Garden Tasks For December

By A. Goldman and C. StClair

To ease into the non-outdoor gardening months, treat yourself to Paperwhite or Amaryllis bulbs.  They are easy, gratifying bulbs that only require a pot with good drainage, a sunny location, and sometimes something to support the tall foliage.

If you brought houseplants back in from outside this fall, start scouting for pests like spider mites, mealybugs, and scale. If caught early, pests can often be managed by simple hand removal.  Those fuzzy mealybugs can be tough but can be removed with a cotton swab dipped in isopropyl alcohol.  Houseplants are not growing strongly with the shorter days so they need less fertilizer and probably less water. Although dry winter air can cause stress – misting the foliage helps. Try to position plants so heat vents do not blow directly on them.

Take some time to organize all the planting pots, stakes and other items that accumulated over the season. Take an inventory of any leftover fertilizer, potting soil, soil amendments, plant tags and other highly-used garden items.  Make sure fertilizer bags are closed. Excess moisture can cause some fertilizers to clump and degrade.

Don’t forget to winterize hoses, hose nozzles and any gas powered equipment. It’s also a good time to clean and sharpen tools so they are ready for action next year.

Survey your trees and shrubs. Remove any damaged branches that may split further during a winter storm. Make sure evergreens do not go into winter dehydrated. Evaluate whether you need deer protection.

Remember to use trunk protectors on newly planted trees.  A smaller diameter trunk is susceptible to buck rub, which can kill a young tree. Young trees can also be girdled by animals feeding on bark in the winter. Make sure there is adequate mulch around the base but not up against the trunk….a donut not a volcano. Shredded leaves can work great for this.

If at all possible, provide clean, unfrozen water for wildlife throughout the winter.

We could all use some extra cheer this year, so add some evergreens, colored twigs, ribbons, and cones to your outdoor planters for added interest through the winter. 

Here are a few posts from the past that might also be useful:

Tasks for the November Garden

Preventing Deer Damage in the Winter Gifts for the Gardener

Gifts for the Gardener

Plant Profile: Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers’

By C StClair

3 year old plant in author’s garden

‘Ruby Slippers’ is a compact form of our North American native Oakleaf Hydrangea. It matures to only 3-4′ tall and to 3-5’ wide making it much easier to place in the garden than the large species.

‘Ruby Slippers’ has large, upright panicles of flowers in spring that start out lime green, turn to white and then to ruby red during the summer. They eventually age to brown and can provide interest over the winter. The plant also has beautiful red to burgundy to deep mahogany fall color on its large course leaves. As the plant ages, the older stems start exfoliating their bark, providing more winter interest.

‘Ruby Slippers’ is truly a plant with 4 seasons of interest.

Fall color

Oak Leaf hydrangea is easily grown in organically rich, medium moisture, well-drained soils. While it does need decent drainage, it appreciates some moisture and cool roots so mulching is beneficial. Oakleaf hydrangeas are somewhat shallow rooted so be sure to provide adequate moisture while the plant is getting established.

‘Ruby Slippers’ grows best in part shade but can tolerate more sun with adequate moisture. They will grow in deeper shade but may not flower as well.

Oakleaf hydrangeas bloom on the previous year’s growth, so prune them right after they bloom (not in the spring) to avoid removing flower buds. Pruning needs are usually minimal.

Deer browsing can be a problem and usually they will only eat the branch tips. So the plant will survive, but all your flower buds end up in a deer’s stomach. To save your flower buds you can slip tulle bags or fruit protection bags over the branch ends.

Consider finding a spot for this little gem in your yard. You will not be sorry.

Want a little more info?

Missouri Botanical Garden Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Ruby Slippers’

Winter Interest In the Garden

By Alyce Goldman and Cathy StClair

Once frost hits, the evergreen plants in your garden really stand out and provide interest in the bleak winter months. Although conifers can provide an evergreen backdrop, there many other plant options to consider. 

When adding either evergreen perennials or shrubs, consider how winter will treat these plants.  Snow load from plowed driveways and walkways may bury a plant for a month and falling snow from a roof may totally flatten a specimen.  Also, by using a magnesium chloride product for ice treatment on hard surfaces, you can protect both plants and pets from salt damage. 

Deer resistance is another important aspect to keep in mind.  Deer browsing can increase in winter due to the lack of other tasty plants to eat.  

Here are a few plants to consider for winter interest in your garden.

Mahonia bealei

An evergreen shrub with columnar growth with early yellow flowers for spring foraging bees followed by dark blue berries that are adored by birds. The sharp spines at the end of the leaves make this plant very deer resistant. It can be used as a barrier to help protect other planting from deer browsing.

For shade to part shade. Deer resistant. Find more information here.

