What to do in your garden in December

DECORATING

Seasonal bloomers. Liven up your holiday decor withflowering plants. Consider the elegant amaryllis or an easy-care Christmascactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi). Other colorful candidatesinclude florists' cyclamen, geranium, and kalanchoe ― allmake attractive centerpieces. Give plants bright light or displaythem for short periods in darker conditions, such as on a diningtable.

Wildlife tree. To invite birds into your garden, adorn ashrub or tree with tasty treats. Situate it outside a kitchenwindow 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 pineconesslathered with a mix of ½ cup peanut butter and 2 cupscornmeal, oatmeal, or bird seed. Hang them with sturdy twine.

PLANNING

Design help. Sunset climate zones 10-11: The city of Albuquerque hasteamed up with three New Mexico landscape-design luminaries ―David Cristiani, Judith Phillips, and George Radnovich ― tooffer six free Xeriscapegarden designs and plant lists. The designs make greattemplates for any homeowner seeking to install an attractive,water-thrifty garden. Zones 12-13: The Arizona Municipal WaterUsers Association has been promoting water-wise landscape designsince the 1980s. Visit thewebsite 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'smaintenance-free is native bear grass ( Nolina microcarpa). The 3- to 6-foot-tall clump offountainlike foliage with curly-tipped leaves creates a strikingaccent in a border. In summer, bloom stalks topped with greenishwhite flowers rise several feet above the foliage. Plant in fullsun or partial shade and water one to two times a month onceestablished.

Hot vines. Zones 10-13: To add raging red color to thegarden 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 inMexico. Leaves turn deep red in fall, and where temperatures aremild (staying above the low 20s), they remain on the vine untilflushes of bright green leaves appear in spring. Hacienda creeperforms a dense screen when trained on a chain-link fence; it canalso be used as a vigorous groundcover. Vitis californica 'Roger's Red' grape, which originated froma wild species in Northern California, has proven itself durableeven through hot Phoenix summers. It produces small grapes, but itsprimary draw is the intense red and yellow leaf coloring thatappears after a fall chill.

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

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

Vegetables and herbs. Zones 10-13: Set out transplants ofartichoke, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, peas, andonion 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 roomaway from drafts and heating vents. Leaves may drop if plants aremoved from a warm to a cool location or vice versa. Water when thetop inch of soil feels barely moist to the touch.

Pick salad greens. Zones 12-13: Winter greens planted in thefall should be ready to harvest now. To add a regional spin to thesalad bowl, gather some tubular red flowers of chuparosa (Justiciacalifornica). The cucumber-flavored blossoms appear in profusionthis month at about the time the plant drops its leaves. Harvestand 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 fornext year.

Apply mulch. Zones 1a-3b: Spread a 3- to 4-inch layer oforganic mulch over beds of bulbs and perennials to protect plantsfrom being heaved out of the ground during freezing and thawingcycles. Zones 10-13: Apply mulch to help conserve moisture andinsulate the soil.

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

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