"Gardening Tips for December in the Texas Coastal Bend" by Kitty Angell

The Christmas Holidays are always a fun time to decorate your home with cuttings from your garden. Berrying plants, such as holly, yaupon and pyracantha can be pruned now, and the cut branches used in the house as festive colors of red and green.

Herbs like Rosemary fill the home with a pine-like scent and are also festive as swags over a fireplace. Growing herbs year-round is a perk for living in Texas. Oregano, thyme, bay, garlic chives, dill, fennel, and cilantro grow well throughout our Texas winters.

If you are planning to place mistletoe in strategic places, just remember that the berries on American mistletoe are extremely poisonous and can cause excessive salivating, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive urination, heavy breathing and a fast heart rate. Also, holly berries are poisonous and can cause gastric intestinal distress, vomiting and diarrhea in small children and pets. Beware of bringing cedar cuttings in for decorating as so many people are allergic to them. Lastly, keep poinsettias placed out-of-reach if you live with small children and pets as the stems contain a milky white substance that has a certain degree of toxicity. 

There are other winter plants to brighten a Christmas house. Among them are potted bromeliads, Christmas cactus, cyclamen, blooming Kalanchoe, and orchids. Pot up your amaryllis, paperwhites or pre-chilled hyacinths and you’ll have indoor blooms for the holidays and beyond.

You can still set out cool-season bedding plants such as pansies, snapdragons, dianthus, stock, and violas. If you are tired of planting annuals, use our many days of good weather to prepare your garden beds for spring planting. Be sure to work in extra organic matter, and your beds will be ready for spring.

Winter is the perfect time to take measures to prolong the life of your tools, mower, hoses, and other garden paraphernalia. When I first moved to Rockport I made the mistake of just leaving my garden tools in my closed garage. The next spring I found a rusty mess! This fall I finally treated myself to new nippers, pruners, and shrub shears. They now reside inside my house with me. No more humid garages for the new tools. Cleaning, sharpening and sterilizing garden tools are essential in the coastal bend more than almost any other place because of the salt air and humid conditions. 

Sterilizing tools is important to remove bacteria, fungus and insects from materials that can stick to your tools. Make a solution of 10% household bleach to hot water, then wipe down the blades and handles with a clean rag soaked in the solution. Rubbing alcohol can also sterilize tools. Wipe on at full strength and no need to rinse. 

To keep your tools rust-free over the winter, a low-cost storage solution is to fill a bucket or small trash can with clean, coarse sand and a few cups of fresh motor oil. Plunge the tools into the oiled sand up to their handles to keep them from rust and oxidation, and to provide a gentle cleaning abrasion to the tool surface. You can actually do this year-round with your tools. 

Tune up your lawn mower by running the engine dry, drain and replace oil, and replace the oil filter. If blades need sharpening, take them to a lawnmower shop while they are not needed.

Since we do not always have a long freeze, you don’t need to drain the garden hoses unless we are warned of a deep freeze.

Your compost pile doesn’t need much attention right now, but it does need to be covered. It will benefit from an occasional turning. Be sure to have extra soil available so that each 6-inch layer of leaves is covered with several inches of soil. Always wet the layer of leaves thoroughly before adding the soil. Add about one pound of complete lawn or garden fertilizer to each layer of leaves to provide the necessary nitrogen for decomposition. 

To start cuttings of your favorite Christmas cactus, wait until it has finished blooming, select a cutting with four or five joints, break or cut it off, and insert the basal end into a pot of moderately moist soil. Place it on a windowsill or other brightly lit area. The cuttings should be rooted within three to four weeks. Next year you can surprise your fellow gardeners with gifts of this beautiful blooming Christmas plant!

By Kitty Angell, Aransas/San Patricio Master Gardener

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