Tidewater Gardening - December 2013

Christmas Greens


K. Marc Teffeau

December is a slow time in the gardening year, with not a whole lot to do outside. With the holiday season upon us, one outside activity we can still do is prune our broad leaved and narrow leaved evergreens for Christmas greenery. If the pruning is done properly, you will have the needed decorative greens to add spice and variety to holiday swags, Christmas wreaths, cemetery boxes, holiday flower arrangements, and other Christmas decorations, and at the same time benefit your plants.
The objectives of pruning are to improve the plant’s symmetry and natural form, promote better balance and healthier growth, and to control the height or spread of the plant. Always make your pruning cut at a joint in a branch, so that the remaining leaves cover and hide the cut. Pruned this way, any plant can be shaped without the appearance of having just received a scalp job.
Both needle and broadleaf evergreens make attractive Christmas decorations. To make arrangements, you may need a few branches that are 12 to 15 inches long, but the majority of materials for both centerpieces and wreaths need to be no longer than four to six inches long.
Obtain the larger pieces by removing unwanted branches and by severe heading back of vigorous growth. Foundation plantings, for example, should have air space between each other and the house. This often requires the removal or hard pruning of some branches. Doing such pruning now is a good way to get the longer greens you may want.
Short pieces of plant material are obtained by a type of pruning called tipping. This pruning technique, as the name suggests, is the removal of the tip of the shoot. Tipping accomplishes two things; it shortens the branch and, at the same time, it forces growth of side branches, thus making a more compact plant.
Done with a pair of hand shears or a pruning knife, tipping should provide you with all the four- to six-inch pieces of greenery you need for decorating, leaving a very natural-looking plant in the process. Tipping, done with a pair of electric hedge shears, may give you greens, but it also produces the unnaturally-shaped plant mounds that sometimes appear in the front yards of homeowners who don’t understand how to prune.
Any evergreen can be used for Christmas greenery, but some types are better than others. Boxwood, with its dense, fine texture, is especially popular, but many Japanese holly varieties are a good substitute. All of the hollies, American, English and Chinese, are excellent for this purpose and they will also provide desirable orange and red berries, depending upon the variety.
Of the pines, the fine flexible bright green needles of the white pine are best, though other pines are also satisfactory. All of the spruces make excellent wreaths, but the Colorado blue spruce holds its needles better than the Norway.
Hemlock is another effective evergreen for outdoor arrangements, but it does not hold its needles well, so it has limited indoor use. Because hemlock is an evergreen species that prefers cool weather during the growing season, it is not a species that is found readily on the Eastern Shore.
In pruning the larger evergreens like pine, spruce or hemlock, get your greens by removing unneeded branches. Both pine and hemlock will respond to tipping, but use more care with the spruces and don’t over prune.
On older trees it is possible to remove or tip side shoots without spoiling the plants basic symmetry. Both the yews and junipers are good sources of greenery. The dark green needles of the yew are especially good, and the plants tolerate pruning well.
Do not forget Leyland cypress. This evergreen tree is an excellent source of greenery and, in most landscapes, can always stand a little bit of pruning.
Another unusual type of holiday greenery is the yellow foliage of the Threadleaf cypress. Threadleaf cypress can add spice to holiday swags, floral arrangements and Christmas wreaths. Pieris japonica Andromeda and mountain laurel are Christmas greens that can also be used in holiday displays. Pieris japonica features flower buds that provide texture and character.
Many mature landscapes have plantings of juniper and red cedar. Both these evergreens are similar in that both have dark blue berries on their branches in winter. Some cultivated upright juniper bushes also bear berries. The benefits of juniper are its fragrance, contrasting texture, and showy berries. If juniper is used indoors, it should not be brought in before mid-December. Check the juniper for dryness and replace or discard it when it snaps easily when bent.
Another common evergreen in the landscape is the arborvitae. You will need to harvest arborvitae carefully due to the slower growth of the branches, combined with the plant’s ornamental value.
Arborvitae adds texture and color to holiday flower arrangements and small cemetery boxes. Some arborvitae bear little brown clusters of cones that add to the ornamental value of these Christmas greens. A few sprigs can be inserted into a Christmas wreath. Like juniper, arborvitae needs to be checked for dryness. Unlike juniper, arborvitae needles are soft and not sharp to the touch.
If you are looking for some blue color and contrasting foliage textures in your holiday greenery decorations, try blue spruce. Blue spruce is not easy to handle due to the spiky nature of the needles. When blue spruce begins to shed, discard it quickly to avoid tracking its sharp needles around the house.
Blue atlas cedar can also be found in Eastern Shore landscapes. It comes in both an upright and a weeping form. The texture of blue atlas cedar is similar to a mix of blue spruce and hemlock.
The evergreen magnolia is one of the most handsome of cut greens. Prune these carefully so as not to leave branch stubs on the tree. Even rhododendrons can be pruned now for holiday decorations. Like the magnolia, prune them back to forked branches and leave a clean, smooth cut. Many rhododendrons need pruning now anyway, to keep them in scale with their setting and to keep them compact, so this pruning can be very beneficial. You may wish to avoid removing branches with flower buds, though, if you are concerned about the number of blooms you’ll get next spring.
There are a couple of deciduous shrubs that can also be used for Christmas decorations. Winterberry is a deciduous cousin of holly and produces a brilliant display of bright red berries that last on the bush into January. Winterberry should hold up for a week or two indoors, especially if it is in water or floral foam.
Shrubs with interesting winter bark, like the red twig and yellow twig dogwoods, produce brilliant red and yellow twigs that look good in Christmas arrangements. French pussy willow has red twigs with tightly shut buds with bright red scales. The red curled twigs of contorted pussy willow adds character to any decoration. Curly willow adds a holiday feel to displays with its yellow, curving twigs. Even the common burning bush has orange berries on characteristic, webbed brown branches.
In using any greens, always be aware of the potential fire hazard of these materials and remember that those that are kept in water will last much longer. When you’re using greens without water, avoid burning candles near them. Also, keep them away from heaters, electric lights, the TV and other heat sources.
Amaryllis bulbs may be started now in the house. If they are established bulbs in old pots, two inches of soil should be removed from the surface and replaced with a good, rich mixture. Keep potted amaryllis in a cool (60°) shaded location until buds open, then move it wherever you like. Make sure the pots of forced bulbs are full of roots before moving into sunlight, and make sure they are watered adequately for the best display.
If you brought in your geranium plants for winter, they must be placed in a window that receives direct sunlight all day with a daytime temperature of 70° to 75°. Keep in mind, geraniums do not like to be over-watered. If your geraniums have gotten leggy, cut back the plants to about one foot tall. They will re-sprout and grow bushier in the longer days of late winter.
Start paper white bulbs in gravel, marbles or soil, every other week for flowers throughout the winter months. Decrease water and fertilizer for Christmas cactus as the buds are developing.
Want to start cuttings from your favorite Christmas cactus? As soon as it finishes blooming, select a cutting with 4 or 5 joints, break or cut it off, and insert the basal end into a pot of moderately-moist soil. Place it on a windowsill or other brightly lit area. The cuttings should root within three to four weeks.
If you purchased a poinsettia, prolong the colorful bracts by keeping them where temperatures don’t exceed 70° during the day, or drop below 65° at night. Cyclamen prefer cool temperatures, so keep them back from south-facing windows that heat up during the day.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Happy Gardening!

Marc Teffeau retired as the Director of Research and Regulatory Affairs at the American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, D.C. and he now lives in Georgia with his wife, Linda.