In the Garden
Get down and dirty in the garden

Give Your Fruit Trees Some Spring Love ā€“ Get Thinning!

Thinning is one of those jobs that grew on me. It took me many years before I began to understand it’s value. I used to hate plucking those sweet little baby fruits off, but now I love it! Such a peaceful job among the trees, and the fringe benefits are many.


A huge crop of fruit is an exciting moment for humans, but not so fab from the trees point of view. A young tree's growth is set back, fruit doesn't ripen fully, codling moth and other pests flourish in the close quarters, branches break under the load and because next year’s spurs don’t get a look in, you run the risk of setting up a biennial bearing pattern (an enthusiastic big crop followed the next year with an exhausted little crop).

The time to thin is when the young fruits reach marble sized. Wander your fruit trees regularly in spring to catch this moment.

How to Thin Fruit Trees

Work your way systematically branch by branch. Use seceteurs to cut pip fruits and your thumb and finger to twist stone fruits. Pulling is disastrous!, you risk taking the whole spur (next years fruits) off.

 Remove deformed or stunted fruits. Leave the best.

 Leave only fruit 1 per cluster. For some of you this'll be oh so hard! I can but encourage you.

  • One fruit receives optimal sunlight and nutrition.
  • One fruit is not as enticing to codling moth (there is no cosier bug hotel than 3 apples squashed up together!)
  • One fruit is not as conducive to fungus. Think of spaces between fruits like a firebreak, preventing wild fire like spread of disease.   
  • Feeding one fruit per cluster leaves the tree resources for spur development, ensuring good production for the future. 

Either leave enough space so each fruit can grow to its full size without touching its neighbor, or use this guide to help you decide how much space to leave between each fruit.

  •  Peaches and nectarines  10 - 15cm
  • Apricots 10cm
  • Plums 5 - 10cm
  • Apples 15 - 25cm
  • Pears 10 - 15cm

Before Thin


After Thin


Drop the thinnings on the ground beneath the tree, and return all those hard won carb’s.

Thin Young Fruit Trees

Thinning takes the pressure off young trees and speeds them on their way. Without fruit development to concentrate on, trees can pour all their energy into building a robust frame and strong root system, creating a far better tree in the long run.

Completely remove all the fruits from 1 – 2 year old trees and if your tree is still not up to scratch, do it in year 3 as well. If you need more patience, you’ll learn it here!

From year 3 onward, let your tree carry as many fruits as its canopy and frame can support. This is one of those “less is more” moments.

Thin Struggling Trees

For the same reason we thin young trees, its a big support for poorly trees to have their fruit thinned or completely removed. 

Roll With It

Be aware that each variety produces in different way. Some tend towards biennial bearing, some produce huge loads every year and some produce consistently just the right amount, steady as a rock. Each year is different too. As trees grow and expand they can carry greater loads. 

Tips for Conserving Water While Maintaining a Thriving Yard

As winter morphs into spring, our focus shifts from indoors to outside as we look forward to spending time in the yard and garden. But our spring showers won’t last forever, and once summer sets in, our green spaces need water to stay lush and inviting. If you live in a drought-prone area, the watering restrictions could be frustrating. You don’t have to break the rules to keep your garden and yard healthy, even in a very hot climate. Follow these tips for conserving water, and maintain a thriving yard and garden all year long.


Invest in Healthy Soil

When watering your plants, imagine that you're watering your soil, rather than the plants. Healthy soil will retain water at a much higher rate than poor, depleted soil. In garden beds, always add a nice layer of mulch each spring to help keep moisture in the ground and neaten the appearance of your beds. You can lightly fork the mulch from last year into your beds. Over time, it adds organic matter and nutrients to the soil, increasing its overall health. Consider aerating your lawn every fall to help your turf “breathe.”

Get Your Timing Right


One of the simplest ways to water correctly is to do so at the right time of day. Water early in the morning to minimize the evaporation that happens midday. Never water in the evening, as this increases the risk of moisture sticking around all night, which encourages disease. If you have an irrigation system, set the timer so that all your watering is done before dawn and you’ll be right as rain.

Water the Right Amount

One big mistake people make when watering is watering lightly and too frequently. This not only wastes water but is less beneficial to plants. A better strategy is to water deeply, but less often. Deep watering encourages roots to grow deep into the soil, which promotes healthy growth and makes plants more resilient. Aim for watering about once inch per week during the hottest months of the year.

There are various types of irrigation systems, and choosing the most appropriate one will ensure not a drop of water goes to waste. Sprinkler systems and rotors are ideal for lawns, and drip irrigation lines are the most efficient system for landscaping beds. Make sure at the beginning of spring that your irrigation system is in good repair and the timer is set right.

Plant a Water-Wise Landscape

Photo credit: Center for Neighborhood Technology on / CC BY-SA

Many cities have water-wise guides for native and adapted plant species to plant in a water-efficient landscape. Focusing on these plants can help to reduce your water usage in the landscape drastically. Native plants are those that grow naturally in your region without human intervention. They support local pollinators and wildlife and need little maintenance or water. The same goes for grass. Check with the Natural Resource Conservation Center or Extension office in your area to see which grass type grows best without much watering.

