As cold rolls in, prepare your plants; Christmas tree tips

It might only be the tail end of November, but it’s a good time to start preparing your home for a Christmas tree. And if you’re preparing homemade wreaths and other decorations, here are a few tips on how to keep things green.

They’re coming in dry this year!

Apologies for using the C-word already, but my local grocery store put the Christmas stuff on display the day after Halloween, and I’m seeing cut Christmas trees everywhere. And this year especially, you’ll need to prepare those cut trees correctly before they’re set up, or they will lose their last needles on Christmas Eve.

So, before you set up your tree:

  • Have a bow saw ready and use it to cut a few extra inches off the bottom of the trunk when you get the tree home. Don’t remove any extra bark — just a straight clean cut across the bottom.
  • Then, immediately sit the freshly cut stump in a big container of water for 24 hours, adding water when, and if, necessary. (My money this year is on “when” not “if.”)

Seriously — rain has been really scarce in just about every growing area this fall, and cut trees are coming in very dry. They’re going to need extra hydration before setup more than ever.

And if that bucket or tub keeps running dry, keep adding water. Unless you like your carpet served “extra sharp.”

Planning a really live tree this year?

Are you planning on getting a truly live Christmas tree this holiday season — one with its roots all balled up inside burlap that you’ll plant outdoors after the holidays? It’s a great idea, but be prepared!

Pick the planting spot now, making sure you plan for the spread of the skirt (the lower branches of the tree). As these trees grow in height, they also grow in girth, so ask about the final width at maturity, add one foot and plant at least that far away from the house.

Dig the hole now before the soil freezes hard. (Actually, before you dig, call 811 to make sure there aren’t any underground utilities in the way — and don’t plant too close to any water or sewer pipes.)

And be aware that you’ll need help every time the tree needs to be moved around; those root balls weigh a couple hundred pounds.

When you get the tree home, leave it outside as long as possible, pouring water slowly over the root ball several times a week. When Christmastime comes, get the tree in and out of the house as quickly as possible — two to three days is ideal — and keep the room it’s in as cool as possible.

Even better, set it up and decorate it outdoors!

I’ll tell you how to plant it properly when we get closer to that bone.

Cut your holiday greens during cold spells

Quick primer on safely harvesting some of your own landscape plants to make wreaths, swags and other holiday greens:

  • Wait until we’ve had a couple of hard freezes, and then take cuttings of your hollies and evergreens during a run of cool, cloudy weather.
  • Remove entire branches when you cut; don’t go halfway.
  • Don’t take cuttings during a warm spell! Pruning plants on a nice day will stimulate new growth, and forcing new growth at this time of year can be very hard on plants. The longer you wait for cold weather, the better for the long-term health of your plants.
  • No matter what, prune in the early evening, when the plants are much less likely to be stimulated.
Snow on the way: stock up on sand!

Sorry to use a four-letter word, but many weather-guessers are predicting heavy snow after the New Year. And while “reliable snow cover” is a pain for drivers, it makes a perfect insulating “mulch” for perennials. (The worst winters for plants are cold and windy without any snow.)

But snow also means ice, which you must treat on your walkways so you don’t fall down. The absolute hands-down safest material to use around plants and pets is sand, specifically “all-purpose” or “play” sand, available at any hardware store or home center. Sand provides great traction without any harm to nearby plants. In fact, swept-off sand is good for our clay soils.

So buy two bags and use any leftovers to lighten up raised beds and container mixes in the spring!

Holiday plant summary
  • This year’s crop of cut Christmas trees are coming in dry, so be sure to have a bow saw ready to cut an extra inch or two off the bottom of the stump, and then sit the cut stump in a big container of water for a full 24 hours, refilling as needed. You’ll be shocked at how much water it sucks up.
  • Those cute little rosemary Christmas trees are totally pot-bound and must be repotted into a container at least twice the size of the original as soon as possible to prevent them from turning brown.
  • Poinsettias and Norfolk pines are tropical plants: Protect them from the cold on their way home, but don’t place them right near a heater of any kind inside the house.
  • If amaryllis are already in bloom, keep them in a cool spot to prolong the flowers. If they’re dormant or came to you in a kit, plant them in their pot (keeping half of the big bulb above the soil line), completely saturate the soil, place in strong light and water sparingly.


Mike McGrath was Editor-in-Chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated Public Radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and Garden Editor for WTOP since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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