Articles Posted in the Garden category

Three things I’ve learnt from growing beans

February 2, 2009
Posted in Garden

Don’t do this at home: an illustration of how not to plant two rows of beans

Not all of us are born with green fingers, some of us have to learn by trial and error. So, here are some of the pearls of wisdom I have gleaned from my bean-growing mistakes.

When you plant your bean seeds do it in such a way that you leave enough space between the plants for you to be able to reach the beans when you want to pick them.

This may seem obvious, but I planted eight bean seeds – four next to a wall on which I’d attached some plastic mesh for the plants to grow up, and then another four in a row about 30cm in front of the first row. The second row has its own sheet of mesh tied to two dowl sticks. I left a space of about 30cm between the two rows because that’s how far seed packets tell you to leave between plants. But it was only once the plants grew tall and started to produce beans that I realised I hadn’t left enough space for me to get between the rows to pick the things (even finding them among all the leaves is tricky). It also makes aphid control complicated.

Beans grow quite tall so you need to plant them in a spot where they will not block out the sun for other plants.

Another obvious one, you’d think … but my mistake, which I discovered only once the bean plants started to get quite big, was that the one row of beans blocks out the sun for the other one because when I planted them I didn’t pay attention to how the light travels over my garden during the course of the day. Now the one’s in the back row are has-beans (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Bean plants seem to just go on and on producing. I have been harvesting beans for about a month – just a handful a day, mind you, but this is far more than I can get my family to eat. I have had to start giving the beans away. All in all, I estimate that my veg patch has produced beans worth more than R50, or about five packets that you’d buy in a supermarket. But, I must admit, it is quite nice to be able to give people homegrown food. It makes me feel like I must be doing something right.

Aphids, ants and me

January 20, 2009
Posted in Garden

Aphids and an ant on a bean plant

A herd of aphids and an ant on a bean plant

Freshly picked beans taste different from those you buy in the supermarket, even organic ones. They’re sweet and have a less fibrous texture so they’re absolutely delicious raw.

Both my gardening books say that green beans are easy to grow, and until recently I would have agreed with them wholeheartedly. Once they start to produce, beans just seem to go on and on, every morning you can go out and pick a handful, it’s very gratifying. It’s also easy to tell when they’re ready to be picked (the same cannot be said for onions, potatoes and butternuts).

There is a catch, though: they attract aphids, tiny little black insects that accumulate along the stems, under the leaves, in fact, all over the place. They collect in clumps that look like crusty black scabs. I came back from holiday, took one look at my beans and panicked.

I immediately consulted the internet for organic aphid-control methods and found do-it-yourself recipes that involved things like crushed raw garlic and “soft soap” – which, according to the Soil Association, contains fatty acid potassium salt, which is derived from bone material and palm oil.

So off I went to the nursery to find some of this soft soap, but I ended up getting Ludwig’s Organic Insecticide (made by Kirchhoffs, R69,95) because the guy at the nursery said it’s much easier than trying to make my own spray, and it’s authorised for use in organic agriculture by Ecocert. It contains canola oil, which is said to “kill small bodied insects on contact by means of suffocation”, pyrethrum which can kill larger bodied insects (and aren’t mosquito coils made of it?) and garlic because this apparently puts insects off from landing on the plants. Boy, does it contain garlic, enough to make your eyes water.

Anyway, a word of advice to anyone who decides to spray aphids. Wear rubber gloves, wrap old tea towels around your wrists to stop the stuff from running down your arms; stand upwind when you spray; and start from the bottom of the plants and work upwards. You have to spray the insecticide directly onto the insects and, because the little buggers hide under the leaves and in hard to reach bits, it’s a messy business. If you have a lot of them like I did, it’s also not a quick job.

The stuff worked, though, the aphids seemed to shrivel up and some, but not all of them, dropped off. But a week later I noticed ants running up and down the bean plants, so I took a closer look and found that the aphids had returned.

Apparently ants “farm” aphids, moving them to “tender spots” on a plant and milking them for honeydew. As charming as this little ant ecosystem may seem in theory, beans with aphids on them aren’t very appetising.

I don’t really want to get into a situation where I have to spray insecticide once a week and I don’t want to put off  bees and ladybirds from visiting my plants. The books say that ladybirds eat aphids so they are a useful natural control method – alas I have seen only one ladybird on my beans so far.

