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’.