Harvest and Use Rainwater

Of course, one of the easiest ways to conserve water from the tap is to use the water Mother Nature provides. If you have rain gutters on your home, collecting rainwater is as simple as directing the downspouts to reservoirs. There are various ways to harvest rainwater, with systems ranging from small to massive. For small-scale projects, you won’t need much more than a barrel and a couple of essential tools and plumbing supplies.

With a little foresight and planning, you can keep your lawn and garden lush and healthy without racking up a huge water bill. But conserving water benefits more than your wallet, it’s also good for the planet. So go on, save some money, and save the world, one drop at a time.

How Hemp Farming Is Utilizing Engineering Technology to Conserve Resources

Hemp is an integral part of U.S. history: In the 1700s, farmers in many colonies were required by law to grow the versatile crop. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and many of the nation’s founding fathers grew hemp, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But in 1937, everything changed for the hemp industry.

That year, the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, which lumped hemp into the same category as its psychoactive cousin, marijuana. Both plants were strictly regulated and eventually classified as Schedule 1 narcotics, despite the fact that the hemp plant does not have psychoactive properties.

But in recent years, hemp production has made a dramatic comeback, and in December 2018, the plant was finally de-regulated as part of the 2018 United States farm bill. The bill removes hemp that contains less than 0.3% THC from the list of controlled substances and allows for the wide-scale production of industrial hemp.

spread of hemp leaves

Hemp’s new status as a potential cash crop is good news for farmers and environmental advocates alike. As it grows rapidly and can thrive even in poor soil conditions, the plant offers sustainable solutions and applications within a number of industries. Additionally, new farming technologies, including photovoltaic agriculture, can further expand the environmental and economic advantages of the hemp plant.

The Implications of Hemp Production

The versatility of hemp is somewhat unbelievable: The plant can be converted into biofuel, biodegradable plastic, clothing and paper fiber, and CBD oil, which is used to treat a number of medical conditions, including anxiety and depression. Hemp is also used as a food additive, as it’s rich in protein and amino acids and contains healthy fats.

However, the U.S. relies heavily on foreign hemp imports, especially from China and Canada. The 2018 U.S. farm bill opened up new horizons for hemp production, but the plant’s potential is still being realized. At the 2019 Industrial Hemp Summit, held in Danville, Virginia, researchers, businesspeople, and farmers gathered together to discuss the future of industrial hemp and the technological innovations that are set to change the industry.

For years, U.S. farmers have struggled to turn a profit, and the situation became direr in the wake of President Trump’s export tariffs on agricultural goods. The tariffs led several countries, most notably China, to turn elsewhere for their agricultural needs. Soybean exports alone have dropped by 90 percent, reports NBC News, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has paid out $7.7 billion to struggling farmers since the tariffs were put in place. Hemp advocates, including Industrial Hemp Summit attendees, believe that the plant could help reinvigorate farming at a national level, as well as boost profits.

Hemp and Water Conservation

Only about 4 percent of water on the Earth is freshwater, and that water is rapidly consumed by humans and the agricultural industry alike. In fact, agriculture utilizes 70 percent of global freshwater, according to Ohio University. And by 2050, that number will increase by 19 percent as the growing global population will require 60 percent more food than is currently produced.

In light of these numbers and increasing pollutants that contaminate the world’s freshwater supply, conserving water is more important than ever. And industrial hemp is poised to become part of the solution to the global water crisis. The Ministry of Hemp reports that hemp uses half the water required to grow cotton. Further, one acre of hemp yields the same amount of paper fiber as four acres of trees, and it only takes about 100 days for hemp to fully mature. By harnessing the potential of hemp, farmers can drastically reduce water consumption.

Modern technology also provides numerous sources from which farmers can tap into a freshwater supply. Desalination processes, which remove salt from seawater, are becoming more mainstream and cheaper to implement. In the realm of civil engineering, researchers are also developing smarter irrigation techniques, including soil moisture readers that allocate water only as needed and the use of wastewater as a source of irrigation.  

Poorly built irrigation systems are prone to evaporation and seepage, and even the best traditional irrigation systems are between 50-60 percent efficient. This has led farmers to search for eco-friendly solutions to water conservation. One of these is the process of rainwater collection. A rainwater collection system is one that uses gutters, barrels, and specially designed tubs that collect and store roof runoff. This excess water can be filtered and used for everything from irrigation to human consumption.

Benefits of Crop Rotation

Along with water conservation efforts, farmers are embracing sustainability on a large scale, and hemp is at the forefront of their efforts. Hemp naturally resists most pests, effectively negating the need for pesticides and herbicides, many of which are hazardous to the environment. The large root system of the hemp plant keeps weeds at bay, and encourages better soil tilth.

Farmers worldwide have seen positive results when hemp is factored into crop rotation. In England, hemp grown in rotation with wheat produced an increased wheat yield of 20 percent. And Canadian farmers reported a significant decrease the in cyst nematode parasite, which can devastate soybean crops, after hemp was rotated with soybeans.

Industrial hemp has the potential to significantly impact sustainability efforts across the world, especially when technology is factored into the equation. By growing hemp and rotating it with existing crops, we’re likely to see a decrease in water consumption in the farming industry, as well as a reduction in pesticide use. Further, farmers are likely to see improved crop yields and a boost in profits, which could be a huge leg up for America’s struggling farming professionals.

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.

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.


Air and Light

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

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


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


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


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


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. 

smaller watering can
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.

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