Gardening seems to come naturally to some. Unfortunately I’m not one of them and still learning as I go - with helpful advice from my garden-loving mum along the way. Below are some basic tips to organize your garden – Enjoy the fresh air!
Soil Type & Nutrient Levels: Urban soils are often lacking in nutrients, especially where organic material such as leaves and grass clippings are removed and not able to decompose naturally and return nutrients to the soil. You need to know what type of soil you have before spending any money on plants, so dig a few holes to find out what your soil ‘profile’ is. The holes need to be approx 30 cm deep. Usually you have top soil with a noticeable sub-soil not far underneath. You should be able to see the layers, and then lower again it may be clay, rocky, rubble or sandy. You obviously need to select plants that suit the type of soil you have so they have a good chance of survival. Clay soil for example is difficult and doesn't drain well but is usually very nutritious. Sandy soils however are easy to dig but are often low in nutrients. The best way to improve any type of soil is to add organic material. Organize a compost bin, as they are great for this purpose.
pH Levels: If the soil is too acidic or too alkaline, plants won’t be able to access the nutrients - even if there are lots in the soil. You can buy pH testing kits from large nurseries. The most common test is to mix your soil with the chemical provided, then sprinkle the mixture with the powder provided. The powder changes color which you then match to a color chart. If the pH is 6 or below, then the soil is acidic. If your pH is 6.5 - 7.5 then it right for most plants. 8 or above is alkaline.
Drainage: A simple way to asses the quality of drainage you have is to fill the holes you have made and see how long it takes for them to empty. If it drains quickly then it’s probably a sandy soil and moisture retention could be a problem. Some ideas in this instance are - mulching, adding organic material and using water-storing crystals. If the water is still there after a few hours then you have drainage issues. Some ideas in this instance are raised flower-beds, installing drainage, helping the soil aerate by adding organic material to attract earthworms. However the best way to deal with these restrictions is to choose plants that do well in your type of soil.
Composting: Composting provides you with a free source of high quality, soil-enhancing material, reducing the need to use animal manure, which often introduces weeds to the garden. The types of materials you can put into a compost bin include food scraps, eggshells, leaves, grass clippings, soft prunings. You can have a closed compost bin - preventing rats etc from breeding and also keeps down odor levels, or you can build an open-heap. There are pros and cons for each. It is difficult to get air into a composting bin, which isn’t ideal - as this slows down the process. A heap is more untidy, but easier to manage and is usually quicker to break down. If you choose a closed bin then remember to keep your bin in a semi-shaded area. Earthworms need some respite from the heat as it goes through it‘s various stages of decomposing. Get air into the mixture by turning it over regularly. If you plan to take your gardening seriously then having two bins/heaps is an efficient way to get the best results for your garden – you can add to one and let the other ‘cook’. NB: Remember to always use gardening gloves when handling compost and other organic materials for your own safety & be aware that it takes several months for compost to break down enough to use.
Bugs and slugs: A good way to get rid of snail and slugs is to put out a saucer of beer. This is kinder to the bird life that may otherwise eat the poisonous pellets used. Similarly Marigolds are also good to keep insects out of your veggie patch.
Mulch: Mulching means covering the top of your soil with a layer of material such as straw, leaf litter, bark chips or seaweed mulching. It can help reduce evaporation, which saves time, money and is of course importantly good environmentally. It is particularly helpful in high soil salinity areas. Mulching keeps soil temperatures cooler. Mulch attracts earthworms, aerating the soil and provides nutrients at the same time. It protects the soil surface from the negative effect of rain and sprinklers, allowing the soil to absorb the water more readily, preventing run off, which also helps prevent erosion. It helps maintain good soil structure so that plant roots have better levels of moisture and oxygen. Layers of paper are sometimes used under mulch to prevent weeds but this may attract nematodes and termites. Mulch should not be any thicker than 75mm otherwise deoxygenation occurs which kills plants. Organic mulch is the preferred type, but is not as effective as inorganic or living mulch when it comes to long term weed control. Many people tend to go for a combination of mulch to average out the pros and cons of each.
Water: In this age of drought if you are allowed to water at all, it is a must to use a tap timer with a drip water system, soaker sprinklers waste an enormous amount of water. Giving your garden a light spray daily discourages deep roots to grow, which helps make your plants hardier. Another water saving idea is to install a rainwater tank to collect water for use on the garden. There are plenty of new aesthetically appealing and compact designs out there to meet all manner of needs –particularly if you have a small garden. NB: If you like water fountains, before purchasing one consider that 50% of the water in a fountain can be lost through evaporation on a hot day so research this properly before getting one.
Drought resistant plants: Drought resistant plants have become very popular, they look fantastic and are easy to look after. Group together any plants that have greater watering needs so that extra watering can be contained to the one area.
Fertiliser: Over-fertilising can cause problems, so don't add more than the recommended amount. Never apply liquid fertiliser to dry plants. Too much fertiliser in the soil makes it hard for plants to absorb water and roots may even lose water if the soil is over-fertilised. Don’t put fertiliser in the bottom of the planting hole, as this can lead to loss of water from the roots. Fertiliser is best applied at the surface where it can be dissolved by water.
Root systems: You need to be very gentle when handling/transplanting root systems or permanent injury may result – the fine new roots and root hairs use most of the water. When back filling be careful to ensure no air pockets are left. Compressing too much will also cause problems so be conscious of keeping the soil structure balanced so it can freely drain and so that the roots can easily push through. Just watering around the base of a plant is not enough so be sure to water widely around the plant.
Sowing Seeds: Propagating plants from seed is a cost-effective way to produce bedding plants for massed displays. Plants vary enormously in their requirements for germination. Some seeds require light & some darkness to germinate, and for others it can handle either. Always read the directions on the seed packets carefully – for best results. Once the shoot emerges, the plant requires sufficient light levels to grow well. Seeds do not need fertiliser to germinate but once the root has grown, fertiliser may be useful after this has occurred.
Pruning: Use sharp tools, (ragged edges encourage disease) making clean cuts that angle away from the buds. Cut close to and parallel to other branches. Some species respond better to more severe pruning. When in doubt go easy! Deciduous shrubs that flower in summer and autumn are generally pruned in winter, while those that flower in spring are generally pruned immediately after flowering.
Claire McFee is author of Organize Your Life and co-Creator of the new Organize Your Life e-Organizers. Claire has a ~10years experience helping people get more out of life by being more organized and improving their mindset. Claire is also a speaker and has been extensively showcased on TV and other mediums.