December Gardening Tips for the Mountain West and High Plains

Celebrate the season by bringing the beauty of the garden inside. Tackle a few outdoor garden chores as weather permits in Mountain West and High Plains gardens.


    December Garden To-Dos

    If you have a water source available for birds, such as a birdbath, keep it clean, filled, and thawed (inexpensive birdbath heaters are available that prevent water from freezing). Birds come to depend on a consistent water source and struggle if maintenance is neglected. The same goes with feeders. Keep them stocked.

    When temperatures rise during winter and soil isn't frozen or covered with snow, deep-root water trees and shrubs. Ideally, you should do this once a month throughout winter.

    Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch on perennial beds and around trees and shrubs. Keep mulch piles off the bases of woody plants to avoid vole damage to bark.

    After Christmas decorations come down, recycle your tree into your landscape. Clip off branches and place them around tender plants for winter protection. Chop the trunk into firewood. In spring, when you remove branches from planting areas, run them through a chipper-shredder to create mulch.

    Know what your favorite bird's preferred food is.

    Now's a great time for planning. Observe your winter landscape and note where an ornamental grass, evergreen, or other plant with winter interest would enhance the view. Mark spots with a stake or large stone. Add plants in spring.

    It's okay to remove heavy snowfall from trees and shrubs. Use a broom, and with a gentle, upward motion, sweep snow off. Never bang or shake branches -- they're often brittle when frozen and may break if jarred too much.

    Melt snow and use it to water your indoor houseplants. Gather snow from drifts that aren't likely to be laced with salt or ice-melt products.

    Snow also makes for a great winter mulch. Shovel or blow snow across your planting areas to insulate perennials. Avoid placing salt-laden snow on planting areas.

    Add color to a snowy scene with a bouquet of garden gleanings -- evergreen boughs, berried branches, seedpods, stems with cones, and other dried items. Create extra color by spray-painting branches such as curly willow.

    Bring Color Indoors

    Look for prechilled hyacinth bulbs at garden centers. Tuck into soil with shoulders protruding, or place on a gravel bed in a watertight container. Add water until it touches the base of the bulb. Set the bulb in a sunny window and watch the magic unfurl -- in a few weeks you'll be rewarded with a wonderful display of color and fragrance.

    Look for specialty poinsettias, miniature roses, cyclamen, and freesia at garden centers. These plants all offer pretty flowers that can brighten holiday gatherings. They're best treated as short-lived gift plants; they're difficult as houseplants.

    Keep poinsettias looking great longer by locating them away from exterior doors, drafty windows, or hot blasts from a stove, fireplace, or heating vent. Water frequently enough so that soil retains the moisture level of a damp sponge and give the plants plenty of light. Note: Poinsettias are not poisonous, although pets may get upset stomachs if they nibble enough leaves. If your pet is a plant eater, place your holiday beauty out of reach.

    Succeed with cyclamen by tucking the plants in a cool window or unheated room. These charming plants grow best in low temperatures (around 50-60 degrees F). While the plants are blooming, bring them into living spaces so you can enjoy the show.

    Plant amaryllis bulbs now for blooms in six to eight weeks. Insert a stake into soil at planting time to support the soon-to-appear flowering stem and leaves.

    Get more ideas for decorating with plants and flowers.

    Garden-Fresh Holiday Decor

    Select a Christmas tree that doesn't drop a lot of needles when you grasp a branch and run your hand over it. Also, the base of the trunk should have a sticky feel from fresh sap.

    When you get your tree home, always keep the water level above the base of the trunk. If it drops below the trunk stump, the cut surface will develop a resin layer, which keeps the tree from absorbing any more water.

    Christmas trees last longest in cool temperatures, so avoid placing a fresh-cut tree near heating vents, radiators, or fire places.

    Visiting a nearby tree farm and cutting your own tree (or having the staff at the tree farm do the sawing) is a great way to support your local community.

    Nine expert tips for your best Christmas tree ever.

    • If you have fish in an ornamental pond, in very cold regions, consider adding a water heater so the fish will survive the winter. Also be sure to keep the water level up. Water blocks a large percentage of UVA rays, slowing damage to pond liners.
    • 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 windowboxes and pots for outdoor decoration until spring.

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