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December: Month-by-month guide to planting, gardening and produce – with recipes

Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster bealei & C. horizontalis.)
Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster bealei & C. horizontalis.) The Sacramento Bee

Stalwarts in the sun-loving, water-efficient garden must include plants such as rosemary and lavender. But there are hundreds more plants that perform admirably in our climate, many of which offer year-around interest.

Generally, best bets are plants with silver or gray foliage since they are uniquely adapted to dealing with heat and sunshine. Many silver-leaved plants have a downy or hairy appearance, which lets them reflect light and conserve water so they can easily survive hot, dry conditions. Plants with small, needle-like leaves – English lavender, for example – are also suitable for low-water gardens. Unless it is a plant intended as a focal point, avoid planting just one of many different plants because it makes the garden look choppy.

Instead, plant in groups of odd numbers, because this looks more natural. Choose at least three of one plant. This gives the garden continuity and cohesion.

Here are a few of my favorites. I’ve chosen plants for each month of the year sometimes because of beautiful foliage, sometimes for their flowers, sometimes for autumn color or striking berries. Most provide year-round interest, although a few are herbaceous and die back when the weather turns cold. Include plenty of these plants in your garden, and you’ll have flowers to pick, foliage to enjoy and beauty in the garden all seasons of the year.

Cotoneaster ( Cotoneaster bealei & C. horizontalis.): First, a lesson in pronunciation: With most botanical names, you pronounce every vowel, and this is no exception. The name has five syllables: Co-to-ne-as-ter. It hails from southwestern China and the Himalayas, and is related to pyracantha and hawthorn.

There are as many as 300 species of cotoneaster. It is an exceedingly tough plant that can tolerate long droughts if necessary, and still bounce back to bloom and produce berries another year. Some are low-growing groundcovers, while others make large shrubs and trees. They’re best known for beautiful red or orange berries in the fall.

My favorites are the low-growing, ground-hugging cultivars like Bearberry Cotoneaster ( Cotoneaster dammeri “Lowfast”) or Rockspray Cotoneaster ( C. horizontalis). Both grow about a foot tall. However, their trailing stems can spread 8 to 12 feet.

Often, the stems root as they go, so the plant propagates itself along the way. “ Lowfast” produces white flowers followed by red berries, while “ Rockspray” makes pink-tinged white flowers followed by red/orange berries. The still stems grow in a flattened, horizontal fashion, like a fan. The small shiny leaves completely cover the stems. It’s hard to imagine there’s room for the masses of flowers, then berries. The leaves turn red each autumn before they fall from the shrub. The plants produce more berries when grown in full sun.

Seldom bothered by deer, cotoneasters are plants for all seasons of the year: they provide the garden with beautiful foliage in all season, flowers in the spring, and striking berries in the fall. While they prefer full sun, they will tolerate part shade. They are dependably drought-tolerant, and can survive temperatures below 0 degrees. The low growing cotoneaster cultivars do well as a groundcover among taller shrubs and trees, or in mass plantings on banks and slopes.

Sweet Box ( Sarcococca hookerana humilis): The sweet box ( Sarcococca hookerana humilis) may have a long botanical name, but it is a charming little plant that will delight you all seasons of the year. It is evergreen, with deep green leaves that cover the stems. Come December, the undersides of the stems will be covered with ribbon-like white flowers that scent the entire yard. The plant makes blue-black fruits that turn red by winter’s end. Best of all, it grows in the dry shade beneath trees.

Give young plants regular, deep watering until they are established, then let Mother Nature take care of the plant, with only an occasional summer watering. This Himalayan native can thrive in any kind of soil, is tolerant of dry shade, can take cold temperatures down into the teens.

What's in season in December: Mandarins

Mandarins are famous for their soft, loose skin that peels easily away from the fruit. They come small as an egg, large as an orange, and many sizes in between. Some are seedless. The flavor can be sweet or tart.

According to the Food Lover's Companion, there are four types of mandarins: Clementine, Dancy, Satsuma and tangerine. The Clementine has a thin peeling, and is usually seedless. It ripens late fall into winter. The Dancy is similar to the Clementine, but has plenty of seeds. The small Satsumas are almost seedless. Their flavor is sweet and delicate. The tangerine has the thickest skin in the mandarin family, and is known for its sweet flesh.

