March 25, 2011

6 Ways to Re-Use Plastic Bottles in the Garden

Plastic bottles are everywhere these days and most of them are recyclable and that's a good thing. But it still requires a lot of energy to collect, sort and recycle those plastic bottles. Here are 6 easy ways to re-use plastic bottles in the garden that will benefit both the gardener and the environment.

1. Self Watering Plant Pots

Drill a hole in the bottle cap for a water-wick. This can be made from any absorbent material, such as a rolled-up absorbent kitchen towel. Cut the plastic bottle in half and invert the neck section. Insert the wick through the hole in the cap and fit this section into the bottom section of the bottle. Half fill the bottom section with water. You can also add diluted plant food to feed the plant. The top section can be filled with potting mix. As you fill the top section, ensure that the wick is centred and reaches at least 3/4 of the way up, to ensure good even watering. Plant a seed or seedling and sit the pot in a sunny, sheltered position. These pots are great for getting seedlings started indoors for later transplanting into the garden.

2. Plastic Bottle Cloche

A cloche is a traditional plant cover that is used to protect plants from frost damage and thus allow gardeners to get an early start to spring plantings. A clear plastic bottle can make an excellent cloche and the wide range of sizes available means that there will be a bottle to suit most needs, from 2 litre bottles up to the big 25 litre plastic water-cooler bottles. Simply cut off the base and remove the cap (for better ventilation) then place over the plant that needs protection when there is a risk of frost. It is best to remove these cloches on warm sunny days as continual poor ventilation can cause problems with fungal and mildew diseases.

3. Seedling Guards
If you have a problem with cut-worms, slugs, snails or other animals eating your new seedlings, a simple plant guard can be made by cutting the top and bottom off of a plastic bottle to make a protective sleeve or collar that can be sat over the emerging seedling. If you have some wood ash or even sawdust, this can be lightly scattered inside the guard and will help to deter pests as well. Once the seedling is well established the guard can be removed (even if it needs to be cut off) and the plastic can go in the recycle bin.

4. Water Well

Plants benefit from deep watering as it encourages healthy root growth. Cut the bottom out of a plastic bottle and drill a hole in the cap. Bury the bottle cap down, with around 50mm (2") of the bottle exposed, alongside crops such as cucumbers, melons, squash, pumkins, etc. Depending on the size of the bottle, one or two bottles next to each plant should deliver plenty of water into the soil where the plants can use it.

5. Fruit Fly Trap

Cut the top off a plastic bottle, just below where the sides begin to straighten and remove the cap. Put a bait in the bottom part of the bottle. This can be ripe or over-ripe fruit (banana works well), vinegar or even a little red wine. Turn the neck upside down and fit it inside the base. The two parts can be taped or glued together for a good seal and a wire or string handle can be attached to hang the trap from your fruit trees. The flies are drawn into the bottle by the bait and cannot easily find the way out again. The trap can be pulled apart and cleaned or disposed of. These traps and cleaning up all fallen fruit can reduce fruit fly infestations dramatically.

6. Plastic Scoop
You can make a simple scoop for handling a range of garden jobs from potting mix to chook food. Cut a plastic bottle on an angle to make a simple plastic scoop. Plastic bottles with handles work best for this. The stiffer the bottle, the stronger the scoop.

These are six simple ways to reduce our impact on the planet and enhance our lives by re-using a common item that is normally treated as waste or a recyclable item. There are plenty more ways to use these bottle around the home. I will leave that up to your imagination.

March 12, 2011

Growing Cucumbers

Cucumbers can be a reasonably easy plant to grow and can crop quite prolifically throughout the warmer months of the year, when they are much sought after for use in a range of salads. They can also be pickled for year round use, making them a good crop for the householder or small holder to consider growing. The larger, spreading varieties do require a fair amount of room but there are many bush varieties that take much less space and can still crop quite heavily in good soils.

Cucumbers grow best in well-drained, fertile soil, high in organic matter with near-neutral pH. Regular, plentiful moisture is needed until the fruit begins to ripen, otherwise they may develop a bitter taste in dry conditions. Cucumbers are heavy nitrogen feeders and require fertile soils. Regular small feeds of an organic compost or plant food may be required to achieve the best yields. Cucumbers are not hard to grow, as I said, as long as you provide good fertile soil, plenty of moisture and full sun. Wait for soil and weather to warm up before planting, and use fabric row covers if pests are a problem.

Vining varieties can be trellised and will climb up to 2m (6') with support, or hug the ground if allowed to sprawl. Bush varieties take up only 1 sqare metre (2 or 3 square feet), while unsupported vining varieties will require almost 4 square metres (12 square feet) a plant.

