Soil Health in Container Gardens (Part 4 of 4)

What is the best kept secret in container gardening?  The experts know how to promote faster, more vigorous growth, and significantly reduce the chance of pests and diseases... ssssh... it all comes down to healthy soil.

Previously...

1. What does healthy soil mean?

2. Why do we need to maintain soil?

3. How can we promote health and extend soil life?

 

4. How often should container soil be changed?

 

If you start with a good quality, premium organic potting mix, then generally speaking, you should be able to get several growing seasons out of it.

This may mean that it's suitable for 1 year with 3-4 seasonal vegetable crops or up to 2 years if the same number of crops are spread out over this time.  If you are growing ornamental plants, flowers, or trees, you can probably expect soils to last much longer with the right care.

When growing intensive vegetable crops in container gardens, it's a good idea to completely or partially change over the soil from year to year.  Late winter is the perfect time to do this, so that the soil is ready for those vibrant spring crops.

 

Soil Change Over

  1. To start, take out any remaining spent plants, and remove all of the soil from your container. 
  2. Separate around half of the soil, as well as the bulk of the root mass, and send it to either the compost pile or worm farm.  
  3. Check that your container is in good order and that the drainage points are free from roots or other blockages (particularly relevant to self watering / wicking-bed gardens).
  4. Replace half the container volume with your preferred choice of growing media (Worm castings, composted matter, organic manures, Perlite and or organic potting mix) and blend through the reserved half of last seasons soil.
  5. Now is also a great time to add extra soil supplements such as organic slow-release fertilizer, or seaweed extract.
  6. Water-in the soil thoroughly while planting your new season crop!

For more on our preferred soil mixes for self watering, check out this link.

 

Soil Health in Container Gardens (Part 3 of 4)

What is the best kept secret in container gardening?  The experts know how to promote faster, more vigorous growth, and significantly reduce the chance of pests and diseases... ssssh... it all comes down to healthy soil.

Previously...

1. What does healthy soil mean?

2. Why do we need to maintain soil?

 

3. How can we promote health and extend soil life?

The following points can be used as a basic guideline to establish and maintain good soil health.

Add 1 part Perlite to 10 parts soil to improve structure

Add 1 part Perlite to 10 parts soil to improve structure

a) Start with good Soil Structure

Start with a potting mix that uses bark fines, and be sure that the mix is loose, never overly wet or compacted.  Potting mixes containing bark fines will generally break-down slower than softer peat based mixes.

Consider adding Perlite to your potting mix to improve structure. Perlite is a super light-weight, expanded form of inert volcanic glass which will not break-down or compress in the soil.  Perlite is readily available and simple to use, although take care not to breathe-in the dust.  Mix approximately 1 part Perlite to 10 parts soil. Perlite reduces the density of your soil mix, preventing general collapse, and it creates pockets for water and air in the soil whilst allowing drainage.

 

Worms. Glorious worms.

Worms. Glorious worms.

b) Feed regularly

The best practice is to regularly apply natural Liquid fertilizers - like worm tea, seaweed extracts, or organic plant food blends with trace elements. 

WORM ALERT: If you haven't already considered starting a worm farm, now is the perfect time.  Kitchen waste, scraps and garden waste are effortlessly recycled into "liquid gold" plant food, and the impact on plant health and growth is remarkable. Do yourself a favour!

When re-potting or recovering soil between crops it can also be a good idea to add organic matter like worm castings, or compost to the soil.

The use of a good quality, organic, slow-release fertilizer can also be used when rebuilding soil between crops, particularly after intensive, nutrient hungry crops like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and leafy greens.

c) Provide cover

Adding pea straw and other plant based mulches as a soil cover is a great practice.  This will reduce evaporation, lock-in moisture, protect the topsoil from temperature extremes, UV light, and create the perfect environment for beneficial bacteria and other organisms.   Mulch will break-down over time and can be turned into the topsoil between vegetable crops to further decompose and improve soil structure.

d) Change it up

Crop rotation... it's simple... Don't' plant the same crop in the same soil year after year.

Plants absorb different quantities of soil nutrients, and repeated plantings will quickly deplete the soil. Crop rotation therefore allows for a more balanced soil fertility and microbial balance.  Furthermore it can prevent a build up of pathogens in the soil which can infect and continue to re-infect particular families of plants.

