17 Simple Ways to Reduce Plastic in the Garden

Plastic pollution is everywhere with microplastics contaminating our environment and food chain. Is a plastic-free garden possible? It can be challenging but there are simple ways to reduce plastic in the garden. By thinking outside the box (especially if it’s plastic packaging), we can definitely minimise the potential for contaminated soil and food gardens by opting for alternatives.

17 Simple Ways to Reduce Plastic in the Garden - Plastic-free gardening

Plastic Free July is a global movement inspiring people be part of the solution to plastic pollution. I’ve taken this challenge on myself and found there are plenty of creative ways to reduce plastic in the garden. I hope they inspire you too!

17 Plastic-Free Garden Supplies and Solutions

These are simple ways to minimise plastic or avoid it altogether.

1. Avoid weed mat

It kills soil life by limiting access to water, air and light. Consider a natural fibre option like breathable hessian or old cotton sheets. Both are compostable solutions to suffocate weeds and prevent access to sunlight so they die. In some situations, cardboard, cotton sheets or sheet mulching may work well. These options are more sustainable and encourage a healthy soil community.

2. Raise your own seeds

Instead of buying seedlings in plastic punnets, sow seeds and grow your own. Even better, make seed raising mix instead of buying it using my five easy recipes.

"The Plastic-Free Gardener" by Louise Boland "Plastic-Free - How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too" by Beth Terry "Sustainable Garden - Projects, insights and advice for the eco-conscious gardener" by Marian Boswall

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3. Use natural pots

Plastic-free alternatives include terracotta, ceramics (fired clay with non-toxic glazes), coconut fibre (coir), stone and wood. There are many benefits to upcycling items and repurposed planters like shoes, bathtubs, colanders and other containers. Most of these options are durable too.

4. DIY plastic-free seed raisers

Make your own small compostable seed germination pots. Natural materials like banana leaves or cardboard toilet rolls are ideal because they have a short temporary life. They can be planted in the hole or pot with the seedling, preventing transplant shock. These biodegradable materials also add valuable carbon to the soil.

Reduce plastic in the garden: Banana leaf 'pots' with seed raising mix and germinating seeds

Banana leaf ‘pots’ with homemade seed raising mix and germinating seeds from my workshop

5. Make your own fertilisers

By recycling the nutrients in your kitchen scraps and garden ‘waste’, you can make a variety of free plant fertilisers. This minimises the need to buy products in plastic bottles and packaging. A few DIY fertilisers include:

  • Compost. Close the loop on food waste by turning your household food scraps and grass clippings into healthy soil.
  • Liquid plant ‘teas’. Soaking the leaves of nutrient-rich plants like comfrey, stinging nettles, yarrow or dandelions in water extracts valuable bioavailable minerals readily taken up by plants. Why not grow plants to make your own liquid fertiliser?
  • Provide food for worms to compost in a worm farm. Composting worms produce nutrient-rich worm castings (vermicast) that you can use to build healthy soil, add to potting and seed raising mixes, and as a plant food.
  • Banana peel fertilisers. There are many ways to reuse banana peels to feed your plants.
  • Fireplace or wood ash. Add potash (potassium) to your compost to recycle this nutrient into your soil.
  • Leaf mould. Composted leaves make a humus-rich dark soil conditioner.
  • Crush eggshells. Powdered eggshells are high in calcium carbonate and ideal to add to your soil.

Reduce plastic in the garden: Finely crushed egg shells can be used as a calcium-rich powdered fertiliser to support healthy plant growth with no plastic packaging
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How to Deal with Garden Overwhelm

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your garden? Too much to do? Weeds out of control? Pests or diseases bringing devastation and disappointment? The growth has gotten away from you? An abundance of crops that need harvesting? Not sure where to start? Or perhaps you have a vision for what you want to create but it seems insurmountable. We all feel like giving up with garden overwhelm at times. But don’t despair!

How to Deal with Garden Overwhelm - Helpful Tips

Experiencing Garden Overwhelm

Sometimes a health issue takes hold or we may be away from home. It doesn’t take long for a garden to get out of control. Often we get behind over spring and summer. Hot, humid and wet days make it too uncomfortable or impractical to be outdoors. It’s incredibly draining to garden in heat and humidity. Often, we don’t feel like going outside. So our normal maintenance routine can quickly fall behind. Prolonged rain conditions can turn our tidy gardens into jungle nightmares.

Consequently, by the time we venture out to get some work done, weeds are rampant. Plants need pruning and grass is almost impossible to mow. In these weather conditions, every pest and disease known to mankind has the perfect conditions to thrive! Enter garden overwhelm.

Overgrown garden beds needing weeding pruning and maintenance

Overgrown garden beds needing weeding pruning and maintenance

Overgrown Gardens Bring Challenges

Last year, we spent months trying to keep our plants alive in drought. Daily watering was exhausting. Then drought turned to heatwaves, torrential rain and storms. Like many gardeners, we’ve had a LOT of rain recently. It’s been a blessing. The water tanks have filled again to overflowing. The water table rose and the soil moisture reservoir has been restored. As a result, I haven’t had to spend as much time or energy watering, especially in the heatwaves this summer. What a relief.

However, the heat and moisture has caused plant growth to accelerate literally overnight. Coupled with the new moon phase with high sap flow, the growth is phenomenal and very overwhelming. Waiting days to get outside when it’s been raining means that a well-tended accessible garden has suddenly become an untamed jungle.

Hedges suddenly need severe haircuts. Sweet potato vines and pumpkins have overtaken large areas they weren’t intended to grow. I cut the vines back for compost, bury them to build soil and give away armfuls of cuttings. I harsh prune them every other day. Despite these efforts, they just grow back again. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said “I’ll be back!” and my pumpkins seem to be sending me the same message. It’s a battle trying to tame a beast that regrows overnight. At least we’ll have a decent harvest that will store well for months.

I'll Be Back! Overgrown pumpkins can cause garden overwhelm

5 Steps to Deal with Garden Overwhelm

So how do we cope when the garden feels depressingly wild, unmanageable and daunting? These are a few strategies to make progress and regain control.

