Things to do in December
Before - and After - Rain
It may be tempting when rain is forecast to toss handfuls of fertilizer around the garden to be watered in by Mother Nature. Unfortunately, if it hasn’t rained recently and the ground is crusty, most of that fertilizer could end up in runoff, where it does no good and may even harm waterways and ultimately the ocean. Instead fertilize with a light hand and scratch it into the soil so it won’t be carried away. Another temptation arises after a rainstorm - to work in the garden pulling weeds or planting. It’s best to wait a couple days for the garden to dry out a bit so heavy footsteps won’t compact the wet dirt, making it hard for roots and future rainfall to penetrate.
Chill with Fruit Trees
Bare-root apple and stone-fruit trees are a tempting bargain at nurseries now, but before making a selection, be sure it will produce fruit in your neighborhood. Most of these trees need a specific number of "chill hours" - when the temperature dips below 45 degrees - in order to flower and set fruit the following season. “Chill hours” vary widely across the county, and even within individual gardens. Let nursery pros know where you live to get the right tree for your neighborhood.
Color-pack Picks
A trip down nursery aisles bursting with flowers is pure temptation. How to make wise choices? Start by avoiding any warm-season growers like petunias and zinnias; they will fade quickly now. Instead look for cool-season annuals like stock, pansies, violas, primroses, poppies and the like. Pick plants that are vegetative or in bud, not bloom; they’ll have the longest life and bloom period in the garden. When planting, if the plants are root-bound, loosen the bottom roots before putting them in the ground. Annuals are hungry plants; satisfy them with some high-bloom fertilizer right after planting and several times in the growing season.
Don’t Irrigate in the Rain
Monitor irrigation and adjust it to suit the weather, which is very variable this month. Use the Be Waterwise calculator (http://www.bewaterwise.com/calculator.html) to find out how long your sprinklers should run. Shorter, cooler days reduce water stress on established plants, while bursts of heat, especially from Santa Anas, up the need for water. The changing season also can shift shadows to places that earlier basked in the sun, also reducing irrigation needs. Sprinklers may need to be adjusted too, to accommodate summer plant growth or the addition of companion perennials and annuals. Since months may have passed since your last check, inspect the system for leaks and water waste. With everyone watching water consumption, don’t irritate neighbors and drain your bank account by watering during a rainstorm. Hit “rain delay” on your timer whenever precipitation is forecast.
Firewood Alert

Thousands of oak trees in East County have been felled by the gold spotted oak borer. While the search goes on to control this pest, consumers can help slow its spread around the county by not transporting firewood from infested areas. Remember that even sound-looking wood can have borers. Campers should be especially vigilant neither to bring nor remove firewood from campgrounds. A map of infested areas is available at http://groups.ucanr.org/gsob/ along with photos of the pest and suggestions for homeowners concerned about infested coast live oaks, canyon live oaks or black oaks on their property.

Force Paperwhites
Their strong fragrance causes some folks to turn up their noses at paperwhites but there’s much to like about these bulbs, including how easy it is to force them into bloom in time for the holidays. Pick a glass container or waterproof a basket with plastic sheeting. The sides of either should be 4-inches or more high. Fill the firm bulbs tightly together on top. Then add water to cover the base of the bulbs. Allowing the bottom of the bulbs to sit in water stimulates growth. Check bulbs daily to see if they need more water. Keep in a cool dark spot and maintain the water level until the bulbs sprout – about 10 days. Bulbs don’t need light at this stage and they prefer to be kept cool at 65degrees F. Then move to a sunny spot and, in a month, you’ll enjoy the snow-white flowers. Once the plants flower, they’ll last longer if moved out of the sunlight to a cooler location. After the bloom, discard the bulbs since they won’t flower again. Forced paperwhites tend to grow tall and often flop over. This can be prevented by growing them in a solution of 4-6 percent alcohol and water. For more information see the article by researchers in the Flower Bulb Research Program at Cornell University: http://www.hort.cornell.edu/department/faculty/wmiller/bulb/Pickling_your_Paperwhites.pdf.
Free Pro Landscape Designs

Looking to makeover a thirsty garden? Find free inspiration by viewing waterwise gardens designed by four top landscape architects at the behest of several area water agencies. The plans for single family homes include detailed renderings, plant lists and irrigation designs for four different gardens – child-friendly, pet friendly, backyard habitat and empty nester. The downloadable and printable plans can be viewed at www.hwd.com/news/landscapeplans.htm.

