For spring benefits

Last updated 12:00 01/06/2012
USEFUL TIP: Dig marigolds into your garden if you want to repel tiny roundworms that feed on plant roots.

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Brrr. It's cold out there. But that's no excuse to put away your gardening gloves.

There are a few tasks you can carry out now to reduce gardening headaches later in the year.

Dig in your marigolds

French marigolds (Tagetes patula) have a reputation for repelling nematodes – those tiny roundworms that feed on plant roots. But that only works if you use them properly. If you plant just a smattering of marigolds for a short period, or intersperse them among your veges, not a lot will happen. Your best bet is to grow a solid block of them, just like a cover crop, for an entire season, then dig them into the soil. After that, your soil should remain nematode free for two to three years.

Seek passion vine hopper eggs

Passion vine hoppers are the curse of many a summer garden, but taking action now could spare you from the headache. Seek out and destroy the eggs.

You can find them easily enough. They're pale, about 1-millimetre long and usually laid in upright rows. Favourite egg-laying sites include tendrils, bare twiggy stems and dead stems.

The dying tendrils of my grapevine had some, but you'll find them on many different plants, not just passion or grapevines. Large infestations of passion vine hoppers weaken plants, and they'll eventually become stunted and wilt. The slits produced in the stems by the female adults when depositing their eggs can also cause dieback. The fluffy-tailed nymphs generally emerge between October and December. Once you've collected the eggs, bag them and put them in your rubbish. Don't bother spraying or painting them as the spray won't get through.

Rake up leaves

An accumulation of fallen leaves will smother lawns and turn into a dense, soggy mass, preventing light and oxygen from penetrating. If you don't want patchy lawns this spring, rake them up and pop them in your compost bin (only small amounts or they'll form a mat), or in a separate bag or bin to make leaf mould.

Leaf mould is an excellent soil improver and addition to potting mix, and certain plants, like rhododendrons, love it.

Place the leaves in a black plastic bag, poke holes in the bag, wet the leaves, then tie the top of the bag loosely. Then set it aside to rot down. It may take a year to do so.

Alternatively you can build a cylindrical bin out of chicken wire. Use stakes to support it, then add your leaves, watering them in as you do. You can sprinkle with a little blood and bone, which is high in nitrogen, or grass clippings to kick-start decomposition.

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Keep your compost cooking

As temperatures tumble, the breaking down of materials in your compost heap slows down. But it doesn't stop altogether. The outside layers may be cool, but if the right materials are added, the inside of your heap will remain warm and continue to decompose.

The decomposition process is driven by microbes, so if you provide these microbes with an ideal environment they'll continue to work. That means you need to keep adding food (a mix of nitrogen and carbon).

There are two ways to compost: cold composting and hot composting. Cold composting is probably the norm in most gardens. You simply add materials to your compost heap as and when they become available. Usually the mix of nitrogen (fruit and vege scraps, grass clippings, garden waste, chicken manure, tea leaves and coffee grounds) and carbon (dry straw, torn paper and cardboard, small twigs and dead leaves, old potting mix, sawdust, even wood ash) is balanced enough to enable their gradual decomposition in the warmer months. In winter, however, the composting process slows right down as the cold slows down the microbes' metabolism.

Hot composting is an all or nothing affair. Gardeners gather their composting material and store it until they have enough to create a heap all at once. Nitrogen and carbon materials are added in layers (a layer of nitrogen materials, then carbon materials, then nitrogen, then carbon, etc) until the heap is full. With enough carbon, nitrogen, water and oxygen, the compost heap heats up quickly, and microbes multiply and break down the materials. Again, hot composting takes longer in winter but it's more effective than cold composting, so it's a good idea to do hot composting in winter.

Layer your materials. If you throw in a bucket of kitchen scraps, top it with a layer of brown leaves, sawdust, or other carbon material. The carbon layer acts as insulation.

Chop up your portions. Materials added to your heap are best chopped up finely so they break down more quickly. The easiest way to do this is to run your lawn mower over them a couple of times. Chop twigs and cuttings to a size no bigger than 5cm.

Water regularly. Even during winter your compost heap needs moisture. Winter winds can suck your heap dry, and microbes need water to survive.

Insulate the outside of your heap. Hay bales stacked around the heap will help keep it warm. You can also cover with a tarp or black plastic to prevent heat from escaping, or line your winter compost bin with thick cardboard or polystyrene.

Lastly, make sure you site your bin in full sun. The microbes will certainly thank you.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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