Illicium floridanum

An underused evergreen shrub for shade that is a US native (from areas south of Delaware County). The fragrant foliage makes it unattractive to deer.  Illicium blooms in spring and is available in many cultivars. While preferring a moist, sheltered spot, it tolerates dry shade when established. Find more information here.

Leucothoe axillaris

A native, evergreen shrub with cascading foliage that gently expands eventually reaching 3-4’.  There are variegated and solid green varieties – all with fragrant white flowers in spring. It prefers shade to part shade and moist, acidic soils. It is considered deer resistant. More information here.

Yucca filamentosa

A great native plant that provides a spiky contrast to other round-leaved evergreens in the garden. There are different cultivars including solid green and varieties with yellow variegation. This plant creates impressive spikes of flowers in early summer. It grows best in full sun to part shade. It is drought tolerant and works well in outdoor planters. Beware the leaves are tipped with spines, making the plant quite deer resistant. More information here.

Sarcococca hookerianii

A glossy-leaved, low-growing, groundcover plant that provides sweet smelling flowers in very early spring – earning its common name, Sweet Box. It is a good “socks” plant for planting under other shrubs and can tolerate dry shade once established. It is deer and rabbit resistant. Here is our plant profile for this plant. You can also find more information here.


Hellebores are an extremely versatile group of perennials that look good pretty much anywhere except for hot sun.  The foliage holds up all season until new growth pushes forth during the winter.  There are several species of Hellebore and many cultivars resulting in a variety of flower colors and forms.  Many bloom very early – in February or even January if mild so they provide nectar and pollen for bees early in the season. They truly are a year-round perennial that is not bothered by deer or rabbits.  More information: helleborus orientalis, helleborus niger, and Wikipedia for more info than you probably ever wanted to know about Hellebores.

Rohdea japonica

A great plant for dry shade, it has low, evergreen, strappy leaves and develops bright red berries in winter.   It will expand slowly to form a ground cover.  It is very deer resistant. More information here.


Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a native evergreen fern.  Deer will eat this if desperate but otherwise it provides an upright, evergreen clump.  Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) will grow up to 2’ tall and new growth is an orangish-pink that matures to green.


Carex are an extremely versatile group of grasses that can have either upright growth or a more relaxed cascading look.  You can find a Carex for just about any situation; sun, shade, wet, or dry.  There are native and non-native varieties of  Carex and a large majority are evergreen. Two varieties to consider are: Carex morowii ‘Ice Dance’ and  Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’.  

Plant Profile: Aster tataricus ‘Jin-Dai’

Aster tataricus in bloom

Aster tataricus ‘Jin-Dai’ is a tall herbaceous perennial that blooms in very late fall – usually through the month of October and even into November in our area.  It has clusters of blue-purple flowers with bright yellow centers on the tops of thick, erect stems. ‘Jin-Dai’ is a more compact selection of the species and is generally the one found in cultivation.

While this is not a native plant (it is native to Siberia), it’s very late bloom time is of great benefit to bees. With warm weather extending the fall season, insects are staying active longer. This Aster provides nectar and pollen after many of our native plants have finished blooming for the year.

Aster tataricus has large, coarse leaves at the base that can provide contrast in the garden. It grows best in full sun and can tolerate many soil types, but does require decent drainage.  The tall stems (4-5 feet ) are generally self-supporting but may need some support in windy areas or very rich soils.

 The plant expands by underground rhizomes but is easily controlled by division. Unlike most of our native asters, it is not eaten by rabbits. It is also a good cut flower.

Give Aster tataricus ‘Jin-Dai’ a try in your own garden for a shot of late season flower power.

Want more info? Here are a some links:

Missouri Botanical Garden: Aster tataricus ‘Jin-Dai’

Chicago Botanic Garden: Aster tataricus ‘Jin-Dai’

Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

Some fun facts

By Alyce Goldman

If you are a fan of pumpkin spice, either as a flavor or smell, then you might be curious how this spice flavor has become so popular. In 1934, the McCormick Spice Company started marketing a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice for pumpkin pie making. 

In the 1990s, pumpkin spice coffee was introduced, which prompted Starbucks to introduce the pumpkin spice latte in 2003.  That seemed to really start the pumpkin rolling, and today you can find an endless selection of pumpkin spice items around in fall. 

The pumpkin is the oldest domesticated plant in the new world and has been grown in North America for thousands of years.  It saved the early settlers from starving after their European crops failed.  The Native Americans introduced them to the many uses of pumpkins. It became a staple food for them and even inspired a Pilgrim poem.

We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon, If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.

Pilgrim poem

The compliment of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves are all warm spices and go hand in hand with the cooling temperatures of fall.  It “feeds” our nostalgia of falling leaves, cool nights, warm sweaters, and yes, decorating with pumpkins.

 For all the products offering this specific flavor, more actual pumpkins are purchased for decorating than for eating!

