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December in the Natural Garden 2020


Winter, you might say, though at this writing I’m outdoors in shorts and a tee shirt. Crisp you might say, because the nights are cooler and that is definitely Orion dominating our starry sky. Dry, you might say and warmer than normal, with no chance of rain, if you believe our 14-day forecast for the first half of December. Beautiful, you might say, because despite the lack of moisture, nature is setting up for a little rest, with a low sun casting long shadows over a quiet landscape.

Holiday wreath by Hilda, a symbol of pure joy.

Current events, history, review, and notes

We have received approx .75” of rain to date. Last year at this time we had nearly 4.0”. Our total last year was 19”, about 150% of average. No telling what this year will bring, but we’re dry now. 

We need to talk about water, where it comes from, where it goes, what plants do with it, and how to bank it and manage it in our soils so our gardens will be spectacular in every season.



The best water for the natural garden is rain. We make a big deal about it because our garden year includes a defined wet season and a very long dry season. Some years we get a scant water supply during the wet season. We differ greatly from temperate or tropical climes where it rains all year. All our rain is seasonal and the patterns and totals are anything but consistent.

Consider the soil as a bank, the Water Bank. 

Deposits are made when it rains and when we irrigate. When the Water Bank’s doors are closed (i.e.; soil compaction, a steep slope, very heavy soil, or full saturation) the water flows away on the surface. This is called runoff. When the bank’s doors are open, the water soaks in, and with each deposit it can soak deeper and deeper. Both seasonally over periods of several years, the account in the Water Bank increases and decreases. Ideally though, there is always some stable moisture available where and when the plants need it, so they can continue to exist and grow. If the account ever runs completely dry, the plants wilt and die from desiccation. And since roots need oxygen as well as moisture, soils need to “breathe,” that is never remain soggy and oversaturated for long periods. The healthiest deposits are those that soak the ground and sink into the soil to a depth where roots can use the moisture (8-16”), with air following the water down into the pore spaces of the soil.

Withdrawals from the Water Bank come in two forms: evaporation and transpiration. Evaporation occurs when the sun and the wind pull the moisture out of the soil through the surface. This occurs on bare soils as well as in planted areas. Shade, top dressings, and light cultivation on the surface can deter rapid evaporation, especially in planted areas. Transpiration is the process by which plants pull water out of the soil (roots), transport it throughout the whole plant (stems), and lose the moisture into the atmosphere as part of growth and overall cooling (leaves). Obviously, this only occurs in planted soils. The cumulative loss of water through both evaporation and transpiration is called evapotranspiration.

In winter, evapotranspiration during periods of rain is nil and is typically lower overall than in the long days of summer. Interestingly though in summer our native plants tend to shut down their little leaf-windows to the sky (stomata) through which they transpire, and that is why they are so water-efficient in the garden. In cooler weather, they expect to be growing and their stomata are open, so when we get hot dry windy conditions in December, especially if soil moisture is lacking, plants may actually wilt more severely than you might see in summer. 

When winter rains are missing, we need to make deposits into the Water Bank by irrigating enough to achieve a Deep Soak. See “September in the Natural Garden, Watering”. A few Refreshing Sprinkles will help as well, though hose water is never as good as rainwater.

The key to watering native plants in any season is determining the interval between irrigation events. It’s relatively easy to apply the equivalent of 1.5-2” precipitation through sprinklers. The big question is how often. In summer, the average is 2-4 weeks. When watering during a dry winter, be on the watch for rain. If none comes, test the soil to a depth of about 4”. When it is dry to the touch, it’s time to water again. Evapotranspiration is lower in winter than summer, so the interval between waterings will be longer. Remember, you’re striving for that perfect blend of moisture and oxygen in the root zone.


Related to Watering

This photo shows the soil moisture the morning after a nice rain of .62 inches in early November. The water soaked into unplanted sandy loam, level open ground, about 4”. Nice! If more rain had come, the moisture would have penetrated deeper and deeper.

This photo shows the same soil approximately three weeks later, after receiving no more rain, after mostly warm, sunny, dry, windy days. Note how the top 4” now appears dry due to evaporation, but at the same time, soil 6-8” deep has new moisture (hard to see in the photo, so trust me) due to the force of a pull downward called capillary action, which can move water in soils in all directions. If we had received more precipitation at intervals of 5-8 days between rain events (ideal), the soil would have been uniformly moist from the surface to quite deep, more typical of “normal” winter conditions.



Continue to prune and shape, head back and trim to your heart’s desire. For all the details, see “October in the Natural Garden, Pruning”.



Weeds are probably not a big problem at this time. Use cultivation and top dressing to check them early. Knock down young seedlings.


Mulching/Top dress

For details see “November in the Natural Garden, Mulching”.



Soils are cold but perhaps a little warmer than most Decembers. If you fed in October/November, great. The so-far dry winter will allow light feeding now, as long as the soil is moist and you can water the garden immediately after application. February’s coming. “October in the Natural Garden, Feeding”


Troubleshooting – Varmints, Pests and Diseases

Most garden pests are taking a winter break. The little bad guys are Argentine ants. For details on ants see “November in the Natural Garden Troubleshooting”. If you find a nest not too close to your garden plants, try pouring scalding hot water and allowing it to soak deep into their tunnels. Adios Argentine ants. The big bad guys right now are gophers, pack rats and ground squirrels. Call me when you have a perfect solution to any of these problems. Absolutely no poisons, ever, please.


Annual Wildflowers

If you sowed seed in November, you may see some germination from the rain early in the month. Since it has been dry since then, and looks to be dry for the first part of December, germinate and tend your seedlings with light sprinkles every few days. When (if?) the rains come, they will take over for you. It’s not too late to sow seed, but wait until rain is in the forecast.


Adding New Plants

Fall and winter are ideal times to add new plants. In the quiet calm of December, what a wonderful garden activity, introducing a few new plants to all your old friends. No rush. Take your time preparing the area and digging the holes. Connect.



Christmas time and this season of winter holidays evoke memories and excite our emotions. The long cold nights allow us time for reflecting, reading, journaling, preparing luscious meals or sitting by the fire, and quite frankly, just sleeping more. As all nature seems to be at rest in the cool of winter, we too can slow our pace and connect to nature’s rhythm. 

Take time to contemplate all the winters past, but also to cultivate today’s activities that will become tomorrow’s memories. Since large gatherings, holiday parties, Christmas concerts, and family gatherings are off the table for 2020, any one of us are prone to feel a strange sense of loneliness, in what is called “the most wonderful time of the year.” 

That’s OK. Next year we’ll be together again. This year, bundle up, get and outside (maybe in your garden or maybe further afield) and take a slow quiet winter walk. Best to be alone for such a thing. Go into a place and let the place come into you. Breathe fresh air. Move muscles. Activate the senses. Snap a few pictures, pick some aromatic leaves, collect dried flowers and seed heads, put a few rocks in your pocket, and bring everything home, especially the fresh memory, and share it all with yourself. Rehearse the day. Be thankful.


God rest ye merry gentlemen (OK and you ladies too!), let nothing ye dismay.

O tidings of comfort and joy.


It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. 


Not only are we gonna make it, we’re already makin’ it!

Happy Holidays from the Garden,


Mike Evans


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