In the Garden
Get down and dirty in the garden


Brighten Your Home with a Holiday Cactus

The schlumbergea is a small family of cacti found on trees in the Brazilian rainforests. They grow in pockets of leaf debris where there is a split in the tree branches. These flowering epiphytes have thin flat green segments that can spread 12 feet. This plant is easy to grow indoors and will live for many years.

Blooming Holiday Cactus
Photo By Desiree Bell

Three years ago, my mother gave me a cactus start that she propagated from her plant, which is 20 years old. Her cactus was a cutting from her mothers' plant that was many years old. The schlumbergea can easily be propagated by twisting off two or three connected segments. Allow the moist end to dry for a few hours then plant in a small pot filled with sandy type soil.

Researching I discovered that the cactus past down to me is a Thanksgiving Cactus. The Thanksgiving Cactus, schlumbergera truncate, has pointy edged leaves and tends to bloom in November. The Christmas Cactus, schlumbergra x buckley, has more rounded edges on the leaf stem and blooms in December. 

Budding Holiday Cactus
Photo By Desiree Bell

Place in medium light as to much sun causes the stems to take on a reddish color, and low light levels will prevent flowering. Fertilize throughout the spring and summer months. Darkness in the autumn season for at least 12 hours is necessary to induce bud formation. The cactus's flowers are not symmetrical in shape; they have different right and left halves and come in a variety of colors.  

Give a holiday cactus as a gift this season and enclose this downloadable word search about the plant.  

A Quick and Easy Autumn Compost

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There’s heaps of stuff begging to be composted in Autumn — finished crops and spent flowers abound! Because homemade compost is the best, take 15 minutes and turn all your garden waste into gardeners gold with one of my quick and easy, no turn compost piles.

Little and Often

My composts piles are small — 1m x 1m, and quickly put together. If you make 1 or 2 a month you'll have a regular supply of your own compost. Perfectly matched to little and often planting in the veggie patch.  

Free Range Compost Piles

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A pile of organic matter draws worms and a multitude of beneficial soil life, so it makes sense to position compost piles carefully and reap the benefits. Around the edge of the veggie patch is smart because the boom in soil life benefits the veggie garden. Directly on top of a veggie bed saves double handling — simply spread it out when it’s ready. Here’s how I use my compost piles.   

  • Make compost directly on the bed before a heavy feeder. Spread it out when it’s ready.
  • Make an Autumn compost as the best beginning for a spring bed.
  • A compost pile is a great start for a fruit tree. Lay wet newspaper/ cardboard on the grass and make a pile on top. Let it rot down before planting.
  • Make a compost pile in Autumn direct on the potato bed or in Spring on the pumpkin bed
  • Revive a tired garden bed with a compost pile.

My Quick and Easy Compost

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Gather all your ingredients via a garden tidy up. Wander the garden with the wheelbarrow collecting friendly weeds, spent crops and prunings from rambunctious plants that have over stepped their space. Chop or break everything into 20cm bits, putting them in the wheelbarrow as you go. Include plenty of prunings from mineral rich herbs like yarrow and parsley, and soft stalky plants like borage or dandelion to bring air to the mix. You’ll need a very full (as in barely able to see over it) wheelbarrow load. 

Tip the barrow out and spread into a single layer beside where the pile will be.

Sprinkle over activator (herbs, seaweed, manure) to get the microbes excited, and spray lightly with the hose.

Toss all together.

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Layer it up into a square pile, a minimum of 1mx1m.

Pour a bucket of liquid feed over.

Cover completely with sacks, carpet, old blankets — whatever you have to hand.

That’s it! Done! No turning required and lovely compost in about 4 months time.   

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The Microbes Are Key

The real work of composting is done by microbes. The better a job we do of enticing them into our compost pile, the better our compost is. Here’s what they need

  • air (soft, stalky stuff + a bit of dry stuff)
  • a variety of herbs and plant waste
  • a scattering of activator (herbs, seaweed, rotten manure)
  • to be barely moist (neither wet nor dry)

There’s no need to stress about the ratio of dry, brown matter to fresh greens. Turns out garden waste has exactly the right carbon: nitrogen ration of 25:1 that microbes need.  

