Are you new to growing fruit, herbs and vegetables and looking for some pointers? With ten years of blogging experience, I’ve published over 500 posts on food growing, eco tourism, the environment, mental health, family, recipes and more. With so many articles sitting on the Greenside Up website, I took the decision a few years ago to divide them into categories to help visitors find their way around, but even I find them difficult to locate at times. I’ve been told that some people enjoy looking at the recipes, others at the eco tourism and travel posts, and many at the gardening advice.
In 2019 I began worked with the Foróige Just Grow Waterford programme, helping families to start growing their own food at home and in community garden projects across the county. During all my gardening workshops, I point people to the archived blog posts as an added resource. For instance Slugs – 15 ways to get rid of them organically never fails to become a conversation piece.
Although the posts are geared towards vegetable gardening, many of them form the basis for all gardening. Seeds are seeds and should be stored the same way whether they are flower or vegetable. Good soil is the foundation of all gardening and garden pests aren’t necessarily fussy whether they’re eating our roses or our beans.
Greenside Up on YouTube
In 2021 I revisited the Greenside Up YouTube channel as a way of connecting with some of the groups that I’m unable to work with face to face. In each of the short videos, I take viewers through the steps I’m taking to grow food in my polytunnel and later, into the raised vegetable garden outside. You can find the posts that are updated weekly here.
The following links are to key articles on the blog and many are inspired by frequently asked questions from learners. It is hoped they will help you to garden more confidently, no matter what you’re sowing or growing.
How to Start a Garden
The number one tip in gardening for beginners is to plan big but start small which will allow you to see how much time you have to maintain the garden. Here’s several more links that will help to get you started.
Sometime’s it seems there are more bad guys in the garden than good. When we emptied a large strawberry container this week in a HSE garden that caters for adults with intellectual disabilities, we found four of the ten pests listed below in one container alone! When we’re gardening without chemicals it can be a challenge but not impossible to either get rid of, or contain the pests and the first step is identifying the good guys from the bad, something covered a couple of weeks ago with the 12 Friends We Want to See in Our Gardens blog post.
Companion Planting Nasturtiums
To identify the pests we need to see them first so the first rule of thumb when dealing with pests organically is vigilance. Check your vegetables regularly, daily if possible and if you spot anything unusual, try to find out what it is and deal with it immediately – it’s very unlikely it will go away on its own.
One of my favourite books to help identify pests and diseases is the RHS Pest & Disease book and I’d recommend it for all gardeners shelves. After vigilance there are several things we can do to prevent a build up of pests, from good soil management, hygiene, crop rotation, companion planting as well as learning pest life-cycles (the weevil below is a case in point), using fresh compost and encouraging beneficial wildlife – all topics covered in my workshops. To help you begin the pest ID, here are a dozen I’ve come across, though there are many more.
Cabbage white butterflies and moths start appearing around May and lay their eggs on the undersides of Brassica leaves (kale, cabbage, broccoli). The eggs hatch and the caterpillars feast on the leaves of seedlings you may have lovingly grown, leaving gaping holes and if left unchecked, no leaves whatsoever.
There are a few ways of dealing with caterpillars organically. First of all cover the bed your Brassica are growing in with netting made with holes small enough the butterfly can’t squeeze through to lay her eggs. Make sure the net is fixed to a frame and not sitting directly on top of the plants or the butterfly will lay her eggs through it. If you do spot signs of caterpillars, pick them off the plants and destroy them or move them to a sacrificial plant such as nasturtiums where they can chomp away without damaging your precious leaves.
4. Slugs & Snails
I could spend every lesson in every workshop discussing slugs and snails as they’re the bane of gardeners lives! Instead I wrote a blog post that has 15 ways of dealing with them organically and a few more comments have been added to the list. Take a look if slugs & snails are your nemesis.
Beet miner’s are maggots that have hatched from fly eggs laid between the layers of leaves. There’s no cure, organic or otherwise, other than vigilance. Once you spot them, remove the infected leaves and the plants will recover. This post explains them in more detail.
