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For those of you suffering from an overdose of family, friends and holiday cheer, there’s another way to warm up on the short, chilly days of December. Get out and play in the dirt.
Purists (and soil science professors) bristle at the mention of “dirt,” but “playing in the soil” doesn’t roll off the tongue. The stuff we grow plants in is soil. Once it’s under your fingernails or you track it into the house, it’s dirt.
With our mild climate there are plenty of things you can do in the garden to work up a sweat and burn the calories from that extra slice of lemon meringue pie.
Begin your horticultural cardiovascular routine by doing the plant shuffle. Plant shuffling looks nothing like the old Chicago Bears Super Bowl Shuffle from the 1980s, but it will free up valuable garden space for new plants or just reduce that overgrown look common in many of our landscapes.
Use a D-handled spade with a long, tapering blade to cut a circle completely around the plant to be moved, creating as large a root ball as is practical to move if you’re saving the plant. Bring in some high organic matter topsoil to fill the excavated hole and help your new plants get a great start. Pushing the topsoil-laden wheelbarrow is also great for the Gluteus maximus and for getting your heart rate up.
Perennials such as rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan), salvias, daylilies and hostas can still be dug and divided at this time if you can find them without the benefit of foliage.
Once you’ve freed up some extra garden space, it’s time to think about new plants. If your garden is heavy on the traditional late winter and spring bloomers like camellias, azaleas, forsythia and flowering quince, add things for interest at other times of the year.
Stump your favorite garden guru with Edgeworthia or Chinese paper bush. Creamy-yellow flowers open on naked stems during February and March. Bluish-green leaves with a tropical look cover the plant during the growing season. Give it some room, a bit of shade and that high organic matter soil and you’ll have a perennial winter conversation piece.
Complete your garden workout with conifers to add structure and interest to the winter garden. We can’t grow the traditional firs, spruces and yews common to colder climates, but selections of Chamaecyparis (falsecypress) and Cryptomeria(Japanese cedar) bear the heat well. Dwarf Hinoki Falsecypress with its twisted leaves is a personal favorite. Golden threadleaf selections such as Mops make a strong color and texture statement in the garden.
The most popular varieties of Japanese cedar are large growers like Yoshino and Radicans, but slow-growers like Elegans Nana and Globosa Nana are just the right fit for smaller gardens. You won’t even break a sweat if you give these southern conifers well-prepared soil with good drainage and a place with full sun to light shade.