The Garden Website for December
In This Issue
10. Festive Planters
11. Avoiding Salt Damage
12. When it Snows
13. Festive Garden Crafts
14. Gift & Houseplant Care
15. Christmas Trees & Options
17. December's Flower Arrangement
18. Plant of the Month: Moth Orchid, Phalaeonopsis
Hello Fellow Gardeners,
Last month I did my best to wrap up the garden so I wouldn’t have to worry about it during the holidays. The atmospheric river that swamped BC in November, made it very challenging to say the least. Gardening seemed irrelevant as houses and farms were flooded. Tragically lives were lost - human and animal alike. With the unprecedented weather, the garden has taken a back seat. However, inbetween the days of copious amounts of rainfall (and a flooded basement), I did venture forth to take on the garden. It was a muddy undertaking to say the least, as my gear can attest to.
But now it’s the holiday season and my priorities have switched from gardening to making the house more colourful and festive. Luckily my garden is a good source of greenery. Just a few springs of boxwood, cedar, rosemary and other evergreens make for easy and natural décor. They smell pretty good too. And to brighten up Vancouver’s grey and rainy winter, a handful of evergreen boughs on the front door goes a long way to welcome all that cross the threshold.
And speaking of weather, after the summers record breaking heat dome, then the atmospheric rivers of last month that followed I’m sure we are all wondering what December will bring. Whatever it is, I hope you stay safe, dry and warm.
Take care and have a festive and merry December and a happy Christmas.
December PLANT COMBO
This semi-shade combination is simple but effective this time of year because of the plentiful bright red berries of a Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii). At it's feet, the arching strap-like leaves of a carex, an ornamental grass, provides a suitable accent. Hugging the ground is the evergreen ground cover, periwinkle (Vinca minor). This multi-seasonal combination looks good all through the year, but it is outstanding in April and May when they all come into bloom.
Improper placement of this drain has resulted in soggy soil and unhappy plants. When a drain is higher than the surrounding ground, the remedy is to add more soil. First, dig up the plants then and add more compost rich soil. The compost will replenish the nutrients leached away from the flooding, and will also improve the water holding capacity of the soil. Add an adequate amount so the ground is slightly higher than the drain. Rake the soil so it slopes 1-2% towards the drain. If it's too steep the soil will erode away. Wait a week before replanting to allow the ground to settle. Add more soil and regrade if necessary. Replant the plants and then cover the ground with 3 inches of an organic mulch. For more on bad drainage click on How to Drain Soggy Soil
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Plant & Seed Catalogues
Order seed catalogues: My favorite winter pastime is pouring through plant and seed catalogues. If I purchased as much as my imagination allows, I would be a pauper with a garden choked with plants. It's nice to dream though, especially on those grey winter days.
Click here for a list of plant and seed catalogues. Order early to avoid disappointment of sold out crops and merchandise. Try not to get too carried away!
December Garden Stars
Harvest parsnips, winter cabbage, kale, chard, leeks and any other winter crops as you need them. Keeping them in the ground improves their flavor and preserves their freshness. Insulate the soil with a few inches of straw or fall leaves to make harvesting root crops easier. To prolong the harvest of leafy crops such as kale, chard and lettuce, just remove the leaves you need. Harvest Brussels sprouts when they are one inch diameter. Remove the ones at the bottom of the stem first, with a firm twist.
Plants For The Winter Garden
If your garden is lacking colour and spirit during the winter, get thee to a local plant nursery. They’ll have many types of plants on display plants to bring colour, structure, texture, flowers and berries to bright winter gardens. Fragrance: For a fragrant winter garden add these sweet smelling shrubs: winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis), winter daphne (Daphne odora) and wintersweet/Japanese allspice (Chimonanthus praecox).
Outdoor Planters: If they are not looking their best, dress them up for winter. For a quick fix, stick in some evergreen boughs, pine cones and festive baubles. If you don't want to bother, move them out of sight to a sheltered spot. To protect the even further wrap them in bubble wrap, insulation or blankets. Check all outside container plants to make sure they are not drowning with the winter rains. For those under eaves, the opposite applies; make sure they don’t dry out.
Avoid Salt Damage
Salt Damage: Avoid using salt on paths, driveways, sidewalks and any areas close to where there’s plants and lawns. Salt contaminates soil and damages plants. Symptoms appears in spring when plants fail to green up. It’s often mistaken for winterkill. There are numerous less damaging products including numerous brands of organic salt-free de-icer. For homemade solutions use kitty litter, sand, alfalfa meal or coffee grounds. Include a really good mat to wipe your shoes as you enter your house, as no matter what you use, it’s always messy.
When it Snows
Remove accumulated snow on balconies, rooftops and any structure that may collapse under the weight. If you haven’t protected tender plants already, lay evergreen branches or fall foliage on top of them.
Wrap tender shrubs with layers of burlap, old sheets and other breathable fabric. Formal, pyramidal and upright geometric conifers are best wrapped with twine to keep their shape. After a heavy snowfall, use a broom to knock off snow that's weighing down branches and crushing plants.
