GARDENING THROUGH THE YEAR – DECEMBER in USDA Zone 5

December is filled with thoughts of holiday parties, making treats, giving and receiving gifts, but SURELY not of gardening!

While the list of gardening activities for December is shorter than most other months, there are still some valuable things you can do this month to improve your garden next year as well as the health of your houseplants, and with the houseplants, the health of you and your family.

Do you have houseplants? I do! Here are a few of them.

Some houseplants

  • Move them away from icy cold windows and drafts. I have a cherished shamrock that I’ve had for well over a decade (it’s the bottom plant in this photo). Last winter, I thought I had killed it when I mistakenly left it by the kitchen window and an icy north wind leaked ever so slightly through the cracks around the window. It required several months of lots of warm TLC, but my lovely shamrock came back to life, as you can see.
  • Do you like to be outside in the cold winds of winter in your daily clothes? Neither do bugs! Winter is actually a time of year when insect pests can take a real toll on your houseplants. Watch them carefully for any sign of insect infestation and take appropriate action ASAP. Once those little buggers get a foothold, they’re doggone difficult to get rid of without drastic action. For my money, the dreaded white flies are the worst! Sticky traps can only go so far…
  • Remember last month when I spoke of cutting back on watering your houseplants? Watch them for any signs of mold, fungus, or disease developing indicating that they are still getting too much water, and maybe they are a bit too chilly. Again, treat the problem ASAP before it gets out of hand and/or kills your plants.
  • Speaking of watering, using cold water can shock your plants. Tepid (slightly warm to your touch) is the best temperature to use on them. Think of those roots as being like your feet. Would you rather soak your feet in warm water or cold?
  • Sunlight can be a real challenge for indoor plants in the winter. Even those that are happy to live in a relatively shady room during the summer may need more light in the winter. Can you make more room in front of a sunny window, but either off to one side or down low so they get plenty of light with over exposing them? Maybe you can find some effective but inexpensive full spectrum lights to give them a bit of a boost? (Amazon has a variety, FYI) A little bit of creativity and experimentation can pay big dividends for your plants – and you since they help clean and oxygenate the air in your home.
  • Cold winter winds and compensatory furnaces or wood stoves drive moisture levels in your home drastically lower in the winter. If you have plants that like more humidity, they may enjoy being moved into a warm bathroom where they can delight in your family’s daily showers or bathing. Another option might be a laundry room. Yes, I did say laundry room. I used to live in Idaho with winter nights often 40 below zero (Fahrenheit). I kept my tomato plants growing and producing all year long by putting them atop my dryer, under a north facing window. The dryer was vented into the house proving both warmth and humidity. A large mirror on the wall opposite the window significantly increased the light available for the tomatoes, and the vibration of the dryer running at least once a day kept the flowers pollinated and my family in fresh homegrown tomatoes all year round.
  • Dust on plant leaves can significantly reduce their ability to absorb light and make their food – photosynthesize. Wiping large leaves with a damp rag can be very helpful. I’ve been known to gather up all of my houseplants and put them in the tub, then use a handheld shower to give them a gentle rain, then close the shower doors or curtain to hold the moisture and warmth in for an hour or so. If you do this, remember the warning about mold and fungus and don’t do it too often. Also, NEVER put sick or pest infested plants in with healthy ones!

Outdoor plants, lawns, and garden areas also need some TLC during these short, cold days.

  • If you have evergreens, don’t let the snow build up on them. It can potentially break branches, or even the tree itself. They look beautiful when they are full of snow, and one of our little ones used to call them “snow holder trees” because of the pictures in books always showing them snow covered and lovely.
  • Maybe you could use some of your evergreens inside for holiday decorations and to help make your home smell wonderful.
  • Speaking of trees, snow and ice build-up can break more than evergreen branches! Try to keep all of them as free of ice especially as you possibly can.
  • Again speaking of trees, hopefully you have mulched around their root zones to protect them.
  • Keep the snow near the trunk of the trees packed down to reduce the risk of mice and voles tunneling through the snow to snack on that wonderful tree bark! You, your children, grandchildren, or neighbor children can go stomp on that lovely snow and pack nice wide circles around the trees.
  • Tree trunks from ground level upwards can and probably should be protected by trunk guards in addition to packing the snow.
  • If you’ve lived around here very long, you already know that cold weather and especially snow send the local deer hunting for fresh food. Protect your trees! Remember, deer are excellent jumpers and they don’t mind clearing a 6-foot fence if they smell fresh food on the other side.
  • Frozen grass does not appreciate frequent trampling. If your snowy yard begins to develop paths, you can bet those paths will be mud trails come spring. Do your best to encourage children and pets to not shortcut across the lawn just because it’s snow covered.
  • Did you save seeds from this year’s harvest? This is an excellent time to test germination rates and inventory what you have.
  • Sprinkling wood ash around the driplines of your trees can give them a valuable boost of potassium and micronutrients. A word to the wise, note the use of the word “sprinkling” versus “dumping”. Just because a little is good does not mean a lot is better.

Other things to consider:

  • Do you have fruits and/or vegetables in storage? Be sure to check them frequently for any signs of damage or disease. As the old saying goes, it only takes one bad apple (or potato) to spoil the bushel.
  • Go over your notes from this past growing season to assess how well the varieties, locations, rotations, and cover crops performed. How well did they produce? Was it good quality or marginal? Did you get enough to meet your anticipated needs for the year? Do you need to plant more or less next year? How easy/difficult was it to harvest? What about resistance to competition from weeds? How was the disease and pest resistance? How much contribution to soil health can you expect from roots and/or above ground residue? Does that residue require any special treatment? How did that go?
  • Begin gathering seed catalogs from reputable companies and compare their offered varieties to your immediate environment.
  • Begin planning your rotations and cover crops to enrich the soil and keep the weeds down.
  • If you didn’t apply soil amendments during the fall, this is a good time to start planning for spring application. Be sure to test firs though so you know what you need rather than guessing.
  • Clean and lubricate any tools that are still in use, or that you missed last month when you put them away.
  • Do you have tools that need some parts replaced? Belts, chains, and shear bolts come to mind, but you may have others. This can be an excellent time to get those replacement parts – often at steep discounts.
  • Consider researching the plants that grew in your area before we moved in. Are there some you might like to bring back in your yard? How will they attract various beneficial insects like butterflies and bees? How will they affect local bird life? Wildlife?
  • Rodent control is often more effective in the winter when food is scarce. Cats can be good at controlling mice, but rats are another story. If you are putting out poison, do it at night after all of your animals are confined indoors or away from the areas you’ve seen evidence of the rodents, then be sure to pick it up in the morning before letting your animals out. These pests usually go back into their burrows to die, but keep an eye peeled for any carcasses that can spread disease or kill your animals via the poison that killed them.
  • Pigeons are best controlled with an air rifle and shooting them at night when they are roosted. My apologies to any who are offended by the mention of killing birds, but these birds are carriers of disease more often than messages these days. Of course, if you live inside city limits, even the air rifle may be out of bounds for you.

It turns out that there is actually quite a bit of gardening related activity that can be carried out in December, but, my two favorites have yet to be mentioned – add gardening supplies or products to your holiday gift lists, and relax with a nice hot cup of cocoa while you dream about next year’s garden.

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