Putting Your Garden to Bed
Our primary responsibility as gardeners is to nurture and protect the soil. The saying "feed the soil and the soil will feed you," is true. One way to return nutrients to the soil is to plant a cover crop. Ideally, a cover crop would have been seeded in September/October. But if you live in a milder microclimate and the soil is not too wet, there still may be time early in December. But hurry! Fava beans are one of the more popular options—the plants will lessen winter rain erosion and their roots will fix nitrogen in the soil. Chop and drop them when they flower in early spring to get the maximum benefit.
If you don’t want to plant a cover crop (or it’s too wet or too late), add a thick layer of compost to your food garden. It will aid in retarding winter weed growth and decompose over winter to provide an organic source of nitrogen to your spring crops. Plus, it will improve soil tilth and feed the beneficial microorganisms that help plants uptake nutrients in the soil. There is no need to turn the compost into the soil. Mother nature (rain, macro-organisms such as worms, heaving of the ground and gravity) will do all the work. There are additional benefits to practicing minimum soil disturbance (aka "no till"). Protect this layer of compost from runoff and wind by adding a layer of organic mulch (rice straw—not hay that has seeds—and leaf mulch are two popular food garden mulches). These will break down more slowly, returning additional nutrients to your soil.
Now you can settle down with some hot apple cider and your seed catalogs to plan your spring food garden
In the Garden
December 21 is the winter solstice. However, in Sonoma County, frost often arrives before that. Be prepared! Place stakes around your citrus and "hoops" over your half-hardy (tolerates light, brief frost) winter vegetables (e.g., lettuce, peas, many Asian greens, cauliflower, kohlrabi, chard, etc). Have pre-cut/sized frost cloth, burlap or sheets ready to drape over these supports when frost is imminent as well as a method of securing them to the ground (irrigation staples work well if you don't mind putting a hole into the covering—or buy a hand-held grommet tool). Educate yourself about your own microclimate and what the various predictions from the weather service mean to your plants. Learn more.
Cold Frame Lettuce
We have less tasks in the garden during the winter season. There is more time to tackle projects like building a cold frame so that you can get a jump start on spring food gardening. Master Gardener Sara Malone shares her experience with building a cold frame and growing lettuce.
Where to Situate Next Year's Fall/Winter Food Garden
December 21 is the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year. If the sun is out at noon on this day, notice what part of your yard is the sunniest. This is where next year's fall/winter food garden should be sited. Not convinced about growing a cold-weather food garden? These crops are some of the most nutritionally dense. Plus, fall and winter veggies can be beautiful as you can see from a list of plants sold at our fall 2016 garden tour. Cool-weather crops are noted on our "Year-Round Food Gardening in Sonoma County" publication.
Food Garden Specialists
Food Garden Specialists (FGS) are volunteers in the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County. They have a passion for and extra training in sustainable food gardening. In addition to offering food gardening workshops, they provide free advice and consultation services to community gardens throughout Sonoma County. Read more.
Food Garden Tips
December Food Garden Tasks and Tips
For what to grow this month, click here.
- Given the uncertainties of weather, it’s advisable to prepare and protect garden beds from possible heavy rain. Wait for a period of dry days to spray or prune trees. Spray after the trees have dried out, and long enough before predicted rain for the sprayed trees to have dried—longer if possible.
- Spray fixed copper to peach and nectarine trees after leaves have fallen to control peach leaf curl and brown rot.
- Spray fruit trees with organic and vegetable oil-based dormant oil. The oil smothers overwintering insect eggs and pests.
- Dormant pruning of fruit trees can be done from the beginning of leaf fall up to bloom. See UC guidance on pruning and training fruit trees. Little or no pruning of citrus is required: prune out any crossing, broken or shaded out branches from the interior of the tree.
- If you don’t have a drip system in your food garden, buy supplies so that you’ll be prepared to install the system before your early spring garden is started. Drip is the most efficient way to deliver water to your garden—an important consideration during a drought.
- Instead of raking and depositing your leaves in the green bin, run the lawnmower over them to shred them and use them as mulch on your winter veggies beds. These leaves contain many nutrients that the trees pulled out of the soil and atmosphere. In addition to feeding your soil, you will be protecting soil from erosion and moisture evaporation, retarding winter weed growth and preventing splash from rain that could deposit soil-borne disease on your winter crops.
- If a heavy freeze is predicted, cover citrus trees with frost cloth, sheets or burlap draped over stakes, keeping fabric away from foliage and fruit. A 100-watt outdoor bulb under the cover will lend a few degrees of added warmth.
- Grow sprouts and herbs in a sunny kitchen window.
- Read up on cold frames, plastic tunnels, row covers, cloches and other plant protection in order to extend the growing season next year. Take advantage of sales on the supplies you will need for planting early spring crops.
- December 21 is the shortest day of the year with the longest shadows. At high noon, note where the yard is sunniest—this is the best place to plant your fall and winter food garden next year.
- With fewer gardening tasks, this is a good month to research perennial weed problems. Look at University of California’s weed photo gallery to identify weeds and watch a video on weed control techniques. With the recent rains, your soil should be pretty soaked, so now is a great time to pull weeds before the new root growth is strong enough to anchor them firmly.
- Clean, sharpen and oil garden tools and store them in a dry space. Steel wool will remove rust build up (wear gloves); some gardeners use wax paper throughout the year to wipe cleaned and dried blades after use to prevent/reduce rust.
- If there is disease in your orchard or food garden, wipe or dip your pruners with alcohol (ethanol or isopropyl) or spray with a disinfectant spray after every cut so that you do not spread the infection.
- Fight critters with critters—build a bat or owl house. Bats eat moths like the ones that lay eggs on vegetables, eggs that turn into hungry caterpillars. Voles are a tasty treat for owls.
- Inspect crops regularly throughout their growing season for early problem diagnosis and resolution. Refer to University of California’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) site.
- Know what pest you are fighting so that you can select effective pest management strategies. Check out University of California’s natural enemies gallery.
- Good cultural practices (i.e., the correct location, light, water, pruning, fertilizer, planting date) contribute to healthy plants. Sanitation is an important aspect of disease prevention: clear garden debris and then clean and disinfect tools with isopropyl or ethanol alcohol.