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Gardening: December Duties

Tips to Keep the Garden Going During the Holidays

So much to do, so little time — surely there’s no time for the garden with all of the holiday bustle; everything will probably more or less take care of itself. The weeds won’t be that much taller in a month or so, and minimal cleanup will keep things tidy enough. But, if there is some time to spend in the garden, there are little chores that will lend satisfaction when accomplished and maybe ease a little of the holiday stress, too.

Since the first (welcome!) rain, the weeds are certainly sprouting everywhere. If the weather remains cool, they will grow so slowly that there will be plenty of time to catch up with them. A quick swipe now, though, will be far easier than if they really take root. One of the simplest ways to deal with baby weeds is to cover them up with mulch; layer several inches (up to 4) of compost, recycled green waste, or other organic material to smother them before they have a chance to gain strength. If they poke up through gravel paths, a vigorous raking with a steel rake may dislodge most of them and expose their roots to the dry air. The only safe spray that can knock them down is concentrated vinegar, but kitchen strength vinegar may also work with repeated treatments.

The rains may be sporadic (some sources say it is a drought cycle), so check irrigation systems and adjust them as necessary. Use a soil probe to assess moisture not just in the top few inches, but deeper in the root zone, and then water accordingly. Test systems and repair any broken, leaking, or clogged lines and sprinkler heads. Potted plants can dry out in just a few days in the brisk, breezy days, so pay attention to their needs.

Winter is the time to consider pruning pine trees, especially if they are already infested with one or both of the beetle pests that plague Southern California. Dispose of the wood immediately by burying or chipping. If you plan to keep it for firewood, tarp it securely to prevent the escape of any hatching larvae. Keep it covered for a year to be sure they have been killed.

There are few plants that need much in the way of fertilizer in the cool months. The major exceptions are cymbidium orchids. Many of them are already “in spike,” the gnarly sounding term that just means the flower stalks have appeared pushing out from among the leaves. Continue to feed them with a liquid fertilizer that is high in phosphorus (the middle number on the label) to encourage more spikes and lush blooms.

Bare-root shrubs and trees are arriving in the nurseries, but the fragile roots can dry out quickly, so plant them soon after purchase or wait until the holiday rush has passed. The same applies to buying them as gifts. A gift certificate or promissory note for plants or other garden gifts may be just the ticket for Santa’s helper and easier to deal with than a tender plant itself.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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