For the past three days I have been following the advice of the organic gardening book I got for Christmas which says: “Use the jet from a garden hose to knock aphids and other pests off plants: some may return but many will not”. After all, it says, the aim of organic gardening is to control pests not eliminate them and the spraying of pesticides should be a last resort. (Organic Garden Basics, by Bob Flowerdew, Hamlyn, London, 2008)

A strong jet of water applied directly does seem to knock them off the plant, but the aphids and their little ant farmers recover quickly – you can knock them off in the evening and by the morning they’ll be back again – so you have to keep watch for them and not let them get the better of you.

I think I’m managing to keep one step ahead, but it’s been only three days, so I’m not ruling out the possibility of having to spray again.

Lettuce on the edge

January 15, 2009
Posted in Garden

thirsty lettuce

It’s been raining pretty heavily here in Joburg for the past few days, which I’m very grateful for because I nearly killed my lettuce and they need all the help they can get from Mother Nature at this point.

After a mere two days of not watering them I was horrified to find my lettuces all wilted and dead-looking. It’s been extremely hot here in Joburg, but there have often been thundershowers in the late afternoon so I kind of assumed that it would be okay to leave the watering of my veg to  nature for a few days. Big mistake.

I have been trying to nurse them back to health for the past week and some of them look almost as good as new.

survivor-lettuceBut for two particularly parched-looking plants, it was touch and go. For a few days the only evidence that they weren’t stone dead was a brave little tuft of green poking out from the middle of a soggy brown clump. The little tufts are getting bigger every day, though, so I think they’ll be okay. I’m amazed at their resilience. (The lettuce on the right is the one on the top right in the big photo a few days later)

I’ve learned my lesson: lettuces do not like to be ignored, they need to be watered every day.

I now have a rain gauge so I can get a better idea of just how much rain has actually fallen during a thundershower.

How I love self-starters

January 14, 2009
Posted in Garden


Give some plants a chance and they’ll grow like weeds in your garden. Tomatoes are like that, they were my first crop of home-growns and I didn’t even plant them myself, birds did. I’d put some cherry tomatoes on my bird feeder at some point and the next thing I knew I had tomato plants sprawling all over my flowerbeds.

I didn’t know then that I was supposed to stake them up (I was totally clueless about gardening). But the tomatoes were delicious, despite my ignorance, and they made me realise that growing food wasn’t as hard as I’d imagined it would be.

Now every year at around this time (starting in December), I start to find tomato plants growing around my garden. This year I have found 10 plants and all but one have been transplanted into my vegetable patch. For the first day or so after I moved them they looked a bit droopy and out of sorts but I watered them well every evening and now they’re fine.

I’ve got a variety of different types: cherries, little baby Rosas and the standard slicing kind that are called English tomatoes in my local supermarket, plus a couple that I don’t know because they haven’t produced any tomatoes yet. Cherries are still my favourite because you get lots of tomatoes on one plant. I also planted a few Roma tomato seeds a fortnight ago because they make such delicious tomato sauce for pastas.

One thing I have learnt is that it is better to stake up tomato plants or the fruits will lie on the ground and get chewed by all kinds of creepy crawlies and they can get a bit grubby and deformed-looking.

Another thing I’ve learned is that even though they produce huge, heavy fruits, tomato vines are surprisingly fragile. If you let a plant grow too big and bushy before you try to stake it up you may find that the vines break easily when you try to bend them to your will. You have to be very gentle with them and they tend to give off a sharp, herby smell when you handle them.

Some of my plants had already started sprawling outwards before I decided to stake them up, so I put the dowl sticks where the branches could reach comfortably and I suppose it looks a bit untidy, but the tomatoes are off the ground, which is the main thing.

sprawling tomato staked according to where the branches would comfortably reach

I used plastic pull ties – which you can buy for about R15 in a bag of about 50 – to tie the plant to the stick. They’re really easy to use, but you just have to be careful not to pull them too tight, because you can’t loosen them again, you have to cut them off and start over.