Step 1: Take the pressure off

Firstly, make your peace with an imperfect garden. Depending on your time, energy and weather conditions, the garden’s condition will ebb and flow. Be OK with that! If some plants die back, compost them. After all, they will still be in your garden – just in another form. Feeding other plants by building healthy soil.

Turn garden overwhelm into an asset by collecting garden green waste in portable bags for composting

I collect garden green waste in portable bags for composting while there is an abundance of lush  growth

Step 2: Make a list of the tasks that NEED to get done and prioritise them

What jobs can’t wait? What is less urgent? Focus on completing one job at a time rather than trying to multi-task. Next,  you can make a plan to start on the most important jobs first. I’ve put together a free PDF Download to help you tackle garden tasks in small bites.

Tips to Tackle Garden Tasks in Small Bites Free PDF Download

Step 3: Break the inertia and get momentum again

Decide on a start date and time. Make an appointment with yourself if necessary! Choose the most critically urgent job and take action. One step at a time, even in a five or ten minute block. Go at a pace you can manage while regaining control and kicking your goals. Once you see progress, you will feel a sense of control and accomplishment.

For example, I transplanted a couple of passionfruit into a raised garden bed a fortnight ago. They didn’t like the heatwave. Neither did I. I managed to water them thoroughly several times to help prevent transplant shock so they could settle in. Now they’ve taken off and have climbed the first four wires in the trellis and are looking for where to go next. I didn’t think they’d have such prolific growth so fast. So, adding more wire strands and tensioning them are high priority this week along with tying the vines up. I’m shuffling the to do list.

How to Deal with Garden Overwhelm: 5 MINUTE GARDENING CHECK LIST Free PDF Download

Download my 5 Minute Gardening Check List for easy daily tasks. It’s another free PDF tool to help you deal with garden overwhelm. Enjoy!

Step 4: Get organised to maximise efficiency

If you have limited time and energy or breaks in the weather, you need to be ready for the job at hand. Spend a few minutes sorting your seeds. Have tools in one spot. A portable tub, garden apron or tool belt make it easy. I wear my harvesting apron with my gloves, secateurs, plant ties, crop protection bags, scissors, string, plant labels etc in the pockets. I pop it on and am ready for a variety of tasks.

Be organised with garden tools ready to use

Be organised with garden tools ready to use

Step 5: Celebrate every achievement

A big handful of weeds. Seeds sown. A plant potted. Turn frustration into a feeling of fulfillment as you successfully complete a task. Progress trumps perfection. Done is better than perfect!

Helpful Tips for Coping When Garden Tasks are a Burden

  • Tip 1. Change your Mindset on Weeds. An abundance of weeds isn’t all bad! Weeds do the pioneering work of drawing up minerals deep within the subsoil to remediate nutrient deficiencies. Yes, they have a beneficial role. They accumulate nutrients in their biomass and many weeds are edible. By utilising their ‘work’ you can add the leaves, stems and roots to water to make a liquid fertiliser. Strain and water back in where you removed them from the soil. This returns nutrients to the surface soil. The weeds won’t need to reappear as balance has been returned. There’s a silver lining in everything!

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Should You Use Manure in Your Garden?

Do you use manure in your garden? Perhaps you’re not sure if it’s safe? This common garden input has many advantages but also risks to consider. It’s worth doing a little ‘digging’ into the manure you might use! Not just the end product. But ALL the inputs into the animal during its life. An animal’s manure reflects what they eat, their medical care and overall health.

If you’re aiming to grow an organic food garden, it’s important to weigh up which manure to use. Plus consider the benefits vs potential contaminants and how to apply manure safely. Ultimately, the choices we make about our inputs may affect the food we grow and eat.

Should You Use Manure in Your Garden? What are the pros/cons and how to use manure safely

What are the Most Commonly Used Manures?

The waste product from cows, chickens, horses, sheep and alpacas are the most popular poops for gardeners! These vary in nutrient value and age. Fresh (hot) manures include horse and chicken. However, aged (cold) manure types include cow and sheep.

  • Chicken and Horse Manure. These are both high in nitrogen (N). They are best used to improve soil where you want to encourage strong leaf growth. Chicken manure can contain reasonably high levels of phosphorus (P). Read the label if buying a bagged product. Some plants like some Australian natives are P sensitive and prefer low phosphorus soil amendments.
  • Cow Manure. Lower in nutrients but composted cow manure is gentle around plants. It’s unlikely to burn or stunt growth of tender roots or seedlings.
  • Sheep Manure. Contains potassium (K) which can be beneficial for flowering plants.

Manures may be fresh, partially decomposed or well aged. Depending on your source, they can also contain bedding material like hay or sawdust.

Managing Manure Book

What are the Benefits of Animal Manures?

There are many advantages to applying composted manures as a soil amendment. Manures:

  • Improve soil structure and texture with organic matter.
  • Add soil microorganisms and attract earthworms.
  • Improve water-holding capacity.
  • Increase soil carbon.
  • Add major nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to enhance soil fertility.
  • Are a renewable resource that’s easily available at low cost.
  • Recycle waste to feed the soil.
  • Are a natural soil amendment rather than a synthetic fertiliser.
Cattle grazing on unsprayed pastures in a regenerative agriculture organic system

Cattle grazing on chemical-free pastures in a regenerative agriculture organic system

There are lots of pros to using manures but it’s also worth considering the cons. Then we’ll look at how to safely use manure in your garden.

Contaminants and Risks with Manures

There are definitely some disadvantages and considerations to be aware of before you use manures.

Genetically Modified Organisms

Factory-farmed chicken or feedlot cattle eating genetically modified grains produce manure containing GMO (herbicide) residues. A clinical report on the use of GMO-containing food products in children states: “An unfortunate consequence of the increasingly heavy use of herbicides late in the growing season on herbicide-tolerant corn and soybeans is that measurable quantities of glyphosate and other herbicides, termed “residues,” remain present in GMO grains at harvest. The World Health Organization’s International Agency on Research for Cancer has determined that glyphosate, a herbicide widely used in producing GMO food crops, is a probable human carcinogen.” A cancer-causing agent in animal and human food!

