Q&A with Costa

CostaCosta Georgiadis joined Australian Organic’s Facebook family for a one hour question and answer session about gardening.

Costa is an ambassador for Australian Organic and host of ABCs Gardening Australia. He is also a teacher, landscape architect and permaculturalist, who places a strong emphasis on sustainability. He has a passion for people, food and plants and believes anyone can be an organic gardener with a little planning and observation.

So if you’ve ever wondered what it takes to grow better lemons, how to preserve chilies, what to grow in small spaces and how to keep worms warm find out below!

Q:  What’s the difference between a garden product like compost that is certified organic and one that’s not?

Costa:  I will get Rochelle to give you the exact nitty gritty of the difference but basically a certified organic product means that all the ingredients in that product are from properties that are certified organic. Labelling is a very loose cannon so it is good to know that what is the product is true to label.

Australian Organic:  An organic compost hasn’t been treated with any nasties. Costa pretty much nailed it! To go into more detail for you, certified organic composts with the Australian Certified Organic (ACO) Registered Farm Input or the Registered Garden Product logos are called “Allowed Inputs.” These are materials used as supplementary tools in a balanced organic farm management program. Inputs into an organic production system are generally prohibited if synthetically compounded – defined by the ACO Standard as a process which chemically changes a material derived from plant, animal or mineral resources, with the exception of microbiological processes. You can find out more here.

Q:  What’s some great products to use on my fruit citrus trees to get great fruit out of them.  My location is Riverina NSW?

Costa:  You certainly want to add rock dust / rock minerals, grow an undercrop of green manures to turn back into the soil, add some seaweed extract and worm wee liquid drinks and mulch with lucerne and manure for at least one metre square around each tree.

Q:  Is it true that apple cider vinegar is an effective herbicide and if so will other vinegars work too?

Costa:  Yes, it does work as a weed killer, or specifically the acetic acid within it is what does the trick.  It’s not so much a weed killer as it is a plant killer so be specific about what you spray it on as it dehydrates the plant by drawing the moisture out of it and it will droop very quickly if you use vinegar undiluted.  You can make a variety of recipes that add soap to it which helps the mix to stick to the leaf too. So look at some of the recipes and have a crack…just no overspray on plants you want.  You can paint it on with a brush if needs be too.

Q: I need a great chili sauce recipe urgently. Can you help?  We have had so many big frosts, I had to pick them all and have a full bucket of chilies to use.

Costa: You probably want to boil them down as quickly as possible and get them in olive oil. Or just freeze them in tupperware so that they dont spoil and use as required

Nigella Lawson’s recipe is great!  You can use pectin from your roellas to help set instead of the sugar I’m sure.  My aunt boils her chillies in some vinegar and then blends it and covers with olive oil in jar and has as a chilli sauce / paste. I have done this and it was a success too

Q: Just wondering what types of herbs, fruit and veg is perfect for growing in sandy soils near the beach? I want to start my own organic garden.

Costa:  Near or far from the beach, sandy soils need compost and humus so the key to success is to increase organic matter in the soil and that way the effort of putting in the plants won’t be lost.  A very sandy beach soil will repel water and hence your efforts.  Then some screening from the drying winds and then think about your planting.

Q: Can you suggest what edible plants would be best for this?

Costa:  Edibles are all possible if the protection and microclimate are set up.  I am on Bondi sand and I get great greens, kale, cherry tomatoes, cress, garlic, rocket…then try pots as options too…citrus will go ok but not in wind tunnel like exposed conditions.  The wind will prune them into the shape of a Tour de France cyclist’s helmet.

Q:  We planted a Eureka lemon tree about 7 months ago, it’s now lost most of its leaves and doesn’t look too healthy.  It gets full sun in our north facing yard. I water it every few days, also water with Seasol every few weeks.  We planted it with manure and mulched the base.  Could it be getting too much sun?  We live in Bermagui, on the NSW far south coast.  Thank you.

Costa:  Too much sun is never enough for a eureka. What sort of soil is it and did you plant it deep into the ground or is it raised above ground level a bit?

Q: Our yard has a slight slope and it’s planted at the top. Dug in to about a 500mm diameter hole with a bit of top soil and cow manure.  It looks as though it as sunk below ground level. We are 500m from the beach- not sure if that contributes? Thank you

Costa:  Yeah it is probably in a wet clay hole and it is getting belted at the top of the hill by the wind.  Given it has sunk and you are watering it regularly I think it is drowning in kindness.  Dig it out, break up the sides of the hole, add some manure and mix it in with some garden soil but not clay, replace it into the whole and have the tree sitting 1/3 out of the ground.  Then build up around the root ball that is exposed with garden soil/potting mix mixed with lots of compost so that you have an area of at least 1m around the tree filled to the top of the root ball….

Q:  Just wondering what your thoughts are on using mushroom compost in the veg garden?

Costa:  Mushroom compost is ok to use in the garden as long as you are adding other compost as well.  Too much mushroom compost can shift the ph of the soil so you need to be careful that it doesn’t get too alakaline.  Remember it is a conditioner but not the only ingredient for a good balanced soil…diversity of input is a good rule of thumb.

