Holiday Harvest : Planting Now for December Blooms Will Yield a Winter Wonderland, Orange County Style

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Instead of relying on outdoor lights for color in your yard this Christmas, why not add holiday cheer naturally with plants?

In our mild Southern California weather, there are many plants that will enliven the landscape with color in December, said Dana Point landscape designer Jeff Garton of Paradise Designs Inc., but these annuals and perennials need to be planned for and prepared months in advance.

"There's a real joy to making a winter garden as full as any other time of year," he said. "A colorful winter garden can make the holiday season even more special."

Many December blooming plants also make great cut flowers for the holiday table.

The following December bloomers are suggested by Garten and San Juan Capistrano landscape architect John Greenwood of Greenwood Associates Inc.

Bulbs

If planted now, many bulbs may come up in the garden around the holidays, depending on the weather and planting location. These include certain varieties of amaryllis, daffodil, narcissus, hyacinth, crocus, iris and tulip.

* Cyclamen: Certain varieties of this perennial bloom during the December holidays. They come in a variety of colors, including white, pink, rose and red. The flowers are striking, and the heart-shaped foliage attractive. They do well in containers.

Place cyclamen out of direct sunlight. If you plant them in the ground, they go dormant and lose their leaves from June through August.

* Kaffir lily (Clivia miniata) : This evergreen perennial has tuberous roots and is actually a member of the amaryllis family. It is native to South Africa and blooms from December through April. If left undisturbed, clivia will return every winter for years.

The kaffir lily comes in yellow/orange and red/pink. The flowers are funnel shaped, the foliage dense and dark green. They grow best in bright but not direct light.

Annuals

* African daisy (Dimorphotheca) : These daisy-like flowers grow best in light soil with moderate watering and full sun. They are often used as a ground cover and come in several colors, including yellow, white, orange, apricot and salmon.

* Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) : This plant also produces flowers that look like daisies in a variety of colors, including orange, bright and soft yellow, apricot and cream. The leaves are long and narrow and slightly sticky, and the plant lasts several days when cut.

It is a highly adaptable plant that will grow in most soils and a variety of moisture conditions. Deadhead often to prolong bloom.

* Iceland poppy: This plant is a perennial, but it's grown as an annual because it doesn't bloom in the summer and tends to look ratty in warmer months. During the holiday season, it has cup-shaped flowers that perch at the end of long, slender stems. It comes in a variety of vibrant colors, including yellow, orange, salmon, rose and pink as well as cream and white.

To prolong blooms, flowers should be picked frequently. Once cut, the flowers last for three to five days. For the longest display possible, seal moisture in the flowers by searing the cut stems with a flame before placing them in water.

Poppies need full sun, good drainage and light feeding. Do not overwater them. Keep them evenly moist but not wet.

* Ornamental cabbage or kale: These annuals are edible but are more often grown for their richly colored leaf rosettes, which are deep blue-green and edged with white, cream, rose or purple. Kale has a looser head and is more heavily fringed than cabbage.

Cabbage or kale can be planted in the ground or in containers. They require sunny conditions, although they will tolerate some shade in hotter areas. The soil should be rich and moist. For the best display, give frequent, light applications of a high-nitrogen fertilizer.

* Snapdragon: If transplants of this annual are set out in early fall and the plant reaches the bud stage before night temperatures drop below 50 degrees, it will begin blooming around Christmastime.

Snapdragons require full sun and should not be watered overhead, as they are prone to rust.

* Stock: This plant has papery, fragrant flowers in spiky clusters that are a staple in flower arranging. The flowers are also fragrant and come in a variety of colors, including white, pink, red, purple, lavender, cream and blue. Stock is subject to root rot, so plant where drainage is good.

There are a variety of sizes of stock, including midget stock, such as the Trysomic Seven Weeks strain, which is just 12 to 15 inches tall. Standard stock such as the Giant Imperial strain grows from two to 2 1/2 feet tall.

Perennials

* Camellia: Many of the sasanqua varieties of camellias bloom heavily in December. One aptly named camellia is 'Yuletide,' which has a profusion of small, single, bright red flowers on a dense, compact, upright plant.

Sasanquas vary in form from upright and bushy to spreading and vine-like. Many of them tolerate sun. Like all camellias, they must be kept well watered and do best in an acidic soil.

* Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) : In mild areas, this perennial can bloom as early as November. This variety has narrow, shiny, dark green leaves. The flower clusters are pure white on long stems, which make them perfect for cutting. You can choose from low, compact types and tall, spreading ones.

* Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) : This plant should be grown in a container and kept outdoors in a sheltered location.

To get Christmas cactus to bloom in December, plant it a month before in a location where it receives cool night temperatures of 50 to 55 degrees and 12 to 14 hours of darkness each day. Under these conditions, it will reward you during the holidays with a profusion of three-inch-long, tube-like, rosy mauve-red flowers.

This cactus originally comes from the jungle, so it needs rich, porous soil, which should be amended with compost and sand. Water and feed it frequently with a liquid fertilizer.

* Christmas heather (Erica canaliculata) : This evergreen shrub has tubular flowers that come in pink and reddish purple. In our mild climate, it blooms well during the holidays. The flowers are great for cutting and last for weeks in or out of water. The plant's leaves are a dark green on top and white underneath.

This shrub is from South Africa and is sensitive to frost. It grows best in well draining, acidic, sandy soil and does poorly in heavy clay. Generously amend soil with peat moss and compost before planting.

* Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) : This perennial has two-inch-wide flowers that start out white or greenish white and eventually turn purple. The leaves are dark green and shiny. Plant in rich soil amended with organic material such as compost. It needs plenty of water and does best in shade or half-shade.

* English primrose: These perennial flowers come in just about any color and often bloom in December. They do especially well along the coast. In sunnier areas inland, they should be planted in shade. They are also often planted over spring flowering bulbs and do very well in containers.

* Holly: Although English holly with its red berries and variegated leaves is the most familiar at Christmastime, there are many hollies to choose from with different size and shape leaves. Berries can be red, orange, yellow or black.

Holly comes in the form of evergreen shrubs or trees. Most holly plants are male or female, and usually both plant types must be present for the female to produce fruit. Male holly produces no berries.

Holly thrives in rich, slightly acid, well-draining soil and with plenty of water. Although holly tolerates shade, it produces the most berries when planted in a sunny location.

* Primrose jasmine (Jasminum mesnyi) : This evergreen shrub has bright yellow, two-inch flowers that bloom from November through April. The plant needs space to grow because it has long, arching branches that extend from six to 10 feet. It looks best if tied up and then left to spill down. It can also be clipped as a hedge. Plant in sun or part shade.

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