Lots of people were tweeting about gooseberry sawfly larvae damage last year – a caterpillar than can literary strip bushes bare in just a couple of days. They’re also partial to currant bushes which I learnt when they took a liking to our red currant bush. Here’s a post on how to deal with them. I heard a tip recently suggesting laying rhubarb leaves at the base of bushes to deter this fly – something I’ll be trying soon.
There are many more pests and just when we think we’ve seen them all, along comes a new one. Lots of people have mentioned the weevils this year and ants seem to be causing a problem too. Ants won’t damage your garden but they do harvest aphids, a sprinkling of cinnamon or semolina powder seems to sort them out however. I have a general rule of thumb in our garden – as long as the bugs aren’t trying to eat our vegetables, they can stay.
Have you come across any pests that have had you hopping mad at the destruction they’ve caused?
As a working mum with three children, an old farmhouse that’s in a constant state of renovation, a Scout group leader and a gardener, I face a constant battle with time management. Life can be a rollercoaster and trying to keep a balance a struggle at times – whether it’s washing, cleaning, cooking, typing, sewing, homework or helping whichever family or group member is shouting out the loudest.
Needless to say our house isn’t spick and span, the kids watch more TV than I’m comfortable with, the kitchen door remains unpainted after four years of adding filler to it, I regularly serve up omelets and oven chips, my filing hasn’t been sorted and put away for months and the weeds are growing in my veg beds.
So it’s with a massive sense of delight and relief when I finally tick off one of the jobs that’s been taking up head space…. and this weekend it was the polytunnel.
24th May 2009
Our tunnel had remained in the shed, still packaged in its cardboard box, for over a year before we finally erected it with the help of a few friends, on a still, warm day in May in 2009.
My in-laws had bought it as an anniversary present from Highbank Organic Farm in Cuffesgrange, Co Kilkenny and so I was pleased as punch that I’d started off several seedlings in a friend’s tunnel during the springtime so that I could immediately plant up the beds once the cover was on.
That first season we grew lovely crops of tomatoes, coriander, radishes, cucumbers, carrots, chilli’s, sweet peppers, flat leaf parsley, melons, aubergines and basil.
19th July 2009
We made parsley wine and repaired a hole in the roof of the plastic after our youngest daughter had decided to climb barefoot to the top. We also got our share of pests and diseases – the dreaded tomato blight and red spider mite.
On a wet, cold day in November I drove over to Scariff in Co Clare and attended an informative full day workshop at Irish Seed Savers about using a polytunnel throughout the year.
I came back inspired and enthusiastically cleared the tunnel of anything dead or decaying and replanted it (yes in November) with carrots (Amsterdam Forcing), Overwintering Lettuce, Broad Beans (Bunyards Express) and Peas (Onward I think, seed packets got a bit muddled!). I left the parsley, chives, radish and carrots already growing to do their own thing.
Peas growing in May 2010
Everything remained dormant for the worst of the cold winter but then as the light levels increased and the air became warmer, they started to grow and we were eating fresh peas in May.
After we harvested everything (it all grew) we planted shallots, onions, garlic, basil, more carrots, baby tomatoes, cooking tomatoes, lots of cucumbers, courgettes, french beans and sweetcorn.
The onions and garlic didn’t do as well inside (their bulbs weren’t very big) and we only picked about four chilli’s (they were in a draught), but when clearing the tunnel yesterday I harvested 10 more sweet peppers.
Crop rotation can be tricky in a polytunnel or glasshouse. Many of the fruit and vegetables we tend to plant in them, plants that require warmer temperatures to fully mature, are of the same family, for instance tomatoes and aubergines (Solanaceae) , cucumbers and squashes (Cucurbitaceae).
Three Sisters Planting in August
Most folk I’ve spoken to just seem to move the plants around the best they can each year. Some remove the soil and add new soil the following season (a bit too labour intensive in my mind). Some grow tomatoes in containers as they’re more prone to disease (eelworm). Some take their chances and grow them in the same space each year.
