Garden Update #7- June 2014

I’ve finally made my way back into the garden – permanently this time.

I lost interest in it after Alf died – it made me too sad.

I watered it occasionally, and cut the grass infrequently, but that was about it.

Alf was very proud of what I’d achieved, and was always showing it off to our visitors, or watching what I was doing from our balcony. I miss him, and gardening reminded me too much of him.

Anyway, I’ve decided that it’s about time that I get off the couch, get stuck into it, and continue to make Alf proud.

Plus I can hear him say “Don’t you dare let that garden die – do you know how much we’ve spent on it!!!”

Luckily I planted a low-maintenance garden, otherwise I’d be in big trouble after ignoring it for six months! Good news is, nothing died, and everything kept right on growing. In some cases, a bit too much!

Square Foot Garden Bed

I dug up the bed as the soil had compacted and was rock hard.

I then added a mix of composted horse/chicken manure, perlite and coco peat, and dug that into each square.

The only things still there from last year were a straggly thyme plant, spring onions, half-dead oregano, and strawberries.

The original strawberry plants had died, but I transplanted about 20 new small plants that had grown from runners.

I’ve planted parsley, chilli, mint, thyme and sage seedlings, and I’ve sown the following seeds:

Capsicum (peppers)
Beef steak tomatoes
Roma tomatoes
Celery
Sugar snap and snow peas
Bush beans
Silverbeet (Swiss chard)
English spinach
Lettuces (including Cos for Caesar salads!)

Again, I’ve only planted things that are expensive or not available here.

I have six empty squares which I’ll use to plant more salad vegetables in a few weeks’ time, so that I get a staggered supply rather than have everything maturing at once.

And I’ve moved my cement statue into the middle of the bed – she adds height, colour and interest to the empty bed.

SFG BedAerial ViewUsing Compost as Mulch

One of the reasons the SFG bed was so dry (ignoring my bad watering practices for the moment!), was because last year I mulched it with the horse/chicken compost we bought.

The compost was either hydrophobic and repelled water, or it absorbed the water, and just held on to it.

I’m not sure which, but either way, it prevented water from reaching the soil.

I’m glad I’ve discovered that now, as I plan on mulching the entire garden with it at some stage.

As an experiment, I’ve soaked it in water, along with perlite and coco peat, and mulched the planter on the garage roof with it. This planter is in full sun for most of the day and dries out quickly, so I’ll soon be able to tell whether it’s effective or not.

Raw ingredients

Dry mix

Mulch

Soaked in water

Passionfruit

After almost 2 years, I have fruit! Only a couple, but it’s a start:

Lack of fruit on the vine can be due to insufficient water, so I’ve given it a good soaking, and used the mulch mix around the base of the vine to stop evaporation.

Passionfruit

What a beauty!

It’s been so long since I bought it, I can’t remember whether it was a yellow or purple variety – hope it’s purple – yellow clashes with the wall colour!

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Shopping for Manure Mauritian-Style

We needed manure to add to the compost, so this morning we visited the Mont Choisy chicken farm, situated at the horse riding school, in the hope that they had some for sale.

Well, who would have guessed that buying manure would be such a nice experience – we had to wait for the woman in charge to come back to her office, so we took a little stroll through the grounds…

Main house

Entrance to the main house

Worker

She did smile at us afterwards – think she was just camera-shy!

Alf and a horse

You even get to pat a horse or two, and chat to the stablehands

We were sent off down a track to load the bags of manure into the car – we anticipated driving home with all the windows down, and our heads hanging out to escape the smell.

But instead we found ourselves surrounded by mounds of a well-composted horse and chicken manure mix – no smell at all.

Hills of poop!

Hills of poop!

Pre-packed bags

Pre-packed bags

Back at the shop/office, we grabbed a tray of eggs and some free-range chicken breasts, and home we went…

Lime kiln

…past an old lime kiln…

Driveway

…and through the banyan trees (I think) lining the driveway

On the way home, we stopped at our local beach for some seaweed, but there wasn’t any:

Trou aux Biches beach

A very clean Trou aux Biches beach

What a pleasant way to while away an hour – sure beats going to the hardware store!

La Ferme de Mont Choisy Opening Hours:

Mon, Tue, Wed, Fri: 8.30 – 11am and 12 – 3pm

Thu: 8.30 – 11am and 12.30 – 3pm

1. Introduction to Composting

I’ve gathered a fair bit of information, and while it’s not rocket science, it’s too boring to read all at once, so I’ll be posting it in three instalments.

