Thursday, 27 September 2012

Choosing a fertiliser

When wandering the local hardware store for fertiliser you can't help but be overwhelmed with entire aisles filled with the stuff! You can get powders, liquids, concentrates, sprays, manures, composts, general purpose, specifics, organics, synthetics .......................


Photo by fodwyre

Okay - so lets do a bit of research on what's going on here!

There are generally two forms of fertilisers - Granular & Liquid.

Granular - You sprinkle these on the soil & work them in with a spade.
Liquid - You dilute them in water & spray onto foliage, or used as part of the watering process in which the plants absorb it through roots.

There are a multitude of nutrients needed for growing anything e.g. copper, iron, magnesium etc. but the main three that are present in fertiliser are Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. Generally the consensus is that the majority of nutrients are needed in small amounts and so the amount present in your soil is enough to not be a real concern to have to replace. However NPK (Nitrogen, phosphorous & potassium) can be depleted & are essential to healthy plant growth.

So what do these do?

Nitrogen (N) - This is used by plants for plant growth - producing leaf growth & greener, lusher leaves.
Phosphorous (P) - This is used by plants to increase flower/fruit development and to produce stronger root systems.
Potassium (K) - This is for flower colour and size. It can also help the strength of the plant.

So on your fertiliser there should be a 3 numbered ratio e.g 10:20:30. This corresponds to the percentage of N:P:K in the fertiliser you are buying. So in a 100kg bag of 10:20:30 -would have 10kg N, 20kg P, 30kg K.

Generally you can figure out what fertiliser you need through the leaf appearance - Nitrogen deficiencies lead to yellow/brown leaves, Phosphorous deficiencies cause purple veined & slow growing leaves, Potassium deficiencies lead to curled, distorted leaves. The balance between these elements determines where plants focus their growth - a high Nitrogen ratio boosts leaf growth, ideal for lawns, shrubs & plants where you want them to bush out/foliage is a priority. A high Phosphorous ratio will boost fruit, flower & vegetable growth at the expense of leaf growth.

Manure anyone?
So then we come to the hard question - What do I buy?

Liquid vs Granular
Liquid needs to be applied more often, but absorbed faster & tends to be more expensive. It is easy to apply with a sprayer or hose attachment. Granular will stay in the soil longer and therefore not needed as often. They need to be applied by hand & watered in.

General vs Specific
If you have an average garden soil with healthy plants a general fertiliser with relatively even N:P:K ratios will work fine. If you have a tricky plant to grow that needs special care then maybe a specific fertiliser is best to get the ratio's right. If you are super keen - most websites recommend doing a pH test to see if your soil is acidic or alkaline & then you can use specific fertilisers to adjust the pH.

Organic (e.g. manure/blood & bone) vs. Inorganic
Organics are preferred when dealing with food, but can be deficient in providing everything you need to grow healthy plants. To compensate you may need to apply more often, or more than one (e.g. blood & bone is high in P, manure (e.g. sheep pellets) is good for soil structure & adding N). Synthetic's are accurate in the amounts of N:P:K you need & often only need one application. You can often get them with just one particular component.

So what am I going to do?

So far I've used a combination of compost, blood & bone & manure in the garden beds. However I have gone synthetic using the citrus fertiliser for my citrus fruit trees. From what I've learnt today I need to put some more compost which is an all around slow release fertiliser to build up my soil structure more. Generally the blood and bone will have provided the beds with a higher phosphorous content which should help my vegetable yield, size & quality. The sheep pellets will help with the growth of the plants themselves being higher in nitrogen. As for whether it works - we will soon find out as I'm going to start planting out some of my seedlings very soon!!!!

It's a Dirty Business!

Compost & soil - one of lifes messy, dirty, grubby things. But as I'm realising more and more with my clay soil - I need more of it!!

I've put 4 bags of compost in each of my gardens and I thought that this would be ample! But with such heavy topsoil that its mixed with, every time that it gets a bit of wind the soil drys into hard rocks!  I'm surprised anything is growing!

So whats the point of compost? When living matter dies and decomposes, nutrients go back into the soil. The humus remaining (the end product of this decomposition) gives the soil organic matter that can hold water and nutrients in the soil.

