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Save Water, use Drip Irrigation

With the drought that we are experiencing watering your garden is a real chore.  Drip irrigation is a must in your garden.

Gardening in drought conditions is difficult, especially now that severe water restrictions are in place. The drought has the added effect of increasing the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables, so home gardeners are turning to their own gardens to feed their families. The only problem now is that cannot use hoses and sprinklers to water these cost saving gardens. Buckets are not efficient and the only reason you can use them is that the labour required to carry buckets is the disincentive to water the garden.

With drip irrigation, that issue is solved as you are able to precisely water your plants and there is no wastage.

This is our story on how we saved close on 90% of our farms water consumption as well as thousands of Rands every month.

Looking down a newly planted line of tomato seedlings.
Looking down a newly planted line of tomato seedlings.

For a long time Livingseeds Farm relied on a patchwork of different sprinkler systems in our fields. These sprinklers where bought with small fund allocations, as and when we needed to expand. They were made up of 3 or 4 disparate makes that just never did exactly what we needed them to do.

As we irrigated from a borehole, if we needed to run the sprinklers, it would run directly off the borehole pump. So, if we wanted to water just a small section the borehole pump ran. We found that to ‘save’ on the electricity that was being used, we would actually over-water certain sections, and this had its own set complications with diseases, over-watering etc.

In the spring of 2010 we made the move from overhead sprinklers to drip irrigation. The outlay was painful for the first month, however it was a real eye-opener over the next few months. We also doubled our planting area at the same time, as I figured that we may as well just bite the bullet and roll out a larger drip system in one go.

Immediately our Eskom bill dropped by R5k per month (note that this was pre Eskom rate hikes) and the amount of water we required to irrigate dropped by 80%! Yes an 80% water reduction on double the land use. (We have since installed a solar borehole pump, further reducing our Eskom dependency, but that’s a different story)

Combined with a regular and heavy mulching regime, drip irrigation could see you saving close on 90% of your vegetable garden watering bill.

An heirloom tomato seedling flourishing with drip irrigation.
An heirloom tomato seedling flourishing with drip irrigation.

So, to say that we are a little biased when it comes to drip irrigation is an understatement.

Our system has been designed around agricultural grade drip system. We have used this grade system on Livingseeds Farm from the last 6 years and apart from the occasional punctured line, they are still operating flawlessly. Our winters can drop to -15 and our summers peak at 40+, so you can rest assured that this is not a cheap retail grade drip system.

The emitters run at 1lt per hour at 1 bar, the water is directed at exactly the point that you want it and there is no wastage.
Because it only runs at 1 bar, there is no need to open your tap to full pressure, just a slight opening of your tap will give you more than enough pressure to run this system.
The kit comes with a full colour 13 page manual that will help you install your drip system in a matter of hours.

3 sizes are available.

30 SQM

60SQM

100SQM

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Succession Planting: Do it correctly.

The two biggest assets that you as a home veggie gardener have in your Spring and Summer garden are Open Pollinated Heirloom vegetable seeds, and Succession planting.

There are many reason why we plant Heirloom seed in our gardens, one of the biggest benefits to the home gardener is that they do not all ripen at the same time.

Industrial hybrid seed needs 100% uniformity. They build machines to plant, maintain and harvest crops, if the crops are not 100% uniform, the machines don’t work properly and the harvest is delayed or messed up. Simply put, commercial farmers need to harvest the entire field on the same day. For that, the plants need to be uniform, and special seed is bred for just that reason.
With Heirloom seed, the trait of uneven ripening is perfect for home gardeners, as nobody wants a glut of any vegetable in the same week. As a home gardener, the last thing you want, is to be required to harvest everything at the same time and either have to give, or if ripens at the wrong time and you can’t process, throw most of your crop away. What you are looking for is staggered and uneven ripening. This will allow you to use and process your crops over an extended period.

You can plan and use the uneven ripening of heirloom seed to your advantage. It’s easy to spread that harvest of a number of weeks or months, and that’s just perfect! It still allows you some extra to be charitable with, and your planting just goes so much further.

Succession planting is the next weapon in the home gardeners arsenal. To be used effectively, you need to understand how it works. It’s no good just planting all your seeds every week or two weeks in order to have a staggered harvest. And unfortunately is how most people understand succession planting. The most common explanation by ‘experts’ is to just plant every X days or weeks. Personally I’m not a fan of this technique as people often miss a ‘pre-set’ day and then give up as they missed their critical day.

Proper succession planting is used with the understanding that certain crops and varieties have a bearing ‘sweet spot’, and it’s making good use of that sweet spot, and then having another variety waiting in the wings to replace it.

Certain crops lend themselves to succession planting and others not. Long season crops like onions and garlic, and perennial crops like asparagus and artichokes are just pointless being succession planted. Plant them once in a dedicated bed and harvest / process when ready.

tomato_seedlings
Tomato seedlings in one of our tunnels. These will produce next seasons seed.

So onto the meat of how to use succession planting.

Check your maturity dates on the varieties that you are looking to plant.

1) Different varieties if planted on the same day will have different maturity dates.

A good example is Tomatoes. (Note that these dates are from transplant.)

Most indeterminate tomatoes will start producing from around 85 – 90 days. And they can produce in well fed soil for 2-3 months. So in effect you only need to replant tomatoes every 2 months or so.

If you add a short season determinate tomato into your planting, you can get sun ripened salad tomatoes in 65 or 75 days, that’s almost a month off your first harvest date!

The nice part about this method is that even though you are harvesting tomatoes continuously, each variety tastes different and lends itself to different styles of cooking, ensuring that you don’t get tired of eating the same crop every week.

2) Look at what type crop you are planting.

Tender Delight Bush beans a real winner in the garden
Tender Delight Bush beans a real winner in the garden

 

Let’s use Bush Beans for this example. It will start bearing from around 55 days and will bear well, for a good 6-8 weeks (yes I know you can push it further).
So it makes sense to replant Bush Beans every 6 weeks to replace your production stock with young vigorous plants.

