December gardening tips for the South West | In Your Patch

Birak brings the heat to South West gardens | In Your Patch

Moving into December and the Noongar season of Birak, it's time to start thinking about the impact of the sun, heat and high temperatures within your garden space, big or small.

Hard to believe given the season we've had thus far but there you have it!

Protect your soil and plants from the harsh afternoon westerly sun.

Mulch! Mulch! Mulch!

Not only to help with evaporation, but to keep the soil protected from wind and rain erosion, to drop the temperature of the soil directly next to plants and reduce reflected sun and sunburn, to help with general habitat cover for worms and microbes, to keep weeds down ensuring the plants you want to grow access the food and water you provide, and let's face it, mulch is also aesthetically pleasing.

Look at the type of mulch you're adding - softer mulches are great for veggie beds and general garden beds while some of the harder mulches work well around established trees, on paths, and where weeds are problematic.

Always apply to wet ground first, add some manure before the mulch, and apply soft mulch to about 100mm thickness - substantially less and you'll lose water, it won't suppress the weeds and the cooling effect will lessen, any thicker and the water can be trapped in the mulch layer and not make it down into the soil.

Great examples of soft mulches include straw (make sure it's aged or it will strike once down), silage, leaf litter, and living mulches are also pretty cool, like nasturtiums and alyssum, although I do find both are prolific self-seeders and can get completely out of control if you're not attentive.

RED DELIGHT: Raspberries thrive in the lower South West, and there are both summer and autumn fruiting varieties available. Photos: Terri Sharpe

RED DELIGHT: Raspberries thrive in the lower South West, and there are both summer and autumn fruiting varieties available. Photos: Terri Sharpe

For the hard mulches I prefer using organic materials like tree bark and wood chip as they do still decompose, just more slowly, adding to your soil life and microbes.

Hard mulches like pebbles, rocks, stones and gravel, add nothing.

I apply the harder organic mulches at a slightly shallower depth - no more than around 70mm as you can stop oxygen reaching the root layer if you pile them on too thickly.

Fine for garden paths but not so good for around your large trees, especially the shallow root varieties like citrus.

Try planting vines on hot fences to cool things down a bit.

I'm particularly fond of annuals like some of the melons, squashes and pumpkins, that all do well with something to climb.

Snow and snap sugar peas also like a fence, as do cuca-melons or as they are commonly called - mouse melons.

Table grape vines are wonderful, dropping their leaves at just the right time.

I've tried many a passionfruit over the years but have found them to either over-thrive to the point of growing through and over everything in sight including into surrounding tree canopies, or under-thrive, staying small and sickly producing very little fruit.

Grafted or ungrafted - I've had issues with both.

They can also grow large in leaf and stem producing very few fruit, and in doing so also become a nice little haven for rats and mice.

My advice would be to think carefully before planting, especially in a backyard environment.

And if you've managed to get a nice sized prolific producer - lucky you!

Think about how high the sun will climb and plant your shade tolerant plants like lettuce and leafy greens in those spots.

They'll do very well in the shade over the summer months.

What else do we plant in the region in December?

An all-time favourite can go in now - basil, along with beans if you've something for them to climb or if not, why not try the bush bean, a clumping variety that doesn't require a trellis.

Get those tomatoes in if you haven't already, along with corn, all the squash, both yellow and green zucchini, cucumbers, and of course - more sunflowers.

Raspberries also do very well in Margaret River and there are both summer and autumn fruiting varieties available.

We'll have some up for sale on the MRPS Roadside Honesty Stall in December, potted on runners that have come from my home raspberry patch.

HEATING UP: South West garden expert Terri Sharpe says now is the time to prepare your garden for the heat and sun of the Birak season. Photo: Terri Sharpe

HEATING UP: South West garden expert Terri Sharpe says now is the time to prepare your garden for the heat and sun of the Birak season. Photo: Terri Sharpe

Be sure to check your retic is working properly and set your watering days.

Two deep, decent waters per week is still better for your plants than lots of shorter ones as your plants will grow their roots down low in search of the moisture - giving them better resistance to those hot days that tend to come in February and March.

Be sure to mulch!

So tip number five is pretty simple - it's all about the soil!

Care for it, feed it, water it, protect it - and it will give back to you tenfold what you put in.

Happy summer gardening everyone.

Terri is Coordinator and Garden Specialist of the Margaret River Primary School's Kitchen Garden Program, and a Lecturer in Horticulture at TAFE Margaret River.

Her column focuses on tips for a productive edible garden - what and when to plant, when to harvest, disease and pest management, and general tips on what works (and doesn't) here in the Margaret River region.

This story Birak brings the heat to South West gardens | In Your Patch first appeared on Augusta-Margaret River Mail.