Cucumbers are very sensitive to cold. They need warm soil and air, whether direct-seeded or transplanted. Don’t rush to plant too early. Seed will not germinate if the soil temperature is below 10 C (50 F), and germinates only slowly at 20 C (68 F). Seedlings can be started early indoors or on a heating pad in a cloche for a head start. If pests are a problem, a fine mesh cloche or tunnel can be used to help the plants get away to a good start when planted out.

Making Traditional Dill Pickles

Growing up in the Barossa Valley, which has a strong German influence from early settlement, we were exposed to some interesting traditional foods and preperation methods. One of these were the traditional dill pickles prepared in a ceramic pickling crock.  The pickles were usually full cucumbers picked early at around 100 - 150mm (4 - 6") long and 25 -50mm (1 - 2") in diameter. These bump covered (burped) cucumbers were crisp to the bite and had a distinctive taste of the dill and although they may be said to be somewhat of an aquired taste, they do go well with a bitey matured cheddar cheese. Add some smoked german mettwurst, (with garlic of course) or sliced pastrami, a crusty bread roll and a glass of the local red wine and you have what became known as a Barossa ploughmans lunch. Dill pickles can add a distinctive savoury element to mixed savoury or anti-pasto type platters and can be eaten as snack at any time.

Not everyone likes them, (especially on their hamburgers it seems) but if you do, you might like to try this old recipe that I found. I don't know about you, but I don't have a 4 gallon pickle crock but what I do have is a slow cooker with a ceramic pot and glass lid. This pot would be fine for making dill pickles and the recipe just needs to be scaled down to the volume of the crock pot. The glass lid would need to be kept covered with towels or similar to exclude light and the lid should be as good a seal as possible.
(As I said, this is an old recipe, so apologies for the imperial measures only.)

March 11, 2011

Safe Drinking Water

Safe drinking water. It's something I have been thinking a lot about lately. We take it for granted in many parts of the world, that safe drinking water will always be available at the turn of a tap. For many people in the world, that simply isn't the case on a day to day basis and recent natural events have hilighted to me how our 'safe' water supplies can be disrupted at any time, leaving whole cities with little or no safe drinking water at all.

In some cases, such as major flood events, it can seem like one of nature's great contradictions that you are surrounded by water but have nothing safe to drink but that is often the case. Contaminated flood water is not safe to drink. An earthquake can break water mains and sewer pipes, causing water contamination and even modern-day water treatment plants can fail for any number of reasons.

Water is vital for life. We all need to have water to drink and we all need that water to be as free from contamination as possible. If you happen to find yourself in the unhappy circumstances of having no safe drinking water, or the only water available is dirty and possibly contaminated, you can make a simple sand filter and remove most of the water turbidity. The water will still need to be boiled for between 3 to 10 minutes, depending on contamination levels, before it is safe to drink. It may not taste very nice or be absolutely clear but it will be safe to drink and it will sustain your life. One complaint with drinking boiled water cold is that it tastes flat. This is because a lot of the air in the water has been lost during the boiling process. This can be overcome by aerating the water again by pouring from one container to another, at some height, to mix air back into the water. This will improve the taste greatly.

There are many commercial water filters available that range in price and affectiveness. Many will require expensive replacement cartridges if in use for extended periods and these can work out to be an expensive luxury in some cases. There is one very simple water filtration system that can provide safe drinking water continuously for months and years. This is an unglazed clay pot water filter wich is simple to make and easy to maintain.

March 04, 2011

Bird Control in the Orchard - Using Pigeons

Quite a few years ago I attended an information day for organic farmers and among the speakers on the day was Mr. Darren Lloyd, a biodynamic farmer from Nyah, Victoria. His talk was incredibly informative in many areas and one small point that he made was about how he used pigeons in his orchard as a form of bird control. In this part of the world birds can be a major problem for fruit growers and can reduce a good crop to almost nothing, if left unchecked. Most farmers use methods such as gas cannons or noise emmiting bird scarers or strong chemicals to keep birds from their fruit. Some may even resort to shooting birds during the fruiting season to save their crop. All of these methods have adverse affects on the environment and the local populations of native birds.

