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December 2016
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Some tips for growing vegetables in your garden

There can be a hundred tips for growing vegetables in your garden, especially if you consider the wide variety of vegetables and fruits that people can grow in their garden, that they can grow in the ground or in containers, that they can grow in a variety of seasons (although it is universally recognized that only a few or almost no vegetables thrive in frost or hard winter conditions), it is hard to come up with a few tips that universally work across a wide range of veggies or fruits. So, consider these tips as more useful if you are new to gardening rather than if you are an experienced gardener. Here are some of these tips. If you like these tips or some issue, or have some tips of yours to contribute, please do so in the comments:
– Vegetables love sunlight; most thrive in conditions of good sunlight where the light is available for 5 or more hours. However, this is not true in the case of harsh sun, say where the temperature is over 40 degrees Celsius (in which case you would need to provide some sort of shade, either by moving the plant in shade or using a shade net over the plants). Equally, there are some plants that can do with lesser amount of sunlight, and in fact, there are plants that need much lesser light to grow; these would be classified as winter plants that work with much lesser amount of heat and light. And this brings us to another point about summer and winter.
– It would seem like an exception to the above point, in fact directly contradictory, but plants have their own seasons that they work well in. So, there are plants that need to be started in spring, some that need to be started in fall, some that need to be planted in summer. So, when you want to do some planting of a vegetable or fruit, do some reading up of the plant before you go ahead. If it’s a summer plant and you are trying to plant just after frost, there are good chances that it would not work well, not germinating or dying soon after.
– Gardening has a learning curve. You can do a large amount of reading and research before you start, but there are many things that you will learn as you proceed; for example, the right kind of soil (or potting mix), the type of pests that can attack your plants and how to fight them off (or to remove attacked parts of plants for the safety of your remaining plants), the growth rates of plants, the type of nutrients to add to your plants and the plant growth phase in which to add nutrients, the exact point at the growth rate where the vegetable or fruit needs to be harvested. What all of this means is that if you are planning to have a 50 container garden, don’t start with all of them. Start with 10 or 15, plants some plants, take your learning and see how it goes for you, and then grow your garden by adding more plants / pots.
– Patience is the name of the game while gardening. A plant will take a certain amount of time to grow and produce fruit or be harvested, and even if you do the best while taking care of conditions such as nutrients, the plant will not suddenly start growing much more faster (it might be in the best of health and produce more when it is time to produce). Even the fact of germination of seeds teaches you patience, with the germination period of some seeds being only 3-5 days but others being measured in terms of weeks rather than days. Have patience, and remember, this applies to the whole of your gardening.
– Budget for time to take care of plants. I have seen so many neighboring places where they initially planted with a lot of enthusiasm, but the plants soon died out. People do not budget that the garden or their plants are living things that need care like anything else. If you had a pet, you would take care of it on a regular basis. Similarly, the plants need to have regular attention from you – watering, removing weeds, adding nutrients, pruning, repotting (sometimes moving to bigger pots); you need to work out the time you need for these activities and budget accordingly.
– Try and get the size of your pots / planters right. If you want good produce from a plant and it is in a pot, you need to ensure that the pot is placed correctly. If you place a capsicum plant in a 8 inch planter, there is a higher likelihood that your capsicum plant will not produce as it should and you would be disappointed; while if you planted in a 12 inch pot, you will get more capsicums from the same plant.
– You need to ensure you have the right potting mix. A mix that drains well, is rich organically and yet does not dry out very quickly is the right mix. People have all kinds of combinations, although the one I use is fairly simple to make – 1 part of cocopeat, 1 part of vermicompost, and 1 part of soil (but you could experiment with different combinations and use the one that works best for you). Or you could ask around for what works for other gardeners and use that one.
– Watering just right. Plants don’t like too much water, or too little water. Most of them are not finicky about water conditions, but they do require regular watering to thrive and grow well. If it is spring or fall and not very hot and you water twice a day, the roots can actually start rotting in this overkill of water; but if you have hot summer days where the soil dries out the soil fast, then you may need to water twice a day to ensure that the plant remains in good condition and does not start drying out.
– Nutrients. Even though chemical nutrients in the form of fertilizer is used in commercial farms and leads to a high quantity of production, most people who care about their health prefer that the nutrients they add is organic. It is not difficult to set up a composting pile that is fed by kitchen waste and generates a good quality compost that ensures your plants remain organic.

There can be many other tips for your garden, and as start working on your garden, you will be able to generate such tips on your own as well. There is no one right approach, you need to see what works best for you.

What is mulching and what are some of the advantages ?