Adding Runner beans changes this dynamic, as they only start giving beans at 8 or 9 weeks, but will produce very well if picked over properly for a solid 3 months. So only plant a new runner bean crop every 8-10 weeks.

3) Cut once crops like heading lettuce can be put on a stricter schedule.

It’s pretty easy to work out how many your family will need on a weekly basis. And then plant to that schedule every 2-3 weeks. However, here again, using different lettuce varieties can extend your harvest. Loose leaf varieties are generally more heat adapted, and they can tolerate a bit of shade, which will slow down the bolting and extend the harvest.

Mixed lettuce look great in the garden and on your plate.
Mixed lettuce look great in the garden and on your plate.

 

When watching your garden progress over the season, if you see that something is not working. Lift it, don’t try and coax an unhappy plant, rather replace it with seedlings that you have waiting for garden space.

Having a constant seedling supply is important and you will be using crops out of your garden, as these are consumed, they will open up space for a new crop to go in. So either grow your own or order some in.

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Organic Cutworm control in the garden

Cutworms are the bane of a gardeners life, when planting out seedlings cutworms can make short work of all of your diligent growing out.

There are a number of different ways to protect your plants against cutworms and the most commonly recommended solution is to plant the seedling into a collar (or grow them in a collar) these collars can be cardboard tubes like toilet rolls or even PVC tubes.

This is a great idea, especially if you only have a few seedlings to plant out. However here on Livingseeds Farm we plant out thousands of seedlings and that adds up to a lot of toilet rolls.

I have heard and read about using soil calcium to combat cutworms, and that soils that have a proper calcium availability will have a lower or no cutworm incidence. I’m not sure if it’s soil pH or if it’s the actual calcium availability? However, looking at what we have experienced over the last two years I think its the physical calcium that makes the difference.

So, all very good and wonderful, how do we go about proving it. This is all anecdotal and it’s pretty hard to prove conclusively, however read along and see what we have found.

Typically here on Livingseeds Farm, we never had any specific cutworm program besides going into the tunnels early in the morning and manually catching the cutworms either in the act or just post act. Cutworms typically do their dirty work early in the morning and catching them is simple. As long as it’s done within an hour to two of the decapitation, they can be found by scratching around the severed seedling and collecting all the cutworms. They are typically found in a 2-6 cm zone around the seedling and about 1 or 2 cm deep. These were then fed with glee and much appreciation to our laying hens, who turned them into lovely eggs for us.

Tunnel with about 300 heirllom tomato plants. Sheaves of wheat are drying waiting to be threshed.
Tunnel with about 300 heirloom tomato plants. Sheaves of wheat are drying waiting to be threshed.

We would lose about 10-15% of our seedlings every year and basically accepted the fact that this was part of the deal when growing organically and not wanting to use pesticides.

I had been speaking to a few people about the Calcium – Cutworm theory, and 90% of the people shot the idea down as a waste of time. Always up for a challenge and proving people wrong I though we would give it a bash.

Knowing that all calcium is not created equal I decided to do a few simple tests. The kind that are easy and simple to replicate in the garden or in our case, in the fields.

Just a quick look at the different Calcium’s available to the gardener. (No need to go into cations anions and CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity) of soil and how things are locked up and released. Suffice to say it’s interesting and very important, but not right now.)

Dolomitic Calcium is the cheapest, has the lowest availability, and takes years and years ….. and years to become available. Has a high Magnesium ratio that when it’s release, unfortunately also locks up other elements and tends to harden up your soil.

Calcitic Lime also known as Landbou Kalk, comes in various “kinds or sources and grades” and is the most commonly available. This is what is mostly sold as gardening lime. Nothing wrong with it and it works. (Again depending on the source / quality)

Bone Meal a superb source of highly available calcium and is held beautifully in the soil, it’s readily absorbed and is a much preferred source of calcium.

Gypsum. The most highly available source of calcium, also has a good ration of sulphur. If you are low in calcium this is a great way to fix a shortage very quickly as the plants can use it almost immediately. The Sulpher (anion) is locked onto the calcium (cation) making it freely available for absorption.

OK, onto our cutworm story. Last year we started our trials in two of our tunnels and found the following. (Both tunnels were planted to tomatoes)

All of the other tunnels were treated as normal and we harvested cutworms every morning for our hens.

In one tunnel we added in Calcitic Lime (Landbou Kalk) at around 150-200 gr per running meter and planted into the soil. Our cutworm activity was not noticeably reduced, and we had to control by hand.

In the second tunnel we used the Talborne Organics Vita Bone Phos at a similar rate. There was less cutworm activity, but we still had losses in the tunnel. There was a clear drop in cutworm activity and I felt it was well worth pursuing the reasoning that calcium reduces cutworm activity.

I decided that this year I would do a bit more to test this theory out. We ran the following calcium regimen in all of our tunnels and any open beds where we transplanted seedlings.

First the Vita Bone Phos was added to the soil (at approximately 150- 200 gr per running meter) and lightly worked into the top 5 cm of soil. The seedlings were planted directly into the soil along a drip line and then a tablespoon of the BonePhos around the seedling.

5 week old tomato seedling with NGP Soil Build around the base.
5 week old tomato seedling with BonePhos around the base.

The tunnel where we had the Vita Bone Phos in last year had no seedling losses at all. We have to date lost only 6 seedlings this year, we have planted out thousands, both in tunnels and in open ground.

So do I believe that calcium stops cutworms, oh yes 100%. It just needs to be the right calcium.

Our seedling loss as a percentage this year (based on calcium treated soil) is less than 0.25% !! Going from a 10% loss every year to .25% is a huge drop.

