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April Fruit Tree Tasks: Boost Fruit Production and Manage Leaf Curl

Here’s a quick and easy spring task that'll pump up your fruit production. This neat trick is best suited to apples, apricots, peaches, plums and pears.

Now that the sap is rising and branches are flexible, new branches can be tied down. Tying them down changes their direction from up to out, making them easier for you to reach and best of all, it inspires your tree to produce loads more fruitful wood.

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For easy to reach apples, open structure for good health and lots of fruit, tie young branches to horizontal. Artwork by Steve Howell

The more horizontal the branch, the more fruitful it is. The more horizontal the branch, the less inclined towards lush unproductive growth it is. That’s how a tree’s hormones roll. All the fruitful energy in a vertical branch happens at its tip. Tie that branch down and the energy shifts. Laterals pop up all along a horizontal branch and where there was one, now there are many fruitful tips.

By the time autumn rolls around, the wood has thickened, the year’s growth ring has locked the new angle in place and the tie should be removed.

Here's How

  • Using soft stocking tie, tie a loop around the end of the branch. Make the loop twice the diameter of the branch to prevent it cutting into the bark.
  • Tie the other end back to the trunk or to a rock or tent peg in the ground.
  • Keep an eye on the ties over the growing season to ensure they stay in place.

Easy-peasy!

Air and Light

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A mature apple showing great open structure. Young branches were tied down. Photo by Kath Irvine

Tying branches down has the added bonus of opening your tree for better airflow and light. Air is such an important player in overall fruit tree health, especially if your tree is prone to fungal disease like leaf curl. Light’s a no brainer! There is no more important asset to a fruiting tree than to be bathed in light. 

How to Manage Leaf Curl

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Peach leaves infected with leaf curl. Photo by Kath Irvine

Leaf curl will be showing up now. By time the fungus is in full flight and the leaves are blistered and curled – it’s too late for cures, you just have to let it play out.

Though you cannot fix it, it’s important to support your tree through this time because it’s going to have to repeat the mammoth task of growing another set of leaves. Seaweed, with its mineral richness and cell strengthening gifts is excellent tonic support. Spray weekly if you can. 

Hanging strips of kelp in the branches will give your leaf curl affected tree a nourishing liquid feed every time it rains. You could also lay kelp beneath the mulch. Don't feed it rich stuff like manure, at this stage.

Collecting all the dropped funky leaves and burning them up will help break the cycle. If you've got the time then this is excellent housekeeping. If like me, there is not even the remotest chance of this happening, pile mulch on top to prevent the spores splashing back up into the canopy.

Improving airflow around and through your tree is the final bit of the puzzle. Do this by thinning out (completely removing) shoots that are cluttering the tree. My general rule is to leave a 20cm gap between laterals. Slash long grass beneath your tree or pile mulch on top of it to knock it back.

Learn more about pruning in my book, Pruning Fruit Trees.

 

 

4 Composting Tips for Smaller Space Gardeners

As a small-space urban gardener, composting was a practice I long though was "off the table" for me.

Turns out I couldn't have been more wrong.

Not only am I composting successfully in my small urban space, but I'm producing more than I need in my garden! Here are four of my top tips for composting well in a small space.

Choose the Right Composting Method For You

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When you don't have much space, you're looking for composting methods that either:

  1. Don't take up much space
  2. Create compost faster than normal

For me, there are two main ways to accomplish these objectives: using compost tumblers or worm bins.

Compost tumblers take up a bit less space than your average hot compost pile, but they also create finished compost much quicker, because you can turn and aerate them more efficiently, leading to quicker breakdown of your organic matter.

Worm bins, as their name suggests, use worms (usually Red Wigglers) to process food scraps much faster than a hot compost pile. They also take up a smaller footprint.

If you have primarily green waste to process, I'd recommend dipping your toes into vermicomposting. If you have both greens and browns, a compost tumbler is an efficient way to generate rich, "black gold" for your garden.

Use a Compost Thermometer

Compost-thermometer

If you decide to go with a standard hot compost pile, make sure you are checking the temperature with a compost thermometer at least once per day.

