Last night was unusually cold, and we had frost where we had not had any for many years. If plants in your garden have been damaged by frost, please resist the temptation to prune back the damaged parts. They may look unattractive, but there are probably more frosty nights to come, and the damaged parts will protect the plants from further damage. Pruning damaged plants is best done in spring after the weather warms.
If you have plants that are frost intolerant, you can protect these with a temporary cover. See: Cold and frost protection.
Seedlings are very sensitive to frost. You can provide protection for these by making a simple cloche. See: Cloche for seedlings.
Compost can be made in a variety of containers. The examples below show a double bin made from recycled timber, a double bin made from recycled, heavy gauge bird wire covered with knitted polypropylene shadecloth, and a commercial single bin. Double or triple bins are best as you can turn the compost from one bin into the next, with the third bin used to start a new heap.
Compost tumblers (below, right) do the work of aerating the mixture. They are suitable for composting small quantities of fairly soft ingredients quickly, for people who are not able to turn compost easily, but the mixture may not generate enough heat to kill diseases.
Homemade containers don’t require skilled carpentry. What goes into the compost container is more important than how it looks. The main points to remember in deciding on the size and site of your compost container are:
When ingredients form one cubic metre (i.e. 1 m. x 1 m. x 1 m.), aerobic bacteria will generate enough heat to kill diseases and weed seeds.
Open-base bins that are in contact with soil allow earthworms to enter the mixture (when it has cooled down) and provide worm castings to the mixture while they help complete the composting process.
Recommendations to position compost bins in full sun do not apply to many parts of Australia, as too much heat can kill off composting organisms. A shaded spot is ideal.
Compost bins need a cover to prevent the ingredients becoming sodden in heavy rain.
Some Composting Tips
If you are new to compost making, don’t be intimidated by statements of the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in compost making. Most recommended ingredients contain a mixture of both. With a little practice, you will quickly learn to identify and correct any imbalances.
Chop up tough items using shears, a shredder, or a sharp spade (spread items on soil or grass first to prevent jolting). This assists faster decomposition as bacteria work on the surfaces of organic waste. The more surfaces you can provide – the faster they can work.
The secret to making compost quickly to turn it regularly to keep it aerated, and to keep it damp as aerobic bacteria that commence the process require nitrogen, air and moisture to process the carbon.
The secret to fast composting is regular turning and mixing of the ingredients. Weekly turning while the ingredients are generating heat will produce mature compost very quickly. As the compost breaks down, the mass is reduced.
You don’t have to wait until you have a cubic metre of ingredients – turning and mixing ingredients will get the bacteria working.
If the pile looks grey or contains ants – it is too dry. Turn and mix the ingredients, while adding enough water to dampen the mixture.
Don’t be concerned about slaters in your compost heap. They feed on semi-decomposed organic matter.
If the pile is black with an unpleasant smell – it is over-wet. Air has been forced out, and anaerobic composting has begun. Turn and mix the ingredients, while dusting with agricultural lime every 15 cm, and adding some straw to the mix. Protect pile from rain.
If the pile seems inactive – it may need more nitrogen. Turn and mix the ingredients, while adding some manure every 20 cm. If manures are unavailable, you can substitute a generous sprinkling of poultry-based, organic-allowed fertiliser.
Your compost is ready when it is dark brown, crumbly, with a pleasant earthy smell and ingredients, apart from pieces of egg shell, are no longer recognisable. A 5 cm layer added to topsoil provides your garden with all the minerals that plants, animals and humans need for good health.
Compost is made by combining organic waste than provides nitrogen and/or carbon. The advice to make compost from waste that is green (provides nitrogen) and brown (provides carbon) is a bit confusing when manure contains a lot of nitrogen, but most of it is brown. When suitable dampened materials are combined in a heap that has contact with the soil, heat is generated and millions of aerobic bacteria get to work transforming the fuel into a compost-making factory.