Although the organic industry has strict guidelines on allowable inputs, there is still a loophole. At least in Australia, in NASAA certified organic manure or fertiliser products. Conventional chicken manure from birds who have been fed GMO grains, are still allowed in these products! In their guidelines, they use the “one step back assessment” for deciding what is acceptable. Consequently, manure is an ‘allowable input’ in certified organic garden products. Why? Because it comes from a non-GMO chicken (one step back) from what the chicken ate (GMO grains). So, the assessment process allows manufacturers to then work the system to produce ‘organically certified’ products. Even though, two steps back in the food chain, these chickens consumed GMO grains. Indeed, gardeners need full transparency about the entire food chain so we can make informed decisions.

Chickens in home gardens provide manure, feathers and bedding as compost inputs to improve soil

Chickens in home gardens provide manure, feathers and bedding as compost inputs to improve soil

Veterinary Medications

This is another big concern. Horses, sheep, chickens and cattle have regular vet medications (including growth promoters, steroids, hormones, worming treatments and antibiotics)1 that end up in their manure. Plants can take up these meds via their roots. Vet drugs have been found in edible plants consumed by humans.2 These bioactive chemicals are harmful to humans, animals, sensitive soil microorganisms and worms.

A concerning peer reviewed study5 notes “Earthworms appear to be sensitive to parasiticides, whereas plants appear to be sensitive to many of the antimicrobial groups and the macrocyclic lactones. Not surprisingly, the antimicrobial compounds are most toxic to soil microbes.” Antimicrobial substances harm and kill soil life by limiting the growth of beneficial bacteria and fungi. This has the flow on effect of reducing the ability of plants to take up nutrients. This study also confirms “antibacterials are toxic to soil microbes and could reduce a soil system’s capability to degrade other contaminants, such as pesticides.”

Additionally, soil amendments like ‘Blood and Bone’ or bone meal may also contain potential drug contaminants like antibiotics.

Choose safe soil inputs to protect beneficial microorganisms and earthworms

It’s wise to choose safe soil inputs to protect beneficial microorganisms and earthworms

Furthermore, in another study3, veterinary drugs were found in soil layers at depths of 20-40 cm and 40-60 cm to a greater extent than closer to the surface 0-20 cm depth. The results indicated that “veterinary drugs accumulate easily and persist in the deeper soil.”

Yet another concern is vet medications leaching and ending up in waterways via surface water runoff or soil erosion creating environmental risks.

Toxic Herbicides

Many animals feed on pastures or hay crops contaminated with persistent broadleaf herbicides. Roundup (Glyphosate) has been found to be incredibly toxic. It is sprayed on the crops animals eat or embedded in some GM Roundup Ready crop seeds. The residues can last in the soil for many years. They leach into soil with rain, dew and irrigation.

A University of Florida publication ‘Herbicide Residues in Manure, Compost or Hay‘ explains: “manure contamination can occur if the animal has been fed forage treated with aminopyralid or other closely related herbicides, such as clopyralid or picloram. Because aminopyralid is absorbed into plant leaves and sequestered for the leaves’ lifetime, the herbicide residue will be present. This is the case even if the grass is cut, dried, and baled as hay. When this forage is fed to livestock, the leaf tissues are broken down and the herbicide is released within the digestive tract of the animal, then excreted in manure.” Farmers regularly spray weeds in pasture crops that are then baled for hay or mulch. A major concern.

Also, manure contaminated with chemical residues, can result in herbicide injury to plants. Not to mention impacting animal health. Residual herbicide poisons can continue being active even after the animal’s manure has been composted! Herbicides negatively impact microorganisms in the soil  especially worms.

Plant leaves injured by toxic broadleaf herbicide Dicamba

Cupped plant leaves injured by toxic broadleaf herbicide Dicamba

Have you ever noticed twisted, deformed or distorted leaves appear suddenly on your plants? Wondered what the cause was? The damage could possibly have been unintentional herbicide residue contamination. Sudden plant death can also be a clue. Have you noticed strange symptoms on your edible plants that don’t appear to be pest or disease related? If so, perhaps err on the side of caution. Avoid eating the fruit, vegetable or edible portion of the plant.

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals in manure come from a variety of sources. These include grass fodder chemically sprayed with pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Animals may also drink contaminated water that bioaccumulates.

Weed Seeds

Manures from animals like horses and sheep eating grass may contain weed seeds. If you are buying bags from roadside farms, unwanted weeds may germinate in your garden!

Pathogens

Fresh manures often contain bacteria like E. coli that can contaminate food crops when in direct contact. Be sure to wash edibles before eating even if they’re homegrown!

Other Concerns

Fresh chicken manure is very strong. High in ammonia, it can burn young seedlings and roots if applied directly. Nevertheless, it’s a great soil conditioner when used correctly.

Avoid using pet or pig manure in your edible garden or compost. These manures commonly contain parasites that can infect people.

Organic “Safety” Standards

Commercial bagged certified organic products have to follow strict safety guidelines. They can be a convenient way to add small quantities to your soil. Safety recommendations include wearing gloves and a mask. Allowable inputs do vary considerably. According to the Australian Organic standards, organic livestock production prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals, pesticides, fertilisers, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the land or within production, including in animal feed. “Organic livestock must be fed 100% certified organic feed, with an exception for trace minerals and vitamins sometimes required to meet the animal’s nutritional requirements.”

However, according to the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA, many certified organic products allow manure inputs from livestock raised in confined industrial-scale feedlots and animals fed GM feed.

Another issue for organic product  manufacturers is there is not enough manure available from animals raised as ‘certified organic’ to provide sufficient inputs. So, factory farmed animal products including manures can end up in our gardens. Our regulatory authorities definitely have room for improvement. Especially if ‘certified organic’ products are going to truly be safe, free from genetically engineered ingredients or harmful contaminants.

Food for thought!

Best Ways to Apply Manures

When Using Manures Do Your Due Diligence

Firstly, apply the 90-120-day rule.* Aim to work fresh animal manure into the soil ahead of time when preparing for planting. Avoid applying directly to food crops.

