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Q: When I was digging in the compost bin, I saw several bugs running around. Are they bad for the compost? Do I need to do something about them?

A: Consider bugs in the compost to be the equivalent of beneficial insects in the garden. A whole range of creatures eat on the dead plants in a compost pile, gradually turning those plants into nutrient-rich soil. If you did not see any bugs, you might need to worry about their absence.

Much of the decomposing work in compost is carried out by micro-organisms— many kinds of bacteria and some fungi. The next larger life forms in the pile would be the mites and nematodes. They are feeding on the bacteria and fungi. Then come the springtails, which are barely big enough to see. Usually they are present in enormous numbers and are likely to be visible because they are constantly jumping around.

The biggest compost dwellers would be the bugs which you saw. They include millipedes, centipedes, sowbugs, beetles, pseudoscorpions, spiders, worms, and various insect larvae. Some of these creatures are vegetarians who are eating the plants which you put into the pile. Some are carnivores who are eating the smaller decomposers.

The compost may be a temporary home for even larger animals. I have found salamanders hiding in the moist darkness at the bottom of a pile in warm weather. When turning over a pile I have seen the remains of mouse nests, and twice an active nest with baby mice. A heap of composting materials is like a miniature world within the familiar bigger one.

Q: My young apple trees have fruit for the first time. How do I know when to pick the apples?

A: For the best flavor, pick as soon as the apples are ripe, not before or later. To decide whether an apple on a tree is ripe, hold it in your hand and lift it sideways. Ripe apples will come off the tree; green ones will not. Speaking of green, skin color does not always indicate ripeness. Some kinds of apple skins redden as they ripen; some do not.

If some apples are falling on the ground, that may mean that they are ripe enough to drop of their own accord. It may mean that the tree has not been sufficiently irrigated, because dry trees drop their apples. It may also mean that the apples are wormy, since wormy apples fall. Be sure to pick up dropped apples soon. If left under the tree, codling moth larvae in apples will exit into the ground, where they will stay for the winter. Next year those larvae will hatch as egg-laying moths, and they would find apples conveniently overhead.

My apple trees have the advantage of being far from a commercial orchard which would attract codling moths. That may be why I have never had to spray for the moths. On the other hand, I always thin the crop, and I keep the ground under the trees scrupulously clean. I have only a few wormy apples every year.

The color of apple seeds also gives some indication of ripeness. Green apples have green seeds. When early apples are ripe, the seeds are beginning to turn brown. Later apple varieties will have seeds that are completely brown. Finally, there is the taste test. Less than ripe apples have little flavor.

If you have only a few trees, you can afford the time to pick each tree more than once. Apples on the south side and the top will ripen first. To get all the apples at their peak, pick two or three times, harvesting only those that come off easily.

There are dozens of apple variety names, which can reveal their history. Some British apples are called "Pippin," an old word that means that it came from a seedling. Braeburn is from Braeburn Farm, near Christchurch, New Zealand. Granny Smith was named for Marja Ann Smith, the elderly wife of a New Zealand apple grower. The seedling appeared on a compost pile in Australia and became a major export because it stored well and did not bruise easily. Honeycrisp was bred at the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station. It came from a cross between Keepsake and an unknown apple. Grown in New Zealand, the same apple is sold as Honeycrunch.

Q: I have several amaryllis which I keep from year to year. When I stop watering them, the leaves gradually die, and I know that it is time to put them away for winter. One amaryllis was new last year, and its leaves are not dying. Why? What should I do about it?

A: Amaryllis behavior was more predictable in years past, when there were only a few varieties available. But plant people cannot resist tinkering. Now our holiday amaryllis come from more than one species and innumerable crosses between varieties. They do not all behave in the same way, and some have leaves that stay green even when subjected to drought.

Nonetheless, all winter flowering amaryllis need a season of dormancy. That is when the plants rest and create, deep inside the bulb, the buds for their flowers. Treat the amaryllis with green leaves the same as the leafless ones. For gardeners trying this for the first time, resting an amaryllis means storing it somewhere dark and cool. Offer the plants two months without light, in temperatures between 40 and 55 degrees. When returned to light and warmth, and watered again, the amaryllis will begin to grow both leaves and flowers. Without a dormant rest, an amaryllis cannot build up enough energy to bloom and will grow only leaves.

Q: We planted a hop vine this year, and it grew very fast. Now the whole vine looks dead, even though it is supposed to be perennial. Do we prune it? If so, when?

A: Hops are perennial all right, even though the top dies to the ground with the first frosts. Cut the stems to about two inches from the ground, just as you would a perennial garden flower. Next summer, be prepared to stand back. The hop vine will grow to two or three times this year's size.

Rest for the garden

This is the month when we "put the garden to bed," cleaning up debris, mulching, preparing the ground for its winter rest. How we care for the soil now may be more important than anything we do in spring or summer. That soil has supported the plants; now is the time to return the favor and feed the dirt. Anna Pavord says in The Curious Gardener, "mulches, compost and farmyard manure all compensate for our tidiness in gardens. We rake up leaves, cut down herbaceous perennials, remove annual weeds. Somehow we have to give all this back to the earth. In a deciduous woodland, trees provide at least five pounds of leaf litter for each square yard of ground. Now you know what you have to match."

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