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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

December Gardening

It is hard to believe that December is upon us, but it is, and it is starting to get colder, and getting dark ever earlier, and holiday season signs are everywhere.

I suspect with all the stuff to do for Christmas, and Christmas parties to attend, and given the cold starting to descend upon us, that a lot of us take a break from thinking about our gardens. But there are actually some useful things to do in the garden in December.

December is a super time to transplant. Now that we have had or will soon have a couple of decent freezes plants are falling to sleep - going into dormancy (kind of like animal hibernation) - which means first that there is less transpiration going on (none in deciduous trees and shrubs obviously) and thus much less demand being put on the roots by the leaves to get water (for photosynthesis), and second, that the plant is not going to sprout new shoots and buds if it is cut back somewhat. This means that when we transplant at this time of year it is much less traumatic for the plant. But plant roots do grow slowly over the winter and so that when the weather does heat up in the Spring and the plant comes out of dormancy it has had a chance for its roots to set and is in better shape to survive its first summer.

December is also a very good time to plant shrubs and trees, many fruit trees, some hardy perennials, and some bulbs.

December is a good time to get rid of vines and tree saplings that have been taking over the garden. Even with deciduous vines it is actually quite easy to see them this time of year, and much easier to see some evergreen vines. Now is a perfect time to take out English Ivy. English Ivy is an ongoing maintenance challenge and it also competes with shrubs for water and nutrients. Pulling Ivy out is less stressful on the plants around it when the pulling is done in cooler weather. One thing I have noticed is that when Spring does finally come many vines like Wisteria take off so fast, that before we wrap our heads around the fact that it is Spring the vines have already wormed their way through our shrubs and bushes. And we look, and sigh...

December is a good time to apply mulch to boxwood, azaleas and many other shrubs, especially after cleaning out old plant litter and dead wood. Since it also a good time to apply a light feeding to many shrubs (to help root growth over the winter) some folks like to use a mulch like Dixie Mix, or to sprinkle a slow release granular fertilizer in with say shredded hardwood bark (my favorite mulch for around here).

December can be the right time to prune of cut back unsightly overgrown foundation plants, especially those whose flowering buds are not already set. One could argue that February is better, but if you just don't want to look at an overgrown or unsightly bush or row of bushes all winter it won't do any harm to prune it now since the plant is dormant. Boxwood too can be selectively pruned now to allow in more light and air which will stimulate bud growth in early Spring.

December is a good time to start to get the ground ready for a Spring planting of vegetables. Bacteria and worms don't stop working in our mild winters when the soil rarely freezes, and late fall (I think of December before Christmas as late fall) is an active time for worms and bacteria to work on decomposing leaves and enriching soil. Turning the soil in a planting bed, especially if it has some leaves or leaf litter can be a good way to prep the soil for an early Spring planting.

Remember to water in winter. Not only do plants still need water to live, but keeping the soil watered helps ameliorate the impact of a cold snap, protecting plant tissue much as putting water on peach buds during a hard freeze can help save the buds!

Best of all, December is a great time to start thinking about and planning for the Spring. Since we begin to get a lot of new growing activity by late February, Spring can sort of sneak up on us here in Columbia and by the time we're ready we may have missed a window of opportunity. Best to get out the garden books and catalogs and start planning now, rather than then.

I hope you enjoyed reading this. As always I am available to help however I can.

Maybe you have some other ideas to share about gardening in December - especially here in the midlands of SC.

Happy December...

Joel