Whatever you chose to do it’s important to keep adding as much organic matter as possible to the soil. It will help with drainage and subsequently moisture levels amongst other things. I appreciate it makes financial sense to keep a tunnel planted up year in, year out…. the plastic has to be replaced every five to ten years, so get the most from your money and sow as much as you can. Any of the vegetables that don’t require Mediterranean temperatures and light levels can be grown in a tunnel over the winter months, and at this time of year anything that says ‘early’ on the packet should grow for you.
There are massive temperature fluctuations in polytunnels that you have to be aware of…. at lunchtime today I opened the door and the temperature had reached 23ºC in the bright sunshine, despite falling to just 1oºC overnight.
(If you have a tunnel it’s worth investing in a good thermometer that records highs and lows.) It will guide you as to whether you should put some horticultural fleece or newspaper onto crops to give them some added protection, or whether to water more in the summer months.
However, this winter I’ve chosen to give the soil a good rest. For the past 18 months the tunnel’s been fully productive. I’m aware there are lots of vegetables we could be growing and sowing (see the fabulous Joy Larkcom book for all her oriental veg ideas for starters), but for the next three months we wont be sowing anything inside.
Outside we still have leeks, celery, parsnips, swedes and curly kale. We have potatoes, beans, onions and garlic in storage and bags of strawberries in the freezer.
At this date in time there isn’t a food crisis in Ireland (just an enormous financial one!) – I don’t need to keep the tunnel endlessly productive.
Preparing the polytunnel beds for winter
So, we’ve cleared the beds, watered the dry earth and covered the soil with lovely, well-rotted cow manure that’s full of big, fat worms. Now we’ll watch while nature does her job, replenishing and nourishing the soil.
In the spring time, when I’ve caught up with a few more jobs, I’ll dig out the seed packets and trays and start growing again.
I’ll also be keeping a look out in the library for Charles Dowding’s new book How to Grow Winter Vegetables, that’s due out in May, and see if I can overwinter anything next year.
I wonder what other people will be doing with their tunnels and greenhouses this year?
Lots of people have been asking how to deal with pests and diseases organically recently so I’ve listed below a few ‘recipes’ to deal with most of the common ones.
However, even organic pesticides and herbicides should be used as a last resort, and are generally never recommended for use in polytunnels and greenhouses.
In the long term encouraging a garden full of biodiversity is the aim. Planting hedges and flowers that will provide hiding places and food for natural predators as well as providing bird boxes and areas with water will all help to create a more balanced environment.
Traps and barriers work well if you put them up early – for instance adding netting will prevent butterflies landing on the brassicas before they become a problem. Turn a terracotta plant pot upside down, stuff it with straw and balance it on a bamboo stick – this will attract earwigs that can be collected and disposed of easily.
Crop rotation and companion planting should be used too eg moving potatoes to a new area each year will help prevent the build up of potato eel worm and planting alliums and carrots/parsnips together will benefit both species. Blasting aphids off with a hose or squashing them between your fingers works whilst colonies are small and keeping greenhouses hosed down will help to keep red spider mite at bay. Learning to recognise pests and their cycles is important too.
However, until you’ve built up the ‘good’ insect population in your garden, you may have to resort to more instant control, so here goes: (its a good idea to test a small amount on a plant 2 or 3 days before use to check that it doesn’t damage the plant). Pesticides NOTE: Most insecticides kill beneficial insects as well as their predators so use with caution. It’s often advised to spray in the evening when the beneficial insects will not be as active (for instance if you spray soap to kill greenfly, you may kill the hoverfly larvae that would eventually eat the greenfly). As with any chemical, organic or otherwise, wear gloves and avoid breathing in the spray.
Insecticidal Soaps – Control aphids, thrips, spider mite Buy from organic suppliers or make your own:
2 tbsp (30ml) phosphate free washing up liquid (label may say safe in septic tanks) 2.2 lts water Avoid spraying in bright sun as it can scorch foliage. Test a few leaves a couple of days before use as it may damage the plant. Will have to repeat every 24 – 48 hrs.
