Tropical Climate Gardening

Your guide to gardening in the tropics

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How To Grow Loofah

 

At the start of this year I ordered a stack of seeds which arrived when we were flat out servicing irrigation systems for our body corporate clients so my poor seed packets sat on my shelf for weeks before I got around to actually planting them in seedling trays. Just as the dry season is approaching I like to research what seeds I will grow this year, plan out my gardens and get them in seedling trays so as they dry season sets in I'm ready to plant out.

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One of the packets was loofah seeds which I bought off an organic supplier online, I bought the loofah so I could use the sponges but I also read they are an edible vegetable.  The packet said to soak seeds in water overnight before planting so I emptied a hand full in a bowl of water to start the process and commit myself to finally planting these poor seedlings out. It was my first time ever planting out loofah so I  was a bit ambitious by planting a whole tray of the seedlings out, little did I know how well they were going to grow.

Within one week all my seedlings has sprouted and were growing at a rapid rate, I was quite surprised as usually one or two seedlings lay dormant or simply cant be bothered rising to the task so to see all of them sitting there all healthy was a good indicator I was onto a good thing.

At this rapid growth rate I thought after 4 weeks I had better get them into the ground so I ventured around the garden finding suitable spots for  Loofah to grow. Loofah grow a bit like a cucumber would so they love to climb and I mean climb! I planted one at the base of a wire fence near an old gum tree and the loofah actually grew up into it and one day whilst admiring my trees I saw about 10 large sneaky loofah hanging from my gum tree.  I late read in a book that the loofah can grow as far as 9 meters upwards so keep that in mind when planting next to tall trees.

Shortly after spotting the loofah in the tree I then realised every single one of my vines had loofah hanging everywhere plus these bright yellow flowers in between indicating more loofah to come! The flowers are just gorgeous, the male flowers will appear first then the female ones with bright hue's of yellow. Flowers will open in the morning then close in the evening whilst also attracting useful bee's to pollinate my veggie patch its a win win. Bee's will actually travel to great lengths to get to your loofah flowers and ants seem to love the vines as well however they do not seem to cause any harm.

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If your growing loofah for the sponge like I was you can pick off the large loofah and dry it out until it starts to turn brown. Once your loofah is all dried out the skin will peel off very easily and you will see your loofah sponge. Simply shake all the seeds out (they just drop out so easy)  and store them away for your next crop. There you have it a organic natural sponge! At this stage you can cut the loofah into portions before storing away. I love the natural look but I do know people that prefer to use a hydrogen peroxide to get that bought at a shop look but personally I cant see why you would want to do that unless maybe your selling the loofah sponge.

I have been using my loofah for a few months now and am totally in love with it, it's softer than the store bought ones but yet you can feel it doing a much better job at exfoliating. My husband has been using his every night and even the kids ask for their loofah when bath time starts. If your into making natural soaps and lotions I see there are so many uses for loofah over the internet its definitely a vegetable I will continue to grow and also start using in my cooking.

Grow your loofah all year round in the tropics however I'm finding with the rains I need to pick the loofah quite green and dry inside otherwise if they start to brown on the vine water gets inside and a bit of mold starts forming. In the dry season I was able to let them brown on the vine then pick as I needed a new sponge.

With Christmas near what better home grown gift to give a loved one, wrapped with a cute bow and spring of wattle.

 

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What is a loofah? A loofah plant is a cucurbit which is a group of plants called gourds (pumpkins and cucumbers), the vine is an annual.

How to grow? Grow in seed trays and plant out at around 4 -6 weeks time, grow in full sun or partial shade however stick to full sun if you can for a better crop.

Watering?  Dont over water your loofah, in the dry water more frequently however in the wet season just let them adapt to the rainfall.

What depth should I plant my seedlings? Sow in ground 3 times the size of the seed and space around 50-80cm apart

How should I growth my loofah? Grow as vines but make sure your trellis is strong as the loofah can get quite large.

When can i harvest? Harvest in the tropics in around 10-12 weeks time, your loofah can grow straight or curved.

What other uses can loofah be used for? Flowers are edible when young, toss in stir fry's or salads. The main vegetable can also be used when young just like a squash, zucchini or okra. If your going to grow the loofah for eating make sure you plant in rich soil to ensure the best taste.

What type of soil do loofah prefer? Loofah like well drained soil with compost and organic matter however I did trail one poor seedling in a area of poor condition and it also done well however the loofah didn't get to the size of the ones in the prepared soil.  

