Are you overlooking this major attribute in plant problems?

If you, like me, are struggling to make plants grow in some areas of your garden, it might be time to look at a rather obvious culprit: the soil. Up to 80% of problems with plants may be attributed to soil conditions, therefore it makes sense to get to know your soil’s texture, pH and ability to hold water.

Fortunately, all these factors can be determined by any gardener at no or very little cost. First to test should be soil texture. If you have a larger garden, take several samples from different parts of the garden, don’t simply assume that it will be the same throughout.

5 simple steps to test soil texture
Testing soil texture is incredibly easy and is done with readily available household items. It takes about two days (but with very little effort by you).
You will need the following for every sample of soil you would like to test:

• a large glass jar with a lid, such as a mason jar.
• A soil sample, dug out from the root zone, in other words not the very top layer of soil.
• a tablespoon of dishwashing detergent.
• Enough water to fill the jar ¾.
• a measuring tape

1. Remove all organic material and rocks from your sample(s) and spread out to dry for a day.

2. Put the soil sample, detergent and water in the jar, close tightly and shake for three minutes. Leave the jar on a level surface. This allows the different particles to settle in a straight line.

3. After 1 minute, measure the height of the sand layer that has formed.
After 2 hours, measure the silt layer.
After 1 day, measure the clay layer on top if it has settled. It might take more than a day to settle
Measure the total height of the soil in the bottle.

Different soil types

Measure different soil layers

4. Calculate the percentage of each layer:
Soil layer/total x 100:
Silt layer/total x 100:
Clay layer/total x 100:

5. Use this soil texture calculator to determine what kind of soil you have.

Perks of knowing your soil texture
Soil texture plays a major role in the way plants will grow in your garden, therefore identifying and understanding the soil type in your garden will give you a huge advantage. You will be able to water and fertilize more efficiently, and help new plants establish easier by adjusting planting time and improving soil texture where necessary. All in all, your garden management will be more efficient, and who could say no to that?

Image: Copyright The Ladybird Garden, Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The lazy gardener’s favourite season: using leaves as mulch.

Autumn leaves

With autumn firmly in place here in the Southern hemisphere, I’m starting to deal with a part of my garden that I both love and loathe: Autumn leaves.

I don’t know about you, but I love the colours of autumn almost as much as I love the freshness of spring.

The leaves are a problem though, I have a LOT of deciduous trees shedding their coats right now.

I do what any sensible gardener would do: ignore it.

5 Advantages of mulching.

Autumn leaves provide a lovely mulching in the coming winter months. Mulching has many advantages, but these are my favourites

–          Prevents moisture loss with up to 75%.

–          Protects plants from the cold

–          It helps curb weed growth

–          It adds nutrients to the soil.

–          It improves the texture of the soil as it breaks down.

Except where it creates a problem or looks too untidy, I just leave the leaves to decompose through the season. It has the added benefit of creating a habitat in the garden. I love seeing the birds digging through the leaf matter looking for grubs.

Autumn leaves are one of the best things in the garden, providing benefit without costing you a cent!

 Image by harold.lloyd on Flickr, adapted under CC  BY-NC-SA 2.0.

This tip about compost additives might suprise you

Daisy macro

Building a successful compost heap is about more than just piling up some dead leaves and kitchen scraps.

Even if you do create a perfect environment to create compost by making it the right size, feeding it the right material and making sure that it is at an optimum temperature, how do you start the composting?

It seems that composting do start more or less by ‘magic’: the materials used in the compost will contain sufficient micro-organisms to get the process started. If your compost pile consists of a good combination of carbon and nitrogen, it will not need any additional nutrients supplied by a compost additive.

The truth about compost additives

There has been no conclusive evidence to show that adding commercial compost additives will in any way improve the process.

Indeed, it seems that the best compost activator is finished compost or topsoil from your own yard.

If you do feel that your compost needs a helping hand (especially if it contains a lot of carbon-rich material such as dead leaves and other brown material), the nitrogen content of the activator will determine how much is needed.

It is always great to save money in the garden, and if material you already have in your garden will work just as well, that is even better!

Do you use anything specific to get your compost heap going? I’ve asked the same question on Twitter recently, and it got me a suggestion of using urine. Don’t think I’ll be following that advice anytime soon though!

Image: White flower by Doug 88888 on Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

Discovering mushrooms and memories in the garden

 

The past few weeks, we’ve had record rainfall all across the northern part of South Africa.

Apart from the lawn and weeds taking over, our garden was transformed into a fairytale landscape by mushrooms of all shapes and sizes popping up everywhere.

Hidden underneath the canopy of plants that have shot up due to all the rains, the delicate beauties awaited discovery. Some were more obvious, proudly displaying their colours on benches and stumps or pushing through the edge of the lawn.

Large parts of our garden have undisturbed piles of leaves, branches and other debris, since I don’t believe in ‘tidying up’ a garden too much. I believe that this provides a habitat for all the necessary critters that help create a real living garden.

The mushrooms love this. They help break down the leaf matter in a dazzling display of variety, from bright yellow sulphur caps to the most delicate mushrooms you can imagine. Like tiny hairs on a piece of wood, their miniature caps are only visible if you look very closely, displaying beautiful ridges and texture.

My parents came over and discovering these beauties with my mother opens up a whole different level of appreciation. She  loves mushrooms and tries to identify as many as she can. The variety in my garden delighted her, and I found myself trotting to her, as excited as a little kid, with every new discovery I made.

We studied the organization of gills , wondered at the fragile tutu-like rings around stems and sniffed at the larger ones like pedigree truffle-pigs.

