Problem Solving articles – here I answer questions and help provide solutions for common garden problems.

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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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 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…)

What is Damping Off and How to Prevent It

What is Damping Off?

Definition: ‘Damping off’ is a condition caused by pathogens that destroy seeds before germination or very young seedlings. The term refers to the outcome – weakened or dead seedlings or seeds. The seedling stem rots and the young plant collapses or seeds fail to germinate.

What is Damping Off and How to Prevent It - Symtoms, Causes & Treatment

Is it really that serious? Yes, unfortunately! Damping off can affect up to 80% of seedlings. So, if affected, you could lose a significant number of plants. Research has found that “even a very low population density of soil-borne pathogens can lead to severe epidemic development.” (1)

What Causes Damping Off?

So, who are the little rotters responsible for this sad end to your plant ‘toddlers’ or seed ‘babies’?

There are over a dozen culprits of soil-borne disease-producing organisms – different species of fungi and fungus-like organisms called ‘oomycetes’. They live in soil and transfer to a seed or seedling when conditions are favourable. Some pathogens are carried inside seeds or on the seed coat. However, only a few are commonly associated with damping off.

Firstly, let’s meet a few pathogens and their tongue-twisting names! They include Pythium species, oomycetes like Rhizoctonia solani, Phytophthora, Fusarium and Aphanomyces cochlioides.

More importantly, where do they hang out? Wet or overwatered soil, particularly in cool temperatures or cloudy conditions, provides favourable conditions for oomycetes called ‘water moulds.’ Why? Clearly, because they require water to multiply and spread. Phytophthora and Pythium species are both parasitic oomycetes.

Difference Between Pythium and Phytophthora - Pathogen Comparison

However, if you have warm, dry soil conditions, Rhizoctonia and Fusarium can thrive and are usually the most likely offenders. Rhizoctonia attacks seedlings causing them to collapse. A dry brown discoloured stem is often a clue.

This fungal pathogen thrives in soils with poor fertility (nutrient-deficient) and insufficient moisture. The brassica family of vegetables including broccoli, rocket, kale and cabbage seem most susceptible to this pathogen. Making your own seed raising mix just before sowing seeds may prevent this fungus from ‘priming’ itself to infect the emerging crop.

What are the Two Types of Damping Off?

Damping off affects both seeds and seedlings. So, what evidence should you look for?

  1. Pre-emergence: Seeds rot in the seed raising media before germinating or emerging above the soil level. Your seeds never appear to germinate. So, you may be left wondering what went wrong.
  2. Post-emergence: ‘Newborn’ seedlings that have recently germinated wilt, collapse quickly or die from soft rot in the stem. They usually fall over at the soil level. Woody seedlings may start to weaken and wither while still erect, but baby roots may decay soon after. The infected stem looks soft, brown and water-soaked. A bit of a sad story really, isn’t it? It’s devastating for new ‘plant parents’!

What are the Symptoms of Damping Off?

Damping off in Seedlings:

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18 Top Tips for Gardening in Dry Climate Conditions

Gardening in dry climate conditions can be really stressful but there are loads of simple strategies you can apply to make it easier. Many gardeners in Australia and around the world are struggling to keep gardens alive and thriving. Drought, winds, dust storms, extended heatwaves and fires have been impacting plants, people and our wildlife.

18 Top Tips for Gardening in Dry Climate Conditions | The Micro Gardener

Extreme temperatures and long periods without any significant rain in many places are some of the biggest problems. It’s no wonder many gardeners are giving up trying to grow an edible garden.

Yet a garden – no matter how small – gives us hope as well as healthy food. It feeds our mind, body and soul. A garden provides wonderful stress relief and is a welcome sanctuary to escape to. Even a single, well-cared-for plant can bring great joy and healing.

For many gardeners though, water – or lack of it – is our biggest issue. Struggling, water-stressed plants become magnets for pest insects as nature’s ‘clean up crew’ move in to feed. It’s natural to expect some casualties in hot and dry weather. Without sufficient water, crops can’t take up nutrients from the soil to grow, flower and fruit. Small container gardens also need more frequent watering.

So, what can we do to help our gardens survive and even thrive?

Gardening in Dry Climate Conditions and Hot Temperatures | The Micro Gardener

18 Top Tips for Gardening in Dry Climate Conditions

For years I’ve endured all sorts of harsh growing conditions in my gardens. I’ve spent time carefully observing, applying Permaculture design principles and journalling where my gardens have been exposed to harsh dry or hot weather. This data has been vital for decision-making. I’ve learned how to grow a kitchen garden that not only survives but thrives! This has enabled me to help my clients who suffer similar problems but in different locations to get the most out of their edible gardens.

I hope by sharing some of these strategies, you will be able to enjoy an abundant productive kitchen garden too.

