By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
December is a time for holiday get-togethers, shopping, visiting family, gift giving, baking, and decorating the house. This is such a busy time of the year that who has time to garden?
Fortunately, there's not much to do in the way of outdoor gardening this month, and little inside that can't wait until January. However, no matter how busy you are, you will need to pay some attention to your houseplants.
In winter, reduced light and temperature also mean reduced or no growth, so don't fertilize plants this month. Plants still will require watering though be careful not to overwater, as this will cause the roots to rot. Continued drying out of the soil (as evidenced by the soil pulling away from the pot) also damages the roots. Without adequate water, plants will wilt and may die.
As a rule, flowering plants need more water than foliage plants of the same size. To gauge when a plant needs to be watered, check the soil. It will become lighter in color and drier as the soil mass dries out.
Stick your finger in the soil about two inches deep (to the second joint of your finger). If the soil is wet at this depth, don't water. Otherwise, add water until it comes through the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. After an hour, discard whatever water is left in the saucer underneath the pot.
You also can water plants from the bottom, ensuring that the roots get proper moisture. Place the pot in a pan or saucer filled with water. Or dip it in a pail of water to just below the rim of the pot. Once the water reaches the top, remove the pot, let it drain, then place it back on its saucer.
Protect houseplants from winter chill by moving them away from windows at night. Or you can place a newspaper between pots and glass panes to protect your plants.
If your house is dry, provide your plants with extra humidity by grouping plants together. Or place pots on trays of moistened pebbles. Rotate pots to make sure plants get enough light without getting leggy.
If you want to cut boughs from evergreen trees for holiday decorations, use sharp pruning shears, and cut about the bud. This leaves no spurs where leaf decay can occur.
For a fun project, make or buy a balsam or grapevine wreath, and decorate with dried fruits and berries; dried or silk flowers; or sprigs of wheat. Add a big decorative bow and hang over the mantle or on the front door.
Or fill a decorative container or large flower vase with sphagnum moss. Moisten well, and stick in some small branches from your fruit trees or dogwood. Decorate with red, silver, or green bows, or wrap some small twinkle lights (or unusual festive lights, like strings of chili peppers) around the branches. Or how about using long, trailing ivy vines? Place pieces of holiday greenery (holly with berries or evergreens, for example) around the base to cover the moss.
When making decorations, take a few minutes to string cranberries, grapes, and popcorn to hang on trees for birds to enjoy. Or stick a piece of apple or orange on a nail on the feeder for an extra treat. And don't forget to keep feeders filled for your winter visitors.
Although many people like to buy potted plants like poinsettias, azaleas, and amaryllis--or the more unusual kalanchoe or cyclamen--for decorations or gifts, bouquets of fresh cut flowers are also ideal for the holidays. Ask your florist to include red carnations and roses, or the more exotic red ginger flower or gold protea, along with other red, green, gold, or silver flowers in the bouquet. Wrap well in paper for the trip home to prevent damage from freezing.
If you buy potted holiday plants, be sure to place them out of reach of pets and small children. Yuletide plants like poinsettias, mistletoe, ivy, and holly berries may cause illness if eaten, as may some houseplants.
Outdoors, if you are overwintering tender perennials, fertilize them lightly in early December. Water if the ground hasn't frozen.
Check your evergreens near the road or driveway. If they have been sprayed with salt spray from the street, wait for a mild day, then gently rinse them with water to prevent foliage damage.
Finally, take a break from the holiday preparations to watch a garden video or read the garden books you didn't have time for earlier this year. Chances are, you'll receive new ones this holiday season.
Other tips for December: strap on your cross-country skis or snowshoes to enjoy the winter landscape; stud a fresh orange with whole cloves to make a pomander; make your own holiday gift wrap using leaf and flower stencils; hang suet outside your window for the birds for wintertime enjoyment for you, your cat, and the birds!