Freshen House Plants
Give houseplants a new lease on life. If more than a year has passed since the last repotting, replace existing soil with a new mix specifically designed for indoor plants. Wash the pot first to remove any crusty salt buildup. Also clean up the plant, removing dead or damaged foliage, and wash accumulated dust from the leaves. House plants may benefit from a new location during winter months, away from drying heat vents and near windows that offer more light and warmth. If adding holiday plants to the mix, remember that these winter-season plants like poinsettias, cyclamen and Christmas cactus need a cool spot to survive. Take care to avoid over watering too.
Get Landscape Design Advice
Shocked by high water bills? Determined to transform your garden into a waterwise landscape but not sure where to begin? Jump-start your makeover with a professional landscape design consultation at The Water Conservation Garden. The 45-minute sessions are with consultants who specialize in drought-tolerant landscapes. Homeowners bring photos and dimensions of a targeted area; they leave with a design plan and plant list. Cost is $75 ($60 for garden members). Call (619) 660-0614, ext. 10, to learn dates and availability.
Gifts for Gardeners

Gardeners are a practical bunch. Here are some useful additions to horticultural libraries. For newbies, “Pat Welsh’s Southern California Organic Gardening: Month-by-Month,” and Nan Sterman’s “California Gardener’s Guide, Vol. II.” For edibles enthusiasts, Rosalind Creasy’s “Edible Landscaping” and Ivette Soler’s “The Edible Front Yard.” Native plant lovers will enjoy “California Native Plants for the Garden” and “Reimagining the California Lawn,” both from Cachuma Press. Gift certificates from specialty nurseries as well as memberships in the San Diego Horticultural Society and San Diego Floral Association will be appreciated. Also, quality garden gloves and clippers are sure to bring grateful thank-yous.

Gifts from the Garden
Gardeners, foodies, kids – if they’re on your gift list, take some time now to plan – and plant – the perfect present. Herbs in festive pots, a bowl of newly sprouted lettuces, a bundle of wildflower seeds and radish-growing kits for kids – all are welcome as hostess, holiday or house-warming gifts. Don’t overlook those homemade jams or jellies, pickles or relishes, in attractive jars with handwritten labels. Or fill a container with layers of bulbs, an attractive arrangement of succulents or some strawberry plants. All can be assembled in advance and in less time than it takes to find a parking place in the mall. Tuck care instructions or a favorite recipe in a card for a personal touch.
Grow a Salad Bowl Garden

Tender lettuces and their perfect pairings - radishes, peas, carrots, beets, spinach, scallions and broccoli - love sunny, cool weather. Planted now, many will be ready for harvest in time for Thanksgiving. If you’re a gourmet cook, grow some restaurant favorites from seeds, like colorful mesclun mixes (www.reneesgarden.com), jewel-toned Chioggia beets and micro-greens (www.botanicalinterests.com), or purple carrots and orange cauliflower (www.johnnyseeds.com). In general, start seeds earlier in the season than starter plants from nurseries. A detailed vegetable planting guide is under “Resources” at www.mastergardenerssandiego.org.

