December Garden Tips

December Tips

December and the Christmas holidays and festivities are upon us.  Shopping for your garden and the gardens of others is very rewarding.  However, there is always plenty to do in December.  Decorating, composting and pruning as well as shopping will fill this month's chores.

Indoor Plants

  • Remember that many plants you received as gifts are not meant to be permanent house plants.  They were raised in greenhouses and do not adapt well in the home.  Enjoy them as long as possible, but discard them when they become unattractive.
  • To prolong the life of a flowering poinsettia, keep it moist and protect it from being chilled or subjected to drafts.  Keep it in full sunlight between 65 and 72 degrees F.
  • If the buds drop and the stems shrivel on your Christmas cactus, look for root injury caused by dry soil.
  • Brown leaf edges develop on some potted tropical plants when grown indoors.  To keep them looking their best, use sharp scissors and trim away dried portions, following the natural shape of the leaves.
  • The Christmas cactus will be coming into bloom.  Reduce watering to prolong the blooming period.  Keep in full sun at 70 degrees F.
  • Keep your flowering chrysanthemum blooming longer by keeping the plant out of direct sunlight.  Keep the soil slightly moist.  Day temperatures should be 68 degrees F, and night temperatures 40 to 55 F.
  • Be sure to remove or punch holes in decorative foil around holiday plants, or it will collect water and cause roots to die.
  • Rubber plants that have been over watered will have yellowing leaves with dead spots on the edges.  Make sure there is bottom drainage to remove excess water.  The plant may also need to be transplanted into a larger pot.
  • Purchase amaryllis bulbs in decorative containers for your own enjoyment or for gifts.  Their expense is justified for they increase in beauty year after year.
  • Always cut off the faded flowers of your amaryllis so no seeds form.  Producing seed robs the bulb of energy that should go to next year's growth.
  • Rotate house plants in dim locations to sunny spots to keep them in prime condition.
  • Melted snow contains minerals and can be used instead of tap water for winter watering of house plants.
  • Move gift plants with caution.  Plants shocked by the cold may drop their leaves in a few days.  Wrap each plant in 8 to 10 layers of newspaper stapled shut over the foliage.  If it is freezing outside, warm up the car before loading the plants.  Cold temperatures for only a minute can be detrimental.
  • Pots of narcissus started indoors now will still bring the fragrance of spring before their outside cousins bloom.
  • House plants with large leaves and smooth foliage such as philodendrons, dracaena and rubber plant, benefit if their leaves are washed with a damp cloth to remove dust.

Lawns and Landscaping

  • Don't forget the spots outdoors where rain doesn't reach.  Check moisture around foundation plantings beneath a roof overhang and water if necessary.
  • Do filling and grading around the yard.  The loose soil will settle during the cold months.
  • Minimize traffic on a frozen lawn to reduce winter damage.
  • Scatter wormcasts and remove dead grass and leaves if the surface of your lawn is not too wet or frosty.
  • If you were not able to repair worn patches of lawn in the early fall, use erosion mats to stop soil from washing away and to keep the problem from getting worse.

Perennials, Annuals and Bulbs

  • ​If stored bulbs begin to shrivel, they are too dry.  Place them in a container with potting medium, peat moss, or sawdust to stop the loss of water.
  • To avoid harming near-dormant plants during the winter, do not fertilize, and reduce watering until growth resumes in the spring.
  • A light covering of hay or leaves over perennials inside the cold frame gives added protection from low temperatures and bright sunlight.
  • Bulb forcing can be started as late as mid-winter.  Plant tulip bulbs with the tops just above the soil line and the flat side of the bulb toward the side of the pot.  Plant daffodils with bulb tops even with the soil line.  Hyacinth bulbs should be planted with the tops just above the soil.  Crocus bulbs should be planted about 1 inch below the soil line.
  • Use branches from discarded Christmas trees to mulch beds of bulbs.
  • Winter protection for peonies is necessary only the first winter to help prevent frost heaving.  Mound soil over the new plantings for several inches, or after the ground freezes hard, mulch with evergreen boughs or straw.  Don't use a material that will mat down, such as leaves.
  • Check dahlia tubers and gladiolus corms in storage.  If they are sprouting, place them in a cooler spot.  If they show signs of shriveling, rewrap them in ventilated plastic bags.  Moldy or damaged roots must be removed and discarded.  Molding indicates over-moist conditions.  Move healthy bulbs to a location with better ventilation, and set in dry peat moss.
  • Don't allow potted azaleas to dry out.  The soil must remain moist.
  • Remove all leaves from around your rock gardens.  Moisture retention will cause surrounding plant stems and leaves to decay.
  • Pack down the soil around newly planted roses, trees and shrubs on a regular basis until spring.
  • Prune roses anytime from now until springtime.  Use thick lined leather gloves to pull the stem away from the thorny branches to avoid scratches.