The only place that we did not do the calcium treatment was on the Corn and Bean plantings. It’s noteworthy to see that we lost 15-20 % of our bean and corn plantings. What we also did not do, was the cutworm follow-up every morning in the bean and corn fields, so the damage was higher as we were not concentrating our efforts there. We were more concerned at what was happening (or not happening) with the calcium treated seedlings. Patting ourselves on the back and revelling in getting a grip on the cutworms by using the soil against them. By the time we woke up, the damage was already noticeable in the untreated areas.

Talborne organic Vita Veg and Vita Bone Phos
Talborne organic Vita Veg and Vita Bone Phos

 

My recipe now for cutworms, not just scratch them out manually. Add in 150 – 200 gr of Vita Bone Phos per running meter, and sprinkle just one tablespoon of BonePhos around each seedling. It’s simple, 100% organic, improves your soil quality and most importantly, IT WORKS!

 

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Hydroponic’s for the home gardener

Here is a new product for those of you interested in hydroponics. I know we have a few clients that use hydroponic techniques with our seeds. This is not a system that we use, however the feedback that I have received has been good.

On my personal quest to make a difference in this life, I have been seeking ways to be more self-sufficient and to reduce my carbon footprint, and that of my family. The Lord has guided all this, in my opinion, as I have inadvertently ended up on paths that in the past, I’ve had no interest. It all started with me working for a waste management company, and then starting my own waste management company. From there I have seen a need in various arena, be it environmental, social etc.

We started a sports programme for the local community, whereby we have built an indoor skate-park for the youth to make use of, keeping them off the streets and out of trouble. The park is free, and open to anyone who follows the rules. http://www.bincleansa.co.za/sport-and-recreation/

In addition to this, we have also initiated a reward system with staff at our waste company, where by selected staff are supplied with the necessary containers, seeds and knowledge to grow their own vegetables at home.

http://www.bincleansa.co.za/sustainable-living/

We also saw the need to reduce our carbon footprint on a personal level, by recycling as much as possible, be it, home, work, composting, vermicomposting etc. We started growing our own greens, trial and error, and also built a chicken coop for 4 chickens to provide for our daily eggs. This eventually led me to aqua-ponics and then hydroponics. I moved from aqua to hydroponics as I made a careless error of disconnecting my greenhouse power this year when we went to the Midmar for the mile. I though I was switching off the Mac and printers etc. but lo and behold, it was all power to the greenhouse. We returned 4 days later to dead plants, dead fish and the most awful smell. After paranoidly flushing the fish tank /reservoir, I changed over to hydroponics. My then systems were NFT made from 110mm drain pipes and ebb and flow system made from 210lt plastic drums cut in half.

To my amazement, 6mnths later, and the earthworms I had living in the hydroball grow medium in the aquaponics system are still alive in the now hydroponics system. This is all good, as they digest the old root systems in the grow media.

The hydro-patch hydroponic system
The hydro-patch hydroponic system

But through all of this, with a keen sense of enjoyment, I was quite frustrated, as one could not purchase a complete hydroponics active system in SA, at a reasonable rate. Just recently I sourced a supplier, but their system, as good as it seems, is based on NFT with a shallow grow bed, and in my opinion, would not be adequate for big root crops, like tomatoes, cucumbers etc. I found a niche and wanted to fill it. So out of that, I have considered many avenues and ideas and concepts, and settled on the “Hydro-Patch”. This is a recirculating top drip system, based on Hollands commercial greenhouse technology. I started designing and sourcing, trial and error and finally had what I was after. A reasonably priced, aesthetically acceptable, versatile hydroponic system that could be used in small or large spaces, indoors or outdoors, summer or winter. The unit is a 1m2, 9 pot system, but the limitations are down to the purchasers imagination. We can custom make them in 18 and 27 pot systems, with standardized frames for staking vining crops, or to cover with plastic to use as a mini greenhouse to extend the growing season. Should the budget be limited, we have cost effective ideas to build the frames, which are freely given on request.

I feel that we have successfully built a versatile product for a niche market, that will enable people to contribute towards a better tomorrow. The advantage of hydroponics are endless, and yes, sometimes it is fun to get your hands dirty, but we can still get all dirty by growing potatoes, carrots etc in soil. Yes it can be grown in hydroponics too, but why only have your cake, when you can eat it too?

Should you be interested in the unit, or accessories, watch for our upcoming web site www.hydro-patch.co.za or find us on Face book, under Hydro Patch.

I can also be contacted on 082 903 6068 / 011 664 7581

 

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Matthew and Daniels veggie patch

This year I have help 3 friends start veggie gardens, Mike and family were the first and as promised (by him) here is the first instalment of how his garden grew.

My efforts to show my four year old (Matt) and his 18 month old brother (Daniel) where their food comes from has turned into quite an obsession for their dad…

In February, we moved from a townhouse to an old house on a relatively big stand (1500m²).  A while after we moved in, Sean and his family came for a visit.  Sean took one look at the dark corner of the garden, and said chop out these trees, and we can build a fantastic vegetable garden.

The dark corner....
The dark corner....

So, dad put on his lumber jack shirt, headed off to Springbok hire to hire a chainsaw, and the some trees were turned into firewood, which would later be traded for seed.

Part of the wood used to trade for our seed.
Part of the wood used to trade for our seed.

I was quite proud of my efforts, until Sean arrived and informed me that vegetables need at least 8 hours of sunshine per day, and that more chopping was needed.  My wife, who loves the trees, was not overly impressed, but, the trees came down, and the firewood pile grew substantially.

10:00 am and still one more tree to take down.
10:00 am and still one more tree to take down.

Many bags of compost later, the rows were dug out, and planting commenced.  As it was fairly early in the season (23 July 2011), we only planted the frost hardy seeds.  Sean split the rows into areas, and seed was sewn.  We put in:

  • Peas
  • Asparagus (3 year old)
  • Beetroot
  • Radish
  • Carrots (2 varieties)
  • Lettuce (2 varieties)
  • Broccoli

Note to self – do not sew a whole bag of lettuce seed in 3 lines of 1 meter long…

The plan is to cultivate seedlings for Tomatoes, Peppers, Marrows, Cucumber, and plant these after the September cold snap.

