Beds and Pots
1. Garden Beds
There are a number of ways to prepare a garden bed. If the intention is to make a sheet mulch garden then there is no need to weed or dig the garden unless you wish to terrace it first.
Beds made on sloping land should be made level first to reduce and slow down run off during rain and irrigation, allowing the soil to soak up as much water as possible and reducing erosion to a minimum. Use a spirit level or water level to level the bed.
When digging the bed, do not dig so deep that poor subsoil is mixed with the richer topsoil.
Mix in compost if you have it and cover the bed with organic matter for mulch.
Make use of any water that might flow through your land when it rains. If water flows down a footpath, drive way or road the water may be harvested and diverted into a garden with a ditch. Take the ditch to where you wish to have a garden and plant on either side of the ditch. A road can catch enough rainwater to flood a field.
The same can also be done with storm water running off the roof. A ditch coming away from the down pipe from the roof gutters, or directing water that falls from the roof can divert storm water into a level ditch which has plants growing on either side of it.
Even modest rains will keep the garden watered and even dew forming on the roof overnight is enough to have a positive effect on the garden.
Never put garden beds right next to the foundations of the house and always direct excess water away from the house and into the garden.
Dig the level ditch garden a little deeper and water loving plants, like ginger for example, can be planted in it. This is automatic watering and will save a lot of work and makes efficient use of free water.
2. Planting by Moon and Seasons
Use a moon planting guide and plant with the full moon and the season for maximum use of the growing period.
If you plant with the moon, generally 2 to 5 days before full moon for fruiting annuals, you will be amazed at how often you strike good weather for sprouting seeds and raising seedlings. Take note of when seasonal rains begin in your area and how that relates to the phases of the moon.
This also works well for transplanting seedlings and for planting cuttings, clones.
Generally, plant leafy greens in the week after the new moon and root crops in the week after the full moon.
Weed during barren signs of the moon.
Planting by a moon chart also helps the gardener plan ahead and manage work time productively.
Where ever you are, seasons will generally be as you expect them but keep in mind that regional differences like air and ocean currents, climate zone, altitude, geography, timing of rains and the growth habits of the crop may have an effect on when you plant in your area; so observation and discussion with experienced locals is a good idea. For example, if rice is planted at the beginning of the wet season in North Thailand, the rice will grow fast and tall but will yield little rice. The rice must be planted late which results in a small plant that is suddenly forced to flower at the end of the season. This is a kind of stress that encourages the plant to produce larger ears of rice.
A lot of good information about planting by the moon can be found on the Internet.
3. Planting - Depth and Spacing
For starting seedlings, they may be planted in small pots, 5 to 10cm - 2 to 4 inches wide and 10 to 20cm - 4 to 8 inches deep.
Depending on their size, seeds can be planted 5 to 10mm - 0.25 to 0.5 inches deep. Cover with fine soil and pat down lightly and gently water in. Scatter a very fine layer of grass clippings over this. Very fine seed can be sprinkled on top and watered in.
Plant seeds where the sun shines on them from the earliest possible moment of the day. Seedlings normally take about three days to a week to come up. Some plants like parsley and papaya can take 2 weeks to germinate.
Plant seedlings out when they are as tall as the pot is deep. With a 4 by 8 inch pot, the seeds can be planted one moon and the seedlings transplanted the next moon. To remove seedlings from pots, put your fingers around the stem and tip the pot upside down, holding the soil up with the palm of your hand. Use a stick to tap the edge of the pot upwards.
Seeds can also be planted directly into large pots or into the ground where they are to grow to adult size. However they may need more attention to begin with to ensure that they survive, as the place they are intended to grow is often very sunny and they may dry out while their roots are still very small. When planting seed directly like this, it is a good idea to plant some seeds in small pots as well, to replace any of those planted directly in the ground or in large pots that do not make it.
Rolling seeds into clay balls as per the Fukuoka method is helpful where seed is to be scattered, especially in difficult circumstances. Unprepared seed may be broadcast but requires a lot of seed to be successful. A coat of clay greatly increases germination rates. Seed can be scattered any time but best before the rains. The clay protects the seeds from rats, birds and sun while they wait and helps the seeds germinate when it rains.
