Originally Published: November 18, 2011 10 p.m.
The festive plants of the holiday season are yearly highlights for this gardener. These specimen plants are found simultaneously on the market only during this window between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although as a gardener it seems like sacrilege to cut down a tree, even the cut trees are highlights for me. I guess the farmer in me knows it's just another crop to be planted, harvested and then planted again.
The day after Thanksgiving, seven different types of Christmas trees will arrive at the garden center! We even have figured out how to farm our native white fir, which lasts longer than any other decorated indoor tree. Live holiday plants include the various types of poinsettias, even in shades of apricot, Christmas cactus, and the bulbs of amaryllis and paper whites. The next few columns in this space will be dedicated to the spirit of the season with a gardener's twist, and how best to nurture and grow each holiday plant.
For purist gardeners who just can't bring themselves to cut down something as majestic as a tree, I'll explain how to use, grow, and nurture living trees through the holidays. A living Christmas tree can be a good lead-in for those who need more evergreens in their landscapes. If you've never done the live tree bit, fear not - you'll be an expert by the end of this column!
First, however, let's start with this week's featured plant. Holiday Porch Pots are living arrangements that welcome guests to the festivities they'll find just inside our front doors. A solid evergreen dressed with a few bows and ornaments and with some winter bloomers for natural color provide a cheery greeting for Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow. Because they're meant to be left outside, porch pots remain looking great right through the end of the year. With a fragrance that is uniquely Prescott, each will embrace holiday visitors and then continue to lift a gardener's spirit right through next spring. If your landscape is looking bleak after the last cold front, then add a holiday porch pot to brighten your view.
Living Christmas trees are defined as evergreen trees that can be planted after the holiday celebrations. Over the years, I've found that local folks use fruit trees, tall evergreen shrubs, lilacs, and even shade trees for their Christmas trees. The most popular tree choices for Christmas decorating are the Fat Albert spruce, Vanderwolf pine, deodar cedar and the Austrian and Scotch pines. But don't let popularity dictate your choice of Christmas tree; any tree you would like to see planted in your landscape can be dressed handsomely for the holiday.
It's important to keep living trees outdoors and cool as long as possible and put them back out in the cold right after the grand celebration. Whichever variety you select keep in mind that these are outdoor plants that don't like the drying effects of an indoor heat source. Keep these living specimens at least 10 feet away from a fireplace, shut near-by heater vents and add a humidifier to the room if possible.
For large trees - 5 feet high and taller - I recommend no more than a week indoors or their mortality rate really accelerates. For shorter trees, spending 10 to 14 days indoors is tolerable. Remember to keep household heat away from plants that will be planted outdoors later. It's best to dress them up, put on their lights and ornaments, but keep them outdoors on the deck or at the front entry and bring them indoors at the last possible moment.
Use only miniature, or LED lights to show off the branches. The drying effect from the larger C-9 or C-7 bulbs can damage a living tree, but go ahead and use as many of the cooler, smaller bulbs as your tradition or budget allows.
Don't stain the floors! The sorriest mistake made with a living Christmas tree is staining the carpet or a new hardwood floor. Large plastic saucers that fit under the growers' large pots are an inexpensive way to prevent moisture weeping from the bottom of the plant and staining the floor. Garden centers like selling living trees and usually have a help station with all the how-to's and products for success.
Living trees like ice cubes. Not only does a tray of ice cool the roots, but as the cubes slowly melt they create a natural drip system that all outdoor plants prefer. This simple technique will also reduce the amount of moisture weeping from the bottom of the container.
When the holidays are over, move the tree back outdoors ... slowly. After their stretch in hothouse conditions they need time to readjust to the bitter cold out-of-doors. Leave the plants in an unheated garage for a week. If your garage, like most American garages, is full of stuff, it may not have room for a tree. In that case, place the tree outside against the south side of your house. This bit of warmth, in addition to the radiant heat of a south-facing wall, will allow the tree to acclimatize to the cold. Let it adjust for a week before planting in the ground.
In their growers' pots living plants can live out-of-doors as long as need be, which is convenient if frozen soil needs time to thaw for planting. However, be sure to water trees thoroughly twice a week until you are ready to plant. For more detailed information, ask for my free handout "Planting & Growing Living Trees after the Holidays."
I check my Facebook page at least twice a day. If you need more clarity on a gardening issue or just want to say hello, please join the 1,275 other gardening fans at www.facebook.com/watters1815.
Until next week, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I'll see you at the garden center.
Throughout the week, Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through www.wattersonline.com.