Garden Tips

Simply Green Magazine publish Ben’s tips in their Green Garden Section every edition.


Green gardening guru Ben Getz, of Urban Harvest, shares his gardening secrets and answers your questions.

It is effectively mid-winter, with June 21st having been the shortest day of the year. It is not advisable to plant much except a select few vegetables, until August, but there are a few particular tasks ideal for this time of year.
This is a great opportunity to note exactly where your shadow lines are. Being mid-winter, the sun’s arc is at its lowest and the shade factor is at its highest. From here until mid-summer, around 20th December, days will be getting longer and sunlight to your garden increasing. This will help you to determine an appropriate site for your edible garden which needs as much light as possible in the winter, and possibly patches of only dappled light in the summer. Positioning your garden is a most important element. It must be accessible – close to your kitchen – and it must get enough light throughout the year.
Mid-winter is also the time to prune deciduous trees. Pruning is a vast topic on its own, but the basic principle is to allow as much light and air through the trees as possible to minimise fungal infections and to allow fruit to ripen fully – in the case of fruit trees. Once most of the tree’s leaves have fallen, dead branches need to be carefully cut off, and branches which are growing toward the lead/centre stem should also be removed.
Last, but not least, it is a great time to neaten and organise your garden and garden shed. Clean and sharpen your garden tools. Repair chicken houses, sheds and the like, if needed. Spread woodchips or mulch on pathways and redefine border beds. Prepare new beds for an early spring planting in August and September. Cut back, prune and shape shrubs and use cuttings to build some new compost heaps.


Q: Please can you explain to me the difference between organic gardening and permaculture? Which method is better for my garden & the environment?
chantal, humewood

A: This is an excellent question and one to which, I imagine, many people would like an answer.
One could say that organic gardening is just one element in a permaculture design. But this makes assumptions about the quality of organic gardening that is being practiced. All permaculture designs will incorporate gardens and all permaculture gardens will be organic. However, only a small number of ‘organic’ gardens can be considered ‘permacultured’.
Let me illustrate the difference by way of an analogy. Suppose someone wanted to get rid of an infection. Most people would immediately visit their GP and purchase and consume the prescribed medicines. Although these medicines may provide speedy short-term relief, they may have unpleasant side-effects, and can leave behind levels of toxicity that weaken the body’s defences to further disease. In many cases, the patient’s symptoms quickly resurface and an ongoing reliance on these medicines to ‘deal with’ the problem develops.
Most of us already realise this is a short-sighted approach. Knowing this, many people are starting to seek out natural alternatives to Western allopathic medicines. They are looking for the healthier, natural, ‘organic’ options. So instead of treating an illness with antibiotics, they may try using echinacea, tea tree, ginger, propolis, garlic or any number of natural remedies, until the infection clears.
Although this approach may take a little longer to ‘work’, it is generally far less harmful to the patient’s body and the environment. However, this shift from synthetic chemical treatments to chemical-free treatments alone is not sufficient. Most of us these days realise that illness is often a symptom of something deeper and broader. Our immune system is ‘down’ because of an unhealthy diet, an ongoing emotional challenge, exposure to unwholesome environments and people or stress and lifestyle choices in general. As such, we now know that a holistic and ongoing approach to our health is necessary. We need to treat the root cause of our illnesses and dis-eases in order to be truly healthy in the long term. In order to do this, we need to take a step back and look at the big picture. We need to redesign our lives so that they work for us, not against us. This is the only sustainable way to a healthy body and mind.
In precisely the same way, permaculture provides a holistic approach to designing our landscape for sustainability. Based on ecological design, permaculture seeks to work with nature, not against it. It makes conscious and working links between all the elements in a system so as to reduce waste and maximise useful production within a given context. It gives us guidelines and principles that, if followed, ensure that our system is strong and able to manage challenges when they arrive. Drought, disease, power-cuts, floods and food shortages etc are increasingly inevitable, but if we design appropriately, we can work towards a system that is ‘disaster proof’, self-regulating and self-sufficient.
Organic (chemical-free) gardens are good, but in most cases, people merely substitute chemical ‘treatments’ for chemical-free ones, while still operating within a design framework that is fundamentally unsustainable. They remain caught in the trap of continually spending energy to mitigate disasters that arise out of bad design.
For example, many organic gardens are still under monoculture – which is fundamentally harmful to the soil and welcomes devastation by pest. Many organic farms still till their soils every year, thus compacting and exposing their soil to the sun, wind and run-off water erosion. This severely disturbs subtle soil structure, causes loss of topsoil and marginalises valuable micro-organisms, leaving plants rooted in much weakened soils. Many ‘organic’ farmers don’t use mulch, wasting water and, again, exposing soil to degradation and leaving plants susceptible to attack. They are thus ‘forced’ to use expensive natural pesticide sprays on an ongoing basis. Furthermore, home gardeners often situate their ‘organic gardens’ totally inappropriately – either too far from their kitchens to visit regularly or in a shady spot without much sun. They spend much time and energy battling pests when in fact these pests are simply an indicator that the system is flawed – that the plants themselves are struggling and cannot resist attack.
Why? The plants are unhealthy because the soil is not healthy, because they don’t get enough attention, because they don’t get enough sun, because they are exposed to heavy winds, because there is no companion planting, and so on. Permaculture works on intelligent design principles so that these issues are entirely minimised and plants remain strong and healthy.
Across all our gardens I may use organic pesticide sprays a few times a year at the most, and yes, there is a place for them, but the most important point is to see dis-eased or eaten plants as an indicator to take broader measures toward a stronger system. In the garden, we encourage a diversity of plants, animals, insects and micro-organisms.
We work towards healthier soils by companion planting, using mulch, producing on-site compost, weed teas and leaf molds, and by designing our gardens thoughtfully, ecologically and in relation to the complete system so as to minimise waste and maximise production – for healthy people, healthy animals and a healthy environment. That is permaculture.
So what is the best choice for your garden? In my opinion a permaculture (well designed and ecologically sound) organic (chemical-free) garden is the way to go.

