Thursday, 25 November 2010

Gardening ~ maintenance, weed control & organics

Ease of maintenance is vital.  
For gardening to be enjoyable it needs to be well within our physical capabilities and the time we want to spend on it.  Some work can be expected to be heavy-going at times, but most should be straightforward and reasonably light.  The way a garden is set out, our choice of plants, the use of mulch, and the way we choose to control weeds are all part of this.

General layout considerations:
When I'm in the garden I want to be able to move about freely, without having to avoid branches or worry about where to place my feet.  Even more, I want to be able to get at the garden to do things in it without struggle.  To do so, it's helpful for borders to be of a width that's easy to reach into, or to have stepping stones in them.  I don't in the least mind bending over, but for some people this is difficult, in which case raised beds are a good idea.

Choose plants suited to local conditions:
These will require minimal work and care.  If unsure, look at what thrives in your neighbours gardens or ask at your local garden supplies shop.  Local websites such as those provided by your council or gardening clubs are likely to be a source of useful information.   
     In New Zealand our many local native plants have evolved to fit their location precisely so may be an excellent choice.  However, regional variations mean that not all natives do equally well in different parts of the country. I'll write a separate article with links to some lovely examples so you can admire them for yourselves.

Ease of access for removal of garden rubbish:
This requires access-ways of a suitable width and gradient.  Steps that are too steep and gates that are too narrow are frustrating and waste valuable effort and energy.  Yes, I've been there!  Think about walking a wheelbarrow full of anything and possibly heavy, and you'll get the idea.  In a large garden think of trailer access or the width you'll need to drag a tarpaulin bearing a load of weeds and prunings. 

You'll need room for your compost and other debris. 
Even if you don't compost your kitchen scraps, you'll still need somewhere to put lawn clippings, fallen leaves and general weeds.  Of course you can pay someone to take all that sort of thing away, but wouldn't you rather have the benefit of it?  While some of the debris is likely to need to be disposed of as rubbish, most of it will rot down nicely and be able to go back into the garden again. 
     It seems nutty to pay for waste removal and then buy compost and fertilizer when with a little time and almost no effort a simple composting arrangement in the garden can enable Nature to do it all for you at zero cost! 
     Compost heaps require very little work.  At one place we lived we had a black plastic tower with removable gates near the base.  I never thought much about it, but after a time discovered that Nature was magically transforming our scraps and garden litter into rich black earth which I could scoop out from the base by the bucketful!  Over time there were many bucketfuls, rather in the manner of Mary Poppins extraordinary carpetbag!

Mulch, mulch, mulch: 
Adequate mulching keeps in moisture, introduces fibre to the soil, and reduces weeds dramatically.  Some people layer newspaper under mulch to increase the effect.
     It needn't be costly.  Close to where I now live a local fencing company sells trailer-loads of light wood chips for $15.  It's not ideal but it works.  When searching for a provider be sure to check that the wood or other products are chemical-free.
     In New Zealand, land of many sheep, sheep pellets are widely available and can work wonders.  These are made from the waste wool shorn from around the sheeps behinds so it's not fit to use in the ordinary way, but is wonderfully nutritious for the garden and the wool content conserves moisture in the ground.  Be sure not to confuse the garden product with the stock feed as I've found both listed with the same descriptor!
    Before applying mulch water the ground thoroughly as you want to keep moisture in rather than out.

Other weed suppressants: 
  • Plant, plant, plant: the earth seeks to cover itself.  If you leave earth bare it will grow something.  Give it something to grow that you like, at least mildly, in the places in between your more valued plants.  For these cover plants it's sensible to choose those which can easily be removed once they are past their best or as your other plants fill out.  Marigolds and forget-me-nots are two plants I use for this purpose.  Both flower well for a time attracting bees and providing them with food.  Marigolds also attract ladybirds which are valuable as their diet  includes smaller insects such as aphids.   Both plants self-seed from year to year.   
  • I'm sure that weed matting has its place, but I don't choose it.  I should think that to be of use it would need to cover a reasonably substantial area.  In a narrow bed the weeds still grow underneath and then push out sideways and are harder to remove than if there was no weed matting in place!  If I were to use weed matting anywhere it would be underneath a paved area if it was large enough for it to be effective. 
  • Don't even speak to me about black plastic polythene which I find totally disgusting.  It kills life in the ground underneath it turning it to black glug and is difficult to dig out if unwanted - yuk!
Let's not dramatise about the presence of a few weeds here and there!
Letting the weeds grow just a little gives seedlings you might value a chance to show their faces and be recognised.  I've got loads of seedlings this way, and enjoy the mystery of seeing what's coming up.  By weeding too carefully too often you miss all that, just as you do if chemical sprays are used.  In any case I don't want my garden to look too controlled or like one in a magazine; I want it to look like my own.  Too smart and tidy is like a smart house one dare not comfortably live in.  Relax!

