Seasonal Notes: Preparing Christmas greens and other winter house & garden ideas
Wait! Before you bring in boughs of holly, magnolia, and other greens for your mantle or a cut Christmas tree, prepare for a longer lasting display.
Decking the halls of your home with greens for the holidays is a centuries-old tradition predating Christianity. (See my holiday traditions columns.) In the old days, those greens dried out pretty fast. One of the reasons that holly and magnolia have long been traditional for decorations is that the natural waxy coating on their leaves provides shine and protection, but after a week or so they'll still get brittle: especially in a hot, dry house.
Two methods for prolonging freshness:
1) Soak in a glycerin/water solution. Mix three parts warm water
with one part glycerin. Make a new cut in the branch under the surface
of this solution so no air gets in the wood (xylem) and let it soak for at
least two hours. Glycerin is an oily liquid that replaces the water
in the stem and does not evaporate. You can buy it where arts &
crafts supplies are sold. Pure glycerin will irritate your skin, so
handle with care.
2) Use an anti-desiccant spray. After a thorough soak in water (or water & glycerin), take the greens outside and spray the leaves, especially the undersides. This protects the leaves with a waxy coating, so the water doesn't evaporate or transpire from the pores (more properly called stomata). Anti-desiccants are available at nurseries and garden shops.
Christmas tree options
For cut Christmas trees make a fresh cut, so liquid can seep into the wood, and place in a solution of water and ammonium sulfate for its fire retarding properties. Use an anti-desiccant spray on the branches to reduce the drying. Both of these actions will minimize needle drop and keep your tree looking good throughout the holidays.
You could spend just a little extra money to purchase a live tree to plant it in your yard after the holidays. Place the root ball in a plastic tub and keep it moist, but not flooded. (You will not use ammonium sulfate or anti-desiccants on a live tree.) Make sure you have a landscaping plan so your Christmas conifers are grouped attractively and have room to grow. After a few years you'll have a wonderful grove.
Birds love the shelter of evergreens and even a small stand of evergreens on your property provides good screening for privacy, too. Leave the cranberry and popcorn chains in place, so the birds will have shelter and a snack, even for just a month or two. Even if you purchase a cut tree, you can set it upright out in a corner of your yard. In the spring, the needles will be nice layer of mulch on the ground. Cut up the branches and add them to your mulched areas, and you'll have only the trunk left for the yard waste.
Suggestions for greening your home for the season
While magnolia, holly, and pine garland are traditional for decoration, there are plenty of other evergreen alternatives to consider. How about a fragrant bouquet of Southern Bayberry (Myrica cerifera), Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), or Basil (Ocimum basilicum)? Pick a bunch of bright green, new-growth branches, tie them with a nice ribbon, and put them in a vase or holiday glass. When you want some fresh scent in the house, run your hand along the leaves.
Other evergreens that you might find in your yard and would add some different textures include Live Oak (Quercus virginiana), Gardenia (Gardenia augusta), or other evergreen plants that might need pruning. Yes, this is a pruning opportunity while the plants are mostly dormant, so cut the branches flush with larger branches. Cut the best sprigs to bring in the house and place the remaining branches in your compost pile.
Wintertime in northern Florida
Well, here it is December in northern Florida and we've yet to experience a hard frost. My Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) shrubs next to the house are still lovely, but it's time to bring in your tender plants or at least move them onto the porch where the warmth from your house can protect them for our short winter.
For your tender shrubs that are too heavy to move or are planted in the ground, cover them with a porous material upon hard frost warnings. If the material lets in light, it can be left in place; if not, remove it during the day. Another method is to cut tender tropicals back to the ground and provide extra mulch: this is what I'll do with my hibiscus. (Update: It lasted a few years, but one spring it did not grow back. The native hibiscus plants prepare for winter by dropping their leaves.)
Last year my neighbors killed a potted palm next to their pool by covering it with a black plastic bag and leaving the bag in place for several weeks. The poor palm was protected from the frost, but then it was baked in the black plastic. Our weather gets too hot in-between those frosts. These see-saw temperature ranges are hard on our nonnative plants and prevent tulips and other temperate bulbs from setting in the ground.
The wild ranges in temperatures are hard on us, too. When it's 80 degrees one day and 40 the next, it just feels so much colder. My friends in Maryland have no sympathy when I whine about the cold down here.
One good part about our winter weather is that you can accomplish your heavy-duty yard work without sweating so much that it drips off the end of your nose. I have more areas on our lot where I'll be removing even more of our lawn this winter. And speaking of lawns, in the winter here, you probably don't need to mow at all until the temperatures start rising again in March. The cooler weather has stopped the grass growth. Some of my neighbors still have their lawn-service guys come every week or so, but it's a waste of money because those lawn mowers are only clipping the few taller plants and chopping up the stray leaves from the trees. (Read my lawn article.)
Have a wonderful holiday season and remember your friends and family with gifts of native plants, wildflower seeds for a meadow, gift certificates from your local nursery, or for your elderly neighbors who might have a hard time getting out in their gardens, give the gift of gardening time.
Ginny Stibolt moved to northeastern Florida in 2004 and even though she's a botanist and lifelong gardener, Florida gardening was a shock. She started writing The Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener columns for the Times Union newspaper in Jacksonville. This is one of those columns archived here on Floridata.com for your enjoyment. Now she's written three Florida garden books published by University Press of Florida: Sustainable Gardening for Florida, 2009; Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida with Melissa Contreras, 2013, and The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape, 2015. Check out her blog for the latest news and articles: www.GreenGardeningMatters.com