With the really small plants I’m trying out using a kind of tepee shape made of three dowl sticks that I saw in a book and hopefully they’ll grow up the sticks and look all neat and tidy. I’ll see whether I can get it to work.

tomato in a dowl-stick tepee

Home-grown convenience food

January 13, 2009
Posted in Garden

butter lettuce

Lettuce is an incredibly useful thing to have growing in the garden,  because you can pick a leaf or two from a plant when you need it – even from quite young plants. It’s convenience food at its best. So you have a constant supply of fresh salad greens. And, anyway, salads made from freshly picked leaves just taste better.

If you grow your own, you don’t need to buy bags of salad that usually contain more than you need and end up being stored in the fridge for days and eventually thrown away. You pick as much as want when you want it. And, if you’re a regular salad eater, you’ll save money.

You just need to make sure you have enough lettuce plants growing at one time to meet your needs. I have planted 6 butter lettuces and 6 Lolla Rosas, which I hope will do for my family of four. I bought them as seedlings from my local nursery – I have given up trying to grow lettuce from seed for the moment (something keeps eating my seedlings) – and I picked enough leaves for a salad just three days after I planted them. How’s that for instant gratification?

Battles with birds

January 13, 2009
Posted in Garden

bird-eaten-tomato2It’s hard work keeping one step ahead of the birds in my garden. I had to drop out of the race for the peaches because, despite watching the tree for days for signs of ripe fruit, the mousebirds, go-away birds, white-eyes and bulbuls managed to find them first. Every peach had been pecked almost to the pip, except for one, which had a worm in it.

But I’m not going to surrender as easily with my vegetables.

I planted some seeds – lettuce, spinach, fennel, beetroot, cucumber, carrots and broccoli – and put the seed trays on my gardening table in a little domed construction made with old bits of plastic tubing covered in bird netting.

netting Everything sprouted and all was going well … then, one morning I went to water my seedlings and was horrified to find that my baby lettuces were gone and the skinny little spinach leaves had been chewed on. Some thieving beaked thingy had managed to find a way into the dome.

Even more infuriatingly, my first tomato of the season, which I have been waiting patiently to ripen, got pecked at as soon as the first blush of red appeared.

To stand a chance of getting anything to eat before the birds get to it, I need some serious birdproofing.

I decided the only thing to do is to cover my entire 7m x 2m veg patch in netting.

I went to the nursery and bought 12 metres of hail netting for about R350. I prefer this to the packets of bird netting you can buy because it comes in widths of about 3m and it’s much easier to work with. Everything tends to get tangled up in bird netting, including rings, buttons and small children.

The guy at the nursery said the holes in hail netting are big enough for insect pollinators like bees to get through.

My husband created the construction pictured below with the netting and various bits of wood that were lying in the garage, which I hope is a birdproof Fort Knox. It’s not glamorous, but my veg garden is now completely fenced in.

The war is not yet won, though. Twenty four hours after Fort Knox was built, security was breached by a Cape sparrow. Luckily I managed to chase it out before it did any damage. I see I will have to remain vigilant.


New adventures with vegetables

January 12, 2009
Posted in Garden

I’ve been growing veggies in a very haphazard way for a few years. Well, to be honest, I think things grow in my veg patch despite my attempts at gardening and not because of them; what survives seems to have either seeded itself there, or been planted and looked after by the man who comes once a week to keep my garden under control.

But this year I’ve decided to take my vegetable garden more seriously, because …

  • I want to grow food that’s free of pesticides and artificial fertilisers so that I know exactly what I’m feeding my kids.
  • I want to try to eat food that I know is locally grown and in season (to lower my carbon footprint) and what better way to do this than to grow it myself?
  • I want my children to know where their food comes – that brocolli does not appear miraculously from the heavens washed and in a microwavable plastic bag – and not to be squeamish about snails and worms or having to wash off a bit of soil.

Being able to grow food is an important skill that most of my generation seems to have lost. Fifty years ago a lot more people grew their own fruit and veg in urban gardens. Not so long ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you whether cucumbers grew on trees or under the ground – which is just pathetic. Regaining that knowledge is important, I think, not only to help get us back in touch with nature but also to learn to lead less wasteful lives.

You’re welcome to join me on my gardening adventures: it’s always useful to be able to learn from other people’s mistakes. And, feel free to offer advice or ideas.

Happy New Year.


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