In a perfect world, keeping your compost pile at around 140°F for 3 days is the goal. After 3 days, it'll start to cool down, at which point you'll turn your pile to move finished compost out to the sides and bring unfinished materials into the center where they can break down.

The better you track the temperature in your pile, the quicker you'll be able to turn your greens and browns into dark, nutrient-rich compost for your garden. And the faster you can make compost, the quicker you'll be able to amend your soil and grow incredible amounts of fruits and veggies.

Pre-Compost Your Food Scraps With the Bokashi Method

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To really super-charge your small-scale composting, try out bokashi composting. It uses an inoculated bran to start to ferment your food waste before it even makes it into the compost pile.

In fact, many gardeners will use the bokashi method and then directly bury their fermented scraps in their soil, where they'll break down in a matter of days or weeks instead of the usual months.

You can also throw your bokashi compost scraps into a vermicomposting system or your compost pile for even quicker breakdown and inoculation of beneficial microbes.

Store Your Food Scraps in a Countertop Compost Bin

Countertop-compost-bin

Surprisingly, one of the things I hear from fellow small space gardeners is, "I have the space, but I don't really feel like taking all of my scraps out to the garden every single time I cook."

Makes sense! It can be a hassle. The solution is to get a simple countertop compost bin for your kitchen, so you can store a few days worth of scraps and then transfer out into your composting system all at once.

This streamlines your cooking and composting processes, and believe me when I say that we humans like to take the easy way out. So why not give mind and body a little break by making the composting job easier? I like to collect about 4 days worth of scraps - any more and they start to rot in the container, which is no good for the smell in my kitchen!

Well, there we have it: Four creative ways to make the most of a small urban space, and yet still maximize the amount of compost you're producing. If you do your job right, you won't need to buy too many amendments for your garden, because you'll be creating almost everything you need from materials you'd have otherwise thrown away!

How to Grow Paw Paw Trees in Your Backyard

Have you ever eaten a paw paw?  This unique fruit isn’t commonly seen in stores, because they don’t ship well.  However, they are a great fruit tree for urban yards!  These handsome trees have a pyramid shape and large tropical-looking leaves in addition to their tasty fruit.

Paw paws are similar to a banana in both nutrition and use, but they grow in a much wider variety of climates.  If it’s too cold where you live for bananas, it’s likely that you can grow paw paws instead.

The paw paw tree has few pests and diseases and other problems.  Plus it’s versatile.  Not only does it produce fruit, but it is also a host plant for swallowtail butterflies.  Another advantage is that they are deer resistant and they can grow in partial shade.

paw paw tree and fruit
Photo by Jadom on Pixabay

One interesting fact about paw paw trees is that they are pollinated by flies.  Paw paws do need a second tree to pollinate each other.  Plant the two trees within 10-15 feet of each other.  If you don’t have flies or if you plant them too far apart, it is possible to hand pollinate your paw paw flowers using a paint brush.  (Although, just because something is possible doesn’t mean we necessarily have the time to DO it!)

When deciding where to plant the trees there are a few things to take into consideration.  First, the trees can reach about 20 feet tall when fully grown.  Look up and make sure to site your trees away from any overhead power lines.

Next, check to make sure there are no power lines or pipelines where you are planning to plant to the tree.  If you’re not sure where underground pipes are on your property, you can usually call your city and they will send someone out to mark it for you.

Third, consider shade and sun.  Paw paws do well in partial shade or full sun, but you’ll want to avoid complete shade for them.  Also consider where they will cast shade once they will grow.  Will they shade other sun loving plants?  Block solar panels?  Or perhaps you can use these attractive trees to passively cool a warm west wall of your home or add to a small garden oasis.

If you know someone who has a paw paw tree, you can grow your own tree from the fruit.  The seeds will require 100 days of cold before they will sprout.  If your climate is too warm for that you can stash the seeds in an unused corner of your fridge.  (Am I the only one with a seed shelf in my fridge?).  Just don’t let the seeds dry out during this time.  A good way to store them is in a Ziploc bag with a damp paper towel.