And as I’ve never composted before, I’ll be learning as I go, so bear with me.

Why Compost?

We have a lot of garden waste, as well as smaller amounts of coffee grounds, kitchen scraps, and newspapers, and it seems “wasteful” to put it out for the bin men to cart away.

Also, I’m going to need a steady supply of compost for the vegetable bed.

As compost is fairly expensive to buy (which in turn, makes your home-grown veggies expensive), I’ve decided to try my hand at making my own.

Another thing that’s expensive is the compost bin, so I’m making one of those too.

I can’t see the point in spending a fortune making (let’s face it) soil.

Albeit nutritious soil.

Some people get very complicated when composting – but if that’s what you want, stop reading, because I’ve chosen the simplest route possible.

How Composting Works

This is a straight quote from the Better Homes & Gardens Australia website:

“Oxygen-breathing bacteria break down material in the compost heap and excrete nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen.

As the material rots, the compost pile heats up and rots away even more.

Actinomycetes (a cross between fungi and bacteria) live in cooler parts of the heap and leave a cobweb-like growth on the compost – but don’t worry, it’s healthy.

Worms also burrow away, converting rubbish into soil.

Your compost is ready when it’s black, just moist, and crumbly.”

Sounds good (and as I warned – boring!), but despite the huge amounts of digging that I’ve done over the past year, I have yet to see a single worm!

Does Mauritius even have worms?

Anyway…

Making the Bin

If you’ve got plenty of room and a lot of waste, you can make a simple compost bin out of wooden pallets and star pickets – see here for instructions.

But I don’t have either, so I’m making this one.

Basically, you cut a large hole in the base of a plastic rubbish bin:

Base removedThen you dig a hole 10-15cm deep, and a bit wider than the bin. Place the bin upside down directly on the soil, and backfill to keep it in place.

And then you start filling it with whatever material you have on hand, water it, and put the lid on to cover the hole.

The lid lets in air, but stops critters from getting in – around here, mice, rats, and shrews. Not that I ever see them – the only reason I know is that Tipsy the cat occasionally brings a dead (and mutilated) one home.

Yuk!

Alf – get rid of it please – she’s hidden it behind the couch!

I did see a tang, or tenrec (a type of hedgehog originally from Madagascar) once. They’re cute but very shy – I tried to take a photo, but it kept running away and hiding it’s head in piles of leaves.

Apparently it’s not just cute, but also delicious if you like that sort of thing.

Think we’ll just stick to steak – we’re definitely not throwing a tang on the BBQ!

Anyway, the bin’s a bit of an eyesore, so if the composting works, I’ll think up a way of disguising it.

I’ve decided that it won’t have a permanent spot in the garden – as the waste rots down, I presume the ground underneath benefits.

So I’ll move it around each time I empty it out and thereby spread the goodness around.

If, that is, I can actually turn waste into garden gold!

Ready to roll

Planting the SFG Bed

Call me sad (don’t you dare!), but I’m all excited – our Square Foot Gardening bed is up and running!

You can read about the basics of SFG here if you haven’t already done so.

Preparing the Raised Bed

The trellises are in place – the posts were bolted to the inside of the bed, the top rails screwed on, and the wire mesh attached in the same way as I attached it to the passionfruit frame.

Sam and Alf

Alf with our friend, Sam. Loving your head-dress, Alf!

Bolts

The blue colour is a rubberised paint which may, or may not, stop the wood from rotting

Again, the wood was recycled from building scaffolding, so it’s fairly warped.

Some would call the trellises rickety and lopsided; I say, they’re charmingly rustic! Thanks, guys.Crooked trellisThe soil has been wheelbarrowed in – we paid Joselito’s son, Alan, to do it because it was too hard for us to do. You’ve got to recognise your limitations sometimes! I then tipped compost on top, and raked it in.

Filling the bedI tied together lengths of bamboo (which I bought because they were pink, but never found a use for) with fishing line to make my grid.

Fishing lineOur newly-laid tiles are 1 foot square, so they came in handy as a template – I lined up the bamboo along the grout lines.

GridI know they’ll quickly fade in the sun, but I’ll enjoy their pinkness in the meantime.

If we have trouble with stray cats (or Tipsy) using the bed as a litter tray, I’ll block off the long sides with shadecloth.

