University City

December gardening hints: Move shrubs, spade beds

December is a “pushmi-pullyu” month in the garden.

Doctor Dolittle’s creature with a head at each end had trouble making rapid forward progress. In December, gardeners have the same problem.

On the bright side, now is a great time to relax for a minute, look back and ponder the past 12 months, and simultaneously plan the coming garden year.

The appropriate technology for such reflective engagement is a garden journal, which also makes a great gift.

There are some nice ones out there, even a Moleskine edition. Of course, you can do just as well with an improvised version, in an old spiral binder, on your phone or on the computer.

The key is to jot down what you are doing in the garden as soon as possible to when you do it. It is also important to note markers for things you notice: the first cardinal, the day your azaleas bloom, that kind of thing. Looking back, you’ll be amazed at how much your garden can teach you.

Granted, each year is different, and you can’t simply garden off a checklist. Still, over time, a journal helps you make sense of complex patterns and garden with a bit more confidence.

A journal also empowers you to be your own expert, able to retort – whenever some garden writer (myself included) starts going on about how things “really are” – “Well, maybe, but that’s not what happens in my garden!”

Leaves continue to fall throughout December, so keep after them. Beech trees will hang on to leaves until March, so make leaf removal an ongoing job. You don’t need to bag leaves and haul them off, though. They make wonderful free mulch and are perfect for home composting.

They will, however, smother out grass and even shrubs by blocking sun, leaving you with big blotches. Unless you want nature to reclaim your lawn for forest and meadow, you’ve got to move the leaves off the lawn and shrubs so they can grow.

December weather in University City is not very predictable, and we have some pleasant days. When we do, it’s a good time to move shrubs around (you set the stage by digging around their roots earlier this fall, right?), and to “spade” garden beds.

Spading, as described by Steve Solomon in “Gardening When It Counts,” means digging down a shovel blade deep and gently turning the soil. That way, the cold can work on weed seeds, bermudagrass tentacles, beetle grubs and other annoyances. It also lets weathering help loosen compacted soil. As always with our clay, don’t do this when the soil is too wet.

But isn’t the big thing now that you should never till soil?

Not exactly. You shouldn’t beat it to death with a rotary tiller, and farmers shouldn’t abuse soil with excessive plowing. That said, in natural systems, animals from worms to moose interact with soil, moving it, opening it, turning it.

Why not use the cold to check the growth of weeds and bugs, instead of spraying our soil with toxic chemicals as though it is the only possible way to control pests?

Spading and similar traditional methods are often founded in the deep, practical insight that a garden in harmony with nature is not an unchanging Eden, but a wild and never-ending dance.

Which reminds me of another good thing for gardeners, and all of us, to do this month: Celebrate!

I’ve been lucky enough to live in two places – Togo, where I served in the Peace Corps, and Bolinas, in Northern California – where people celebrate the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, with goofy processions and general merriment. Makes sense, since there’s not much to do in the garden or fields right now.

To my surprise, I’ve also learned that, along the Carolina coast, folks used to have a December celebration called “John Canoe,” featuring a procession of fanciful creatures, hobby horses of Druidic Cornwall hanging out with sacred masks from the Bight of Benin.

Sounds like the kind of celebration where a pushmi-pullyu would feel right at home. If I remember correctly, having two heads, it could eat and talk at the same time, always a helpful skill at holiday feasts.

I know that the Ewe, my host people in Togo, were kidnapped and brought to the Low Country to grow rice in colonial times. Ewe words are part of Gullah, the distinctive coastal dialect.

The dark side of this story saddens me, but I also rejoice in the unquenchable human spirit: From unimaginable suffering, sorrow and injustice, something joyful and transformative managed to take root and grow.

Wassailing and the traditional Christmas story, with angels singing at the top of their heavenly lungs, captures the same spirit of celebrating light in the depth of dark times. That’s December’s lesson in the garden, too.

When the sun hangs lowest in the chilly sky and bare branches rattle in the winter wind, beneath the soil, roots are still growing and gathering strength, biding their time, waiting for spring. Even in the cold darkness, hope is still alive.