Karen Sutherland’s regular permaculture tips.
Winter is a good time to observe where rainwater lands and sits in and on your landscape, and any opportunities to allow it to filter in, where it can recharge the soil water table and provide deep watering to your trees. Rather than let your rainwater be directed by gutters and downpipes away into gutters, waterways and the ocean, think about how you might help it make its way gently into the soil as it once naturally did, before we built cities and towns full of impermeable surfaces such as concrete. There are many interesting approaches to getting more water into the soil, such as the iconic swale, popularised by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Swales are best suited to sloped land and can be extremely effective at lessening run-off and improving soil water retention after rain. They are essentially trenches dug on contour lines, so when they fill with rainwater it is level all the way along the trench, thus allowing the rainwater to soak into the landscape rather than run off quickly.
Swales can be difficult to install if your garden is already established, but there are other ways of getting water into your soil. For garden paths, using coarse mulch rather than impermeable paving allows water into your soil. Gravel or compacted granitic sand paths allow for a firmer surface for those with less mobility, while still allowing more water into the soil than would occur with impermeable paving. If you’re installing paved paths, the gaps between the pavers can be filled with coarse sand, allowing some water to filter in as it runs over the pavers. Try to direct run-off from any paving or paths onto surrounding garden beds, where it can be taken up by plants, but be careful as this can cause soggy spots in your garden if your soil is heavy or naturally badly drained such as in the case of clay soil. Getting the advice of an expert gardener can help to avoid problems in this case.
Winter is the time for some deciduous fruit tree maintenance to set your trees up for a healthy growing season. Check your trees, starting with stakes and ties. After 12-18 months, trees should no longer need the stakes you installed at planting and these should be removed. Ties on espaliered fruit trees need to be replaced every year or so if they are made of soft fabric and, at the very least, checked each winter to make sure they are not cutting into the branches. Clean off loose bark gently with an old flat blade screwdriver to ferret out troublesome codling or oriental fruit moths which may be pupating there. Inspect apple trees for woolly aphid, showing up as fluffy white patches which are sticky when touched. Encourage small birds into your garden to clear these up for you, and treat those they don’t by dabbing with methylated spirits on a small paintbrush.
Start some spring vegetable seedlings now in a homemade greenhouse. Make a visit to a local fruit and vegetable shop and ask for some old polystyrene foam boxes, which are otherwise often sent to landfill. You’ll need to find one that is around 30 centimetres tall, so you can fit in the seedling mix as well as allowing for seedling growth. These taller boxes don’t usually have holes in the bottom, so you’ll need to punch some through with a large flat blade screwdriver or something similar. Push your holes from the outside in for a neater finish. Give the box a thorough scrub with hot soapy water, rinse with clean water and finish off with a spray of methylated spirits to sterilise and to help prevent problems for your seedlings. Fill the base of the box with 10 centimetres of seed raising mix, and level it out, firming it in place gently. Seeds can be sown in rows into the seed raising mix, and remember to label each row or variety so you know what you’ve put in. After you’ve watered your seeds in, cover the box with some clear plastic, as this is the lid of the greenhouse. Placed in a warm sunny spot, it catches the sun and brings seeds the extra warmth they need to germinate well at this time of year. Seeds to sow now include bok choy, rainbow chard, spring onions, kales and lettuces.
A variety of pests and diseases on your fruit trees, such as the very frustrating peach leaf curl disease as well as troublesome brown rot on stone fruits, can be prevented or treated with winter applications of lime sulphur or in alternate years, copper sprays – both of which are allowed in organic gardening. However be sure to use a copper spray made with cupric hydroxide, not copper oxychloride. Apply before bud burst, during a patch of dry weather, to allow the sprays to do their work, and try to repeat at least once or twice over winter for better results.
Fertilise your garden now with slow-release manure to set your garden up ready for spring growth. Pelletised manures are the best choice for this, as they break down slowly, allowing nutrients to be distributed to your plants over a longer period of time. They are great for all parts of your edible garden, from fruit trees to vegetable patches, food forests or any edible street or nature strip plantings. This type of fertiliser can also be used on outdoor pots, as it is too strong smelling to use indoors! Look for a pelletised fertiliser that has been enriched with other things besides the main ingredient of poultry manure, such as seaweed, zeolite and fishmeal. This ensures a more balanced nutrient profile and healthier plants. Never apply any fertiliser to dry soil, so if it hasn’t rained recently make sure to water the garden first, then water the fertiliser in, making sure to wash it off leaves and plants onto the soil. Ideally, you should also pull mulch back from around plants to allow the fertiliser to reach the root zone, replacing the mulch after fertilising, but if you have a big garden and not particularly thick mulch you can simply spread the fertiliser around and it will work its way through the mulch over time.