If you are growing your tree from seed it will take a few years before your paw paw tree will bear fruit.  If you plant transplants you will be able to harvest sooner.  Paw paws tend to ripen near the end of summer or beginning of fall. The fruit grow on the tree in clusters and may become lighter when ripe.

The best way to tell it’s time to harvest the fruit is your paw paw fruit should smell pleasant and fruit and be slightly soft (think of a ripe peach).

Once you harvest them you can use them as you would bananas.  They can be added to smoothies or other desserts.  You can eat it straight with a spoon or even make a cream pie!  Being able to harvest this unique and yummy fruit is one of the benefits of growing your own fruit trees!

Kissed By the Sun: A Variety of Garden Plans

In our part of the Midwest, today’s March wind is up to its usual tricks…it teeters between blowing fiercely across the open fields that surround our old farmhouse, then subsiding for a bit, only to turn abruptly, change direction, and begin to race toward the woods.

It’s one of those winds, that despite its chill paired with droplets of cold rain, (droplets that our local forecast says will turn to flurries today), still carries the promise of spring. After all, it’s late March, and the hints of springtime are beginning to emerge. There are the green shoots of chives peeking through the soil and just the tips of daffodils that soon will life our spirits with a pop of cheery yellow.

A day like this, even though the wind is blustery, is a fine time to dream of springtime gardens. Today I’m curling up with a notebook, a cup of herbal tea, and making plans for some old-fashioned gardens. It’s fun to sketch out some ideas and make a plant list…going to the nursery is always a simple pleasure I look forward to. 

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Photo Credit: Windy Meadows Farm

I’ve gathered a brainstorming list of ideas and plants I want to try…just maybe you’ll find something to add to your own gardens!

A Moonlight Garden

Plants that seem to shimmer in the moonlight: silver queen artemisia, silver king artemisia, lamb’s ears, silver tansy, silver sage, silver thyme, grey santolina apple mint, lavender, yarrow, oregano, nutmeg, geranium, and yarrow.

A Butterfly Garden

A place for butterflies to find the sweet nectar they need for food.

Plants to consider: petunias, sweet William, primrose, phlox, goldenrod, white daisies, cosmos, coneflowers, white alyssum, catnip, pincushion flowers, sweet rocket, and butterfly bush.

A Bee Garden

I planted a bee garden a few years ago, and it was amazing to see the bees visit knowing they were working their magic on both my vegetable garden and fruit trees!

Plants to consider: hyssop, catnip, bee balm, lavender, lemon thyme, pineapple mint, lemon balm, black-eyed Susan, butterfly bush, zinnia, sedum, aster, goldenrod

An Everlasting Garden

It’s so easy to dry these flowers!  They can be added to a grapevine wreath or gathered into a bundle hanging upside down for a primitive look.

Plants to consider: globe amaranth, baby’s breath, nigella, German statice, strawflowers, yarrow, celosia, astilbe, coneflower, hydrangea, pearly everlasting

A Tea Garden

Herbal tea blends from your own garden…you’ll KNOW they’re organic!

Plants to consider: lemon balm, chamomile, sage, bee balm, apple mint, pineapple mint, peppermint, orange mint, lavender, lemon verbena

A Kitchen Garden

I have an area right outside my kitchen door…oh-so easy to snip fresh herbs whenever I’m cooking.

Plants to consider: basil, dill, tarragon, marjoram, rosemary, parsley, savory, sage, chives, oregano, thyme, garlic chives

Insect Repelling Garden

Snip bouquets and tuck into Mason canning jars on a picnic table…a pretty way to keep those little critters away naturally!

Plants to consider: pennyroyal, oregano mint, marjoram, yarrow, loveage, lemon balm, bergamot, dill, lavender, thyme, savory, sage, borage, catnip, chamomile, rosemary, tarragon, basil, bay, bergamot

A Shakespeare Garden

Also known by our kids, for fun, as a Billy Shakes Garden, these plants have been mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings.

