How to keep holiday plants and your lawn fresh this winter

Getting ready to decorate for the holidays? Garden Plot’s Mike McGrath has some tips for decorating with plants during the winter holidays.

Re-pot rosemary trees right away

Those wonderful Christmas-tree-shaped, live rosemary plants are once again on view at garden centers and upscale supermarkets.

I look forward to their arrival every fall; the plants are aromatic, attractive and a great deal even if you just buy them for the actual rosemary.

But they are also shipped terribly root-bound, and if you want to keep them alive, you must transplant them into a pot at least twice as big ASAP.

Get a bag of light, loose, potting soil and use it to fill in the bottom and the sides of the new pot. Then sit the newly planted pot in a few inches of water for an hour to let it get really saturated. (Repeat this watering whenever the pot feels light.)

Keep the little tree in a sunny window; or display it outdoors. Just remember to bring it back inside on freezing cold nights.

Prepare to either hydrate, cut trees or do the needle walk

It’s time for me to dish out my annual cut-Christmas tree advice. Follow this procedure to prepare your cut trees correctly before they’re set up, and you won‘t have a house full of dropped needles on Christmas Eve.

Have a bow saw ready, and use it to cut a few extra inches off the bottom of the stump when you get the tree home. Then, immediately plunge that freshly cut stump into a big container of water for 24 hours, adding water when and if necessary. Don’t be surprised if it IS necessary; a tree that was cut during a dry spell can suck up gallons. So if that bucket keeps running dry, keep adding water. Unless you like your floor served ‘extra sharp’.

How to harvest homegrown holly

Planning on harvesting some of your own evergreens, holly and other landscape plants to make wreaths, swags and other holiday decorations? Here are some tips:

  • Wait until the weather has been in the thirties for several nights, and cold nights are predicted to continue for the next several evenings. Don’t take cuttings during a warm spell. Pruning plants on a nice day will stimulate new growth that can open the plants up to severe winter injury. The colder the weather, the better for the long-term health of your plants.
  • To be extra safe, prune in the early evening, when the plants are much less likely to be stimulated.
  • Using sharp pruners, remove entire branches when you cut; don’t go halfway — and obviously, don’t ruin the long-term look of the plants with those pruners.

Ice issues? Don’t lose your lawn to rock salt

Sorry to use a nasty three-letter word, but I’ve already had to deal with a little ice on my walkway, so it’s time to help you handle frozen water to come correctly.

To protect your lawn, landscape and the walkway surface, don’t use rock salt. Instead, use one of the alternative de-icers, such as magnesium chloride, calcium chloride or potassium chloride. Or a blend of some or all of those; blends are good. Just be sure to read labels carefully — that no-good rock salt may be hiding behind the initials “NaCL.”

But the absolute hands-down safest material to use around plants, outdoor surfaces — and pets — is sand; specifically ‘all-purpose’ or ‘play’ sand. Sand provides great traction without any harm to nearby patios, paws or plants. In fact, swept-off sand is good for our nasty clay soils!

Holiday plant bullet points

  • Have a bow saw ready to cut an extra inch or two off the bottom of the stump of pre-cut Christmas trees; then sit the cut stump in a big container of water for a full 24 hours to rehydrate it before you set it up.
  • Those cute little rosemary Christmas trees are totally root-bound and MUST be repotted into larger containers ASAP.
  • That rosemary, however, is surprisingly cold-hardy. Repotted plants can stay outdoors whenever temps are above freezing. (Especially if you keep them close to the house.)
  • Ah, but poinsettias, cyclamen, amaryllis and Norfolk pines are tropical plants; be sure to protect them from the cold on their way home and don’t ever leave them outdoors.

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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