By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
Dr. Vern Grubinger, Extension Associate Professor
University of Vermont
Most people, gardeners included, would not consider December a month to focus on plants. While it's true that there's little that can be done outdoors in the garden, plants still play a very important role this month, especially in holiday decorating and celebrations.
What would Christmas be without an evergreen tree, poinsettia, or mistletoe? Kwanzaa, an observance of African heritage and culture in America, also has ties to horticulture. The name is Kiswahili for Afirst fruits of the harvest." It's celebrated in late December and is patterned after traditional celebrations among African agricultural societies at harvest time.
For many Vermonters, Christmas just isn't Christmas without an evergreen tree. But do you know what to look for to make sure the tree is fresh and will last throughout the season?
If you buy your tree from a cut-your-own place, you'll know it's fresh. For precut trees, test for freshness by bending the needles between your fingers. If they don't snap or break, then the tree is fresh. Or bounce the tree on the ground. A shower of falling needles indicates that the tree is too dry.
If possible, wrap the tree for the ride home to keep it from drying out. Once home, keep it in a bucket of warm water in a cool, protected place like the garage. Just before you bring it indoors, cut an inch off the bottom of the trunk to allow better water absorption.
Add tree preservative (available at many hardware and garden stores) to the water in the stand to keep the tree fresher longer. Check the water level often, and replenish as needed.
Boughs of Colorado spruce, balsam, and white pine provide an aromatic decoration for the holidays, or any time during the cold winter months. You can cut your own, or buy boughs at most outlets where Christmas trees are sold, to use on the mantle or as a centerpiece. Or try your hand at making your own wreath.
If you decorate with pinecones, place them on a cookie sheet and "bake" in a 200 F degree-oven for a few hours. Cool before using. This will kill any insect pests that hitched a ride inside.
You also can decorate your home for the holidays or the season with azaleas, cyclamens, Christmas cacti, and, everyone's favorite, poinsettias. Be sure to purchase plants that are disease- and insect-free. Look for lush, green foliage, and avoid cold injury by wrapping well for the trip from store to home.
Once home, remove the decorative foil or punch a small hole in the foil to allow water to drain freely out of the bottom holes. Place your holiday plants away from drafts and heating sources.
If giving a plant as a holiday gift, try to match the plant with the environment of the recipient's home or office. For locations with plenty of light, poinsettias, chrysanthemums, or other flowering plants are ideal gift choices. Many of these plants require warmer room temperatures to thrive. A few exceptions are cyclamens and azaleas, which like bright light and cooler temperatures. Choose foliage plants for low-light locations.
For apartment dwellers and others with limited space, a hanging plant may be a more welcome choice than a large potted plant. Terrariums make an excellent gift for people with small children or pets.
Gardening books and magazines, tools, and landscape ornaments also make great gifts for friends and family members at Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Or give the 2000 North Country Gardening Calendar, which provides 12 months of daily gardening tips and illustrated monthly gardening activities. Single copies cost $5 each (postage included) with a discounted price of $4 per calendar when ordering five or more.
To order, send your check, payable to UVM Extension, to Calendars, Plant and Soil Science Department, Hills Building, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt. 05405.
December is also a good time to write to seed companies to get on the mailing list for year 2000 catalogs. Having several different catalogs allows you to compare not only varieties, but prices, too.
Outdoors, prevent salt damage to plants and trees by using environmentally friendly salts, kitty litter, plant fertilizer, or sand on icy walks and driveways. Protect shrubs growing under the eaves of your house by wrapping them with burlap to protect them from ice falling from the roof.
Ice and heavy snows sometimes damage branches of trees and shrubs. But don't be too quick to act if ice causes drooping limbs. Wait until the ice melts before deciding to stake or prune. Often, the plant will straighten up on its own. If you do need to prune, be sure your pruning shears are sharp.
If you have a greenhouse or other indoor growing area, remove all plant material that has "gone by," throw out old potting soil, and sterilize pots and trays prior to reusing them. Maintaining a greenhouse free of plant material for several weeks or months will help avoid pest problems next year.
Other activities for December: grow your own sprouts; check stored produce for spoilage; repot root-bound houseplants; take a gardening course or attend a professional horticulture meeting.