 

Want to keep reading? Here's what's up next...

4. How often should container soil be changed?

Soil Health in Container Gardens (Part 2 of 4)

What is the best kept secret in container gardening?  The experts know how to promote faster, more vigorous growth, and significantly reduce the chance of pests and diseases... ssssh... it all comes down to healthy soil.

Previously...

1. What does healthy soil mean?

 

2. Why do we need to maintain soil?

The majority of essential minerals in our body comes from the soil

The majority of essential minerals in our body comes from the soil

Put simply, plants are unable to directly extract the nutrition they need without bacteria working in the soil. So when we talk about feeding plants, what we are actually doing is firstly feeding the microorganisms in the soil.  As they consume the nutrients they need, microorganisms create elements like nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other trace minerals for our plants in a form they can readily absorb and use to grow, as well as produce food and flowers for us.

People often overlook the fact that the majority of essential minerals in our bodies come from the soil that sustains the plants and animals that we eat.  So high mineral levels in our soil is not only essential for growing plants, but is hugely important for the health of you and your family.

A nutrient in-balance or deficiency in soil can lead to poor or stunted plant growth, and vegetable crops will produce small yields and deformed fruit.  The symptoms of these deficiencies are often clearly displayed on the leaves of plants, so those with a keen eye should be able to identify and rectify most of these problems by adding the correct nutrients back into the soil.

 

Common Symptoms of Nutrient Deficiency

Soil Deficiencies.jpg

1) Phosphorus (P);   2) Nitrogen (N);   3) Normal Healthy Leaf;   4) Potassium (k);   5) Magnesium (Mg)

 

SOIL DOCTOR

All gardens, particularly container gardens, will will experience nutrient deficiencies from time to time depending on the types of plants and vegetable crops.  The good news is that these are simply fixed with very little effort or cost.  Armed with a home worm farm and a few basic organic nutrients you can easily amend your soil at home

Nitrogen Deficiency - Treat by adding blood & bone, seaweed extract or manure.  Also growing peas or beans will restore nitrogen to soil after intense crops like tomatoes have depleted it.  Use of pea-straw mulch on your soil will also add nitrogen as it breaks down.

Phosphorus Deficiency - Treat by adding blood & bone or chicken manure, and regular application of compost / worm tea and worm castings.

Potassium Deficiency - Treat by adding seaweed extract and organic matter.  Regular use of worm tea on your garden will ensure potassium deficiency is never an issue.

 

Want to keep reading? Here's what's coming up in the next few months...

3. How can we promote health and extend soil life?

4. How often should container soil be changed?

Soil Health in Container Gardens (Part 1 of 4)

What is the best kept secret in container gardening?  The experts know how to promote faster, more vigorous growth, and significantly reduce the chance of pests and diseases... ssssh... it all comes down to healthy soil.

1. What does healthy soil mean?

Before discussing health, what do we mean when we talk about "soil" in container gardens.  Technically speaking, we are talking about "Growing media", and this, for the most of us, consists of store-bought "potting mix".  Growing media can be made up of a wide range of components, potting mix normally contains a mix of Bark fines or peat for structure, and then either organic composted matter / manure and slow release fertilizers to provide food and promote health.  You can make it yourself if you have space, or you can buy it ready made and devote your space to maintaining the soil health over time.

The make-up of soil is actually much more scientific than you might think.  Healthy soil is teaming with life in the form of microorganisms (Bacteria - sometimes called microbes) and , and it's what's happening on this microscopic level that is the secret to plant life.  One teaspoon of soil can be home to as many as 1 billion bacterial cells.

The difference between good soil and poor soil comes down to it's ability to maintain a healthy root environment and support massive colonies of microorganisms. 

The key factors in play are structure and food.

Soil structure is of utmost importance in controlling drainage and aeration. These 2 factors are crucial to providing the correct environment for life and growth. As container soils age the structural elements like bark fines or peat will naturally start to break-down and collapse.  This is easily observed, and you will notice the soil level dropping slightly in containers over time. As the soil structure collapses and compresses it becomes increasingly difficult for water to drain away and the soil starts to become heavy and water-logged. Air pockets collapse and it is harder for air to reach the root zone of plants.

Want to keep reading? Here's what's coming up in the next few months...