GREEN GARDENING – May/June 09 by Ben Getz

Green gardening guru Ben Getz, of Urban Harvest, shares his gardening secrets and answers your questions.

As winter approaches, it’s a good time to plant perennial herbs, indigenous shrubs and fruit trees. Although they won’t grow much through the winter, their roots will have a chance to settle in and be ready for a healthy push in the spring. In winter rainfall areas, your new plants will also be well-watered and therefore established enough by summer to flourish without need for excessive watering through the hot season. In order to make the most of your fruit trees, they must to be planted correctly and will need dedicated attention at least twice a year throughout their lives. Any tree can be planted in the following way:

Dig a square hole about one metre deep and one metre wide.
Place the topsoil (the first 50cm of soil) to one side and your subsoil (the second 50cm of soil) to the other.
Lightly turn the soil at the base of your hole with a garden fork.
Half fill the hole with a mixture of your subsoil and compost.
Fill the second half of the hole with a mixture of topsoil and compost but only fill your hole to a level where your pot/bag fits into it, with the base of the tree’s stem at ground level.
Gently remove the tree from its bag or pot while holding it over your hole.
Lightly release any ‘pot bound’ roots, and gently place the root bundle in the centre of the hole.
Fill the remainder of the hole with topsoil and a little compost.
Throughout the layering process you could also add small amounts of well-rotted manure and seaweed powder, or bonemeal.
Once the hole is filled to ground level, lightly press the soil down around the roots.
Use any excess soil to construct a ‘crater’ around the tree and fill it in with a layer of mulch.
Water well every few days until the rains come.
Surround fruit trees with companion plants such as comfrey, yarrow, pelargonium and some herbs.
Support young trees with a stake and protect them from harsh winds with a temporary windbreak.
Even once established, fruit trees should continue to be well composted and pruned once a year.

Plant broad bean, pea, beetroot, carrot and radish seeds, as well as lettuce, leek and onion seedlings as soon as possible – certainly before the end of May, when it gets too cold for germination.

Making Leaf Mold
At this time of the year many trees will be dropping their leaves. Collect these leaves, sprinkle them with water and store them in a shady spot in tied bags or in chicken wire compartments and leave for 12-18 months to break down into leaf mold, a highly effective soil conditioner and mulch.

Your green gardening questions answered

Q: I would like to only use organic fertilisers and compost on my garden, but am very confused by all the options available. How do I know when a product is truly organic and when it is has chemicals in it? Is there anything specific I should look for on the product label or ask my nurseryman? jana, gauteng

A: This is a highly pertinent question and the answer is complex. Firstly, I would like to encourage you to make your own compost and fertilisers at home, and take this seriously. If you really want to live more sustainably and you want to keep your garden healthy, it is essential to establish a diversity of soil-building elements on site. These should include compost heaps, earthworm farms and weed or manure ‘teas’. By doing this yourself you will save money and ensure your system remains biologically active, chemical-free and healthy.
Secondly, there are a few products that carry official organic certifications – these we can assume are organic. Bear in mind, however, that organic certification is quite an expensive process that is not accessible to many local, small-scale producers. Just because it doesn’t have organic certification, doesn’t mean it is not chemical-free. On the other hand, just because the label says ‘organic’, doesn’t mean it is (unless it has a bona fide certification stamp and number). Just as it is ideal to know exactly where your food comes from and how it was produced, it is recommended that you actually visit a few local compost and fertiliser producers and ask them questions about what they use to make their compost and watch the process. Do your research and you will have peace of mind. Besides making your own soil conditioners, this is the best option.