Grow Amazing Amaryllis

Colorful trumpet blooms of amaryllis are holiday hallmarks – and more - for San Diego gardeners. After these pear-shaped bulbs have bloomed indoors, they can be planted outside here, where they will flourish for many seasons to come. Oceanside-based Easy to Grow Bulbs has added to its extensive amaryllis selection with an exclusive large-flowered group from a grower in Israel. Choose among the elegant ‘Beauty Bells’ in traditional red and white, the double-flowered ‘Snow White’ with pure white petals, or the double ‘Blossom Peacock’ with rosy red and white petals and a pronounced floral scent. Instructions for forcing the bulbs and planting them in the garden can be found on the company’s web site, www.easytogrowbulbs.com,

Grow Christmas Camellias

‘Yuletide’ is the classic sasanqua camellia that lights up gardens with holiday-red blooms now. But it’s just one of the winter-blooming sasanquas (Camellia sasanqua) ideal for water-wise landscapes here. Here are some others recommended by Master Gardener Sharon Lee, a member of the San Diego Camellia Society: sun-loving ‘Hana Jiman’ with paper-thin white petals edged in pink on large single blossoms;  fast-growing ‘Dazzler’ with cerise-red semi-double blooms; earliest-flowering ‘Bonanza’ with cherry red peony-form blossoms centered with golden stamens; compact ‘Shishi-Gashira’ with double bright rose red flowers; and willowy ‘Showa-no-Sakae’ with soft clear pink blossoms in loose peony form. The first two grow upright to more than 6 feet tall; the others are low growing. Plant them in winter since camellias are dormant when they bloom. Look for them at specialty nurseries or order from world-renowned growers Nuccio’s Nurseries in Altadena (www.nucciosnureries.com).

Grow Garden-friendly Natives

California native plants thrive in gardens with a mix of drought-tolerant and Mediterranean-climate plants - if the natives picked tolerate some summer water. Here are a half-dozen compatible performers selected by Susan Jett, director of horticulture for the all-native Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont.

  • ‘Ray Hartman’ wild lilac (Ceanothus) - Grows 15 feet tall and wide. Shiny bright green leaves are attractive year round; rich medium blue flowers in spring. Butterfly favorite. Prune to shape in spring after flowering.
  • ‘Howard McMinn’ Manzanita (Arctostaphylos) - Sculptural small tree 6 to 7 feet tall, 6 feet wide. Tolerates various soils and some shade. Smooth mahogany-hued bark, glossy leaves and pink flowers in spring.
  • Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) - Year-round interest from this evergreen shrub or small tree know as California’s holly. Grows 7 to 8 feet tall and wide. White flowers in summer followed by red berries favored by birds.
  • ‘Allen Chickering’ Sage (Salvia) - Robust hybrid that grows to 4 feet tall with gray-green foliage and lots of bright blue flowers late spring and into summer. Cut back by one-third after flowering to maintain vigor. Pinch prune in spring to shape.
  • ‘Wendy’ Coral Bells (Heuchera) - Hybrid with long-lasting spring bloom of bright rose-pink flowers on sturdy 3 foot stems above 10 to 12-inch high light green foliage clumps. Striking in mass plantings. Tolerates tree roots. Provide afternoon shade in hot inland areas.
  •  ‘Pigeon Point’ Dwarf Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis) - Easy-care groundcover prized for its bright green leaves. Fast growing. Can be sheared. Full sun.
Grow Garlic
Now is the time to add garlic to cool-season vegetable gardens. Garlic isn’t stored in the refrigerator because the cool temperatures cause it to sprout. Grow your own by sticking individual cloves, pointed end up, about an inch down in prepared, well-draining soil in a sunny site; it’s that simple. Use seed garlic purchased from seed companies or nurseries since supermarket varieties may have been sprayed to delay or reduce sprouting. Some tried-and-true varieties include “softneck” ‘Silver Rose’ and ‘California Early’, and extra pungent “hardneck” ‘Spanish Roja’ and ‘Music’. Keep soil moist but not wet. When leaf tops fall over in early summer, lift the bulbs from the ground, air dry, trim off roots and foliage and store in a cool place.
Grow Great New Grasses

The ornamental grasses revolution, now more than two decades old, shows no signs of ebbing. And no wonder. These drought tolerant, unfussy and low-maintenance plants are ideal for San Diego gardens. Here are some to plant now to establish during upcoming rains.