So the seed is planted, watered regularly, and…  Nothing.  The boys expected to see something overnight, and after a week (and some rather cold weather), Matt thought dad was telling fibs, and that vegetables do indeed come from Woolworths.

But then, a few days later, some green started to protrude from the soil, first the lettuce, then the peas, and the rest followed soon after.   There was much excitement, and dad does not tell fibs.  Dad was a little worried about the asparagus, but even these came up eventually.

Bird-proofing the veggies. Two kinds of lettuce in the foreground.
Bird-proofing the veggies. Two kinds of lettuce in the foreground.

Next thing, the birds arrived, and decided that they liked the taste of the broccoli shoots, so these were quickly covered with some netting, framed with some discarded curtain rails (aluminium no less, so no rusting).  Why they didn’t go for the lettuce is still beyond me, there’s so much of it after the whole bag of seed was sewn that I’m constantly thinning it out.

An old pool fence was hacked to pieces, and the bars used to make uprights for the wire for the peas to climb up.  Amazing things those peas, they cling onto that builders wire, and the following day, they’ve made 5 to 6 loops around the wire.

Potatoes were planted into hessian bags.  2 seed potatoes per bag, where the intention is to add compost as they grow, and just roll the bags up as the plants get taller.  To date, there’s no sign of the potatoes, but Sean says give it a week after I’ve given up on them, and they should show…  I was just as impatient with the asparagus.

Seed potatoes have been planted into very cool hessian coffee bags. I think a few more would be in order.
Seed potatoes have been planted into very cool hessian coffee bags. I think a few more would be in order.

Last weekend Matt and I built a compost heap, so now the kitchen peels, cuttings, mom’s flowers and anything else that can compost are being added to the heap.

I’ve been looking for some rectangular planters to build a border around the patch, and today finally found something suitable at the right price.  So hopefully this weekend, we can plant some Strawberries into these planters, and get the tomatoes, peppers, etc into the remaining rows.

Mom’s been planting herbs, these need to find a space in the garden though, so some shelves are needed on the walls.  Dad also has a mission to make some hanging pots by recycling 2L cold drink bottles and some fishing gut, and using these to plant seedlings.

All of these plants need water too, so we’re looking for a suitable container to harvest rainwater when the rain finally arrives, probably a 1500 to 2000 litre tank that I’ll direct a downpipe into from the gutter.

So far, it’s been a very rewarding experience.  We’ve not yet eaten much out of the garden, but it’s been a great way to spend time with Matt, building something together and watching it grow.  Daniel loves to pull stuff up, so let’s hope the carrots and radishes grow soon, so he can harvest.

Looking forward to salad from our little veggie patch…

 

 

 

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Planning an Orchard..

There is not much left to now in our season, but if you are determined to do something in your garden that you are sure to gain years of pleasure from, an orchard is the way to go. It need not be a full blown orchard but even a few fruit trees will make an immense difference in your persuit of self-sustainability.

The idea of a conventional orchard conjures up vast plantings of a single type of fruit tree, orchards full of well manicured trees that are control-watered, sprayed with fungicides, pesticides and fertilized according to a regimented plan. They are pruned to allow easy access with mechanical harvesters and then they are scheduled for replacement on a short term cycle. All of this to ensure maximum production and predictable cropping, within a very narrow production schedule. The fruit is most often picked early, treated with waxes or chemicals to inhibit any unwanted growth of fungi or moulds. They are then probably force ripened utilising an artificial external environment that can use temperature, gasses, or additional chemicals to ensure that your ‘healthy’ fruit is delivered to your local grocer in the best state possible for sale to you, the health conscious individual. The scary thing is that you could be eating a ‘fresh’ apple, that when bought from your local grocer could be as much as 8 months from when it was picked from the tree, not too fresh any more is it? Any locally produced apple (or fruit for that matter) bought out of season has been artificially tampered with.

I would like to propose a real alternative to what is available to the average person on the street. This alternative is planting your own orchard. Whether you only plant some trees in old wine barrels, a few trees in your back garden or a full blown orchard on your farm or plot, having one’s own orchard is a thing of beauty. Designing, planting, feeding, tending and watching your orchard grow from knee high plantings into fruit bearing tree’s gives one a unique satisfaction. Tasting your own first fruit picked straight off the tree and eaten immediately is a truly unique experience, one that can never be compared with the best of organic store bought fruit.

In today’s world it’s a rare thing for the average person to own their own orchard, and it’s not often that one gets to plant an orchard. If you are lucky you will get to plant one, or probably at the most two orchards. The greatest limiting factor to having your own orchard is space. Many of you who read this site will be people that have an active interest in self-sustainability and are owners or are soon-to-be potential owners of a smallholding or farm. Our family did the rural migration about 7 years ago and have not looked back since. We are still learning the lessons and enjoying every step of it. However, even if you are not looking at a smallholding and are more interested in urban self sustainability, you should not feel excluded. There are many ways that you can have your own producing fruit trees, first take out those botanical abominations, Flowering Plums, cherries and other useless exotic trees. They were designed for lazy gardeners that wanted the show and not the mess of dropped and rotting fruit. (They would not be dropped or rotting fruit if you used them!) Plant a fruit bearing tree in its place. If you are still limited for space you can plant dwarf trees into an old wine barrel or large pot. This gives you the additional versatility of have trees that would not normally grow in your area as you can move the tree out of frosts or killing winds in winter. A dwarf tree is generally created by grafting a normal tree onto dwarfing rootstock to keep the size down, either for small gardens or for putting into large pots. Have a chat to your local nurseries and see what they can do for you. Don’t make the mistake of planting a full-size tree into a pot, you will only come unstuck after a few years.

