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Pip's Tips

Preparation

This section includes some great tips to prepare your vegie garden for the next seasons planting.

Compost

The basic rule regarding how much and how often to add
compost to your garden can be summed up by the "Law of
Returns". This is the idea that whatever we take from the garden
in the form of harvest, weeds, fruits etc we must also return
to the garden in the same amount or more.

If we consider that a weed in the garden is mining and using minerals and nutrients from the soil (amongst other beneficial things), when we remove it from the system by weeding, we are taking those nutrients out of the garden. Therefore we must find ways of returning the same amount or more of nutrients back to the soil. This can be done by making and adding compost. Did you know, those weeds that you removed from the garden can actually be composted and returned to the garden so those nutrients don’t get wasted!

WHAT IS COMPOST?

Hummus is what occurs naturally on the forest floor of a healthy ecosystem. It consists of the decomposed remains of all the materials that collect on the forest floor such as leaves, manure, water and dead animals. Hummus is food for the plants that grow in the forest as it contains the nutrients from all the broken down materials.

Compost is a human-made version of this Hummus and is how we help provide food to all the plants growing in our gardens. Introducing compost to your garden also encourages insects, worms and microbes- your hardest workers and they work for free! Compost can be made in large or small quantities in large or small spaces.

Almost anything that has once lived can be composted. Anything that comes from the earth can go back to the earth. Once you know what to look for you will start to see the materials for making compost all around you- in your neighbours rubbish pile, in the trees around your town, in your kitchen scraps. A mix of materials from a wide variety of sources is important for rich compost with a variety of different nutrients.

WHY MAKE COMPOST?

Strong and healthy plants have their own natural resistance to pests and diseases and compost is the natural method of achieving this. Good compost added regularly to your garden will support healthy and rich soil - your plants in turn will thrive in this soil to produce healthy and nutritious food for you.

Chemical fertilisers help plants to grow but they also kill all the natural life in the soil. The tiny microbes, bugs and worms that are helping to decompose materials, oxygenate your soils and create food for your plants. Chemical fertilisers create weak and insect prone plants with little nutritional value (even though they may look healthy) and when it rains these chemicals wash into our lakes and rivers and poison our drinking water. They are expensive and have to be used every year.

Composting is also the natural way of disposing of garden waste and turning it into something useful.

Compost costs nothing to make as it is made from materials that we normally think of as rubbish and which are found all around us. All it takes is a little bit of time and energy to collect the materials.

COMPOST FOR SMALL SPACES (patios and apartments)

Worm farms and Bokashi are two composting systems that can be used in small spaces (even indoors!) to efficiently turn your food scraps and other waste into useful compost and liquid fertiliser. The amount of food scraps you generate will determine the size of the system suited to you.

Bokashi

Bokashi is a system developed in Japan which uses a small bucket and an anaerobic bacterial fermentation process to break down your food scraps into compost. It is no smell and is small and ideal for flats and apartments with little or no outside space. The end product of the Bokashi set can be used on pot plants or any other plants you see around your neighbourhood that could do with a feed. Bokashi sets are available from many nurseries, health food stores and online(resources).

Worm farms

Worm farms are great because they take up a small amount of space but can also be made on a larger scale for bigger gardens or households with lots of food scraps. They are widely available at most nurseries and garden supply places and online (resources). They can also be easily made from recycled materials such as old bath tubs, wheelie bins, sinks, buckets and car tyres depending on the quantity of scraps you need to process.

To start worm farms off you require quite a lot of worms. These can be bought online (resources) or from many hardware stores in boxes of 500-1000 worms or you can ask a gardening friend nicely for a bag full to start off your worm farm. They will multiple quickly given a happy home.

A worm farm gives you two valuable products, worm juice and worm castings. Worm juice is basically a potent black liquid, rich in nutrients which can be diluted down 1:10 with water and used as a natural pick me up and fertiliser for plants.

