Tropical Style

California Gardener's December Checklist

As a way to make us love what we needed, I suppose, my mother used to tell a girlhood story about trudging through the California foothills gathering red toyon berries to sell for holiday decorations. She was not the sole toyon bandit. In the 1920s collecting toyon berries has been so popular in Los Angeles, specifically, that the state of California passed a law against it. Thus we still can admire the toyon’s December series of bright red berries in our parks and wild spaces.

Toyon is also an superb garden plant (see below). Its other name, California holly, suggests a California”lite” version of traditional English holly; it has larger, brighter berries and larger, glossier, greener leaves. I love to look at toyon for what it is: a distinctive reminder of California’s own international melting-pot traditions in our gardens as well as in our houses and parties.

As a continuous weather worrier, I have to state that our distinctive holiday season has gotten off to a fantastic beginning: The hills began turning green around Thanksgiving. California’s gardens and wild spaces need the rain and snow. Have a happy — and moist — vacation season!

James Gaither

My holiday suggestion: Try to discover a place in your backyard for a toyon — to the seasonal pleasure of the bright red berriesthe birds that they draw and the reminder of what natural California resembles in winter. Unlike English holly, toyon (or California holly) isn’t a buttoned-up formal plant that may be pruned into any shape. It is definitely California casual, always looking a bit wild. Plant it in arid scenarios with other natives, such as manzanita, live oak, rhamnus or alternative drought-resistant plants. Use it like a tall background tree. Develop it like a focal-point, multitrunk shrub. Produce a tall hedge or display at the edge of a property that is overburdened.

Botanical name: Heteromeles arbutifolia
Common names: Toyon, California holly
USDA zones: 7 to 10 (find your zone)
Water requirement: moderate to medium
moderate requirement: Full sun or partial shade
Mature dimension: 6 to 10 feet tall and equally wide as a tree; can increase 15 to 25 feet tall as a multitrunk tree

Twisting tradition. There’s also a toyon with yellowish berries, Heteromeles arbutifolia‘Davis Gold’, a selection from the University of California, Davis. It develops to a big evergreen shrub or small tree, even more upright than the reddish species. Its leaves are less spiny. This variety has yet another attribute: It is more resistant to fire blight, a disfiguring and frequently fatal disease that can strike toyons and a number of other plants.


Another vacation performer. ‘Yuletide’ Sasanqua camellia has the right colour and timetable for vacation display. It flowers in late autumn and early winter, bright red with a yellow center. The evergreen tree is tall and slender for a Sasanqua, ideal for a thin slot. Look for a flowering plant today and put it in a pot near the door. A few reddish Japonica camellias also blossom early enough to add holiday cheer:’Daikagura’,’Freedom Bell’ and’Adophe Audusson’.


Also just in time for the holiday season. ‘Pink a Boo’ is a brand new collection of’Yuletide’. The colour is a big departure, but you will recognize the bright yellow center. It also blooms in early winter and is an excellent choice for a container.

Cut or living or tiny? Let’s not debate here the greenness of trimming Christmas trees versus imitation versus living. The Sierra Club breaks down it. Another decision is a tabletop-size tree in a pot — no hand truck needed, no strained back. Bring it indoors for the holidays (possibly in a child’s room) and afterward keep it outside for a few decades. Garden centers, and even Safeway stores, provide a number of miniature tree options, including violently trained rosemary plants and young conifers that look adorable today but eventually become gargantuan in the backyard.

Rather than a cuddly Canary Island pine (mature size: 80 ft ), why not select a slower-growing, naturally dwarfish tree that you won’t need to throw away after the holiday season? I enjoy the appearance of deep green, slightly irregular pines, such as dwarf mugo pine; a number of varieties, generally less than a foot tall, are available, such as Pinus mugo pumilio, shown here.

My all-time favoriite is tanyosho walnut (Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’), a tiny that looks venerable when young, occasionally even sporting tiny cones while still at the nursery may. It is difficult to find, however (good photos of it are difficult to find too!) . Japanese black pine (P. thungergii) is charmingly asymmetrical when young but develops pretty fast and won’t last long at a pot; the dwarf’Thunderhead’ is a fantastic bet for containers.


If you like your small tree using a traditional silhouette, look no farther than varieties of Colorado spruce, especially dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca albertiana’Conica’), accessible everywhere at that time of year. Dwarf Alberta, revealed, does well in a pot, but in my view it looks pretty stiff and overdressed for most landscape situations.

