Q: Are there chores I should focus on in the garden during December? — Dennis Neil, Los Osos
A: Wear an extra sweater and you’ll find that December is a beautiful time to work in the garden. You may need a breather from the holiday ruckus and keeping the garden tended will make for less work in the spring.
Winter is a great time to assess what worked and what didn’t in your garden. Grab your hot coffee, tea or cider and take a stroll. The bones of your garden are more visible at this time of year. Now, you can set some goals for 2012.
Vegetable beds are perfect for winter care. Layer on compost and a thick sheet of mulch so that beds are nutrient-rich and weed free in the spring. Clear out annuals past their prime and tidy thoroughly before rains continue to furnish weeds with a reason to hang on tightly.
December is a good time to prune deciduous fruit and ornamental trees. Proper thinning increases the health of the tree and can reduce the chance of disease. Leave strong, healthy branches and trim off weak, diseased and dead branches.
Branches that cross or appear crowded hinder growth, so don’t be afraid to restructure the shape of the tree a bit. Be prepared for the weather. Branches that may be hazardous in high winds should be pruned. Trimming and shaping grapes after leaves fall increases growth and production.
Consider the entire outdoors when preparing for winter. Clean gutters, downspouts and swales. Replenish mulch where needed and adjust watering systems to cut down on unnecessary water use. Move sensitive container plants to a protected location or indoors when frost threatens. Drape a sheet or burlap over a frame to protect in-ground plants.
If you still have energy to burn, consider planting. Early selections of bare root roses are available. Cool season flowers such as ageratum and calendula can be planted in mild coastal areas.
Coastal gardeners can also plant spring flowering bulbs, such as tulips, hyacinth and crocus. Make sure bulbs have been chilled in the refrigerator for at least six weeks, however. This is the time to plant artichokes, rhubarb and other bare root vegetables. Ample mulching, 8 to 12 inches, discourages weeds and frost damage. If you’re lucky, you’ve got harvesting to do. When it comes to Brussels sprouts, harvest from the bottom first. Cut broccoli heads, but allow the plant a chance to provide you with side sprouts later. Late December brings bare-root fruit trees to the nurseries. Plant as soon as you’re able — those winter rains are your ally when it comes to healthy growth.
If you’re still looking for work, consider cleaning, oiling and organizing your tools. But, make sure that you do take a break, a breath of fresh air and a moment to remember the joys that your garden has provided you throughout the year.