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DECEMBER Timely Tending

Published Dec. 2, 2006

In all the holiday bustle, when we're hoping it will get chilly and start to "feel like Christmas," it's easy to forget that cold weather may damage our gardens. Are your plants prepared?

Even trees and shrubs that are hardy in more temperate climates may put out new growth late in the season here that can experience severe injury from early winter freezes.

The most practical cold protection for plants is covers: old sheets, blankets, boxes, newspapers or plastic. If you use plastic, be sure it does not touch the plant. Any covering material should be sealed to the ground. This will keep the interior 3 to 4 degrees warmer than the outside air. Put the cover on late in the afternoon, before the temperature drops to freezing. Plastic covers should be removed the next morning after the temperature is above freezing but before the sun's rays become warm enough to "cook" your plants inside their mini-greenhouse. Cloth or paper coverings can remain over plants for two or three days if the temperature is expected to go below freezing each night.

Just pick your decor

Look around your garden and you may find you've been growing holiday decorations all year. Holly requires minimal pruning except to train the plants or to remove diseased or dead branches. If you do need to prune, this is a good time to do so. You can use the clippings as holiday decorations in your home.

Seagrape, the Coccolobis uvifera, is not only salt-tolerant but is a very versatile plant. You can shear it for a ground cover, use it as a hedge, espalier it, and grow it as a large shrub or as a 20-foot tree. Seagrape's large, leathery leaves with red veins are lovely in holiday arrangements.

Hardy annuals

Winter and spring annuals are available now at garden centers. Pansies, calendulas, petunias, sweet alyssum, snapdragons and pinks are a few nice ones to use as bedding plants or in baskets and containers. All of these will survive frosts or freezes and keep on blooming. Others annuals that are a bit more sensitive to frost but good to plant now are impatiens, geraniums and begonias.

Five or six weeks after transplanting, begin feeding with a light application of 5-8-8, 6-10-10 or other comparable fertilizer every month.

Prune and fertilize

This is a good month for pruning many deciduous plants. Hardy plants such as oaks, elms, maples, sweetgum and other deciduous trees can be transplanted during the winter. Grapevines, both bunch and muscadine, should be pruned while dormant. Bleeding of grapevines is not harmful if the vines are pruned when dormant.

Remember to side-dress vegetable gardens with fertilizer every three to four weeks. Use about one pound of 5-10-10 per 100 square feet. Apply along sides or between rows about 6 to 8 inches away from the plant stems. Water well after fertilizing.

Check the leaves and stems of shrubs and trees for rounded or flat scale insects. They damage the plant by piercing it and removing the plant juices. Use light horticultural oil, neem oil, malathion or other pesticide labeled for scale control. Apply when the temperature is at least 45 degrees and is expected to remain there for several days.

Ripen on the tree

We often get calls asking how to know when citrus fruits are ripe. Citrus must be fully ripe when harvested because the sweetening process stops once the fruit is picked. Many varieties of citrus have a long season; they can be left on the tree and gathered for use as needed.

Do not prune citrus trees until after they bloom. The budwood has developed for blooms and new budwood will not form this late. Spray the trees with basic copper fungicide to help control fungus diseases.

Compiled by Pam Brown and Carol Suggs of the Pinellas County Extension Center/Florida Botanical Gardens. Questions? Call them at (727) 582-2100.


Keep me warm

These plants may require protection from the cold:

Copperleaf, banana, papaya, poinsettia, hibiscus, ixora, dwarf schefflera, carissa, philodendron, croton, bougainvillea, allamanda, seagrape, bromeliads, tropical fruit trees, any tropical or semi-tropical plants.

Additional information can be obtained by accessing the University of Florida/IFAS Web site,; search "cold protection" for numerous articles.