Festive Garden Crafts
The inspiration for this wreath was the purple Christmas bauble. Yew sprigs were stuck into the grapevine wreath to form a half circle of greenery. Dried hydrangeas were spray painted black first, dried, then attached with a hot-glue gun. A purple feather boa and silver sprigs from the dollar store were glued on. One final touch was the purple and black striped ball attached to the wreath with a purple ribbon followed by wrapping it with battery operate fairy lights.
Gift Plants & Houseplants
Central heating and lack of sunshine are not the ideal growing conditions for poinsettias, amaryllis, African violets, geraniums, as well as other gift and tropical foliage houseplants.
Don’t be surprised if their foliage and blossoms turn yellow and drop off as they adjust to the less than ideal conditions. Keep them away from heating vents, drafty windows, open windows etc. Place in your sunniest window, without them touching the glass. Another option is to place them next to a table lamp fitted with a grow light bulb.
Avoid overwatering and underwatering. Water when the top of the soil dries to ¼”. Overwatering and underwatering causes plants to wilt, so stick your finger in the soil before watering – just in case. To learn more about houseplants click on Houseplant Winter Care.
If your Christmas cactus is not flowering, maybe it isn’t a Christmas cactus at all, or maybe it isn’t receiving the correct conditions to induce flowering. For find out how to take care of your Christmas cactus, click here.
December Garden Chores
Garden Inspections: Heavy rain, windstorms, abundant snowfall are good reasons to check out your garden for flooding, snow crushed plants, broken branches, dried out planters, blocked drains, overflowing eaves and such.
Flood Prevention: Clean gutters and remove debris from the city’s storm drains and catch basins to prevent roads and sidewalks from flooding. Don’t forget to check them after bad weather.
Shed: Store fertilizers, seeds and other garden products, especially liquids overwinter in a dry and frost-free location.
Putting Things Away: If you haven’t already done so clean, prepare and put away tools, garden equipment and lawn mower etc. Drain garden hoses and store in a protected location. Drain outside faucets by shutting off the interior shut-off valve to the water line leading to the faucet. Close the shut-off valves which are located inside your home. Protect outdoor pipes with insulating pipe sleeves and place faucet insulating covers over the outdoor taps, available at home hardware stores and amazon.ca.
Slugs/Snails: Rainy days, grey days, early mornings and at dusk are great for slug hunting. Carry a cup of salty water to plop them in. Show them whose boss. For more on controlling mollusks click here.
Weeds: If snow isn’t on the ground, go weed hunting. They are not growing vigorously this time of year so pluck them out in their weakened state.
Cuttings: Continue to take hardwood cuttings from trees and shrubs throughout the winter.
Plant Spring Bulbs: Don’t delay. If the ground isn’t frozen, get them in the ground asap.
Dahlias & Summer Bulbs: Get a move on if you haven’t already dug up and stored dahlias, tuberous begonias, gladiolus, cannas and other tender summer bulbs. Let them cure in a frost free dry place for a week, knock off any extra soil and dust with cinnamon as it is a natural fungicide. To reduce rotting, store in cardboard boxes or paper bags filled with vermiculite etc., in a cool frost free area away from light. To read more click on Dahlias or Tuberous Begonias
Pruning: This is not the time to prune trees and shrubs, however Mother Nature may have other plans. When strong winds break branches it’s important to cut back broken branches to a healthy side branch or remove the branch entirely. For big jobs, play it safe and hire professional ISA certified arborist. Check their credentials and past work. Remember – no tree topping allowed! For more click on Pruning Basics 101
Veggie Beds: Cover unused beds soil with straw, layers of newspapers, or a thick layer of fall leaves to reduce weeds, erosion and the loss of soil nutrients.
Lawns: If there’s no snow yet and it isn’t frozen, rake any remaining fall leaves into neighbouring beds. And avoid walking on it when it’s frozen.
Birds: Help birds survive the winter with a steady supply of dry seeds and suet. Inspect feeder regularly for mouldy and drenched seeds.
Hummingbirds: If you lucky to live where hummingbirds overwinter, they not only appreciate feeders full of fresh nectar, they need them to survive. There are a few tricks to keep the nectar from freezing. To find out more click on Hummingbirds in Winter
Journal: Before you forget, make notes of your successes and failures of the year. Review any pictures you took of the garden, and if you don’t have any, consider taking some next year. After all, a picture tells a thousand words.
Christmas trees & Options
Gone are the days when the option for a Christmas tree was a fake one or a cut one. Now you can rent live trees that are potted up and returned to the field once the holidays are over. In Vancouver, Evergrow Christmas Trees offers that service.
For those that are not local, search the web for a company near you. Another option is to purchase a potted living tree. Either plant it in your garden after the holidays or in spring, or keep it in a planter and bring it inside during the holidays. To learn more about Christmas tree shopping, selection and care, click here.
Selecting a fresh poinsettia is key to its longevity. Look for deep green healthy firm leaves with no insects on the underside. But most importantly inspect the centre of the ‘flowers’. Those bright red petals are not petals at all, but bracts, which are modified leaves. To learn more about poinsettias as a gift plant and also as a tropical shrub, click here.
