Gardening – Spring compost clean-up

By Andrew Steens

Just like a house, a garden needs a good spring clean at this time of year, in preparation for the busy season to come. First on the list is turning the compost. The winter compost heap (unless you’ve been diligent and covered it) tends to become soggy and anaerobic from the constant winter rains and cold conditions. Beneficial micro-organisms such as fungi, bacteria and miniscule insects that break down organic matter hate these conditions and stop working, making way for slime moulds and less beneficial bacteria to thrive. Kick your compost into gear by lining the bottom of the next compost bin with dry, twiggy material to provide an aerated layer and then turn the old compost over the top. The turning process also aerates the compost, which will get those micro-organisms working again. Sprinkle a few handfuls of lime over the compost as you work, this will do wonders to encourage worms and beneficial fungi.

A thick layer of rich, moist, black compost should be at the bottom of your old bin – once all the partially rotted material has been cleared away. This is the basis of your spring veggie bed preparation. An easy way of working compost into your garden beds is to strip off the top 5cm or so of soil, apply a 2-3cm thick layer of compost, add some lime or dolomite, blood and bone, and sulphate of potash, then cover back over with 2-3cm of soil. The soil acts as mulch, protecting the compost from extremes of weather, while the most active part of the plant root systems will thrive in this nutrient and humus rich layer. The worms will do the rest, moving organic matter up and down the soil profile over the coming season.

This technique will provide a solid start for most crops, but if you are planting particularly hungry crops such as tomatoes, spuds, capsicum, courgettes, melons or kumara, then a layer of animal manure under the compost will give them an extra boost of energy. Just about any manure is good to use, but sheep pellets and horse manure rate amongst the best. Putting the manure at the bottom of the layers gives the manure time to break down a little, before the young roots get to it. This method avoids having to age the manure before you incorporate it into the garden. Spuds, which are planted deeper than the other crops, will actually thrive in direct contact with the manure, so this technique works well for this crop too.

And finally, what to do with any excess garden soil after adding all these bulky ingredients? Just remember that this bulkiness will break down over a few months, so don’t worry too much if your beds seem a little overfilled. However, if you do have surplus, this ex-veggie soil is a real boon for your lawn, fruit trees or flower gardens. If you’ve been looking after your soil it will contain much more nutrients and organic matter than the rest of your property. Just sprinkle it around wherever your garden looks a bit hungry, rake in to your lawn or cover with mulch in your flower beds and the rest of your plants will also benefit from your spring clean-up.