Okay so I’ve posted about starting seedlings and how to plant, protect and support them so now I’m going to post about how to feed and water your plants as sustainably as possible. Before I do I have a confession to make; my seedling success this year has been abysmal. I don’t have a greenhouse so seedlings grown in my house tend to get very leggy so this year I decide to grow under a plastic cloche in my garden, with the hope of better results. Well, it was all for nout. The few that did germinate aren’t leggy but they’re not thriving at all. There have been exceptions, most notably my peas, mangetout and onions which were planted directly into the ground. The only pot based seedlings that appear to be growing are gourd seeds, but last year these were munched by slugs as soon as they were transplanted out so I’m not holding out much hope for a harvest.
On the issue of slugs I’m not fairing very well there either. This year I invested in a biological control for slugs and snails called Nemaslug, which I applied back in April. You’re advised to apply the treatment after rain and when rain is expected for a few days, which is surprisingly tricky when you actually try and do it. You’re also advised not to apply it when temperatures are below 5 degrees and what happened? We got a night time temperature of -1 the day after I applied it, so it’s fair to say my €22 went down the swaney. Now the broccoli seedlings – that I bought in Homebase and spent hours netting from birds and butterflies – are being munched away by hoards of unimpeded molluscs! It’s enough to make a grown woman cry. Seriously, I’m not kidding!
I’ve resorted to using Sluggo’s organic slug pellets to try and protect the seedlings that I do have. These are harmless to pets, worms, birds and frogs and decompose into naturally occurring iron and phosphate if un-eated by slugs. They’re also require rain to work, unlike the traditional ones that are rendered useless by rain. They come in a plastic bottle or a cardboard box. I’ve used them before and found them to be very effective.
Anyway rant over. Nothing left to do but pull myself up by the wellies, ignore the ravishingly beautiful seedlings on TV programmes and enjoy the healthy garlic, peas, mangetout, tomatoes, strawberries and fruit bushes that are thriving.
Mulching Your Beds
You may have heard this word bandied around gardening sphere and wondered what the hell it was. Well simply put it’s a layer you put on soil to protect it. In winter mulch prevents the wind and the rain from leached the nutrients out of the soil, while in summer it suppresses weeds and prevents moisture from evaporating. Mulch will also improve the structure of your soil and may, depending on the type, enrich your soil as it is broken down by worms and organisms is the soil.
The key issue with mulching is timing. Mulching too early in spring prevents the ground for warming up, mulching after a dry spell will actually keep the soil dry by preventing rain from penetrating. My advice is to mulch after a few days of good rainfall, when you’re starting to see the weeds growing again. If you mulched in the Autumn and the mulch is still visible on the beds then rake it off to the side to allow the soil warm up and absorb moisture and then rake it back over.
One important thing with mulch, and you’re going to like this, is that you don’t dig it in. Mulch is typically high in carbon and carbon uses nitrogen to decompose. If you did mulch into your soil it’ll lock any available nitrogen up and make it unavailable for your plants. In fact there is a new school of thought that says you should NEVER dig over a bed, because doing so damages the soil structure leading to lower yields. It’s called the No Dig method and one of the best know proponents of this is Charles Dowding in the UK.
There are many types of mulch, including shredded leaves, compost, old farmyard manure, bark chip, mushroom compost, grass clippings and straw. All will contain some form of nutrients but compost made from vegetation is the best if you want to feed your soil. It’s also the mulch that is said to be best if you’ve an issue with slugs. If you’re using a mulch that hasn’t been composted like bark chip or fresh manure, do not put it anywhere near plants. It will rob your plants of nitrogen as it decomposes.
Also a word of warning about types of compost. Different types have different nutrient profiles. Rotted-down horse manure is great for leafy veg but it’s rich in nitrogen and not potassium so your flowering fruit and veg may fail to thrive. Similarly mushroom compost is very alkaline and may need additional nutrients added to it to balance it out. It’s best to ask your supplier for a balanced compost to make your life easier.
According to Charles Dowding ‘Horse manure is at a small risk of contamination by aminopyralid weedkiller, occasionally sprayed on grass for horse-hay. Its the only weedkiller I know which persists, and its lethal to potatoes, tomatoes and legumes, whose growing tips become curled and twisted.’ I’ve seen evidence of this happening in Ireland in 2019 with cow manure.
You’ll need to lay down about 2-3 inches of compost to successfully insulate soil and suppress weeds so I’d advise you to get whatever you can afford and obtain locally. If you can, try to get the mulch without packaging, i.e. delivered loose. Also if you’re you’re trying to garden organically, particularly if you’re growing fruit and veg, consider the content of your mulch, mushroom compost from an non-organic farm is going to contain chemicals, which may or may not be acceptable to you.
I have sourced compost in returnable bags from Landscape Depot in Dublin 24 but if need a decent amount I’ve managed to source peat-free 100% organic compost made in Ireland, which I can get delivered loose, i.e. package-free. They’ve very helpfully given a list of stockists so you can find a supplier close to you. Just to note, organic compost only needs to be 51% organic to use the term. This means that certified organic compost can contain material sprayed with weedkiller and insecticides, and seeing as it can take 2-5 years for these chemicals to become inactive you may inadvertently end up putting harmful chemicals into your garden. The only way to be 100% sure that nothing nasty is going into your garden is to make your own compost from your own garden and kitchen waste. See my guide on composting and composters to get started.