2. Why do we need to maintain soil?

3. How can we promote health and extend soil life?

4. How often should container soil be changed?

So make sure you keep checking in!

Indoor Plants and low-light

I love to keep indoor plants.  They make me feel happy and relaxed.  I keep them beside the TV and sofa, in the kitchen, bathroom, and in the office at work... everywhere.  I love the colour, shapes and texture plants bring to my home, but aesthetics aside, when it comes to the benefits of filling your space with greenery, these are just the tip of the iceberg.

Maidenhair Fern - These delicate looking plants are perfect in low-light areas but need to be kept warm and moist

Maidenhair Fern - These delicate looking plants are perfect in low-light areas but need to be kept warm and moist

 

Breathe Easy

While it's common knowledge that plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, research by NASA (among other studies) has shown that houseplants are able to remove up to 87 percent of air toxins in a 24-hour period.  The ability of plants to remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air we breathe is called phytoremediation.  These VOCs come about from compounds in paints, furnishings, plastic products, clothing, and building materials, and it's more of a problem than you might think.

It is actually the potting mix of our house plants that absorbs the harmful pollutants by feeding bacteria in the air.  But it's the roots of the plant that work to keep the potting mix healthy, and can uptake, filter and store solid pollutants.

Studies have also found that indoor plants, by increasing humidity levels, decreasing dust and other pollutants in your home, can help to deter breathing related ailments and even help to fight the common cold.  Research shows that indoor plants can decrease coughs, sore throats, fatigue, and other cold-related symptoms by more than 30 percent.

 
Kentia Palm - With beautiful textured foliage, grow well indoors

Kentia Palm - With beautiful textured foliage, grow well indoors

Feeling Good

The benefits of plants can also be seen across many studies into cognitive, psychological, social, and physical functions in people. 

Research shows that people in the presence of house plants regularly exhibit:

  • Increased self-esteem
  • Improved mood and sense of well-being
  • Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Increased feelings of calm, relaxation, and optimism
  • Increased sense of stability and control
  • Boosted creativity
  • Improved concentration
  • Heightened attention
  • Improved memory
  • Reduced blood-pressure
  • A higher resistance to virus and illness
 
Snake Plant (Mother-in-laws Tongue)

Snake Plant (Mother-in-laws Tongue)

Low-Light Darlings

So you want to grow indoor plants but you don't get a lot of natural light.  This may be due to window facing away from the path of the sun, or buildings that over-shadow your space. Whether at home, or to brighten up your office space (and put a smile on the face of your colleagues) these are the sort of no-fuss, hardy and yet beautiful plants you need to consider.

  • Assorted varieties of philodendron
  • Peace Lily
  • Parlor Palm
  • Kentia Palm
  • All Aspidistra varieties
  • Cyclamen varieties
  • All Maidenhair Fern varieties
  • Bird's Nest Fern
  • Spider Plant 
  • Zanzibar Gem
  • Snake Plant (Mother-in-laws Tongue)
  • Shade tolerant, assorted green succulents
 

Caring for your Indoor Family

While a lot of low-light house-plants require little care, there are a few pointers to consider to avoid disaster.

Philodendron - These deep green, shade lovers come in all shapes and sizes

Philodendron - These deep green, shade lovers come in all shapes and sizes

1.  Avoid too much direct sunlight - With the exception of the Snake Plant and other low-light tolerant succulents.  The house-plants mentioned above are shade-lovers.  The reason they are great for growing indoors is because they have evolved over millions of years to thrive in the darkened rainforests of the world, below the canopy of the other plants.  Periods of direct sunlight, especially in the height of summer, will leave their foliage burnt to a crisp.  A short distance from a window can be preferable to right there on the sill.

2.  Feeling Dusty - One of the pitfalls of living inside, is that indoor plants, like other household items, will collect dust.  They don't get the benefit of the occasional shower of rain or spray with the hose to clean their leaves.  Clean leaves allow the plant to use the available light to photosynthesize (produce food) and also let the plant breathe.  Dusty plants can soon become stressed and unhealthy.  Luckily, they aren't hard to clean.  I like to leave the houseplants outside overnight during light rainy periods, but failing that you can give them a rinse in the bath or shower. Be sure to use slightly warm water, and for plants with large leaves you can wipe them down with soapy water.