Plants to consider: parsley, rosemary, columbine, lavender, chamomile, carnation, thyme, hyssop, mint, marjoram, pink rose, strawberry, bay, calendula, savory

I hope you’ve found some inspiration for a fun, new garden plan. In this lion & lamb month, it’s the perfect time to plan for the arrival of spring!


Mary is a Midwest farm girl who will tell you, “I love simple, old-fashioned ways. For me, it’s the country pleasures that mean the most ... tying on an apron for Sunday dinner, barn sales & auctions, farmers' markets, county fairs, porch swings, and slow train rides. Add to these the laughter of children, and I couldn't be happier!” You can visit Windy Meadows Farm here, Windy Meadows Farm.

Home-Grown Herbal Mulch

A food garden is a cooperative happening between the gardener, the soil, the weather and companion plants. Those companions plants are the icing on the cake — they bring it altogether. This blog is all about them, specifically herbs, and how irreplaceable they are in your food garden (not to mention your life).

herbal garden border
Photo by Kath Irvine

Mineral Rich Herbs

The reason herbs heal, soothe and boost us is they are packed with essential oils, enzymes, alkaloids, bioflavonoids and minerals. Imagine the benefit to our food plants when grown alongside this richness; and the strength of our soils when all that goodness is recycled back via mulch.

The range of minerals available through herbs is amazing. Here’s a sample:

Borage – potassium, calcium

Bracken – potassium, nitrogen

Chickweed – copper, boron, iron, zinc, phosphorus

Comfrey – phosphorus, calcium, iron, potassium, sodium, nitrogen

Chamomile – calcium, potassium

Clover – nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium

Dandelion – silica, potassium, iron, copper, phosphorus, nitrogen, sulphur

Fennel – copper, potassium

Plantain – calcium

Stinging nettle – iron, phosphorus, copper, calcium

Thistle – nitrogen, copper, silica, potassium

Thyme – vitamin c, copper, manganese, iron

Yarrow – sulphur, potassium, copper

herbal mulch
Mulch with yarrow, parsley, and fennel. Photo by Kath Irvine

How to Grow and Harvest Your Own Mulch

Herbs are the ultimate companion plant. Make the most of their gifts by creating a border of perennial herbs around your vegetable patch. This border ticks plenty of boxes — a bounty of herbs for cooking and medicine, a boundary to keep the grass away from your vegetable patch, nectar/pollen-rich flowers for bees and beneficial insects, nutritious matter for compost heaps and best of all, ongoing supply of cut and come again mineral rich foliage for mulch.

Vigorous herbs with soft foliage make the best mulch. My favorites are lemon balm, yarrow, borage, parsley, fennel, sage and Mexican marigold. Plant them close together, leaving no room for weeds. Choose herbs that flower at different times of year to spread flowering over all the seasons for the bees.

Harvesting the mulch is the easy part. Whip around trimming back lush growth in your herbal border as well as plants that are taking over the paths and encroaching on their neighbors. Break or cut trimmings into 15cm bits into your wheelbarrow as you go. Add in fresh grass clippings, spent crops and any other bits you’ve got, like leaves.  Mix it together and spread it on.

Mulch Is the Answer

Mulch is the fastest, easiest route to a healthy soil. The less you disturb your soil, the stronger it is.

A pile of mulch is a simple solution for many things — to begin a new garden bed, prepare ground for a fruit tree or rebuild tired soil. Keeping your soil covered with mulch at all times keeps it alive and moist. Mulch makes getting rid of weeds an easy job; simply dollop mulch on top of them.

I decided to have a go at growing my own mulch because it was costly buying in enough to support my mulch obsessed gardening style, and because there’s no labeling requirement for mulch, I had no way of knowing what pesticides and herbicides had been used. I also felt better feeding my soil a mixture rather than one type.

My first batch of home-grown mulch felt really good — I knew I was onto a good thing, and I haven’t looked back! As well being 100 percent organic and free, that yummy mixture supports a broad range of soil life for stronger soils.

