December to-do list for messy or clean garden

I recently made my December to-do list for the garden. I know it might be hard to believe that there are actually chores to accomplish in December, but in a real garden the work is never completely done. The following are major points to consider.

Winter protection: As I write this column, we have yet to have a killing frost. (By the time you read this that may have changed). Without a good, hard frost plants, tend not to go dormant and are therefore not ready for the cold weather when it finally does happen.

Be prepared. Have some kind of frost blanket material on hand to cover those broadleaf evergreens, like camellia, fatsia, viburnum davidii and even rhodies, when it gets down in the low 20s and stays below freezing during the day.

Not doing so could result in damaged foliage and dead flower buds. Hold off cleaning out the beds, as all that litter will help insulate the ground. Mark my words — sometime this winter it will happen, so don’t get caught off guard.

General cleanup: Like I said above, hold off on the big cleanup as long as you can stand it. For some reason, this balmy weather has made me want to get out and cut back the ornamental grasses and perennials and generally put the garden in order.

Unfortunately, the sooner I do it the longer I have to stare at the bare ground, so I will be leaving my melting, molding morass of vegetation to the last possible moment, not only for its frost protection value, but also for all the nutrients that will be returned to the ground.

If you just can’t stand to see all the mess, then clean it up and cover the soil with fresh compost 1-inch thick and pretend I never said otherwise.

Disease and insect control: Clean up all leaves under fruit trees to prevent the spread of diseases (This is the one exception to the above practice). Applying a mixture of copper and oil, or sulfur and oil, works well to control scab and mildew and is relatively non-toxic. Try to catch a dry day when it is above freezing to do your spraying.

Pruning: Save your serious pruning for the month of February, after the really hard freezes have passed. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with a little light pruning any time of the year. The operative word here is “light.”

Lawns: My little lawn looks terrific now, and it is mostly because I applied an organic fertilizer in late October. If your turf is off color, then put a generous application of fertilizer on it this month and it should green up nicely. Of course, I prefer you use an organic type of food.

Weed management: Now is the time to literally “nip weeds in the bud.” Remove them with a hula hoe (my favorite weeding tool) before they get too big and go to seed. Once the ground is clean, apply a “weed preventer” (this is a product that keeps weeds’ seeds from germinating but doesn’t bother plants that are already growing) and then spread a 1-inch layer of compost.

If you are like me and tend to leave the garden messy, you will find that fewer weeds will germinate under all that mess, which makes the cleanup in February that much easier (yet one more reason to leave the mess).

Here’s to a messy or tidy (whichever you prefer) month of gardening.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. He can be reached online at

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