Our snowy deck looking over the Alex Fraser Bridge
December Garden Chores
In This Issue
Hello fellow gardeners, after an unusually dry autumn, I managed to get most of the garden ready for the winter. I hope you did too.
Usually, November is fraught with rain, fog, frost and snow in the Pacific Northwest. It’s been nice to work in the dry weather and sunshine. I certainly didn’t miss my boots sinking into the muddy soil and icicles dripping from my nose.
Now that it’s December, there’s not much to do in the garden other than knocking heavy snow off trees and scouring the garden for berries and other greenery to use for arts and crafts. After all, it is the holiday season and bringing greenery from the garden helps brighten up the darkest of days, even if you’re not into celebrating anything.
Festivities aside, December can be a wicked month with unforgiving truculent weather. Despite the aggressive winds and obstreperous snowfalls, the snow acts like icing on a cake covering the imperfections beneath. Spent hydrangea blossoms become sparkling crystals, whilst evergreen branches cradle the snow as though it's a precious commodity.
Since it normally rains during the winter in Vancouver, a ‘snow event’, is novel. Skiers take to the mountains and rightfully so, while the rest of us marvel at the perfect pristine, white world that's still and surprisingly quiet.
It’s nice to savour the stillness, before the sound of snow blowers and scraping shovels break the tranquillity. If only the snow would stay off the roads and paths. Imagine how glorious it would be to live in a winter wonderland without having to shovel the stuff and being able to walk and drive without falling down and crashing.
That certainly would be something to celebrate.
Wishing you all a safe, joyous and wonderful December.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Until next year - it better be a good one.
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December Garden Stars
This poor plant is going to have a tough time surviving the winter because it's roots are exposed and the pot is too small. To reduce winterkill and to promote hardiness, don't overwinter plants in containers. The thermal heat of the earth keeps roots nice and warm, compared to an exposed plant pot. Plants overwintering in planters, must be hardy; at least one growing zone cooler than your zone. For example, in Vancouver our growing zone is 8, so select plants that are hardy to zones 7 or less.
The exposed roots of this plants also indicate that it is planted too high and it has run out of soil. It's also nestled in another pot with offers no benefit, and will cause more harm than good, especially without drainage holes. Rain and snow won't be able to drain and the plant will eventually drown.
To rectify, either plant it in the ground or get another pot one size larger and situate the plant so its crown (where the roots and stem meet) are level with the soil.
There's talk about a shortage of Christmas trees this year, mainly because of the last couple of years the weather has been crazy. Heat domes, flooding and drought have taken their toll. Many trees have died making it a tough go for Christmas tree growers, so much so that many of them are no longer in business.
This means that healthy, good looking Christmas trees are at a premium. Give yourselves plenty of time at the tree lot so you can inspect trees carefully. Needles shouldn’t be falling off (duh) and their foliage should be green and pliable. There are techniques to find the perfect Christmas tree, and to know which type of tree to select. Each tree, from firs to spruce have their pluses and minuses. Taking care of the tree, once at home, is essential to promote longevity and safety. To learn all about Christmas trees, click on Christmas Trees.
Living Christmas Trees
Alternately, living Christmas trees are becoming increasingly popular because they are more ecological and less wasteful. The best place to purchase one is at a plant nursery or garden centre. Keep them in their pot outside but bring them inside, on the porch, balcony or whatever for Christmas. Just keep in mind that they are living trees and will grow – and they need water and light. Eventually, when they get too big, plant them outside in the garden or donated to a park or the city. For an even simpler alternative there are companies that provide potted Christmas trees for the season, then are returned to the company such as Evergrow. For more information about living Christmas trees click on Christmas Trees. For more information on the Dwarf Alberta spruce, it is this month's Plant of the Month. See below or click on Dwarf Alberta Spruce.
A Simple Wreath
To make this easy wreath, all you need is a wire hanger, bendable evergreen branches, such as yew (pictured), ornamental or real berries, glittery silver leafy sprigs from a dollar store, gold spray paint, hot glue gun and a thin gauged wire. Bend the wire hanger into a circle. Attach the evergreen branches by wrapping the wire around both the hanger and the stems. Cover the entire frame securing the stems firmly. Spray with gold paint and let dry. With a hot glue gun, attach the berries and silver sprigs.
Amaryllis, Christmas cactus, paperwhite narcissus, moth orchids, kalanchoe and poinsettias are a few of the many gift plants available this time of year. They are perfect hostess gifts and are an easy way to bring the holidays into your home. Before purchasing, give them a thorough inspection. Look under their leaves, check out their flower buds and in the nook and crannies for any insects or fungi. Pieces shouldn’t be falling off; leaves should be green and new flower buds should be plentiful.