October Garden Chores

A few fall jobs to consider

Scilla siberica coming into bloom

Now is the time to start planting hardy spring and summer flowering bulbs like crocus, daffodil, tulip, alliums and lilies. Consider some of the less popular bulbs like Scilla,  Chionodoxa and our native Camassia. They are quite delightful and much more rodent resistant than crocus or tulips.

October also means garlic bulb planting time. Plant your garlic cloves in a sunny, well drained location. You will be rewarded by delicious, homegrown garlic next year. More information on growing garlic here.

Dahlia in bloom

After the first killing frost, it’s time to dig up and store tender bulbs and tubers – things like Dahlia, Canna, and  Colocasia.

Start fall garden clean-up – carefully. Remove sickly things first. Plants that have evidence of disease or insect infestation should be removed from the garden and generally should not be added to your compost pile. Where possible, leave plants in place as food, cover and habitat for critters, although you may want to consider removing the seed heads of rampant self-seeders.

Also where possible, leave fallen leaves in place as natural (and free!) mulch. There are many critters snuggling into that blanket of leaves to sleep through winter. Disturbing the leaves can expose and kill them. Where leaves must be removed, you can use them directly as mulch in another area, add them to your compost pile, or create valuable leaf mold for your garden.

My cute little Bosnian pine

Make sure evergreens go into winter fully hydrated – especially those planted recently or in exposed sites. Evergreens will continue to lose moisture through their needles or leaves in the winter but will be unable to take up water if the soil is frozen. They can be damaged or even killed if they go into winter dehydrated.

White deer tail damage can increase as the temperatures drop and there is less food available. Consider techniques to reduce deer browsing on foliage of vulnerable plants. Also, around this time of year, bucks will rub their antlers on young trees. So fencing or caging is important for protecting the bark of newly planted trees.

Hairy Bittercress – getting ready to shoot seeds across the yard.

I hate to say it, but… weed. Winter hardy weeds can make great progress taking over your flowerbeds, because they continue to grow while the plants start their winter sleep. If you can get them out now, things will be much better come spring.

For something a bit more fun… survey your garden for fall interest. Often we do much of our garden shopping in the spring and can end up with a spring heavy – fall light display. So if you have any areas that could use some fall punch, make a note of it for next year.

Growing Greener

by A. Goldman

Bounty from the garden

Improving our landscapes can create environmental benefits. Gardens can create habitats for wildlife, help clean the air, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, help manage storm water runoff, and even reduce our carbon footprint by growing food in our own backyard.  

Here are a few suggestions for making your garden even greener.

Follow the principals of integrated pest management (IPM). Use the least invasive and toxic method possible to control pests and diseases.

Compost bin in vegetable garden

Yard waste comprises up to 20% of a landfill. Most of these materials are biodegradable and can contribute to soil health.   There is a technique to composting kitchen and yard waste if you want results quickly, but it does not need to be complicated. A simple heap of materials will eventually break down, no turning or management needed if you are patient.  No room for a compost pile? Consider “in place” or “trench” composting right in the soil.

You can also use yard waste to mulch in place. When trimming back your garden this fall use the chop and drop method. Chop up large leaves and stems and let fallen leaves remain around the plants.  Using green materials in place can prevent erosion, increase your soil’s viability and smother weeds. However, do not chop and drop if the plants are diseased – diseased materials should be removed.

Create a Habitat Pile for birds, toads, and small critters with excess of twigs and branches.  If you don’t have the room for that, just breaking up smaller twigs and adding to the garden makes a difference. These will break down quickly and the smaller they are, the less you will see them.  Larger pieces can be used for plant stakes, defining path edges, helping to hold soil back on a hill or even pot feet under your planters. 

Gardeners usually generate a significant number of empty nursery pots every season.  The best solution is reuse, especially since nursery pots are not usually recycled even if they are included in your recycling bin. If you know of a fellow gardener who shares or propagates plants from their garden, ask them if they could use quart or gallon pots. Pots can also be used in large planters at the bottom to make it lighter and reduce the amount of potting soil needed.   They are great for pot-in-pot planting. You bury a black plastic pot to ground level and then it can accept another already potted plant.  This allows you to change out what is planted in that particular spot at any time.  Planting spring bulbs this way allows you to protect bulbs from voles and if you put some hardware cloth over the top, from squirrels. Once the bulbs are done blooming, you can then opt for something else in that same spot. 

If possible, buy mulch and soils in bulk to avoid all the plastic bags. Consider re-using the bags you do get as trash bags in your shed or garage in place of a new trash bag.  Cleaned bags can be kept in your car when plant shopping.  Place your large plants or groups of smaller in a rolled down bag to keep them upright and contain any soil from the bottom of the pot.  