A 'Yuletide' camellia is surrounded by oak leaves, fennel seeds, snowberries, holly berries and beautyberries. For a numbered guide to the specific flower names and for other arrangements go to Monthly Flower Arrangements
December's Plant of the month
Common Name: moth orchid
Botanical Name: Phalaenopsis spp.
Species: many kinds
Plant Type: orchid, tropical herbaceous perennial, epiphytic
Mature Size: 8 to 34 inches x 12 inches
Origin: Southeast Asia, New Guinea, Indonesia, Philippines, northern Australia
Hardiness Zone: 10 to 12
Foliage: overlapping in two rows originating from a single crown, leathery, deep matte green, oblong
Flowers: many individual long lasting flat flowers borne on long leafless stems
Fruit: pods contain countless tiny seeds
Exposure: bright shade, east window
Soil: bark chips potting media
Uses: houseplants, outdoor ornamental perennial in tropical climates
Propagation: seeds, keikis (plantlets)
Problems: overwatering, sunscald, mealybugs, scale insects
It’s really easy to grow orchids when you live in a tropical climate, but growing them as houseplants is tricky. I grew Phalaenopsis orchids outside in Florida by hanging them in trees in my garden. They flowered regularly with very little care, however they had to be brought inside when the temperatures dipped to 40°F (4°C). They don’t like being too chilly.
Growing moth orchids as houseplants is a tad more difficult. After numerous failed attempts (sorry to all those dead orchids), I have learned a few things along the way.
One of the biggest killers of inside growing is overwatering. Yes, they like it humid but their roots will rot if they are kept too wet. Before adding any water, feel whatever they are growing in with your fingers. If it’s still moist, don’t water. Wait until it’s dry to the touch then add enough to water until it barely runs out of the pot. Keep water away from the crown (where the leaves join together). Blot any water away with a paper towel if it does. Use lukewarm water, not cold, as they are from the tropics after all. Don’t use salt-softened or distilled water either. Tap water left to sit overnight and rain water are ideal.
Phalaenopsis orchids are not sun lovers, even though they originate from tropical humid, lush jungles. They are not terrestrial, which means they don’t grow in soil but in tree canopies, so they are shaded from direct sunlight.
Phals do best in bright light, but not full direct sun. Leaves will turn white, silvery or a dark red. If the light is inadequate, the foliage may droop and becomes a deep green. An east facing window is perfect during the winter, however, it may become too strong in spring and summer. Just move them away from the window away from direct sunshine. West and south facing windows are suitable only if they are shaded with sheer curtains, or use blinds to direct the sun away. Another option is to grow them under grow lights, placed a foot above the plants.
Since these types of orchids are epiphytic, they don’t grow in the ground; they cling to trees instead. Nutrients and water are absorbed from the air via their foliage and their ropey roots that also attaches to trees. They don’t hurt the trees, they just use them for a support.
To replicate their growing conditions, use an orchid growing mix. They are made with chipped Monterey pine, redwood or fir tree bark mixed with charcoal, perlite and/or coir (coconut husks). Oftentimes, orchids are grown in sphagnum moss, however it tends to retain too much water, which soon results in an overwatered orchid.
Temperature & Humidity
They prefer a warm household of 75 to 85 °F (24 to 30°C), but still do well at 65 to 75°F (18 to 24°C). The hotter it is, the more humidity and air flow is needed. Stagnant air leads to diseases and fungi. Don’t crowd them together, and if you have many orchids, use a gentle fan to move the air around. Where the air is dry, increase the humidity by placing orchid on a shallow tray of pebbles topped with water. The roots should not sit in the water. Misting a few times a day is also beneficial.
In September to October apply orchid fertilizer to encourage flowering. Use a mister with fertilizer at half strength mixed in and spray on the foliage. This mimics their native habitat where they are nestled in jungle canopies. Use this misting method throughout the year.
More Flowers Please
It’s so exciting to see a new flower spike appear. To encourage flowering, ensure there’s adequate light. If it’s too shady the leaves will be green and healthy. Cooler night 55°F (13°C) also stimulates flowering. The contrast between day and night is key for new flowers to form.
When the flowers fade, cut the green stems back, but not quite to the base. Keep two to three nodes. They are the small brown lines on the stem. In a few months a new flower spike will grow out of the old one.
It’s time consuming growing orchids from seed, so when a flower spike produces a plantlet, known as a keiki, on the flower stem, it is a perfect opportunity to grow this clone on. Allow it to mature on the stem for a year. It should have two to three leaves and have a nice set of roots about 3 inches long. Gently remove it from the parent plant and place it in a pot with orchid potting mix. Generally it takes up to 3 years for a keiki to blossom
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for the tropical Gardener
While working in Florida as horticultural consultant, it became apparent that there was a need for a book on tropical shrubs. There are so many wonderful shrubs to choose from, so I wrote a reference book to make the selections easier. Ornamental Tropical Shrubs includes pictures in full colour and information about the plants in point form. So if you live in the tropics and subtropics and need a reference book on tropical shrubs, or you just want to have a look-see click here.
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