December gardening checklist (© Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images)

© Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images

The shortest day of the year is upon us — Dec. 21 — and the time is ripe for a holiday shot in the arm. Even if your garden is looking December-drab, brighten things up indoors with narcissus, amaryllis and scarlet poinsettias, plus fragrant evergreen sprigs and boughs. Remember to save some energy for maintenance, winterizing and houseplant care. (Bing: Shop for outdoor holiday lights)

Holiday stuff
Get in the holiday spirit by bringing in the outdoors: a bushy tree, holly sprigs, swags of evergreen — and mistletoe, of course. Here are a few things you can do: shop for amaryllis, Christmas cactus and poinsettias to give as gifts or to make your home holiday-cozy.

Select this year's Christmas tree. If you buy a living tree (which doesn't cost much more and can be planted after the holidays), give it a thorough watering before you take it indoors, and don't keep it inside for longer than 10 days.

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If you buy a cut tree, it will absorb water better if you recut the trunk; check the water level twice daily — trees may absorb up to a gallon of water per day. Take cuttings of fragrant evergreen boughs and holly branches to make wreaths, drape as garlands, or tuck around candles as a centerpiece. What better time to make your own holiday wish list of gardening gifts?

Maintenance
During the downtime of winter, you can always take measures to prolong the life of your tools, mower, hoses and outdoor pipes.

  • Clean tools with a wire brush, then sharpen them using a sawing motion in a bucket of sand mixed with oil.
  • Tune up your lawn mower: Run the engine dry, drain and replace the oil, and replace the air filter; if blades need sharpening or other repairs are needed, take your mower to the shop during this slow season.
  • Disconnect nozzles from hoses, and hoses from their spigots, then stretch them out to drain all water before storing them, preferably under cover, for the winter.
  • Put pipe wrap or other protection around your outdoor spigots to prevent freezing.
  • Straighten up your utility area or garden shed for a fresh start in the spring; store pesticides and other hazardous materials in a locked cupboard out of reach of children.
  • Cover compost piles; though compost doesn't need as much attention now, unless it's frozen it will benefit from an occasional turning over.

Read:  4 winter prep essentials you shouldn't skip

Trees and shrubs
If you can dig, you can plant. If the ground isn't frozen solid, trees and shrubs planted now will preserve important energy over the winter.

  • When planting trees or shrubs, add a healthy dose of compost to your planting hole, if you have some, and mix processed manure and peat moss with your existing soil.
  • Stake larger shrubs and trees to protect them from winter winds.
  • If you haven't done so yet, protect tender trees from winter scalding and freezing by covering their trunks in paper tree wrap, starting at the base and spiraling upward.
  • Prune older trees that have stone fruits, but hold off on pruning other fruit trees and shrubs until January; roses won't be ready for pruning for another month or two.
  • Take cuttings from established new tip growth of azaleas, rhododendrons, heathers and other evergreens; keep indoors at a constant 70 degrees F, with plenty of light.

Winterizing
Although the best time for mulching and covering plants varies by type and region, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind for winter care.

  • Roses, strawberry plants and perennials will be grateful for a layer of mulch once the ground has frozen to an inch deep.
  • To keep carrots, parsley, leeks, potatoes and parsnips into the winter, give them a layer of nice straw mulch now.
  • In ultracold weather, tender plants and early-flowering plants such as camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons and daphnes will need some extra help. Put a few stakes around their perimeter, then drape a cloth covering such as burlap or flannel over each plant without touching its leaves. Remove as soon as weather lightens up.
  • If you applied dormant spray in November, give plants and deciduous trees a second application this month; then when you first notice new buds popping out — typically in late January or early February — apply the third and last winter coat.