How to Sow a Greencrop

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Keeping the veggie patch fertile is an exercise in give and take - we give fertility, we get to take veggies. Give more than we take and our soil will keep churning out our dinner. The thing is, buying in fertility is costly and comes with too many plastic bags and bottles. My solution to keep the bills low and soil health high, is to recycle all your garden waste and regularly sow greencrops.

Closed Loop Gardening 

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The more we return what we grow, the less we need to buy in. Close the loop by making compost or mulch with our garden waste or chop and drop older leaves and the bits we don’t use like tops from root crops, back onto the soil as mulch. These all go some way to compensating our soil for the carbs that we take for our table.

A greencrop is the only crop that goes all the way—100% of it is returned and recharges our hard working soils. A bag of seed + 10 minutes effort and winter fertility is secured—my kind of gardening!

An autumn sown greencrop nourishes and protects soil through the wet, cold season, provides overwintering for beneficial insects and chokes out weeds for the ultimate head start on spring plantings. 

To rest the garden over winter, pick a long term grain and legume combo like peas and oats or rye and vetch, or pave the way for winter brassica plantings in the best way possible with a quick turn-around lupin.

Get Ready to Sow

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First up we must ready our ground. The main thing is there are no weeds about – ironing is not required. I hate to sound pious, but as long you’ve kept up with your little and often weeding, this only takes a few minutes. Sow your greencrop immediately after harvest so soil isn’t left bare and vulnerable.

Sow

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Scatter sow the seed over top of the soil. Be generous—we want our greencrop to be a wild thicket.

Good soil contact makes a difference. Give it a reassuring pat with your hands or tamp it down with the flat end of your rake to connect it well with its new home. If your soil is dry then water it until it’s perfectly moist. 

Mulch

A lovely layer of mulch is all you need now. Sprinkle it on top of the seed in a thickness that disappears the seed from sight, same as you’d do were you covering it with soil. Bear in mind if its freshly harvested like my home made mulch, it’ll shrink pretty smartly.

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This beautiful mulch is buckwheat, yarrow, meadowsweet, parsley and dandelion, and took me all of five minutes to collect from my herbal border. Free, 100% organic and bursting with nutrients – the Queen of all mulches.

Birds don’t eat lupin seed so there’s no need to net if lupins are what you are sowing. If you’re sowing wheat or oats you’d be wise to.

Crops in the Cold: Your Guide to Winter Gardening in the South

We’re officially in the thick of the fall season, with the smell of cinnamon, decaying leaves, and wood smoke perfuming the air. Next thing you know, winter will come sweeping in, blanketing the ground with cold, white snow.

In the South, though, these changes in temperature and scenery aren’t as extreme. Though the temperatures will drop, southern states usually get only a light dusting of snow, if any (we see you Florida). This kind of weather makes winter gardening perfect in the region.

woman planting in raised bed garden
Photo by epixproductions on AdobeStock

The Winter Gardening Tools You’ll Need & Ways To Keep Plants Thriving

Because the winter weather is trickier than other seasons, it's a good idea to use some helpful tools and strategies for your winter garden. Having these will help your crops grow despite a drop in temperature.

1. Raised Beds & Watering

Winter weather and surprise temperature drop can make it very challenging for some plants in the ground to survive. Rain and melted snow are known to saturate the soil, which can cause root rot, and that trapped water can eventually freeze. To prevent roots from potentially sitting in that cold wet soil, grow your winter crops in raised garden beds. They drain water better than ground soil. 

Since raised beds drain water well, you also have another cold-weather advantage. If using an all-season garden watering system like the Garden Grid™, you can leave it running at a slow rate during a sudden cold spell. The soil, with a light water stream on it, will keep warmer than the air. Your plant's roots will then stay warmer and they won't be overly soggy because of your raised bed's watering draining ability 

2. Spacing 

When planting in a garden bed, you have a finite amount of space but fortunately, no need for walking rows between plants. But, that doesn’t mean you can simply put crops into the soil however you please. Proper plant spacing is essential to root health and crop production. Here's a guide on plant spacing

3. Cloches for Seedlings 

In the southern most parts of the U.S., it usually doesn’t get so insufferably cold that you’d need a traditional greenhouse to grow plants during winter. Still, the temperature can and does drop sharply at night, which means you need to protect your crops from frost. Cloches are perfect for providing this protection. They're basically bell-shaped jars, which act as miniature, portable greenhouses, to cover plants and provide a layer of protection against the elements. These are great, especially for younger plants and seedlings. 

