Guest Column: December is a Busy Time in the Garden

The Daily Ardmoreite
Pat Neasbitt
Master Gardener

December is just an all-around busy time; however, if we get a chance to work in the yard, and we can find one of those days that isn’t too cold, too wet, or too windy, there are plenty of things to do in the garden. It still feels like fall instead of winter in southern Oklahoma. It’s supposed to be in the ’70s and sunny for the immediate forecast, so we can work outside comfortably to get caught up with gardening chores. You gotta love Oklahoma weather! The only thing that would make it better is some rain. I’m still watering annuals and pansies in containers that are blooming prolifically. I do plan to pull them up and replace them with greenery for winter; however, I just haven’t done it yet since they look so cheerful.

Lawns: Don't rake leaves - mow them instead. This will add nutrients to the soil and be better for the environment and a lot easier on you. Never burn leaves or bag them and leave them on the curb to be hauled to the landfill and wasted. Use leaves in compost, as mulch, or tilled into your flower and vegetable gardens to improve the soil texture. Poke a few holes in large black trash bags filled with leaves and let them set all winter. Next spring, they will be partly composted and ready to use in your landscape. The great thing about adding organic matter to your soil is that it improves any kind of soil, no matter what kind you are blessed, or cursed, with.

Trees and Shrubs: It’s a good time to plant dormant trees and shrubs. You can plant as long as the soil isn't too frozen to dig, and they will develop new roots all winter to give them a head start on being well-established next spring when they may have to survive late freezes, high winds, and possibly floods and tornadoes. We may not even have a spring and go straight from winter into summer as often happens in Oklahoma, and that is extremely stressful on plants.

§ Look out your windows and see where you need to plant something to provide winter interest.

§ Evergreen branches stuck into containers that held annuals last summer is an easy way to provide temporary winter color.

Flowers: Wait until we’ve had a few hard freezes to kill insects, and then apply several inches of mulch to protect perennials and rose bushes. I’ve found that about 4"- 6" of mulch helps some of our borderline hardy perennials and shrubs to survive extra cold winters. It saves money to preserve the plants you already have instead of replacing them next spring. The plants will also be much bigger and flower more since they have an established root system. I have quite a few plants that are several years old that are Zone 8 plants and considered to be annuals in our Zone 7. These include Salvias and Lantanas. Some other tender plants that can often be saved by adding extra compost over the winter are begonias, gladiolus, figs, and Bird of Paradise. Next spring, just rake back the mulch and spread it over the bed to enrich and improve the soil, conserve moisture, regulate soil temperature, and keep down weeds.

General: If the soil is dry, water plants before a hard freeze.

If it’s too cold, wet, or windy to work outside, there are plenty of things you can do inside or in the garage to help get ready for spring gardening.

§ Order gardening supplies and seeds for next season. The catalogs will start arriving right around Christmas.

§ Clean, sharpen, and oil tools. Paint the handles a bright color to make them easier to keep up with or wrap with colorful duct tape. It’s a lot easier to locate a trowel you dropped on the ground if it has hot pink duct tape on the handle instead of the usual mud brown or grass green that turns it into camouflage. The duct tape actually makes it more comfortable to hold and easier to grip, also.

§ Consider giving gardening tools, garden books or yard and garden ornaments as gifts. A heater for the birdbath to keep water from freezing is a good gift for bird lovers and the birds.

§ Clean and fill bird feeders and birdbaths. Winter is very hard on the birds that don't migrate. It’s difficult for our feathered friends to find enough food during the winter when insects are not plentiful. Keeping the feeders filled with black oil sunflower seeds and plenty of water available will encourage birds to stay in your yard so you can enjoy them year-round. Remember, they’ll repay you by eating half their weight in insects every day. That old saying "she eats like a bird" is definitely an oxymoron.

§ Don’t forget to take care of your houseplants. The worst thing you can do is overwater in the winter. Indoor plants don’t need much water and little or no fertilizer because they need a rest, too. Plants do need bright light and humidity that you can provide by setting them on shallow containers filled with pebbles in water and grouping them together. Put plants close to windows but not touching the glass, keep them away from heating vents and fireplaces, mist daily, and keep the leaves clean to help plants survive until time to go back outside next spring.

§ Take a break and do something for yourself in these hectic and trying times. Snuggle in front of the fireplace and enjoy a good Southern gardening book. Some of my favorites are Passalong Plants (Steve Bender and Felder Rushing), Lasagna Gardening (Patricia Lanza), Tough Plants for Southern Gardens (Felder Rushing), Slow Gardening (Felder Rushing), Best Garden Plants for Oklahoma (Steve Owens and Laura Peters), Oklahoma Gardener’s Guide (Steve Dobbs). Don’t forget you can view online Fact Sheets from OSU Cooperative Extension like Drought-Tolerant Plant Selections for Oklahoma E-1037, Oklahoma Proven Plant Selections for Oklahoma E-1052, and Landscape Maintenance Schedule HLA-6408. Happy Winter Gardening!