Worm castings is black gold. It is the rich, black, moist soil which is what the worms have made with your food scraps. This is also a nutrient rich treat for your plants. When you plant new seedlings into your garden, dig the hole and put a handful of worm castings in first before planting on top. This will assure your seedling has food right where it needs it, at the roots. The worm castings also contain worm eggs which will hatch and introduce lovely, hardworking worms into your garden.

Worms don’t like sunlight or extreme heat (over 35 degrees), they also like to remain moist and have plenty of food (chopped as small as possible to help them eat it quicker). Commercially available worm farms usually have a set of trays which stack one on top of the other. Once one tray is full of food scraps you add another and the worms will slowly munch their way through it and climb up to the next tray when they’re ready. When they reach the second tray the first will be full of castings and the juice will come out of the tap at the bottoms. These worm farms are great, but home made ones require a lot less maintenance and can be easily made from recycled materials.

Making your own worm farm

Let your imagination run wild. Basically all you need is a shady place, something that can catch the liquid worm juice and a container to keep the worms from running away. The classic example is a bathtub raised up off the ground by 4 bricks (one in each corner) some mesh over the plug hole to keep the solids (worm castings) in the bath tub and an easily removable bucket under the plug hole to catch the worm juice. Inside the tub put wet newspaper (worms love this) food scraps, worms and some sort of protective covering such as an old wool blanket to give the worms some privacy (and protection from sunlight and birds). This same idea can be applied on a smaller scale to an old kitchen sink, bucket with a small tap fitted to it or stack of car tyres sitting on a piece of corrugated tin. Just remember worms will work very hard for you, but they need darkness, a coolish environment, moisture, air and food to stay happy, willing workers.

COMPOST FOR LARGER GARDENS

There are basically two types of compost. Aerobic (that which is made using bacteria that need oxygen) and Anaerobic (that which is made using bacteria that don’t like oxygen). Here we will focus on aerobic composts as these ones are quicker to make and don’t smell. We will also focus on one particular method called the 18 Day Hot Compost method. This method creates good quality compost quickly and because it generates heat, you can use all your garden weeds in the compost as the heat will kill the weed seeds.

How to make 18 Day Hot Compost

Ingredients:

Organic materials – anything that has been alive can be composted! No plastic! – but there needs to be a balance in the ingredients. The two broad categories of compost materials are:

  • High-Carbon (woody, brown, dry)
    e.g. dry leaves, newspaper, cardboard, twigs, dry grass, straw.
  • High-Nitrogen (fresh, wet, green)
    e.g. green grass, fresh green leaves, weeds (the weed seeds will be killed in the heat of the compost) kitchen scraps.

The microbes that work in the composting process need a starting ratio of about 30 Carbon to 1 Nitrogen to grow and reproduce, so this is the ratio we aim for in making a compost pile. It also helps to have the materials cut into small pieces – this increases surface area and makes it easier to get an even mix.

You will also need:

  • Manure
    Every kind of manure has a different nitrogen : carbon ratio for example horse manure has very little nitrogen compared to chicken manure which is high in nitrogen.
  • Micro-organisms
    hundreds of species of bacteria and fungi are involved in the composting process. They are what cause the materials to break down and introduce nutrients and oxygen to the soil. As soon as you assemble your compost pile, all these micro-organisms will come to your compost pile and start to multiply in large numbers. These are your hardest workers in your farm and you don’t have to pay them anything. The just need food, water and oxygen.
  • Water
    it is very important to keep the heap at the correct moisture level. Too dry and the decomposition process will stop, Too wet and the anaerobic bacteria will flourish leading to a different kind of decomposition, including foul smells. Regular turning and regular watering will help to maintain the correct balance of moisture throughout the heap. Also, keep the heap protected from heavy rain which can make it too wet and cause the nutrients in the compost to run off.
  • Oxygen
    The bacteria we want to encourage in the compost heap are aerobic (air/oxygen loving) as opposed to anaerobic (air/oxygen hating). Thus we need to constantly supply and resupply oxygen to the heap. This is the main reason why we turn the heap regularly.
  • Compost Activator
    these are things which help to boost the reproductive activity of the micro organisms and include things such as a dead animals, molasses or urine.
  • A shovel or fork
    to help turn the compost

Method

The best shape for a compost heap is about 1.5m wide and 1.5m high and at least 1.5m long. The length of the heap will depend on how much space you have in your garden, and how much material you have.

