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!

SFG Update – October 2013

Winter vs Summer

I mentioned in a previous SFG post that, according to my research, if you live in the tropics, you can plant anything, anytime.

Not true.

Well, you can plant it, but it won’t grow.

This is what I think: there are two seasons in the tropics – winter, when most plants are dormant, and summer, when they wake up and take off with a vengeance!

I planted my Square Foot Garden bed in July, and the only things that produced a crop, were the snow and sugar snap peas, and the bush beans – I guess they’re a winter crop.

Most of the other seeds germinated, but the seedlings remained tiny until very recently.

I’ve had 3 failures – despite having tried three different Roma tomato varieties (a number of times), they have yet to germinate. I’m also having trouble with germinating the English spinach and Cos lettuce.

But I refuse to give up – there are hundreds of seeds in those little packets, and if I have to sow every last one of them, I will!

Harvest and Growth

After tasting the peas and beans, we finally understood why people grow their own vegetables – they were unbelievably sweet and tender – we became addicted, and ate them every night.

Sugar snap peas

Sugar snap peas in their prime

First harvest

The very first harvest – not many, but delicious all the same

I initially planted one square of bush beans (9 per square), and seven squares of peas (4 per square) – this yielded enough for the two of us over a couple of months.

I’ve since planted two more squares of bush beans, and have just replanted the square that got infested with mealy bugs.

Bush beans

Diseased bush bean square

Mealy bugs

Revolting!

Most of the pea plants are dead – I’m not sure if it was the heat, the dreaded mealy bugs, or simply that the season is at an end, as we were overseas when they started dying. I’m letting the remaining pods dry on the vines, so I’ll have more seeds for next year.

As an experiment, I recently planted a few sugar snap peas to see if they’ll grow through the summer.

I bought 3 small basil plants to go near the tomatoes, as basil is supposed to aid in their growth.

As I mentioned, the Roma tomatoes have yet to make an appearance, and the Grosse Lisse tomato has only just started to grow – in the meantime, the basil has gone berserk – I’m going to have to make pesto, or give some to our local Italian restaurant – way too much for the two of us!

Soil Composition

I didn’t find either vermiculite or peat moss before I started planting, so the soil is a mix of topsoil and compost.

I’ve since bought a bag of potting mix made from fertilised peat moss, and spread that around the seedlings.

Then I found perlite and coco peat – as I replant each square, I’ll mix some of both into the soil to aid with water retention.

For those of you living here – all of them were from Lolo Supermarket in Morcellement St André.

Fertiliser

Now that the plants are actively growing, I’ve started watering them with a seaweed extract every couple of weeks.

Plants

Herbs: basil, oregano, mint, parsley, thyme, spring onions (scallions), dill (not doing well – I think it’s rotting)

Veggies: carrots (baby), bush beans, snow peas, sugar snap peas, silverbeet (Swiss chard), parsnips, red onion, celery, Chinese celery, Grosse Lisse tomato, Roma tomato (one day), cos lettuce (also one day), English spinach (ditto), iceberg lettuce, capsicum (peppers), hot chilli

Fruit: strawberries

All that in a 5×10 foot space, and there are still plenty of empty squares.

So, as the bulk of it’s growing, I’d call it a successful first foray into the wonderful world of Square Foot Gardening.

I need a life.

Strawberry cage

A cage to keep the mynah birds away from the strawberries

Carrots

One of the carrot squares and silverbeet

Parsley and spring onions

Parsley and spring onions

Parsnips

Parsnips

SFG bed

Lettuces in the forefront

SFG bed

Tomato dwarfed by basil plants

Shaded from the afternoon sun

Shaded from the afternoon sun

SFG bedIf you’re interested in starting a Square Foot Garden, this website is the one I used to gather all the information I needed – it’s a one-stop shop!

Garden Pests – Cats and Ants

Cats

The white cat from next door (the one Alf saved from hanging) has claimed our garden as its own, including the Square Foot Gardening bed.

And a black male cat has started hanging around – I can tell it’s male by the lingering smell it leaves behind.

Stinky thing.

Tipsy – get out there and protect your territory!

She occasionally chases other cats away, but I had to be proactive, as, rather than patrolling, she prefers this:

TipsySo, to protect my delicate seedlings, I cut some shadecloth to size, hemmed it to prevent fraying and stretching, and sewed ties to the sides.

I then screwed hooks into the trellis posts, and tied the shadecloth to them.

Hooks and tiesHemming might sound like overkill – but I want this to last a long time – I don’t want to replace it in a couple of months.

With the strong winds we get here, it would stretch and sag, thereby becoming ineffective.

And if it frays, the birds will try to pull bits off when they start nesting.

As it was 10 foot long, once I put it up, it sagged badly in the middle,so I hand-stitched a little pocket halfway along and held it up with a bamboo stake.

PocketI suppose the cats can still climb up it or crawl underneath it, but maybe they’ll look for easier places to dig instead.

Hopefully in their own gardens.

The shadecloth should also provide a little respite from the strong afternoon sun come summer, and maybe even act as a windbreak.

Shadecloth barrierIt’s ugly, but it’s removable.

Red Ants

They discovered the raised bed, told their friends, arrived in droves and started nesting.

Ants excavate the soil to build their nest, which can disturb and damage the plants’ roots.

Plus red ants are aggressive and quick to bite  – the bites really hurt, and they form little blisters, which itch for days.