  1. Apply manure at least 120 days before harvesting the edible part of the plant that has contact with the soil. e.g. squash family and leafy greens.
  2. Or 90 days prior to harvesting all other food crops with the exception of fruit trees and sweet corn where the crops don’t touch the soil. [* Source: USDA]

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List of 75+ Drought Tolerant Foods for Dry Climates

If you’re experiencing dry climate conditions, drought or have limited water resources, food gardening may be challenging. Don’t despair! Careful selection of drought tolerant food crops, water-wise gardening practices and improving your soil can all help.

List of 75+ Drought Tolerant Edibles for Dry Climates

Droughts involve both high temperatures and extended periods without rain. The longer gaps between rainfall cause soils to dry out to greater depths. Heat waves occur when there are multiple consecutive days at very high temperatures. Heat waves can cause injury to plant tissues and in extreme cases, plant death.  A deep, fertile mulched healthy soil with vegetation holds a vast amount of water. Unlike shallow bare soil with minimal organic matter. So, a key goal is to improve soil moisture-holding capacity and available nutrition. This will help our plants to grow through rainfall shortages and heat waves. Before we look at drought tolerant food crops, there are other factors to consider for dry gardens.

How Much Water Do Vegetables Need?

On average, most vegetables require around 2.5-3cm (1″) or so weekly. However, this varies considerably depending on the climate, soil characteristics, wind, temperature, stage of plant development and plant variety. Some crops are very reliant on consistent moisture. e.g. Lettuce, corn, cauliflower and coriander. Whereas others can tolerate prolonged periods without watering, like Mediterranean herbs.

Hand watering tomato plant - How much water do vegetables need?

During dry times, I aim to water as infrequently as the plants I’m growing will tolerate. However, I also consider if I want the plant to produce an abundant harvest or just maintain minimal growth. i.e. stay alive! I hold off watering during or after rain, and reduce the frequency of watering during cooler weather. If it’s hot or windy, plants transpire more moisture so have higher water needs.

How much water vegetables need also depends on the irrigation method. For example, drip irrigation, a soaker hose, ollas and wicking bed systems provide a gradual release of water at or below soil level. If you water by hand with a hose or watering can, you may need to water more frequently. If this is the case, you might want to consider some water-wise strategies especially if you have limited water resources.

How Often Do Plants Need Watering?

As a general guide, this is how I water my plants. My gardens are all mulched and plants are in suitable containers that aren’t porous.

Vegetables/Pot Plants: In hot, dry weather I water daily except where I use ollas, water spikes, self-watering pots, drippers and my homemade potting mix. These are all buffers that hold moisture longer. I water less frequently in cooler or cloudy calm weather. Usually every second or third day.

Seedlings and newly establishing plants: I usually water daily during hot dry weather for the first fortnight or so. Then 2-3 times a week after that or if they are under shade cloth. In cooler weather, I can usually get away with watering every second or third day for the initial two weeks. Developing healthy roots and shoots is vital at this stage of growth so I don’t skimp on their water needs.

Fruit trees: During establishment in the first couple of years, heat waves or prolonged hot dry weather, I aim for twice a week. Or weekly during a normal summer with reasonably regular rainfall.

Ornamentals with some drought tolerance: Typically get watered weekly in summer and as needed in winter.

Mature drought tolerant ornamentals: This varies with the plant from every 3-4 weeks to never! When I do water, I try to give the plants a deep drink with liquid seaweed rather than just water.

Plants for Dry Gardens

Drought Tolerant Plant Adaptations and Survival Strategies

A lot of drought hardy plants have inbuilt defense systems that allow them to adapt when there is low soil moisture. These are a few of the strategies of drought tolerant plants.

  • Deeper root systems to tap moisture away from the surface.
  • A symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi help the vast majority of plants to cope with water stress and increase drought resistance.
  • Swollen storage roots (tubers, rhizomes and lignotubers) to retain moisture and nutrients.
  • Silver foliage helps reflect sunlight, cool leaves and reduce evaporation.
  • Releasing a chemical cocktail of sorts to counter heat and water stress, allowing them to survive for short periods of time.
  • Some plants put the ‘pause button’ on their growth. Other species close up their leaves or grow smaller leaves, adapting to the conditions.
  • Fruiting crops often abort those fruits they can’t support.
  • Some plants show stress by dropping their leaves. I look for these clues so I know which crops might be needing support.
  • Fine, thin, waxy, succulent, leathery or hairy leaves.
  • Originating from a desert biome. Many plant species adapt to Mediterranean, arid or hot dry climates.
  • Bush tucker or native food plants.

I grow quite a few resilient crops that handle drought with far less water. They’re hardy and cope well, continuing to grow despite the climate hardships.

Aloe Vera holds moisture within its succulent leaves as a drought tolerant strategy

Aloe Vera holds moisture within its succulent leaves as a drought tolerant strategy

Drought Tolerant Plants Grown from Seed and Seedlings

Seed grown plants often adapt better to dry conditions once established than seedlings from nurseries. Commercially grown seedlings are usually cultivated  in very controlled conditions including temperature and consistent moisture. They may be more likely to suffer transplant shock or be less adaptable to harsh conditions when they leave their comfortable environment!

Self-sown seeds or ‘volunteer’ plants that pop up in our gardens are often the hardiest in my experience. Plants that germinate in harsh conditions are resilient and hardy. I want more of those species in my garden!

Mature fruit trees with an established root system in a larger pot are likely to be more drought hardy than very young immature trees. This may vary depending on the cultivar.

How to Select Crops for Dry Climates Carefully

Some crops are extremely inefficient water users. Corn and melons for instance, are water guzzlers! Perhaps buy those varieties you don’t have space for or water resources to support. Consider growing some of the most water-efficient foods instead.

When selecting seed varieties, look for “drought hardy” or “drought tolerant” in the description. Local seed banks and seed saving groups will also usually have a good source of seeds adapted to growing in your microclimate conditions. I save seeds from crops that have grown well in my soil during dry times as this is a characteristic I want to preserve in future plants. Learn seed saving and propagation skills so you can choose the best plants from your own garden at no cost.

