December - What's in Steve's Garden?


In My Garden (Zone 9-10)

Steve Asbell
Steve Asbell is an illustrator, the author of Plant by Numbers and blogger of The Rainforest Garden.

Whether you call it an ‘arctic plunge,’ ‘polar vortex’ or just plain ‘cold,’ some of you may have been hit by an early dose of frigid weather late in November. After my own garden was hit by a hard freeze and I saw the forecasted low of 30 degrees, I pulled the blankets off of my little citrus tree and prepared for little more than a frosty morning. I then woke up to see that the temps reached an astounding 24 degrees, breaking the record of 30 set in 1873. I walked among my winter wonderland to survey the damage, catching that delightful whiff of melted plants that we Florida gardeners have learned to dread over the years. My papaya plant, bananas and elephant ears hung limp like a clock in a Salvador Dali painting, my gingers were fried and my little citrus tree was already showing damage on its newest leaves. I know that many of my tropical plants will return from the roots, but it’s such a shame that they couldn’t be enjoyed for another month or two.

A little protection goes a long way though, and not all of the news was bad. My peppers, for example, survived under a covering of dead leaves and recycling bins. I moved all of my bromeliads and tropical epiphytes around my big tree stump and used tomato cages and bamboo poles to hold blankets above the foliage. Though it wasn’t airtight by any means, the temperature in the center of this makeshift greenhouse only reached 31.5 degrees. Through this experience I’ve learned that even when temps reach 24 degrees, I can still grow tender plants with enough protection. I got a little reminder that those floating row covers aren’t just for northerners and I really need to stock up before the next cold snap.

Meanwhile, I’m grateful that I took a chance and planted a vegetable garden in the front yard. Some neighborhoods aren’t too keen on rows of veggies out front, whenever I make them look like part of the landscaping nobody ever seems to notice. That is, until everyone else’s landscaping succumbs to the cold while my patch of salad greens, herbs and winter annuals stay green and blooming like nothing ever happened. The seeds that I got in the mail from Burpee haven’t sprouted yet since I just planted them a few days ago, but the herbs and flowers that I started in advance are stealing the show. My sweet marigold, for example, is standing tall with licorice scented foliage and sunny golden yellow blooms. One of the radicchio seedlings left over from last fall has become a wide rosette of wildly patterned maroon leaves, and the lone little thyme plant from last year has gotten so big that I was able to divide the plant and spread the divisions along the edge of the veggie garden to form a border. Alyssum and violas bring subtle color and a host of beneficial insects like hoverflies to the garden, while herbs like rosemary repel pests.

Once my seedlings have gotten large enough and need to be thinned out, I’ll move some of the lettuces, kale and Mizuna greens to the other side of my driveway where the lemongrass, Lantana, Asclepias and Angelonia were blackened by the freeze. I can think of no tastier way to brighten up my winter yard!




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Gardening Tip of the Day

  • There’s nothing like going into the garden in the middle of December to pull large, luscious parsnips for your holiday dinner. Wash and gently scrub the roots, then briefly steam them to make paring easier. With larger roots, remove the woody core and use only the tender outer flesh.

    To retain the parsnip's delightful, sweet flavor, don’t boil them as the sugar in the roots dissolves in water. Many people ruin the taste of parsnips by cooking them until they’re mushy and bland. The best way to prepare parsnips is to brown the slices in butter or sauté them in a little oil, keeping the heat low to lock in the flavors and avoid scorching the sugar in the flesh. Or simply bake them. If you want a simple side dish for Christmas dinner, steam parsnip slices with fresh peas until tender and serve drenched in melted butter. It’s so delicious, it’s almost decadent!