Southwest

What to do in your garden in December
Scott Calhoun and Kim Nelson

DECORATING

Seasonal bloomers. Liven up your holiday decor with flowering plants. Consider the elegant amaryllis or an easy-care Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi). Other colorful candidates include florists' cyclamen, geranium, and kalanchoe ― all make attractive centerpieces. Give plants bright light or display them for short periods in darker conditions, such as on a dining table.

Wildlife tree. To invite birds into your garden, adorn a shrub or tree with tasty treats. Situate it outside a kitchen window or other area suitable for viewing. To make a garland, thread apple slices, cranberries, and grapes on fishing line. Create ornaments using orange and grapefruit slices, and pinecones slathered with a mix of ½ cup peanut butter and 2 cups cornmeal, oatmeal, or bird seed. Hang them with sturdy twine.

PLANNING

Design help. Sunset climate zones 10-11: The city of Albuquerque has teamed up with three New Mexico landscape-design luminaries ― David Cristiani, Judith Phillips, and George Radnovich ― to offer six free Xeriscape garden designs and plant lists. The designs make great templates for any homeowner seeking to install an attractive, water-thrifty garden. Zones 12-13: The Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has been promoting water-wise landscape design since the 1980s. Visit the website for downloadable plant lists, drip-irrigation guides, and brochures with attractive examples of water-wise gardens.

PLANTING

Bear grass. Zones 10-13: An accent plant that's maintenance-free is native bear grass ( Nolina microcarpa). The 3- to 6-foot-tall clump of fountainlike foliage with curly-tipped leaves creates a striking accent in a border. In summer, bloom stalks topped with greenish white flowers rise several feet above the foliage. Plant in full sun or partial shade and water one to two times a month once established.

Hot vines. Zones 10-13: To add raging red color to the garden from fall into winter, look for one of these two new vines. Hacienda creeper ( Parthenocissus) is a compact selection of Virginia creeper ( P. quinquefolia) that was discovered at an old hacienda in Mexico. Leaves turn deep red in fall, and where temperatures are mild (staying above the low 20s), they remain on the vine until flushes of bright green leaves appear in spring. Hacienda creeper forms a dense screen when trained on a chain-link fence; it can also be used as a vigorous groundcover. Vitis californica 'Roger's Red' grape, which originated from a wild species in Northern California, has proven itself durable even through hot Phoenix summers. It produces small grapes, but its primary draw is the intense red and yellow leaf coloring that appears after a fall chill.

Flowers. Sunset climate zones 10-13: Set out transplants of calendula, chrysanthemum, cyclamen, dianthus, Johnny-jump-up, pansy, petunia, poppies, primrose, snapdragon, and sweet alyssum.

Living Christmas tree. Zones 1a-3b, 10: Consider Arizona cypress, Colorado spruce, and Douglas fir. Zones 11-13: Good choices include Afghan pine, Aleppo pine, and Italian stone pine. Indoors, display the tree in a cool spot away from heat sources and limit its stay to about 10 days. To water, spread two trays of ice cubes on top of the soil daily. After the holidays, plant outdoors or transplant it into a larger container.

Vegetables and herbs. Zones 10-13: Set out transplants of artichoke, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, peas, and onion sets. Sow seeds of beets, bok choy, carrots, chives, dill, green onions, lettuce, radishes, spinach, and turnips.

MAINTENANCE

Care for poinsettia. Place plants in a bright, sunlit room away from drafts and heating vents. Leaves may drop if plants are moved from a warm to a cool location or vice versa. Water when the top inch of soil feels barely moist to the touch.

Pick salad greens. Zones 12-13: Winter greens planted in the fall should be ready to harvest now. To add a regional spin to the salad bowl, gather some tubular red flowers of chuparosa (Justicia californica). The cucumber-flavored blossoms appear in profusion this month at about the time the plant drops its leaves. Harvest and use immediately. If you don't have a chuparosa in your garden, you can find one at the nursery now and grow a crop of flowers for next year.

Apply mulch. Zones 1a-3b: Spread a 3- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch over beds of bulbs and perennials to protect plants from being heaved out of the ground during freezing and thawing cycles. Zones 10-13: Apply mulch to help conserve moisture and insulate the soil.

Irrigate. Zones 1a-3b, 10: Water when the temperature is above freezing and the soil is dry. Zones 11-13: Water cool-season flowers, containers, and vegetables twice a week. If winter rains fail to appear, water established landscape plants every 10 to 14 days, trees about once a month. New permanent plantings need a drink every 3 or 4 days.