Home-grown mulch is so vital! Money can’t buy the kind of fertility that recycling mineral-rich herbs back into your garden brings.

A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Indoor Plants This Spring

Green thumb or not, there is one house project you should seriously consider tackling this spring—growing indoor plants.

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Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

At some point or another you have probably toyed with the idea of adding some foliage to your interior. There’s just one problem: you can barely keep a store bought bouquet of flowers alive. But that doesn’t mean you can’t exercise your green thumb this spring. We’ve come up with the fool proof beginner’s guide to growing indoor plants this spring. All it takes is a little sun, water, and willingness to learn!

Reap What You Sow: 3 Health Benefits to Indoor Plants

Adding a few indoor plants to your home goes far beyond sprucing up the design aesthetic of your interior. In fact, there are a number of health benefits to indoor plants that go far beyond looks. We thought we’d name of few:

Less Stress

There is science behind why we feel at peace in the presence of nature. Same goes for why we feel the tranquility of a space laden with plants. Multiple studies have found the presence of potted plants has been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower anxiety, and increase feelings of serenity.

Cleaner Air

Plants are hard workers and do the exact opposite of us—absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. This not only freshens up the air, but it also cleanses it of harmful toxins. In fact, one study by NASA found houseplants can remove up to 87% of air toxins over a 24 hour time period.

Better Sleep

Yes, it’s true. Plants can help you breathe and sleep better. Actually, the reason plants improve sleep quality is because of their ability to replenish oxygen. If you are struggling from sleep caused by an uncomfortable mattress or racing thoughts, adding some foliage to your bedroom might help assuage the problem.

Are you convinced you should be growing plants yet? Hopefully, the answer is yes. If so, here are five easy specimens to try your hand at growing.

5 Easy Indoor Plants for Beginners

Succulents

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Succulents are one of the most popular, low-maintenance, eye-pleasing plants you can add to your home. With a lot of sunlight and a little bit of water, you are sure to see success growing succulents. But although they are pretty self-sufficient, they still need some attention every now and then. Pot your succulents in well-draining soil and place them in a spot that gets direct sunlight, preferably up to eight hours a day. Water every week or a few days after the soil dries. One popular species to grow is aloe vera. Aloe is just as low-maintenance and also has medicinal benefits you can take advantage of by having it on your home.

Pothos

Pothos is a popular house plant because it is nearly impossible to kill (which is exactly the type of plant beginners want to grow)! This plant prefers low, indirect sunlight which makes it a great option for most anyone to grow. Plant pothos in potting soil and water w every so often when the first two inches of soil become dry.

Peace Lily

 

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Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

 

Peace Lily is a popular indoor plant because of its striking blooms and the fact it thrives in bright, indirect sunlight. This indoor beauty prefers a warm, humid environment so avoid placing it in drafty areas of the house. Due to its powerful toxin filtering ability, peace lily is especially beneficial for improved indoor air quality and sleep.

Spider Plant

Also known as a “ribbon plant” during the Victorian Era, a spider plant is another good option to consider adding to your home. Spider plant thrives in indirect sunlight and only needs moderate amounts of water. Just make sure it’s planted in well-draining potting soil. Like peace lily, spider plant is known for its air-purifying properties so if you are looking keep your home’s atmosphere fresh, give this plant a shot.

Cast Iron Plant

If the name of this plant is any indication of its resilience, all us aspiring gardeners are in luck. The good news is that it’s name isn’t a coincidence. In fact, it received the label “cast iron” because it can survive in the worst conditions, including outdoors in deep shade and poor soil. This is the type of sturdy plant beginners should definitely give a try. Cast iron plant prefers low light, occasional watering and a variety of temperatures. This plant, like the succulent, does well when left alone so it won’t demand too much of your attention. 

All in all, if you are looking for a new hobby to learn this spring, mastering the art of indoor gardening is a great way to both revamp and cleanse your interior while simultaneously improving your health. Go ahead, get planting!