  1. First of all collect all your materials together in three piles next to where you want to build the compost. The three piles should be divided into: dry stuff (straw, hay, dry grass, dry leaves, newspaper, cardboard), green stuff (grass clippings, foliage, comfrey, food scraps) and manure at roughly this proportion 5:3:1.
  2. Build the heap in thin layers of these different materials approximately 5cm thick and water each layer before progressing to the next. For example, one layer of dry leaves, one layer of manure, one layer of green material, then start again. Adding small amounts of soil into the layers will also help to introduce micro organisms to the pile.
  3. Add the compost activator around the middle of the pile. Keep adding water until it starts to dribble out the bottom of the pile and don’t forget to cover your pile with a natural material of some sort eg a Hessian sack or old woollen blanket.

After 24 hours your pile should start to generate heat. You should test it by putting your arm into the middle of the pile. Be careful as the heat in the centre of the pile can get above 60°C. If it is not hot, than the carbon: nitrogen balance is wrong so try adding more of one (probably nitrogen)

After 4 days the pile is ready to be turned for the first time. In turning the pile you want to get what’s on the inside to be on the outside and what was on the outside to be on the inside. Do this by peeling off the outside layer of the compost pile and making that the first layer of the new pile. Then continue to put the outer most layers of the original compost pile onto the bottom of the new pile.

Don’t forget to add water. There should be enough water in the pile that it trickles out the bottom of the pile, or enough so that if you squeeze a handful of the compost it drips a little water. Turning the pile will feed the microbes with more oxygen and also give them a fresh source of food at the centre of the pile.

Now turn the pile every 2nd day until you reach the 18th day. All the materials should be fully decomposed and look like rich, black soil, with no smell.

HOW TO USE COMPOST

The finished material can be put directly onto the surface of your garden. This conditions, fertilises and suppresses diseases in the soil and helps make your plants strong and disease resistant.. You can’t harm plants by putting on too much, but to make it go as far as possible, a minimum layer of 5cm is recommended. In dry conditions, exposed layers of compost on top of the soil will quickly dry out and die. So a thick layer of mulch (straw, cardboard, dry grass etc) should be placed on top immediately to protect it.

Its best to use the compost within 6-8 days after it is finished as the micro organisms will get hungry and leave the compost pile before you have a chance to introduce them to your garden.

Common Problems:

It smells bad – this could be the result of two common problems

  • Bad smelling gas is produced by anaerobic bacteria i.e., not enough oxygen is available in the heap, or its too wet or has large lumps of wet sludgy material. Or large amounts of unmixed kitchen waste
  • There isn’t enough carbon materials
  • There is too much water or unmixed kitchen waste.
  • There isn’t enough oxygen and the pile has become anaerobic (oxygen hating)

To fix it: turn the heap to aerate it more often and add some drier, carbon rich material (eg straw).

Its not decomposing or generating heat – This could be because:

  • Not enough water – the pile is dry, stopping any biological activity. To fix it: Turn the heap, spraying with water constantly.
  • If the ingredients are too rough or large this will also slow things down. To fix: remake the heap after chopping up the rougher ingredients.
  • Not enough nitrogen – turn the heap and add more manure, fresh cut grass or urine as you do it.

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Mulching

Mulching is important in the garden for four main reasons. (NOTE: Firstly add fresh compost to your garden and then mulch generously on top.)