For spacing plants the correct distance apart, it is important to know how big the plants will grow. Space seedlings as far apart as the adult plants are wide.
Another method of seeding smaller gardens is to remove the top 2cm's - 1inch of soil from the garden bed and place it on a garden blanket like a piece of weed mat. Mix seed in thoroughly and spread the soil back on the garden. This achieves a very even scattering of seed and ensures that much of the seed is planted at the right depth.
Seedlings must be watered regularly, sometimes as much as 3 times a day while they are small, as they have tiny roots and can dry out quickly on a sunny day.
Plant seedlings and cuttings in the afternoon as soon as the sun is off the garden and water in. Cuttings may be planted among weeds, herbs, vegetables and companion plants to protect them from sun and wind while they grow roots, which takes up to two weeks. While working with cuttings, keep them in damp cloth or paper so they don’t over heat and dry out.
4. Planting Fruit Trees from Seed
Only plant seeds taken from the best fruit. And always plant the seeds of the best fruit. Fruit tree seed should be planted immediately after being removed from the fruit. Fruit tree seed generally cannot be dried for storage like most annual herb and vegetable seed. If the seeds of most fruit trees are not growing, they are dying.
If possible, plant the seeds of fruit trees directly into the ground where they are to grow. This is because trees have deep and fast growing tap roots. When planted directly in the ground, seeds can put their roots down without interference. When planted in pots, the tap root will bend when it gets to the bottom of the pot. It may then wind around the bottom of the pot or come out a drainage hole and anchor the pot to the ground.
If starting seedlings in pots, use the largest pots possible. Match the pots to the species planted. Trees like avocado, durian and macadamia need particularly deep pots as they have fast and deep growing tap roots.
Potted trees should be planted out as soon as they have filled the pot. That is usually when the seedling is as tall as the pot is deep. Also watch for roots appearing from the drainage holes.
When planting out either seeds or seedlings where they are to grow, it is beneficial to them to have other plants surrounding them. A small garden around them will create a micro-climate that will protect them from the elements. If it is cold, then a companion garden will keep them warm and if it is too hot or windy, then a companion garden will keep them cool and protect seedlings from drying out.
Herbs and vegetables as well as the plants mentioned in the chapters on weeds and companion plants make good companions for tree seedlings. Even weeds are better than nothing.
Once seedlings are strong and naturalized in their environment, the plants around them may be cut down and mulched in and then allowed to regrow and the process can be continued repeatedly. You will see the seedlings grow in pulses with the regrowth of the surrounding ground covers every time they are cut and mulched in.
There could be no better way of starting off fruit trees than by planting their seed directly into a healthy vegetable garden. Once the trees shade out the garden, move the vegetable patch on and start again.
As pointed out in 'One Straw', try to avoid pruning fruit trees as this interferes with the natural shape of the tree. However it is necessary to remove dead wood, especially if it has pest or disease problems, and lower branches to allow air under them and to keep fruit off the ground. Removed branches need only be cut small enough to lie flat on the ground under the tree.
5. Pot Gardening
Growing in pots can be very rewarding but basic problems with pots can include being too wet when plants are small and getting too dry when plants are big. Growing in as large a pot as possible, can moderate these problems. A large pot requires more water but the water will last longer and can grow a bigger plant.
Another problem with pots is that water poured in the top can just pour down the sides and straight out the bottom. With any pot, it is important to bowl the soil on the top of the pot, so that when the pot is watered, the water sits in the middle and soaks into the soil. Keep pots level for maximum intake of water.
Cut up some grass and weeds and place around the plant as mulch, just as with an in ground garden. Any weeds that are cut out of the pot should be mulched back in also. Mulch holds the soil in place while watering and also helps to conserve water by sheltering the soil from sun and wind. And it feeds the plants as well.
A 45L - 10 gal plastic garbage bin makes an ideal and cheap pot and can grow very large plants and even a little garden of herbs or veggies. If the climate is very dry, or the pot is protected from rain, there is no need to put any drainage holes in the pot.