So basically it provides
  • Essential nutrients, 
  • Builds soil structure 
  • Enhances the life found in soil (worms, bacteria, fungi etc)
All of these things make for stronger, better plant growth.

The Perfect Compost Recipe;

Green Matter - Anything Living, its nitrogen rich, wet matter.
This includes, grass clippings, food scraps, manure, seaweed, tea leaves, coffee grounds etc.

Brown Matter - Carbon rich, dry matter
Newspaper, cardboard, shredded paper, egg cartons, tree prunings, dry leaves, bark, sawdust, wood ash, crushed shells etc.

What Not to compost - 
Meat, dairy, bones, infected plants, problem weeds e.g. wandering dew, jasmine etc.

  • Ideally the green & brown layers should be alternated with a 1:2 green: brown ratio.
  • You should turn it often. Every 6-8weeks is enough to encourage breakdown.
  • You should cover it with grass clippings so it heats up so it breaks down faster & kills the nasty organisms living in it.
  • Adding manure/blood & bone can speed up the process.

I've been dumping all my vegetable rubbish into the compost bin & worm bin for about 6 months now. The worm farm is thriving - lots of lovely worms & lovely worm tea to fertilise the place~! My compost however is not doing as well. In fact there really is no signs of compost at the bottom! There is a method to the madness of compost & I haven't put it into practice. I haven't been good at adding 'brown' matter, and I haven't turned it - well, ever! I don't own a fork and man is it hard to turn with a spade! It seems very compacted! 

I did finally get around to clearing up all the leaves from this massive tree overhanging the drive & actually - a lot of the leaf matter had already broken down! So I've dumped that into the compost in the hope it will do something for it! I still haven't worked out how to turn it yet! But I did get so much leaf matter its filled the whole bin up! This could be a disaster in the making! Oh well! Hopefully I'll have some sort of dirt at some point in the future! But I seriously think I need to dig it out & get some more layers going. Half filled with 'green matter' and then filled with 'brown matter' isn't quite the 'layered' effect the experts suggest! I should probably add some grass clippings to get it heating up too! 

My composting area
Another benefit to doing composting is that we get about a bucket load of scraps every few days. That's definatly saving us money from having to put it in the rubbish!

Check out this site: - It has good resources on different composting methods, common problems etc.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The importance of labelling!

Well its great - my seedlings are sprouting up in the greenhouse! I haven't gotten sick of looking at them everyday & seeing new growth & things changing! They all look generally the same (well for the most part!)! Its bizarre that so many varieties of food all start off with the same look. My capsicums that I was worried hadn't germinated have signs of life finally! :) Glad I didn't start them again!

I think there has been a mix up with my spring onions though! They look surprisingly like the radishes.... in fact.. they look NOTHING like an onion. I'm wondering whether some little children's fingers got into the packets and swapped a few things around! I guess I'll find out when they grow a bit bigger!

We also had a bit of wind which upturned a couple of pots & the name tags got up-heaved too! I guess I'll be hoping for the best when it comes to working out what is a cucumber & whats a zucchini!!!

Definatly a good thing to label well though. I've had a few 'oh I'll remember what I've planted' moments.... and I haven't! I found some neat cheap ways of labeling on the net - rather than the ice cream sticks I've been using. There is the option of plastic - which doesn't disintegrate but I think its pretty ugly. Check these ideas out;

I like the wooden spoon idea - which is the picture that says 'lettuce'. Instead of wood burning the name of the plant on, I've seen ones that have just been painted. Its great recycling to use your old cutlery too - or a can lid!! The wooden stakes also look nice - a bit more formal if you have the time & wood! Some people out there are so creative!

On the flower front I've planted a hellebore under a few of my fruit trees & I've got some lavender I've put along the fenceline. Still no sign of bees! Again the plants are on the small side.... but I haven't got around to looking at some annuals yet. Planted my seedlings of marigolds though for the vegetable patch!

I'm also starting to think about planting my peas & beans :) I really want to stagger these, as I don't want masses all at once.

The weather hasn't really been helping - its sunny one moment, freezing the next! I'm a bit scared to put anything outside yet in fear of mass destruction! :)

Bring on summer! :)

Monday, 17 September 2012

Missing the bees!