  1. It provides organic matter to be broken down by soil organisms into food for the plant,
  2. It reduces the loss of moisture from the soil by evaporation,
  3. It keeps plants insulated during cold and frosty times of the year; and,
  4. It protects soil micro organisms from sunlight. It is particularly necessary in very hot dry climates to ensure that soil organisms survive.

Many different materials can be used as mulch and most of them are free to the savvy gardener. Nurseries and garden supply shops typically sell bales of pea straw, hay and sugar cane mulch at prices up to $30 a bale. These are good and useful if you are strapped for time but if you have a wheelbarrow and a rake, many good materials for mulch can be found around the neighbourhood. The general rule of thumb with mulch is the more the merrier but be careful not to suffocate seedlings or ringbark shrubs and trees by letting the mulch touch the stem/trunk of the plant.

Note: be careful to buy only organic sugar cane mulch as many harmful chemicals are used in the farming of non organic sugar cane and these will end up in your garden.

Here are some examples of materials that can be used for mulch:

Dry Grass- council often slashes nature strips and other public spaces and leaves the dry grass clippings behind. Excellent mulch, careful of weed seeds though. This can be composted first to get rid of weed seeds.

Dry leaves- go to the park with a rake and bag. Careful not to use eucalyptus leaves though as they have growth inhibiting substances and oil in them.

Lawn clippings- ask your neighbours if you can have their lawn clippings or befriend the local council worker and ask them to drop off the council lawn clippings. Careful not to lay this too thickly or mix it up with something else like dry leaves as it can form a thick mat which wont let water or air through.

Weeds (cut off at ground level and lay down as mulch)- why waste the water and nutrients stored in the leaves of ‘weeds’ by throwing them away. Cycle them back into the system this way. By leaving the root system in the ground this will continue to provide food to the soil micro-organisms that live around the roots.

Bark (shredded) - best for use on trees and shrubs. Break up bigger bits.

Bones (crushed up) - turn your Sunday roast bones into mulch and put some calcium, magnesium and phosphorous back in the soil!

Sand - good mulch for native plants. Will reflect heat during summer and allow good surface drainage.

Gravel/stones - dark coloured stones will store heat (good for winter) whilst light coloured stones will reflect heat (good for summer)

Natural materials (e.g. woollen blankets, Hessian sacks) - don’t look that nice but will eventually break down and are good moisture retainers. Many old and torn blankets are available at opp shops. You can also put more aesthetic mulch like pea straw on top.

Wool - great for holding moisture. Ask the local sheep farm for dags or wool scraps.

Paper, cardboard- may need weighing down with stones or another kind of mulch. Good for suppressing weeds. Careful not to use shiny magazines as these have waxes and chemicals that you don’t want in your garden.

Hulls- such as nut or wheat hulls, ask around at local factories e.g. peanut butter factory or flour mill, if you can take their wastes.

Sawdust- best used for keeping weeds out of pathways or under fruit trees as it is slightly acidic. Ask the local carpenter or saw miller.

Plant clippings / pruning’s- just step on them so they flatten down a bit.

Seaweed (shredded) - careful where you collect it from as it is prohibited to collect seaweed from some Australian beaches. Sea weed does provide many micronutrients to the soil which are otherwise difficult to get.

Note: do be careful where you take your mulches from. Always ask someone first if you’re taking it from private property and do not take them from sensitive areas such as rehabilitation areas, national or state parks.

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Seed raising mix

To grow, a seed needs nutrients, water, air and something to grow in. Seed raising mix is a fine growing medium for raising seeds. The mix needs to be able to hold moisture but also be loose enough that the seedlings roots can grow easily, it also needs to have some nutrients to keep the seedling happy and be fine and loose enough for the seedling to push up through.

Some seeds can be sown directly into your garden whilst others prefer to be raised in seed trays with seed raising mix first and then transplanted into the garden once they are big enough. This method is particularly useful in winter when the cold temperatures can slow down the germination and growth of seeds. At this time seeds can be grown in warm sunny places indoors or in cold frames and then transplanted to the garden later.

