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December Gardening 

The to-do list

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Genevieve Schmidt

December usually alternates between stretches of cold, clear weather and weeklong downpours, so there's usually plenty of time for both indoor planning and crafts as well as some of the normal outdoor garden care. Here's what to do in the December garden.

Protect tender plants.

This December has shown us some of the coldest weather on record, and if you haven't yet protected tender plants from frost, you are already seeing the mushy, blackened foliage that results. Keep the damage from getting worse by taking preventive measures for tender plants such as citrus, angels' trumpets (Brugmansia), princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana), and many ornamental sage varieties. There are ready-made solutions, such as huge drawstring bags made of breathable fabric and tent-like contraptions which spring open and can be placed over your plant, but thrift store ninjas will know you don't need to spend much to get the same effect: just wrap an old sheet around some tall garden stakes to create a protective structure that is every bit as effective as the more expensive ones.

Apply dormant spray to fruit trees.

If you've had pest problems on your fruit trees, using a dormant oil spray mixed with a copper-based fungicide is an organic way of preventing insects and diseases from getting out of control. The spray gets into the crevices of the bark and works by smothering insect eggs and fungal spores, and it's a whole lot more effective than trying to spray once you've noticed a problem later in the season. Aim to spray three times; once in early December, once in early January, and once as the flower buds are just barely starting to break open — but don't spray once the tree is actually in bloom, as you could mess up your chances of getting fruit for the year.

Prune raspberries.

The literature on pruning raspberries can be kind of confusing. After trying to determine whether yours are summer-bearing (fruits on two-year-old canes) or ever-bearing (fruits on the current season's canes), and reading up on the fine variations in technique between pruning each, you may find yourself debating the relative merits of just buying the dang berries at the supermarket to save yourself the pruning headache. However, there's one simple rule of thumb that works for either kind: Just remove any cane that bore fruit this year (the fruiting bracts are obvious) by cutting it a couple inches from the ground. As a bonus, this same rule of thumb works on blackberries and other cane berries — if it fruited, prune it out.

Harvest greens and root vegetables.

Beets, carrots, parsnips, leafy greens, kale, Brussels sprouts and other Brassicas can all be harvested as they mature. When harvesting greens, don't pick them on frosty mornings when the leaves are still frozen, as they'll turn to mush in your refrigerator. By waiting until later in the day when the plants have thawed and replenished their moisture, the greens will stay crisp until you're ready to use them. And when picking greens, don't cut the whole plant to the ground, just trim off some usable leaves around the edges and let the plant continue growing. You'll get a longer harvest that way.

Pick a bouquet of herbs.

At this time of year, it's already dark in the garden by the time we are home from work and preparing dinner. If you pick a bouquet of cold-hardy herbs such as rosemary, bay, sage and parsley to keep in your kitchen, you will be able to garnish without having to forage in the cold with a flashlight.

Buy a rain dome and continue feeding birds through the winter.

Winter can be tough for birds, since many sources of food disappear the longer the cold weather lingers. Seed can be a good supplement, and it's a fun way of enjoying life in the garden from indoors. However, wet seed can develop a fungus which makes birds ill, so use a rain dome, a clear plastic shield which protects seed from minor drizzle, and make sure to bring feeders indoors before any truly nasty weather so seed doesn't become wet.

Plant natives.

Of course, bird feeders are all well and good, but the very best food for our local birds comes from our local plants. Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), and wild lilac (Ceanothus) all feed either birds or hummingbirds in winter or early spring.

Plant bare root roses.

If you've been planning to pick up a rose, now's the time to head out to the nursery and choose your prickly new companion. Bare root roses are a great deal because you get a more mature rose for the same price you'd pay for a small container plant in summer. However, buying roses bare root is not without its pitfalls. Every year they rush exciting new varieties to the market, many of which have been bred more for their flower than for sturdiness or disease resistance. If you don't want to be chained to a spraying program, look for roses with a low petal count — definitely under 45 but the lower the better. The more petals, the more opportunity for dampness and fungus to linger in the blooms. Also, look for roses that are marked "disease-resistant," which at least shows the breeders were thinking in that direction when developing the variety. Lastly, though they can be harder to find, roses growing on their own roots rather than those that have been grafted are sturdier and longer-lasting, and have no danger of having the root stock rise up and take over the plant, as happens so often when a weakling grafted rose is ignored for a few years.

Plant bare root vegetables.

Also new at our local nurseries are bare root artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, horseradish and strawberries. You probably know what to do with most of these veggies, but Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, are a little less common in the culinary world. They have a crisp texture like water chestnuts, but a sweeter, richer flavor that is fantastic in stir fries.

Plant winter-blooming heathers.

As the herbaceous perennials die back and deciduous trees and shrubs carpet the ground with their leaves, the garden can begin looking a little bereft of color. Though winter annuals can do the trick, winter-blooming heathers perk up the border at this time of year. Both Erica 'Kramer's Rote', a vivid reddish pink, and 'Darley Dale', with light pink flowers, are blooming in earnest and would make a great gift for yourself or others at this time of year.

Decorate bare flowerpots.

Your summer container plantings may have died down for the year, but there's no reason you should look at a bare pot all winter. As an alternative to winter annuals such as ornamental cabbage and kale, violas, cyclamen or primroses, consider tucking in generous boughs of evergreens and some tall red-twig dogwood stems for a dramatic holiday display. My favorite dogwoods with colored stems are Cornus 'Midwinter Fire', a dwarf variety with orangey red stems, 'Hedgerows Gold' with gold edged leaves in summer and yellow stems in winter, or 'Elegantissima' with cream variegated leaves in summer and bright red stems in winter. Though the red-twig dogwood and evergreen boughs obviously aren't rooted, they'll last for some time. If you plant spring bulbs underneath, the foliage and stem display can last you until the daffodils begin to bloom.

Make a winter wreath.

Heck, if Martha can do it, so can you, right? Hmm, maybe that wasn't the most convincing of arguments, but the fact remains that making winter wreaths is one of the easiest Christmas crafts, and they make great gifts. All it takes is a huge bag of evergreen garden trimmings, a wire wreath frame and some thin wire ($6 at Michael's), and the willingness to spend two hours getting your fingers irrevocably covered in sap.

Start by doing a bit of winter pruning. Rosemary and bay, evergreen conifers like cypress or spruce, holly or false holly (Osmanthus), red-twig dogwood stems, rose hips, eucalyptus, and pinecones all work well. You'll need trimmings that are eight to 10 inches in length so you have enough room to wire the stems onto the frame and still have plenty of fluffy foliage showing.

First, attach the end of the thin wire to the frame (anywhere), place a small bundle of foliage next to the wire, and wrap the wire tightly around the lower half of the stems to hold them securely onto the frame. Continue like this, placing bundles of foliage over the top of the wired-in stems, and wrapping wire around each bundle to secure them to the frame until you get to the end, where you can tuck the last bundle's stems under that first bundle of foliage. Tie the wire to the frame, and you're done!

Just take my advice, and don't do this project indoors on the carpet. As I've learned through hard experience, even a high-powered Dyson will leave you with evidence of your craft project for weeks to come.

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Genevieve Schmidt

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