May 2021

Karen Sutherland's regular permaculture tips.

The end of autumn is an ideal time to refresh perennial herbs in pots, getting them ready for the spring growth that will follow. Herbs such as oregano, the mints and their cousin, lemon balm are spreading plants that will stop growing in pots if not given fresh areas to grow into every couple of years. Chives and garlic chive plants also need their root balls cut in half every two to three years and repotted; you can give the other half to a friend. Herbs that grow from a central root system, like sage, rosemary and thyme, also need repotting regularly to be at their best.

Indoor and outdoor potted plants all benefit from repotting every two to three years. Over time, potting mix separates with smaller, heavier particles heading to the bottom of the pot where they hold more water and cause ‘wet feet’. Larger, lighter particles move to the top of the pot where they won’t hold moisture as well, so the surface roots of plants dry out. Remember that there are no cheap, good quality potting mixes! Half an hour before re-potting, water your plants thoroughly and allow them to drain fully. For your workspace, use a reusable sheet of plastic spread over a table. Tip your plant upside down and snip off any roots coming out of the bottom of the pot as they will prevent the plant coming out. Support your plant by putting your fingers around the base of the foliage, close to the root ball. With your plant upside down, tap the rim of the pot on a solid edge to help dislodge the plant. If your plant is well-established in its pot, you may need to run a butter knife between the pot and the plant to loosen it. Once your plant is out, give the root ball a haircut all over with some sharp and clean planting snips. Trim off around one centimetre all over if your plant is quite rootbound or, if the roots are mainly at the bottom of the pot, remove one centimetre from the base and cut a couple of deep slits down the sides of the root ball on opposite sides of the plant to help prevent poor root formation. Then, on a one to two-centimetre bed of fresh potting mix, pop your plant back into its pot, fill around it and gently firm the potting mix in. Water in well to settle out any air pockets and you’re done!

Small seedlings planted now can be swamped by autumn leaves falling from deciduous fruit trees. Protect them from being turned into mulch, and from the colder weather, with a mini greenhouse made from a repurposed PET bottle. Cut off the top and bottom of a one litre bottle so the seedling has plenty of room to grow up. Push the bottle into the ground a little around your newly-planted seedling. You can also hold it in place with a wire coat hanger cut in half and turned into a U-peg. Pierce a hole in one or two sides of the bottom of the bottle with a metal skewer heated in a flame and push the U-peg through it and into the soil. This prevents the bottle being moved by foraging birds looking for insects around the newly watered and composted soil you’ve planted into.

Looking for a new winter salad green with edible flowers that also helps with protecting your kale from pests? Perfect for a permaculture garden, land cress (Barbarea verna) grows small rounded spicy-tasting leaves for many months and is happy in full sun or light shade, in the ground or in a pot. Let your first plants produce flowers and drop seeds and you probably won’t need to buy one again. The tiny yellow flowers are edible and also attract honeybees and other beneficial insects. Remove flowering stems if you want your plant to last longer. Land cress is a Brassica and has become known for attracting the dreaded white cabbage butterfly away from other precious Brassicas such as kale and broccoli. You can remove the green caterpillars and feed them to your chickens or remove the entire plant with the pests and compost it. A similar pest, the large cabbage moth, is also attracted to land cress and in a trick of nature its caterpillars are killed off when they start feeding on the leaves by the naturally occurring glucosinolates. Barbarea verna has a sister also called land cress, Barbarea vulgaris, but Barbarea verna has the besttasting salad leaves.

or are gardening in any community or public space, signage is an important aspect. Signs help to keep people on the same page with what’s happening in the garden and importantly help educate visitors to identify plants as well as learn how to use them – ‘Please don’t pick me yet, I’m a baby!’ and ‘Harvest from outside leaves first’ can prevent plants from being mis-harvested. Use signs to help keep the right ingredients in and wrong ingredients out of community composting. Plant labels can be painted onto large rocks or onto hardwood timber stakes. You can make your own signs with reclaimed fence palings screwed onto the hardwood stakes as a community building project. There are always leftover tins of paint in someone’s shed for activities like this.

If you haven’t already discovered it, native mint, also called native river mint, Mentha australis, is our own homegrown species of this trusty plant, with a unique flavour and aroma profile. Indigenous to many parts of Australia, and varying quite a lot, it can be easily grown in a sunny spot in the garden or in a good-sized pot. Native mint can be bought from your local indigenous nursery, or you can also often find it in the indigenous plant section of your local nursery. You don’t have to harvest this plant to enjoy the aroma, just run your hand gently through the plant. For a fresh-tasting tea, snip off a few sprigs, twisting them to release the essential oils before adding them to a warmed ceramic or glass teapot. Add boiling water and leave for three minutes before sipping hot, or strain to enjoy cold. Fresh leaves can be added to salsa and salads.

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