Rhubarb Leaves –All leaf eating insects
Rhubarb leaves are poisonous as they contain large quantities of oxalic acid. Wash vegetables thoroughly that have been sprayed before eating them.
1kg rhubarb leaves (can use tomato, elder or nettle leaves instead)
Mix together, leave for a week, strain and use as a liquid spray.
450g rhubarb leaves 1.1lt water
15ml soap flakes
Boil for 30 mins, topping up to allow for evaporation. Allow to cool and add soap flakes as a wetting agent. Strain and use as an undiluted spray.
Elder Shoots –Controls aphids and caterpillars
450g young Elder shoots 3lt water
Mix in large pan and boil for 30 mins. Strain and cool. Can be bottled while hot and will keep for 3 months.
Cinnamon Power – Deters ants
Sprinkle at the entrance to their nest and they will move away.
Garlic Spray – Kills many insect pests and friends
Note: Do not use metallic containers with garlic sprays as they may react with the mixture. 1. Non oily version 1-2 garlic bulbs Boiling water 1ltr soap spray Chop garlic bulbs and cover with boiling water in a lidded jar. Leave to soak overnight. Strain and add to soap spray. Unused spray will decay but it can be frozen to preserve it.
2. Oily Version
100g chopped garlic
30ml liquid paraffin or baby oil
5ml liquid soap (phosphate free) Soak garlic for at least 24 hours in paraffin or oil in a sealed jar. Add water and liquid soap and stir well to emulsify the oil. This should keep well. Use 30ml of preparation in 500ml to spray plants. 3. Powdered dry garlic bulbs
Sprinkle the powder over affected plants or mix with water to make a spray. Wormwood Tea – Controls aphids, caterpillars, flea beetles & moths
225 g wormwood (Artemisiaabsinthium) 2.25 lts water 1 tsp soft soap
Simmer for 30 minutes, strain and add soft soap and add to spray bottle. Alternatively place dried sprigs beside carrots & onions to mask their scent.
Sulphur –Spider mites, thrips
Fungal infections are usually visible to the naked eye and include mildews, leaf spots and rusts. They are spread by spores. Carefully removing infected leaves immediately they are infected will help to control the infection.
Sodium Bicarbonate – Powdery Mildew
5g baking soda
Mix together for a spray
Blackspot & mildew on roses
3 tsp baking soda 1 heaped tsp soluble fertiliser Few drops phosphorous free washing up liquid 4.5 lts water Mix first three ingredients together thoroughly with 200ml water. Add to the remaining water in a watering can. This can be watered over the foliage every two weeks, starting in early spring and continuing throughout the growing season. Or
100g washing soda 4 lts water 50g soft soap
Dissolve washing soda in water then add soft soap to a spray bottle
Or Powdery mildew, blackspot
20g baking soda 15ml citrus oil 2.2 lts water
Mix and spray foliage lightly, including the undersides. Do not pour or spray this mix directly into the soil.
300ml milk 700ml water
The enzymes of fresh milk sprayed on plants will attack mildew. A stronger solution will result in a foul smell as the milk goes rancid.
Elder Spray – Mildew and black spot
Same as pesticides:
450g young Elder shoots 3lt water Mix in large pan and boil for 30 mins. Strain and cool. Can be bottled while hot and will keep for 3 months. Dock Spray – Mildew
15g mature docks 1 lt water
Puree docks and mix with water. Leave to soak for an hour and spray.
15g crushed onions 1lt water Horsetail –Mildew on crops and some rusts, eg., celery
Preventative against potato blight. 28g horsetail (can use all parts of the plant, including rhizomes) 1 lt water Mix together and allow to stand for 24 hours. Strain and use undiluted as a spray.
DISCLAIMER: The control methods are suggested here as a matter of general information. Under Irish and EU law it is illegal to use any preparation as a pesticide/fugicide/herbicide that is not approved for such use. The author and the website accepts no responsibility for how a user may mix, use, store, or any effects the mixture or its elements may have on people, plants or the environment. The information here is for reference only and does not imply a recommendation for use. If you disregard this warning and make any of the preparations, you do so entirely at your own risk.