Got a lot of weeds and don’t know what to do, but worried that these weeds are taking away the nutrients that your regular plants may be needing (and this is not being paranoid, some weeds grow must faster than the plants you desire, and hence the nutrients that you weeds are sucking up are those that your plant is not getting).
Also, with all the effort needed to remove weeds, is all the bending affecting your back ? Are you spending more time at just removing weeds rather than on efforts to enrichen your garden ?
Been told that you need to make your soil more organic rich, more porous and make the water drainage better ? Don’t know how to do it ?
Living in a hot environment, with the sun scorching your plants and the soil ? The direct heat of the sun can take away all the water in the soil that you added only a few hours back. How do you ensure that the water in the potting mix remains for longer, lasts till the next watering. The soil drying up is back for the microbes and insects in your soil, and soil that is getting dry too often means that your roots are suffering from shock, as well as the fact that your plant is trying to just survive rather than focus on growing.
You have a lot of leaves and other stuff that is being pruned or cut or otherwise dropping in your garden, and you are wondering about how to dispose of all the material (can make compost, but that is also effort). How about so any grass clippings, what do you do with those ?

If you feel affected by one or some of these factors (or for those who really really need it, you are affected by all these factors), something that you should really be considering is mulching. Even though the word sounds a bit strange, many gardeners know it and those that know it and have used it, swear by it.
So what is mulching. Well, to be as uncomplicated as possible, mulching is the laying of a material over the soil, in multiple layers. Let me take the best possible example. You have a lot of dry leaves, and are living in a area with a hot summer. The soil in your pot dries up during mid-afternoon from the morning soaking and the leaves start wearing a droopy look. This heating of the soil worries you, since it can affect the roots, it can affect the microbes in the soil as well as harm useful creatures such as earthworms. So what do you do ? You take those dry leaves, take them to your pot, and cover the soil surface with a layer that is around 2-4 inches thick (after a one time removal of the weeds that are present there). This may seem a bit weird to you, and I have come across people who look at the planter and mention that they like the pots to be neat and clean, “Why am I so lazy as to not remove the leaves from the surface of the soil”. I look pityingly at them (after all, I believe I have done something great), and wonder whether it is worth the while to explain to the person.

Anyhow, continuing with the explanation – when you have added so many dry leaves to the soil, look at the factors outlined above and start ticking wherever you see it as relevant.
– Adding dry leaves on the soil ensures a surface that is not comfortable for the weeds to grow (since there is a layer above the heads of the growing weed plant).
– Reduced number of weeds, and hence you have more time to spend on the gardening enrichment experience.
– These leaves will eventually decompose and all this decomposition will go directly into the soil, making it richer and also more porous. All this is useful compost for the soil and for the plant. It is also a slow dispersal compost, that acts over an extended period of time.
– In hot weather, this layer of leaves helps reduce the temperature of the soil by a few degrees, incredibly helping the plant. This layer on top also ensures that soil does not dry so easily, which is an incredible help to the plant. In hot areas when you combine this tactic with shade nets and others, this ensures that you are reducing the harmful impact of the heat on your plants.
– Mulching using organic waste ensures that you have a ready use for all this organic waste. Suppose you have done a lot of pruning and have many leaves and thin branches, you can use these for mulching. It would not be wise to use thicker, woodier branches for mulching, but the thinner ones that are more green can be used.

However, when spreading the organic waste for mulching, ensure that you leave a bit of space around the plant stem (say 1-2 inches), since decaying organic material can cause rotting of the stem.

In the next post, will explore another issue related to mulching (TBD).

Composting: Rain water got into the pit – What to do ?

