Tidewater Gardening - December 2009


Miniature Christmas Trees


K. Marc Teffeau

   With the holiday season upon us a favorite tradition is the Christmas tree. Many families either buy a pre-cut tree from the local sales lot or garden center. You can also make it a family tradition to visit a local farm in the area and cut a Christmas tree. Every year at this time I see cars and pickup trucks rolling down the highway with a tree strapped to the roof or in the truck bed, exposed to the air.
    If you want to prolong the viability of the tree in the house and not be vacuuming up needles before they should fall, you need to cover the tree with some type of tarp. The quickest way to dry out the needles of the tree is to allow air at 60 miles per hour to flow over the tree for the 30 minute or more drive home. If you really want to keep it fresh, I would recommend that you get some “Wilt Pruf” and take the pump-up sprayer you use in the garden and spray the tree before you put it on the car or in the truck bed. Let the spray dry for a few minutes, cover the tree with a tarp and return home.
    If you want to reduce your “carbon footprint” – whatever that is – purchase a live, balled and burlaped (B&B) Christmas tree. If properly cared for, a live Christmas tree can give you and your family joy and beauty for many years to come. Since you are dealing with a live tree, however, there are some specific care guidelines that you need to follow.
    I suggest that you dig the final planting hole before Christmas when the ground is easier to work and the hole will already be prepared. When you are ready to dig the hole, measure the root ball and dig the hole slightly shallower than the ball is deep, but make the hole about twice as wide as the root ball. Cover the soil from the hole with plastic and cover the hole with plywood.
    When you get the tree home, if possible let it set for a day or so in a garage or up against the warmest side of the house. This will help the tree to acclimate to the warmer conditions of the inside of the home. Spray the tree again with Wilt Pruf before you bring it inside the home (and again before moving it back outdoors).
    Bring the tree inside and place it in a large tub, half barrel or even a snow saucer that the children use for sledding. Keep the root ball moist, even if you have to pour water on the root ball every day. But make sure the tree is not sitting in standing water. Placing ice cubes on top of the ball are good way to allow moisture to soak down into the root ball. As with a cut tree, drying out of the foliage is a concern so do not place the tree near a heating vent, wood stove or other heating source. Also do not flock the tree with artificial snow and do not fertilize the tree.
    It is important to not keep the tree indoors for more than 14 days. Exposure to the warm house temperatures for an extended period of time may result in the tree loosing its cold hardiness and be more susceptible to foliage damage from the winter temperatures. After the holidays, take the tree back out to the garage or up against the warmest side of the house for a day or so to help acclimate the tree to the colder outdoor temperatures.
    Then, if you haven’t done it already, dig your hole or remove the plywood if you dug the hole before Christmas. Set the tree in the hole so that the top of the root ball is sitting slightly higher than ground level. I do not recommend that you use any type of soil amendment like peat moss or compost, in the hole. As you backfill the hole with the existing soil, firmly tamp around the root ball as you proceed.
    Cut the string from around the trunk and cut the burlap away from the top of the root ball so that it is not exposed to the air. Exposed burlap can have a “wicking” effect on the soil ball, allowing water to evaporate. Bring the soil up to the shoulder of the ball but not on top of the ball. Do not add fertilizer to the soil at this time. When finished planting, water thoroughly, wait a day or two and then apply a two inch layer of mulch.
    If you do not have the room in your house or do not want to lug around a large tree with a heavy root ball, consider a miniature live Christmas tree. As a result of the recession, there is a lot of container grown evergreen plant material in the supply chain that is looking for a home. Some enterprising nursery growers and garden centers are taking narrow leafed evergreen trees, such as spruce and fir, in one, three or five gallon pots, and dressing them up with decorations. I have also seen narrow leafed hollies and boxwood marketed in this fashion. An attractive pot wrap hides the black pot. This “table top” tree works great for small rooms. Again, keep the plant away from heat sources and only let it remain in the house for two weeks at the most, then plant it in the landscape.
    On mild December days – yes they do occur – I remember one year when it was 65 degrees – you can still do outside landscaping chores. Now that we have had a couple of frosts, don’t forget to dig up your dahlias. Cut off the stems about 6 inches above the tubers, carefully dig the clumps with a spade or fork, and rinse them off. Let them dry out of direct sun and wind for a day where they will not be exposed to freezing temperatures.
    Store the tuber clumps whole, or carefully separate the tubers from the stem, making sure to include any “eyes” (small, raised nubs near where the tubers attach to the main stem) with each tuber. These are the future sprouts. Store tubers in ventilated plastic bags filled with peat moss, vermiculite, or sawdust. Fine mesh bags or old panty hose also work well. Place bags in a box and keep them in a dark, 35- to 50-degree F location. You might also want to put some mouse bait in the boxes to prevent them from feeding on the bulbs.
    Continue to do your general clean up around the landscape that you did not get around to last month. You can also do some general pruning of trees, especially the dead branches that you observed during the last growing season.
    Indoors if you have a Cyclamen or received one as a Christmas present remember that they like it cool so right next to the heater isn’t an ideal location. The small tuber is susceptible to rotting so if you have the time, water by submerging the pot in a bowl of water until the soil takes up enough moisture, then remove. Otherwise, water slowly so it seeps in and doesn’t sit on the tuber. As flowers and foliage fade, you can give the plant a rest by withholding water and keeping it in a cool, dark location until new growth begins.
    Pest wise, many houseplants, including palms and cyclamen, are attacked by spider mites this time of year. Spider mites are not insects but are classed as a type of arachnid, relatives of insects that also includes spiders, ticks, daddy-longlegs and scorpions. Spider mites are small and often difficult to see with the unaided eye. They suck plant juices, causing the leaves to look speckled or silvery. To scout for these pests, mist the plants lightly; if mites are present, the water droplets will cling to the mites’ fine webbing. Control them by misting plants daily to keep the humidity high (spider mites love dryness) and by spraying plants with insecticidal soap especially directed to the undersides of the leaves where they are feeding.
    Happy Gardening and Happy Holidays!!!