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Articles Posted in the Garden, Green tips category

Putting plastic bottles to work in the garden

November 12, 2010
Posted in Garden, Green tips

Struggling to keep your seedlings alive without watering them constantly? Try this guaranteed-to-work tip:

Find a couple of clear plastic cooldrink bottles. The big 2-litre ones are ideal for the job. Cut the bottom off the bottle, remove the lid and put a bottle over each of your seedlings.

It work like magic. Because they are clear plastic they allow in sunlight (which the little seedlings need) but they also help to keep the plants from drying out. Even if you don’t water them every day the condensation in the bottle keeps the seedlings from drying out.

The bottles also keep out the snails which love to chew on fresh, baby seedling leaves.

Even better, the seedlings grow substantially faster in their plastic homes than they do in the hot, exposed sun. These lettuce plants were planted out in the garden about ten days ago but were all raised from seed at the same time. The bigger plant is the one growing under a plastic bottle dome. The ones in the tray are drying out faster than I can water them.


Quick wins in the garden

October 19, 2010
Posted in Garden

We go on a lot at Treevolution about growing and eating your own food. Sometimes we might make it sound a relatively easy thing to do. And usually it is. But there are times when it can be exceedingly frustrating and you wonder if it is all worth it when you look at your less-than-abundant crop.

It’s easy to be disheartened.

If you’re feeling this way then go out and get yourself a few lettuce seeds or seedlings, some tomato seeds and a couple of basil seedlings.

As far as I am concerned these are not only the most rewarding of plants to grow but also the most essential for summer.

Lettuce seeds – we tend to use the Lolla Rossa variety – are among the easiest seeds to grow. Fill a couple of seed trays with vermiculite or seedling soil, plant the seeds and water them every few days, keeping them lightly damp at all times, and within a week you’ll see signs of life.

This year I am using vermiculite for most of my seeds. It’s sterile, holds a good deal of moisture so seeds don’t dry out and I’ve had fewer problems with disease. You can get vermiculite at most hardware and gardening stores and you can use it on its own or together with a good seedling soil.

Tomato seeds and basil seeds are just as easy to grow. Both take little longer to sprout than lettuce seeds but once going they’re pretty robust. If you can’t wait then get a few trays of seedlings which will also do the trick.

The loose-leafed lettuces like Lolla Rossa are perfect for the family because you can pull off a few leaves at a time and they just keep on giving. They have frilly leaves and grow loose, not in in a round ball.

Basil, once it’s got going, grows like a bomb. The beauty of basil is that it’s one of those plants that loves being picked. Rip off a few leaves for dinner and it’ll start growing back immediately. At the end of the season, before they die off, pick the remaining leaves, toss them in a liquidiser and freeze them in icecube trays for use throughout winter.

Tomatoes also take a while to get going – plant them in the garden for full effect – but once they do, and if you’ve got a good number of plants, you’ll have enough to last you out the summer.

There’s not much like a weekend lunch made up of freshly-picked lettuce, basil and tomatoes. Add a bit of good cheese and it’s almost perfect.

Chillies brave the storms

November 2, 2009
Posted in Garden

chilliesThe vicious hailstorm which smashed up most of my seedlings just over a week ago was followed exactly a week later with another huge downpour. Although this one lacked the hail of the previous one it did last for a good hour and in that time turned the vegetable garden into a small lake. The seedlings, a little more protected by a neighbour’s large tree, weren’t washed away but they were drenched and many of the pumpkin, cucumber and watermelon seeds I had planted a couple of days earlier, were washed out of their seed trays. The more established seedlings like the lettuce and spinach managed to weather the storm and were not too badly off at the end.

But with two of the biggest storms in quick succession the seedlings have endured more than they would like. The storms have also washed out the weaker plants, wiped out seeds and left a real jumble on the seedling table. Because of this I decided to do a clean-up over the weekend and work out which of the plants and seeds were worth saving.

Surprisingly (perhaps) it was the various chilli plants, which have been pretty quiet until now, that seemed to be thriving. I had almost forgotten about the chilli seeds we had planted a month ago but quickly over the past week they have shot up from being barely visible to now being very obviously “there”.

So, on Sunday I washed out 20 small pots from the garage and set about transplanting all the chilli seedlings into their own pots using a mixture of seedling medium (bought from a nursery) and potting soil. After all this time of waiting expectantly for some of the chillies to appear it’s a rewarding feeling to now have 20 pots of chilli. Apart from the mixed hot chillies (a packet bought along the way) I also have Habanero and Serano chillies as well as a collection of sweet peppers.

Hail setback for Project Green

October 26, 2009
Posted in Garden

The hail starts to pile up around the back steps.

The hail starts to pile up around the back steps.