Manure from animals that eat grass (lots of nitrogen)
Chicken manure (lots of nitrogen)
Weeds without seed heads (nitrogen and carbon)
Lawn cuttings that have wilted (nitrogen and carbon)
Green prunings – shredded (nitrogen and carbon)
Raw vegetables and fruit – chopped for fast break down (nitrogen and carbon)
Uncooked kitchen waste – including tea bags and coffee grounds (nitrogen and carbon)
Old plants – chopped for fast break down (nitrogen and carbon)
Bedding straw for animals that eat grass or seeds (lots of nitrogen and carbon)
Straw and hay (lots of carbon)
Cardboard boxes and egg cartons – shredded (carbon)
Undyed wool, feathers and hair (nitrogen and carbon)
In Small Amounts
Newspaper and waste paper – separate sheets crumpled or roughly shredded (carbon)
Woody prunings – shredded (carbon)
Wood shavings – (very slow to break down and tie up a lot of nitrogen)
Seaweed – well-washed (helps factory work faster)
Herbs – comfrey, yarrow and chamomile (help factory work faster)
Egg shells – crumbled (keep compost smelling sweet and earthy)
Do Not Add
Plastic or foil containers, wrapping or disposable nappies
Fruit or vegetables that have been attacked by fruit fly or codling moth (larvae can pupate in factory)
Plants with diseases
Cat, dog or human faeces* (these can spread diseases through compost)
Rats or mice* (can spread diseases through compost)
Grey water (upsets pH balance and slows process)
Soil – makes compost heavy and harder to turn (amount clinging to weed roots is sufficient)
Earthworms – the initial heat will kill them. Earthworms know when to move into a compost factory.
Synthetic fertilisers (delays process and deters earthworms)
If you only have small quantities of organic waste to recycle, a worm farm would be a better solution. See Compost Worm Farm.
For information on how compost makes garden soil healthy, see Compost. ** Cat and dog faeces, and vermin, can be composted anaerobically in a small pit or container, but this compost should not be added to garden beds.
Composting recycles organic waste into a product that makes garden soil healthy. Mature compost is a dark brown, sweet-smelling material that can be added to topsoil.
There are two ways to make compost – aerobic, which requires aeration during the process, and anaerobic, which is a slow, rather smelly process. Mature aerobic compost can be produced in about 6–8 weeks in most areas of Australia.
How does compost make garden soil healthy?
Compost keeps soil more moisture-retentive, yet better-drained.
Compost provides food for earthworms that increase the depth of fertile topsoil by leaving digested food along their deep tunnels.
Compost provides food and a home for the many helpful bacteria and fungi that help protect soil from soil-borne diseases.
Well made compost has a pH of 6.5 – where all plant nutrients are fully available, and the perfect pH for the majority of plants.
Compost buffers plant roots from an unsuitable pH in surrounding soil.
It also insulates plant roots from temperature extremes so that soil stays cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
Compost contains all the minerals that plants, animals and humans need for good health, most of the soil’s nitrogen, plus lots of humus that forms the most stable part of recycled organic waste.
Humus and the minerals that plants need both carry a weak electrical charge. The electric charge holds the plant food minerals close to plant roots and prevents them from washing away in heavy rain.
Humus is able to control the release of trace elements needed in tiny amounts, and block absorption of poisonous metals in soil so that they do not end up in our food.
Humus stores carbon in soil for very long periods of time.
Humus, in compost, provides a habitat for a soil community of billions of beneficial bacteria and fungi that perform important functions.
Some bacteria species in humus make a ‘glue’ that is able to hold soil particles in a way that improves the flow of water and air through soil. This improves the structure of soil so that plant roots grow more easily. Strong roots help plants to resist the effects of drought and storms.
Mycorrhiza fungi in humus stick like hairs to the roots of plants, helping them absorb water and nutrients in exchange for sugars produced by plants during photosynthesis. Some 95% of perennial plants rely on mycorrhiza for healthy growth.
This method of frangipani propagation is becoming popular with readers, and one of our readers, Margaret, has been kind enough to share some photos of her very successful efforts.
Why choose this method of propagation? Frangipani grown from seed grow more quickly than trees grown from cuttings and, in the same way a family of children or animals can inherit different combinations of their parents’ genes, plants grown from seed may demonstrate different characteristics of parent plants, sometimes resulting in spectacular new varieties. Plants grown from cuttings are an exact copy on one parent. Not only may the flowers vary in colour or form, we have found that the perfumes of different-coloured frangipani also vary.
We have multiple trees of four different frangipani and the orange one reminds me of the smell of ripe peaches, while the deep pink one has a sweet citrus smell, and the pale pink one hardly any perfume at all.
If your frangipani tree has produced a seed pod or two and you would like to try this method of propagation, you can find more information here: Frangipani trees from seed.