Another option for those with limited space, is to graft a number of varieties onto a single rootstock. They will need to be the same kind of tree naturally, apples onto apples, plums onto plums etc.  I have a friend that has a few trees in his garden that have been multi-grafted and he grows 3 or four different peach varieties off a single tree, with each variety ripening slightly later than the next, so he has a constant flow of peaches. There are many ways for you to get around the space issue, all it takes is a bit of imagination.

One of my dreams was to have my own orchard with fruit and nut trees that would provide my family with wholesome produce. It is not our intention to have a commercial operation, just one that would provide for us and possibly a bit left over to barter with neighbours and friends. So based on that departure point, we started planning what fruit trees we could plant. My initial idea was to have an orchard where different trees produced fruit over the whole summer season. Mainly because we could have fresh fruit available for our own consumption for an entire season, without having to resort to the grocer for fresh fruit. Secondly, we could stagger our fruit preserving over the whole season so that we would not be inundated with bucket loads of fruit in a space of just a few weeks or months. Next, we would have lower waste as the chances of getting tired of a particular type of fruit would be reduced. Lastly anything that did go to waste could be re-cycled into pork and provide us with another healthy, organic protein source.

Now, I’m a great believer in learning from someone else’s mistakes and hard earned lessons. So we set about chatting to nurserymen and owners of existing orchards, specifically asking them what to plant and how to go about creating the ultimate orchard. Each person has their own ideas as to what the best way is to plant an orchard. What we did was take all of the advice and distil it to our circumstances. I would like to set this down mainly to get people excited to plant their own orchard and secondly, those that are thinking of creating an orchard, NOW IS THE TIME. Winter is one of the best times to plant fruit trees, Spring is possibly the second best.

The first thing that we learnt was that an orchard that has staggered ripening is possibly one of the worst planting methods. Especially if one is looking at an organic orchard where the closest thing to a harmful chemical or pesticide is the exhaust fumes from our milk cow. Next come pests, fruit fly is one of the prime threats to your ripening fruit. Having staggered ripening will give fruit flies and other pests a start in early summer and allow them to increase exponentially through the rest of the season, almost guaranteeing a total crop failure in late summer and autumn. Based on that information we opted for an early ripening orchard. We would rather have a lot of work early in the season and minimal fruit loss than loose fruit to fruit fly and other orchard and fruit pests. A late ripening orchard was also a possibility, however we decided that due to the number of established fruit trees on neighbouring farms we would do better to get our harvest in before pests made the move from those trees onto ours. We finally planted a 38 tree orchard with mixed fruit from apples, pears, two kinds of nuts, cherries, pomegranates, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, olives, fig and a few others. We also planted 3 kinds of grapes and are busy with our berry section. The only fruit that is still outstanding on my list are Kiwi fruit and I have reserved a special place for those vines, when I find a supplier with both male and female vines.  All in all, our orchard will provide enough for our families seasonal fresh fruit, annual jam requirements, dried fruit and some left over for me to play backyard brewer with. Any waste goes to the pigs or sheep. So all in all it’s a balanced orchard that will allow us to have a broad spectrum of fruit and a busy early summer preserving and drying.

Something else to look at are ‘bridge trees’ these are trees that ripen in the ‘off’ season and allow pests to survive and gain an early foothold in the next growing season, one of the most common is the loquat. The Loquat is a winter bearing tree that will give pests a source of sustenance and accommodation in the off season when the pests should be dormant, killed by the cold or lack of food. So if you specifically want one of these trees plan accordingly. Unfortunately you may need to resort to chemical remedies in this situation.

I’m not going to spend much time on what trees to plant as each area in South Africa has particular types of trees that will do better than in other areas. We live on the Highveld and would dearly love citrus trees in our orchard, but with winters that can get to – 8 C so this is not an option for us. But we do grow stunning nectarines, peaches and other deciduous fruits like sweet cherries, almonds, apples and apricots. Something that many people cannot grow as they do not have the required cold for proper dormancy of stone fruits. Speaking of cold requirements, many fruits require a period of cold to set fruit properly. This is typically termed as chill units, and trees (depending on variety) require between 300 and 700 hours of chill for them to complete their dormancy correctly and set fruit properly the next season. The trees that are most affected by chill units are deciduous trees. Chill units are counted as temperatures below 18 Deg C. The chill units are also offset by warm days or nights and typically you would like an extended run of cold to ensure a good fruit set. So if you are in a warm area and would like to have deciduous stone fruit, check your annual weather charts and work out if a stone fruit will produce in your area, just because a tree is available in your local nursery does not mean that it will produce in your garden. Growing and producing are two totally different things. I for one will always think twice about buying from a nursery that is offering fruit trees that are not suited to my area. Especially if they do not give the correct advice or caution about it’s bearing ability in your area.

So your best bet is to speak to the local growers in your area, they should be your first stop. They have been growing fruit trees in the area for years an they will know what works. I’m horrified at some nurseries that offer totally inappropriate fruit trees to new or unsuspecting gardeners and will sell unsuitable trees without batting an eye. Take a drive down some back roads and stop in at a few farms where you see fruit trees growing and have a chat, hey you might even make a new friend or mentor, it’s also the perfect way to find your dream property.

Finally a word on planting your trees, all fruit trees like well drained soil, so dig your holes 1 meter cubed, it’s a fair whack of work but at the end of the day (actually 3 or 4 years later) you will be well pleased with the results. We fill the hole with 100% pure compost that has been well compacted and then back fill the last 30 cm with topsoil. In addition, before the hole is filled we insert a length of 40mm black irrigation pipe that we use to water the trees. Our trees get watered once a week via this pipe and all the water is then directed at the root level and ensures water conservation and water retention in the soil. The trees roots will also become established at a lower level thus ensuring that the tree is well anchored. Finally, every 6 months each tree gets two barrow loads of compost added to the top surface where it creates a living mulch encouraging earthworm and beneficial gogga populations to aid in soil health.