Well after reading an article in the herald last week about the bee colonies disappearing I decided to focus on flowers for the moment while my seeds are doing their growing!

When we moved here there was a few citrus scattered about & we decided to move them into a 'semi-orchard' area together. The same with the stonefruit that I wanted to plant. I love the idea of having fruit on tap - and have fond memories of picking fruit & berries with my Grandfather around his section when I was young. Over winter I planted some fruit trees - both stone-fruit & citrus trees about the place. Because we are in the city and don't have that much space I planted them quite close together - about 2m apart from each other in a zig zag pattern along the fenceline. There was already a few mature fruit trees here which was good! (So much for the cricket pitch - poor hubby! But don't feel too sorry for him - he mowed over my gooseberry plants thinking they were part of the grass the other day! I do realise now the important of buying bigger than a seedling when crazy mower men are about! The poor stubby stick remnants left are fighting hard to continue life!)

My plan is to plan & think like the orchardists do - maximum yield for minimum space & to learn how to prune these accordingly.

But I realised the other day is that I haven't seen a single bee in the garden! Not that I'm expecting any fruit this year anyway (as my trees are only a couple of years old) but to put it simply - to make fruit you need bees, bees need flowers & I don't actually have many around.

Guess thats a downside to living in the city - you can't just get a hive about the place.... well.... actually you can! There is a company that hires beehives out to Aucklanders - Bring back the bee's (& 15kg of honey!) ;)

But for those who can't have hives - we need to focus on flowers! :) I've just spent all winter removing pretty much everything that was originally in the gardens when we arrived - which was mainly a big cluttered mix of annuals that were bombarding my gardens with tall, ugly growth. The plants that I've put in to replace them - although eventually will be beautiful & full of bloom - are currently small & wont have much to show for come spring or summer this year. So, I'm turning my focus to what I can use to attract the small number of bees left & doing a bit of planning on how I can attract some more bees into the garden.

I had always planned on putting marigolds around the vegetables as companion plants, but I think I need to get a bit more creative around the somewhat sparse section now! I always seem to skip the flower section of books & websites & get straight into the food!

I do like the look of hellabore (pictured), which I'm hoping to put under each of my fruit trees & will get a few lavender plants about the place. I guess I can count my rosemary - although like the rest of the garden its pretty small & new! I may have to get a few annuals about the place (& maybe start reading the flower sections!) Watch this space!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The first plants go in!

I'm so excited! The first plantings are in: potatoes, garlic, rhubarb and asparagus! Even though the weather hasn't been great - got a few breaks of rain to get out into the garden.

What Asparagus Looks Like :)
I promised myself that this year, having no real experience in growing successful vegetables I would keep it simple. I remember my teachers through college pushing that saying "KISS - Keep it simple stupid!" for all your exams - although I'm sure they replaced stupid with something more pc ;). But, I couldn't help myself at the shops and bought some asparagus crowns! Such a bizarre vegetable to grow! I know I won't be able to eat a single spear for a few years but its one of those unusual plants that if it actually grows will be a great success story! The strange thing is that they grow almost fern like when you let them grow past a spear. They looks so different to what I expected. The female plants also have poisonous red berries on them, which will be a challenge for the kids not to touch. I wonder if I'll see something out of them this year! :)

As for the garlic I know its late planting. I read online that you could spur on their germination by keeping them in the fridge for a few weeks, which I did in the hope that they will grow into something! Apparently they are hardy wee things that grow in harsh environments so I'm hopeful! A couple of the cloves had turned into green dust... Yuck. But the rest looked healthy enough. Gave them a good feeding of worm tea so let's hope that's enough! Watch this space!

So the garden actually has some green in it - although sparse! In fact... really it's only the rhubarb! :) But the weather has given us some good rain to water everything, followed by some beautiful days! Pity its SO cold at night. Hope the seeds will survive the weather!

I did manage to get some herbs planted too - I bought some mint, parsley, oregano & rosemary. My oregano is 'hot & spicy!' It will be interesting to see what it really tastes like! Great for pizza if it's true! I decided to plant them into pots, so they can take advantage of being in full sun next to my door! :)

I plan to grow basil from seed - as I want to attempt to get enough to make my own pesto this year :) I have a space 'space' in one of my herb pots to put something.. but I couldn't decide what! Will have to have a think about it - but it will probably end up being thyme. :)

Lets hope for some decent weather this weekend to get out in the garden! :)

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Seeds vs Seedlings

Well its the great debate - seed vs seedlings!

