So. California

What to do in your garden in December
Sharon Cohoon

Shopping

Holiday gifts from nurseries. Tired of crowded malls? Shop at nurseries. Even nongardening friends like cyclamen, orchids, miniature conifers, and other tabletop plants, vases, cachepots, decorative birdhouses, and more. Or check out the gift shops at botanical gardens for one-of-a-kind finds.

Planting

Artichokes. Even if you don't like to eat artichokes, plant one or more now for their ornamental value. You'll get handsome silvery leaves, big green flower buds, and, if you don't eat those buds, violet-blue flowers that will stop your neighbors in their tracks. (I know; I watched them from my home office last summer.)

Bulbs. Coastal, inland, and low-desert gardeners (Sunset climate zones 22-24, 18-21, and 13, respectively) can still plant spring-flowering bulbs. Tulips, crocus, and hyacinth that have been chilled for at least six weeks can go in now too.

Natives that look like holly. Ilex (holly) is fine for the acidic soils of the Northwest, but it's not the best choice for Southern California. Plant toyon ( Hetero­meles arbutifolia) instead, suggests La Cañada Flintridge landscape architect and native enthusiast Ronnie Siegel. Hollyleaf cherry ( Prunus ilicifolia), hollyleaf redberry ( Rhamnus ilicifolia), and Rhamnus crocea also provide greenery that resembles holly.

Bare-root roses. Nurseries that specialize in bare-root roses include Laguna Hills Nursery in Lake Forest, Parkview Nursery in Riverside, Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena, Lakewood Nursery in Cypress, and Kniffing's Discount Nurseries in El Cajon. Visit www.helpmefind.com if you're having trouble finding a particular rose. Varieties to try: 'Julia Child', a butter-yellow floribunda with old garden rose blossoms. An All-America award winner, this is a thoroughly delicious rose, and it's also disease-resistant. Another floribunda that deserves attention is 'Brilliant Pink Iceberg'. Try interplanting it with white 'Iceberg', its classic parent, as they do at Huntington Gardens. 'Starry Night', a shrub rose with single, white flowers that look almost like a dogwood's, is another underused winner. It thrives in clay soil and hot inland climates, says Riverside gardener Susan Hinojosa.

Camellias. Add winter-blooming Camellia sasanqua to the garden for holiday blooms. Red-flowered 'Yuletide' is deservedly popular, but there are many other varieties. If you aren't finding many choices at your local nursery, visit Nuccio's Nurseries in Altadena, which specializes in camellias and azaleas. Or request a catalog and order by mail (626/794-3383).

Fruit trees. TreePeople, the nonprofit organization promoting urban forestry in Southern California, gives away thousands of bare-root apple, apricot, nectarine, peach, and plum trees to low-income families at this time of year. Visit www.treepeople.org to donate to the program.

Wildflowers. Broadcast seeds of baby blue eyes, blue and scarlet flax, California poppy, clarkia, godetia, and other wildflowers. Rake lightly to cover seeds with a thin cover of soil, or walk over seeds to press into ground. Keep soil moist until seeds germinate, or broadcast just before rain is expected.

Maintenance

Care for indoor plants. To counteract the dry air from heating systems, place potted plants on trays of moistened pebbles. Grouping plants together and misting frequently also helps increase humidity around plants.

Harvest winter vegetables. Begin picking brussels sprouts, starting from the bottom of stalks. Cut broccoli heads, allowing side stalks to produce sprouts for later harvesting.

Prepare for winter rains. Clean out gutters, downspouts, and swales. Buy barrels or other storage devices to collect rainwater for plants. To keep soil from compacting in the rain, replenish mulch in garden beds.

Control weeds. Pull out annual bluegrass, spurge, and other young weeds as they emerge and before they have a chance to set seed ― easiest to do after a rain when soil is soft.

Harvest greens. Conifers and broad-leafed evergreens benefit from light pruning in winter ― and you can use the clippings for making holiday wreaths and swags. Longest-lasting types include cedar, cotoneaster, cypress, fir, holly, juniper, magnolia, pines, pittosporum, podocarpus, pyracantha, toyon and viburnum.

Trim a tree for wild birds. Decorate a small conifer or other evergreen tree with garlands of unsalted popcorn, cranberries, and grapes strung on fishing line. Add ornaments of oranges and grapefruits sliced in wedges and dried corn on the cob; use fishing line again to tie ornaments to the tree.

Pest and Disease Control

Spray fruit trees. If pests and fungal disease attacked your deciduous fruit trees this year, take steps now to prevent attacks next year. Spray trees with a mixture of lime sulfur or fixed copper (on apricots, use only fixed copper) and horticultural oil. The oil smothers the eggs of overwintering insect pests; the lime sulfur or copper discourages fungal diseases like peach leaf curl. Spray all branches, the trunk, and the ground beneath the trees out to the driplines.