Feeding your Plants
Some people don’t give their plants any liquid feed at all, preferring instead to feed their soil with compost rather than the plants. If you do want to feed your plants you have two options; shop-bought or homemade. You can readily get organic plant food from good garden centres and it’s a good option if you’re stuck but it comes in a plastic bottle and will inevitably require resources and energy to make, which we can avoid by making our own plant food.
Comfrey – I make comfrey tea (see top photo) for my plants thanks to a friend who gifted me two plants. Comfrey has very deep roots so it can extract nutrients from far below the soil’s surface, which it stores in its leaves. By harvesting the leaves and using them to make comfrey tea we’re releasing these nutrients for our plants. It’s especially rich in potassium, making it the ideal feed to promote flowers and fruits in a range of plants, including tomatoes. Making the tea is very simple just find yourself a lidded container*, fill it with comfrey leaves, pour on some water (rainwater preferable) and leave to stew for 4 weeks. Dilute the tea at a ratio of one part comfrey to 10 parts water and apply to plants. For step by step instructions check out this Comfrey Feed Tutorial by Gardeners World. The comfrey tea smells a bit like drains when it’s ready, so be prepared! Also be sure to wear gloves when removing the leaves; the stalks have prickly hairs on them that can get embedded in your skin.
Borage – I’ve heard that adding borage (see photo above) to the comfrey feed improves it’s effectiveness. I’ve a few borage plants in my garden, which came in a cheap ‘wild flower’ mix I purchased a few years back. The bees go mental for it and it’s a pretty plant, so a win win!
Nettles – You can make a nitrogen rich tea, which is good for promoting leaf growth, from nettles using the same process as the comfrey feed. Gardeners World has a video on making nettle feed too.
Seaweed – If you live near the coast putting washed seaweed in your compost or directly on your bed can be a great way of adding nutrients. Just to be mindful not to take too much from the beach.
Watering your garden
I don’t water the ornamental plants in my garden, unless they’re newly planted or look drought-stricken, but I do water my fruit and veg because water is so important for fruit setting and development.
It is sacrilegious to water a garden with drinkable water, so I only do so on the rare occasion that my rain barrels are bone dry and my plants are parched. I have two run-of-the-mill rainwater butts, one at either end of the garden and I use watering cans to dispense water to my plants. I have considered investing in a pump that would allow me water using a hose but am reluctant to buy another new thing. I spotted some uber sexy rainbarrells online (yes I am that geeky about gardening!) so if you’re in the market for a new one and have the cash consider these. Just click on the image and it’ll bring you to the website of the company that sells them. If you want something simplier I came across some sleek rain water butt here. It’s also a great website to get the connector bits for water butts, helping you to avoid buying a complete kit. Unfortunately haven’t been able to find any bricks and mortar shops that sell these.
What to Water
Some plants need more watering that others and really the only way to be sure of who needs what when is to keep an eye on them. I find it best to check plants once a day or a few times a week to see who might need a drink, being careful not to overwater. If the plant doesn’t look like it needs a drink leave it be. You can do as much harm over-watering as underwatering. I have what i call a ‘canary’ plant that shows signs of under-watering very quickly. If it’s in need of a drink it gives me advance warning that other plants that are slower to show signs might need one too.
When to Water
When watering avoid doing so in the middle of the day for two reasons; firstly water that splashes on the leaves can act like magnifying glasses and result in damaged leaves, and secondly the water will evaporate from the ground more quickly than at other times. I think the best time to water is the morning because in the evening you’re providing the perfect conditions for slugs to come out.
How to Water
It is advisable to give plants a good long drink every so often rather than a small amount more frequently. If we only give a small amount of water the moisture only penetrates the upper layer of the soil. This encourages the plant to keep it’s roots in the top layer which makes it more susceptible to drying out during a dry spell. If we give a long drink that sees water penetrating deep into the soil the plants roots will grown downwards towards the moisture, making it much less prone to drying out.
If you have a sloping bed it might be a good idea to place a large pipe vertically in the the ground beside your plant when planting. When it comes to watering you can simply water into the pipe instead of on the ground. This will ensure that the water gets directly to the plants’ roots and not run off down the bank. The pipe also serves as a bit of a slow-release reservoir, allowing water to slowly seep towards the roots requiring less frequent watering. It is advisable to pierce the pipe along it’s length so water can percolate as it goes down. This also works very well with plants that need a lot of water like tomatoes or cucumbers. Living Green has a very useful post on how to make your own homemade ‘olla’ with terracotta pots.
Rescuing a Forgotten Plant
If you forget to water and plant and it looks like it’s completely collapsed don’t dowse it with tons of water, just give it sips over a longer period to bring it back to life – if possible – and then water as indicated above from there on out. When plants dry out they’re cells get completely desiccated and the cell walls are weakened as a result. If you give it too much water at this stage you can cause the cell walls to explode and therefore kill the plant. Better to go softly, softly until the plant looks healthy again. I would suggest giving a little and then 5 minutes later given a bit more and then 5 minutes more again.
Check out the other posts in this series
*Most supermarkets or delis get ingredients delivered in large plastic tubs. I’ve found them very willing to give some to polite customers that ask.