December: good time to transplant trees and shrubs

December is upon us. Our year in the garden is winding down as the temperature drops. But for landscape lovers, there are visions of more than just sugar plums dancing in our heads.

Plant trees and shrubs If you’ve been promising yourself (and your spouse, I’m guessing) that you really, really will get around to that landscaping project you’ve been discussing, don’t put it off until next spring. This is a very good time to plant trees and shrubs, depending on where you live. This currently applies to growing zones 7 - 10 Because they are in their dormant period, trees and shrubs are less likely to suffer “transplantation shock” at this time of year.

Preparing the site is the most important part of this project. As a general rule, you need to dig a hole about twice the size of the root system of the plant that you are planting or transplanting. If you have your own compost, add a generous amount to the bottom and sides of the hole.

If you are transplanting a tree from another location, it is important to set it in the hole as close as possible to the same level as it was in its previous home. Be sure the transplanted tree is sealed in well with water without flooding. You can “stake” larger or taller trees if there is a possibility they could be uprooted by strong winds or winter storms between now and next spring.

There is an excellent online resource with specific tips and instructions on transplanting just about tree and plant you can imagine. Go to and scroll down to “Transplanting.”

 O Tannenbaum On the subject of trees, if you’re planning on buying a “live” (as opposed to artificial) Christmas tree, consider buying a REAL live one, complete with roots, that you can plant as part of your landscape after the Holidays.

A few tips: Buy a tree that is balled in burlap and keep it balled while in the house. Keep it in the house for as short a time as possible. Keep it moist but not really wet. If possible, choose the outdoor location and dig the hole before you bring the tree indoors, because the ground might be frozen too hard for easy digging later!

Keep the soil in a wheelbarrow in a shed or garage so it will be easy to handle at planting time. If the ball was bound with nylon twine, remove it before planting. If the root ball is in a wire basket, it is okay to leave it on when you plant it as the roots will find their way out.

Feed the lawn If you’re going to fertilize your lawn, the first two weeks of December are a good time to do it. This is because fertilizing at the onset of winter supports and improves root strength while your lawn slowly continues to grow through its semi-dormant period. Look for a slow release 3-1-2 formula, and use about one pound per 1,000 square feet of lawn. Cool season grasses would need light follow-up doses 2 to 4 times over the year; warm season grasses perhaps 3 to 6 applications.

If you do decide to fertilize the lawn, be sure to rake away any remaining fallen leaves or other debris before you start.

Compost time Add those (shredded) leaves to your compost pile, being sure to turn them from time to time to prevent mold forming. If you are not already the proud owner of a composting system, December is a good time to start. By next spring, you’ll have some valuable compost for your spring planting.

Essentially, compost is the broken-down residue of assorted organic material that has been worked over by worms and microscopic organisms. By the time they’ve finished with it, you have a rich, loamy brown substance that looks nothing like its original components.

You can simply start a “pile” in an out-of-the-way location or construct something a bit more permanent. I wrote a column that details some simple and effective ways to start and maintain a compost system. You can find it at

Most of all, enjoy your December landscape!