Where to buy? I have been buying from Green Harvest for a few years now with very healthy seeds www.greenharvest.com.au 

        

 

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©Kylie Stephens
in Gardening 49729
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As the wet season starts to set in my garden seems to grow over night.

I walk out in the morning for a stroll with my cup of coffee and I can almost see the blades of grass rising towards the sky right before my eyes. We call the wet troppo season up here in the Northern Territory and for good reason- It sends you troppo. My once pleasant weekends of pottering in the garden in a comfortable climate turns into a stinking hot sauna, everything goes into overdrive even the compost.

Most gardeners I know in the Darwin area are in the same boat this time of year,  veggie garden? What veggie garden? Yes you can have a half passable vegetable garden but as we dart around combating troppo season with weeds on steroids, secateurs in overdrive pruning,not to mention picking up fallen branches from our afternoon storms there is very little time left over.

Just today when I got home from the gardening rounds I walked past my veggie patch and almost had to look away in shame, I 'have not had the time of day to give to my once flourishing vegetable patch. My climbing spinach, basil, capsicums, spring onions and yams are all booming in between the weeds that just wont take no for an answer but in all honesty the more rain the more jobs mother nature creates so I've made the decision to opt for a cover crop this year.

Usually I will carry on planting seedlings to feed the family over the wet but as our business keeps growing my husband and I loose garden time in our own little slice of heaven. In addition to this our vegetable patch is quite close to the entertaining area, I'm a bit of a fussy one by ensuring my patch is in perfect rows, no weeds, compost in check, scarecrow standing perfectly straight, produce looking fresh and i cant forget about my vintage welcome sign to top it all off. Previous years I've tried to image a cover crop and I saw a messy looking garden staring back at me. However as the birthdays roll over I grow a little wiser as this year the idea of letting all my hard work building the soil go to waste makes me feel like a damsel in distress. I've spent a good year building the vegetable patch up with good rich organic matter that the thought of a cover crop excites me, I cant wait for my packets of goodness to arrive in the mail so I can get started.    

If your new to cover crops your probably wondering what is a cover crop and why use them so keep reading.

A cover crop is a green leafy crop you plant over your vegie garden to help protect your soil by reducing wind/water erosion and nutrients being leaked away with heavy rainfall. They also provide a protective armor to the top layer that will hold the soil in place.

Benefits   

  • Help avoid soil erosion
  • Building your your organic soil matter
  • Harvest excess water
  • Adding Nitrogen to the soil

Cover crops will also take up nitrogen and other important nutrients then they get released  back into the soil when you dig (when I say dig you can also just slash or whipper snip as the roots will just decompose anyway) it into the soil at the end of the wet season. Unlike when we apply Nitrogen as a fertiliser allot of waste still occurs as the water passes down into the soil whereas cover crops hold the nutrients in plant residue. Cover crops will also help to control nematodes which are small wormlike creatures however not closely related to the normal garden worms. Majority of the nematodes are not harmful however the ones that are feed on your plant tissue seriously damaging your plants.

 

My suggestions for tropical cover crops

* I always buy organically certified seeds when buying, there are a number of places sell organic seeds the trend for organic is in high demand.

When sowing your seeds just damped the soil then scatter the seeds in the area your wanting to cover, grab a light rake and gently rack back and fourth so your just covering the seeds with a light layer of dirt.

  • Buckwheat

Reaches around 50cm in height, germinates in 3-4 days and is high in phosphorus and quite nice in a salad if you pick the young sprouts. Scatter your seeds over damp bare soil (not water logged) then lightly rake back and fourth to ever so slightly cover the seeds. The flowering will begin in around 4-5 weeks, I've been told its best to dig in the crop whilst still flowering to avoid self sowing.

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  •  Cowpea

This is one I've ordered as it adds nitrogen and builds beautiful organic matter, smothers the weeds and control nematodes plus my chooks can benefit from forage.

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  • Japanese Millet

This is a clumping grass and once again will add good organic matter to the soil.

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  • Lablab

Another one I've ordered is this fast growing legume called Lablab as it loves our wet season weather but yet can still be used in the dry season, which will come in handy as forage and building my soil in expansion areas. With Lablab you can also cut it down through the entire wet and mix it into your soil.

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  • Mung Bean

Adds nitrogen and organic matter, very fast growing and hardy.

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  • Soy Bean

I was told this is a must for Tropical zones as Soy bean loves hot weather and ticks all the right boxes with nutrients, weed control, edible seeds, forage and great at building your soil up.