Spring Cleaning in the Vegetable Garden – There’s a Good Reason Why We Should Bother
Is there a job in the garden you try to avoid at all costs? One that has you procrastinating or ignoring altogether in the hope it will go away?
When I’m outside there’s not much I don’t enjoy, though I do like help and company when it comes to digging and sorting out the compost, but that’s as much to do with having a weak back and a fear of anything small with a long tail and sharp teeth than anything else.
My personal pet hate however, is cleaning the trays, pots and modules. Thoughts of standing at the kitchen sink, surrounded by sluggy, cobwebby then wet, drippy plastic has never filled me with joy and I’ll confess to avoiding the job altogether for a couple of years, just knocking the bits of old soil and compost out of the modules as I needed them. That was until now.
3 Essentials to Help You Get Started in the Vegetable Garden
Have you been planning to grow your own vegetables but haven’t started yet? Perhaps you’ve begun growing your own but aren’t sure if you’re doing the right thing? With all the good intentions in the world, sometimes it’s difficult to take the first steps or spend the time to learn more. Perhaps you’ve just been too busy to start a new project, or you simply don’t know where to begin. If that sounds familiar, here are the three most useful things I learnt when we began working in the vegetable garden that may help you to grow your own successfully.
1. Start Small
Our original vegetable garden eventually became too high maintenance
Even if you’d like to grow lots of veggies, don’t attempt to be fully self-sufficient in the first year. Plan big but start small, only clearing enough space or building enough beds to get you started.
If you clear too much land at once you may find it daunting to keep up as the weeds begin to grow. One of the busiest times of the year isn’t springtime as you might expect with all the sowing and planting, but later during the summer and autumn as you start to harvest and then have to find time to pick, preserve, pickle or freeze your produce. Starting small will allow you to see how much time you have to grow your own food and whether it’s something you’d like to do more.
We began with two beds, increasing ever year until we had 17, but that eventually got too much for us and we’ve had to resort to a smaller growing space again with raised beds for easy maintenance. Don’t be afraid to admit defeat if you’ve overstretched yourself. Learn from it.
2. It’s all about the soil
What we add to the soil now will repay us in produce later. As you can see in the short video clip above, fertile soil is vital to our existence. Did you know it takes 2,000 years to create just 10 cm of topsoil? We ignore it at our peril. Adding well-rotted organic matter to the soil in the form of garden compost or old farmyard manure will help to feed it with vital nutrients as well as help with soil texture and drainage.
Autumn/Fall is a good time to prepare for the following year as it will allow the microbes, organisms and worms to do their job over winter, incorporating all the goodness you’ve added, back into the soil.
Don’t worry too much if you miss the opportunity to get some winter preparation done, it’s not too late to do it in the springtime. Just leave three or four weeks between preparing the soil and sowing time, which will allow weed seedlings to grow and you to remove them, a technique that’s known as a ‘stale seed bed’. Remember, don’t work the soil when it’s too wet or frozen or you can do more damage than good.
A general guide for adding organic matter is to add about one, big bucketful of well-rotted organic matter per square metre to the top of the soil. If you’re doing this in the autumn, cover with cardboard, weed membrane or black plastic and leave it be until the springtime. Once you’ve removed the cover, if you’re not following the ‘No Dig’ method of gardening, lightly fork any remaining organic matter in, before raking the surface of the soil flat.
One essential soil tip before we move onto the third point, and especially vital to remember if you’re visiting a garden or you could attract a fierce look of displeasure from the gardener: avoid walking on garden soil at all costs as over time it will damage the soil structure and compact. Soil and plants need air for healthy growth. If you have to walk on your soil, place a wooden board down first which will help to distribute your weight more evenly. You can find more soil tips here.
