December means the weather is hotting up and with the heat comes the chance of extreme weather events, including storms, fires and strong winds
Cool & Temperate
To make the most of December’s hot, sunny summer days, garden in the cooler parts of the day or work in the shade to reduce sun and heat exposure. Even if outdoors for only a short time, apply sunscreen and wear a hat. If a hot day is forecast, water plants early in the morning and, if a heat wave is on the cards, cover new plants and leafy crops with shade protection. A length of shadecloth pulled over plants can help crops survive a hot day without loss. Remove shade covers at night.
Get into the habit of inspecting vegetable crops once or twice a day through December. Do the inspection while watering. Look for pests, weeds and crops that are ready to harvest. Acting on problems when they are first spotted can reduce their severity.
Keep vegetable crops coming along by planting a late crop of summer favourites, including tomatoes, cucumbers and beans. In fruit fly zones, protect maturing tomatoes and capsicum against fruit fly with organic baits and traps. Cover fruit clusters with exclusion bags to keep pests away.
Holes in pear and cherry leaves are the work of the pear and cherry slug. Dust leaves with ash or powder to keep them away. Squash any that are seen. Use cardboard or hessian to band apple and pear trunks to catch codling moth caterpillars as they move up the trees to infest fruit.
Ants in fruit trees indicate the presence of pests, so check new growth, stems and the backs of leaves for scale, mealy bug or aphids. Horticultural spray oils or organic-certified sprays containing oil and pyrethrum reduce pest infestations while a banding of grease or barrier glue around the trunk prevents ants from getting access to the tree. Check citrus trees for stink bugs such as bronze orange bug or spined citrus bug. Squash those clustering on the trunk or remove bugs from foliage or branches by hand. Use long-handled tongs to grab bugs. Take care to protect your eyes from the liquid they exude when disturbed. Squash or drown bugs in a bucket of soapy water to prevent them returning to the tree (mature adults have wings and can fly to other trees).
Compost & Soil
Move worm farms into a cool, shaded location as summer progresses. On hot days, cover the worm farm with a damp sack to keep the worms cool. As temperatures rise, especially during dry spells, compost heaps also dry out rapidly. When moisture levels drop below 30 per cent, decomposition slows. Check the compost heap and if necessary damp it down with a spray of water from the hose. Thin layers of grass clippings and green weeds laid over the heap can help increase temperatures to encourage faster composting.
Shelter is also vital to protect soils from drying out, especially in southern parts of Australia where summers are dry. Beds that are prone to drying out can be surrounded with a hedge. Plant a green manure crop over bare areas or cover with mulch. Bare spaces may also provide opportunity to plant a flowering crop to encourage pollinating and beneficial insects. Fast-growing nasturtiums are useful flowering groundcover plants. They cover the soil with their leaves while the flowers provide nectar for insects.
There are vegies that love the heat and humidity of a tropical summer and can be planted now for trouble-free food production. Make the most of warm, wet conditions by growing cucumber, snake and winged beans and Ceylon spinach. Climbing crops are dual-purpose in summer vegetable gardens. As well as producing a crop, they can be trained vertically to shade other more heat-sensitive crops such as lettuce. Also plant cassava, yam, taro and melons, which cover the soil.
Pick vegies, especially cucumbers and zucchinis, while they are small (around 10cm long) as they quickly become over-mature and will be watery. Over-mature vegies can be fed to the chooks. Avoid summer pests that plague tomatoes by growing cherries rather than large-fruited varieties as these are less attractive to pests.
Summer brings a wealth of fruit including passionfruit, mango and pawpaw. Boxes of homegrown fruits such as mangos make great homegrown gifts for those without gardens. Turn excess produce into jams or chutneys that are also ideal for gift giving. Feed passionfruit vines with pelletised chicken manure or an organic citrus food, and keep them well watered to encourage good crops. Apply water and fertiliser along the root system, allowing it to soak in thoroughly.
To protect soft fruit from birds, bats and other fruit-lovers, use bird-safe knitted netting or shadecloth to protect crops but reduce accidental harm to animals. Regularly check netting to release any captured animals or birds. Prune trees to reduce their height as this makes it easier to net crops.
Compost & Soil
Heavy rains and storms leach nutrients from soils. Combat this effect by keeping soils protected with mulch or with a leafy crops such as sweet potato or an ornamental plant such as ornamental sweet potato or nasturtium. Also apply extra fertiliser and compost to replace lost nutrients especially around productive and flowering plants. Where weeds are thriving, keep them controlled. Mow before weeds flower and seed to limit seeding. Hoe small weeds.
Hand pulled green weeds can be added to the compost or soaked in water to make a weed tea, which can be used as a liquid feed for potted plants. Edible weeds can also be fed to the chooks. Where chooks are used to control weeds, keep the flock contained to reduce the chance of them damaging crops or scratching up growing areas and new plantings.
Written by Jennifer Stackhouse
Originally in Good Organic Gardening, Volume 8 Issue 4