Organic potting mix can be used and bought by the 10 or 20kg bag at nurseries and hardware stores. Sometimes straight potting mix (which is designed for seedlings not seeds) can be a bit chunky, but if you pick out the big bits it can be ok for seed rasing. You can also buy bags of specific 'seed rasing soil mix' at nurseries and hardware stores but you can also very easily make your own for much cheaper.

Ingredients:

  • Coco Peat- buy in a block from nurseries and hardware stores
  • Coarse Builders Sand- can also be bought at hardware or landscaping supplies
  • Compost or Worm Castings- home made or bought

Method:

  1. Soak coco peat in a bucket of water and break up well.
  2. Sift compost through an old bed frame, plastic colander, fine wire mesh or other recycled items to make sure there's no limpy bits.
  3. Put equal parts of coco peat, sifted compost and coarse builders sand into a container, mix thoroughly together and potting mix is ready to be used.
  4. Store covered with a Hessian sack.

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No Dig Gardens

The benefits of a no dig garden are numerous. It is a quick and easy way of building a garden bed anywhere. You can build a no dig garden on top of weed infested ground, compacted or poor soils and even on top of concrete!!!

They improve the health of your soil, your body and your spirit, they require little maintenance, they mirror nature’s processes, save backs, water and money.

So here’s the recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 1 part manure (cow, sheep, chook)
  • 3 parts green material (grass clippings, lucerne hay)
  • 5 parts dry material (straw, dry leaves/grass)
  • Worm castings
  • Organic Potting mix
  • Water
  • Material for border eg rocks, sleepers, bricks

Method:

  1. Choose a good site, on flat ground and ideally facing north in order to get at least 5 hours of sun a day. If it isn’t flat, then use whatever materials you have to build it up to be level (e.g. rocks, twigs, soil). It should be no wider than 2 arms lengths so that you can comfortably reach all parts of the garden without stepping on it (as this compacts the materials and squishes our little friends the worms!
  2. If you’re building your garden on weed infested ground, then cut/mow back the weeds and leave them lying on the ground.
  3. On top of the weeds/ground add a thick layer (the thicker the better) of well soaked newspaper. This will suppress the weeds which will rot away beneath the paper and contribute to the health of the soil as they break down.
  4. Add some sort of border to define the garden and contain the material e.g. rocks, bricks, straw bales etc. to a height of about 50cm-1m. This will also help discourage weeds entering the garden and prevent you from having to bend over when gardening.
  5. Next put a layer 15cm thick of green material
  6. Then a 5cm layer of manure.
  7. A thin layer of worm castings
  8. And a layer 25cm thick of dry material
  9. Hose down the garden bed thoroughly (and after each layer)
  10. Repeat steps 5-9 until the garden bed is full to the top of the boarder.
  11. Now make small hollows in the straw where you want to plant your seed/lings.
  12. In a bucket mix together 1 part worm castings to 3 parts potting mix
  13. In each hole put a handful of the above worm/potting mix.
  14. Plant seedlings directly into these potting mix filled holes, mulch around them carefully and water thoroughly. Try companion planting as a natural way of repelling pests, encouraging beneficial insects and improving the health of you plants.
  15. Watch your garden grow and provide a visual and culinary feast before your eyes.
  16. Don’t forget to add more dry/green and manure materials to the bed at the end of each season as the bed will compress down, and rotate your crops each season.
  17. Install a watering system, the most efficient being a drip irrigation system.

If building on a sealed surface (e.g. concrete):

Instead of newspaper, the first layer is 5cm of rough material to help with drainage such as twigs or gravel. On top of this add a layer of straw and then wet newspaper (food for the worms). Then continue as above from step 5.

As this is a closed system (not open to the earth below), it’s very important that worm castings are used as this will introduce worms into the system, they do all the decomposing/composting/digging work for us.