3.  A soak is not soaking - A common mistake leading to the untimely death of houseplants, is watering without adequate drainage.  Most plants will quite literally "drown" if left sitting in water.  The use of drip trays or sealed ornamental pots (sometimes around a standard pot or liner) need to be monitored to ensure they are not holding water.  They need to be emptied shortly after watering to ensure water isn't saturating the root zone of the plant.  Almost all plants need well draining soil.  Well drained soil stays healthy, prevents the roots from rotting, and allows the roots to access air (which is crucial for plant health).

Assorted Green Succulents - Can thrive in low to medium light.  But let the soil dry out fully between watering.

Assorted Green Succulents - Can thrive in low to medium light.  But let the soil dry out fully between watering.

 

So if you haven't already, try introducing indoor plants into your space.  Give them pride of place in your life... and then sit back, and breathe easy in the knowledge that you are doing yourself and your family a massive favour.

Lloyd Fenn (aka @lloydthefarmer)

An introduction to edible flowers

Edible flowers. A topic people often brush-off as confusing, weird, too advanced or... just for the 'flower children of the 60s'. But nothing could be further from the truth, in fact, if you dabble in a bit of urban gardening, chances are you probably are already growing some. Most herbs and vegetables produce edible flowers at some point in their growth cycle. For the most part, the other varieties of edible flowers "grow like weeds" and provide a range of benefits to the average urban garden such as promoting plant growth, improving the taste of fruit, and attracting or repelling insects.

Nasturtiums add brilliant colour to your garden and salads alike

Nasturtiums add brilliant colour to your garden and salads alike

 

Basic Edible Varieties

Beauty & Companions

Violas (Garden Pansy)
Lemon-scented Geranium
Violets
Nasturtiums
Marigolds
Borage

Vegetables Flowers

Zucchini & Squash
Radishes
Rocket (Arugula)
Broccoli & Cauliflower
Fennel
Garlic & Chives

Herbs & Medicinal

Rosemary
Thyme
Bergamot
Oregano
Chamomile
Echinacea

 

Using Edible Flowers

Violas have a sweet honey like flavour

Violas have a sweet honey like flavour

Edible varieties of plants and flowers have been well documented over the ages... So while you're having fun adding to the menu of your next dinner party, don't take unnecessary risks.  Some flowers or leaves can be toxic, so be sure to check with old Mr Google before you go serving anything that might leave your guests retching.

Generally speaking, the petals alone are used in cooking, rather than the whole flower.  But often the leaves, stems, and seeds can be used too such as with Nasturtiums or even the root like with Turmeric.

Chive and Garlic flowers are great in meals

Chive and Garlic flowers are great in meals

It's always best to grow your own flowers for consumption, but if you're into a bit of foraging, make sure you know the flowers haven't been sprayed with any pesticides, and wash them thoroughly before use.

 

Chicken and Nasturtium Dumplings in Vegetable Broth

This comforting chicken and vegetable soup is a complete meal, one-pot cooking at its best and totally delicious.  Once you know the basic recipe you can substitutes the vegetables for whatever is in season or growing in your urban garden.  Although, avoid beetroot, as you will end up with a rather hilarious pink coloured soup (or maybe that's what your going for). 

Chicken and Nasturtium Dumplings in Vegetable Broth

Chicken and Nasturtium Dumplings in Vegetable Broth

2 litres Chicken Stock (0.52gal)
50g butter (1.76oz)
2 Carrots, diced
3 Celery Sticks, diced
1 Bunch of Radishes, diced
500 grams Chicken Mince (1.10lb)
1/3 cup Bread Crumbs
1 tbsp Milk
10 large Nasturtium leaves with stems, chopped 
1 Sprig of Tarragon, chopped 
1 cup Peas (fresh or frozen)
1-2 cups Cooked Brown Rice
2 handfuls of Spinach or Rocket Leaves
Sour Cream to Serve

In a large pot set the stock and butter to boil.  Meanwhile chop your vegetables.  When the stock comes up to boil put in the carrots, put on the lid and turn the heat down to a low boil/simmer.  In a large bowl stir together the chopped nasturtium and herbs, bread crumbs milk and season with pepper and salt.  Add chicken mice and mix until completely combined.  Add celery and radishes to the soup pot with the now half cooked carrots, lid on and adjust the heat to simmer.  Once the soup has been simmering for about 7 min carefully drop spoonfuls of the chicken mix into the simmering soup, lid back on and cook for another 5 min. Add peas, rice and when the soup comes back to a simmer add the spinach or rocket.  If a lot of liquid has evaporated add boiling water from the kettle to achieve your preferred consistency.  Add pepper and salt to taste.  The soup is ready to serve with a dollop of sour cream and some crusty bread or toast.