List of 75+ Drought Tolerant Foods

Drought Hardy Vegetables, Herbs, Flowers, Fruit & Nuts

There are a wide variety of heat and drought hardy or tolerant food plants for diverse climates. Once established, many plants can endure short dry periods.  This list is not exhaustive but rather primarily from observation in my own subtropical climate. You  may have different soil types or microclimates and adaptability may vary. However, this is a good starting point if you’re trying to grow drought resistant, heat tolerant food gardens that can survive climate challenges.
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Guide to Understanding Microclimates in your Garden

Microclimates are one of the biggest factors affecting our success with growing healthy plants. Every garden is totally unique. We have to play ‘detective’ to discover clues in different zones to fully understand the opportunities and challenges. Let’s dig deeper into what kinds of microclimates might be in your garden and how to use them to your advantage.

Guide to Understanding Microclimates in your Garden

What is a Microclimate?

A microclimate is a suite of very localised conditions that differ from those in the surrounding areas. Often just slightly but sometimes considerably! Think of a microclimate as a miniature climate. It may be less than a metre or few feet in size or a substantially larger area in your garden! Microclimates may occur naturally, or you can intentionally change the conditions to suit your needs.

What Aspects Affect Microclimates in your Garden?

There are a variety of factors that influence microclimates in our gardens. These include:

  • Air and soil temperature. These conditions affect seed germination and plant growth.
  • Solar radiation and sunlight angles during the year affect daylength and shade.
  • Wind speed and direction can provide cooling breezes or hot dry and damaging gusts.
  • Humidity (high vs low).
  • Soil type, moisture-holding capacity, pH, drainage and structural properties.
  • Rainfall and moisture.
  • Vegetation and maturity of established species. A new house block with no plants will have a very different microclimate to when mature shrubs and trees are growing.
  • Directional aspect the garden area faces (N, S, E or W).
  • Slope, elevation and topography (affect temperatures, frosts and water movement). e.g. A low level property in a valley may have lower temperatures as cold air sinks. Gardens may get frost and have more moisture from run-off. Whereas a property on a hill may be cooler and have drier soil.
  • Air circulation (well-ventilated areas are cooler).
  • Thermal properties of building surfaces and nearby structures like walls or fences. For example, most glass reflects some heat but does absorb a small amount and diffuses a lot of direct solar radiation. Bricks and concrete absorb and store heat on warm days and release it overnight creating a warm microclimate in the immediate area. Some hard surfaces like a path, paving or driveway may radiate extra heat.
  • Surrounding buildings in cities and densely populated areas can also be impacted by the urban heat island effect.

Gardens Can Help Mitigate Urban Heat Islands

No Two Garden Microclimates are the Same

These various dynamics can create comfortable, favourable growing conditions or especially challenging ones! It’s worth playing detective to investigate the microclimates in your garden. Not all of those factors may influence the conditions in your garden. But at least some of them will.

I live in a subtropical climate in SE Queensland, Australia. However, even within our local region and suburb, the microclimates are very different. Based on regular feedback from my neighbours who are also keen gardeners, the prevailing winds, rainfall and sunlight exposure varies widely from one side of our street to the other! It can be wildly windy on one side of the street and peacefully calm on the other. We even experience different rainfall depending on which way the wind is blowing! We often compare our data and although we live in the same street just metres apart, our aspect, soils and rainfall vary considerably.

Depending on the aspect your garden faces, you may encounter a wide variety of microclimate conditions. e.g. harsh sunlight or full shade, strong prevailing winds and damaging storms or cooling breezes that bring relief on hot days.

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How to Prevent and Get Rid of Aphids Naturally

Aphids are sap-sucking pest insects that every gardener deals with at some point. Unfortunately, these are one of the most destructive pests. Having some ‘tools’ in your pest management toolkit for getting rid of aphids quickly is essential. So, let’s take a look at who they are, why they are such a problem plus how to prevent aphids and minimise the damage with practical science-backed strategies to get rid of aphids naturally. I’ve lost plenty of plants to aphids so I’m sharing what really works and why.

Aphids – Who are They?

Aphids (Hemiptera: Aphididae) are tiny insects that clone themselves and feed on plant juices. They literally suck the nutrient-rich sap and life out of your plants. There are over 5000 species in various colours from green to pink and black!

How to Prevent and Get Rid of Aphids Naturally

In small numbers, they’re not always a problem on mature plants. Especially if you have natural predators in your garden like hoverflies, parasitic wasps or ladybirds. If these hungry omnivores are residents in your garden, they will often seek out and enjoy aphid dinner, taking care of minor numbers.

Why are Aphids Such a Problem?

However, aphids generally are a BIG problem. They may be tiny but can do a LOT of damage in just a few days. Colonies with thousands of aphids can build up VERY quickly. How’s that possible? To be blunt, their highly successful reproductive rate happens because female aphids don’t waste time or energy on looking for a male partner, courtship, sex, or laying and incubating eggs! Sorry boys, not needed here as aphids are primarily asexual. In most species, males are rare or absent! Males don’t get much attention until cold weather when they’re occasionally required to fertilise eggs as a backup plan! Even then, mother aphids control their population by laying eggs that morph into males when necessary!

Aphid colonies are started by a stem mother who flies to a new food source location. She carries live babies and gives birth on arrival to start the new colony.

Aphids are female cloning experts that take a shortcut. Mother aphids give birth to multiple live female nymphs rather than eggs. Not only are all these daughters born hungry, but also ready within days to produce their own look-alike families! There’s no time buffer for you to miss their arrival before the exponential population explosion gets out of hand. A gardener’s nightmare, right? Take a look at this video to see how quickly this scenario unfolds.

How Do You Know if You Have an Aphid Problem?

If you notice tiny dots on your plants, curled leaves or discolouration, check carefully. Look on the undersides of leaves, stems, on flowers and new lush bud or tip growth. Aphids are really good at hiding. Especially the tiny nymphs. They are masters of camouflage, often blending in with the same colour of the plant they are on. A magnifying glass may be helpful to locate them.

How Do Aphids Feed, Move and Multiply So Fast?