By placing a piece of 55mm - 2in', agricultural slotted drain pipe, in the pot before it is filled with soil, the pot can be quickly filled with water and then drained with a siphon hose inserted in the drainage pipe. All the soil gets wet and draining the water from the pot sucks air into the soil so the roots can breathe, (roots need oxygen to breathe and leaves breathe in carbon dioxide in the day and oxygen at night). In hydroponics this method of watering is called flood and drain irrigation.
Tie a plastic bag over both ends of the drainage pipe before you begin, so dirt does not get into it as you fill the pot with soil. Turn the pipe in a circle so it coils around inside the bottom of the pot and put a rock on the pipe to hold it down. Then turn the pipe up to the top of the pot and allow about 10cm - 4in’ of the pipe to show above the top of the pot.
Fill the pot with soil, and the rock holding down the pipe can be removed as you do so. Just make sure the coil of the pipe stays flat on the bottom as you fill the pot with soil. The plastic bag on the exposed end of the pipe can be removed after but place a tin can over it to prevent dirt, rats, frogs, snakes, anything from getting down inside the pipe. Always use a good, free draining soil with plenty of humus and compost in it. If you can't make your own soil, good potting soil can be purchased from a nursery supply shop.
If the pots are raised off the ground, they can be drained by siphon hose into a tank and the water used again later. Flooding the pot is not essential every time and saved water can be returned to the pot bit by bit. If going away for long periods the pot can be half filled and left. The pipe allows water to be drawn up into the soil because it also allows air to go down into the bottom of the pot. You can also put a stick down the drainage pipe to measure how much water is in it.
In a 45L - 10gal garbage bin, a small plant can be watered in, and the pot filled with water to half way, without issue for the plant and it will just grow. Once it is big, you will be amazed at how much a plant can drink. And with this method, all the water is going into the plants and none is lost into the ground.
If high rainfall is a possibility or you cannot always be present to drain the pot then drainage holes can be put in the pot but never in the bottom of it and there are a couple of different ways of approaching this.
The simplest idea is to put a single hole, about 2 cm across, in the side of the pot (45l garbage bin), about one third of the way up from the bottom of the pot. Put some shade cloth, or some kind of screen that will not rot, over the hole inside the pot and behind the screen put something like stones or coconut fiber to hold back the soil and allow water through it. Water it from the top as you need to and if you can’t get back to the pot for a while you can fill it till you see water coming out the hole in the side. It’s a good idea to install the slotted drain pipe as well, running past the hole, because it’s good to ventilate the bottom of the pot. And it can be watered by flood and drain if you put a plug in the hole but otherwise it won’t matter as this kind of pot uses the water very efficiently.
If heavy wet seasons and drought like dry seasons are your problem then another variation on this method is to put a tank tap in the side a few centimeters above the bottom of the pot if there is room. Corrugations in the side may prevent a tap being fitted, so choose the right pot. Tank taps come in two parts and just screw together from either side of the hole and seal against the side of the tank. They can be bought from a nursery supplier or hardware store.
This tap is for draining the pot. The tap can be left closed during the dry season so that that the pot can be flooded and drained or half filled and left. Or the tap can be left open when rain is around. If a pot floods it has to be drained within a day. It takes a lot of rain to fill a pot but once the soil is wet it does not take much to fill it again. The tap can be attached to a hose to drain the water into a tank for later use.
Always make the hole very carefully or the side of the pot will split. A hole should be made with a drill or with the burning end of a stick or with a big magnifying glass. Do not breathe in the fumes. The most powerful magnifier I have seen is a plastic magnifying sheet, otherwise known as a fresnel lens, 7in's x 10in's - 18cm x 26cm in size, which can be purchased very cheaply off the Internet. They are sometimes found in newsagents and super cheap places as magnifying sheets for vision impaired people to read with. They pack a mean punch for a magnifier in the sun.
If you put a tap in the pot, bend the drainage pipe and put it over the inner end of the tap and cover the join with some plastic to prevent soil getting in the gap.
45L - 10gal planter bags also make good pots. These can be placed on the water catchment plastic of your trench garden. If they should be watered to excess, water escaping from them will flow back into the trench garden.