3. Vegetables live in families
Garlic – a member of the Allium family
It’s generally easier for gardeners if we don’t split up and scatter our vegetables all around the beds. Where possible, plant them in their families. You may have heard of Alliums (onions, garlic, leeks) and Brassica (cabbage, kale, broccoli) but there are several other families too. Here’s a PDF of the most popular that you can print off and keep handy. If you plant vegetables in their families, they will be easier to feed, care for and protect from pests and disease. Planting vegetables in families will also help you to plan and remember where they have grown before as you move them around from year to year in what’s known as crop rotation.
When I started growing food in the earth as opposed to container gardening, one of my first conundrums was how to treat the soil. I remember gazing around, thinking that if I’m taking plants out, surely I must have to put something back in. But I didn’t know how much or what. Everything I read pointed to adding fertilisers, (chicken pellets, blood, fish and bone etc.,) but they fed the plants: add this for extra nitrogen for your cabbages or that for potassium for your tomatoes. What about the soil? I knew that worms were great, but what should I be adding to keep them happy? Alongside that, magazines were talking about organic matter, manure, soil conditioners and compost as if I knew what they were talking about. I didn’t.
Hoping to learn more about soil was a primary reason that I enrolled as a mature student to study horticulture. As it transpired, soil science was the module I had to work the hardest to get to grips with given its ions, cations and anions. Chemistry was a subject I’d barely looked at 30 plus years ago, never mind one I’d be tested on in middle age. I almost quit on the first day.
If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what the common terms are in relation to organic matter (OM), you might find the following guide helpful. In no particular order and with links and tips to some interesting videos and slideshows I’ll be looking at:
Soil conditioners or improvers
Well rotted manure
Green manure and cover crops
Top soil, sub soil and soil horizons
and a brief foray into soil structure and texture.
I hope this helps to dispel some of the confusion. Adding well-rotted organic matter to soil is a more holistic and sustainable approach to gardening and one of the underlying principles of ‘organic’ growing methods.
One of the simplest definitions for OM is that it’s something that was once alive. Organic matter is derived from a living thing. Whether that’s us, farmyard manure, twigs or leaves, over time the materials will rot down to become organic matter. When gardeners talk about adding organic matter, they can mean anything from garden compost, animal manures and leaf mould, to the remains of plants that have been planted as cover crops (green manures), as well as some soil conditioners.
OM adds nutrients to the soil that will feed the plants, and organic materials that will feed the soil microorganisms. It’s great for soil structure. No matter what soil you have, clay, loam, peat or sand, organic matter helps to break it up, increase drainage or improve porosity, allows oxygen to move around and plant roots to find water and nutrients. Organic matter also prevents the erosion of top soil, protecting it from the elements.
Soil Conditioners or Improvers
Soil conditioners or improvers can be made from organic material that is added to the soil to improve plant growth and soil health such as organic matter above, or fertilisers. Examples include compost, manure, coir, green manures and peat. Soil conditioners can also include inorganic minerals such as clay, sand, lime or silt and some can adjust the soil pH.
Just like ourselves who need proteins, carbs and vitamins to keep our bodies functioning healthily, several nutrients are necessary for plants to grow and fight off pests and diseases. The major elements they need in various quantities depending upon the plant include Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), Potash(K), Sulphur (S), Calcium (Ca) and Magnesium (Mg) and the trace or minor elements essential for plant growth but in much smaller quantities include Baron (B), Manganese (Mn), Molybdenum (Mo), Copper (Cu), Zinc (Zn), Iron (Fe), Chlorine (Cl) and Nickel (Ni).
Compost is a synthetic manure that can be made from various amounts of decomposing organic matter, fertilisers and soil. Usually sold in bags, some composts contain top soil, most contain peat, despite the knowledge that the later is not a sustainable source of organic matter. Peat bogs take hundreds of years to create and are fantastic carbon sinks. Its extraction releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a major greenhouse gas.
If you’re planning to garden under strict organic guidelines, avoid using store bought compost unless it carries a symbol to say that it’s organically certified. Some manufacturers are misguiding shoppers by printing ‘organic compost’ on their bags. It may have been derived from an organic base, but unless certified, compost is not ‘organic’ as we think of it and you’re wasting money buying organic seeds to plant into it. Research your source carefully.
