Jan’s December Tips
-Use evergreen trimmings to decorate window boxes and other outdoor containers. For color, gather attractive dried flowers from the garden, such as those of sedums or coneflowers. Add berried branches from shrubs such as winterberry or coralberry. For even more color, add bouquets of sturdy dried plant material such as globe amaranth blossoms or love-in-a-mist seed pods saved from the summer garden.
-If you’re transporting gift plants on a cold day, do your best to protect them from chilling. Set each pot in a large plastic bag. Tie it closed, allowing plenty of room-temperature air to puff up the bag. Then hurry each plant to a warm car in its own large, roomy shopping bag. Once it’s safely indoors, be sure to poke a hole in the foil wrap to allow excess water to drain out of the pot when you water.
-Select a poinsettia that has no drooping or yellowing leaves. Avoid plants that are already dropping the tiny yellow flowers in the center of the “blooms” as well as any plant still wearing its plastic shipping sleeve.
-When selecting a Christmas tree, gently grasp a branch between your thumb and forefinger and pull it toward you. For the freshest tree, select one with the fewest needles that come off in your hand. Before bringing the tree into the house, thump it on the ground to remove dead needles and dormant insects.
-Retrieve potted amaryllis bulbs that have been resting two months or more. Water thoroughly and set the pots in a bright, cool spot. Water only sparingly at first. As soon as new growth appears, water whenever the soil feels dry to the touch.
-Try to avoid moving a Christmas cactus when the flower buds are small, since a sudden change of temperature or light may make the buds drop. If your Christmas cactus looks shriveled and discolored, suspect over-watering. Water less frequently, and don’t allow water to stand in the saucer.
-Help your houseplants make the most of the low levels of light available in winter by keeping their leaves dust-free. Reduce water and don’t fertilize during winter’s shortest days.
-Watch for houseplant pests, which multiply quickly indoors in a heated house. Give houseplants periodic showers in the kitchen sink to prevent an outbreak of red spider mites. Use yellow sticky traps to detect problems with white flies, aphids or fungus gnats. (Buy ready-made traps or make your own from yellow plastic lids or disposable plates smeared with a sticky product called Tangle-Trap.)
-If your houseplants are infested with large numbers of pests, spray them with insecticidal soap. If you see any waxy, stationary scales on stems or leaves, wipe them off with a damp paper towel before spraying.
-Kill fungus gnat larvae by drenching the soil with a solution of 2 tablespoons insecticidal soap in a quart of warm water. Repeat in a month. Or simply sprinkle Mosquito Bits on the surface of the potting soil. To keep fungus gnats under control, allow the soil to dry out as much as possible between waterings. For a physical barrier that deprives adult gnats of a place to lay their eggs, spread a half-inch layer of Growstone Gnat Nix to completely cover the top of the potting soil in each pot.
-If you frequently misplace your hand tools during the garden season, take a few minutes this winter to paint the wooden handles an easy-to spot color such as bright yellow or orange.
-Store completely-cooled fireplace ashes to use as a source of potassium in the garden next spring. (Remember to use the ashes sparingly for most plants and not at all around acid-loving plants such as blueberries and azaleas.)
-Check stored tubers, roots and tender bulbs for decay. If the peat moss or vermiculite surrounding dahlias feels dry, slightly dampen it.
-When you eat oranges or grapefruits, save their peels in the freezer. Plan to scatter the peels in your garden beds next spring to deter digging by cats.
Vegetables, fruits and herbs:
After the soil freezes, tuck a 1- to 2-inch blanket of mulch around strawberry plants to protect their shallow roots.
-Check stored apples, potatoes, onions, and winter squash. Remove any that show signs of spoiling. Also break off and remove any potato sprouts.
-To preserve leftover seeds to plant next spring, wrap up in tissues a half-cup of dry milk powder or silica gel. Secure the packet with a rubber band and put it with your seeds in an air-tight container.
Around the yard:
-Reapply deer repellents, alternating among several different products so deer don’t get used to a particular taste or smell.
-To avoid wearing a path in the lawn, don’t walk on frozen grass blades.
-To reduce the need for deicing salts, which can harm outdoor plants, remove snow from the sidewalk and driveway before walking or driving on it. Whenever possible, use sand or kitty litter, not salt. If necessary, add a little salt to the sand or kitty litter, but avoid using sodium chloride, also known as rock salt. Instead, choose potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride, or calcium magnesium acetate; all are less harmful to plants than sodium chloride.
-If you live on a busy street often treated with salt and other chemicals, erect a burlap screen or other winter barrier around your prized trees and shrubs to stop salt spray.
-Water evergreens any time the soil isn’t frozen or covered with snow.
-After the soil freezes, tuck a 2-inch blanket of mulch around chrysanthemums and other shallow-rooted perennials.
-Take your mower in for a tune-up this winter, before the professionals who sharpen mower blades and tune up engines get swamped with spring work.
-Prune any tree branches damaged in an ice or snow storm to prevent further tearing.
-Visit a public garden to glean ideas for plants with colorful fruit or attractive bark that could liven up your own landscape next winter. Some of my favorites for colorful fruit include blackhaw viburnum (V. prunifolium), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Winter King hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’), and disease-resistant crabapples such as ‘Purple Prince’ and ‘Adirondack’. My favorite bark beauties include lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana), paperbark maple (Acer griseum), red-twig dogwood (Cornus baileyi), amur chokecherry (Prunus maackii) and Heritage river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’).