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December in the Southern Garden

December means "tenth" from the Latin "decem." Like the three preceding months, it has been misnamed ever since the Romans added two months to their year.

Early Saxons named this month "midwinter" as it was halfway between autumn and spring. Their great feast, dedicated to Thor, ancient god of thunder, was observed at the time of winter solstice, about December 21. This celebration was called "Giul" -- a word denoting "ale" -- which became pronounced "Yule."

For many centuries, Holly -- with its red and green -- has been the plant of December. Its decorative use has come from early, so-called "pagan" customs. Romans celebrated their midwinter feast -- the Saturnalia -- by adorning homes and temples with holly boughs. To them it was an emblem of friendliness and good will. Holly branches were sent with gifts to friends.

The ancient Teutons of Northern Europe used to hang Holly at their doors to shelter the woodland spirits and to insure good luck. When birds had eaten the Holly berries, it was thought the spirits had gone safely back to their homes.

Winter is the worst season for houseplants, but it's also the season you spend the most time indoors. So, give your houseplants a little extra care. Refresh your indoor foliage plants this month by placing them in the sink or tub and rinsing them with a gentle spray of lukewarm water. This will remove dust that blocks out light.

Low indoor humidity is a big problem for plants. You can increase their atmospheric moisture by grouping your plants and setting them on a tray of pebbles and water. Discontinue fertilizer for houseplants until spring.

In the vegetable garden, you can still plant beet, chard, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, spinach, onion and radish.

If you don't want to garden this winter, rest the soil with a cover crop of annual rye grass or a deep bed of mulch. Either plan will keep weed growth down and improve the soil.

Flowers that thrive in winter are: Carnation, Foxglove, Pansy, Petunia, Shasta Daisy and Snapdragon. Start with transplants for best results. Bulbs of Amaryllis, Calla, Crinum, Gladiolus and many kinds of Iris and Lily can be planted in December. This is the month to set out Rose bushes.

Once the temperature drops, you can begin to transplant shrub and small trees with less shock. Winter is the time to prune deciduous plants. Evergreens can be pruned any time of year.

Christmas trees are a relatively recent development -- first set up indoors in seventeenth century Germany. This holiday why not celebrate with a living tree? Better in many ways than the decapitated specimen. Live trees are not a fire hazard and don't shed needles. You can plant each years' tree in your yard or at a local school -- a growing reminder of each year's celebration.

There are many attractive candidates: Junipers and Hollies; Arbor Vitae (tree of life); Pyracantha or "fire thorn"; Cedar and Citrus. In fact, you can use any tree or shrub that moves you with its spirit to hold ornaments and shelter gifts.

Living trees need more attention. Keep the soil moist. Locate near a sunny window and keep indoors only two weeks.

The plant kingdom can provide a great variety of decorations -- easy to find and fun to gather. The fiery colors of deciduous leaves are the result of chlorophyll leaving the leaf and revealing the remaining chemistry. Cones and seed pods of many kinds are abundant now. Dried grasses, palm fronds, Indian Corn and gourds add choices. Boughs of evergreens -- especially those that have bright berries are traditional and beautiful.

Enjoy December to the fullest. Get ready to make those New Year resolutions and Be Of Good Cheer!

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