4. Row Cover / Simple Greenhouse

The first frost of winter can be hard to predict, especially in southern states. If the plants in your winter garden aren’t prepared, you’ll wake up with them shriveled and turned to mush. Row covers are the gardening apparatus that will shield your winter crops from the effects of harsh winds and cold temperatures, by making a more stable micro-climate inside of them.

Row covers and simple greenhouses can be made from materials like sheets of plastic and basic frameworks. Here's a video on making one, from Garden Grid™ watering system inventor, Tom. The covering will help mitigate temperature swings and adequately protected from cold, blowing wind.

Apart from these winter essentials, prepare your usual gardening tools like trowels, gloves, a hose, mulch, and others.

head of cauliflower on wooden background
Photo by Jennifer Schmidt on Unsplash

Choosing the Right Winter Garden Plants

So you’ve got the proper tools and strategies for winter gardening. All you need are plants. Keep in mind that you cannot simply plant any crop you want. Some vegetables, flowers, and other crops just won’t grow in cold weather. Despite barely having snow, days and nights in the south still be too cold for many plants.

With that in mind, the following are cold-hardy and frost-tolerant plants for a lush and vibrant winter garden:

Garlic and Onion

Garlic and onion (bulb types) are perfect ingredients for hearty fall and winter comfort food. Not only do they add exciting flavors to soups and other dishes, but they also prefer cold weather to grow in. Typically slow to harvest, if you plant them in your garden this fall/winter, don’t expect to harvest them until spring.

What makes garlic and onion great winter garden crops is that they both have long growing seasons and require little maintenance. Over winter, these crops will basically look after themselves until you can harvest them.

Spinach and Kale

Spinach is hailed as a great vegetable to grow during cold weather because it can survive drops in temperature better than most leafy greens. Its fellow leafy green, kale, also has no trouble thriving in the cold and makes for a great neighbor to spinach. In fact, the cold weather only sweetens kale’s flavor. As long as you protect them from hard freezes with a row cover or cloche, you’ll be able to enjoy eating these salad greens even in wintry weather.

Brussels Sprouts and Cabbages

Cabbages are typical cool-season plants that, with enough planning, will produce well into winter. Just make sure not to leave the young leaves exposed to frost so they won’t wither and die. The cabbage’s cousin, Brussels sprouts, can also withstand frost over short periods. To ensure that they don’t wither and die during a hard-frost, though, cover them with the methods explained above.

Why Grow a Winter Garden?

It's fun and can be good for your health.

The gray skies, short days, and colder temperatures can affect your mood. One thing that can lift spirits is greenery. Seeing color amidst the winter landscape is a beautiful sight. Plus, the physical act of gardening forces you to go out in nature, meaning you’re not cooped up inside the house for months on end. What’s more, this 2010 study suggests that gardening leads to a decrease in cortisol, or the stress hormone, and restoration of a positive mood. 

Apart from its psychological benefits, a winter garden can serve as your source of vegetables in the winter. Not only will you have plants to tend to and keep busy with, but you’ll also have fresh, homegrown food to eat in the cold months.

The upcoming colder temperatures and shorter days may seem off-putting to gardening, but with the right plants, the right tools, and an attentive eye you can keep your thumbs green year-round!