Some people have had lots of problems getting seeds growing & only buy seedlings. Others have this natural knack of getting each & every seed in the packet to grow into productive plants.

I found an old seedbox that my Grandfather made for a school project for me back in school - & it still had seeds in it! Well I naively thought - "Bonus - seeds!" Needless to say they were all abismal failures & I never tried seeds since that episode a few years ago.

Learning Moment: Seeds do actually expire!

But being self sufficient for me personally also means being cost effective. Even though seedlings aren't that expensive to buy - in fact the cell packs you buy (6 seedlings) are around the same as one pack of seeds. There is really no comparison though when you get a pack of 20-100 seeds compared with 6 plants. This means you can have enough to replace 'failures' & plenty for next year! (just watch those expiry dates! haha). So, its seeds for me!

I went through to get my seeds. They have the exotic as well as the common ones. I've heard is another good place to go.

There are a few things that I'm not going to get seeds for - and thats some herbs that I'd like to try out before growing them in masses.  I'll do the run of the mill - coriander, parsley & basil by seed. Borage & maybe some medicinal herbs would be nice. But that's going to be secondary to getting the veges growing this year! Who can resist the lovely sound of 'pineapple sage' or 'lemon balm' - but realistically - who knows whether they taste more like catnip! ;)

So - I've got a few of those professional looking seed trays - but mostly I've filled up whatever I had with seed raising mix. I used a few small seedling pots hanging around, a polystyrene tray with a few screwdriver holes in the bottom & filled some pots shallowly on the bottom.

A few weeks back I planted some cabbages - red & green, onions, tomatoes, beetroot, capsicum & globe artichokes. Last week I added some spinach, spring onions, carrots, cucumber, zuchinni & lettuce. I'm following the garden calender recommended by but there are plenty around to try!

Its such a good feeling when you go to visit your seeds & see little bursts of life that have suddenly 'appeared'! The only seeds that haven't sprouted something are my capsicums. Reading a bit more about them they need a constant warm temperature - not sure if they've had that being in Auckland with our crazy weather! But I'll keep my hopes up before I try again & plant some more! I'll have to do a bit of research on how long you just leave them be - Surely in nature when a seed drops to the ground it has some sort of dormancy that occurs until that perfect time, under the perfect conditions?

If you have any suggestions - or want to comment on whats worked for you -  there is a comment button below this post :) Whats the strangest herb you've ever successfully grown?

Until next time!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Designing the Plots!

Well I don't know about you, but I've found that every book & webpage has a different version on what plants are 'companions' and what are 'enemies'. There are some plants that do better and have more disease resistance if you plant them in different places each year (crop rotation) or with their 'friendly companions', which sounds like a great idea! Why not if its going to help fend off the bugs?! 

I've also looked into old fashioned row by row vs square foot & decided on giving the square foot method a go, as I want to get the most yield from the space I have. I've heard mixed reviews about the success of this system & I think I will vary a bit from the quantities suggested on some things. I can't see how a tomato plant can fit into a square foot... and a rhubarb..... (but I could be wrong!). But definitely for the majority - like beets, onions, garlic etc. I'm going to give it a go! 

So I've measured my 'feet' out & put the strings up. 

So in designing my plots originally it was all a bit of a hap-hazard guess. There are some that are obviously good together like Tomatoes & Capsicums; and others like Beans and tomatoes that shouldn't be planted together, but should follow each other in rotation! Confused?! SO was I! So I ended up using an internet site that designed vege plots instead.

Check out: - Its a fantastic web garden design program that you can either use for normal row by row gardens or square foot gardens. It has a click & point system to put plants on the grid. The BEST feature is that it will have this flashing red warning system when you're about to plant some 'enemies' together! 

Another cool feature is that you can have a follow on garden.  So say you plant your spuds in place "A" this year, when you go to plant your spuds in 2013 the same warning flashing red system applies so it warns you if you're planting in the place where tomatoes/potatoes were planted last year! Fantastic for the memory challenged such as myself! I've only tried the 30 day trial so far & planned out my gardens for next year using their system (Although I'm sure that my plans will change!). You can print them off & find out information about each plant. It even has a location function - so you can get the plants specific to your country. 

