Got a live Christmas tree for replanting? Time is a-wasting

Tick, tick, tick! If you have a truly live (balled and burlaped) Christmas tree that you’re planning to put in the ground as a permanent part of your landscape, don’t delay getting it out of the house.

The secret to getting a live tree to survive its first winter outside is to keep it indoors for as short a time as possible in the coolest location possible, and then to ‘harden it off’ by moving it outdoors gradually (maybe first to an unheated garage and then to its final resting place — uh, planting spot).

I repeat: Don’t keep the tree in the house a day more than you need to. Let it begin to go naturally dormant in a protected area outside as soon as possible (and pour some water on the root ball every day.)

Then don’t delay the actual planting too long. Be sure that the planting spot drains exceptionally well, gets full sun and isn’t too close to the house or other structures. (People are often unprepared for the width of the ‘skirt’ that develops over time; the sides of these trees grow very wide).

Remove and discard the burlap, cage, wire and all other wrappings and then plant the tree high in the ground, not low. Dig a wide hole, not a deep one. You want to see the root flare above ground. The planted tree should not look like a lollipop!

Refill the hole with your garden soil; do not fill the hole up with peat moss, compost or anything else. Water after planting by letting a hose drip at the base for several hours, and continue to water during dry times afterward, including winter, spring, and especially this coming summer.

Oh — and if you must add mulch, do not let any mulch actually touch the tree.

 And Keep Cut Trees Watered!

And speaking of water, keep the reservoir underneath your cut Christmas tree nice and full; because if that water holder dries out completely, you’ll need to start wearing chain-mail socks!

Okay, so it isn’t a rose and it doesn’t bloom in December …

Looking for a slightly-later-than-last-minute gift? We have a suggestion that will delight gardeners blessed with abundant shade and/or those ravenous white-tailed stomachs-on-legs that we don’t hold dear: Helloborus niger.

The common name of this underutilized plant is ‘the Christmas Rose’ because early botanists confused the first hellebores they saw with wild roses, and this specific species would often bloom on Christmas (at least according to the pre-Gregorian calendars that said Christmas fell on January 6th).

Hellebores are great plants — they bloom in the winter, naturalize well in the garden and aren’t bothered by Evil Squirrels, Dastardly Deer, Ravenous Rabbits, or any other kind of wildlife thanks to their inherent toxicity (even handling the plants without gloves can cause a rash, so be careful.)

You should be able to find nice ones in bloom at garden centers and upscale supermarkets right now. Plant them outdoors in dappled shade in a spot that drains well.

That last part is important — the only thing that can kill a hellebore is “wet feet”.

Get your amaryllis to re-bloom!

Did you have a big amaryllis blooming for the holidays? Well, now is the time to start getting it ready for a second round of flowers.

  • After the blooms have faded, clip off the top of the flower stalk but leave the green leaves unmolested.
  • Move the plant into the brightest light you have, and feed it with a gentle non-smelly organic fertilizer, like compost or worm castings.
  • Water lightly; don’t let any water sit in the protective saucer underneath.
  • Then take it outside for the summer, but wait until the weather is warm enough for tomatoes; don’t rush the season.
  • Feed it once more and continue watering lightly. And don’t molest those green leaves; they’re fueling the growth of the next run of flowers!
  • To try and achieve Christmas re-bloom, put the bulb in a cool, dark place (in or out of its pot) with no food or water beginning around mid-July. A dark basement-type area is ideal.
  • Let it rest until the first of November, then bring it back into warmth and water it well and it should be ready to re-bloom about six weeks later.

On-sale amaryllis blooms are just as bright!

There are lots of Christmas closeout sales this weekend, and one thing I always look for in the discount rack is/are amaryllis.  If the plants are already potted up and in bloom, keep them warm on the way home, but then display them in a cool spot indoors with just ambient light to keep the flowers looking good the longest. Then follow the re-blooming instructions above.

You may also find leftover holiday amaryllis on sale still in their kit form; you know, a colorful box that contains a big bulb, a little pot and enough soil-free mix to cover about half the bulb. Buy as many as you like, take them home and examine them. If the bulbs haven’t yet sprouted — or the sprouts are very small — store them ‘as is’ (in their box, unpotted) in a cool, dark spot. Then bring them out and pot them up as directed in March. You should get a nice run of flowers about six weeks later.

Why are we waiting so long? Because now you can move these tropical beauties outside right after the flowers fade; no more subjecting the poor plant’s sun-hungry leaves to the very un-merry months and dim windows of January and February.

But if that boxed bulb has already sent up a sizable stalk, water it, give it good light and enjoy the flowers in February — when we need a little color!

Clean and Jerk: How to get that old tree OUT of the house

I know you’re probably not ready to take your Christmas tree down just yet, but here’s how to do it to minimize that dreaded last minute needle drop!

  • Use a turkey baster followed by a final blot of paper towels to completely empty out the water holder under the tree.
  • Remove all the ornaments and lights.
  • Lay a clean tarp or old sheet on the floor.
  • Quickly turn the tree sideways onto the tarp.
  • Carry the tree outside on the tarp, rear end of the tree out the door first.

And that’s it; any dropped needles should be on the tarp, not the carpet!

Then recycle the tree at the curb if your community offers such a service. Or prune off all the branches and use them as mulch around acid loving plants. Or stand it up unpruned in the backyard and hang suet feeders on it for the birds.

“Re-decorated” trees offer food and protection for our finest feathered friends!

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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