GREEN GARDENING – March/April 09 by Ben Getz

Green gardening guru, Ben Getz of Urban Harvest shares his gardening secrets and answers your gardening questions.

Healthy soil should be dark in color, sweet smelling (sweet tasting if you’re brave enough to try it), teaming with micro-organisms, and able to absorb water easily, as well as friable and therefore airy. The key to cultivating healthy soil is the constant introduction of a variety of organic matter. Here are some ways to keep your soil in tip-top form.

M ake your own compost and apply it to your garden regularly. Bought compost is often sterilised in a way that leaves it denuded of the living organisms that are essential to healthy soil. Make use of all your garden waste (a mixture of freshly pruned green and dry brown leaves), uncooked food scraps and wood ash, and continually layer these with manure. Situate your compost in a shady part of your garden in compartments or simply in a pile, but always keep your compost damp throughout, well aerated and well defined.

Make your own liquid fertiliser – every garden should have plenty of comfrey, yarrow, tansy and nettle growing in it. These are special soil-improving plants know as dynamic accumulators. Harvest their leaves and soak them in a barrel of water for two weeks. The leaves will decay into the water creating a nutrient and biologically rich liquid fertiliser that you can dilute 1:2 and feed your garden. This and other ‘weed teas’ can also be added to your compost to act as an effective activator.

Start an earthworm farm. Earthworms will process your food scraps into the highest quality compost and also provide you with an organic liquid fertiliser. Various ‘worm farms’ are available on the market, but you can just as easily make your own. Simply find an old bathtub, prop it up on bricks, add a thin layer of well-rotted manure into the bath, add ‘red wriggler’ earthworms and feed them with your uncooked food scraps (not citrus, chilli, onion or garlic) and shredded newspaper. Cover the bath but keep its contents damp and place a container below the drain to collect your ‘worm tea’.

Keep your soil well mulched – covered with a layer of organic matter and create a favourable environment for the micro-organisms which ‘make’ the humus essential to soil structure and nutrition. Straw, wood chips, dried grass and dried leaves are some examples of good, readily available mulch you could use.  SG

Your green gardening questions answered
Q: I am a keen gardener and very aware that little creatures and insects play a big part in our whole system. I have no wish to harm any of them, but sometimes they are a little overwhelming. Is it possible to suggest some natural ingredients (no drugs or poisons) that might deter beetle-eating insects and many varieties of slugs? Also, can you please tell me what benefits moles have in the garden. Are there carnivorous moles and herbivorous moles?  Thank you. Erica Ellett

A: It is true that natural, chemical-free and humane pest management is one of our biggest challenges as ‘organic’ gardeners. Be this as it may, there are many creative solutions available – finding and applying them can often be an enlightening adventure. The underlying principle from which we can respond to these challenges is the fact that natural systems are always seeking balance. Any serious pest invasion is normally an indicator that something in the system is out of balance. Soil health is always the first place to look. Healthy soil and a wide variety of plants will encourage a wide variety of insects and other animals. Encouraging a bio-diverse ecosystem in your backyard will play the biggest part in managing pests. There are a variety of natural sprays you can make which seem to deter pests if regularly applied. One such spray is a home-made mixture of garlic and chilies (or cayenne pepper) chopped and soaked in water for a week or two until rotten and smelly. This solution should be diluted, and applied in the early mornings or evenings as a foliar spray every few days. Some like to add a drop of dish soap to the mixture to help it ‘stick’ to plants longer. Although I have found chilly-garlic spray to work, I use it very rarely preferring to strengthen plants by attending to soil health and simply applying earthworm and other organic ‘teas’ on a regular basis. Healthy soil means healthy plants, and healthy plants are much less susceptible to invasion.  Moles are carnivorous and do not eat your vegetables. They will eat your slugs, but unfortunately they will also eat your earthworms. They aerate the soil and bring a fine textured, friable soil to the surface, which can be used in your seedling and potting soil mixes, but, as you know, they can also make quite a mess.

