December Garden Tasks

It was sometime in middle school when I found something even more exciting than Santa Claus coming at the end of December – Seed Catalogs! Then a man in a blue USPS uniform who delivered the potential of next year’s vegetable and flower garden in the form of full color catalogs preempted Santa. I spent hours in our living-room in the warmth of the fireplace taking notes and making comparisons and trying to convince my parents to release more of the yard for my garden projects. While the holiday spirit fills our thoughts the gardener in us is rejoicing in the cycle of gardening. Just as we hit the longest day of the solstice there is the promise of longer days and a chance to try something new. But plants are never far from any of our lives and during the wonderful holiday season indoor plants play a major part of our festivities. Included in this month’s calendar are tips for the plants of the season.

Flower Garden

Seed catalogs start arriving in December (I got some even earlier this year). If you ordered from a company in the past few years you should get this years copy. If you are new to seed catalogs then you should contact them to get on the list. If you haven’t grown plants from seed get some catalogs to see what you are missing. The selection is so much greater than what can be offered garden centers. It may inspire you to try your hand at seed starting. You may also want to look at the flower seed selection available on Shop.HorticultureGuy.com.

General Landscaping

  • Review last years garden. If you didn’t take notes during the season set aside some time on a nice cozy evening and jot down what went well in the garden and what did not. Then put down ideas on what you would do differently last year.
  • Take evergreen and hardwood cuttings. Dip them in a rooting hormone before putting the in pots filled with rooting media and place in a cold-frame for the winter. Roots should form by spring.
  • Apply mulch. Clear days are good for applying mulch to beds you didn’t get to earlier in the fall. 2-3 inches is sufficient.
  • Cut evergreen boughs for wreaths.
  • Rake up leaves from under late leaf releasing trees like Pin Oaks.

Indoor Garden

  • Cut Christmas trees. The more recently cut a tree is the better it will hold up indoors. To test the freshness of a tree pull lightly at a needle. If the needle comes off easily then the tree is not very fresh. The best way to assure a fresh tree is to go to a local “choose ‘n cut” tree farm. Go to the Puget Sound Christmas Tree Association’s website http://www.pscta.org for the closest farm or check the yellow pages under Christmas Trees. If they are not freshly cut trees then before setting up the tree cut off about 2 inches from the bottom. Old cuts close over and won’t take up water. I also suggest cutting on a slight angle so the cut surface won’t be flush on the bottom of the stand, which could block uptake of water. Some varieties you can find are Grand Fir, Noble Fir, Frasier Fir, Douglas Fir (not a true fir). A friend of mine who worked a tree stand for years swears by the Frasier Fir. He thought they were worth the extra cost since they smell so good lasted longer than other Firs. Plus the needles have a smell like the mixture of pine and tangerine like many of the true Firs. You can also find White and Blue Spruce, and less often various pines, cedars and cypress.
  • Live Christmas trees – Some garden centers will carry live or uncut Christmas trees, which are balled an burlaped. They should be brought indoors for no longer than 10 days. The trees are then planted outdoors to live out the rest of its life. Dig a hole when weather permits. Do not work the soil when it is frosted or excessively wet as you will ruin the structure of the soil. This is also true for bare-root trees and shrubs which can be planted during the winter when available and soil conditions allow.
  • Poinsettias – These harbingers of Christmas is a Euphorbia native to Mexico. The colorful bracts come in a multitude of colors now. Don’t over water them. Let the soil dry out slightly between waterings. Put in a window that gets at least 4 hours of sun and keep out of drafts.
  • Amaryllis (Hippeastrum) – This South American bulb is huge often 6- 8 inches across. That is because packed inside are the giant trumpet flowers waiting to erupt. The first growth you will see will be the tip of the flower bud. The flowers come in a variety of colors but the reds seem to get the most exposure during the holidays. Often Amaryllis kits provide a pot and peat moss, which has little to no nutrients. I don’t like to skimp on soil with Amaryllis. These are bulbs you want to keep and grow year after year. They can grow larger and more floriferous. A good potting soil for cacti is best. Or you can mix 1 part potting soil with 1 part sharp sand. Plant the bulb so almost half of it sticks out from the top of the soil. Keep them in full sun until they flower. Then move them to a less sunny spot.
  • Ornamental peppers – These small festive plants are just like the peppers we grow in our gardens. They are just small varieties, usually no larger than a foot. They have fiery hot fruit that go from green to shades yellow, orange and red as they ripen. Fruit shape can vary from small and round to long and tapered. Like our outdoor varieties they need lots of sunshine so keep them in the sunniest window of your house. Keep the soil evenly moist.
  • Dwarf Alberta spruce – The cute miniature trees are slow growing and well suited to culture in pots. They maximum height is about four feet tall. But they should be considered indoor visitors since they are requires a cool dormant period (vernalization) each year.
  • Norfolk Island Pine – This is not a true pine but it is a native of South Pacific as indicated by its name. This means they make good houseplants and can be kept indoors in a sunny window or in a room with bright indirect light year round. They will grow less than a foot per year although in the South pacific the trees will grow over 100 feet tall. Keep the soil evenly moist.
  • Rosemary tree topiary – These take a few years to train and will need constant pruning to keep their shape. Keep them on a sunny windowsill (6 hours direct sun) and bring outdoors in the summer. Let the soil dry out slightly between waterings. You can allow them to develop their natural shape if you wish.
  • Zygocactus – These cactus of the Schlumbergera genus have appeared in garden centers and stores well before thanksgiving. That is because there are two main species (and their hybrids) grown for the holidays. One is the Thanksgiving cactus and the other is the Christmas Cactus. The name relates to the time of year they will bloom. They are epiphytic (growing in trees) cactus that grow in the trees of jungles in South America. Because of their nativity they are much happier with lower light levels than their terrestrial dessert cactus cousins. They prefer bright indirect light. They are not as drought tolerant as dessert cactus so keep the soil evenly moist.
  • Continue forcing bulbs like amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus and plant freesias bulbs now for blooms in early spring.

Pest Alert

On periodic sunny days it is nice to get out in the garden and tidy up. If your garden is like mine there are still beds that can use some cleaning up. This is especially important if you have had any disease problems last year. Remove spent annual vegetable stems and compost. Look out for overwintering egg masses or other signs of overwintering pests.

Vegetables, Herbs & Fruit

  • Seed and plant catalogs start arriving in December (I got some even earlier this year). If you ordered from a company in the past few years you should get this years copy. If you are new to seed catalogs then you should contact them to get on the list. If you haven’t grown plants from seed get some catalogs to see what you are missing. The selection is so much greater than what can be offered garden centers. It may inspire you to try your hand at seed starting. You may also want to look at the vegetable seeds and herb seeds available on my garden supply store.
  • Start seeds for alpine strawberries- Believe it or not now is the time to start seeds of Alpine strawberries those wonderfully small fruit with the wild berry taste. Plants sown in December will provide fruit this spring and then consistently into the fall. These are runnerless which strawberries that are long-lived and easy to take care. They make good companions in your ornamental beds and will grow in small spaces. There is even a yellow fruiting variety of Alpine strawberry.

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