Composting your own waste materials is a great way of creating organic matter that will add nutrients to your soil and help with soil structure. If you’re planning to start composting this year, or you’d like some tips on how to do it better, head over to Stop Food Waste for more information. The image in the top photo is of our own home made garden compost made from uncooked kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings, animal bedding, twigs and garden waste. It took over a year to make but felt great to be making our own and the soil benefits immensely from its addition.
Is what it says on the tin. Manure primarily derived from herbivores: cattle, horse and poultry that’s been left to rot until it no longer smells or resembles it’s original form. Do not use manure from meat eaters (dogs etc) as it can contain harmful bacteria. It takes three months to a year or more for manure to rot down sufficiently for garden use depending upon the type and heat of the pile. If the manure is too fresh when you add it, it can harm the roots and microorganisms within the soil. Be careful where you source the manure from too. The chemical aminopyralid hit the headlines in recent years when it was found that residues could pass through animals in sufficient quantities to cause damage to many crops.
Leaf mould is made by collecting leaves in the autumn, placing them in a container separate from the normal garden compost (they take longer to rot down), and patiently waiting. Different leaves can provide more nutrition or less and some take longer than others to deteriorate (anything from one to three years), but leaves are a great soil conditioner and you can make your own potting compost with them as a base. The RHS have a handy guide to leaf mould here.
Phacelia in flower
Green Manure and Cover Crops
Cover crops or green manures are plants that have been grown specifically to protect the soil by covering it (nature tends not to leave soil bare) between crops. Usually before they flower, green manures are cut and dug in to the soil which helps with soil structure and provides food for bacteria, worms and microorganisms. They can also be cut and left on the top of the soil to act as a mulch. Cover crops are a great way of adding organic matter to soil if you don’t have ready access to compost or manures. A PDF containing some of the more popular green manures can be found here. Green manures include plants like Alfalfa, Phacelia, field beans and Hungarian grazing rye. Seeds can be brought online or from garden centres.
Humus is more than the organic matter that’s added to soil, humus includes decaying insects, animals, microbial bodies and fungus. It’s a dark organic material that builds up over time. Think of the soil beneath leaf litter in a forest to envisage humus. It’s rich, dark and earthy. It can occur naturally or is the result of a well managed compost pile.
Top Soil, Sub Soil or Soil Horizons
Soil is divided into layers known as horizons. These include: O – organic matter, A – topsoil, mostly minerals with organic matter incorporated, E – eluviated, missing in some soils, B – subsoil, where the minerals that have leached down from the higher horizons settle, C – parent material from which the soil developed, R – bedrock such as granite, limestone or sandstone that forms the parent material for some soils. If you stick a spade into the soil and dig down, you can see the different colours and textures of the horizons.
The importance of soil
It takes around 100 years to creat 2.5cm of topsoil and the majority of the world’s food is grown in this horizon. In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations published a technical summary of the World’s Soil Resources. They summarised that ” the overwhelming conclusion from the regional assessments is that the majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition.The most significant threats to soil function at the global scale are soil erosion, loss of SOC [soil organic carbon] and nutrient imbalance. The current outlook is for this situation to worsen unless concerted actions are taken by individuals, the private sector, governments and international organizations”. Using sustainable soil management techniques which includes adding organic matter to soil will help to reverse this trend.
This is a layer of organic or inorganic material that sits on the top of the soil. Made from straw, compost, wood chips, dried leaves or pine needles, mulch can also be an aggregate such as pebbles, slate or stones. Mulching adjusts the temperate of soil, insulating the ground against cold or heat, helps with moisture retention, and the spread of plant disease can be reduced by its application. More information about garden mulches can be found in this archive guest post from Jerry Day.
Soil structure refers to the architecture of the soil, or the arrangement of all the particles (clay, sand, silt etc) within it. In heavily compacted soil there will be little drainage or oxygen available to plants and soil biodiversity. A more detailed explanation of the A, B, C’s of soil structure can be found in this Teagasc guide.
