DECEMBER GARDENING CALENDAR

Standard

img_4202

 

Shown in the photograph above is North Crow Creek Canyon in the Mission Mountains of Western Montana.  I have a beautiful view of the canyon from my front yard.  Snow is piling up now that winter is here.  December is probably the least busy month for gardening of the year in colder climates like ours.  Here are a few things we might need to do.

Check stored vegetables and fruit often; inventory seeds and test germination of last year’s seed.  Plan your 2017 garden and order seed.  Keep perennials and bulbs planted next to the house covered with snow to insulate them from extreme cold.  Make sure all young fruit trees have their trunks wrapped and place wire netting around trunks to prevent damage from rabbits and voles.   Mulch hardy tree seedlings and bulb beds with pine or fir branches.

Save wood ashes all winter long to spread on beds in spring on plants that enjoy alkaline soil conditions.

VEGETABLES

Admit air to cold frames and cover frames at night.  Uncover on mild days, but do not let sun shine on frozen plants.  Pick off any decaying leaves.  Cover frames every night with mats, blankets, straw, ferns or insulating row fabric.  Late cabbages, kale and greens should be under hoops covered with row cover fabric.

Check stored vegetables often: potatoes, onions, carrots, and cabbage, etc.  Also check stored flowers and fruit: dahlias, glads, cannas, apples, pears.  Cabbage likes high humidity (80-90%) and a storage temperature of about 35 degrees.  Potatoes, glads and dahlias prefer about 45 degrees and high humidity.  Onions and garlic need air, with about 60% humidity, so hang and keep them dry, storing at about 35 degrees.  Apples need about 30-35 degrees with high humidity.

Force asparagus in hot beds.

FLOWERS

If there is no snow, cover perennials and roses with evergreen branches to protect them.  Spread thin, flaky manure over pansies, carnations, pinks, tulips, penstemons and phloxes.  Spread composted manure over the vegetable garden.  Over the winter the manure will break down and feed the soil.  Any pathogens will be gone by the time you begin planting vegetables in mid-March.

For house plants: start amaryllis, watering lightly at first with warm water.  Keep in a warm place and gradually increase watering as the stems elongate, but do not keep the plants wet.  Moist soil is best.  Watch for spider mites on houseplants, mini roses and amaryllis.  If you see them, wash the whole plant first with plain water; then spray with insecticidal soap or garlic/herb spray every 3 days for 2 weeks.  Another method to control spider mites is to spray foliage every day with water.  Spider mites do not like frequently  wet foliage.  Do not over water houseplants this time of year, especially geraniums, which are nearly or totally dormant now.

Late in the month, after the 20th, start seeds of begonias, geraniums, primroses, Dahlias, pansies, and lisianthus.

For potted auricula primroses and other hardy plants in cold frames, keep admitting air into the frames when it is warm enough and keep frame covers handy if the weather gets very cold.  Cover outdoor primulas with light straw.

FRUIT

Check stored fruit often for spoilage and discard any rotting fruits.

TREES, SHRUBS AND ROSES

Take cuttings of lavender, pyracantha, sumac, spirea, mock orange, wiegela, wisteria, and robinia.  Place cuttings in a mixture of ½ peat and ½ perlite.  Insert small stakes into the pot to act as supports.   Place plastic bags over the tops of the pots and sink them into sand or soil inside a cold frame situated out of direct sun or in shade .  The cuttings should root over the winter.

Growing Asparagus

Standard

photo (119)

Asparagus (Asparagus officionalis) is a popular vegetable today and was quite popular in the nineteenth century.  The photograph above is of an antique variety, ‘Giant Asparagus’ an engraving from The Illustrated London News, dated 1851.  An asparagus knife is shown alongside the plant.  This year, I grew another old variety of asparagus from seed, ‘Connover’s Collosal’, dating to the second half of the nineteenth century.   It is difficult to find plants of heirloom varieties of asparagus, so one has to start them from seed.  However, the process is slow, as the plants take three to four years to reach the size for harvesting.  (If too many shoots are cut from very young plants, productivity may be reduced, or the plants may die.  But if the plants are allowed to become established, an asparagus bed will last twenty years or more, even up to fifty years!)

Late March into early April is an excellent time to start asparagus from seed.  Use a sterile medium, cover the seed about 1/4 inch deep and place the pots in a warm location (77 degrees is optimum).  The seeds should come up in about ten days.  You may direct seed into a bed if soil temperatures are above 50 degrees, it will just take a little longer for the seeds to germinate.  Asparagus plants begin to grow slowly and will not be ready to transplant out for about three or four months.  Meanwhile you can prepare a bed for them.  An ideal spot is in full sun with a bed large enough to accommodate the number of plants you need.  It is usually recommended to plant five to six plants per person.  Since the plants are perennial (USDA climate zones 4-9) they benefit from a well-prepared bed.  Peter Henderson, in his book Gardening for Profit published in 1867, recommended planting transplants nine inches apart in rows three feet wide for commercial growers, or two feet wide for home gardeners.

Once you have established how many plants you need, you can make the planting bed.  Henderson recommended trenching the bed two to three feet deep with about three inches of rotted manure mixed into the soil.  A deep sandy loam is best for them as they are native to alluvial soils.  Bernard Mc Mahon, in Mc Mahon’s American Gardener, published in 1857, recommended double digging two spades deep and placing several inches of rotted manure in the trench, then spreading another layer of rotted manure over the surface.  He directed gardeners to mix this second layer of manure with the soil to a depth of eight to ten inches.  My young plants, now a year old, have spears a little larger in diameter than a toothpick.  The young plants may be grown in a temporary (sunny) rich bed for another year, then moved to their permanent location.  Place the crowns of the plants two inches below the soil surface.  Keep the beds weeded to ensure quick, even growth.  Mc Mahon recommends three years from planting (which would be four years from sowing seed) before cutting can begin.  Dress the bed every spring with rotted manure, bone meal and wood ashes.

If your family really enjoys asparagus, plant more than five plants per person; I plant twelve per person.  If you plant two-year transplants, spread the roots out like the spokes of a wheel and cover with about one inch of prepared soil.  Water well.  As the plants grow, cover them with more soil until you have them two inches under.  Do not use fresh manure as it will burn them and (heaven forbid) do not use chemical fertilizers, especially on newly planted asparagus.  Wait two years to begin cutting.  A summer mulch of three inches of straw is excellent, will protect the plants in winter and the spears will come up earlier in the spring if the ground is not frozen too deeply.

When you cut asparagus spears get them into the refrigerator right away or cook them immediately because they lose flavor as quickly as sweet corn does.   Considering how expensive asparagus is, I find the start up work well worth while.  Enjoy!