Plant Profile – Zizia aurea

Zizia in the garden

Zizia aurea has the common name Golden Alexanders. It is an easy to grow native plant that no native plant garden should be without. It has lovely umbels of bright yellow flowers that bloom for a long time in spring to early summer – when many of our native plants are just starting to think about flowering.

The flowers are important to a number of short-tongued native bees and other insects that are able to easily reach the nectar in the small yellow flowers.

Swallowtail caterpillar hiding in the Zizia

Zizia aurea is also a host plant for Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

Zizia can grow in considerable shade but will flower better in full sun to light shade.  Plants look best in a grouping. They can grow to 3 feet with the flowers, but flower stalks can be trimmed back after flowering to control height. While perennial, Zizia can be short lived so allow some reseeding to make sure it stays in your garden.

Want to know more? Here are a few links.

Missouri Botanical Garden – Zizia aurea

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – Zizia aurea

Tasks for the September Garden

Agastache ‘Golden Jubilee”

September is for planting! The soil is still warm but the air is cooler and moisture is (usually) more abundant. These conditions are great for establishing most herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs. Planting them now will give you a head start on spring. The exception to this is broad-leaf evergreens like rhododendrons, boxwood and hollies as well as plants that are borderline cold hardy (for us, zone 7 or higher). These are better planted in spring.


Give your ornamental planters a boost. Remove or trim back any ragged annuals. You can replace them with hardier fall plants.

Now is a good time to save some seeds for planting next year. Seeds from many annuals like Zinnia, Marigold, Cosmos, and Celosia are easy to save in a cool dry place. Just be aware that some hybrid varieties will not be identical when grown from seed.

Japanese Stiltgrass

Speaking of seeds – get after those weeds! Many weeds like Japanese stilt grass, yellow oxalis, pokeweed and various grasses are setting seeds. Getting rid of them now will help reduce populations next year. Also remove the flower heads of self-seeding annuals and perennials if you don’t want the seedlings.

There is still time to add cold hardy vegetable starts (lettuce, kale, broccoli, etc.) to the vegetable garden. If you are quick you can still seed in lettuce, radishes, kale and spinach.

Early Peony

While Peonies can live a very long time without dividing, now is the best time to divide them if you want to increase your plants.

Now is a good time to do soil tests. If pH needs to be adjusted, this is best done in fall to prepare for spring planting.

It’s also a good time to start a new planting bed by laying down cardboard and then layering woodchips, twigs, stems and fall leaves when they fall. By spring, the area should be ready for planting.

Think about bringing in any houseplants vacationing outside. They should come in before nights hit 50F. Inspect for pests (especially mice living in large pots – ask me how I know…). 

You can also bring in some herbs and place them in a cool, sunny spot in pots with good drainage.

Make a list of potential new plants to add to your landscape and have the list handy when fall plant shopping.  If you don’t have a specific plant in mind, make a list of the spaces you want to fill – including the amount of space, the light and moisture conditions and any height constraints. You can use this to help choose plants when shopping.

Keep swatting those lanternflies…

Plant Profile: Baptisia

A perennial with presence

Baptisia australis flowers

Baptisia is a tough, deer and rabbit resistant group of herbaceous perennial plants that provide beautiful spires of flowers in spring and handsome, disease and pest resistant foliage the rest of the season.

Baptisia is commonly known as false indigo or wild indigo because a blue dye can be made from some species. Dye made from Baptisia was exported from the colonies to England in the 1700’s.

Baptisia australis

Baptisia australis, a blue flowering species, is native to Pennsylvania. Other Baptisia species have flowers in white (Baptisia alba) and yellow (Baptisia sphaerocarpa). These different species have been crossed to create many beautiful and robust garden perennials.

Baptisia flower best in full sun and pretty much any average garden soil – they are not pH sensitive. Because of their extensive tap root they shrug off drought, but this also makes them difficult to move once established. They create sizable, shrub-like plants when they mature so be sure to take note of the chosen cultivar’s size and leave room for growth. The seed pods can be attractive in winter, but if desired plants can be trimmed after flowering to control size and prevent any flopping on to neighbors. Baptisia will push out new leaves after trimming to cover any rough cut stems.

Baptisia ‘Decadence® Lemon Meringue’

It’s generally better to plant Baptisia in the fall in our warmer climate, but it can be planted anytime. Just be sure to give it some water its first summer if you plant in spring.

Because Baptisia grow to shrub size every year, they appreciate a top dressing of compost or a dose of slow release fertilizer. Be careful working around the plants in spring because breaking off the new growth will eliminate flower buds.

Baptisia can be slow to get started in the garden because it’s busy underground building its root system, but be patient and you will be rewarded with a beautiful, dependable, long-lived plant. Bet on Baptisia – you won’t be sorry.

Want more information? Here are some links:

Mt. Cuba Botanical Garden Baptisia Trials report

Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder – Baptisia australis

Clemson Cooperative Extension – Baptisia