I’ve surrounded the outside of the bed with snail pellets because this is the time of year when the giant African snails really come out to play, and to munch their way through your garden.

Selecting the Plants

Using the companion planting guide from the website, My Square Foot Garden, I’ve come up with this plan (the brackets show the number of plants per square) – click on it to see an enlarged (and clearer) version:

Plan

I’ve positioned the more tender plants at the rear of the bed, so that the taller plants in the centre will provide shade from the afternoon sun.

The “blue” squares indicate successive planting – I’ll be sowing a new square of lettuce or English spinach every two weeks so that we have a constant supply – in theory, at least!

As you can see, I’ll be trying to grow parsnips, but I don’t think I’ve got much of a chance, as they like cold weather, which we never get. Worth a shot though, as I love them! I’d also try rhubarb if I could find a rhubarb crown. And asparagus. Yum!

I’ve chosen vegetables that are either expensive to buy, aren’t sold here, or varieties I can’t get here. I can’t see the point of planting things that are cheap and plentiful when they’re in season.

I’m also planting herbs that I use regularly. Even though they’re cheap to buy, it’ll save Alf a trip to the shops whenever I need them. They’re at the front of the bed for quick access.

I’ll plant butternut pumpkin as a groundcover in the flower beds – I’ve already had a practice run, and found that they grew best in the side and driveway beds.

Here’s a photo of my first pumpkin:

Butternut PumpkinAnd here’s a photo with my hand in it:

PumpkinHaha! The next few pumpkins were much more successful!

I also want to plant honeydew melon as a groundcover, but I have to source some seeds first – guess I’m going to have to fork out $6+ for a melon! But if they grow, it’ll be worth it in the long run.

Planting the Bed

According to my research, because we’re in a tropical zone, and therefore don’t get frost, we can plant at any time of the year.

I’m not too sure about that – even here some vegetables seem to be seasonal.

I don’t know, so I’ve stuck the seeds in anyway, and watered the entire bed with Seasol (seaweed extract) which is supposed to aid with germination.

I bought coriander and spring onions with roots still attached and planted those, and stuck some thyme cuttings in as well, along with a parsley plant I already had. This way, there’ll actually be something green in the bed while I cross my fingers and wait for the seeds to germinate.

Some of the seeds are pretty old, so I don’t know if they’re still viable.

HerbsI’ve mulched the “herbed” squares with seaweed, and will mulch the rest, if and when, the seedlings come up. The seaweed improves the soil, feeds the plants, suppresses weeds, and stops water evaporation and soil erosion.

Mulched squaresAs usual with my learning curve, I’m happily prepared to change anything as soon as I realise it’s not working.

Now it’s just a matter of watering and waiting.

And watching out for giant African snails!

African snail

African Snail

It’s thicker than my finger, and so very, very slimy and disgusting! And worst of all, it’s chomping away at my sawdust path! Eat the grass and weeds, you revolting thing!

Snail poop

Plus they poop all over the walls!

Snail poop

Don’t be embarrassed little shark – I know it wasn’t you.

Yuk! Where’s that pressure cleaner?

Introduction to SFG, and Shopping

Square Foot Gardening

I was googling vermiculite, and I discovered this website.

Wow – what a great idea for growing vegetables and herbs– you divide a raised bed into square foot sections, and depending on the fully-grown size of the plant, you simply follow a formula to plant up each square.

For example:

Tomato – 1 plant needs four squares

Capsicum – 1 plant needs one square

Cos lettuce – 4 plants to a square

Carrot – 16 plants to a square

We already have a raised bed, although it’s a foot wider than they recommend (10’ x 5’ instead of 10’ x 4’).

If I can’t reach into the centre, never mind, because Alf can – he’s got big long monkey arms.

No, not really, just normal man-size arms.

The beauty of this system, is that:

  • you can grow a large variety of plants in a relatively small area
  • your seeds last a long time (they recommend storing them in the fridge) as you only use the number that you need, instead of sowing the whole packet, thinning out the seedlings and throwing them away
  • again, because of the restricted size of the bed, you aren’t wasting water, as you’re watering a very specific area
  • as you harvest a square, you can top it up with compost, then plant it up again

I love this idea – I really hope it works for me.

The soil they use is a mix of compost, vermiculite and peat moss:

  • compost adds goodness to the soil, and thereby feeds the plants
  • peat moss helps retain water
  • vermiculite keeps the soil light and open, and allows air to circulate. It also helps with water retention.

