December Gardening Tips for the Midwest

After you tuck the garden in for its long winter's nap, shift your focus to holiday fun and a few last cold-weather chores.


December in the Garden
  • Prevent soil erosion on slopes and in bare planting areas typically filled with vegetables or annual bloomers. Cover soil with chopped leaves, straw, or some other organic material. In spring, you can plant directly through this material.
  • Now's a great time to take a soil test if you didn't have a chance to do so during the growing season. Most soil test results give you detailed information about how much of what products to add to give your soil a boost.
  • If snow doesn't blanket the ground, make one last pass to pick all remaining fruits or nuts beneath trees. If possible, gather any left on trees, too. Compost the leftovers. Getting these fallen materials away from the trees helps prevent pest and disease issues next year.
  • If you still have bulbs on hand and soil isn't frozen, act fast. Plant them at your earliest opportunity. It's not too late if you can still get a shovel in the ground.
  • After soil freezes, add winter mulch. Keep it shallow: 2-3 inches deep to avoid creating habitat for voles and other rodents. Likewise, don't pile it right up against tree or shrub trunks.
Use Natural Holiday Decor

Dress up pillars, a mantle, banister, or deck rail with evergreen roping. Two easy ways to attach the green garland are to use green pipe cleaners or to wrap light strings around railings, using the lights to hold garlands in place.

Outdoor evergreen wreaths last well into the New Year as long as they're kept cold. On warm December days, sprinkle them with water to help keep them from drying out as much. Avoid placing wreaths behind an all-glass storm door; sunlight shining through the glass builds up heat, making the wreath dry out quickly. Wire a few orange wedges, apple slices, or strings of dried fruit onto fresh wreaths or outdoor garland for a bird-friendly buffet. Display these wreaths where birds (and their droppings) won't cause a problem.

The sap from fresh evergreens can damage the finish on wood surfaces. Indoors, take care not to place fresh evergreens directly against wood furnishings. Instead, place greenery on parchment or colorful holiday-theme fabric.

Pick a Perfect Christmas Tree
  • When shopping for a tree, test needle attachment by lifting the trunk a few inches and dropping it against the ground. If needles drop by the dozens, select a new tree.
  • Another good check for tree freshness: Bend a needle between your fingers. Fresh needles do bend; dry needles snap apart.
  • Look for trees that maintain their needles. Firs, especially noble, balsam, Frasier, and white, are your best bet.

Find the right Christmas tree for you.

Keep your Christmas Tree Fresh
  • As soon as you get your tree home, cut 1-2 inches off the stump and place it into a bucket of warm, clean water. In the first 24 hours after cutting, it will absorb as much as a gallon of water.
  • A fresh tree will absorb about 1 quart of water per inch of trunk diameter every 24 hours. Check your tree stand daily; add water as needed. Do not let a live Christmas tree dry out: If the cut dries out, it heals over and stops absorbing water. If your tree does run out of water, it's possible to remedy the situation by making a fresh cut.

Nine expert tips for your best Christmas tree ever.

Dealing with Snow and Ice

When you're shoveling or blowing snow, get more for your effort by spreading it onto your planting beds as free mulch. One exception: Don't use snow pushed up from the street; it may contain plant-damaging salts.

If your area experiences a heavy, wet snowfall and you're concerned about the weight breaking the branches of prized trees and shrubs, you can attempt removal. Use a broom and with gentle upward motions, sweep the snow off. Don't knock on branches to shake snow loose; frozen branches may be brittle and are more likely to break from being shaken than from the weight of the snow.

Pay attention to ice-melt products you use to avoid damage to trees, shrubs, perennials, and your lawn. Most products contain salt (sodium chloride). Plants are damaged the most by ice melts that contain sodium or calcium chloride. Potassium chloride is less harmful to plants. In general, ice melt that is labeled pet-friendly is safe for plants.

Or, use materials such as sand or nonclumping kitty litter to create traction in icy areas.

  • Set out a nice big basket to hold all those garden catalogs that have started arriving already so you can read them after the holidays, at your leisure.
  • After the holidays, you can recycle your live Christmas tree by cutting off the branches and laying them around the base of roses and other less cold-tolerant plants. Or tuck boughs of the branches in window boxes and pots for outdoor decoration until spring.
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