Occasionally, garden gurus will say that “beans will grow on the smell of an empty fertiliser bag because they will fix nitrogen in the soil”. This is not true in Australia, where the soil bacteria that is necessary for these legumes to fix nitrogen does not occur naturally. Gardeners are often then disappointed to find that the lower leaves of their beans and peas have yellowed.
French or green beans (and peas) will benefit from the addition of some mature compost and a light application of complete fertiliser when preparing the planting area. Plants need more than nitrogen to be healthy and produce good crops, and compost in soil helps beans resist bean fly.
French beans do well in a sunny position with a soil pH not lower than 6. However, they may need some temporary shade during our heat wave conditions. Regular, deep watering and a 5 cm layer of mulch over the bed will help to keep them growing strongly. Bush varieties of French beans grow best when sown in a block rather than rows, and can be ready to harvest in eight to ten weeks after sowing.
For a continuous supply, sow a small quantity each month listed in the monthly planting guide for your climate.
Sometimes it is necessary to move an established tree or shrub. Deciduous plants can be moved in winter or early spring, and evergreen plants in spring. This is best done in two stages if you have to move an evergreen plant, but sometimes situations arise, due to weather conditions or moving house where a shrub or tree has to be moved urgently.
This advice is for moving trees and shrubs small enough not to require the assistance of mechanical equipment.
Dig a deep trench around the plant you want to move, using a sharp spade to cut through the roots. The trench will usually have to be dug inside the drip-line of the plant, otherwise the root ball will be too large to handle. The drip-line is the area of soil directly below the outer edges of the foliage – where rain runs off the leaf canopy onto the soil. This is where the feeder roots usually lie.
Water the area thoroughly, but do not apply fertiliser. Then prune back the foliage, or remove whole branches in the case of frangipani. This is necessary to compensate for a smaller root ball, so that the plant will not suffer water stress.
If possible, leave evergreen plants in position for about a month, watering it regularly. This will help the plant to produce some feeder roots within the reduced root ball area.
When ready to move the plant, make sure the soil is damp. Get a large piece of hessian, shadecloth or weed mat and some cord. This will help to keep the root ball intact during transplanting. A trolley, or tarpaulin or another large piece of strong fabric will help to use as a sled to drag the plant to its new planting position if the plant is too large to lift into a barrow.
First dig the hole where the plant is to be positioned. Fill the hole with water. This is important for two reasons. How quickly the hole drains indicates whether drainage is good or you will need to plant the tree or shrub in a raised mound. If the surrounding soil is not damp when you transplant, the water you apply after planting will be drawn away from the root ball into the surrounding dry soil, and the plant will look stressed several days after planting.
Work the spade around the trench dug previously, easing the spade further and further under the root ball until you have cut through all the roots.
Place a clear mark on the north-facing side of the plant so that it will be positioned in the same orientation.
Ease the fabric gently under the root ball. It will be much easier if someone helps by slowly tilting the plant to one side. Gather the fabric around the root ball and tie with cord.
Carefully transfer the plant to the new hole positioning it at the same level it was planted previously. Untie the fabric and gently ease it out from under the root ball.
Fill the hole with soil, adding some compost, if available. Do not trample the soil around the plant. Water thoroughly to remove any air pockets around the roots, and apply a 5 cm layer of mulch around the plant, keeping it a hand span from the trunk. Job done.
** Please note: Moving Eucalyptus taller than 45 cm, or other plants that have tap roots is often unsuccessful.
Bees love lavender, and because French lavender* flowers during winter, it provides them with nourishment when there is little else in flower. Lavender is known for its calming effect on people and it has the same effect on bees. A hardy plant, French lavender prefers a gravelly soil with a close to neutral pH. It is an efficient water user and requires little complete fertiliser, suits warmer climates, makes an attractive hedge, and is happy in beds or a large pot. All it needs is a light hair cut when flowering has finished.
Bee numbers are declining around the world. This is a matter for concern for all of us as we rely on bees to pollinate a good number of our fruits and vegetables. As well as growing some French lavender or some winter-flowering annuals, please ensure you keep some clean water available in your garden as bees need clean water, too. Many drown each year from trying to drink chlorinated pool water. A bird bath or large plant saucer, regularly topped up with clean water, is all they need.
* French Lavender (Lavendula dentata) is also known as Toothed Lavender, so named for the edges of its leaves.