Living in Johannesburg we’re used to regular summer thunderstorms. So much so that they are the first thing we miss when not in Johannesburg. But Friday night’s version of a highveld thunderstorm was a lot more than we bargained for and Project Green took a heavy knock.

Early on in the afternoon it was obvious a storm was coming, but after countless false alarms with just a handful of raindrops, I didn’t take it too seriously. I did cover as much of the seedling table as I could with fine plastic mesh that I had lying around, just in case, and left it at that.

As with most thunderstorms it started fast and hard. And within a minute or so, when it was obvious this storm was going to be a big one, it was already almost too hard to get outside. A minute or two after that and the hail starting pelting down so we had to watch from the back door and hope things survived the storm.

All told the storm lasted about half-an-hour, but by the end of that time absolutely everything was white with hail, and not a herb (the closest to our back door) peeked above the layer of ice. The front path was almost a foot deep in hailstones and the vegetable garden in the back (at the bottom of the slope) was as much under water as anything.

After half an hour we ventured outside to see the damage. The herbs were smothered, the vegetables underwater and the pots of tomato and green pepper seedlings I had not managed to put under cover were smashed to pieces, just a handful of stems poking out the ice.

The green pepper and tomato seedlings didn't survive the storm very well.

The green pepper and tomato seedlings didn't survive the storm very well.

Fortunately the seedling table with its half-length cover had avoided the worst of the storm. I was pleased about that because I had trays full of lettuce, basil, thyme and chillis that were almost ready to go into the garden. I also had a tray full of 288 recently planted seeds of lettuce, parsley, thyme and spinach that had just started to show themselves and wouldn’t have survived the hailstones if they had not been covered. The portion of the seedling table not covered with the extra mesh was a sad sight with whole trays submerged in ice and leaves full of bruises and holes.

The beauty of the seedling table outside is that the seeds get the benefit of the sun and the rain and the gentle breezes mostly prevent them from getting fungal diseases. The downside is that occasionally along comes a storm too big for the baby plants to survive and you can quickly lose a lot of plants. And when that happens you wish you had a greenhouse rather than table with a tiny mesh covering. But, fortunately, these type of storms don’t come along all that often so it’s a risk I suppose you have to take. Although I am now considering having handy a fine, strong mesh covering for the next time a large storm looms.

Getting serious about seeds

October 6, 2009
Posted in Garden

It’s been a month since I launched Project Green, an occasional series of posts on my still-developing gardening skills and things have progressed well. So much so that I have now built a fairly serious “seedling table” out of pieces on wood I had in the garage for another project that never materialised. At first glance the seedling table is … um … fairly large. Even I had my doubts about my ambitions when I first looked at the finished product. But, after just a couple of weeks the table is packed to capacity (at least on the top bird-proofed section) and many of the first seedlings have already been transplanted to the garden, having outgrown their seed trays.

seedtableThe idea for a seedling table was partly from some online reading I did and partly from the fact that the little old table I was using wasn’t really big enough. And that to protect the seedlings from birds I had to rig up an awkward system of netting that just got in the way.

The new seedling table has everything: netting to discourage birds, built-in sprinklers for water and enough room to store a good hundred-odd seedlings. The top shelf of the seedling table stands around one meter high which is a good height to work with without having to bend over the whole time. The bottom shelf is half as high and the table is 1.5m long and 0.8m wide. The two shelves are made from chicken wire pinned to the shelf beams. The chicken wire is not the best decision I made. It has a tendency to stretch under weight and it is surprising how heavy a few seedling trays can become. I will probably replace the chicken wire sometime in the near future, either with significantly stronger wire or perhaps even some wooden slats. But for now I’m going to leave it.

sprinklerThe sprinkler system is piped into the seedling table and uses the common garden sprinkler attachments you find in most hardware stores and nurseries. When I made the table I braced opposite corners of the “shelf beams” with a square block of wood to add rigidity to the table. Only once I’d done that did I realise how handy these would be to mount the sprinkler heads. Drilling a hole into two corner braces I mounted the sprinklers on high-rise poles inserted into the corner braces. With two 90% sprinkler heads the entire table gets a gentle watering in one go.

Successes and failures

The most successful seedlings we’ve grown to date on the new table are sweetcorn and basil. Basil grows just about anywhere and we’ve had to thin it out substantially over the past weekend. The sweetcorn seeds were also highly rewarding. Within days of planting them shoots appeared and they grew so fast that it seemed that if you checked them twice a day you could actually see them growing.

My first lettuce seeds, planted before the protection of the new seedling table, were pretty much wiped out by the birds the moment they appeared. Coriander, watermelon, cucumber and a variety of other lettuce seeds, on the other hand, sprouted quickly on the seedling table and are well on their way to being transplanted to the herb and vegetable gardens.