Trees, Shrubs and Groundcovers

  • ​Wreaths made from cut greenery will last much longer if kept cold, so plan to use them outdoors.  Bring them inside for short periods on special occasions.
  • When choosing a Christmas tree, be sure it is not too large for the room.  Take a tape measure or folding ruler with you so you'll have less trimming to do once your get the tree home.
  • Never allow the reservoir of your Christmas tree holder to go dry as an air lock can form in trunk that can keep the tree from absorbing water again.
  • Branches of evergreen rhododendrons last for months in vases if never allowed to run out of clean water.
  • If possible, bring the Christmas tree into a partially heated area the night before decorating.  This will help it adjust gradually to the warmer temperatures in your home.  Its branches will relax a little, allowing for picking the "best" side.
  • Christmas trees absorb between 2 pints and 1 gallon of water per day, so a tree stand that holds at least 1 gallon of water is recommended.  Check water level daily.
  • If your Christmas tree drops a number of brown needles right after you bring it inside, not to worry.  Conifers normally drop their 3- to 5 year-old needles throughout winter.
  • For well-developed fruit on your holly trees, there must be a male tree to pollinate the female trees.
  • Thoroughly mulch azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, and laurel after the ground freezes.  They prefer acidic materials, such as oak leaves and pine needles, but any mixed, dry leaves will do if oak and pine are not available.
  • When cutting evergreens for Christmas decorations, use care to prevent harming plants.  Distribute pruning over the entire plants.  Limit cutting to mild shaping and thinning.  Do not trim boxwoods when the temperature is below 40 degrees F.
  • If an ice storm damages your trees, prune the broken branches.  If left alone, in most cases the wood fiber will not grow back, and the branch will die.
  • Remove snow from evergreen shrubs to prevent suffocation and breaking.
  • Plan a visit to public garden or nursery where you can observe trees and shrubs in their winter phase.
  • Assess the energy efficiency of your landscape.  Do you have evergreen trees or shrubs blocking a window where the sun's warmth would be welcome?  Consider replacing them with deciduous plants that would let sun in during the winter, but cast cooling shade in summer.


  • ​Plant shallots on the shortest day of the year (December 21), and harvest on the longest (June 21).  Shallots can also be planted in late winter, just before spring.
  • Harvest turnips and continue to harvest leeks, late maturing carrots, Brussels sprouts and parsnips.
  • Check fruits, vegetables, corms and tubers that you have in storage.  Sort out any that show signs of disease and dispose of them.


  • ​Snow is a mixed blessing in the garden.  Freshly fallen snow is an excellent insulator.  Its millions of tiny air pockets hold warmth in the soil around snow-covered plants.  When frigid weather comes after a heavy snowfall, the snow cover may save many plants of borderline hardiness.
  • Save cardboard cylinders from holiday wrapping paper for making biodegradable, cut worm collars.  Cut cylinders into 3 inch tubes to fit over transplants.
  • To discourage insects from hatching when nuts, cones, and seed pods are brought indoors for holiday arrangements, place them in the oven on the low setting for an hour.
  • After Christmas, your tree can be moved outside and redecorated for the birds.  Anchor the tree in a bucket of damp sand.  Leave on strings of popcorn and cranberries, and add strings of peanuts (in the shell).  Apples, oranges, leftover breads and cakes, even peanut butter cookies can be hung on the boughs, but don't use any foods containing chocolate as it is poisonous to some small animals.  For best results, push the edible ornaments well into the tree.  Things that swing might scare birds.
  • Be careful when using deicing salts.  Salt is toxic to many flowers, trees, shrubs, and lawn grasses.  Sand, sawdust, or a combination work well for deicing and will not injure plants.
  • Start conditioning seeds that require stratification, such as many of the woody ornamentals.  Plant them in a cold frame or put them in the refrigerator or freezer for the required amount of time.
  • Use hair spray to keep seed heads and dried flowers intact.
  • Keep mistletoe out of the reach of children and pets as the berries are poisonous.
  • When decorating for the holidays, be sure you do not place fresh, needled evergreens directly on finished furniture or a mantelpiece; use felt or a tablecloth under them.  Sap from branches may take the finish off wooden surfaces.
  • To make your long winter evenings by the fire more enjoyable, burn aromatic woods, such as cherry, apple, and pine.
  • Start reviewing and expanding your garden notes to help with next year's plants.
  • Try coating your snow shovel with a "no-stick" cooking spray; the snow slides right off.  Recoat as needed.
  • Drain the fuel tank and run the lawn mower or tiller engine dry before putting the machine away for the winter.
  • Check belts and spark plugs and buy replacements, change the oil, sharpen the blades or tines, and clean off dirt and plant debris so equipment will be ready to go when you need it next spring.

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