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December in the garden: Rare moments!

gardeining by Mary Robson, WSU Area Extension Agent
December presents challenges for the gardener. Time seems limited, and light is even more limited! One Christmas, my mother gave me a small camping head light to wear on my hat, in a humorous attempt to extend the length of December garden days. The small beam, focused on a square of soggy ground, gave at least enough light for pruning forays.
   One of the joys of gardening in the maritime Puget Soundd region is that every month offers garden tasks and time. We don't really experience a "shut down" phase such as that common to colder, snowier climates. We may get two weeks of cold temperatures, here or there, or a fit of snow, but in general, winter presents many open, fairly mild days for being outside. So in December, there are still garden tasks to enjoy.
   Keep the lawn raked, and remember the winter lawn fertilization if it hasn't been done yet. An application of a slow-release 3-1-2 ratio fertilizer, applying one pound of actual nitrogen per 1000 sq. feet of lawn, must go on by about Dec. 10. This winter fertilization is one of the most important of the year, because it helps support root strength while the lawn continues to grow, though sporadically, in winter months.
   December's clean ups make this a great month to start a compost pile if this valuable addition to garden management isn't already present. Compost, put simply, is the broken-down residue of organic material, worked on by soil organisms, both the large ones like worms and the microscopic ones. Compost that's fully broken down doesn't resemble any of the original components. It's a dandy dark brown garden amendment or mulch. Screened compost, finely gound, works well in potting soil mixes.
   Lots of different "holding" systems and techniques make the initial set-up, perhaps, rather confusing. A simple wire circle to hold fallen leaves can be one way to start. Or a "passive" pile of chipped garden trimmings, grass clippings, and leaves. It's not necessary to turn or manipulate compost piles unless a very fast breakdown with lots of generated heat is the goal. "Passive" piles will break down to a useable texture in 6 months to a year.
   However, some materials must be excluded from compost piles. Don't add any food wastes. Undesirable vermin of various sizes and types--raccoons, rats, possums--are attracted to food waste. Don't add vigorous weed seeds such as Canada thistle or perennial weeds like morning glory. Send those off to be commercially disposed of. Don't add any diseased material, such as dogwood leaves with anthracnose on them. The compost I like best in my small Seattle garden is a mixture of fallen leaves and grass clippings in about equal proportions.
   For more information about composting, check with the Pierce County Cooperative Extension office, 206-591-7170 weekdays during business hours. They have a fact sheet on composting, as does the King County Cooperative Extension office at 206-296-3900. (The offices will tell you about fact sheets costs.) A terrific small book on the whole process is Let it Rot, by Stu Campbell, Storey Communications, 1990. Campbell offers the useful observation that "No matter what you do, no matter how many little mistakes you make, you are still probably going to come up with reasonably good, usable compost."
   If the planting urge strikes this month, plant onions and garlic for next summer's harvest. Choose a well-drained area, because these bulbs would rot rather than root if they get too wet. Clean up the garden residues from vegetable gardening. If the vegetable garden hasn't been limed in the last three years, add 5 pounds of dolomite lime per 100 square feet and work in in well. Cover the vegetable garden for winter with tarps, fallen leaves, or compost. Bare soil invites weeds, and it's discouraging to come out for spring planting and find a thriving chickweed or wintercress patch.
   December's a good month to plant, and transplant, trees and shrubs. Or wander a nursery and pick out some winter-blooming shrubs, such as Camellia sasanqua or Winter hazel. When the rest of the garden has slowed or stopped, this area has dozens of interesting winter-blooming plants. For a good winter break, visit the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. Their winter garden, the Joseph Witt Garden, gives fascinating color, twig shapes, and bloom throughout December and January. It's a great place to walk off holiday fuzziness brought on by feasts and warm fires.
   Finish winterizing the garden if it's not done yet. An arctic blast could be upon us at any moment. Protect container plants, water soures, and tender roses.
   Finally, rejoice with other gardeners at the bounty of the past year and the hope for the next planting season. Consider what fruit trees could be added to the garden. Collect and study catalogs, and review the garden journal for the year. Consider volunteering some time to help with children's school gardens. Rejoice, again.

Visit WSU's Agriculture Site on the World-Wide Web at http://www.cahe.wsu.edu.