Carolyn Singer: December in my garden — Lingering fall color & the perfect tools |

Carolyn Singer: December in my garden — Lingering fall color & the perfect tools

The last of the fall color leaves are starting to fall, but they have the added benefit of becoming added soil as they decompose. Carolyn Singer suggets adding a light layer of compost to keep the fallen leaves in place and facilitate the process.
Photo by Carolyn Singer |

People in our community have been talking. It’s the most color, and the most intense. Plants that have rarely shown fall color were amazing this year. And the display of autumn’s splendor is lasting longer than any other fall. Yes, all true.

My grandson Marcus, as he arrived the day before Thanksgiving, exclaimed “Grandma, it’s so beautiful here!”

He had just driven with my son through the rural landscape near Chicago Park, where the native black oak was striking with its golden-brown leaves contrasting against the cedars and pines.

And, I suspect, he was also observing my landscape on Sonntag Hill. As I write this week, the golden leaves of the linden have fallen with every breeze, and the show of the deciduous native oaks has diminished. But fall color lingers in my garden with ornamental grasses and shrubs, and some of my favorite trees.

The brightest color this week has been the gold of the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba “Autumn Gold”). Leaves hang on through early storms, then drop almost all at once in December.

The paperbark maple (Acer griseum) displays the rich and varied colors of fall in its leaves. It takes a couple of weeks for them all to drop, revealing seedpods that will hang on through winter’s storms.

The large golden-brown leaf of the Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina) is among my favorite late fall accents. Backlit by the December sun as it skirts the horizon, this tree glows in the late autumn landscape. The slightest breeze makes the large serrated leaves flutter, adding to the show.

All the fallen leaves are a colorful medley, and most will be left where they land, adding to the soil as they decompose. In several areas I spread a light layer of compost to keep them in place and facilitate the process.

Tool time

My leaf rake is perhaps my least used tool, although it does make cleanup of walkways go faster.

So many times I have thought I had every garden tool I could possibly need. Then I discovered the four-tine cultivator, an essential tool for my no-till edible garden beds.

Not long after, ratchet pruners caught my eye in a local store. The first cut into a one-inch diameter branch as I tackled winter pruning changed this winter garden activity. What ease! No strain on my shoulders or hands, the long-handled loppers opened my eyes to tools that could make pruning much easier.

Soon I was the excited owner of ratchet hedge clippers and a shorter handled version of the loppers, easier to use than hand pruners.

My tool shed now seemed complete and a few years passed.

One winter day a friend came to dig up some iris I had promised. The tool he used to cut them back grabbed my attention. Blades were short. Sturdy aluminum handles could be extended with a simple adjustment. No bending over for the task. He had found the tool at the San Francisco Garden Show. I had never seen it sold with garden tools.

No longer available in the retail trade, I found the equivalent of this unique tool online, the ARS K900Z hedge shear. The handles on mine may be adjusted to 26 inches, allowing me to reach into flower beds. Some models telescope to over 40 inches.

Because the tool is lightweight, it’s easy for me to reach over my head and tame the rampant and aggressive growth of a Wisteria near my house. Blades are very sharp.

Now I surely have every tool I need, especially with a hori-hori Japanese gardening knife (also called a digging tool), and a gardening fork handy on my porch.

There are several versions of the hori-hori, but the tool I prefer is the heavier weight with a wider blade. This has replaced the trowel in my repertoire. Its weight facilitates hand digging and is perfect for loosening the roots of container-grown plants.

And of course I would never be without a digging fork. I inherited the one my parents used for years in Berkeley and then on their rural Sonoma County land south of Sebastopol.

Later a devoted family member gave me a larger fork, and I find myself using both. This is not the same as a pitchfork, though many good gardeners confuse the two. A good digging fork has wider flat blades.

The right tool is a gift to the gardener.

Carolyn has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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