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Plan now for live Christmas tree success

Friday - 12/21/2012, 6:55am  ET

Christmas tree (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images)
Make sure you dig a wide hole for your live tree. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Mike McGrath,

WASHINGTON - It's the time of year when many folks decide to get a really live tree for Christmas, one with its roots all wrapped up in burlap that they'll plant outdoors after the holidays.

If that's your plan:

  • Dig the planting hole on the next nice day -- so you don't look like a Warner Brothers cartoon character when you otherwise put shovel to frozen soil (boing!).
  • Make it a wide hole, but not a deep one. You should see the top of the root flare above the soil line. If the tree looks like a lollipop, it's planted too low.
  • Remove all the burlap and other wrappings before planting. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are wrong, wrong, wrong. And wrong. Andů
  • Don't position the tree too close to the house. The "skirt" of an evergreen will grow nice and wide. Be sure it has room to do so without touching your timbers.
  • Don't plant it under -- or even worse -- on top of-power lines ("Call before you dig", kids).
  • If the tree must come inside (it's much better if it stays outdoors), keep the room it's in as cold as possible. Don't string it with incandescent lights or place near other sources of heat and get it back outside as soon as you can.
  • Oh, and be sure to have lots of help on hand whenever the tree has to be moved. The rootball on a truly live tree can often weigh a hundred pounds or more.

Give your paperwhites a little drink to keep them upright

A lot people will be gifted with paperwhites this holiday season, either already growing in a pot (filled with dirt or pebbles and water), or in kit-form to 'grow your own'. These little bulbs that bloom white flowers are very nice in many ways, but have three problems.

  • They are once and done. Even experts don't try and get them to bloom a second time. And, you'd need a tropical outdoor climate to even try.
  • They are heavily scented and the fragrance (cough!) is, at best, an acquired- GAG-taste.
  • The stems supporting the flowers grow tall and leggy and have a tendency to flop over, unless you give them a little drinkie. Make their water nine parts H2O to one part gin or vodka and the pretty white flowers will appear on top of sturdy, compact stems that stand up just fine on their own. Really. Just be sure to use an adult beverage that's around 40 percent alcohol (80 proof). No beer or wine, that would kill the poor widdle plants.

And now, 'Tis the season for lawn care questions? Yes, Virginia, D.C. and Maryland, we always seem to get a surprisingly large number this time of year.

Holiday lawn care No. 1: Grass under trees

Phil in Rockville writes: "I have two mature snow bell trees in my front yard. The grass has all died out underneath their drip lines. What can I do to get the grass to grow back? Or should I plant a ground cover instead?"

Well Phil, the bottom line is that it's really hard -- and unnatural -- to get grass to grow under trees. And lawn care chemicals, mowers, weed whackers and the intense competition for moisture from the grass can injure those magnificent trees. By the way, nice choice. Snow bells are really attractive trees.

And, ground covers tend to be either fragile or invasive (No ivy, stay away from ivy). The best response is to let the lawn end a few feet away from the trees and have a nice mulch of compost or pine straw under the plants to really show them off.

Holiday lawn care No. 2: What can we do now?

Brandon writes: "My wife and I recently purchased a new home in Leesburg. The lawn is in decent shape, but there are several dead spots and a few weeds. What can I do at this time of year to help my lawn look healthy and green for next spring?"

Absolutely nothing, Brandon. The time for seeding is long past, and it would be useless -- and illegal in many areas -- to try and feed it now.

But this is a good time to start being prepared for a few months from now, when you'll have lots to do.

  • Make sure you have a mower that can mulch the pulverized clippings back into the turf, whether it's yours or the people you hire to cut the lawn. Mulching mowers practically guarantee a great looking lawn.
  • Be prepared to spread corn gluten meal for your spring feeding just as local redbuds begin to bloom in March. No chemical fertilizers or weed killers, they're the cause of weeds and bare spots.
    • Make sure the mower blade stays sharp.
    • Never cut lower than three inches.
    • Only water deeply and INfrequently.
    • Don't feed your turf in the summer
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