The concept of keeping pigeons in the orchard to scare off other birds was one that struck me as one of those elegant solutions that can be created when permaculture thinking is applied to a problem instead of just following what everyone else does. I will let Mr. Lloyd explain it in his own words;

"Bird control is achieved by using white homing pigeons. Dark fruit eating birds are "scared" off by the homing pigeons territorial flying habits. White homing pigeons are only grain eating birds and scout out looking for grain and seeds during the day, but never venturing much further than one or two km from their nesting loft. It appears that the white colour and the flocking habits of these birds ward off the coloured fruit eating birds. Whether they believe that the pigeons are white hawks remains unknown, however it is a cheap and ecologically viable approach to poisonous chemical sprays, deafening gas canons and nerve affecting noise emitters."

I must bow to Mr. Lloyd's experience in regard to the effectiveness of white pigeons over common geys but I do know that pigeons are a flocking bird and are quite territorial in nature. I have witnessed for myself a small flock of pigeons chasing off much larger birds from their territory as the whole flock chases and harasses the intruders in unison.


A simple pigeon loft can be built in the orchard on poles to give the birds a high roost. This will help decrease some of the problems associated with pigeons such as flea infestation. If the bottom of the loft is made of wire mesh, with nesting boxes and roosting poles on the inside, almost all the manure from the birds inside the loft will fall through the mesh and onto the ground. This can then be collected and used as an organic fertilizer. If room permits, cereal crops could be grown in the orchard between trees to supply the pigeons with food. Pigeons are very low maintenance and as long as they have comfortable nesting boxes and plenty of food and water, a dozen or so breeding pairs can produce a steady stream of offspring, which can be used as fresh meat if you like. All in all, this is quite an elegant solution to what can be a major problem for fruit growers, with a few side benefits thrown in for good measure.

While I was researching this (brief) article, I came across a testimonial from another Victorian farmer who had tried this idea in his home orchard. He stated that before the trial, he and his family would be lucky to get any fruit from their home orchard at all and in the first year with pigeons, about half the fruit crop was saved. It's believed that in time this amount will increase as the fruit-eating birds develop other feeding patterns.

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March 02, 2011

Patchwork Quilting - Turn Scrap Cloth Into an Heirloom

I must admit, this isn't a craft that I have tried myself  but it is certainly a fantastic way to recycle old clothing and other materials into a beautiful and functional item. The tools required are the basic sewing tools and even hand sewing could produce a good quality quilt in time. This is the sort of craft that can be put down and picked up as time permits and fabric can be saved and cut as it becomes available. Patchworking could also be utilised to make slip covers for modern doonas or quilts and cushion covers. Patterns can be as simple or advanced as you please, ranging from simple square blocks to advanced geometric designs. Well made quilts can become treasured family heirlooms and quilting can be a social experience when shared.

I don't do a lot of sewing myself but I think that even I could turn out a decent quilt if I put my mind to it.


Patchwork quilts can be as simple or as fancy as you please and a great way to recycle fabric.


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Improving Problem Soils

In a previous article I discussed improving soils by adding organic matter and it is true that organic matter will improve any soil somewhat. But how can you improve the very worst of soils and turn them into productive land? It is possible but may require more physical work than just adding compost or other organic matter and in some extreme cases, it may be easier to create raised beds of organic material rather than struggle on with soil that just isn't fit to plant in.

Let's have a look at some real problem soils and conditions and some of the things that we can do to improve the situation.

Sandy Soils
Pure sand is perhaps one of the most difficult soil types to work with. Water drains through the soil profile rapidly and the size of the particles means that vital plant nutrients are often lacking. Adding some organic matter will help somewhat but the actual amounts required for any significant improvement can be enormous.
I would strongly urge raised beds for sandy soils as the organic matter in the raised bed will eventually have a lasting affect upon the soil underneath. The continual breakdown of organic matter in the raised bed will slowly improve the underlying sand but if the bed is well managed, still provide a productive growing area for immediate use.

Raised beds are good for growing most food crops but not really suitable for trees. If you wish to plant trees into a sandy soil it will require a bit more work. As much good organic compost or manure as you can get should be dug into the planting site to a reasonable depth. This will help to keep water and nutrients available to the growing tree. Once the tree is planted, the surface area around the tree should be heavily mulched with organic matter and this should be kept slightly damp at all times. Watering a tree in these conditions should be targeted at the root zone, which is usually as wide as the canopy of the tree. Watering too close to the trunk on sandy soils will just cause water to move downward through the soil profile and not outward into the root zone where it is needed. Continually adding more organic mulch and even planting green manure crops between trees will help to improve water retention in the top-soil. In some cases, gardeners will dig clay or loam soils into sands to try to improve the soil structure and if you have a source for such soils, then it will give some benefits, including increased nutrient availability. One last trick that can also help on sandy soils is mulching with rocks around trees or shrubs. This can help keep moisture in the soil longer, which is a major improvement for sandy soils.

