This Week’s Guest Blogger is Alex Law, the Head Gardener at Wollerton Old Hall Garden, Shropshire

I was trying to get my head around the relationships between plant processes and the environmental factors under our control in a glasshouse or other protected growing environment. These spaces are incredibly dynamic, where the knock-on effects of adjusting one or two variables are numerous, so it makes sense to try to disentangle this web, to have a better handle on what we can do as gardeners or growers to ensure the healthy development of our protected plants or crops.

The mind map I’ve drawn below looks complex at first but is an attempt to make visual sense of a complex set of processes. Concentric rings are used to show three headings (‘Factors’, ‘Significance’ and ‘Control’), colour is used to link different branches of the diagram to core environmental factors (main colour of text boxes and corresponding arrows); control over pests, diseases and nutrients are included as these are further environmental factors but I wanted to give them slightly less emphasis compared to the more interconnected climatic factors. If I were technically gifted, I’d like to make the bullet points in each text box appear as pop-ups in a more interactive fashion, which would make the map less cluttered, but the points offer important explanations so I’m afraid there’s a lot to take in! I hope this helps others to understand what’s really happening in their protected growing environments.

This Week’s Guest Blogger is Michelle Irizarry who owns Shellbie’s Garden

Composting for a Healthy and Sustainable Garden

My name is Michelle. I am the owner of Shellbie’s Garden LLC. As part of my business, I create dried flower and nature-inspired gifts and home décor with the flowers that I have grown from seed. I love plants, flowers, and gardening, and growing my own flowers and using them for my business is always an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

There are many factors involved in having a successful and healthy garden. It takes research, time, hard work, an open mind, and quite a bit of patience. I find that gardening can be both challenging and rewarding. One thing is true…each day in the garden is a learning experience.

Gardening is not simply throwing some seeds on the ground and waiting for them to grow. There are certain things that need to be done if you want to reap a good harvest. Aside from dealing with common garden issues such as insects and animal pests, weather-related factors, and other problems that can thwart your success, I have learned that I will have a much healthier garden if I have good garden soil.

I decided to improve and amend my soil, however, instead of buying countless bags of compost at the store, I chose to try my hand at making my own. I had wanted to try it for a long time, and I finally took the plunge. I believe making your own compost is rewarding, money-saving, and great for the garden.

What is compost? Compost is decomposed organic material that you can add to your soil to help your plants grow and thrive. Over several months, microorganisms break down the biodegradable material to create a rich, dark, nutrient-filled soil called humus. If you start composting in autumn, you should have some nice soil amendment for spring. A good compost should consist of a balance of the following materials:

· Browns such as dead leaves, twigs, branches to add carbon

· Greens such as fruit/vegetable scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds to add nitrogen

· Water for moisture, but compost should not be sopping wet or soggy

· Oxygen for compost to thrive and to aerate it to prevent bad bacteria and rot

Why is compost good for the garden? The rich humus created from composting feeds the soil, produces healthy plants, suppresses pests and diseases, and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. In addition, unlike store-brought fertilizers, which can be expensive, compost is free. Lastly, having a compost bin is sustainable because composting is a natural process of recycling organic materials, and it lowers your carbon footprint.

How do you compost? If you have plenty of outdoor space, you can create an area any size you prefer in your yard, or you can simply buy a large trash can with a lid. I decided on the trash bin and purchased two 32-gallon containers. I also bought a mini metal trash can with a lid for the kitchen for fruit and vegetable scraps. I dump the little can in the larger bin once a week.

Before you start filling your compost bin, drill five holes in the bottom and several holes around the entire bin to allow oxygen into the container. (See picture below for an example). When you start adding to your compost pile, begin with a layer of twigs or straw to allow oxygen to enter from the bottom and to prevent the materials on the bottom from getting slimy or producing bad bacteria. When adding materials, make sure the pieces aren’t too large. If they are, chop or shred them to help them decompose faster. Add alternating layers of green matter for nitrogen, and brown matter for carbon. When the bin is full, cover and let it sit for the winter. Every few weeks, you should turn and mix the compost with a pitchfork. This provides oxygen which helps to aerate the pile and quickly break down the materials. This is important, because if the compost is too wet, it will become slimy, bug-infested, and have a terrible smell. If this happens, you will not be able to use the compost. Conversely, if the compost is too dry, it will be too dusty and unable to decompose, so try to have it moist, but not drenched.