Making compost is a fairly easy task, and once you have started making such compost at home, it can be done fairly easily. However, for the newbie, it seems a daunting task initially (or seems to become one when some problems occurs with the composting process). The secret to making compost is very simple, there are many tips, but the simple paramount one is about ensuring that the compost is neither too dry nor too wet. One big problem that I heard from somebody was about their compost container being open (the lid blew off during a gust of wind) and they had too much rain water entering the compost pile. Now, after a couple of days, the compost seemed to be still very soggy, and they could see maggots making their way inside. The first worry was; was the compost not good, did they screw something up, should they dump all this and try again ? The first task is to reassure them that in most cases of composting, there was no such thing as the process becoming irreversibly bad, and that quick corrections can happen and there are some tips to ensure that this situation does not get repeated.
This is really more relevant when you are composting in a container of some sort. If you have an open pile, too much rain can make it soggy to some extent, but if it is exposed to the sun, it will dry out pretty soon. If the pile gets wet and it seems wet for some days, then just turn it over with a rake, add grass or some other brown stuff (too many options for what to do add – sawdust from untreated wood, dry leaves, shredded newspaper or cardboard, pine needles (although need to balance with some lime to retain the pH levels) and similar stuff) while ensuring that matter is not getting clumped together.
If you are preparing your compost in a container, you would have made multiple holes in your containers for aeration purposes, right ? You could even have some holes in the bottom from where you collect the wonder juice ‘leachate’, right ? In which case, the rain water that has fallen into the pile will make its way out. If the rain water is collecting inside the compost container even when there are holes, then there are remedial measures that need to be taken. Some parts of your compost pile have become matted together and are not letting the water through, which is a bigger problem, since it means that there is not enough space for air to move around and composting will become much slower. You need to break up these matted together parts of the compost pile and ensure that there is enough space for water and air to move. Further, add shredded newspaper and cardboard or dry leaves to ensure that moisture levels come down within a couple of days and its under control. Do not get into an over-control mode and add too much of dry stuff otherwise you will end up on the other side, with the pile becoming dry.
The bigger part of this is that you should not worry too much that you have made some big mistake, or that something has happened which would cause you to throw away your under-preparation compost. Simply get onto the internet, look up your problem, and you will find your solution, or if you know somebody who has been preparing compost, then the same solution.

Whether to use cardboard as a part of making compost ?

The idea of whether to use cardboard as an ingredient for making compost has been very confused over the years ? There are people who advocate using cardboard as a part of compost, while others totally stay away from it and claim that there is no point of using cardboard, that it does not add anything to the compost. Well, should you ? Difficult question. I would like to say ‘it depends’, but most probably would find a book flying towards my head. So, let me just write my experiences about compost from the perspective of cardboard.
Before starting, some description of cardboard. Cardboard is used to refer to many different kind of material, and you would have experience of many of them. Three of these are:
1. Corrugated cardboard (can see images of this here at Google Image Search (click here))
2. Waxed cardboard containers. These are containers similar to the corrugated ones, but with a difference. Here the cardboard can be a bit less thick than the corrugated one, and in most cases, one of the sides of the cardboard container have a shiny / waxy finish on top. The finish is smooth, and much different from the corrugated cardboard.
3. The even thinner ones. These don’t even feel like cardboard, more like thicker paper. Used for smaller items, such as these cake packing (link here)
There can be more varieties, but these are enough for the discussion. So what do you do about using them in compost ? Well, for starters, the corrugated ones, as described in point 1 above, is ideal for the purpose of composting. You need to shred it in small pieces (I normally leave it in sizes that are not more than the length of a finger) and I have found that within a month of the composting process, these pieces mostly vanish. On the other hand, there are people who keep them in water for upto a day, or use a shredder to cut them into much smaller pieces to add to the compost. All these steps to make the pieces of cardboard smaller before adding to the compost pile help, but even just shredding them into smaller pieces will work (as long as your compost pile is working fine).
For the other varieties, I have also put them into composting in the past, and have had varying experiences with some of them. For the ones described in #3 above, in many cases, they have a thin plastic sheet that forms part of their structure. Once you think you are done with the composting and it is prepared, I have found that there will be bits of plastic in the compost (along with small bits of cardboard attached to them). It is effort to remove these bits of plastic (I know that plastic in the compost will not really cause significant harm but I like to ensure that I can remove whatever contaminants as possible) from the finished compost, and depending on your ability to spend this effort, it may not be worth it to use this kind of cardboard.
For the cardboard described in #2, there is a worry about the type of waxy coating, as well as the type of coloring used. I am apprehensive about having these in the compost, and hence, if the packing is thick, I try to strip the inner part of the packing which is similar to corrugated cardboard, while the coating side is sent off for regular recycling.

Why to use cardboard ?
– The compost pile requires a steady supply of brown material apart from the green part which is contributed by kitchen and garden waste. If there is enough quantity of dry leaves available, then that is ideal; but a lot of people do not have excess to material such as dry leaves or other organic dry stuff. In which case, can easily use cardboard for the same, shredding it into small pieces. Cardboard adds much needed carbon content to the compost.
– Cardboard has another advantage. If there is too much water in the pile, if it is more moist than you would like, adding cardboard to the pile ensures that this water gets absorbed; so within a range, one can use it for controlling the water content of the pile.
– When this shredded cardboard is mixed with the kitchen waste, the decomposing cardboard helps to ensure that there is aeration inside the pile (the microbes within the compost are getting air). If you use only kitchen or garden waste, then as it decomposes, it starts clumping together and reduces the availability of air). With cardboard in between, there is enough space to ensure that there is air for the process to remain aerobic.