I thought of the Late Pleistocene plants and the animals that ate them, described in an illustrated essay by David Bryant in the Fall 2021 issue of Flora, the quarterly magazine of the California Native Plant Society. Among them are Joshua trees, California lilac, manzanita, grasses, sedge, rush, Pinyon pine, juniper, and sycamore, to name a few. I also reflected on one of the biggest trends in gardening this year: “regenerative landscaping,” which is broadly defined as forward-looking, considering all the creatures in the garden, acknowledging that the space is not limited to humans. As gardeners we know this mixed use firsthand, but it can be useful to take time from time to time, such as during the slower winter months, to reflect, observe, appreciate and plan. This does not mean allowing total destruction by pests and herbivores. It means learning what is a tolerable threshold, using modern methods of integrated pest management (IPM) and giving up on perfection.
Do we have to have a fighting attitude, or can we learn to share the garden, even make friends and allies with creatures beyond the hummingbird and butterfly? Can I learn to appreciate the western ground squirrel?
While we’re thinking, there are a few things we can do in December:
PLANTING: Finish planting most species by the middle of the month. Bare root planting begins in December and can last all winter. Plants sensitive to frost should not be planted until spring. Even for frost-resistant species, use a layer of mulch to protect the crowns and roots of plants from frost. Finish planting the bulbs for springtime color. In the edible garden, in addition to perennial herbs, you can still transplant seedlings of most cool-season vegetables. Also plant bulb onions, asparagus and rhubarb. These last two are perennials, so you won’t be harvesting them until much of next year. You can also plant lettuce and related green salad seeds in cold frames.
HOLD: Watch for frost warnings and protect your sensitive plants. Plants will survive best if they are kept moist but not overwatered. Remove the old fruits, called “mummies”, left on the fruit trees. Water citrus fruits well this month if the rains are not regular to have a good harvest next year. Also, water your other trees deeply during a dry period that lasts more than two weeks, even if they are dormant.
You can start pruning your deciduous trees, shrubs and winter fruit vines, or wait until January, especially if the plants are not completely dormant and safety is not an issue. Do not prune if frost is expected during the week. Force your roses to go dormant by removing any leaves that have not fallen. Mow lawns in cool weather, which should be actively growing now, to three inches. This also applies to over-seeded lawns.
If you’ve had major aphids, mites, mealybugs, or whiteflies on your fruit trees or roses, spray dormant oil after leaf fall to kill overwintering adults. Hand-pick slugs and snails or use iron phosphate as bait. You should replace iron phosphate after a rain, but it is not toxic to humans, pets, and beneficial insects, and will also not harm microorganisms in the soil. In late December, spray early-flowering peach and nectarine trees with a copper fungicide to control peach leaf curl.
Do you see white moths around your winter vegetables? The butterfly looks for good places to lay its eggs, which will hatch in the cabbage looper and eat holes in the leaves, sometimes decimating the crop. There isn’t much you can do against the moth, but seeing it is a signal to start looking under the leaves for the next few days to catch the little green caterpillars before they do a lot of damage. Large plants can survive some damage, but seedlings can be devoured. The chemical control is BT (Bacillus Thuringeis). Make sure you spray the leaves of the plants on top and bottom.
Remember that many caterpillars, especially on ornamentals, do little harm and turn into moths and butterflies. And all Lepidoptera are food for birds, lizards, toads and other creatures in the food chain. Use common sense and a little tolerance for damage to encourage a healthy garden full of interesting life, even in the urban neighborhood.
Finally, stay on top of cool season weeds so it doesn’t become a tedious and overwhelming job later on. Common household white vinegar or a commercially formulated non-systemic organic herbicide can be stored in a labeled spray bottle in the garden for weed control on sunny days. Or hoe them lightly. You can also try stacking more mulch and shade it, which works well on those low sun days.
KEEP: Leave a pile of tree and shrub branches for the birds to shelter in.
And don’t forget the water. Small streams as part of a water garden, misting style sprinklers or a bird bath with fresh water are all popular with our wild bird friends. When preparing to prune trees, examine the tall branches of tall trees for bird nests and avoid pruning if hawks or other birds are nesting.
If you haven’t already, cut back tropical milkweed flowers and other non-native varieties of orange-flowered milkweed. Monarchs that remain because of a ready food source will not survive the cold winter; they must migrate south. You may want to consider replacing it with a native milkweed. On the other hand, we have so many hummingbirds that do not migrate, it is normal to continue to provide them with hummingbird food during the winter.
I wish you a wonderful winter vacation, full of beneficial garden companions and lovely surprises.
Call us: Tulare County Master Gardeners: (559) 684-3325, Tuesday and Thursday, 9:30 am-11:30am
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