 

Blood Orange and Rocket Salad

Blood Orange and Rocket Salad

Blood Orange and Rocket Salad

1 Cos Lettuce
1 Handful of loose Rocket leaves (Arugula)
12 Large Sicilian Green Olives (pips left in)
2 Blood Oranges - Peeled and roughly cut
Extra virgin Olive Oil
Rocket flowers

Wash your cos lettuce well and tear the leaves into quarters.  Toss ingredients together in a large bowl, dress with Extra virgin Olive Oil, season with salt and pepper and then garnish with Rocket flowers.

 

Friends with Benefits (Companion planting)

The 3 workhorse plants in the theory of "Companion Planting" also happen to produce beautiful and delicious edible flowers. If you are a gardener who is serious about growing your own vegetables for the dinner table, then you need to know about Borage, Marigolds and Nasturtiums.

Borage has a beautiful blue/purple flower that attracts busy pollinators into your garden, and is best friends with Tomatoes, Strawberries and Zucchini.  Planted with almost all plants it helps to deter pest and adds trace minerals to improve general soil health.  But for Tomatoes it will promote growth, and Strawberries, improve their taste.  Plant from seed during spring right thru to late summer.  The flowers and stems are a great addition to your dinner table.  The flowers have a slight sweetness but otherwise they taste and smell of cucumber.  Hmmm... Gin and Tonic with an infusion of Borage flowers.... The flowers and leaves are high in anti-oxidants, vitamin C and are considered a mild anti-inflammatory.

Marigolds (Calendula) keep away pests

Marigolds (Calendula) keep away pests

Marigolds add a burst of sunshine and colour to your green space. They can be planted most of the year round (unless you have severe frost and snow), and are also terrific at improving general soil health and repelling insects (who hate their smell).  Tomatoes just love Marigolds, so be sure to keep a few around, but don't plant near beans or cabbage varieties.  In cooking, use the petals of the Marigolds, which are zesty and peppery, in salads or as garnishes.  Since Roman times, Marigold flowers have been used to treat infections and digestive problems.

Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum) are my favourite. Mostly because I love all the ways they can be used in cooking, but also they are so much fun in the garden.  My kids have taken to picking and eating the flowers as they play in the garden, and love to help me collect the seeds.  Nasturtiums are also powerful pest deterrents and help your veggies to build up a tolerance to pests. They are great as companions to Radishes, Cucumber, Cabbage, Kale, Broccoli and Tomatoes.  Nasturtiums are another plant that has traditionally been used for it's health benefits and antiseptic properties.  I use the flowers and leaves, which have a peppery flavour, in salads and as garnishes, and also use the leaves like a herb to flavour dishes.

 

Your local scene...

With the prevalence of edible flowers being used in modern fine cuisine, there are constantly emerging commercial suppliers who are choosing to focus on the supply of fresh, carefully packaged flowers for wholesale to restaurants and specialty grocers.  You might like to check out what's happening and available near you.  This is a great way to try out some local and or exotic varieties before you choose what to plant in your own garden.

In Australia, our top chefs and artisans like Peter Gilmore have long been using edible flowers to blur the lines between food and art.  This trend, in various guises, has been adapted by most restaurants serving contemporary dishes as well as simple modern cafe fare.

A Salad of Pickled Rhubarb and Violet Flowers by Peter Gilmore

A Salad of Pickled Rhubarb and Violet Flowers by Peter Gilmore

But don't let the top chefs have all the fun... get planting, and then why not incorporate some edible flowers into your own cooking adventures? Add some colour, texture and excitement to your garden... and your next meal.

Lloyd Fenn (aka @lloydthefarmer)

Welcome to Blog Farm

Welcome to Blog Farm, where we will do our best to post gardening tips and plant-based musings to try and help our rapidly expanding Glowpear family get the best out of their Gardens. 


Please let us know if there are particular topics you would like to see covered here, and we will endeavour to keep it all relevant and interesting.