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The Monthly Gardener

Season's greenings

December is a gift for gardeners, who can keep going on projects or kick back and get ready for the holidays.

November 24, 2005|Robert Smaus

GARDENERS GET A choice in December. They can do nothing and spend all their time preparing for the holidays. Or they can consider it another fall month and stay quite busy planting, transplanting, dividing and cutting. If you've begun a big landscaping project, you can keep working on it, though you might want to wear gloves on some frosty mornings. Winter does not officially begin until the 21st, though December nights can be quite chilly and days are short and gardens in shadow. If you feel like just kicking back, gardens almost care for themselves because soils stay moist for weeks and many plants are dormant or nearly so.

Lengthening shadows

In older parts of town, where trees have grown big, gardens that were in full sun a few weeks ago may now be in shade for half a day or more. A neighbor's tree, for instance, may block the horizon-hugging winter sun, allowing few rays to reach your garden. But as long as plants have open sky overhead, they can cope.

Soils will take longer to dry out so do not water as often or you will encourage green algae on paths or moss in lawns. If either forms, you might as well enjoy that wet woodland look because it's nearly impossible to get rid of them. Neither will harm plants or the soil.

Holiday plants

There are the obvious holiday indoor plants, including poinsettias and living Christmas trees, but there are also berried shrubs such as holly, pyracantha, cotoneaster and our native toyon. As potted plants, they make fresh, long-lasting, fire-safe decorations. There's even a red, December-flowering camellia named 'Yuletide' that goes nicely with the more common berries and greens. Be sure to place saucers under the pots and water when necessary.

Try to find poinsettias that are not in paper or plastic sleeves because they're less likely to drop leaves or bracts, according to growers.

There are all sorts of living Christmas trees. Some can be planted in the garden after the holidays, but be sure you have room and that it will grow in our climate. Check in the Sunset Western Garden Book. Some can stay in pots for years if you move them back outdoors. If trees stay indoors for more than two weeks, they will drop needles.

Fall color finishing up

Though fall is nearly over in the mountains and high desert and in many inland communities, leaves continue to color up nearer the coast, including the bright yellow-gold ginkgo and the orange to red liquidambars.

If you want a tree for the garden that colors up in autumn, now is the time to shop for one so that you can see exactly what you will get color wise. Other trees known for their bright foliage in Southern California include pistache, persimmon, ornamental pear, pomegranate, crape myrtle, Chinese tallow tree (Sapium), sour gum (Nyssa), Japanese maple and Modesto ash. Just be sure the tree will grow in your climate zone.

Keep on planting

You can continue planting bulbs found at nurseries. If the bulbs are not big enough, they may not flower the first year so don't skimp -- better a few big ones -- and if they are the wrong kind they may never flower. Warm climate bulbs such as freesias, small-flowered daffodils, Sparaxis and Watsonia do best. If you've been chilling tulips in the refrigerator, don't forget to plant them just after the holidays. You can also put in bedding plants that will flower in spring, and vegetables that ripen in winter. If you need to move a plant that is in a bad spot and hasn't become too big, or if you need to divide overgrown perennials, now is a good time.

Trees and shrubs do especially well planted now and it is the best time to plant our own natives, such as manzanita, coyote brush and salvia. Rains will sprout wildflower seeds sown now on weed-free ground. One good place? Try wildflowers such as baby blue eyes (Nemophila) or Clarkia between bulbs that are pushing up.

Pile it up

As you rake up those falling leaves, put them in a pile in an out-of-the-way place so that they can compost and become a gardener's most valued commodity. Homemade compost makes the perfect soil conditioner and mild fertilizer. If commercial gardeners do the blowing and mowing in your yard, ask them to put it in the pile, but try to keep out the sweepings from the street because they will be mixed with dusts and chemicals you don't really want to add to the garden. Leaves break down more quickly when kept damp, an easy job in cool winter weather.

It's a wrap for roses

The bushes need to rest in December so do not cut off fading blooms; let them turn into rose fruits, or hips. Another way to force roses to nap is to stop feeding them; or even stop watering, as drastic as that sounds. Don't prune established roses yet, even if they have lost all their leaves. Once they are leafless, it's a good idea to blanket canes with a dormant spray (found at nurseries) to rid them of pests and diseases. Later in the month bare root roses will show up at nurseries, but you'll have all of January to plant.

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