Aphids have two main goals in life. Eat and reproduce! They feed on plant sap to convert nutrients into aphid biomass as fast as possible. This enables them to duplicate themselves sooner. They devote their short lives and energy to eating, motherhood and finding the next host plant. So essentially these wingless, sedentary insects are continually pregnant and giving birth. They don’t waste energy on exercise! They only move to locate more sap on the host plant or hide from natural enemies – and maybe you.

Mature adult aphid with wings

Mature adult aphid with wings – Image source

If one plant gets too crowded with aphid clones, they walk to the next. So the cycle starts again.

Winged aphids have a different role. Adult aphids fly to locate new host plants and establish new colonies. They take off with embryos inside and give birth when they find their next plant victim. Aphids just keep coming back with new versions of themselves. If you eliminate most of them, it only takes one single aphid to repeat the nightmare. Sounds like an alien horror movie, right? They’re definitely a pest to take seriously.

What Damage Do Aphids Cause?

When aphids feed, they disturb the balance of the plant’s growth hormones. Leaves wilt, wither, yellow, and dry out. Aphids prefer new shoots and buds to older leaves. Buds may not open at all or produce distorted flowers. Aphids also transmit plant viruses.

After feeding, they secrete honeydew (a sugary substance). This food source often attracts ants who act as bodyguards for a sweet reward. It’s a win-win relationship.

Ant receives sweet honeydew reward from an aphid for security services

Ant receives a sweet honeydew reward from an aphid for providing security services – Image Source

The ants keep potential predators like ladybirds away and get paid with free food. Sticky honeydew covers the leaf creating the perfect growing environment for black sooty mould to develop. This, in turn, slows and stops photosynthesis so the plant can’t produce energy to grow. It’s a domino effect. Forewarned is forearmed!

So, one small dot on your plant can have serious consequences! A single aphid can lead to other diseases and plant death. If ants are present as guards, you have to remove them too. That’s why you need to act fast to prevent and control aphids.

Host Plants and Aphid Species

If you grow any vegetables, fruit or citrus trees, roses, perennials or annuals, it’s likely you’re going to encounter at least one species of aphid sap suckers! Most aphid species look for hosts of a particular plant genus, but others are generalist feeders. They’re not fussy about which plants they eat whereas others target specific plant family groups. Onion aphids, for example, are specialist aphids that feed on host plants (HP) in the onion family. Have you ever noticed those black bugs on your leeks, onions, chives, spring onions and garlic? They’re common in spring.

Severe infestation of onion aphids Neotoxoptera formosana on shallots

Severe infestation of onion aphids Neotoxoptera formosana on shallots – Image source

Neotoxoptera formosana is one of these species. It’s a global pest insect that sucks nutrients from the onion (Allium) family including onions (Allium cepa); shallots (Allium ascalonicum); spring or green onions (Allium fistulosum); garlic (Allium sativum); garlic chives (Allium tuberosum); chives (Allium schoenoprasum); leeks (Allium porrum) and Chinese onions (Allium chinense).

Research studies (Pickett et al., 1992; Pickett & Glinwood, 2008) show onion aphids can detect their preferred host plants in the Allium family by scent using olfactory cues. Aphids use their sense of smell to identify their host species by the unique aromatic airborne plant volatile compounds (volatiles) released by the leaves. They move directly towards the odour source, kind of like using GPS. Or pet dogs that magically appear in the kitchen when they smell their favourite food!

Two sulphur-containing compounds that are characteristically found in Allium plants are diallyl disulphide and dipropyl trisulphide (Hori, 2007). Since both these compounds are relatively uncommon among other plant taxa (Webster, 2012), aphids can accurately target the onion family. Amazing huh? That’s why you’ll see specific aphid species on thousands of different plants. Read on to find out how to use this to your advantage.

Natural Pest & Disease Management
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How to Prevent and Get Rid of Aphids Naturally

So what can we do to prevent and minimise aphid damage? I use a few key strategies and principles because you need more than one tool in your toolkit. From my experiences with black onion aphids on members of the onion family over the years, I’ve adapted my gardening practices.

7 Preventative Pest Management Strategies for Aphid Control

How do you avoid an aphid infestation on your plants? These are some science-backed suggestions for you to consider.

1.       Be observant. It’s much easier to tackle a dozen aphids when they first arrive than a major infestation problem in plague numbers. Check your plants daily if possible. As the weather warms up in spring, you can expect aphids to become more active with all the new growth to feed on. Early detection and intervention will help. If you see a few, don’t wait a week to do something about it! Act quickly.

2.       Maintain plant health and watering. Weak nutrient-deficient plants are a magnet for pest insects. Keep up the soil moisture, nutrients and mulch. Strong, healthy plants have a better chance of resisting attack. Studies have found plants with adequate bioavailable phosphorus and potassium have higher resistance to aphid populations. Water in dry times so plants can access nutrients in the soil. Drought or heat-stressed plants release chemical cues that insects pick up on. If your plants are showing signs of wilting or leaf discolouration, check nutrient availability. Foliar spraying with seaweed can also help strengthen cell walls and encourage earthworm activity.

Foliar feed plants with liquid seaweed to strengthen and protect against pest attack

Foliar feed plants with liquid seaweed to strengthen and protect against pest attack

3.       Avoid excess nitrogen. An imbalance of too much nitrogen can create a flush of new sappy growth. The allium family is particularly vulnerable. Whenever I’ve applied nitrogen-rich organic fertiliser pellets and watered them in, within 24 hours, aphids appear. Like magic. Every time. Scientific studies confirm excess nitrogen fertilisers attract aphids and other sap-sucking pest insects like whiteflies. You can’t go wrong with slow-release compost and worm castings. Nature’s food with a balance of nutrients.

4.       Practice biodiversity. Aphids use scent cues. They are attracted to the volatile compounds your host plants release. So, avoid planting large numbers of the one plant family all in one spot. It may look pretty to have a row of onions or broccoli and make crop rotation in garden beds easier. However, this just spotlights your crops making it easy for aphids to find them. Instead, spread them around the garden. Interplant alliums as beneficial companions near other plants like beets, brassicas, carrots, cucumber, dill, lettuce, potatoes, roses, spinach, strawberries and tomatoes. The scents and diverse leaf shapes of other vegetables and herbs can also help make it more difficult for the aphids to find them. Win-win!