Place gift plants away from heating vents, cold windows and buggy houseplants. To prevent spider mites, a common houseplant pest, don’t let the soil dry out too much. To learn more click on: Poinsettias - Moth Orchids - Christmas Cactus
Holiday Planters: Festive planters are an easy way to bring colour and life to gardens, balconies and patios. It doesn’t take much to add some seasonal pizzaz to existing planters. Just stick in sprigs of holly, pine branches, the red stems of red twig dogwoods, branches with colourful berries. Add a pretty ribbon, some Christmas baubles and voilà! For instructions click on 10-steps-to-a-festive-planter
If you don't want to make your own festive planter, local nurseries have wonderful combinations of plants with ornamental twigs, cones, ribbons and such. They are a good investments as they continue to add charm for many months.
Too Much of the White Stuff
Snow is heavy. It crushes plants, and has been known to collapse balconies, greenhouses, and rooftops. Keep vulnerable structures clear of snow to prevent damage. Protect tender plants by wrapping them with frost blankets, burlap, old sheets or other breathable fabric. For a more natural look, cover them with evergreen branches or fall foliage. Use a broom to remove heavy snow that’s weighing down branches. To preserve the shape and form of evergreens, wrap them with twine.
December Garden Chores
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After Inclement Weather: Broken branches, upended trees, crushed plants are par for the course after a storm so inspecting your property is a wise move. Look for flooding, dried out planters, block drains, overflowing eaves and such.
Icy sidewalks? Maybe winterkill isn’t killing your plants, maybe it’s the salt. Putting salt on paths, sidewalks and other areas where plants are close by, is not a good idea. Salt burn damages plants, contaminates soil and waterways when it flows into drains, swales, ditches etc. An alternative is eco-friendly organic salt-free de-icer. For traction only use kitty litter, sand, alfalfa meal or coffee grounds. Since coffee grounds are dark, they absorb heat so the ice may melt.
Putting Things Away: Store wheelbarrows upside down or vertically so they don't collect water. Clean and sharpen lawn mower blades then store mowers and other requirement in a dry, protected location. Drain garden hoses and remove spray nozzles and sprinklers before storing. Drain the outside faucets by shutting off the interior shut-off valve to the water line leading to the faucet. Protect outdoor pipes with insulating pipe sleeves and place faucet insulating covers over the outdoor taps, available at home hardware stores and amazon.ca. Store terracotta, clay and ceramic pots in frost free locations to prevent them from cracking.
Tools: Scrape of mud from dirty tools or hose them down. Use green scrubbing pads or fine wire wool to scrub debris and rust from pruning shears, shovels and other metal surfaces. To disinfect pruning tools, mix equal parts water to original Lysol or PineSol in a spray bottle. Dry with a paper towel and finish with a light spray of vegetable oil. Another option is to stick them in a bucket of sand with mineral oil or used motor oil added up to their handles. Wipe down wooden handles with veggie oil or mineral oil. Store in a dry location away from the elements. Set aside gloves, including leather holsters and other leather gear, and place in a dry location to prevent them from getting mouldy.
Fertilizers & Other Garden Products: Remove perishable products from unheated sheds and store indoors in a frost-free, dry location. This includes liquid fertilizers, dormant oil, lime sulfur and any other liquids. All granular products must be kept dry so store them in a dry location.
Slugs/Snails: When snow isn’t on the ground and the days are rainy and grey it’s a good time to go slug hunting. They love to feed in the mornings, at dusk and when it’s raining. Arm yourself with a cup of salty water to plop them as you go. For more on controlling mollusks click here.
Weeds: It's a good time to go after weeds - if they are not hiding under the snow. They are glaringly obvious as surrounding plants have died down in preparation for winter. Weeds are also at their weakest and are easy pull out. So if you are in the mood to get down and dirty (and probably wet) take this opportunity to pull some weeds. One less thing to do in spring.
Plant Spring Bulbs: If the ground isn’t frozen, you can still plant some tulips and other spring flowering bulbs, but do so asap. For more info click on Spring Flowering Bulbs
Cuttings: Take hardwood cutting from shrubs, trees, vines, fruit trees and roses. To learn how click on Taking Cuttings
Winter Veggies: Stake Brussels sprouts as they tend to be top heavy. Harvest their sprouts when they are one inch diameter. Remove the ones at the bottom of the stem first, with a firm twist. 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 carrots, beets and other root crops easier. To prolong the harvest of leafy crops such as kale, chard and lettuce, just remove the leaves you need not the entire plant. For more click on Winter Veggie Gardening
Lawns: If your lawn is not under snow – and not frosty or frozen, remove all remaining fallen leaves. There’s no need to bag the leaves, just rake them onto nearby beds. Mowing isn’t usually necessary this time of year, but if it is necessary, don’t mow when it’s wet (good luck) and don’t go shorter than 2 inches – and bag the clippings. For more click on Lawn Basics
Pruning: Remedial pruning is often necessary after a storm as strong winds breaks branches and topples trees. 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. Click here for more on pruning.
Outdoor Planters: Protect pots from cracking by bringing them inside, moving them to a sheltered spot and/or wrapping them in bubble wrap, insulation or blankets. Check all your 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.
Veggie Beds: Cover soil with straw, layers of newspapers, or a thick layer of fall leaves. The thicker the better so they don't fly away in a gust of wind. Covering the soil stops weeds, erosion and the loss of soil nutrients.
