Help plants nestle all snug in their beds by laying down some mulch in December, suggests a Tucson master gardener.

"Mulch is going to protect the roots from the cold and the freezes," says Marie Hirsch, who has served as a gardening educator with the Pima County Cooperative Extension since 2001.

Mulch keeps the soil warm and moist, possibly saving a seemingly frozen plant from death.

"Even if the top part (of the plant) gets damaged, it still will have viable roots," Hirsch says.

She suggests using leaf debris that you gather around the yard or buy commercial mulch. You'll want to lay at least 3 or 4 inches for plants in the ground, at least 2 inches for potted plants.

Mulch made of organic material has the added benefit of putting nutrients into the soil.

But small stones and rock work just as well as a warming blanket. They also "dress up" the view, Hirsch adds.

Freeze protection

Freezes can start appearing in December, although some parts of Southern Arizona got a few hits already this season.

If you're without a frost cloth, which is Hirsch's preferred method of plant cover, try these ideas for keeping above-ground parts of plants protected:

• If a freeze is predicted, water your plants the morning before to ensure they're hydrated. Don't water so much that you promote growth.

• Use bedsheets, blankets, paper bags or newspaper to drape over plants. Anchor them well so the wind doesn't blow them off. If possible, don't touch the top of the plant with the cover to avoid breaking tips. Take the cover off when the sun rises.

• If you use foam cups to cover columnar cactus tips, have a variety of sizes on hand so they fit snugly but not tightly. Hats work, too. "I like the idea of a feathered hat or a witch's hat. That would be great," she says.

• Keep damaged foliage on the plant. It insulates the surviving parts from the cold.

• If you have limited covers, concentrate on young plants, which are less cold-hardy than older ones.

December gardening

Marie Hirsch, a master gardener, provides a short list of other things to do with plants in December.

• While it's close to the end of the season for planting bulbs into the ground, you can try daffodils, amaryllis or other cold-loving flowering plants.

• Keep plant gifts in their pots until the weather warms in March, then put them in the ground. In the meantime, place them in very sunny spots around the house.

• Don't prune or fertilize. New growth will become stressed or damaged in the cold.

Contact local freelance writer Elena Acoba at