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Now that you know a little more on the topic of ground covers, get out there and start ordering your green manure to save your soil. I'll be updating this blog once my cover crop gets going and post some pictures of the progress. Peanut might also be a good option.

I have such a large collection of books piling up in my office book case yet I am still to add a book on cover crops, I've been told Dick Raymond has a wonderful collection of books including one on green manures / cover crops. If your lucky enough to stumble upon this book I would suggest you grab it as its a rare title to find as I've found so far.

Feel free to suggest any others that you have found work well in the wet season, I'm more than happy to add it to the list.

If you like gardening then jump over and like us on our Facebook page - Australian Tropical Gardening, here we post articles, photos, news items and giveaways.

 

 

 

    

 

©Kylie Stephens- Lawn Ranger
in Gardening 57978
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In previous blog posts I mention testing your soil which can be done with a simple kit bought from any good gardening nursery. The Kit is a pH soil test kit and should be used by all gardeners so you can ensure your soil is at the correct level. Your pour blood sweat and tears into your garden so it makes sense to ensure the soil has the right amounts of nutrients - let mother nature work for you.

Soils in the Top End sadly are quite poor in condition, I get jealous when I head south and feel the soil but a challenge is what I love and the tropics give me my fair share in gardening. What i battle is the wet season, as much as I love a good rain its the big down pours that leach all my nutrients out the soil which annoys me.

For new comers to testing firstly what is pH? Well pH stands for potential Hydrogen and the kits mentioned will test to see how acidic or alkaline your soil is. Most plants will prefer neutral soil which is around 6 but can vary slightly depending on which kit your using. Some plants do like to have acidic soils such as azaleas and camelias however there isn't to many plants that will thrive in alkaline soil.  Here in the Top End I find most soils are acidic a reading of 6 and below is common for first testing in most gardens I work on.

What causes our Top End soils to become acidic?

According to the research done our top influence up here is 

  • Rain- Our storms have a pH of 3.0 which is strongly acidic
  • Decomposing organic matter releasing organic acids
  • Chemical fertilisers most are quite acidic

So you have tested your soil and can see its lacking in nutrients and now you want to fix the problem but what? Below is a slight touch on a few nutrients i tend to use. From what i have learnt over the years is this:-

Soils on the acidic side:- Add dolomite lime at a rate of about 100gm/ m 2 2-3 times over a few months as trying to correct the balance in the one hit will cause shock to your plants.

Soils on the alkaline side:- A bit harder to treat but to get started try adding sulphur 25-50gm/ m 2 then start building the soil with organic matter. Up here in the tropics of the NT I have never come across a reading that has been too high in alkaline so gladly I have not had the pleasure of correcting this as yet.   

Gypsum

How this helps? Used as a soil conditioner Gypsum improves structure to soil helping with drainage mainly with heavy clay like soils. Gypsum is commonly known as a clay breaker and sold as such, I tend to use gypsum when preparing a garden bed then don't really tend to use it again for a few years as its quite long lasting. If using gypsum always water it well in so the ground really soaks it all up and only minimal traces can be seen to the eye.

Seaweed Solutions

How this helps? Most mixes have anywhere between 50-70 minerals and trace elements added to improve soil structure but remember this is not a fertiliser as many tend to think. Most mixes will contain Mannitol and Alginic which acidify the soil helping your plants to absorb the nutrients.  Using a solution will play a significant role in your gardens ability to fight fungi and disease.  You will find stronger crops, better flowing and an increased sugar content in your fruits as well. I use a seaweed solution when transplanting as it reduces shock due and promotes root growth.  I fill a watering can up and put in a few tablespoons in when using- always dilute.

Lime / Dolomite Lime

How this helps? Used as a soil conditioner by adding calcium carbonate which will neutralise soil acidity. I don't use this with any fresh manures as lime tends to release ammonia gas which is quite harming to your roots. Dolomite contains calcium magnesium carbonate which is also used as a soil conditioner and will also react with fresh manure releasing harmful gas.

Iron Sulphate

How can this help? Used as a soil conditioner, will add iron to the soil which is used to neutralise soil alkalinity.

Powder Sulphur

How can this help? Soil conditioner by adding sulphur into the soil which neutralises soil alkalinity.

Chicken Manure

How can this help? My favourite of all soil conditioner's, chicken manure will add nitrogen, potassium, ulphur, iron, zinc, phosphorous, calcium, copper, boron, molybdbenum and maganese to your soil. Don't ever use chicken manure direct, let it sit and weather for a few months otherwise it will burn your plants roots.

