December in the Garden
Escape the manic crowds in the shopping malls this month and rather spend some quality quiet time in the garden, transforming it into a beautiful, blooming festive season outside.
Plant a real tree in a pot for the holidays, choose something indigenous like a wild gardenia (Gardenia thunbergia). Choose a colour theme for your beds like traditional red and gold or try modern bright pinks and purples. Plant marigolds for gold and dianthus for red. Or plant bedding plants in rows to create red and white candy stripes - petunias are perfect for this.
Garden beds and containers will need regular watering and feeding now. Trim back spring growth, pinch back perennials such as fuchsias, geraniums and calibrachoas, and dead-head annuals regularly to encourage more flowers. Stake tall plants with soft ties. Mulch garden beds to suppress weeds. Fungal diseases, aphids and slugs love this time of year. Keep a lookout and spray accordingly.
Summer herbs and veggies to keep on sowing include basil, marjoram, chives, oregano, coriander, thyme, borage, squashes, pumpkins, melons, peppers, chillies, eggfruit, cucumbers and spinach. Plant out runners from your strawberries, pinch side shoots of tomato plants and mound soil up around potatoes.
Hot tip: Plant up a festive wreath with succulent plants like echeveria. You can use circular floral foam rings (available at florists) and simply stick unrooted echeveria rosettes in there. If you spritz it with water now and again, they will actually root into the foam, and you will have new plants for the garden after the festivities.
Feed your lawn with a fast-working fertiliser rich in nitrogen, water well before and after the application, and frequently and deeply there after. Mow with the blades set high, at least every 4 to 5 days to produce a thick and emerald green carpet without white mowing spots.
Hot tip: Spend a Saturday morning filling some hanging baskets and empty pots around the patio, with instant colour. Wash the loose covers of the soft furnishings of your patio furniture and remember to add the picnic blankets to the wash too. Clean the braai area and stock up on a load of wood. Turn all garden chairs and benches on their heads and clean their undersides which is often a hiding place for spider’s nests – their inhabitants tend to crawl out and bite you just when you least expect it.
Prune hedges for neatness and topiary plants lightly to enhance their beautiful shapes. Cut back perennials and spring flowering shrubs that is past their prime and feed with a slow release fertiliser.
Stake all that is hanging loose, like your tomatoes which are growing all over the veggie patch.
Clean out all water features and make a point of filling them up regularly with fresh water to protect the pumps from running dry.
Water your lawn at daybreak before the wind comes up and feed with a general fertiliser. Bare spots on the lawn can be an indication of lawn caterpillars, so keep a lookout for them and spray with an appropriate remedy.
Hydrangeas will be at their best now. Water them frequently and pick the mature flowers (all the small blooms in the centre of the flower head must be open) for the vase. Remove the bark from the bottom 5cm of the stems and immerse overnight to their necks, in a bucket of cold water before arranging them.
Be on the lookout for red spider mites which would be very active in the hot and dry weather. Water container plants daily and if it has been a windy day in a coastal garden, wash the leaves of foliage plants to remove salt deposits. Feed hibiscuses this month and water them regularly to prevent bud drop.
Hot tip: Take a gift out of your veggie garden when visiting friends for a braai. Potted rosemary, artichokes or lavender are perfect gifts.
Boost garden beds and the lawn with an organic fertiliser and renew the mulch layer around roses. Keep an eye out for rust and black spot – especially with the rain and humidity. Plant more silver foliage in the garden like helichrysums, cushion bushes (Leucophyta brownii) and curry bushes as these plants have a cooling effect on the garden and they make a lovely show in the moonlight.
Re-sow you summer veggies like mini cabbages, spinach and beetroot.
Hot tip: Make bird feeding stations with the kids or plant a herb wheelbarrow in the holiday.
Prune rambling roses, feed and water them well and add a layer of mulch. Plant perennial champions like Inca lilies (Alstroemeria hybrids) and Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum superbum) for garden colour and also to pick for the vase. Both are tough and rewarding.
Train young trees into a good single-stem specimen by visually dividing them in thirds. Remove the bottom third’s side branches completely. Cut the side branches of the middle third back to about 2 nodes and leave the top third to just grow naturally.
Hot tip: Tie bunches of fresh herbs like sage, rosemary and bay leaves together with string to decorate the Christmas lunch table.
Plant some more impatiens, coleus and begonias in window boxes and pots to add colour to lightly shaded places.
Hot tip: Gather mixed flowers from your garden and tuck them into everyday objects like glass bottles in a variety of shapes and sizes and small shooter glasses. Group them en masse on a window sill for maximum impact. This is what we call "bringing the outside in!”
Watch out for mildew on zinnias and dahlias, as well as aphids and other insect attacks on roses, and treat with an appropriate organic remedy. Keep on taking softwood perennial cuttings from new summer growth and prune back wild dagga (Leonotus) where the new shoots are emerging to promote bushy growth. Top up hanging baskets with water retention granules to stop them from drying out too fast, water them regularly and keep on turning them to get even growth on all sides.
Gather some greenery from your garden to make a welcoming festive wreath for your front door. White Fly infestations could be a problem on fuchsias. Spray regularly with an organic remedy – ask your local nursery for advice on spraying sequences (to break their fast life cycle) and the right product. In the kitchen garden, keep on spraying deciduous fruit trees against fruit flies. Plant baby vegetable varieties in pots if space is a problem. Prevent fungal disease on tomatoes and cucumbers by watering early in the morning. Sow or plant a final summer crop of cucumbers, squashes, sweetcorn, carrots and beetroot. Cut rocket back to encourage new leaves.
Hot tip: Pull off the leaves of pineapple sage, lemon verbena, mint, rosemary and rose geranium and steep in a bottle of dry white wine overnight. Strain and add some chilled champagne and lemonade to taste. Drink immediately!
If you are lucky to have lots of natural stone, take a new look at your rockery or very dry and hot spots in the garden. The shape of garden rockeries should be as natural-looking as the surrounding veld. Do not simply stack a lot of stones on a heap and fill the crevices with a wild and varied selection of succulents and cacti. Rather use weathered and attractive stone to pack out a dramatic floor pattern like a spiral or a labyrinth and use fewer species planted repetitively. Use architectural succulents like Agave parryi, dwarf aloes, echeverias, sedums and lovely crassulas. Care for the rockery plants with regular watering, compost enriched but well-drained soil and a soluble feed now and then.
Hot tip: Do a fast sowing of marigolds, alyssum and ageratum in garden beds to colour dull spots.
Gift idea from your veggie patch: Plant a pretty, mixed container with marjoram, thyme and lemon grass.
Frogs are precious and should be cherished – you will get used to the frog choir at night and might even enjoy it. They also keep your garden free of slugs and snails, leaving your impatiens and petunias free of bite marks.
Top up ponds and water features with fresh water regularly and reduce floating plants to allow light to filter through to the deep-water plants below. If water lily buds are attacked by aphids, immerse them with a piece of heavy mesh in the water for a few days to drown these pests.
Hot tip: Our very own Henkel’s Yellowwood (Podocarpus henkelii) is a perfect tree for the festive season as it will tolerate a few weeks of shade indoors. Decorate it with a few festive baubles and add a dainty string of fairy lights for extra bling. If you entertain a lot at night use plants with white and fragrant flowers. Iceberg roses are a perfect choice. Also add alyssum, orange jasmine and star jasmine as their fragrance intensify after sunset.
Potato tubers planted in December will be ready to harvest in April and May, which can be stored and eaten in winter. Pick borage flowers to use as a garnish in puddings and punches. Harvest the first chillies to add to marinades, salads and salsas.