My attempts at growing lavender from seed are still largely unsuccessful, though I do have one or two promising looking shoots appearing this week. All the reading I’ve done suggests that lavender is an exercise in patience and that they will likely appear when you least expect them. So, I’m holding on and hoping.

The one thing we’ve no shortage of is tomato plants. We don’t actually plant these, they simply appear wherever we use our compost which is obviously laden with seeds. Gradually we’ve been moving a selection of the better of these to their own pots to be grown further.

We also have a selection of chili seeds planted in trays but so far the only chili bushes appearing this season are those that have seeded themselves around the garden.

First signs of life

September 18, 2009
Posted in Garden

The Garden Cress is very happy in its rich compost mixture.

The Garden Cress is very happy in its rich compost mixture.

It was just day four of the project when the first signs of life started poking through the soil in the seedling trays. The garden cress was remarkably quick to sprout and by the end of the first week had more than a handful of leaves to show for my efforts. Which boosted my confidence in my gardening skills no end. This was easy.

Boosted by my new-found confidence I scratched around for a few small pots and splashed out on a few more seed trays and got to planting some more seeds. One of the things I am keen to grow is Lavender. We have a narrow pathway down the one side of our house and after seeing a few good examples of lavender-lined stone pathways decided that something similar would be a good way to decorate an otherwise ugly piece of garden. To do this we need a lot of lavender so rather than buying it from the nursery I decided to try and propagate some from a few existing plant branches (largely unsuccessful so far)  and plant a packet of seeds.

The newest trays are in the foregraound with the lavender occupying the green pots and the back-left trays.

The table. The three trays in the forground are the newest plantings and the lavender is is the green pots and the trays at the back left.

The first thing I learned about lavender is that there is not such thing as “just lavender”. There are literally hundreds of different types of lavender, each with their own flowers, leaves and habits. In the end I settled on traditional English Lavender because it seems ot be the most popular so if I have problems with it I’m likely to find help relatively easily. I planted the lavender seeds (which are infuriatingly small and difficult to work with) in a couple of loose pots and two large seed trays.

Potting medium
Up until now I’ve been planting these seeds in trays and pots filled mostly with compost that we’ve produced at the bottom of the garden and a little sand. I’m now worried that this may not have been the best idea but I suppose we’ll find out soon enough. At least the cress is enjoying their new rich home.

As a test I planted a few more trays of seeds over the weekend. These extra three seed trays are planted with watermelon, sweetcorn and cucumber seeds. The test part is that I planted these in trays filled with a mixture of finely sifted compost mixed with a healthy dose of river sand. This guide suggests a seed-starting medium or potting soil. Maybe next time I’ll look at potting soil but for now river sand and compost it is.

Herbs, day 1

September 7, 2009
Posted in Garden

herbseedlings_070909Monday morning and the first day of the new gardening project. I only had six seedling trays to hand so I filled them all with seeds for chillis, sweet basil, coriander, lettuce, dark-leafed basil and garden cress. I’m thinking of building a more permanent structure on this side of the garden for growing seedlings but I want to test out how they fare here before launching on the building. When they do start to come up I’ll need to have something to protect them from birds but that’ll come later in the week. I also need a higher table. The current one is made from old scraps including an old wooden walkway which we replaced some time ago.

Seedlings: Getting started

September 7, 2009
Posted in Garden

This is the start of a series of regular posts tracking my gardening skills. I’m not a professional, I’m not practised, and I’m pretty clueless when it comes to growing plants. Over the past ten years I’ve spent more time behind a computer screen being a geek than I have in the garden. But recently I started enjoying gardening and I’ve decided that the best way to hone my skills is to give gardening a shot while documenting the (no-doubt countless) mistakes I make on this blog. The one thing I’ve learned over the years is that one of the best ways to learn from mistakes is to write them down. That way they are recorded and can be used as a measure of progress.

So, pitting a geek against a garden, let’s get started with Project Green.

With veg, timing is everything

April 17, 2009
Posted in Garden

My “stick it in the ground and see what happens” style of growing vegetables has been surprisingly successful. Since I started in late November, I’ve grown green beans, tomatoes, lettuce, chillies, beetroot, cucumbers and broccoli.


Skin surprise: I grew two types of cucumber, both of which had spiky skins, completely unlike the kind you buy in supermarkets. The spikes washed off easily. I peeled them before eating and they tasted exactly like ... well, cucumbers.

The cucumber and broccoli I’m particularly proud of because I had no idea what to expect. Thanks to a misleading picture in a gardening book, I thought cucumbers grew on small trees. Happily, I’m a little less ignorant now.