6 Perennials to Plant Now

Flowers, shrubs, ornamental grasses, and trees not only spice up your home’s landscape, but they also provide an ecological balance for Mother Earth. Birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife depend on the bounties nature provides. Perennial flowers and grasses beautify your yard while providing food and habitat for local wildlife.

patch of zoysia grass
Photo by David-Pierre Mangiapan via Wikimedia Commons

Grasses

Ornamental and turfgrasses are a given for yards and landscapes. Grass is a perennial plant since it returns every year. Depending on where you live, the type of grass in your lawn is a warm-season or cool-season variety. Warm-season grasses grow best when the average daily temperature is 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They include Zoysia, St. Augustine, Bahia, and Bermudagrass. Cool-season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, fescues, and perennial ryegrass, thrive in temperatures of 65 to 75. Late summer or early fall is the best time to overseed a lawn with cool-season grasses because they need warm soil to germinate. Planting grass in the fall helps to establish the roots before winter. 

pink achillea
Photo by KENPEI via Wikimedia Commons

Cold-Hardy Perennials

If you live in a USDA plant hardiness zone where the temperature drops below freezing, check out these cold-hardy perennial plants.

Achillea: This variety includes milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, yarrow and staunchweed.  Hardy for USDA zones 3 to 9, these drought-tolerant plants grow 2 to 3 feet high. They enjoy full sunlight, bloom in late spring, and attract birds and butterflies.

Clematis: Growing in full sunlight or filtered shade, clematis prefers well-draining, slightly alkaline soil. Suitable for USDA zones 5 to 9. Clematis’ showy flowers bloom in various colors throughout the summer.  This perennial vine grows and spreads, so you’ll want to have a lot of space for it. 

Columbine: Also called Aquilegia and hardy for USDA zones 3 to 8, this plant grows in various cultivars from 1½ to 3 feet high. It flowers in April and May with violet, blue, pink, red, and white blooms that attract wildlife.

Creeping phlox:  Spreading like a carpet, this low-growing perennial reaches about 6 inches tall.  It expands nicely in flower borders, on slopes, and in rocky areas. Hardy to zone 3, Creeping Phlox blooms in April and May. 

Echinacea:  Better known as coneflowers, you’ll want to plant this beautiful perennial for its looks and its seed. Birds love it!  Hardy to zones 3 to 8, coneflowers have daisy-like petals with button heads and grow to about 3 feet tall. Flowers bloom from late spring to late summer. 

Salvia: Also known as garden sage, salvia is a perennial hardy to USDA zones 4 to 8. The herbaceous plant is drought-tolerant, prefers full sunlight, and blooms with blue flowers in June. Growing 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 feet tall, this perennial shrub is a member of the mint family and attracts bees and butterflies.   

lavender new england asters
Photo by Kapa65

Brightly Colored Perennials

Looking for more color in your landscape?  Consider these plants:

New England aster: Hot-pink star-shaped petals. Late-summer and autumn blooms.  USDA zones 3-8.

Pink elf: Semi-evergreen for mild climate, nice for a woodland setting. USDA zones 6-9.

Gold gloriosa daisy: Showy perennial with bright golden petal and brown heads.  Perfect for mixed borders. This flower thrives in full to partial sun in zones 4 to 10.

With so many cold-hardy shrubs available, you might want to add some hydrangeas, conifers, spirea, and weigela to your landscape. In warmer climates, pink muhly is an ornamental grass that shines with purple hues and brings a special glow to your backyard.  Whatever plants you choose, be sure to give their roots enough room to spread, and apply the proper type of fertilizer to ensure they make it through the winter.

Whether you live in a cool or warm climate, it’s time to get busy! Fall is the time for planting.

Testing Apples For Ripeness + A Super Helpful Calendar

test apples for ripeness

One of my most asked questions is “How do I know when apples/plums/ pears are ripe?” I remember wondering that too. The realization that harvesting required as much knowledge as growing, dawned the day I harvested a whole tree of apples in a rush of excitement because they were red. What a let-down when I bit into one … sour … duh! They weren’t ripe yet.

Make A Harvest Calendar

a useful harvest calendar

Step one, my friends, is to have your eye on a ready date. This is my southern hemisphere apple harvest chart.

A harvest calendar is super useful. It has you ready for when the apples are. In a perfect world you make this up at the planning stage. Choosing varieties that suit your place and your needs and  spread the harvest through the year. This disperses your workload, takes the pressure off storage and brings a beautiful steady supply to your kitchen table.

mayflower apple harvest

Put romantic notions of harvesting basket loads of fruit aside — processing a tree load of fruit is a good sized mission!