Green Manures

How can this help? Green manures increase the organic status of your soil, reduce soil erosion and will help the soil retain your added minerals. Nitrogen rich organic materials help break up compacted soils, smother weeds and provides habitat for all those beneficial insects. If your into veggie gardening you might be familiar with crop rotation many will use a green manure cover crop especially through the wet season. If your wanting to do this try buckwheat, cowpea, Japanese millet, lablab, mung bean or soy bean. Though the wet season i will write an article on using cover crops as I find them to be so beneficial yet not used enough in the home gardens. As a commercial gardener I'm always down at the local dump and the amount of green waste I see in trailers amazes me, all that can be used as compost adding nutrients into the soil please if your one of them save it. I bet you spend money every year buying fertilisers and hay bales yet what you throw out works better if its put to good use.   

Blood & Bone

How Can this help? A well known and used product on the market with its great mix of nitrogen, phosphorous and calcium. Nutrients all leak slowly supplying your plants with a steady intake of goodness. A little trick I like to use is composting my banana leaves with hay then adding the mix to my blood and bone mixture as you will find blood and bone hasn't any potassium so adding the organic mix just gives it the perfect portion of the missing element.  

Trace Elements

How can this help? Adds all types of minerals such as sulphur, zinc, boron, copper, magnesium, calcium & molybdenum which as are essential for the biochemical process but not used right can be quite toxic to your plants. 

Mushroom Compost

How can this help? Soil conditioner, mushroom compost is made from poultry manure and hay however I find brands can differ some will be quite alkaline whilst others acidic. So i would probably check this out if your using it on plants especially acid loving plants, a pH test kit will give you an accurate reading.

Rock Dust

How can this help? All rocks have mineral elements so applying rock dust is a way of introducing these elements without waiting years upon years for the weather to break down your rocks. The elements you will benefit from are silica, calcium, magnesium, iron and potash. When choosing rock dust the finer the dust is the faster the nutrients will be released with basalt and granite being the richest. Use your rock dust in conjunction with your normal composting routine, I like to scatter a few handfuls on my soil before laying down my composting layers.  

 Human Waste

The most unpopular of all I'm not promoting you rush out to the garden to relive yourself but yes urine is sterile and can be safely used if diluted 10:1. When your having your next BBQ and your men wander into the garden for sprinkle demand they take a bucket of water to dilute Smile    

 

If the above is still a bit confusing remember most garden nurseries are more than happy to help and full of information, the testing kit is simple to use so once you have your reading simple ring or email them and ask for advice. We are always here as well sending an email to us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with as much information as you can and we can also help you out.

Note: This article will be updated throughout the year.

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©Kylie Stephens- Lawn Ranger
in Gardening 297150
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Lomandra Lime Tuff

We just love utilising all types of grasses into our projects so today I wanted to talk about a grass that been taking over the Top End with outstanding reviews from our suppliers and clients and that's the Lomandra Lime Tuff.

Lomandra Lime Tuff is by the talented guys at Bush Magik, which is a wonderful range of Australian plants developed by Ian Shimmen who has been growing for over 40years.

 

I've actually lost count of the amount of orders we have put in this year for more and more of this amazing grass and can only see its popularity to continue to grow if the trials are anything to go by up here.

 

 

Why do we love it? b2ap3_thumbnail_Lime-Tuff-In-pots.gif

Its compact with gorgeous bright lime green foliage, it looks great all year round and is extremely hardy it basically ticks all the right boxes. I have a soft spot for gardens that mimic the natural bushland and seeing a Lime Tuff in a garden just seems to give it that natural earthy feel.

On our property i have it  planted in my native / water wise side as well as around my home in pots, all are doing so well and the flowers are a welcoming site consisting of a spike of scented yellow. This year we conducted a landscaping project out in the rural area where our client requested large bush rock, we planted the Lime Tuff near the large rocks and i must say it looked just beautiful the contrast of the bush rock and the lime foliage just set the garden off perfect.

Where can you grow it?

 

 

Anywhere! Lime Tuff has been proven to grow in shade, full sun, dry areas and has the ability to stand up to frost for all you Southern readers.  I actually hope the Darwin city council starts utilising this plant more in streetscaping projects as its so low maintenance and requires no pruning which in turn would be saving us all dollars by not having to have workers out there cutting back the grasses. I see some really exciting projects happening around Darwin, it seems Darwin is really pushing towards a greener look which is so great to see.

