Garden Plot: Tips for a Christmas tree that’ll last through New Year’s

Keep your drinks cold and your poinsettias warm

Ready or not, the holidays are coming, and that means poinsettias. Although
these colorful plants have become a symbol of Christmas, they are native to
Mexico and can’t tolerate any kind of cold — a contradiction that becomes
very exciting when you shop for plants in weather that has you wearing gloves
designed for road crews in Syracuse. So:

  • Make sure that purchased poinsettias get that protective plastic wrap
    around their tops before they leave the store.

  • Take them straight home. Don’t stop and leave them in a cold car while you
    go shopping; make them the last stop of the day.

  • When safely home, remove the wrap and that decorative foil around the pot,
    put the “naked” pot into a sink of water, let it soak up moisture through the
    drain holes for a half hour or so, let it drain and then replace the foil if
    you must.

  • Feel the weight of the pot now that the soil is saturated. Water only when
    the pot feels lighter, which may be the next day or a week later, depending on
    the type of soil and your indoor humidity.

  • Never water with the foil on! If you feel you must water from the top,
    remove the foil, water sloooowly, and then let the plant drain completely
    before you replace the foil.

  • If water sits in the bottom of the foil, it will rot the roots, and you
    will have a very un-merry Christmas!

Cut tree protocol

People seem to be bringing cut Christmas trees into the house earlier every
year. So this season I’m going to try and get ahead of you with a review of
the basics before Turkey Day!

  • The freshest trees come from cut-your-own Christmas tree farms.
    Period. Although they’re often called cut-your-own, it’s more likely you and
    the family will pick one out, and the kid who works there will cut it and
    bring it out for you while you drink hot chocolate. Tip the kid.

  • Make sure they shake the tree well. Even the freshest, healthiest trees
    have dead needles and leaf schmutz in their branches.

  • Whether you get your tree from a fun, family outing at a farm or from a
    suspicious stranger near Dupont Circle, have a bow saw handy at home. (They
    only cost around $10, and every home should have one!) Cut a few inches off
    the bottom of the stump.

  • Then stand the re-cut tree up in water for 24 hours so it can fully
    rehydrate. Pre-cut trees are dehydrated by definition, and our recent weather
    leans towards even fresh-cut tree thirst. It’s not unusual for trees to suck
    up several gallons during this process.

  • After 24 hours, put the tree in its stand, fill the stand with plain,
    clean water, and make sure that the stand never runs dry. If it gets bone dry,
    the trunk will be unable to suck up added water afterwards.

  • You don’t need pennies, aspirin or super-dangerous “guaranteed fireproof
    tree” recipes to prevent dropped needles. A freshly cut stump and a hydrating
    fill-up before you set up is the only way to have a tree with branches that
    are still supple on New Year’s Day.

Will you people please leave your poor hydrangeas alone

Bunnie in Silver Spring writes: “I only had one bloom on my hydrangea this
year (although it was a brilliant one!). The year before, I had no blooms at
all, only shoots and leaves. What should I do now to ensure blooms like I’ve
had in summers past? I haven’t cut it back yet, and am awaiting your advice.”

Well, Bunnie, last year’s hellacious winter prevented most area hydrangeas
from blooming well this summer. But a lack of blooms the previous year would
have been your fault. Most hydrangeas bloom on the previous year’s old wood. A
fall pruning would prevent or limit the potential number of flowers you’d see
the following summer.

So leave it alone. And if, for some reason, you feel you must prune it, do so
after next summer’s flowers form. Remove barren branches to let the big blooms
show through.

And don’t beat up your butterfly bush either

Karen up in Catonsville writes: “I have a butterfly bush that I’ve had for
years. Last year I cut it back so much, I was surprised that it survived. It
did, but this year, I forgot to trim it. When is the best time to trim it? If
it gets warm enough to do yard work over the next few weekends, should I
bother? Or should I wait until spring? Or even the end of next summer?”

That’s easy, Karen: No plant should ever be pruned at the end of summer or in
early fall; pruning as the temperature drops can only cause damage.

Your butterfly bush blooms on new wood (the current season’s growth, not wood
that formed the year before), and the time to cut those kinds of plants back
is early spring, a few weeks after new growth appears.

You can prune it back fairly hard at that time to keep its size under control,
or just give it a little haircut to induce more flowers to appear.

Garlic: Better late than never

Bob in Laurel writes: “My local extension office says that the time to plant
garlic is in the fall, between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15. I was able to get mine in
the ground on November 12th, but the next few days were freezing cold! I would
have liked to put a cold frame over the new plantings, but didn’t have the
time. Did I wait too late to plant? How should I nurture my garlic over the

You did plant a little late, Bob. The old Italian saying is “plant your garlic
on the first day of school.” That way, the cloves will have plenty of time to
develop good root systems before winter puts them into sleepytime. (The advice
you got is much more correct for spring bulbs.)

But planting garlic a little late is much better than waiting until the spring
to plant. Forget the cold frame. If you want to protect the new planting from
heaving over winter, mulch the bed with an inch of pine straw or well-shredded
leaves. (No wood or bark mulch, and no whole leaves. Any mulch must be light
enough for the shoots to emerge easily in the spring, even if the mulch is wet
and frozen.)

And don‘t fret. Garlic is a pretty tough plant. And I suspect you’ll have a
stinking good harvest next summer.

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