It hasn’t all been blissfully easy, though. I’ve had to admit defeat with a few of the things I planted. For months I watched my watermelon and butternut plants form tiny baby fruits that just shrivelled and died. I tried to fortify the plants with worm tea and seaweed fertiliser, and great dollops of compost, but eventually their leaves developed a patina of grey fungus and I had to pull them up. A Malawian former subsistence farmer I know said that I had planted them too late – I should have done it in early October, not late November.


Infant mortality: My butternut plant grew many tiny baby butternuts like this one, but once the flower dropped off, the baby butternuts turned yellow and then shrivelled up

I’m amazed that two months would make such a difference. It’s a lesson in that seasonal food thing and, I suppose, that’s the way of nature: it just wasn’t their time. I’ll try planting them again in October this year and see what happens.

I lost the battle with the aphids on my beans as well. At first I could keep them under control by spraying them with a hose pipe, but the infestation got progressively worse. Spraying them with a mixture of dishwashing liquid and water helped for a short while (thank you to the people who suggested this), but then I think the plant just got old and tired and the aphids took over. I decided euthanasia was the kindest option – and I didn’t want the aphids to spread to other parts of the garden. Once again, it’s the seasonal thing – plants seem to become more susceptible to pests at the end of their growing season.


Beautiful stranger: I watched this fly-thingy with fascination as it poked a little spike at the back of its abdomen into my tomatoes. I tried to shoo it away but it kept coming back. It must have been laying eggs, because later white larvae crawled out of the tomato.

Then there’s the weather. My tomato plants were doing fabulously until the weather turned unusually British for a while in the middle of summer. The leaves turned yellow and blotchy. I frantically thumbed through gardening books to see if I could identify what was wrong. Like a hypochondriac reading a medical text book, I worried that I had a dread disease like potato blight and that I’d have to dig up everything and burn it all. Then a colourful fly-type thing started to lay eggs in my nearly ripe tomatoes. One morning, I watched a tiny white larvae, which must have been the fly’s progeny, crawl out of a tomato and fling itself onto my beetroot. Then little, red insects flew in en masse and ate great holes in my tomatoes. That was when I conceded defeat.

Probably the most useful factoid I read in my books, though, is that tomatoes don’t like getting their leaves wet, it apparently encourages fungus, so you have to water them from below. I’m beginning to believe that maybe it was the fortnight or so of drizzle and sunlessness that did them in. Even the man at my local nursery blamed the weather. “The plants don’t know if they’re coming or going,” he said when I asked him for advice on a magic potion that could cure my tomatoes. There was nothing to be done but start again. And, interestingly, the new plants that have grown up since that bad patch of weather all seem to be fine. I’m already getting a new crop of cherry tomatoes. And, so far, there are no insects.

But I’m waiting to see how long these new plants will last now the weather is getting colder and drier. I know now that there’s only so much you can learn about growing vegetables from a book. The only way to learn is to stick it in the ground and see what happens. It’s all about trial and error and, most of all, patience.

So if anybody reads this and knows (from their own trials and errors) what you can plant in Joburg in April and May. Please let me know.

Can I eat these tomatoes or will they make me sick?

February 7, 2009
Posted in Garden


Hanging in there: Sick tomato plant with yellowing curled up leaves and soft stems

My baby Roma tomato plant was covered in clusters of green tomatoes when it succumbed to some or other lurgy. The leaves went all yellowy and curled up and the stems went all soft and droopy, like the plant just didn’t have the energy to hold itself up anymore.

My first thought was to find a way to save all those tomatoes? There were at least 24 of them. And after the resilience displayed by my near-dead lettuces, I decided to see if I could revitalise my tomato plant. I cut off all the diseased-looking leaves (which turned out to be all of them) and trimmed off the bits of stem that didn’t hold any tomatoes and then staked up the stems with tomatoes on them to keep them off the ground.

Then I mixed some kraal manure with a bit of bone meal (these are the only natural fertilisers I know of at this point) and put some generous dollops around the base of the plant. And then I watered it well and waited.

My intervention seemed to pay off because the stems firmed up, but no new shoots appeared. My friend from work, who has turned out to be a fantastic source of information about growing veg, told me I shouldn’t have cut off all the leaves. “How’s the poor plant going to photosynthesize?” she said. I didn’t think of that at the time.

Anyway, despite being leafless, the plant hung in there long enough for most of the tomatoes to turn a pale orangey-red, which I decided was ripe enough to pick and put on my kitchen windowsill to ripen further.

But my main concern was whether the tomatoes would be safe to eat. Would whatever killed the plant be in the fruit and give whoever ate them a stomach ache or worse? Once again, I turned to my friend, who also happens to be a trained nurse, for advice. She assured me that plant diseases do not cross over to humans. So I decided to throw caution to the wind and eat the tomatoes. I am happy to report that I have survived unscathed.

On Wednesday, I pulled the plant up. RIP Roma tomato plant.

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