  • Pennisetum setaceum ‘Fireworks’ – This new fountain grass dazzles with variegated pink and white-striped foliage. As the seasons change, a rich purple is added to the mix. In the summer, purple tassels dance above the handsome 2-3-foot tall clumps. Cut back to 6-8 inches tall in early spring to freshen. 
  • Muhlenbergia dubia (Pine Muhly Grass) – This elegant Southwest native grows only 12-18-inches tall and forms compact clumps of light-green foliage that fades to tan. Cream flowers rise on slender stalks more than 2 feet in height in late summer. Very adaptable to varied growing conditions. Unappetizing to deer.
  • Muhlenbergia rigida (Nashville Grass) – Another compact grass 2 feet tall and wide, this upright muhly grass has fine textured, light green leaves and fall-blooming purple flowers that fade to wheat. Cut back in spring to reinvigorate.
  • Muhlenbergia emersleyi (El Toro or Bull Grass) –The attractive blue-green, thin-bladed foliage of this Arizona-Texas native grass form tight clumps 2 feet tall and wide. In fall, loose flower panicles in a dusky purple dangle on stiff 3-4-foot long stems. One of the most drought-tolerant grasses.
  • Lomandra longifolia ‘The Breeze’ –This 30-inch tall and wide cultivar of a tough Australian native has graceful shiny deep-green blades that gently arch. In spring and fall, creamy yellow flowers cluster like a lacy crinoline around its base. Once established, this grass maintains its good looks on minimal water. Trim every five years.
  • Dianella caerulea ‘Cassa Blue’ – Distinctive blue-green foliage in vase-shaped clumps is only part of the appeal of this architectural hybrid of another Aussie native. Dainty yellow-throated dark blue flowers appear on tall stems in spring and summer and are followed by glowing blue berries.
  • Dianella revoluta ‘Little Rev’ and ‘Big Rev– These flax lilies send up stiff, straight foliage that on ‘Little Rev’ is a smoky blue-gray and on ‘Big Rev’ is green on top and blue-green underneath. Both are compact, drought tolerant good companions for succulents and Mediterranean-climate plants.
Grow Native Wildflowers

California poppies are only one of many native wildflowers that can brighten spring gardens. Here are some suggested by the Theodore Payne Foundation, originators of the wildflower hotline for the state.

  • Coastal Poppy (Eschscholzia californica var. maritima) – Golden yellow flowers with orange throats blossom above the gray-green leaves of this low-growing plant. Thrives in sunny coastal areas.
  • Beach Sun Cups (Camissonia cheiranthifolia) – Sandy soils are preferred by this ground-hugging perennial with lemon-yellow buttercup-like flowers.
  • Globe and Bird’s Eye Gilia (Gilia capitata and Gilia tricolor) – These easy-to-grow annuals are ideal companions for California poppies. Globe gilia has showy orbs of sky-blue flowers; bird’s eye has violet-edged white petals around dark centers. Both grow a foot tall or more tall.  Sun.
  • Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii) - An earlier bloomer, baby blue eyes are about 6 inches tall with watery blue and white flowers. Thrives throughout the county in shade to part-shade.
  • Farewell-to-Spring and Winecup Clarkia (Clarkia amoena and Clarkia purpurea) – These late-spring bloomers with flowers in shades of pink extend the season.  Good cut flowers. Grows 2-feet or more tall.

Individual seed packets can be ordered at www.store.theodorepayne.org where you’ll also find a seed sowing guide.

Grow New Varieties of California Poppies

Native golden-orange California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) thrive in home gardens, but today they have competition from showy new varieties in a wide range of colors. Here are some to try. Seeds are available from a variety of companies including Renee’s Garden, Select Seeds, Botanical Interests and Thompson & Morgan.