Here’s How

Go to the sunny side of the tree (bathed in sunlight = first ones ready) and choose a ripe looking apple. Cup it in your hand and lift it up or sideways. If it’s perfectly ready it’ll separate easily from the tree with a lift —no pulling required! Pulling can take off next years spurs and if you have to yank the apple off — it’s not ready to leave home.

tesing apple for ripeness

Now slice your tester apple in half and check the pips out – brown pips = apples are ready. If the flesh turns brown – they’re not ready either. Finally sink your teeth into it … mmhmm … surely the best indicator of all.

Things Not To Do

  • Pull your fruit off (and next years fruit spurs too)
  • Toss your fruit into the basket (bruises — ouch!)
  • Wait till your apples drop — most varieties will be overcooked by this time. Aim to harvest them while they are crisp and juicy from the tree.
  • Harvest all your fruit just because one is ready. The joy of being a home gardener is that we can harvest as the fruit is ready. The ones in the sunlight and around the edges will be ready first. Those in the shade following along after.

Get Sorted

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Take a moment to sort your fruits. The bird pecked, black spotted, stalk-less and damaged into one crate – these will need to be eaten first or preserved. The perfect ones are for storage.

Easy Greens and Brassicas For a Daily Winter Harvest

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Achieving a daily winter harvest takes a little more fore thought than a summer one. That's because we need to bust a move and get our crops in before it cools down - the hour is now! Here's my easy plan.

The Staples

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These four crops are the backbone of my winter kitchen and our winter wellness. Though they are humble and ordinary, don't under estimate them! These are the winter crops to go for if you don't have much room or time. Plant them this month so you can pick them all winter and spring long.

  1. Parsley. Is there a more nourishing, low maintenance, go-with-everything, herb? I have at least 6 plants on the go at any one time. For long lived plants, it's better to pick a little from each rather than a lot from one.
  2. Silverbeet, Chard or Kale. Beneficent leafy greens! Just like our friend parsley – easy peasy, a tonne of nutrition and they fit into every wintry meal. Plant them into lovely soil and mulch well. Perk them up with a monthly liquid feed and keep picking the outside leaves to keep new fresh ones coming on.
  3. Celery. I know not all of you agree with me about celery, but doesn't every stock, soup or wintry slow cook need some?! The trick to juicy stems is to plant into good compost and mulch well. I make a pile of compost in summer and plant my celery into it in Autumn. Mulch is key, as is good soil moisture. Celery loves seaweed, so pour over some liquid feed every week or so or lay some beneath the mulch. Twist and pull off the outside stalks regularly to keep new ones coming on.
  4. Carrots. Direct sow them now so that by time the soil is cold they’re fully grown.

Health-Giving Brassicas

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Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, cauli, bok choy) are a super food! Fresh picked, they are full of vital nutrients to help us stave off colds and flu. I plant a few each month from August through November so that we can eat them daily winter/ spring long. Plant a mixture of slow to mature with some faster ones to stagger your harvest and keep dinner interesting.

For Example

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Let's make a virtual bed to show you what I mean.

Plant out two cauliflower, three broccoli, two cabbages, 1 raab and six bok choy for a very useful staggered harvest in about 1.3 x 3m worth of bed. Plant or sow a variety of small saladings (eg: land cress, corn salad, miners lettuce, rocket, coriander, winter lettuce) + beetroot, around the edge of the bed to make the most of the space.

The bok choy will be ready first. After they are harvested, plant more saladings. Next up you'll start harvesting raab, followed by heading broccoli. Once the main head is cut from the broccoli it'll keep providing good sized shoots for months on end. (Eat the stalk as well - broccoli is such great bang for your buck!) Next comes cabbage + broccoli shoots, followed by the cauliflower + still more broccoli shoots!

Any gaps in harvest will be filled by your handy dandy leafy greens, parsley, root crops and celery.

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If you plant a second mixed brassica bed a month later, you'll be moving into that one as the first bed starts to flower. Let it go, the bees and beneficial insects adore these nectar rich flowers.







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