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Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

December in the Garden
Snow, seed pods, and silhouettes

by Carolyn Singer
December 19, 2009

native alder (Alnus)Against the gray winter sky, the intricate branches of our native alder tell the story of a season passing and one just beginning. So close to the winter solstice, this silhouette embodies the seasonal changes, with seedpods (miniature cones) hanging on despite blustery storms, and long yellow-green catkins just appearing.

December is a good month to putter in the garden, enjoying the quiet pace of winter. When snow falls, head outside as soon as possible to enjoy the exquisite beauty. Shake branches of trees and shrubs when you can to lessen the load.

December 7th snowIf branches are damaged, they may not have to be cut from the tree if they are still connected. However, the partially broken branch may have to be shortened to reduce its weight. The repairs must be done soon after the break occurs.

Reposition the branch as it was and secure it with a "bandage" of grafting tape. Splints may even be created to add support while the branch heals. If repairs are done to a fruit tree, next season remove all the fruit on this branch to eliminate any weight. Breaks need a growing season to heal.

Recently a bear reminded me that I should never leave even the smallest apples on the tree after the harvest. Even with a fruit ladder nearby, this bear did extensive damage to three mature apple trees as he ripped branches to reach the treats I left. Fortunately, I spend lots of time in the garden in winter and saw the damage the next morning. All remaining fruit was removed before nightfall.

You may be tempted to begin pruning while you are out examining trees, but wait until January or even February. Remember that the leaves have just fallen and winter dormancy only just begun.

With winter winds, trees may need to be staked. Stakes and ties used in the nursery should always be removed when a tree is planted. Ties can actually cut into the bark and underlying cambium layer, severely damaging the tree. Stakes will need to be placed away from the tree at least a foot. Use tree ties from the nursery, or create your own. Do not bind the tree with a tie.

maiden grassSnow may also have damaged ornamental grasses, ending their fall splendor prematurely. The maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) in my garden has turned beautiful golden orange with the recent cold temperatures. Most of the clump has recovered from the heavy snow, and while it doesn't have the beautiful form it did, its glow in the early morning sun is reason enough to leave it alone for now.

Other grasses did not fare so well, and will now be cut back, a job I usually do in late January or early February, before new growth starts. A weedeater takes care of this task quickly, but a lot of the crown will be left. I prefer to do many of the grasses with hedge clippers, which allow me to make the cuts very close to the crown. New growth in the spring will look much more beautiful when it's not growing through last year's dead stalks.

Phlomis seedpods with maiden grassSeeds can still be gathered from the garden, but allow pods to dry out before seeds are stored. Many seed pods are attractive additions to the winter garden and manage to hold their form through snow and wind. Some plants scatter seed with the first good breeze, but the capsules remain intact, adding winter interest. December is a good month to explore the exquisite details of the garden.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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