This article will appear in the Healthy Times segment of the Sunday Times later this year


An edible garden service provider can help you with design, set-up,
maintenance services and courses. On the other hand, you could do it all
yourself. Healthy soil which is key, is achieved by the constant introduction of a
variety of organic matter. Here are some proven methods:
• Situate your edible garden (eco)logically: your garden should get plenty
of morning sun and should ideally be east or north-east facing. It should also
be close to your home and near to a water source.
• Make sure your beds are level so that excess water can slowly percolate
through your mulch layer and the soil. If the lay of your land is steeply sloping,
you might consider terracing your edible garden along natural contours.
• Never step on your edible garden beds: this compacts the soil and makes
effi cient drainage impossible. It also makes it diffi cult for plant roots to
spread and for earthworms, the good guys, to move freely.
• Cover your soil with mulch: a layer of organic matter such as leaves or
straw helps with water retention and weed suppression and also creates
a favourable environment for the micro-organisms that ‘make’ the humus
essential to soil structure and nutrition.
• Make your own compost and apply it to your garden regularly. Bought
compost is often sterilised in a way that leaves it denuded of the very living
organisms that are essential to healthy soil. Make use of all of your garden
waste: a mixture of freshly-pruned green and dry brown leaves, uncooked
food scraps and wood ash. Continually layer these with manure. Situate
your compost in a shady part of the garden. Make sure to keep
the compost damp throughout, well-aerated and well-defined.
Turn every three weeks or so.
Your compost should be ready at
around 12 weeks.
• Make your own liquid fertiliser:
every edible garden should have
plenty of comfrey, yarrow, tansy
and nettle growing in it. These
are special soil-improving plants
known as dynamic accumulators.
Harvest their leaves and soak
them in a barrel of water for two
weeks. The leaves will decay into
the water creating a nutrient- and
biologically-rich liquid fertiliser
that you can dilute 1:2 and feed
your garden with.


13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carlene Kidwell on August 20, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    I am looking at setting up an organic garden and would really appreciate some tips especially on companian planting.

    Kind Regards


  2. Posted by Claudine on August 22, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Hi, has anyone replied to you yet?

    I have 1/2 my property as a veggie garden and it’s heavenly and easy as pie…
    The ‘rule’ I’ve learnt is that if it smells lovely to us, it’s horrid for pests: Mint is amazing; rosemary, lavender; geranium is almost the best; garlic; garlic chives, etc….be sure to cut often or crush a few leaves t release the scent….
    Enjoy; it is without doubt the most rewarding thing you will ever do for yourself.


  3. Posted by urbanharvest on September 17, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    i generally find companion planting very intuitive. Often plants which taste good together, grow well together – for example, tomatoes, basil, peppers, spring onions, chives, thyme and oregano all grow well when planted together.
    I like to plant seedlings in a ‘wild’ and natural way….this creates the ‘food forest/jungle’ effect…. it confuses ‘pests’, creates an abundant, multicolor, multifragrant space which maintains a healthy balance in the soil and promotes biodiversity. it also makes harvesting more fun – an exploration and a forage.
    Dont be too caught up about crop rotation – just read up on companions (or use you intuition) and plant them.
    the best thing to do is experiment and learn for yourself – nature is very forgiving and an inspiring teacher!


  4. Just popping in to say that I landed on your web site as a result of Evy’s newsletter.

    If you ever want a little more exposure in Port Elizabeth please drop me a line.


  5. Posted by Karin Steenkamp on June 25, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Hi there, a few tips I picked up in my garden:

    1. Never plant beetroot next to spinach, the beetroot wont make bulbs. My Grandmother always told me so, and I experienced it myself. Its true!

    2. If you plant Frilly lettuce, you can keep harvesting if you just pick a few leaves off each plant at a time. If the lettuce starts to make it’s flower, just snap it off and it will continue to give new leaves a while longer. (Same with spinach)

    3. Give lettuce lots of water, otherwise it becomes bitter.

    I loved my garden, but now live in a 2nd story flat, this website has inspiried me to find a place with a patch of dirt once again!


  6. Posted by Ray-Ann on July 9, 2009 at 9:15 am

    Wow, what an inspiration to keep on growing, so happy to have found your site. Very informative, will start growing much more veg.


  7. Posted by Cleve on September 24, 2009 at 4:57 am

    I live in the Lowveld of Limpopo – warm weather year round, sandy soil. My onions – Texas Grano and Red Onions – don’t seem to form a head. Everything in the leaves, then going to flower. Any ideas?


  8. Posted by tricia on February 15, 2011 at 9:53 am

    I would like to know how you would deal with the very sandy soil (fish hoek) to prepare for planting. Thanks


  9. good info here glad i came


  10. Posted by Betsy Gast on April 17, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    Why are my Cherry tomatoes so sour?


  11. Posted by Kamy on April 10, 2013 at 8:35 am

    I live in Durban we have a problem with white ants at the moment it is eating the mango tree. what organic muti can I use. thanks


  12. May I just say what a comfort to find somebody that really understands what
    they are talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring a problem to light
    and make it important. A lot more people ought to look at this and
    understand this side of your story. I was surprised you’re not more popular given that you most certainly possess the gift.


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