm thick. Fresh grass clippings should only be about 3–5 cm thick, otherwise they become dense and slimy, preventing water and air from reaching the soil. If you want a thicker layer, mix the clippings with dried leaves first. Mulch piled against stems can cause them to rot, so keep a circle of about 3–5 cm clear around stems. For larger plants with woody stems, leave a mulch-free zone of about 10–15 cm to prevent the bark decaying. Always weed and water the beds well before applying mulch.

From next week, I will start talking about sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings into your vegetable garden.

The magic of compost!

Posted in Grow Your Own Veg! Tips & Techniques by Jane Griffiths on the May 23rd, 2011

You will know you are becoming hooked on gardening when you find compost a fascinating subject! I am a compost addict. I love the smell of compost. I love the feel of compost. When I dig my hands deep into a crumbly bag of compost, its energy makes my spirit soar. If you are serious about organic gardening, making your own compost is an essential part of the process.
J pouring compost into bucket

So what is compost and why is it so important?

Compost is a crumbly mixture consisting mostly of decayed organic matter. It is one of the best ways to fertilise and condition the soil. It provides nutrients for plants, helps the soil to retain moisture, provides food for earthworms and other beneficial insects, reduces erosion and maintains soil temperature. There is something magical about taking a pile of kitchen and garden refuse and turning it into black gold – because this is what composting does: it transforms discarded organic matter into nutrient-rich compost. I have found it to be one of the most rewarding cycles in my garden. Taking every scrap and shred of organic waste and recycling it into food for my plants makes me feel like Mother Nature herself!
Home made compost holding bin and leaf bin

Almost any organic material is suitable for a compost pile, but be aware of the balance required to make it decompose most effectively. Your compost pile requires a proper ratio of carbon-rich material (brown)and nitrogen-rich material (green). Examples of browns are dried leaves, bark, twigs, straw and sawdust. Greens are grass clippings, fresh garden clippings and kitchen scraps. Aim for about two-thirds brown to one-third green mix in your pile. Keep your compost pile moist but not waterlogged – about as wet as a wrung out sponge.
Turn it regularly until it is well rotted.
Compost two bins either side

It is better not to add cooked food, meat, fish, dairy products, or pet waste to your compost. But everything else goes in: all your organic kitchen waste including coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, oyster shells – even used paper towels.

Compost bieng sieved 2

Every year I receive a massive birthday bag of manure from a friend of mine who brings it from his sister’s organic farm. I think it is the only birthday present that can be left outside my gate in Johannesburg without being stolen!

Livestock manure is a nutritious addition to the organic garden. However, be careful how you use it: in its raw state it may carry pathogens and other unwanted elements.
Horse manure in pile with bedding
If applied to the soil fresh it can create an imbalance. This is especially true with chicken manure, which is high in nitrogen. Raw manure may also contain weed seeds, which you don’t want to add to your soil. So, make sure it is well composted first. Do this by either mixing it into your compost pile or composting it in a separate pile. Manure is most often mixed with the animal’s bedding: straw, wood shavings etc.

J collecting horse manure 2This increases the carbon content of the pile. Check the manure before adding it and if necessary combine it with fresh grass clippings and other nitrogenous sources to even out the mix. Even if you buy commercial ‘kraal manure’ make sure it is well composted before adding it to your soil. (It should be crumbly and smell earthy, not like ammonia.)

Green manure sounds odd but it is simply a fast-growing crop, which is then chopped down and incorporated into the top layer of soil to add nutrients.
Green manure chopped upThink of a green manure as growing your own fertiliser. Green manure not only retains and adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil; it also protects it from drying out, compacting or washing away. Once the green manure crop has grown to the point when it is lush and leafy, it is pulled out, chopped up and mixed into the top layer of the soil, or just strewn on top of the soil.

Green manure clover and seedlingsIf the weather is very wet, I prefer to just scatter it on top. But if it is dry, I dig half of it into the top layer of soil and then chop up the rest over the top. A variety of crops are used as green manure – mustard, fenugreek, clover, alfalfa, lupins, soya beans and buckwheat.

Don’t let a green manure become too woody before chopping it in. It is also worth cutting up a cover crop quite finely and then letting it wilt for a few days before incorporating it into the soil. Most green manures should be cut before they start flowering, as the nitrogen is lost to the flower and resulting seed head.

Next week I will discuss leaf mould and mulch.

Growing green fingers

Posted in Grow Your Own Veg! Tips & Techniques by Jane Griffiths on the May 23rd, 2011

In a natural environment, a carrot would grow, become fat, then die and rot back into the soil, giving the nutrients it had absorbed back to the soil.

Carrots 5

However, we come along and pull it out. To maintain fertile, healthy soil we need to continually replace the nutrients we remove when we harvest our vegetables and herbs. Using the no dig method of gardening, this is simply done by regularly adding fresh organic matter to the surface of the beds. Nature is designed to incorporate material that falls on the surface, down into the bottom layers. By organic matter I mean compost, manure, green manure, leaf mould and mulch to the surface. (I will discuss each of these in detail in later columns.)
As soon as you have added a layer of organic matter, the natural decomposition process begins: earthworms come up at night and pull it down into the soil, rain breaks it down and micro organisms get to work. In no time it will be converted into humus for your plants’ roots.

Although most of a plant’s requirements come from oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, up to 60 different elements have been identified in plants. Sixteen of these are essential for plants to grow vigorously and productively. A deficiency of any of these nutrient elements may limit plant growth and productivity and make them vulnerable to disease. For plants to function properly, it is up to us as gardeners to make sure all the raw material is available to them and to keep the soil in the best condition possible. Firstly we need to ensure that our vegetables are planted in nutrient rich soil. Secondly, the soil needs to have just the right balance of air pockets as well as moisture. This is a lot easier than it sounds: As I said earlier all we need do is to continually add compost, manure, green manure, leaf mould and mulch to our gardens.

Despite never planning to be a gardener, the green fingers of my mother, and her mother before her, were inevitably passed down to me. I remind myself of my mother so often – especially when I’m gathering slips from someone else’s garden to bring home to mine. When I recognise the name of a plant or instinctively know how to do something, I realise how much I must have absorbed as a child. My mother, now in her eighties, is still actively gardening her large Pietermaritzburg slice of heaven.

But you don’t need ancestral green fingers to learn how to grow a delicious garden. The more attuned you become to your environment, the easier it will be. Organic gardening is about creating a biologically balanced ecosystem. My vegetable garden has been in the same place for fifteen years.

By continually growing green manures and cover crops, and adding organic matter, I now have soil that is more fertile than when I started. In addition to improved soil, I have fewer pest and disease problems than in the beginning, when I didn’t have as much variety growing in my garden. By eliminating chemicals and poisons, the earth regenerates, natural cycles develop, food chains become established and we can harvest vegetables and herbs that taste the way nature intended.

Next week I will talk about compost, manure, green manure, leaf mould and mulch in more detail.