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How to plant your Heirloom Seeds

I’ve had a number of requests on what the best way to plant your seeds are. So here’s a quick planting guide.

Most seeds get planted in late winter into cell trays, and then get put into a cold-frame to help them germinate. The reason for this is to ensure that each seed gets the best chance at germinating. Generally we will only plant 5 or maybe ten seeds of each variety and then transplant the resulting seedlings into a bed once they have pushed out two true leaves. The varieties that gain the most from this treatment are tomatoes, peppers and brinjals.

Cell tray numbering
Cell tray numbering

All of these have slower germination times and can take up to 14 or even 21 days to show any movement. They also require at soil temp of at least 17 deg before anything will happen. There are a few tricks that you can use to speed up and ensure better germination, one trick is to cover the seedlings with an old electric blanket or alternatively if you have under floor heating place the seed trays directly onto your floor. Basically what you are trying to do is to give them an even sustained heat so that you can assist with the germination of your seeds. Our Brassicas are also planted into cell trays to give them the best chance at germination.

We use a simple numbering system where each tray is numbered, and then every 5 cells are numbered, this way we can keep track of whats planted in each row with a planting diary. It also give you a good way to track your germination rates.

For larger seeds like pumpkins, melons and cucumbers, you have a few choices, first you can plant them into pots and treat them just like the cell trays or you can wait until the soil has warmed up and plant them straight outside into their beds.

An alternative to pots, using toilet rolls or home made tubes that can be planted with the seedling. The roll biodegrades and transplanting does not set the seedling back.
An alternative to pots, using toilet rolls or home made tubes that can be planted with the seedling. The roll biodegrades and transplanting does not set the seedling back.

Root crops like carrots, beetroot and onions get planted straight into the beds where they are to grow, of the three, onions are the only ones that will forgive you for transplanting them. Carrots and beetroot should not be moved as you are sure to set them back permanently.However you mjst thin them to get the best growth

We plant our corn, peas and beans straight into the garden, and just ensure that they have adequate moisture to assist in germination.

So what’s the best soil to use in your cell trays? We have a mix of commercial germination soil mixed with compost and or vermicompost. It’s up to you to decide on what the best mix is for you, just make sure it’s fine. We find that it’s best to fill the cells just short of top so that when you water (With a fine rose/spray) you don’t wash the soil and the seeds out. Once the seedlings are out it’s good to give them a weekly soaking with either compost tea or ‘worm wee’.

We are very much blessed with great weather in South Africa so it’s not often that we will have bad frost after the 10th of September and in some area’s they don’t even know what frost is. So you can safely start planting out from the beginning of September. Planting out is generally best done in the morning and then following the planting with a good soak. Just make sure that the seedlings have been ‘hardened off’ so they are used to full sun before you transplant, otherwise they are bound to get sun-burnt.

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Companion Planting

The question that most people ask is “What is companion planting?” or “How does companion planting work?”

OK, here’s my take on companion planting, think of it as a friend or friends with a bad case of Halitosis or Stinky feet, you want to stay well away from this person…….. Cool, you can speak to them and they are a good people, but just keep your distance. Or on the flip side, Companion planting can be like a homely kitchen with the smell of baking biscuits and warm vanilla. You either want to be real close for a taste or far away enough to appreciate but not partake.

Now, not all plants in the ‘Halitosis’ category are bad for other plants, they are just bad for insects and other pests, the plants don’t seem to mind the ‘smell’ where as for others the halitosis is overwhelming. Now where does this come from?

Companion planting is using the plants allelopathic ability to create or produce an environment that will allow for either beneficial growth, pest or disease resistance or on the opposite scale repelling effects. If you are a gardener you have experience the effects of allelopathy in your own garden, some just did not know what it was.

Here is a good example, have you ever tried to grow something under a Pine or Bluegum tree? Not much grows under these trees specifically because of the ‘exudations’ of the plant gives off, either via the roots into the soil or the fact that it drops leaves/needles that taint the soil. There is also some very interesting research that there are chemicals that are airborne and are released into the air that can affect other plants nearby (Of the same or different species).

On the other side, companion planting can extend into occult practices and are subject to very blurred interpretation where people start speaking about the vibrations and rhythms that these plants give off. Very dubious interpretation in my opinion.

In addition, certain plants will produce an abundance of macro and micro nutrients into the soil that can then be taken-up by other plants. Everyone knows that legumes will add nitrogen into the soil, this is one blatant example of companion planting (Not everything needs to be planted at the same time to be classified as companion planting) I have seen it this year with wheat that was planted into beds that had beans in over the summer, the wheat is doing far better in the beads that had beans in, and well (but not as well) in the other beds.

We have all heard the age old advice of planting garlic with your roses, to keep aphids away, does it work? Yes of course. But this is only the start of companion planting. There are many ways that you can improve your crops in the vegetable garden using companion planting. Some quick examples are Asparagus and Parsley, one protects the other and improves the flavor of the asparagus. Next don’t plant melons near corn, I learnt this the hard way this year and if you have a look at the photo you can clearly see what looks like succession planting, is actually corn that grows better the further they are away from the melons. One of the companion ‘teams’  that are more obscure are cabbage and mint, the mint protects the cabbage patch, I’ve never had the nerve to let mint grow rampant in my garden but I do move pots of mint close to the cabbages. The only problem is in winter when the mint dies down.  Also for those of you that are planting both potatoes and tomatoes in your garden this spring, keep them on opposite ends of the garden…. Unless you like glassy ‘taters and small hard tomatoes.

Mielies planted next to melons (on the right) pumpkins are coming out of the mielie patch.
Mielies planted next to melons (on the right) pumpkins are coming out of the mielie patch.

