The housekeeping of gardening

23 April 2018
April - week 4 in The Simple Home

Being able to grow some of your own food is a wonderful skill to have. Many gardeners dig in the soil, some create raised beds and, increasingly, some happily grow what they can in containers. Congratulations on taking this step if you're a new gardener. I hope the fresh vegetables and herbs you harvest will reward you for the work you do in setting up.

This week is the last in our gardening month. The topic is the housekeeping of gardening: watering, fertilising, composting and keeping your plants disease and insect-free.
Insects are easier to handle when you have a container garden. Take the time to look at your plants once a day to check they're not being destroyed by insects or disease.

Pest Control
There is no doubt that eventually your garden will be targeted by insects.  It's nothing to flip out about, it's part of the natural world, but it's wise to be on the lookout and to be prepared. If you have a small number of containers, you might pick off any bugs you find but if you don't want to do that, there are a number of relatively safe ways to control insects. My favourite is pyrethrum, an organic pesticide, which is made from daisies and considered safe.  It will control a wide rage of insects, including the most common ones you'll encounter.  Green Harvest information about insect control.

Don't forget that not all insects are bad news for your plants.  There are a number of insects - including spiders and wasps that are beneficial and will be a positive force in your garden.

Watering effectively is one of the most important parts of container gardening. When a plant is in a garden bed, it can send its roots out looking for water. In a container, that can’t happen, the plant is dependent on you for water. There are no watering rules, how and when you water will depend entirely on where you live. Knowing when to water in your garden is one of the skills you’ll develop. Put your fingers into the soil and feel how dry it is. If you can still feel moisture, it doesn’t have to be watered that day. 

TIP: Never let the potting mix dry out completely. The mix will become water phobic and it will repel instead of absorb water.

In cooler climates, water in the morning because that gives the plants all day for their leaves to dry out. Plants can develop a condition called powdery mildew if they’re constantly wet. In sub-tropical and tropical climates, water in the evening. That gives the plant about 12 hours to take up the moisture before the sun hits the leaves again. It will be fully hydrated in the morning and more able to cope with a day of sun. Watch your plants, because there will be days when you’ll need to give extra water. Wind and sun will dry out the soil so don’t be afraid to add water when you see the plant is stressed and wilting or you notice the soil is very dry.

TIP: Don’t sit your containers in a saucer or trough that catches water. That will stop the water draining away and could kill the plants.

Try to save water in containers and buckets when it's raining.  Water is costly and using it increases the cost of your home-grown vegetables and herbs. A bucket of water could keep a couple of containers going for a week so it's worth having buckets ready at the downpipe when it's raining.

This is a new plant for me this year. It's wasabi rocket and will be a great addition to our salads.

Fertilising – make your own
All plants need nourishment to keep them healthy and productive. If you plant into good quality potting mix with a small addition of manure or compost, then water with weak liquid fertiliser every week, you'll get the best from your plants.

There are three major ingredients in plant food: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen helps plants produce healthy leaf growth, phosphorus is essential for the development of healthy roots, flowers and fruit; and potassium helps the movement of water in plants. The commercial fertiliser you buy will be a mix of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium and are commonly known as NPK fertilisers.

If you want to grow organic fruit and vegetables, look for organic fertilisers or make your own. I use home-made comfrey fertiliser but comfrey needs to be grown in soil so if you have no soil for planting, you'll need to use something else.  You can make up a liquid tea using fertiliser pellets - Dynamic Lifter, or read the recipes here.  When I don't make my own, I use organic carp fertiliser and a seaweed concentrate.

Setting up a compost heap or bin
If you have a small space where you can locate a compost bin, it will be worth your time and effort to make compost.  Not only will it enable you to recycle your kitchen scraps, paper and old knitted dishcloths, you'll make the best additive for your container plants. You can buy recycled plastic compost bins with lids. If you find one, grab it and you'll be ready to start composting the next day.

Start with pieces of cardboard, shredded or ripped paper, old envelopes, contents of the vacuum cleaner (remove any little bits of plastic), straw, old pieces of cotton, wool and linen, and then add kitchen scraps, cuttings from the garden and lawn clippings if you have them. Lawn clippings are very good in the compost because they add heat and will speed up the decomposition. If you can, add a bucket full of garden soil as well as that will bring in the soil microbes that will help balance the compost.

You can add anything that has once been alive but do not add dairy products or meat/fish of any kind. That will attract rats and mice. When you've added the green and brown mix, cover the bin with the lid to exclude rodents and keep the compost safe from visiting birds. The compost mix should always be slightly wet so add enough water to moisten it.

If you have some cow, horse or poultry manure add that as part of your greens, alternatively, buy a bag of chicken manure pellets from the produce store and lightly scatter them through the layers as you add to the heap. The manure will heat up the compost and activate the compost a great deal. Comfrey leaves will also help speed up decomposition.

There is a lot of information about compost here.

How to start your compost
Start on bare earth by placing a thick layer of shredded newspaper or straw as your base.

Add whatever other ingredients you have, alternating browns and greens if you can (sometimes you can't).  Browns are anything dry such as paper, cardboard or straw, greens are anything such as green leaves, kitchen scraps or lawn clippings.  You'll need more brown material than green. Start with a ratio of about 10 to 1 and adjust it as you go.