So I’m trying a couple of things:

a) Miraculous Insecticide Chalk

I didn’t make that name up – look:

Insect chalkIt’s dirt cheap and it works.

Draw a line on the floor or wall where ants are invading your house, and they go away.

The package insert says it’s safe for humans and pets, but as it’s made in China, and so could contain melamine, lead, or God knows what else, I haven’t licked it to see.

Two other good uses for it are:

1) on the floor around pet food bowls

2) on the wall around your little tub of gecko poison

Anyway…

I drew around the edge of the bed with the chalk, but have to redo it every time I water or after it rains, as it gets washed off.

b) Coopex

Hopefully, this is a longer-term solution.

Coopex is a residual insecticide that I sprayed on the outside walls of the bed.

As it’s made in Australia, and not China, I believe the package insert when it says that it’s safe to use around plants, pets, and humans.

When insects walk on it, they absorb it through their tiny little feet, take it back to the nest, spread it around, and eventually it kills the entire community.

It sounds a bit brutal explained like that.

I feel like a mass murderer!

Anyway, it takes a while to work, so I don’t know yet whether it’s been effective.

Vegetable Seedlings – July 2013

Raised Bed Dimensions

Having actually worked on the Square Foot Gardening bed now, I understand why the recommended width is 4 feet – it really is difficult reaching into the centre of our 5 foot bed – it’s just out of comfortable reach.

Seedlings

It’s been three weeks since the first seeds went in.

My only successes so far are the snow and sugar snap peas, bush beans, and the tomato.

Peas and bush beans

Peas at the rear, and bush beans just starting to come up.

And this morning, I found the first tiny signs of the red chilli and capsicum. Woo hoo!

As each seedling gets big enough, I mulch around it with seaweed.

Nothing else has germinated. This is despite my running out each morning to check, seeing no growth, and yelling “Hurry up!!!”.

They do say you should talk to your plants.

There could be a few reasons for this dismal failure:

  • I planted the seeds too deeply
  • The seeds are too old
  • They’ve been dug up by cats
  • Vegetables are seasonal in the tropics
  • I’ve over/under-watered
  • I’m too impatient, and they will eventually germinate

As the germination period stated on the seed packets passes, I’m planting a second round of seeds, being careful this time to follow the “how deep to plant” instructions. If these seeds also fail to germinate, I’ll throw them out and buy new ones, as they’re probably too old.

I’ve replanted in the squares where the cats dug, and have taken steps to deter any future digging – more details to follow.

Other than that, I need to curb my impatience.

I’m hoping the reason isn’t that I’m a terrible sower of seeds. That would be a major problem!

Seedling Identification

Having never grown vegetables before, I don’t know what each seedling should look like. Consequently, as little green shoots started to appear, I wasn’t sure whether they were seedlings, or weeds that I needed to pull out. Sadly, they kept turning out to be weeds.

When the seeds do germinate (ever the optimist!), I’ll keep a photographic record of the seedlings, which I can refer to next season.

Seed Varieties

I’ve recently discovered a French brand called Tropica, which is specifically for the tropics.

For example, their iceberg lettuce is bred to be resistant to heat and bolting, and can be grown all year, whereas the normal iceberg will bolt to seed as soon as the weather starts to heat up. Sounds promising.

The lettuce seeds are dyed blue, which is a great idea, as they’re very small and normally hard to see once they’re on the soil. Why don’t all seed suppliers do that?

I’ve also bought seeds from Pick ‘n Pay – a South African brand called Starke Ayres. They have vegetables that I haven’t seen here before, like bush beans (dwarf beans).

Herbs

I think I made a mistake by mulching around the coriander and the thyme cuttings. After checking online, I found they don’t like to be kept too wet – they tend to rot. I should check these things earlier in the process.

So I’ve removed the mulch, and planted a second square of thyme cuttings.

The coriander is struggling but hanging in there, so I’ll wait and see what happens.

The spring onions are growing, but some are beginning to flower. As I need them, I’ll harvest the green parts, and leave the bulbs in the ground and let them re-grow. I’ll also sow the seeds from the flower heads when they mature.

I had no luck with the basil – I tried to root some in water, and planted others directly into the bed – they all died. I won’t bother trying that again.

Instead I bought basil and dill plants from Espace Maison, who have a good range of herbs at the moment.

I also bought some Chinese celery from there. It has very skinny stalks and a very strong (and slightly unpleasant when eaten raw) taste – but it’ll do for cooking until the celery starts growing.

Celery

Celery in front of more peas

Parsley is the herb I use most of, but the seeds are doing zilch.

Hurry up!!!!

Strawberries

I bought 12 strawberry plants from Grand Baie nursery, and planted 4 per square. I had to remove most of the soil from around the roots in order to fit them into the squares.

StrawberriesGrowing strawberries in the SFG bed requires you to cut off any runners that grow, allowing the plant to put all its energy into fruit production rather than into the runners.

I grew them in hanging baskets last year, and while we got some lovely berries initially, the plants got stressed and then died because the soil in the baskets dried out too quickly and too often, due to the wind and heat.

Once they start fruiting, I’ll need to protect them, as the mynah birds also found them delicious.

Maintenance of the SFG Bed

Finally, there’s a low-maintenance part of the garden – there’s not much to do other than daily watering, a little bit of weeding, and yelling.

Anyway, three weeks in, and it’s a case of so far, so good, if a bit slow.

Barring an insect attack or a freak cyclone, we could be harvesting our first home-grown veggies in a matter of weeks.

Well, maybe a pea or two.

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!)