Shasta Daisy with green basal leaf growth and spent stem and flower heads.

The month of December can be dark and cold with its reduced light levels and drab, muted colors. Counteract the dreary outlook by getting outside on sunnier days to take stock of the many things still happening out there in the land beyond your backdoor. Some plants are still slightly active, as are a few hardy insects. Cut back brown parts of perennial plants, leaving any green if they are still showing. In the spring, these plants will have a head start on photosynthesizing.

Yellow globe turnip roots still in the ground.
Thanksgiving harvest of yellow globe turnip

My vegetable garden is hanging on with winter hardy kales, yellow globe turnips, and purple carrots. The root crops will store in the ground until needed. We ate turnips for Thanksgiving, and with a hearty layer of straw to be laid over the carrots for insulation, we will be able to harvest for Christmas dinner.

Purple carrots below soil, green tops above.
Kale is hardy enough to grow throughout the with colder weather.

Garlic shoots are a little taller than I’d like for cloves planted mid-October. This is a good sign the roots are taking hold and developing below ground. A thick layer of leaves will provide protection though the winter and weed control come spring.

Garlic shoots.

The empty vegetable beds were sown with a mixed cover crop to enhance the soil microbial life and retain the valuable topsoil. Come spring, the top-growth will be cut back to kill the plants, leaving it in place to act as a mulch. Vegetable plants will be planted right through it, into the soil.

Outside of the garden a pile of tree branches and damaged shrub trimmings are piled in the nearby woods to provide a good spot for wild animal burrows. We have populations of predators including fox and fisher cats that help to keep the rodent population down.

Brush pile provides a home for predators.

Another home is visible on the ground, showing a small night crawler worm hole and pile of excrement, called castings, left right beside the hole. Night crawlers are solitary worms, living alone in a deep tube-like hole in the soil. The worm comes out at night to find food and to mate, then retreats back down the hole with its bits of leaves and organic matter. The stretching actions and squeezing back into the hole causes the worm to leave its poop behind.

Worm hole with pile of castings(excrement) are signs of active life in the soil.

Warmth and sun even in early December will bring out some late insects. I found this lone earwig crawling on the black driveway. Not sure where he was headed, but he paused long enough for me to take its photo.

Earwig on a sunny day in December.

We have had quite a few reports and inquiries about tiny congregating insects outside in mass numbers. The insects are commonly called springtails. They too, are doing some sunbathing, soaking up the warmth, especially after a cold rain. Springtails are in the primitive order of Collembola, naturally living in the soil or high moisture, organically rich areas such as the forest floor or compost piles. They are important decomposers, breaking down organic matter. No need to worry if you find them, just observe in awe of a healthy ecosystem at work.

Globous springtail, photo from NC State University.

This fall was a good year for fungus to send up some funky fruiting structures. Puffballs showed up in an area of our yard where some trees were removed a few years ago. Fungus underground is actively feeding the decomposing roots. When the fungus is ready to reproduce, it sends up a mushroom or structure containing it spores. When ripe, these puffballs will shoot the spores up and out in the winds to hopefully drift to new fertile ground and spread the fungal colony. Sometimes humans, animals and even hard rain will dislodge the puffball enough to release the spores.

Puffballs with release holes to emit the spores.

Searching for signs of active life can be done in any season whether it be animal, vegetable or fungal. Even in colder weather finding signs and activity can be enjoyable and rejuvenating.

by Carol Quish

Rutabaga, larger than white turnip. Photo by Carol Quish

Rutabaga, larger than white turnip.
Photo by Carol Quish


White turnip, Photo by Carol Quish

Historically, my Thanksgiving table always includes lots of yellow vegetables and few white. A new sister-in-law partaking of the holiday dinner for the first time, remembers this was her virgin encounter ever with turnip and rutabaga. She wasn’t fond of either, but learned not to pick one over the other, just quietly pass them both on down the line of family. We serve both as my mom loves the rutabaga and my dad would not consider it a holiday meal with white globe turnip. To the untrained eye, they are one and the same. To my parents, they are as different as night and day, and the subject of an ongoing argument that has persisted during their 56 years of marriage. I am not about to deny them this pleasure.

Botanically, rutabaga and turnip are different species, but in the same genus. Rutabaga is (Brassica napobrassica), also commonly called a Swede turnip, Swede or waxed turnip. It is believed to be developed in Bohemia during in the 17th century from a cross between turnip (Brassica rapa) and  a wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea). They were used as a food source for humans and also fed to livestock as they are dense and provide a high energy source for the animals. Rutabagas were and are also used as a forage and cover crop in the fall. Rutabaga is a cool weather, biennial plant. The first year it will produce leaves and the root, including the swollen storage organ we eat. The second year, if left in the ground, flowers and subsequent seeds will be produced. The flavor of rutabaga is very similar to white turnip, just a bit smoother. They cook up drier than white turnips.

White turnips are botanically (Brassica rapa). It has a bulbous taproot with  are edible top greens. Turnips are faster growing, and will mature in two months. They have a higher water content than rutabagas. Turnips for summer use  should be planted as early in the spring as possible. For fall harvest,  rutabagas should be planted about 100 days before the first frost and plant turnips about 3 to 4 weeks later.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Carol Quish