  • ‘Jelly Beans’ - Pleated double petals are washed with Easter-egg pink, coral, rose and salmon.
  • ‘Apricot Chiffon’ - Single-petal flowers are streaked with warm soft shades of peach and red-coral.
  • ‘Buttermilk’ - Fluted flowers glow in shades of cream and yellow.
  •  ‘Appleblossom’ - Ruffled double blossoms are silvery pink with golden centers that seem to capture sunshine.
  • ‘Dusky Rose’ - Glowing pink flowers are a perfect match for the gray-green foliage.
  • ‘Dairy Maid’ - Ruffled buttery-yellow blooms are softened with cream and apricot.
Grow Sweet Peas

Scent, frilly blossoms and romantic colors – who wouldn’t want sweet peas in the garden. Plant seeds now for this easy-to-grow annual and enjoy girlie bouquets by spring. Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden likes these varieties for San Diego gardens.

  • April in Paris – “It’s our most fragrant,” Shepherd says. Creamy yellow flowers are blushed with lavender that deepens with age.
  • Zinfandel – Ruffled blossoms are deep burgundy.
  • Blue Celeste – This British-bred variety is the pale blue of a winter sky.
  • Jack & Jill – Soft blue and salmon-rose flowers cover this knee-high (3 feet) mix ideal for containers.
  • Queen of Hearts – Another mix of Valentine-pretty red, burgundy and cream.

Give sweet peas good air circulation and excellent drainage. And remember “the more flowers you pick, the more you’ll get,” Shepherd says.  Order seeds and find detailed growing instructions at www.reneesgarden.com.

Harvest Rain

With average annual rainfall here of less than 11 inches, it pays to make the most of every drop. Start by redirecting water from gutters routed into storm drains to empty into the garden instead. A simple swale – a depression lined with gravel – also can collect runoff so it can percolate into the ground. Rain barrels too offer simple storage; most fill up remarkably fast, so install more than one if possible. The Water Conservation Garden on the campus of Cuyamaca College in El Cajon has a good exhibit of a working rain barrel system. A good time to visit is during the Fall Gardening Festival this month. Details are at www.thegarden.org.

Lights, Action, Camera

Gardeners are enchanted, kids have a ball and families celebrate together. Where? At the “Garden of Lights” at the San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas. Bring a camera for shots of twinkling holiday lights (more than 90,000 sparkle in the garden), marshmallow roasting, caroling on hayrides and more. Live music and hot mulled wine add to the holiday spirit. Details are at www.sdbotanicgarden.org .

Native Care at Planting Time

California natives thrive in the garden with some special care, especially at planting time. Tree of Life native plant nursery suggests making the planting hole twice as deep and wide as the plant’s container. In general, don’t add soil amendments or fertilizers; native plants like native soil. Fill the planting hole with water and let it drain before inserting the plant. Place the plant in the hole so it is about an inch above ground level, then begin adding back fill, wetting it down before adding more. When the hole is filled, create a water basin around the plant and fill with mulch over to the root ball, but not touching the base of the plant. Water thoroughly…and then water again.  Water often enough to keep the root ball from drying out completely until roots grow into the native soil.  If rains are absent or light, water thoroughly every week for two or three months to help the plant become established. More on native plant care is at www.californianativeplants.com.

Peach Leaf Curl Options

Two fungicides used to control debilitating peach leaf curl in peach and nectarine trees have been taken off the market. To prevent this disease, gardeners can make their own fungicide by following the directions in UC Pest Note 7481, Bordeaux Mixture. The process requires buying a small quantity of copper sulfate and agricultural lime to make a stock solution of each chemical. Combine them and dilute with water to make the Bordeaux spray, which is applied twice while the trees are dormant. Lime by the pound can be purchased at City Farmers Nursery; copper sulfate is available from Amazon.com. For more on peach leaf curl, consult UC Pest Note 7426, Peach Leaf Curl.