Birds: Cities and suburbia are havens for birds all year long, however, when winter rolls around, their food source is scarce. The little guys really appreciate your help. Suet feeders are a necessity for them as they provide essential protein and calories. Either buy suet cakes and/or make your own by stuffing pinecones with peanut butter and bird seed.
Hummingbirds: In southwest British Columbia, we have the honour of hosting Anna's hummingbirds during the winter. It’s surprising that at 4 inches long at best, these little hummers survive our winters. In regions where hummingbirds migrate south, keep the feeders up until they no longer come to take a sip. To learn more about feeding hummingbirds in winter click on Hummingbirds in Winter
Order seed catalogues: Although you can order seeds and plants online, I still enjoy leafing through catalogues. Click here for a list of mostly Canadian suppliers.
Ponds: Fall clean up and winter prep is necessary for a healthy pond. To learn more click on Ponds in Winter.
Patio Furniture: Wipe patio furniture down then store in a protected location. Store pillows and other soft furnishings inside.
December's Floral Arrangement
December's floral arrangement includes berries, rosehips and conifer branches. For specifics and for other arrangements go to Monthly Flower Arrangements
Common Name: dwarf Alberta spruce
Botanical Name: Picea glauca 'Conica'
Form: upright pyramidal
Plant Type: needle conifer
Mature Size: 10’ to 13’ x 7 to 10’
Origin: cultivar of a white spruce
Hardiness Zone: 3 to 6
Foliage: single ½”- ¾” bluish green needles are pointed and densely packed, with a white waxy coating, they arise from peg-like stubs, needles are four sided and roll easily between fingers, fragrant when crushed
Fruit: light brown 2.5” cylindrical cones are rare
Stems: leafless stems are rough as they retain the pegs from fallen needles
Exposure: full sun to light shade
Soil: rich, acidic soil is ideal, avoid dry conditions, a mulch is beneficial
Uses: container, small gardens, topiary, formal, accent, Christmas tree
Propagation: cuttings in late summer into autumn
Pruning: not recommended nor necessary
Problems: spider mites in arid conditions, winter burn
Resembling miniature Christmas trees, dwarf Alberta spruce, Picea glauca ‘Conica’, bring a formal and elegant element wherever they are planted. Their strong pyramidal geometric shape sets it apart from other plants. It is a neat and tidy conifer that doesn’t need pruning nor shaping. It’s short, sharp and densely packed needles line stiff straight stems that don’t droop. There are no errant stems to snip back, and growth is so slow it doesn’t run amok.
This little guy only grows to 13 feet, and it takes years to do so. It’s perfect for containers, formal gardens and foundation plantings. When grown in containers their roots are restricted so they don't get that tall.
Growing Conditions: Although dwarf Alberta spruce are tough little plants, they do suffer from spider mites - if the conditions are too hot and/or too dry. Keep plants out of direct afternoon sun, especially those in planters. A good, rich soil with plenty of compost is beneficial as it absorbs moisture without compromising drainage, which is essential to prevent root rot on dwarf Alberta spruce. When grown in clay soils, mix in a good amount of compost, composted manure, SeaSoil and/or triple mix to improve drainage, retain soil acidity and soil fertility.
To further enrich the soil and retain moisture, apply a three-inch layer of an organic mulch on top of the soil, but keep it a few inches away from the trunk.
As Christmas Trees: Dwarf Alberta spruce are often used as living Christmas trees, and rightfully so. When grown in pots, they can be moved inside to celebrate the holiday season. Once they are inside, don’t forget to water them adequately so the water drains into a drainage tray below. If they dry out too much, their needles will yellow and fall off. Keep them away from heat vents and other sources of heat to further prevent dehydration, needle loss and spider mites.
Container Grown: For container grown specimens, use equal amounts garden soil and compost or composted manure. Use a drainage tray during the summer to act as a reservoir, so roots absorb available water. Remove the tray during rainy periods and throughout the winter.
It’s time to transplant container grown plants to a larger pot when they need daily watering. When doing so, check to make sure the roots are not tightly bound (potbound). If so, loosen the roots with your hand, or use a knife if necessary, then place into a bigger pot, with drainage holes. If you want to keep it in the same pot, sever a few inches off the roots on all sides and the bottom and repot.
Planting in the Garden: Select a sunny location, that doesn’t get too hot in the summer (avoid south and west exposures especially in hot climates). Due to their dense foliage, select an area where they will receive good air flow. Amend the soil with lots of compost as recommended above and mix well before planting. Loosen tightly bound roots and place in a hole the same depth as the rootball but 3 to 5 times wider. Plant at the same depth it was at in its container and firm the soil around the roots. Water well then add the mulch on top of the soil and water again. Water every other day for a couple of weeks until the plant is established.
Reversion: Dwarf Alberta spruce is a cultivar that originated from a white spruce, Picea glauca, which grows over 100 feet. Sometimes they revert to being a white spruce. Instead of the usual dwarf spruce branches, huge branches of the white spruce emerge from the tree. When this happens, cut the ‘reverted’ branches off at their base so they don’t regrow. Do it as soon as possible as they will take over if given half a chance.
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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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