1. Audit your Garden and Make Tough Choices

That’s right! If you can’t save ALL your plants, prioritise and focus on keeping the most valuable ones alive. What if conditions are really tough and you have limited water resources? Concentrate on your high-value fruit trees, perennials and essential herbs and food crops.

Turn thirsty, low-value plants into compost to feed your soil. Some plants may just have to survive without your help or be sacrificed to save others.

Collect seeds and take cuttings to pot up as a backup plan! You can always start again with these. Small plants use less water resources. Learn propagating skills to help your garden survive.

Save seeds from your garden to sow again in more favourable weather

Save seeds from your garden to sow again in more favourable weather

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Can You Sow Out of Date Seeds?

Do you have old seeds you haven’t got around to planting? If they are out of date, you may be wondering if you can still sow them. Most gardeners have good intentions when buying seeds, but then life happens! Rather than wasting money you’ve spent on expired seeds, why not test their viability to see if there’s any life left in them? You may be pleasantly surprised.

Can you sow out of date seeds? How to test seed viability and store seeds safely

Out of Date Seeds

Seeds, like other living things, have a shelf-life! Just because seeds are out of date, doesn’t mean they won’t germinate and grow normally. Don’t get rid of them yet! Checking your seeds is much more sustainable than throwing them out and assuming they are useless. I’ll show you an easy way to test them. So you won’t waste time and effort planting the packet if they’re not going to grow.

If the seed packet date has expired, it’s similar to the ‘Best Use By’ date on food packaging. It doesn’t mean the food isn’t edible, but the quality may have deteriorated. Likewise, some of the seeds may still grow if planted, but not necessarily every seed in the packet. The longer you wait to sow, the lower the chance of successful seed germination. (more…)

Why are my Lemons Staying Green not Yellow?

Lemons are one of the most popular citrus trees to grow. Given their incredible health benefits, you may want to consider growing your own. Do you currently buy conventionally grown lemons rather than organic? If so, be aware that after harvest, they are routinely dipped in fungicide to prevent fungal diseases occurring during storage and when displayed at retailers.

WHY ARE MY LEMONS STAYING GREEN NOT YELLOW?

Lemons are also waxed to improve appearance and retain the fungicide. Some are even ‘degreened’ to get them to market before they are naturally yellow. When you touch those lemons, the chemicals used may absorb into your skin. Not appetising thoughts are they?

Whilst citrus trees require higher maintenance than some fruits, if you want to harvest lots of delicious juicy ripe lemons, they’re worth the effort.

5 Reasons Why Lemons may not Ripen and Turn Yellow

If your lemons appear a reasonable size but are still green, rather than turning yellow, this could be due to a number of factors.

1. The Fruit may be Immature

You simply may need more patience! Your lemons may not yet be fully ripe. So just wait a bit longer. Depending on your climate and local conditions, lemons can take up to 9 months or longer to ripen!

Mature lemon trees with heavy crops of fruit require more water and nutrients to sustain growth

Mature lemon trees with heavy crops of fruit require more water and nutrients to sustain growth

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2019-05-01T20:25:10+10:00Categories: Fruit Trees, Problem Solving|Tags: , |12 Comments

Why are Ants in my Plants, Pots and Soil?

Do you ever see ants running up the stems or along branches and leaves? What about your pot plants? Do you notice them in your potting mix? Or in your lawn making little mounds that blunt your mower blades?

Why are Ants in my Plants, Pots and Soil?

Perhaps you’re wondering WHY they are there and WHAT they are doing? Are they causing damage or are they just annoying? If you want to know the answers and how to get rid of them naturally, read on.

Why are Ants in my Plants, Pots and Soil?

The answer is simple. Ants are extremely smart insects and ALWAYS have a good motive for inhabiting your plants, pots or soil. The two most likely reasons are for:

  1. Food
  2. Shelter

Seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it? We all need a roof over our heads and something to eat! Believe me, ants won’t expend energy doing anything unless there’s something in it for them.

If you see little black ants ON your plants, it’s likely because they have found a source of food. Ants are often a clue you have a bigger problem. Don’t shoot the messenger!  They are just the ‘couriers’ delivering you a message. They’ll take you straight to it. By being more observant, you’ll understand what they’re doing and why. Assuming they are harming your plant may be a BIG mistake because you only have part of the picture!

Most likely, if you look closely and follow their trail like a good detective, you’ll find it ends in sap-sucking insects like aphids, scale, mites, whiteflies or mealybugs. These pest insects are what you should be really looking for! Ants are your ‘tour guides’ and can detect the presence of these pests with their antennae. Smart hey?

So, instead of treating them as the enemy to be killed, learn to value their presence. Why? Because they have alerted you to the problem you really need to deal with! Micro gardening is about looking at details; learning to understand who, what, where and why things happen and ‘joining the dots.’

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