Q:  Your question is relevant for us too so I hope you don’t mind me asking more. We are setting up new veggie beds. Need heaps of soil as from what I’ve been told the soil here is not good on its own for veggies. I was going to get a big load of mushroom compost and fill beds with that (not now!). Is there something else you could recommend please Costa or a blend of own soil plus? 

Costa:  If you can get mushroom compost cheap then go for it but add some manure to it as well.  Then water into this some buckets full of dissolved clay to help with water holding capacity. Mix all this up and turn into the soil.  Then a good idea is to sow a green manure crop and allow that to grow and then chop it down and turn into the soil after 6 weeks or so.  Then you are ready to plant.  If you want to do something sooner then you may want to make little pockets of compost or soil mix and plant your seedling into that initially.

Q:  The block next to ours is owned by council and unused.  I would like to expand my veggie patch into their empty block, currently covered in very long grass!  Any hints and tips for guerrilla gardening?

Costa:  It’s a double edged sword. If you do it guerrilla they could just come and remove. If you ask it may take forever.  But better you ask and first get the written support of many neighbours and see what they say.

Even if you clear a small area of the grass, apply some compost and make a bit of a raised bed and then plant some scrambling veg like pumpkins and cucumbers.  That would be a really easy way to start.

Q:  I need to revamp my whole vege patch as our old wooden onion boxes have fallen victim to white ants and we pulled the corrugated iron out of our tiered section to finish our chook pen! It is on quite a steep slope and we basically need to start from scratch. Can you suggest any good websites or better still landscape architects that could come to our rescue?  We are on the Gold Coast, so have humidity, huge summer rains, wallabies, chooks and all sorts of nocturnal beasties to deal with!

Costa:  You have the best the Goldie can throw at you.  Start small and build your system and iron the glitches as you go. Allow for a structure that you can attach arched high density poly and drape netting or shade cloth over. These are the little details that you can learn from the onion boxes.  Don’t be deterred that the timber needs replacing.  Compost it and start again.  It is replaceable.

Q:  Do you have any tips for keeping herbs alive in the cold Canberra winter?

Costa:  I was standing at Lake George this morning so I can read but also feel your question. Herbs need to be kept in a sunny position against a wall that will warm up. But realistically you may need to get them undercover of some glass house or make your own cover to keep the daytime warmth in and the frost out. You Canberra gardeners have not got it easy but make success all the sweeter.

Q:  I am wondering if moving container garden, how delicate is roots and plants if soil movement due to bumping [when being transported in the car]?

Costa:  They should be fine with transport in terms of some bumps and humps on the road but the most important thing is that they are covered and not outside on an exposed ute getting smashed by the wind. This is a big big no no that I see all the time. Best to keep them upright in a closed space… i.e. the trucks with closed boxes on the back not open cages or utes.

Q:  We want to get an urban farm happening in Geelong on a carpark rooftop, any great suggestions for moving it along, maybe a visit from someone famous…

Costa:  Speak to people, owners of buildings etc, look around and see what is out there and when you see something ask who owns it and start that way. Also look at other options on ground level. Abandoned blocks that can be used temporarily i.e. maybe 6 mths or 2 years or less and then you build a community of interested and active people that can start acting on alternative locations.

Q:  I’ve got a small verge garden, one of the plants in there is the South African native ground cover baby sun rose or ice plant… can you confirm for me once and for all… is this plant edible?

Costa:  When we visited Diggers Club with Costas Garden Odyssey they used the leaves and flowers as edibles.  The leaves have that succulent bitterness but at that time they were using it.

Q:  Could you please tell me the best liquid fertiliser for raspberries and strawberries. Mine are watered using underground soaker system and would like to fertilise while watering. Thanks!!

Costa:  Seaweed solution is always good from a variety of minerals point of view, fish emulsion adds another layer as will worm juice and everything that it brings. I’m of the opinion that a variety of inputs brings a variety of mineral bases.  Mix up some comfrey tea and then you can look into the option of soaking manures and straining them after a month and diluting and feeding them too.

Q:  Any tips to help keep poor Canberra cold worm farms productive? And warm?

Costa:  I would bring them into the garage or glass house over the winter.

Q:  What is the best way to make your own soil?  I have very sandy soil and it washes through every few months. I have a compost bin and have used this soil mixed with the sand but it has only managed to grow parsley and doesn’t taste that great. Thanks

Costa:  Compost worm castings and then the other thing I would do is get a bucket full of clay and allow it to dissolve in water and then put this over the soil and this will add finer particles to your mix that will help hold water.  Also add some rock dust or more minerals

Q:  I am putting a raised bed in my backyard that is all a concrete slab. I have access to some retaining wall blocks. How high should it be for veggies?  Lining it with geotec fabric any other ideas? Thanks.

Costa:  It can be as high as you wish… To sit on the edge you would need approx. 450mm for most veg 3-400mm will be fine.

Q:  When you have a small space to garden in, what are the best value for space vegetables you can plant?

Costa:  I would say start with stuff you can repeat pick like your salad greens … Lettuces, spinach, etc. and then have some containers with herbs in them too that way they can be in the hotter sunnier parts of the garden.  Containers are good because in the summer months you can shift the delicate greens away from afternoon sun.