Plant Mirror Plant
While only a few trees here burst with fall color – a favorite is the fiery Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) - there are other plants that add a golden glow to the garden. One that shines, literally, is the mirror plant (Coprosma repens). The small oval leaves on this New Zealand native gleam as if they’ve been varnished and new cultivars are rich in autumn tones of gold, ruby and copper. Cooling weather enhances their jewel colors, though the slow-growing shrubs 3 to 6 feet tall are attractive all year. Grow them in full sun to part shade; prune to shape. Some choice selections are ‘Pink Splendor’ with leaves splashed with gold, pink and maroon and “Tequila Sunrise’ that glows brilliant orange and red in fall and winter. Look for them at specialty nurseries around the county.
Plant Peas
Lucky San Diego gardeners can enjoy fresh homegrown peas – and snow pea pods - all winter long, thanks to our cool growing season for edibles. Pick a sunny site sheltered from the wind to plant pea seeds following seed packet directions. Water the planting site deeply before planting and don’t water again until the seeds sprout (unless the soil dries out to the seed planting depth). Protect seedlings from hungry critters with row covers and bait and avoid overwatering to prevent root rot. Trellises support the vines and simplify harvesting. Pick peas every few days and enjoy them as soon as possible so their sweet sugars don’t turn to starch
Poinsettia Care

More than 70 percent of  poinsettias sold for the holidays originate with the Paul Ecke Ranch, where this Encinitas family pioneered breeding of a Mexico native plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) into a symbol of the season. Red poinsettias are still the top sellers, but color choices abound, ranging from burgundy to pale pink and purple, often splashed or striped on the petal-like bracts. At home, poinsettia care is simple: If you’re comfortable - neither too hot or cold, your poinsettia is too. They prefer an indoor temperature of 68-70 degrees F. If possible, place your plant where it will receive indirect sunlight about 6 hours each day. Avoid direct sunlight and heat sources like fireplaces, heat ducts, and appliances. Water when the surface of the soil feels dry to the touch. Remove the plant from any decorative container or foil wrap before watering and allow water to drain completely. Avoid overwatering or letting the plant sit in standing water.

Rose Resources

Bare-root rose season is here and area nurseries are well stocked. But which roses to buy for gardens along the coast with their sandy soil and salty air, or inland, where temperatures dip in winter and soar in summer?  The San Diego Rose Society web site can help. Over the years, society members, including specially trained consulting rosarians, have drawn on experience in their gardens around the county to compile lists of roses that thrive along the coast, inland and in the desert. Their picks range from hybrid teas to today’s popular shrub roses and never-out-of-style old garden roses. To view the list, click on Best Roses at www.sdrosesociety.org. The site’s Ask The Expert also is a good reference for frequently asked questions about rose culture here.

Season with Homegrown Herbs

Many favorite herbs like it hot - basil, for example. But a good number thrive year-round here and a few that even prefer cool,wet weather. Some to add now to a cool-season kitchen garden are parsley, thymes, rosemary, culinary sages, winter savory, chervil, dill and fennel. For pizzazz, pick ‘Kebob’ rosemary with straight stems ideal as BBQ skewers.  Find herbs at area nurseries or specialty herb growers like Pearson’s Gardens and Herb Farm in Vista (www.pearsonsgardens.com).

Winter Perennial Care

Many favorite perennials look tired and in need of TLC this time of the year. Many garden favorites like Shasta daisies, summer-blooming sages, rudbeckia, yarrow and verbena and asters can be cut back to the ground. So can natives like Matilija poppies and California fuchsia (Zauschneria). Penstemon, lion’s tail (Leonotis) and Mexican sage can be cut to about a foot high. Others like coreopsis, lamb’s ears and veronica benefit from having all woody or dead stems cut out while spent or dead stems on alstroemeria can simply be yanked from the ground. Remove any fallen leaves and add them with the prunings to the compost pile.