“Solid blocks of the same plant variety, though easy to seed and harvest, act as an ‘all you can eat’ sign to insect pests and diseases. Harmful bugs will stuff themselves on this unbroken field of abundant food as they make unimpeded hops from plant to plant and breed to plague proportions.” – Toby Hemenway, Author – Gaia’s Garden

5.       Plant flowering species that attract aphid predators. Aphid natural enemies include omnivorous hoverflies, ladybirds, lacewings and their respective larvae, plus predatory wasps. These beneficial insects also dine out on nectar from many flowers as a supplementary food source. They eat meat and veg! So, try growing herbs and flowers like oregano, dill, buckwheat, sweet alyssum, nasturtiums and bachelor buttons in your garden prior to spring when aphids generally are most problematic. You’ll have your friendly predatory ‘armoured guards’ ready to take care of these unwelcome aphid guests on arrival. Early intervention can keep the pest-to-predator ratio in balance. Insect-eating birds that feed on aphids include wrens, silvereyes, willy wagtails, finches, honeyeaters, pardalotes and some sparrows. Make your garden bird-friendly with habitat and water!


A Silvereye feeding on aphids on a Red Russian kale plant

6.       Interplant with strongly scented herbs like rosemary and pennyroyal. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in these non-host plants have been found to help mask the odour of alliums and repel aphids of various plant species. (Hori, 1996). Keep in mind though, you need to maintain your herb health as well. The production of these volatile compounds that help repel aphids is often dependent on moisture availability. Research studies (3) show rosemary, for example, decreased the release of VOCs after a four-day water deficit. Pruning can also help increase the release of VOCs. So you can encourage plants to provide a protective role at critical times in spring.

7.       Cover your crops. Obviously, if you use exclusion insect netting or crop protection bags, aphids will find it hard to access their host plants.

Exclusion Insect Netting for Crop Protection
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Companion Planting – How to Confuse and Lose Aphids

This is a complex area of pest insect and plant interactions. Research studies vary widely in their findings. However, some of the science-backed findings regarding companion planting are interesting and give us the confidence to use plants as part of our integrated pest management (IPM) toolkit. Evidence-based research shows many companion plants have been found to work in several beneficial ways. (more…)

How to Mulch Your Garden for Free

The Magic of Mulch

Mulch has so many benefits and is a vital input for every healthy garden. Mulch plays many roles besides framing your plants and making your garden attractive. Mulches inhibit weed growth, minimise erosion and retain precious moisture just to name a few. But how do you mulch your garden for free?

How to Mulch Your Garden for Free

It depends on the mulch you want. There are two types of mulch – organic or inorganic. Let’s take a quick look at them both with their pros and cons.

Organic Mulch

This mulch type is either a dead plant material you apply over the soil surface or a living species you grow to cover and protect it. Organic mulches are biodegradable and decompose over time – some fast; others over a period of years. This depends on the material and your climate. Here in the subtropics, organic mulches break down quite quickly with high moisture and humidity.

These types of organic mulches add value to your soil health and quality. They are a way of layering organic matter on top of the soil to build humus and encourage worms. Organic mulches like leaves, hay, shrub prunings and lawn clippings improve drainage and aeration. They also add nutrients and hold water; create habitat for soil microorganisms; improve fertility and soil structure. However, buying these types of mulches, especially in bulk can be costly. You also need to reapply them over time. This is one of the key reasons to learn how to mulch your garden for free!

Inorganic Mulch

Inorganic mulches are non-living or made from synthetic materials like weed mat. They typically don’t decompose, are low-maintenance and long-lasting but are usually more expensive to purchase. However, they don’t need replacing over time as organic mulches do. Decorative inorganic mulches include pebbles, rocks and gravel. It’s worth considering the environmental impact and one-off cost of these inputs. Pebbles and rocks can help prevent erosion and can be suited to windy gardens. They don’t however, feed the soil in any way.

There is a place for both types of mulches in many gardens. You can go to your landscape yard, nursery or hardware to buy bags of mulch in small quantities or get it delivered in bulk.

However, if you want to save money, why not consider all the potential materials you could use as mulch from your garden or neighbourhood? Here are a few sustainable ways to source your mulch at no cost. Dig in!

Organic free mulch materials - Top Left: Dead leaves | Top Right: Nut shells | Bottom Right: Corn Husks | Bottom Left: Pine cones and needles

These are a few of my favourite organic mulch materials – Top Left: Dead leaves | Top Right: Nut shells | Bottom Right: Corn Husks | Bottom Left: Pine cones and needles


How to Mulch Your Garden for Free

“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” ― Arthur Ashe

We all have access to different resources. You may have to think creatively about what materials you can source from your own garden, family and friends, neighbours or within your local community. Don’t give up! Even starting with one of these free mulch ideas can help save you money. Aim to be as sustainable as you can.

1. Reuse ‘Waste’ Plant Materials

Grasscycling Lawn Clippings.

There are several ways to use nitrogen-rich, fresh green lawn clippings or when they are carbon-rich, brown, dry and aged.

  1. Firstly, if you have a catcher on your lawnmower, dry the grass clippings out in the sun to prevent them from clumping. Sprinkle lightly around pots or garden beds as mulch.
  2. Avoid applying a thick layer of grass clippings all in one spot as they can form a mat. This can prevent moisture from getting through to the soil.
  3. Instead of using a catcher, allow the clippings to self-mulch on the lawn as you mow. This prevents weeds, adds moisture and feeds the soil and thatch with nutrients. Healthier weed-free lawn too.
  4. Lastly, add clippings to your compost when fresh as a nitrogen (green) ingredient. Or dry out and use as a carbon (brown) input in the composting process. Compost can also be used as a feeding mulch under a more durable layer like bark chip.
How to mulch your garden for free: Pile of pruned branches and leaves for mulch from our garden

A pile of pruned branches and leaves I used as mulch for our garden

Prunings from hedges and garden maintenance.