We can get compost.

Apparently I can get peat moss, as it grows in the Black River Gorge National Park. No problem – I’m sure the rangers won’t mind me hiking through and stealing twenty or so kilos of it!

I know for sure you can get vermiculite (or something like it) because one of the local nurseries sticks it on top of their pots in the hope that you won’t notice all the clover growing in them.

What remains to be seen however, is whether they’ll sell me some or tell me who the supplier is. Probably not is my guess.

‘Cause that’s just the way it is here.

Shopping

Shopping in Mauritius is frustrating – the Yellow Pages are useless, so unless you’re lucky enough to bump into the right person, you’ve got little chance of sourcing things.

Most shop assistants aren’t very helpful – if they don’t stock it, they’ll rarely tell you who does. Maybe they just don’t know.

And when you ask a local where to buy something, 9 times out of 10, they’ll answer “Port Louis”.

What shop or at least which part of Port Louis? It’s a city for God’s sake, not a street!

It’s best to ask around the expat community because someone, somewhere, has at one point, wanted the same thing that you’re now after.

Also, if you see something you like, buy it now. Because if you go away to think about it, it will have sold out when you go back.

Anyway, back to my Square Foot Garden bed.

I’ll be starting work in it in the next couple of weeks, but it’ll be a while before my next SFG post as I have a lot of preparation to do before the actual planting.

Soil-wise, I’ll probably just end up mixing compost into the pile of soil that’s currently in the driveway, and go from there.

I hereby rename you, Square Foot Gardening Mauritian-Style.

Also known as Square Foot Gardening Without Peat Moss or Vermiculite Because I Couldn’t Find Any.

(Please drop me a line if you know of an outlet selling either of them. Cheers!)

Mulch

Mauritius, like a lot of the world, suffers from water shortages.

It’s also pretty windy so there’s a lot of soil and dust in the air (and consequently on the patios, and in the house, and in my lungs).

Why not mulch I hear you wonder – because there isn’t any readily available, I reply.

Bagasse

I tried to buy bagasse – after all, sugar cane as far as the eye can see and all that.

No chance – the sugar companies use it all to power their factories. Greedy!

Although a Queenslander friend has since told me it’s pretty stinky, so maybe that was a blessing in disguise.

Woodchips

I found small bags of woodchips but too expensive for the quantities I need (plus they were a funny colour – possibly dyed).

Seaweed

In the past, I’ve collected seaweed from the beach, rinsed it to remove the sand as soon as I get home, and mulched with that.

Apparently it’s a terrific soil conditioner but I’m not sure what that means.

If it means that buried objects like rusty nails and random bits of plastic are drawn to the surface, then yes, it is a terrific soil conditioner.

It smells like the sea (unless you accidently pick up some older bits!!), and looks good with all its different colours and textures when it’s fresh. It all fades to a uniform pale cream after a couple of weeks. Still nice.

seaweed mulch

If I recall correctly, the plants that were mulched with it seemed to grow faster and looked healthier than those without.

On the minus side:

  • it’s heavy to collect and carry, as it’s wet and full of sand
  • you need a lot of it – one very full shopping bag will mulch 1-2 plants
  • it shrinks enormously when it dries and so needs constant topping up – refer to the first point
  • when you gather it, people either

a) stare at you

b) ask if you eat it, then tell you the Chinese do

c) engage you in very long conversations about it

d) give you gardening advice

e) help you by putting those older bits I mentioned in your bags, which you discover a few days later when the garden starts to smell like dead fish

If I have the time and energy, I will start collecting it again for mulching around individual plants but not entire beds.

Greenwaste

Up to now I’ve been chopping up and using green-waste from the garden around my plants. Messy-looking, not very efficient, nor is there much of it and it’s probably full of weed seeds, but it’s better than nothing.

Now that it’s breeding season, the neighbourhood birds have discovered ready-made nesting material and it’s disappearing fast!

Compost to the Rescue

A friend of ours has found a company that makes compost, so we’ll be ordering a truckload of that as soon as I’ve killed the grass and finished planting.

I made him a Lemon Meringue Cheesecake as a thank you (he also tried to get the bagasse for us). Thanks, Steve.

The black of the compost should highlight the plants from up here, and be a good contrast against the sawdust paths from both perspectives.

The downside is that everything that falls on it will be very noticeable. Or maybe not. Will wait and see.

Either way, it’s our only choice, and it is, after all, good for the plants.