With small pots, match the plant variety that you are growing to the size of the pot that you use. Put rocks (passing 1in' - 2.5cm retained on 0.5in' - 13mm) in the bottom of the pot but only around the side to cover the holes. Allow soil to reach the bottom of the pot in the middle. This can be made easier by placing a small, 2 or 3 inch wide pot filled with soil in the middle of the bottom of the pot. It is then surrounded by the stones and then the pot is filled with soil. This allows the pot to drain freely and to also soak up water more easily from the bottom up. Use the deepest water retainers you can find for the pots, 2in's - 5cm deep is good. Water in at the top to get the soil wet from top to bottom, then water from the bottom by filling the retainer and a wick effect draws the water up to the plant.
A very large plant may need to be watered 2 or 3 times a day, so if you are going away for a while, fill the pot from the top till there is water coming out the bottom and fills the retainer.
Always sit pots of all sizes on dead level ground for maximum storage of water.
Smart pots are a new idea in pots that came out of hydroponics.
The idea is very simple. The material the pot is made from is porous and allows air to pass through the walls of the pot. When the roots of the plant reach the side of the pot the roots stop growing because they don’t like the air and sunlight. The roots then branch and the same thing happens again. This stops roots growing round the pot in a circle causing root balling as would happen in an ordinary pot. Fabric pots instead encourage the plant to grow a full, healthy root system that is more successful when planted out. The material also conducts water and keeps the pot evenly damp. This technique can be applied to very large pots and even trees.
Several different materials can be used for these pots. Commercially available pots are made from a felt like synthetic material that conducts water through it. This has been used in hydroponics and is very adaptable. Pots can be hung one above the other and trickle fed with water and nutrient solution. The solution permeates the cloth and trickles down the cloth feeding all the plants. With this method, walls and buildings can be covered in plants, creating green zones. These green zones clean and cool the air helping reduce air conditioning energy costs.
Other materials may be used for pots like shade cloth and weed mat. Trees rescued from development sites may have their roots pruned and then wrapped up in shade cloth or weed mat. Trees can be left to sit in storage till needed.
These materials are all plastic which is not so great but it does not rot and can last a long time. Apparently the fabric pots are recyclable and that requires a system of recycling in place to make sure that happens.
Hemp has long lasting properties in exposed conditions. Hemp blanket pots may provide an alternative to using plastics.
6. Grass Mulch Pots
When planting seeds in pots they can be given the best possible start by planting them directly into grass mulch. Grass mulch is pure food. Grass clippings may be used either fresh cut or dried out. It is easier to use if the grass is lose and has not begun to compost into a solid mass. Place the grass in a large bucket and soak in water overnight. Do not leave any longer or it will create one of the most putrid smells you will ever encounter. Place one handful of soaked grass clippings in a pot at a time. Ram each layer of grass into the pot with the flat end of a stick. 25 cm - 10 in's inches sawn off the end of a broom handle is perfect. Pack the pot as tightly as possible with the wet grass clippings. Place seeds in the top of the pot and cover with a little more grass. Water the pots every day. Any kind of sprinkler system may be used but I find a half an hour of mist every day works well for even watering. Put the pots somewhere where they can drain into the Earth. The run off from them can create a bad smell on cement or plastic but weed mat works well as it drains. If they drain into the soil, that spot will be greatly enriched and can later be used for a garden. This type of nursery will attract worms which will enhance the grass medium in the pot.
Tree seeds will grow well this way but a drawback is that grass clippings decay quickly and will sink into the pot. The tap root that a tree grows will then bend and wind around in the pot as it sinks. It might be a good method of starting bonsai’s.
This method is best suited to plants that do not have tap roots, all herbs and vegetables basically. Corn, tomatoes, banana’s and passion fruit love growing this way. Grass may be continually added to the pot as the banana sucker grows. When the pots are planted out, the roots are growing straight into a cake of pure food. Plants will just explode with growth.
With any seeds that find this medium too rich, simply use a sharp object to poke a deep hole in the grass and fill with sand and plant the seed in that.