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How to Grow Turmeric Tips for a Healthy Harvest

How to Grow Turmeric Tips

Turmeric, Curcuma longa is an edible, medicinal, attractive self-pollinating perennial plant. Turmeric is worthy of a place in everyone’s garden, even in a pot. I believe it is one of the most healing herbs you can grow and use for preventative health benefits. It’s a member of the ginger family and is known for good reason as the Spice of Life!

How to Grow Turmeric Tips for a Healthy Harvest

Where to Grow Turmeric – Likes and Dislikes

Turmeric is a rhizome (root crop) and is planted from a piece of turmeric rather than seed. It prefers a well-drained, consistently moist compost-rich soil in a partial to full sun location. Turmeric thrives in warm, humid subtropical and tropical climates protected from strong winds and frost. In these conditions, turmeric will grow with just morning sunshine. However it  benefits from shade relief in intense heat, especially over hot summers.

If you are in a cool climate, plant it in a full sun position with maximum warmth. Avoid wet or waterlogged soil or the rhizomes can rot. Turmeric is sensitive to drought or drying out completely. Avoid frosty conditions or heat stress.

How to Grow Turmeric in a Container or Garden Bed

Turmeric is very well suited to growing in large pots (35L or 9 gal). Perfect for renters, those who don’t want to dig to harvest and small space gardeners.

Use a nutrient-rich, moisture-holding potting mix and a thick layer of mulch. I have several in pots that just keep producing year after year with very little effort required to maintain them. The quality of the potting mix makes a HUGE difference, so don’t skimp.

If planting into a garden bed, improve the soil with plenty of compost and mulch. Turmeric is a hungry feeder! So prepare the soil well with nutrients (rock minerals and trace elements). Make sure the soil is well-drained so your crop doesn’t rot.

Turmeric is grown from plant material. Start with a large healthy organic turmeric rhizome. Ideally, it will have roots or small knobbly bits that are starting to shoot. The larger the original rhizome, the more energy the plant will have to grow and produce more turmeric. Makes sense right? So don’t skimp on your planting material! Sow 5cm (2″) deep and 15-20cm (6-8″ apart).

How to grow turmeric tips: Turmeric rhizome ready for planting new buds or eyes

Propagate a new plant from an organically grown turmeric rhizome

Always put a plant marker in the garden or pot. It’s easy to forget your dormant turmeric plant is there sleeping! You can lose it while it’s snoozing, accidentally damage it or forget to care for it. So label it well!

When to Plant and How to Feed Turmeric

Turmeric is planted in early spring. If you sow at other times, don’t expect a flush of growth! It may stay dormant until warmer soil temperatures arrive. Turmeric will take around 8-10 months before the leaves die back and it is fully mature in winter. This is when it will have produced a full ‘hand’ of rhizomes that look like little ‘fingers’.

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10 Smart Tips to Garden on a Budget

With weather challenges, food security concerns and shortages plus escalating prices for fresh produce and living costs, it makes sense to grow your own groceries and garden on a budget. Even just a few basic homegrown vegetables and herbs can make a positive impact on your budget and more importantly, your health.

10 Smart Tips to Garden on a Budget - money saving ideas to grow food

These tips will help you:

  • Save money.
  • Live more sustainably.
  • Eat healthier.
  • Be more self-reliant.
  • Improve your food security.

So let’s dig in!

How to Garden on a Budget

1. Sow Seeds vs Seedlings

Seeds save you money, whereas seedlings save you time. You just need to be organised to plan ahead. That’s because seeds take time to germinate and grow big enough to transplant. However, you can grow way more plants from one packet of seeds than a punnet of seedlings!

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How to Control Garden Pest Insects Naturally

Do you panic when you see an insect you don’t recognise in your garden? Do you assume it’s a pest causing damage? If so, it may help to understand WHY insects attack plants. I also share a toolbox of natural and organic strategies to help prevent and control the damage.

How to Control Garden Pest Insects Naturally - why they attack plants + organic and natural strategies to prevent and control damage

Firstly, a reality check! Don’t expect a pest-free garden. Even the healthiest gardens still get pest insect visitors. It’s more important to focus on creating a healthy balanced ecosystem. Aim for a productive harvest rather than a zero-tolerance policy!

There will be more beneficial predatory insects and pest controllers in residence with the right elements in place, than those causing damage. You need both – in balance.

If your garden is new, has few flowering species or has poor quality soil, it may be a different story. If you have a horde of herbivores eating your plants, don’t give up! Give it a little time and nature will restore the natural equilibrium. Read on to learn how.

Let’s colour in the picture so you know why the pest insects are there and what to do about it.

How do Pest Insects Damage Plants?

Some insects suck the sap out of plants or chew leaves, while others bore into the roots, seeds or stems. You can tell if you have some unwanted visitors in your garden by the visual damage. You won’t see underground pest insects. However, you WILL be able to observe the evidence they’re in residence by the appearance of your plant aboveground.

Why do some Plants Attract Pest Insects?

Pest insects target plants that are minerally deficient. They are indicators of an imbalance. Weak malnourished plants are magnets for herbivorous insects. They are a CLUE you need to change something.

Pest insects often target nutrient-deficient plants

Pest insects often target nutrient-deficient plants

Professor Philip Callahan, the author of Tuning into Nature, observed that insect antennae enable them to sense a variety of environmental signals. He also found that plants emit infrared radiation (not visible to us). What’s really interesting is these signals vary depending on the nutrient levels inside the plant. He notes “A sick plant actually sends forth a beacon, carried in the infrared, attracting insects. It is then the insect’s role to dispose of this plant deemed unfit for life by nature.”

Survival of the Fittest

So, ‘pest’ insects are actually Nature’s ‘garbage collectors’. Their role is to remove ‘rubbish plants’ and help strong healthy plants survive! They leave plants with optimum nutrition levels alone. What can you learn from this? Grow nutrient-dense food and insect pests won’t bother your plants.

If you have a lot of pest insect problems in your garden, look at your soil health as a first step. Then, cultural practices like watering, feeding and position. It’s far easier to implement preventative strategies than deal with a big outbreak.

Pest insects select plants with a nutritional imbalance of one or more nutrients. They don’t have the pancreatic enzymes necessary to digest complex carbohydrates in healthy plants. Untouched plants are a clue you are meeting their needs. (more…)

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