Growing Guide b2ap3_thumbnail_Lime-Tuff-label.gif

Height- anywhere from 0.3- 0.5m

Width- anywhere from 0.3-0.5m

As with anything in the Top End it may grow a little larger but the guide is fairly accurate.

Soil pH around the 4.5 to 7.0 mark

Flowering season is all year round.

Uses

 

 

  • Mass plantings (spacing we do is 0.4m)
  • Height restricted areas
  • Erosion control
  • Boarders
  • Scattered planting
  • Pots
  • Wildlife attracting
  • Cascading effect when used with walls and rockeries

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 Care

 


Fertilise only with a slow release fertiliser with a low amount of phosphorus

No need for pruning

We recommend mulching around the base of the plant to help suppress water loss and aid in weed control

 

 

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©Kylie Stephens- Lawn Ranger
in Gardening 341977
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Irrigation in Darwin has been a popular topic amongst gardener's with the rising water costs as well as the community becoming more aware of the impact its causing to our environment. Water is the most important factor for a successful garden however getting it right may take a little learning.

Whilst at the local garden nursery the other day in my work uniform I was approached by a lady who wanted to ask me about watering her garden's. What she explained was no matter how much water she seemed to give her garden's by the time she got home from work the plants looked all droopy and under stress. Apart from the obvious question of "what plant's do you have" the main topic I wanted to discuss in detail was her soil. Understanding your soil is vital in keeping a garden looking lush and will save on your water cost's not to mention the stress of seeing your garden wilting away especially in this terrible build up weather.

Firstly do you know what type of soil you have?

Loamy? This soil retains water well but yet also drains well, its ideal for plant growth.

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Clay? Easily identified as this soil holds water for long periods. When water hits this soil it can run off in directions away from the plant or tree so its important to water your plants in slowly giving the soil time to soak up the water.

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Sandy? This is the opposite from clay, this soil is thirsty and will drink up the water in a flash then dry out just as quick. Plants that are in sandy soils you will find it requires frequent watering in smaller amounts.

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In order to get the irrigation/watering correct start by improving your soil with organic matter especially for clay and sandy soils, the organic matter will feed the soil of vital nutrients.

When I say organic think, compost, types of manures, grass clippings, hay, worm castings, peat, leaves basically anything natural. Clay soils will need some lime and possibly gypsum to give it a head  start as well as the organic matter.

How often to water?

There isn't an easy answer here, it will depend on a your soil the temperature & location. I always say your own observation will be the best assessment as no one knows your garden like yourself . What you want to do is try  stretching out your watering by watching the leaves closely, are they curling or browning? Dig a hole near the root zone to investigate the moisture level using your visual assessment combined with digging down should be enough to guide you towards the correct watering amount for the specific location. As your building your soil up, keep the testing going as once the soil starts to hold water you can then adjust the irrigation to water less. Remember plants are pretty resilient and will survive under watering against over watering for example an over watered garden may loose 30ltrs + of water on a dry season day compared to a minimally watered garden that might loose as low as 5ltrs in the same period. Over watering will produce soft plants that will get into the habit of stressing out more and more every time that lack a bit of water.

The bucket Test

Get an everyday 10ltr bucket and now lets test your flow rate!

Fill the bucket with water making sure the tap is fully open, lets say it took 15seconds to fill the bucket that would make it 40ltrs per minute.

(60 seconds divided by 15 = 4 x10ltrs=40 so that's 40ltrs/min  or 2,400ltrs/hour)

 

When To Water?

I always advise early morning over night watering as over night watering especially in the tropic's as for some plants fungus can be an issue. If that time wont fit into your lifestyle evening is still much better than watering through the day time. Also be sure to weed the garden beds as weeds will compete with the plant sucking away the nutrients.

 

Bore Water / Hard Water

For those living rural on block's you will most likely have a bore watering your garden's which means your water can be a bit "hard". What I mean is the water has a high mineral content, for most plants you wont really notice anything to worry about but some plant's such as orchid's may need attention. Basically hard water can contain certain salts that are toxic to certain plant's & the soil pH becomes unsuitable for the plant/plant's. The easiest way to see if this is a problem is look at the leaves, are there any mineral deposit's on the leaves? If this is the case try not spraying the leaves, try to use drip irrigation and mulch heavily incorporating organic matter into the mix. Luckily for us we are guaranteed a wet season every year so this will wash away any salt's and re freshen up the garden ready for another hit of the dry season.

Remember we are in the Darwin area and can visit your property to go over all watering issues, happy gardening!

 

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©Lawn Ranger Landscaping & Irrigation
in Gardening 58879
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