Mandarins have found a niche in Placer County. In fact, in Placer County, autumn and mandarins are almost synonymous. You can't have one without the other, and November's Mountain Mandarin Festival draws tens of thousands of visitors to the fairgrounds in Auburn.

Like all citrus trees, mandarins are beautiful in the garden. The dark, glossy green leaves are attractive in all seasons. The flowers are wonderfully fragrant. They grow well in the ground and in pots. They are not fussy about soil, but demand consistent watering. Don't let plants get too dry, but don't keep the soil soggy, either. Citrus need plenty of nitrogen, so most gardeners keep them on a monthly fertilizer program. This is especially important for mandarin trees grown in pots, since every time you water you're leaching nutrients out of the soil. Keep the soil around the trees mulched to conserve moisture and protect the soil.

While citrus can be pruned into a hedge, most gardeners only prune to keep their plants shaped and balanced. Always prune away dead branches or weak growth. When pruning or picking fruit, watch out for the long, sharp thorns hidden in the foliage.

How do you know when they are ripe? When you think the fruit is ripe, pick one and try it. The taste test is the only way to learn how to tell when the fruit is ripe enough for you.

- Pat Rubin

Fresh: Store unpeeled mandarins up to a week in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. For a treat, dip segments into melted dark chocolate. Also pairs well with other fruit, crab, fish, shrimp and poultry.

Peserving: The peel can be dehydrated. You can also freeze the juice.

- Gwen Schoen

Mandarin salad

Prep time: 20 minutes

Serves 4

Fresh mandarin segments give this salad a pop of flavor.


1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 cup sliced almonds

1/4 head of iceberg lettuce

1/4 bunch romaine lettuce

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 green onions, chopped

1 1/2 cup fresh mandarin orange segments


1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons, fresh, snipped parsley

1/2 teaspoon salt

Dash freshly ground pepper

Dash red pepper sauce


To make the salad, sprinkle 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of sugar in a small skillet. Place the skillet over low heat until the sugar melts. Add the almonds and toss gently until they are covered with melted sugar. Pour the almond mixture out of the skillet onto a sheet of wax paper. When cool enough to handle, break the almonds into small pieces. Place all salad ingredients in a salad bowl, including the pieces of sugar-coated almonds. Pour dressing over the top and toss gently to evenly distribute the dressing over the salad.

To make the dressing: Place all dressing ingredients in a jar with a lid. Shake well to combine. Chill until ready to use.

Success in the MO garden

Shop for poinsettias. Don’t leave them outside on cold nights. They’ll freeze. Keep them in a sheltered area, and put them out when company arrives.

If you have any vines that need cutting back, use the long pieces you cut to make wreaths. Take a piece about 3 feet long, make a circle the size you want the wreath, and weave the rest of the piece in and out. Keep adding more lengths of vine until you have a wreath as thick as you want it. If any tendrils or stray leaves are still attached, leave them. I used grapevines, and to have a few tendrils and leaves still hanging on the vines makes them more interesting and beautiful. Decorate them with berries or cedar or whatever you want.

Now is the time to build those raised beds you’ve always wanted for the vegetable garden. An ideal size is 4 feet by 4 feet. Beds should be 8 to 12 inches deep.

Take a walk through the garden and collect all the hand tools that are lying around. Clean the dirt from them. Remove gas from the lawnmower, and clean the blades. Inspect equipment such as gloves, hats, kneelers, garden bags, wheelbarrows and tools. Make sure they are clean and stored in a dry place.

Clean the gutters again.

Drain water from hoses and coil them up. Water expands when it freezes, so drain it away anywhere it can burst fittings.

Frosty weather is coming, and while you might want to put newspaper or row cover over the lettuce and other greens each night, you don’t have to worry about Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach and those types of crops. They can take the cold. In fact, they welcome it.

Keep planting hardy items like shrubs, trees, perennials, and bulbs, even though many of them are dormant. They’ll get a good root system established before spring and be ready to grow as soon as the weather permits.

If you haven’t pruned the hybrid tea roses, now is the time. Don’t leave any buds. Take out dead or spindly branches. Remove any crossing branches. Take out old canes, leaving the newest ones.

Plant foxglove, columbine, salvia, gaillardia, cyclamen, snapdragons and pansies.