Soil texture is the type of soil you have, sand, clay, peat etc. Knowing your soil texture can help you to determine what plants to grow. An example is carrots that prefer a looser, sandier soil if they’re to develop the long roots of say, an Autumn King variety. If you’re gardening in a clay soil, choose shorter or round varieties of carrot seed such as the Chantenay. Work with your soil where possible rather than fighting against it. I’ve shared a simple experiment to learn your soil texture in an archive post here.
How much Organic Matter Should I Add?
Now we’ve established what the definititons are, how much organic matter should you add? Unfortunatrely that’s a million dollar question as it depends on what gardening method you’re following and what soil you have. As a rule of thumb I use two parts top soil to one part organic matter when creating raised beds. No Dig guru Charles Dowding recommends a layer of around 15cm or 6″ of well rotted organic matter mulched on top of the soil to create a new No Dig bed. An early organic, Gardeners World presenter Geoff Hamilton used to recommend a bucket full per square yard. I aim to add around 10kg per square metre in our clay soil.
For a closer look below the soil surface, here’s a lovely short video ‘The Living Soil Beneath Our Feet’ from the California Academy of Sciences. We need to stop treating soil like dirt and look after it. Our lives may depend upon it.
If you really dig your soil or would like more information on regenerative agriculture, some great resources that include videos, podcast and peer reviewed papers can be found:
There are a vast array of aphids in the natural world. We usually think of greenfly on our roses or black bean aphids on our broad beans but there are many more varieties of these little pests, including Mealy Cabbage Aphids. They are all unwelcome visitors to our vegetable, community gardens and allotments but there’s an easy way to dissuade them. Creating great soil conditions that keep your plants healthy and attracting beneficial insects is a start.
Aphids have a tendency to head for the soft tips of our plants, reducing yields as they munch their way through flower and growing tips. They leave their skins, wax and honeydew in situ as they move from one plant to another, often killing young plants and attracting ants who like to farm the aphids for their sticky excretions.
Mealy Cabbage Aphids can transmit virus, including turnip mosaic virus and cauliflower mosaic virus as they pierce the leaves with their proboscis, sucking the sap and then depositing the virus into the next plant as they move around. They can smother leaves, flowers and stems, look unsightly and make the vegetables quite unappealing and unappetising.
Unfortunately, we missed the attack of the Mealy Cabbage Aphids on the kale plants photographed above. We were leaving the plants to set seed in Gleann na Bearu community garden, hoping to save the Irish Seed Saver seeds for the next growing season. By the time we spotted the little pests, we were only able to rescue a handful of seed pods, the rest of the plants were too late to save.
How to recognise a Mealy Cabbage Aphid Attack
The first symptom of an attack in vegetable Brassica that include greens such as kale, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, swede, broccoli and calabrese are small, bleached patches on the leaves. You will then notice that the patches become yellow and the leaves crumple. Small, wingless, bluish-grey aphids up to 2.6mm long cluster together, often on the undersides or tips of the leaves.
Non Chemical Control for Mealy Cabbage Aphids
Vigilance is the number one control.
If you spot aphids of any kind early enough, you can rub them off with your finger tips or blast them with the hose if the plants aren’t too delicate.
Remove and destroy infected leaves and stems, don’t compost them; the pests will simply move from your compost heap back to your plants.
Providing habitats for natural predators such as parasitic wasps, ladybirds, hoverflies, lacewings, spiders and predatory flies will help with organic pest control. Herbs such as Calendula, chives, feverfew, yarrow, dill, fennel, marigold, angelica and caraway will attract ladybirds, as will leaving patches of stinging nettles. Avoid sprays of any kind. Even ‘natural’ soap sprays are indiscriminate, killing the beneficial insects as well as the pests. There’s a lovely list of plants that attract beneficial insects on the Permaculture News website.
I hope you haven’t suffered a serious aphid attack in your garden but if you did, which ones have been the most problematic for you?
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