Check out my plan!!! 

My gardens were slightly bigger than a complete foot each side - so where it has plants hanging over the edge I'm just using a strip of them not the full amount.

For those Square Foot Gardeners out there - this program also has the Quantities you can plant of each vegetable per foot in the top left corner of each vege! Something invaluable as I couldn't find anything that listed all the veges available & how many you could plant in each foot using this method.

So there's the plan! I had a lot of fun planning & moving & making things fit! Hope you do too!!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Clearing the Grass, Building the Beds!

Well, we spent a good couple of weeks getting these fantastic raised garden beds made!

The soil here is clay, it has a decent 10-20cm topsoil layer, but boy is it waterlogged during winter!

So we decided to build raised garden beds for better drainage, and they just look so much better than having a hole in the grass!

We overturned the grass, and built a path down one side with some leftover bricks that were scattered around the property.

We used 200x50 H4 pine to build them, and put polythene around the inner edges to prevent any minimal chemical residue (most sites say its safe & wouldn't have any residue, but we just wanted to be safe!). We chose that size wood, mainly because it was on special & cheaper than the 150x50! Also we chose the treated over macrocarpa for the longivity of it. Macrocarpa looks fantastic, but its more expensive & you'll have to replace it at some point within the next 10years. I can't guarantee that I'll have any money to do that! lol

We built 4 boxes which are 2.7m long & 1.4m wide. This is the area I was allowed to use (as my hubby was very strict on not encroaching on his valuable cricket pitch!) & I just divided it into four reasonable sized beds that worked in with the lengths of wood I could get. The only thing I made sure of was being able to reach the middle from each side.

They look fantastic & luckily we had just dug out some soil elsewhere on the property so we could top each box up with it. I thought after putting the compost & manure I'd ordered in, it would make it significantly higher but fully underestimated that one! We added 4 bags of 55L - 2 manure, 2 compost & it hardly lifted the level at all! I guess it will just have to be one of those 'over time' things! Eventually I'll pave in between them and down the other side as we collect more bricks! :)

Welcome to the Quest for Self Sufficiency!

This is a completely new and exciting journey for me! We find the cost of food incredibly expensive & aside from our mortgage it is the biggest expense each month to feed our family of four. Apparently this is actually quite common in New Zealand, and I don't know about you - but I don't feel like I get value for money with food. How often do you get to the checkout at the supermarket & think 'flip, how did it get to be THAT much, I have nothing to show for it!'. So now that the kid's appetites are becoming like ravenous dinosaurs, something needs to change.

So after reading a few books & searching the internet for a whole lot of options, we have decided to go down the path of self sufficiency. We have just moved from a small town house to a 1/4 acre section in Auckland last summer. The place is just HUGE compared to what we were used to & although its no farm (there ain't no room for a cow here!) - I have high hopes that great vegetables & fruit will come from it! :) 

I decided to start a blog, not only to monitor our progress, but as a way to communicate what we have done & tried. What worked, what didn't. I've spent hours searching & reading & I'm overflowing with different opinions & options! I couldn't find anything that showed me a step by step, trial & error way of starting vegetable gardens in New Zealand. I just wanted to see how others have done it, and so I hope that this will help others too!

I'm a complete beginner - never raised anything from seeds before & the only vegetables I've ever grown with any success is the odd tomato plant & a lot of parsley! I'm sure there will be disasters, but it's all part of the learning process!

This year is the beginning of the journey to work out how to grow things from seed, have healthier fruit & vegetables & the biggest drive - how to save money! 

It's also going to be a great lesson for my kids that cucumbers actually don't come pre-wrapped & that oranges don't come from shops, they come from trees!

So my plan is to grow enough crops over the next 6 months that I don't need to buy vegetables over summer, to provide enough summer crops e.g. beans/peas/carrots etc. to freeze for winter & to preserve tomatoes/basil etc. for winter too. 

I want to learn about staggering seedlings for continuous supply & crop rotation to improve disease resistance.

Lets hope it works!