One of the most famous companion planting techniques is the Three Sisters Technique that was pioneered by the North American Native Indians where they planted Corn, pole beans (Runner beans) and pumpkins in the same patch, the corn gave support to the beans and the big leaves of the pumpkin helped with moisture conservation in the plot. While the beans provided nitrogen for both of the other crops.

I find that a lot of the companion planting advice on the net is conflicting and is dubious at best. I have found only one site that I think is really worthwhile,  but if you would like an in-depth look at companion planting, or if you are like me and you love books, do yourself a favor and get a good book that specifically concentrates on companion planting. There are two that I can recommend.

Either one of these books will give you a good grounding on how to use companion planting to your best advantage, and increase your yield or reduce your need to spray pesticides.

What’s in my Garden?

We have broken the back of winter (Winter solstice) and every sunrise from now on is one day closer to spring. YeeeHaa roll on spring!!!

Our winter here on the Highveld has been very mild so far , but we are expecting a big cold front to hit tomorrow morning. This evening I was running around and getting some of my more tender plants undercover and making sure that nothing will get lost with the mornings frost.

Asparagus cut back, and two types of parsley on the left.
Asparagus cut back, and two types of parsley on the left.

Most of the cleaning up has been done, the gooseberry’s and asparagus bushes have been cut back and they are waiting for a nice thick compost dressing, A lot of my beds are now empty and have been receiving their winter cloak of compost and are waiting for next seasons seed and seedlings. All that’s left growing are cabbages, carrots, beetroot, onions, garlic, spinach and some lettuce, oh and the wheat of course.

I have one peach tree in the orchard (a De Wet) that is bursting forth in blossom for what reason… I don’t know. But I fear that it is going to get properly whacked by the frost in the next few days. I don’t think I’ll put my hopes up on a good harvest from that tree. For the rest, the apple trees have still not lost all of their leaves, but I’ll be pruning them this weekend come what may.

The edible quote.

The first three men in the world were a gardener, a ploughman, and a grazier; and if any man object that the second of these was a murderer, I desire he would consider that as soon as he was so, he quitted our profession and turned builder.
– Abraham Cowley

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Makin’Compost

Makin’ Compost

I have a love affair with compost heaps, don’t laugh I’m serious. I’ve been known to wait at our local municipal dump on Saturday mornings in early spring with a high-side trailer and getting the locals to dump their spring clean-up matter into the trailer. This then goes home to start a few compost heaps for my summer requirements.

The manufacture of compost is a task that can approximate alchemy if you so desire. There are so many complex formulas and combinations that many people fear the process of starting a heap. Unlike what many would have you believe, composting is not rocket science. It’s a simple, natural process that starts off by itself anyway. All you need to do is give it the best environment to do its work. For me composting is a pleasure, mainly as I have found a foolproof method that works. This method is one that I picked up from the Jacksons of Wensleydale. Up until that point I just threw everything into a heap and once a year passed the heap through a sieve to filter out the larger chunks, which went pack into the heap. The sifted compost was added to my beds. This was a long process and did not yield the required amount of compost. Now we use the chimney stack method and I have found an increased production, shorter composting time, higher /faster breakdown and better quality compost.

This method is without a doubt the best way to make compost and does not rely on specific mixes of ingredients like some people would tend to advocate. I have never built a heap that uses calculated amounts of anything, I don’t have the time, nor the inclination. Also, one never has the same ‘compost inputs’ available anyway, so each one has a slightly different composition. Trying to get the composition ‘right’ is just too finicky for me, we use what we have and have never had a flop. The worst that can go wrong with this method is that the heap wont heat-up. No worries there, just turn again and add some manure. Chicken is best, but cow, sheep, horse and pig will also do, basically in that order of preference. I personally try not to use horse manure as I find it too full of weed seed, but your experience may differ.

We use 3 poles and a frame to lift the heap off the ground.
We use 3 poles and a frame to lift the heap off the ground.

Start with a base that is raised off the ground. You can use branches, wooden pallets or basically anything that will allow air to gain access into the base of the heap. (I’m using an old metal frame resting on 3 wooden fence posts.) The initial layer should be made up of some coarse material. I prefer to use long veld grass or thin branch trimmings. The heap is then built in layers with whatever is available, lawn mower clippings, stable sweepings, pig and chicken sweepings, and generally anything left around that is organic. You can use you kitchen scraps (ours go to the pigs) just leave out fats and animal proteins. Basically a safe rule is this: If it once grew in the ground it’s safe to add to the compost heap. This includes, egg cartons, newspaper and natural fibers. Each layer must be thoroughly wetted as you build. Don’t try to wet the whole heap once it’s finished, as you will have dry spots that won’t break down, or slow down the process as they are not contributing heat.

As you build your heap, have two or more fence posts (or similar) inserted so that you create two chimneys. Our heaps start out at about 1,6 m high and over a week or two they reduce in height as the insides start to break down and compact. You can check the heat of your heap by inserting your hand into the chimney hole and feel how the heat is doing. As the heap cools down you will need to start planning to turn it. Make a similar base or frame set-up and transfer the heap, top down onto the next platform. Using the same format of watering and again creating two chimneys to assist the aerobic breakdown to take place. Once you have turned your heap 2 or 3 times the compost is ready. This can be seen by the composition of what’s left, if it has a dark brown or black look, smells earthy and is moist and crumbly it’s ready. Just take that as is and spread it over the top of your beds and let the little critters take it into the soil.

Turing compost is a great way to warm-up on a winters day
Turing compost is a great way to warm-up on a winters day

We find that to outsides tend to be slower at breaking down than the insides, but that’s no issue. The outsides get transferred into the center at each turning and whatever has not broken down gets added to the next heap. The nice thing about this is that the new heap gets seeded with bacteria and other goggas from the old heap to help it on its way. No need to buy a compost starter. With this method of composting there is no risk of anaerobic decomposition taking place, there is no smell and best of all it just works.