Basic care, whichever type you choose. Plant in a pot that’s a couple inches deeper and broader than the tree’s nursery container. For better appearing tree-pot proportions, you can carefully cut some of the roots to produce the main ball smaller; however if you cut too much, the plant could endure. Water the plant throughly before bringing it in the house. Check the soil for moisture with your fingers every few days. Move potted plants outside after the holidays.

The New York Botanical Garden

Planting garlic for a holiday tradition? Gilroy, at the south end of the Santa Clara Valley, is still nicknamed the”Garlic Capital of the World,” although I guess that honour now goes to a town somewhere in China (Gilroy can freely call itself the”Garlic Processing Capital of the World,” as far as I am concerned). One older Gilroy tradition is planting garlic on the shortest day of this year (very early this year, December 21) and harvesting it around the longest (the first day of summer).

Garlic is fun to grow at home. You do not need much space, and you can experiment with forms that you won’t find at the supermarket — including heirloom varieties such as’Nootka Rose’. Look for garlic bulbs at nurseries or on the internet. Divide the bulbs into cloves. Plant them in a sunny place in loose, not thick, soil. Space the tsp 2 inches deep and 4 inches apart. Water them planting time and nourish the soil frequently. Keep the soil moist until the top expansion starts to dry — just ahead of the time to harvest your crop using a scoop (dig attentively ).

Maintaining your feet dry. Here’s a quick solution for a winter-soggy path at a more casual part of the backyard. These are only bluestone paving slabs embedded shallowly in soil. Space pavers by quantifying your normal speed. To put them in place, dig a shallow hole about half of their depth, moist down the soil and put down the slabs; fill in around them with soil. In this shady place on the side of a house, there is a rainy-season bonus: Natural moss adds a little green and goes away in dry weather.

Easy to Grow Bulbs

Paperwhites ‘Ziva’ – $18.36

For kids who can not wait. My son and daughter-in-law took me together as a advisor of types on a nursery shopping excursion to buy spring-blooming bulbs to their kids’ preschool planting project. I am all for introducing youngsters to the world of nature, but I could not help wonder whether the 3-year-olds will make that link between the brownish things purchased in October along with the crimson tulips and yellow daffodils they’ll see next April.

Can there be something more immediate? Don’t say”chia pet” You may easily discover quick, indoor-blooming bulbs packed for the holiday season. Bright red amaryllis will create leaves in three or four weeks, and blooms in a couple of months. Fastest from bulb stage to blossom is the classic paperwhite narcissus;’Ziva’ is revealed here. The pure white flowers will perfume a room with their sweet scent. Start as few as three or four bulbs in a bowl with pebbles and set the bowl near a sunny window. (Directions typically come with the bulbs) After blossom, transplant the bulbs to your garden for flowers next winter.

Personal Paradise: Contemporary American Gardens, by Charlotte M. Frieze – $65

As a present or for your personal inspiration. I don’t remember seeing some really impressive, giftworthy books on garden design last year (did you see any?) , but here is one published in 2011 that struck me with its insightful design advice and stunning photos: Personal Paradise: Contemporary American Gardens from Charlotte Frieze (the prior garden editor of this sadly defunct House & Garden magazine). The publication brings together the work of top landscape designers Throughout the nation: Raymond Jungles, Florida; Thomas Wolz, Virginia; Kathryn Gustafson, Seattle; Ken Smith, New York. Obviously, California is well represented by Marta Fry, Topher Delaney, Ron Lutsko and Pamela Palmer.

What else can you do in December on your California backyard? Naturally, your vacation plans, together with the weather, may dictate what you can do. There are loads of satisfying projects if you’ve got the time and the soil isn’t too moist — a great deal of rain will be welcome!

Plant cool-season annual flowers. You can still can plant cool-season annuals (pansies etc.) and veggies (peas etc.), or flowering kale (shown), which can be a flower-vegetable combo. Kale’s vibrant foliage gives it the benefit of looking good the moment you plant it.

Plant bulbs. Ensure tulips have been chilled in the refrigerator for at least four weeks. Daffodils can go at the ground as is.

Watch for snails and slugs. They proliferate in cool, moist weather — but thankfully, very frosty weather puts a damper on their activity.

Clean up. Rake leaves; begin compost. Especially keep soggy leaves off your lawn.

Provide frost protection. On the coldest nights, then move tender container plants under coverunder an eave is generally sufficient, except for its most tender plants along with also the coldest nights. Ensure plants are well hydrated before the frost hits.There are frost-protection goods at local nurseries, but my thinking is that it is better to not have plants that need this much pampering.

Care for a living Christmas tree. Prior to bringing a tree into the house, wash the foliage off and give the pot a thorough soaking.

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