Know your weeds, and for heavens sake don't plant them!
Weeds are unwanted plants, particularly those which tend to take over space needed for the plants we do want.  In New Zealand's temperate climate plants which are valued in other parts of the world are not welcome here: Buddleia is a good example: this shrub is popular with butterfly enthusiasts, but there are other plants on which butterflies can do well.  Privet, blackberry, broom and oxalis are other examples which spring to mind.
When we lived in Christchurch I made good use of a brochure produced by the local council - most of the plants which had made themselves at home on the stream banks which I had adopted were on it!
Finding the on-line version proved strangely difficult, but here it is.  The average New Zealand gardener needs more of this sort of thing.  For me it was good to have a print version to hold in my hand which meant I could wander about with it.  There are plenty of websites that give more sophisticated information about weed control in the wild which is a huge topic and not what I am looking at here.
Dock root
     Not all weeds should be composted: some, such as ivy, need to be burnt or to go into the rubbish.  Here again, your local council may be able to provide useful information.  Your local gardening club is likely to be a source of information.
     Removing invasive or difficult weeds, such as dock, when they are young, or at least plucking off seed heads before these disperse are good preventative measures.
     At the left you can see how extensive the dock root becomes if left to its own devices!  From memory it was at least ten inches long.  It had grown in the middle of a clump of daisies which I dug out in order to remove it.  Once this has been accomplished I was able to gift the daisies to my neighbours - a happy result for everyone.

Consider an organic approach to weed and pest control: 
Many people control weeds by using poisonous chemical sprays.  I do not.  There are other choices.  For example, the Christchurch City Council now does all its kerbside weed control not with chemical sprays but with steam!

For me this is about fostering life rather than death, of respecting the right to life of the local birds and creatures who give so much and take so little.  Nature left to its own devices is very economical and has its own checks and balances.  The problem is that the existence of humans means that nature is not left to its own devices; we have introduced all manner of plant forms and situations in which pests are out of balance with what we need and want.  Organic methods seek to minimise toxic interference in our environment. 

The approach with organic treatments emphasises deterring pests rather than killing them.   It can be helpful to remember too, that insect pests such as aphids and flies can be an important food source for  beneficial insects such as ladybirds, as well as spiders and birds.  They all work together, and if you eradicate one sort it's going to affect them all.  There's a balance.  We have to be prepared to share a portion of our garden bounty with other creatures.  That, I think, is fair.

Here are some useful web links for organic products and methods: 
These are all New Zealand sites.  For those readers living elsewhere, some of information provided on them is sure to be applicable.  Topics covered include both weed as well as pest control.  While this article is more focused on weeds the two topics are closely linked.  I hope what's provided here encourages readers to consider an organic approach.
Toxins in our environment:
I'm well aware that using 'weed wands' can minimise bending and hand-weeding and save time but the use of poisons is worrying.  Quite frankly, I don't want to have to think about it.  Manufacturers of conventional pesticides and herbicides can say what they will about the safety of their products but the long term effects are unlikely to be known for many years to come.  DDT, once widely used throughout the world including New Zealand, is now known to be residual in our food chains long after its use has been stopped, as are other contaminants. 
     Given that there are other choices why are chemical treatments still so widely used?  I expect there's a great deal of money being made from their manufacture and sale.
The correlation between pesticides and other environmental contaminants and human disease and medical dysfunction is not speculative - it's real.
For those wishing to read more about it I list these articles.  The last one is particularly readable and wide-ranging:
On a happier note here are the links to:
  • my article about an organics farm near Gisborne which featured on television last year.  This is one of my most widely read articles.  Organic farming in New Zealand is gaining wider publicity these days thanks to the television show Country Calender.  The link takes you to their collection of eleven episodes featuring organic farms.
  • my article about the documentary "The real dirt on Farmer John".  John Peterson grew up in a farming family in the American mid-west, and after a series of crises both personal and agricultural, chose to farm organically.  The crises didn't stop there.  This is a story of endurance and ultimate triumph told with refreshing candour. 

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