Grow a Kitchen Garden (Even If You Have a Black Thumb)

kitchen garden bed of fresh greens
Photo by Pasha Krise
 

No greens for your smoothie? No problem! Do you have wilting herbs in the fridge? What a waste of money. Try a trendy kitchen garden, it’s easier than people think. There is nothing to it but to do it, the experts say.

“A plan is not necessary. Start small. Grow what you are going to eat in the kitchen,” Susan Brown, Consumer Horticulture Agent for New Hanover County, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, suggests.

By following a few simple steps and making the right choices for your garden, you will be harvesting tender greens in a couple months.

greens garden
Photo by Pasha Krise

1. It’s all about the SOIL!

“A beginner gardener needs to start from the ground up,” Brown says. The soil is the foundation for any plant growth, including; annuals (plants that only grow for one season) and perennials (plants that come back each year.)

Oregon-based Master Gardener, Kristena LaMar recommends skipping mixing a DIY soil combination the first year. “Amending soil is complex,” she says. “Your first year stick to bagged potting soil.”

2. Step away from the hoe; novice gardeners should start with containers or an easy-to-build raised bed.

“It can take years to build the soil so it retains moisture and encourages microbial activity when gardening in the ground,” Brown says.

Brown and LaMar both suggest that beginners use containers or raised beds.

“Use well-draining containers,” LaMar recommends. Without proper aeration and drainage, the plants can get root rot, a soil borne disease or fungus, she says. Drainage is optimal in a simple raised bed built from four pieces of untreated wood.

container herb garden
Photo by Pasha Krise

3. You’ve got the container, you’ve got the soil. All that is missing is the plants!

A gardener can “direct sow” seeds or plant “transplants”, which are already started before they get to their growth destination. Some seeds, like root vegetables, should always be directly sown in their final dirt home. Other plants, such as tomatoes, thrive in a garden once they’ve been nurtured as a seedling and ready to transplant.

“Newbies should wait for healthy transplants,” LaMar suggests. “Adapt to four to five plants at a time.”

She also recommends a simple herb garden and swears by oregano as a great container plant. Oregano is a woody perennial that will overtake the neatest of gardens with its spread. “A lot of people use it in various types of cooking.”

“Grow what you eat,” LaMar stresses.

Also recommended for spring planting are cool weather crops, such as lettuce, kale, swiss chard and spinach. When harvesting leafy greens, pick the outer leaves and the innermost leaves. “Never cut off more than one-third of the foliage,” LaMar warns. “Once you cut it off, that’s the end of the plant.”

Brown maintains that plant choice is a predominately important factor in successful gardening. “Start with easier plants first and get some experience behind you before you try more challenging plants,” she recommends.

4. Timing is everything when it comes to the garden.

Plants are fussy and are subjective to the “Zone” in which they are planted. Brown and LaMar are garden experts on separate coasts and both maintain the importance of zone-based planting advice.

LaMar suggests using the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to determine your planting zone. Most seed packets and transplants have Zone information on the label, stating when it safe (warm enough) to plant them.

Another great resource for all things gardening, including when to plant, is the local cooperative extension office, Brown recommends.

kitchen garden
Photo by Pasha Krise

5. Keep them alive!

Plants are basic; they need sun, water and food (fertilizer).

“Plant conditions vary based on the type of plant you are planting,” Brown says. Each plant or seed packet will be labelled with its sun needs.

To determine just how much water a plant needs, or if its deficient or being overwatered, LaMar says the “finger test”. “Put your finger in the soil. If it is wet up to the second knuckle, no need to water.” Overwatering is a big mistake, she says. Watering too much will wash away nutrients and rot the roots.

Feed your plants and they’ll feed you. LaMar recommends applying a “regular fertilizer labelled 10-10-10 (equal parts nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium—yummy plant food!)

6. The final step is the most delicious; harvest and feast!

Heed the picking advice from the master gardeners and don’t cut the entire plant if you want continual grown (as with greens and herbs.) You only have one shot with other plants, like carrots and beets. Once you pull them, their next stop is your stomach.

Remember, Brown says, “Failures in the garden can be learning experiences and each year can bring different challenges but don't give up!”







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