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Building a cold frame

Another way to give your seeds a little bit of a kick along in the cooler months is to raise them in a ‘cold frame’. A cold frame is a small enclosure built low to the ground with a clear (glass or plastic) roof to allow sunlight in and reduce the heat loss back to the outside environment. It acts as a mini green house helping your seeds to sprout more easily in the colder seasons. They are easy to build out of recycled and easily available materials and can be built on a scale to suit the size of your backyard. They generally slope up away from the sun to allow maximum sunlight in, and have a roof that is easy to remove/open when you want to water your seedlings.

Building a cold frame is a very quick and easy garden project which really makes a big difference to the success of your seed raising. They are great because they can be made on any scale to suit the space you have available and they are light weight so easy to move. They can be as simple as a white foam box (the kind you find at vegetable stores) with a piece of glass as a lid or slightly more complex as with the pictures below.

Some general things to keep in mind when building a cold frame:

  • Think about the insulating value of the material you build it out of i.e. one made out of bricks will store much more heat than one made out of thin timber. A light weight timber cold frame could have more insulation added to it by chopping up some white foam boxes and sticking them to the inside of the cold frame. The white surface will reflect light back into the cold frame and the foam will insulate from the outside cold and keep the warmth inside the cold frame.
  • Having the roof sloping up, away from the sun ensures maximum light can get into the cold frame.
  • Cold frames have no bottom/floor so that you can easily lift them off you plants and move it. This also assists with free drainage.
  • Location, Location, Location. Make sure you locate your cold frame somewhere where it will get maximum areas of sunlight and where it won’t be too exposed to wind. Backing onto a brick/rock wall is a good idea as the wall will act as extra insulation.
  • Seeds can be planted directly in the ground beneath the cold frame or in seed trays which can then be moved/transplanted once established.
  • Consider the sustainability of the materials you use. Cold frames are easy to make from recycled materials, see what you can collect from your neighbors, local tip shop and hard rubbish collection. Its always better to re-use ‘waste’ materials than buy new ones. Also think about the durability of the materials and whether your structure will last.
  • If there is a warm snap of weather it’s a good idea to leave the roof slightly ajar on the cold frame so as not to cook your seedlings.
  • Drainage is another important factor. You will be needing to water your seedlings and as cold frames have no bottom, you need to position it somewhere where the excess water can drain freely away.

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Welcoming Weeds

Turning a problem into a solution.

With the increase in moisture in winter, weeds will often be quick to spring up in your garden. Weeds are useful for many things and many are even edible. Rather than pulling up your weeds and putting them in your green bin to become someone else’s problem, consider a few of the options below and turn the problem into the solution.

  • Cut the weeds off at ground level and use them as mulch on top of your garden beds. Many beneficial bugs live in the area around the roots of a plant, they can’t survive above ground and when we pull weeds out of the garden, we lose many of these helpful garden friends. By cutting weeds off at ground level this leaves the roots in the ground to decompose therefore adding valuable organic matter to the soil. It also leaves the beneficial bugs in the soil where they will continue to help your plants.
  • Make weed tea out of them - a natural fertilizer for you garden - for more info go to the ‘feeding your plants’ page on Pip’s website.
  • Green growth contains a higher proportion of nitrogen then when it has dried out. This is an essential element in healthy soil and compost and as such any green grass clippings or weeds are a fantastic ingredient to add to compost piles. For more on compost see the Pip’s Tips page on Pip’s website.
  • Weeds can also be dug back into the ground by digging up the whole plant and turning it upside down so that the roots face up and then putting mulch on top. This will kill the weeds and add organic matter and moisture back into the soil. Make sure you put mulch on top directly after digging weeds back into the soil to give the beneficial bugs some protection.
  • It is important when using any weeds in your garden to harvest them before they set seed so that you aren’t spreading the seeds further throughout your garden.
  • Click here for a list of common edible weeds.

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