We had a lovely time, the discovery of the different species lightening the dreary task of weeding.

The Ladybird Garden

A garden is about so much more than just the flowers and shrubs. Sometimes you have to look a bit harder to find the beauty, and sometimes the beauty lies in the experience you share with someone in your garden.

May you be building memories in your garden!

Are you killing your compost?

Are you killing your compost?

Composting is a great way of turning organic material from your yard into something useful,  but it turns out you need to do more than just pile it all on a heap and forget about it.

Your compost heap is a living, breathing part of the garden. It needs the right food, size, air movement and temperature to keep it  alive and well, converting all that organic material into precious nutrients for your garden.

If it seems that you’re adding compost to your garden with no effect, make sure that you’re not making one of these mistakes. It might be that you’re killing your compost.

Avoid these 5 mistakes and revive your compost heap

Organic material is broken down mainly by oxygen-dependent aerobic bacteria, along with some fungi and other larger organisms, producing compost .

Most of what can go wrong in your compost heap can be linked to these bacteria being unhappy, reducing in number and letting anaerobic bacteria take over. Compost produced by anaerobic bacteria doesn’t have as many nutrients, and will smell foul.

1. Not feeding your heap a balanced diet

The bacteria at work in your compost heap need carbon for energy and nitrogen to build protein.

Carbon rich material include dry, woody material such as leaves, straw, and wood chips. A heap consisting mostly of carbon rich material will decompose very slowly.

Add nitrogen-rich material to carbon-rich material to speed up decomposition. Nitrogen-rich material are usually green and wet, like fresh grass clippings and kitchen scraps. For a backyard heap, a carbon: nitrogen ratio of about 1:2 is good.

Too much green material will release ammonia gas, a good way to infuriate your closest neighbors with your smelly compost heap. An excess of nitrogen can also be toxic to the micro-organisms since it increases the pH of the heap.

Feed your compost heap a mixture of material to increase the variety of bacteria working to break it down. This will ensure that   you get the widest range of nutrients possible in your compost.

2. Suffocating your compost.

Foul-smelling composting happens because the oxygen-loving bacteria in your heap is denied their oxygen. The lack of air movement is usually caused by insufficient space in-between compost particles, or too much water.

So what do you do to keep your heap breathing?

Turn your  compost heap frequently as composting progresses to ensure that there is sufficient air movement through the heap.

Air movement within a heap can be improved by adding coarse materials such as leaves and straw, or the use of ventilator stacks.

3. Drowning your compost

Squeeze a handful of compost. Ideally, only a few drops of moisture should escape and it should feel like a wrung-out sponge.This is the perfect moisture content for compost break-down.

If the compost is too dry, it would crumble if you squeeze it, and should be watered and turned. If it is too wet it will drip and you would have to turn it, and perhaps even add some dry, carbon-rich material.

Build your compost heap on a slight slope on a moderate to well-draining surface to help excess water run off.  Avoid direct sunlight to prevent the compost drying out too quickly.

 4. Allowing your compost to cool down too much

The temperature of your compost heap is crucial to effective composting.

As decomposing progress, the temperature of the heap will rise and then start to cool again.

Stick your hand or a metal pipe into the middle of the heap. If the compost is very warm to the touch, the bacteria is working away as it should.

Make sure that your compost heap is not in a spot that is very exposed as it may cause it to cool down faster.

A cool heap is a sign of a lack of activity. Turn the heap and add some nitrogen-rich material to start heating things up again.

5. Getting the size of the heap and the material wrong

The size of a compost heap will determine the heat it generates and thereby the speed at which the material is broken down.

A good size for a compost heap is about a cubic meter, or slightly larger if you live in a windy area or near water. A smaller heap will simply break down the material a bit slower.

Give the micro-organisms a helping hand by supplying organic material already chopped or shredded. This will speed along the composting process as the bacteria are able to digest more, generate more heat and multiply faster.

Just beware of making the material too fine (or only using something like cut grass or pine needles). This will reduce air movement through the heap, suffocating the precious aerobic bacteria at work.

How to create a healthy compost heap

In the end, creating a healthy compost heap comes down to the following:

  • Feeding it the right combination of carbon – and nitrogen-rich materials
  • Turning it regularly to make sure that the compost is sufficiently aerated, not too wet and that the optimal temperature is maintained.
  • Making a good-sized heap of about a cubic meter if possible, and feeding it organic material that is neither too large nor too small.

Doing this will help you re-use all the organic material from your garden and kitchen to add life back to your garden.

Please like The Ladybird Garden on Facebook for more ideas and tips on how to make great compost.

What are you putting in your compost heap?

Image created from: Leaf Skeleton on Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Privacy in the Garden: 4 ways to keep out nosy neighbours

All gardeners need a bit of privacy in their garden. Privacy screens might be used to hide an unsightly but necessary corner such as a compost heap or shed, or from nosy neighbours and their dogs (as in our case). Garden screens can also be used to define different areas in the garden, or for increased security if used on the perimeter of the property. An added bonus is that such a screen can filter out noise, and it need not be an ugly, functional structure. There are so many beautiful options out there that your garden screen can become an integral part of your garden’s architecture. Continue reading

Hydrangea: The best Christmas shrub

Here in South Africa, gardens are overflowing with hydrangea, their luscious heads lolling and adding dashes of blue, pink and Christmas cheer. In Afrikaans we call them “krismisrose”- Christmas roses.  Just like Christmas, they are associated with abundance – pay them a little attention, and your hydrangea will reward you over and over. Continue reading