2 days later, the pile is steaming at sunrise.
2 days later, the pile is steaming at sunrise.

We also find it beneficial to water the heap once a week from the top while it’s in the heating process, as the breakdown and heat escaping will draw a fair amount of moisture from you heap.

That’s it for compost making. Enjoy.

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Starting a Veggie Patch

Veggie Patch 101

So Winter is officially here, with the whole world looking brown and grey, not much is growing. If you are lucky enough to have an existing veggie patch, all your planting is now done. You are slowly enjoying the harvests of winter veggies. However, in just 3 months time Spring will be on it’s way. If you are thinking of planting a veggie patch, now is the time to plan one. You might have one or more of many reasons for starting a veggie patch.

You may be looking to save some money on your monthly expenses. You may want to eat healthier foods, where you know what’s gone into the ground and on the plants. You might be looking at upping the local content of your diet and cutting out food miles in your diet. Or you just like the idea of growing your own food. Whether you are in a flat, complex or your own house, or if you are really lucky you might even live on a smallholding or farm. Growing your own vegetables is entirely possible.

I’m going to concentrate on starting a conventional vegetable garden, as that is where I have the most experience. If there is anyone out there that can give advice on small scale gardening please feel free to email me and I’ll be glad to post your input. (or Questions for that matter)

So where do you start? Logically, first you would choose the site for your veggie patch. The best place would be a north facing piece of ground that gets at least 6 or more hours of full sunlight per day. In order of preference, the garden aspects are as follows. North, West, East and finally South. Every property will have differing circumstances, which you need to capitalize to your best advantage. For example, a bit of lateral thinking can greatly improve the productivity of a garden that is tucked away behind a south facing double story. Firstly paint the southern wall of the house stark white, and then do the same for the opposite wall (north facing). This will introduce a lot of light to your garden that would otherwise be a very poor gardening area, and turn a mediocre at best garden into worthwhile endeavor.

Now getting onto planning your garden. First you would remove any grass or other surface covering (paving, gravel etc) that may be in the way of your plans. (One friend of mine in the Cape, Wendy Young has turned her entire garden into a veggie patch) Lay out your beds preferably in an east-west configuration to allow for the best sun exposure on all of the beds. Plan your beds with the ideal spacing for yourself. I personally use minimal spacing of about 30cm between beds, but I know of a lot of gardeners that use a wider spacing to allow for easy kneeling or equipment traffic. The best person to decide this is yourself. As for the width of the individual beds, I find that about 1 meter or slightly less is ideal, this will allow you to step over the beds without damaging any of the plants in the bed.

Now, we come to the idea of how to fertilize your beds. I’ll explain how I improve my vegetable gardens, and I’ll leave any other options open for your own investigation. Personally I do not use any synthetic fertilizers on my property. If it’s a new bed, then it gets formed and planted with seed almost immediately. We do not dig the vegetable garden over, we just form the edges of the bed. Then seed gets planted almost immediately. Once the seeds have germinated a layer of compost is added onto the surface, we keep adding compost throughout the growing season as the surface compost is broken down or taken in by earthworms. What you will find with this method is that over a period of years the humus content of your soil will dramatically increase. This in-turn improves the moisture holding content of your soil, gives the plants a much higher level of health and reduces and even eliminates the need to use pesticides in your garden. I recently visited a friends extensive operation where he has used No-Till for a number of years and you can clearly see the difference in the no till beds and the soil that surrounds his garden. The beds have a deep friable rich black soil, that you can plunge your hand into and lift a big handful of sweet smelling soil. Next to the beds you find the typical red soil found in Gauteng, hard and difficult to penetrate.

My best advice, and advice that I have seen work in my garden and in others is never to dig your beds over. (have a look at No Till farming for more information) Always add your compost, mulch or organic matter to the top of your beds, and let God’s amazing creatures go to work improving your soil the natural way.

If you are looking for a great book to help you plan and grow your first successful vegetable garden have a look at this book. Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times (Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series) Although this book provides full coverage on every aspect of gardening that many well established gardeners will find useful. It also provides extensive information on starting a veggie patch for newcomers to the art of vegetable gardening. It is a very worthwhile addition for your library on self-sustainability.

Once you have started your veggie patch your will need to decide on what you are going to plant. This all depends on the amount of space you have available and what you families requirements are. There are many vegetable varieties available, have a look through our catalogue and order a few heirloom seeds for your garden, you will not regret tasting real vegetables that were growing and sustaining families before your grandparents were born.

Whats in my Garden?

This evening as a write this my kids are in the lounge shelling peas. We have just come in from picking peas, a job that will get done every 3 or 4 days from now on. We will get about 4 kgs of peas every week for the next 4-6 weeks. I must admit that I’m very happy with the pea plants. They are lush and dark green. One thing that I have noticed is that the pods are looking a bit frost damaged, but the plants are not showing any ill effects. Once shelled, the peas are perfect. Yum those will go straight into the freezer and will be used later in the winter as a sweet side to one of my wife’s dishes.

The Cauliflower is also looking good, we have been eating 2 or 3 heads a week for the last month and now only have about 12 plants left. I should have planted more!!! The Broccoli is basically done, we are pulling up the remaining plants for the pigs on a daily basis. We are also keeping a few plants aside that are for seed. The cabbages are also doing great, we pick a head every other day and my kids love to eat it raw, so it never lasts longer than a day. My only perpetual irritation are Brussel Sprouts, I planted about 60 plants out this year and I’m hoping for a respectable harvest, I’ve never had a good harvest so I’m waiting in anticipation. I’ll let you know.

The Edible Quote

This is a quote that scares me. Try to imagine the ramifications of the thinking behind this statement?

“Food is power. We use it to change behavior. Some may call that bribery. We do not apologize.”

Catherine Bertini, UN World Food Program Executive Director. 1997