Remember the brown to green ratio but don't get obsessed with it being exactly right. If your compost is too dry with browns, it won't decompose, if it is too wet with greens, it will smell. 

BROWNS - carbon
  • shredded newspaper and magazines - but nothing glossy and coloured
  • shredded computer paper
  • cardboard - cut up in small pieces
  • crushed egg shells
  • ash
  • straw and hay
  • hair
  • the contents of your vacuum cleaner - check to make sure there's no plastic
  • wool and cotton clothing

GREENS - nitrogen
  • grass clippings
  • leaves
  • green garden waste - but nothing that is diseased and no woody branches, they take too long to break down
  • anything high in nitrogen like cow, goat, sheep, chicken and horse manures, chicken manure pellets
  • fruit and vegetable peelings
  • kitchen waste - but not meat or dairy products
  • seaweed

  • meat
  • dairy products
  • diseased plants
  • anything plastic or acrylic
  • dog or cat poo


  1. Thanks for all of the helpful information, Rhonda. I didn't know that potting mix would repel water if it dried out completely. I usually plant into compost because the summers here are so brutal. I hope you ended up getting a blood orange tree. The fruit is so pretty and colorful. I am harvesting those and the artichokes right now. Homegrown produce really ups the quality of life.

  2. We have a 20 year old pile that rewards us with wonderful black compost every year. We have 2.5 acres so we just have a pile at the edge of the woods. It started out with w wire fence enclosure but that is long gone and it goes on just as it is. It is our veggie fertilizer along with all our coffee grounds so it is all free! It looks like we will finally warm up here in about a week so we are ready to get going!

    1. That's an impressive compost pile!

    2. We don't do a thing to our pile but pile it on. We don't worry about what goes in there at all. Kitchen scraps and yard waste is about it. We don't usually get any paper in there and it is in full shade but it keeps on coking anyway.

  3. This is just a small thing, but it saves me about $10-$20 a month. Instead of buying herbal teabags I now just snip leaves and stems from my garden herbs. No packaging and some composting to boot. Love this post. Thank you.

  4. Bugs are so much easier to keep on top of in the pot based garden that's for sure. I enjoy a therapeutic stroll around to squish the green caterpillars at the moment!
    I use the black compost bins as I inherited some at one point - these don't get hot enough to kill seeds but otherwise they are good. I even find that I can compost many of the food products that attract rats/mice without issue because they are contained - but that would depend on how keen the vermin are to get a free meal I suppose so this may vary for others. At the moment I'm collecting lots of piles of autumn leaves to add to the compost bins to help balance out the nitrogen/carbon mix - I'm notoriously lax in my balance and usually end up with a bit of a smelly wet mix before remembering to add in some carbon. I'm hoping a nice big pile of leaves beside the bin will remind me!

    1. I collect fallen Autumn leaves too, Laura, and add a big handful or two each time I add "green" material to the compost bin. That keeps it balanced usually. Meg:)

  5. One of the best things I've found for limiting pests in the garden is planting a hodge podge of things to confuse and deter pests. Strongly smelling plants, such as marigolds seem to deter them too. I have two compost tumblers for garden clippings etc. and a worm farm for kitchen peelings etc. Good tip to keep pots out of saucers where they'd be sitting in water, I've lost a few plants that way! Meg:)

  6. With trying to kill off pests it must be remembered that even organic pesticides will kill off the good bugs as well as the bad. As you said Rhonda good bugs are useful, for Pollination and as predators of the bad bugs. Well grown and well fed plants are usually less susceptible to bad bugs.
    Claire in Melbourne

  7. Excellent tips, and a reminder I need to make some compost &/or nettle tea fertilizer. I garden in the ground, and only grow houseplants and some tender perennials in pots, such as moringa and lemons. I'd never known about the soil becoming hydrophobic, so good to know.

  8. I tried the compost pile but could never get it right. Then I read about someone digging a hole in the garden and putting their veggie peels, crushed egg shells, coffee grounds and tea bags and such in the hole and cover it over. My garden is in the ground and I have been doing this for over a year. I have gone over the entire garden and am starting over. I keep the scraps in a gallon ice cream bucket with a tight fitting lid and when it is full I trek out back and bury it. Last year I had volunteer potatoes, tomatoes, cantaloupes and all sorts of things that produced for me. The soil has become rich and loamy over this time as well. I put out mulch over the entire garden in the fall and it is ready to plant in the spring. I also use the no-till method and have a few weeds but no like I used to have. Burying the peels and such deep enough discourages animal activity also. For me this is just easier than the compost pile method and having to constantly keep it hot and turn. When I first started I had poor soil and very few worms. Now anywhere I dig I find lots of worms working to aerate my soil so I don't have to.

  9. Gardeners might want to google for info on Keyhole Gardens....these were started in an effort to help grow veges in Africa but the idea is spreading around the world. A round raised garden of about 2 feet in height with a key hole to walk in and reach the middle and deposit green waste to build your compost right there in the middle of the garden. It is all very practical on so many levels.

  10. So much information in this post! Personally I've found worm farming easier than a traditional compost, so if you can't get a compost to work, try a worm farm ;)

  11. Thank you for the information on composting, I started one but the fruit flies have taken over. I think I have to much green in it. I need ti add some dry leaves or dirt maybe.



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