Here is my December gardening article for the central connect magazine. Summer has ended, the rains have started, and the cold is coming. This brings new tasks in the garden and on the homestead. Here is what we are up to at Keela Permaculture Farm this December.
One of my favourite activities for the year is tree planting. Generally, it is best to begin planting once the rains have started and the trees are dormant. Before starting tree planting, I make sure my irrigation pipes are set up and ready to irrigate the trees in case of a hot spell over the winter; too many times, I have lost a tree as I didn’t carry that bucket of water to it during a hot week. I purchase bare-rooted trees rather than potted trees as bare-rooted trees will establish better as they have their natural root shape and can adapt better to their new environment. I plant trees suited to my soil and climate rather than just choosing trees I like. We now have around 200 varieties of trees and shrubs in our food forests that seem to be doing well, so you may not be able to grow some trees you like, but there are many others out there that you have never heard of will do better.
When planting trees, I like to make a 50 cm deep and 50 cm wide planting hole (we usually hire a mini digger to dig our tree holes as we do a few hundred each year, making the process a lot easier) quicker). The day before planting, I fill the holes with water and let it soak in overnight to store water around the ground where the tree grows.
Along with the tree, I put 50% homemade finished compost with biochar, 50% of the original soil and a small bucket full of homemade worm castings for good measure. I also added a sprinkle of mycorrhizal fungi purchased on the internet. This fungi creates a symbiotic relationship with the tree and helps the tree get nutrients and water. After planting the tree, I put a wheelbarrow of aged manure around the tree and cover this with mulch. I use sheep wool or woodchips as mulch if I don’t want weeds to grow around it. I use hay if it is in my pasture, as my sheep will eat any weeds that grow. After mulching, I give the tree its first prune to grow into the shape I want. Before I move on to the next tree, I give it some liquid fertiliser (urine or worm extract) and flood the planting hole while giving some kind words to give it its best start.
In nature, trees naturally get pruned by animal browsing. This is why I like to integrate trees with livestock. But as that is often not the case, we can prune trees and shrubs by hand. Pruning can extend the tree’s life, make them healthier, and be the shape we want. For example, keeping them tall for shade, short for easy harvesting or bushy for a hedgerow.
Every type of tree has a preferred time of year to prune. Citrus trees prefer the summer, and most other trees are pruned when the trees are dormant during the winter. Although you can prune trees all through the winter, many locals say we should wait until the end of winter or spring. This is because buds can die from frost, so if we wait until spring, we can select the healthiest buds.
I like to focus on pruning almond and non-fruit-bearing trees, such as cork trees, in December. Note if you are harvesting cork next year, I have been told you should not prune them this winter as it makes it harder to get the cork off. Remember to research each tree to check when and how they should be pruned.
Preparing for cold
Winter is coming, and so is the frost. Move plants in pots inside somewhere warmer that are sensitive to frost. I also like to take cuttings of plants that may die from frost to have a backup. You may also have plants that you need to cover. I protect my chillies with a cloth over winter, so they survive and continue to grow next year.
The amount of weeding right now after all these rains can be overwhelming. After weeding veggie beds and trees, it is an excellent time to add fertiliser (worm castings, manure, or compost are what we use) and mulch. Mulch is organic matter spread onto the soil to prevent weeds. In the veggie garden, woodchips or straw are best for mulch as they don’t have many weed seeds. Generally, if I need to catch up in the garden and farm maintenance, I won’t plant new beds; instead, I focus on getting up to date and preparing for the next season. It is also a great time to get the metal blade out on your strimmer to clear brambles (Silves), broom (Giesta) and other brush to keep the garden safe from fire. During the rainy season, I like to get ahead on burns to turn branches from forest clearing into biochar (charcoal used as a soil amendment).
December planting in the garden
Besides trees, it is also a great time to plant perennial plants (Plants that live for many years), such as Mediterranean herbs, shrubs, strawberries and bulbs.
We do enjoy eating lettuce in our salads, but they tend not to last very long in the garden and go to seed quite quickly, and it isn´t high in nutrition. I like to plant kale as it can live a couple of years, is highly nutritious, and you can keep harvesting it throughout the year. I grow lettuce and spinach between the kale plants. The best kales I have found on our central Portugal farm are Tuscon Kale and Red Russian Kale. Chards are great to plant now as they establish over the winter and then provide you with huge leaves the following year, which are delicious when cooked with garlic and oil. Chards are also great as they keep providing leaves for regular harvest all year.
Brassicas originate from the wild brassica plant and have been cultivated in various varieties over time such as cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts. I tend to plant a few of each every two weeks through winter for a continuous harvest.
Fava beans and peas are ideal for planting now. If you don’t have a good trellis for peas, then you can spend the time preparing excellent permanent trellises for next year. Don’t chuck together a quick trellis that will fall apart.
Although it is a bit late for planting crops for seed saving, you could also plant some crops for bales. We are doing a late planting of organic oats, rye , perennial rye and cover crop mix. You can read my blog on our website about cover crops.