In summary, the secret to a healthy compost is to make sure it receives oxygen, some moisture, balanced layers of green and brown materials, and make sure to turn it a few times over the winter.

Thanks for reading and keep growing!


Click to visit Shellbie’s Garden:

This Week’s Guest Blogger is Mark Lane, who is a Trustee of Gardening with Disabilities Trust Charity as well as a Garden Designer, Writer and Broadcaster

A Full Workout in the Garden

For many of us, the idea of having to go to the gym every day is both daunting and a chore, yet us gardeners don’t think twice when it comes to spending a day or just an hour in the garden. Exercise is good for us, both aerobic and anaerobic. Now, we could all start the day in our leggings and ankle warmers (I must be showing my age) in the great outdoors and do some star jumps, running on the spot and lunges, but gardening can burn a great number of calories. Research is telling us of the importance of being outside and the effect it has on our mental, spiritual and physical health and wellbeing. Gardening has therefore been shown to reduce our blood pressure, lift our mood, lessen our anxiety and spark our neurons.

The term biophilia is our innate need for greenery and for being outside. We are outdoor creatures by nature, that over thousands of years have succumbed to the warmth and safety of the great indoors. We have dropped the spear for a knife and fork and an open fire for central heating, but as living organisms we need to exercise. Now, I’m not advocating running across fields with a herd of buffalo, but I am on a mission to get us moving more, getting involved in social and community activities and just enjoying the warmth of the sun or the feeling of rain on our skin.

Gardening is good exercise. Cognitively, from the initial stages of looking through catalogues or the Internet for what new plants to grow or which seeds to sow we are stimulating our brain. In fact, research has shown that after just two gardening sessions there is a noticeably marked therapeutic improvement in our mood.

Gardening can help keep our mind clear and sharp, and again research has shown that gardening can significantly reduce the risk of dementia. Gardening promotes problem solving, learning and sensory awareness. Many people notice improved concentration, quicker recovery from mental fatigue as well as strengthening the brain and feeling connected to memories. While gardening, from amateur to professional, we are constantly learning new processes, plants and techniques.

So far, I have been writing about active gardening, but there is also passive gardening. Watching a garden, pot or border grow is still a magical process for me, but studies have shown that looking at greenery, a pot full of plants and gardens can improve focus and subsequent tasks. Also, nature improves cognitive ability in short timeframes, so mental ‘top-ups’ are provided. What you are seeing, hearing, experiencing at any moment is changing not only your mood, but how your nervous, endocrine and immune systems are working. Also, the presence of trees and green space give you a stronger feeling of unity with neighbours, being more concerned with helping each other and having stronger feelings of belonging. Parts of the brain, when using a fMRI, associated with empathy and love light up when nature scenes are viewed. Nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our immediate and larger environments.

Without having to watch a clock or count down the minutes until you are done, you can easily spend an hour or an entire day working out without feeling as though you are putting yourself through a gruelling workout. Ideally you need to garden for 30 minutes to provide a beneficial workout. If you weigh 11 stone you can burn 347 calories in an hour gardening, and at 14 stone 437 calories. I would always recommend that before venturing outside you undertake some gentle stretching exercises to prevent injury and to improve performance. Your muscles might be tight so it is essential to stretch for 15 minutes before any physical activity. This will also provide a cardio warm-up.

When outside, work at a constant steady speed to keep the heart rate up for the 30 minutes, such as digging and turning compost, and then swap to a less strenuous activity such as pruning. The important thing to remember is to swap hands whenever possible and alternate legs, whether leaning, stretching, walking or pushing up from a kneeled position. Think about your posture and use repetitive techniques rather than erratic movements. Keep your back straight, knees bent largely and your shoulders down – these will reduce stress on your lower back and muscles and help avoid aches and pains. In no time at all your body will be more toned, more flexible with improved strength and endurance. A little tip is to set a timer on your mobile phone or carry an egg timer and set it to 30 minutes. Pacing yourself and your activities is important. You will find that you will get more done in an allotted time if you pace properly.

It doesn’t matter what age you are, or what level of ability you have, gardening is an activity that almost anybody can do, and why not? It is good for our cognitive, spiritual and physical wellbeing. (my YouTube channel with hints and tips)

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