Rocky Ground
In some places the soil can be a very thin covering over rocks of different sizes or the soil may just contain so many rocks that digging and planting is just hard work with little reward. Once again, no-dig raised beds can be the answer for growing most vegetables and I would suggest using the rocks from the top soil inside the bed as part of the raised edge if they are large enough. These conditions are sometimes a result of erosion, as the top soil has been washed or blown away. If your soil is very rocky there is little that can be done to improve it beyond adding organic matter and removing as much rock as possible from planting areas. Some trees cope well in these conditions as long as they have some fertile soil to get established in. Forming small pockets of fertility in rocky ground can greatly increase productivity and over time these areas can be expanded further. The key is probably to start small and only tackle as much area as you can handle without too much effort and expand the growing area over time. if you have sloping rocky ground then terracing may be an option to consider as well.

Heavy Clay
This can be one of the most frustrating types of soil to work with as it tends to set hard when dry and turn into sticky mud when wet. It can be stratified (layered), making water penetration poor and leading to boggy patches in some places. Once again, organic matter will help to improve the soil structure over time. Additions of gypsum will help to 'break' clay soils and allow better water penetration but it is not instant (regular applications over 3 years should see some improvement) and is slightly alkaline. Gypsum can be applied to established gardens or dug in when beds are being established. The main thing that you are trying to achieve when improving clay soils is to improve the drainage and soil structure. This is mainly about getting those air spaces into the soil and breaking up any sub-surface layers. Raised planting beds or rows and targeted watering will help to avoid forming hard-pan or compacted soils. Too much digging and working of clay soils can actually damage their structure, as can over-watering. get a clay soil right and it will reward you with one of the most fertile soils of all.

Building Sites
Many times building sites will be stripped of topsoil and if the site is sloping, this can expose different layers of sub-soil that are not good for growing anything and can cause all sorts of other problems for the gardener. Many times, the fertile topsoil can end up in landfill far removed from the property as builders see it as a problem to be removed. If you have any control over the building process then you should convince the builders to save the topsoil on the site, even if they just pile it up in one area while the build is in progress. Other problems such as compaction and contamination can also be a problem on building sites. Many builders think that they can just bury their sins and everything will be fine. This can cause problems for the home gardener further down the track. The main thing to keep in mind is what the problems may be and deal with them before trying to establish garden beds. A single block can end up with a variety of different soil conditions due to building work and that can mean a number of different techniques will be required to fix the different problems. Keep working in organic matter and building up soil fertility generally and try to deal with problem areas as required.

Boggy Areas
Quite often there may be a patch of garden that either never seems to dry out or is prone to flooding from rainfall. The soil may smell sour and somewhat rotten and nothing much seems to thrive there. This can be a naturally occurring boggy area or it may be a result of human actions that have created a low area with poor drainage. If you wish to convert these areas to productive garden, there are a few things that can be done.

Creating drainage may be possible if there is anywhere that the excess water can be drained to. This might be as easy as laying slotted agricultural drainage pipe into a trench and draining the boggy area away to lower ground that drains better, or you may need to dig out a drainage pond at the lowest point that will take the excess water out of the soil and collect it into the pit or pond. The drained bog will need to be worked over well to aerate the soil and the soil pH may need to be adjusted for that specific area. Some trees are very good at taking up excess water from boggy ground but will usually need to be planted on the edge of the boggy area, rather than right in the middle. On the other hand, there are many useful plants that thrive in boggy situations so that can also be an option to be explored.

Saline Soils
Saline or salty soils can occur naturally in some areas but are typically a result of bad land management practices. Over-clearing of trees can cause the water table to rise and push salt to the soil surface. Over-watering can have the same result in some cases, as can the continued use of mineral based fertilizers. Repairing saline soils can be a major undertaking and can involve a mixture of drainage work and planting of salt tolerant species to lower the water table. Once the water table is lowered, any remaining salt in the soil can be flushed out by a heavy watering, as long as the water table doesn't rise and push the salt to the surface again. Once again, organic matter will help improve saline soils and using organic fertilizers will reduce the problems of salt accumulation in the soil.

None of these soil types is ideal for gardening but sometimes we have to try to work with what we have. If we can turn unproductive areas into productive land then that is a real accomplishment and something to be very proud of. We humans are very inventive and if we look to different cultures in other parts of the world, we can often find solutions in use there that we may not have thought of. If all else fails, no-dig raised beds can produce food, even on top of paved areas if they are set up right.