December Garden Planner

It’s time to trim trees — not in the garden, but ones inside, setting the scene for holiday celebrations. Generally, garden chores are minimal now, especially if El Niño-fueled wet weather arrives. In between storms, finish any planting, including stored bulbs and wildflower seeds. Remain alert for frosts and protect sensitive plants when a serious chill is predicted. As the festive season draws to a close, don’t toss forced amaryllis bulbs. Add them to the garden for a cheery reminder of the holidays for years to come.

The Long-Lived Christmas
Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is one holiday bloomer that lasts for years with minimal care. Tips of its chain-like leaves burst into flower now because days are short (a response known as photoperiodism). Until its brilliant pink, white or salmon flowers fade, keep the plant in bright indoor light. After the flowers drop, move it to a north- or east-facing window with minimal direct sun or pick a sheltered spot outside. Water occasionally and feed in the summer. Withhold food starting in September to prompt end-of-the-year flowering. Bring an outdoor Christmas cactus inside when buds are 1/4 to 1/2 inch long to avoid bud drop. Then enjoy another holiday display before starting the cycle again.

Green Giving
In this giving season, share your plant passion with one-of-a-kind gifts for friends, family and party hosts. The five below are easily assembled and easy to grow, rewarding even folks on your gift list with little or no gardening experience.

Terrarium — Start with a simple fish bowl or other glass container and layer in gravel or sand. Tuck in carefree, otherworldly air plants (Tillandsia) or small succulents and an accent or two, such as shells and stones.

Salad Bowl — Choose a decorative, 12- to 18-inch container to hold a small bag of potting soil, seeds for snip-and-grow lettuces, garden scissors and pretty plant labels. For fun, add a favorite salad dressing recipe.

Sea Squill — Make an impact by putting festively wrapped giant sea squill bulbs (Urginea maritima) under the tree. Each weighs 4 to 6 pounds and makes a hefty garden statement with vase-shaped green foliage followed by soaring, sinuous flower spikes. Buy them at

Herb Basket — Arrange 2-inch or 4-inch pots of herbs in a basket decked with holiday ribbons. Theme choices around a cuisine or favorite recipe (included with your gift), or combine several varieties of versatile favorites like thyme and basil.

Paperwhite Bulbs — Crowd paperwhite narcissus bulbs into a wide-mouthed glass bowl with a layer of pretty pebbles on the bottom. Dress them with holiday ribbons and this simple instruction: “Just add water and a splash of vodka.” (Ironically, the alcohol keeps the somewhat tipsy stems upright.)

Future Fruitcakes?
Bare-root fruit trees are tempting bargains at nurseries at month’s end, but be sure additions picked for your backyard orchard are suited to moderate climates like ours. Specially bred apple and stone fruit trees flower and set fruit even with our region’s limited number of “chill hours” (times when temperatures dip below 45 degrees). Look for three new options from California fruit tree grower Dave Wilson Nursery: ‘Minnie Royal’ low-chill sweet cherry; ‘Sweet Treat’ pluerry, a plum-cherry cross; and ‘Summer Delight’ aprium, an apricot-plum cross. This latter is self-fruiting; the two other newcomers need pollinators. Dave Wilson Nursery expert Tom Spellman suggests pairing ‘Minnie Royal’ with ‘Royal Lee’ cherry and ‘Sweet Treat’ with ‘Flavor King’ pluot. More information about these and other low-chill varieties can be found at

Beyond a Drought
Since its founding in 1999, in the midst of a drought, the Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College has led efforts to create and manage water-wise gardens. During the current drought, the garden has responded with innovations in irrigation, water capture and other water-saving steps that Director of Horticulture Clayton Tschudy will share at the Dec. 14 meeting of the San Diego Horticultural Society. The environmental biologist and landscape designer also will discuss the ecological principles guiding the garden’s native butterfly habitat. Details are at

Gardens to Celebrate
The Garden Conservancy marked its 25th anniversary with Outstanding American Gardens (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2015). The book by Page Dickey and Marion Brenner showcases 50 gardens the group has helped preserve or opened for public tours. More than a dozen West Coast gems are included; half of them are in California.

Shades of Winter
Brighten cool-season veggie gardens or with greens that look as good as they are good for you. Chards with deeply veined leaves and ruby, orange and gold stems are easy to grow. ‘Bright Lights’ and the Italian heirloom ‘Argentata’ are good picks. T rendy kales, a favorite of health enthusiasts and chefs, range from frilly ruby and purple leaved ‘Red Russian’ to inky ‘Lacinato’ and ‘Kalette’ (a kale-Brussels sprouts cross). Beets offer the double reward of pretty edible roots and leaves. T ry ‘Bull’s Blood’ with candy-striped roots or sunny orange ‘Touchstone Golden.’ Less well known are red stemmed and veined sorrel (Rumex sanguineus) and dusky mountain spinach or orach.

And don’t forget to:
• Make a holiday wreath of mixed greenery during a class at San Diego Botanic Garden on Dec. 12. Details are at
• Shop now for camellias while many of these drought-tolerant beauties are in flower in area nurseries.
• Plant pansies, Johnny-jump-ups and other violas for long-lasting winter color. Weidner’s Gardens in Encinitas has a good field-grown selection.
• To help reduce oak tree deaths caused by the gold spotted oak borer, avoid transporting wood from infected areas in the East County. Remember that even sound-looking wood can harbor the pest.
• Celebrate the holidays at San Diego Botanic Garden’s festive Garden of Lights, Dec. 5-23 and 26-30, and at the San Diego Floral Association’s Festival of Trees during December Nights, Dec. 4-5, in Balboa Park.
• Add California poppies to your winter landscape by sowing seeds or planting seedlings. Opt for flowers in colors ranging from sunny orange to red, purple, pink and cream.
• Plant seeds early in the month to enjoy the spring treat of fresh sweet peas. Choose seeds for English shelling peas.
• Keep holiday poinsettias fresh by avoiding temperature extremes.