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Holiday plant care checklist

Friday - 12/9/2011, 2:38pm  ET

Poinsettias have no sense of humor when it comes to cold weather

Mike McGrath, Garden Editor

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Cut Christmas tree in the house? Check that water reservoir every day and make sure it stays filled. If it dries out completely, the tree won't accept new water afterward. To avoid that dreaded dropped needle denouement, consider buying one of the clever devices that allows you to do this chore without crawling on the floor.

My personal favorite is called "Santa's Magic Water Spout." It's available at lots of retail outlets. Click here for a webpage that shows how it works in detail.

Although symbols of the season, poinsettias are tropical plants that have no sense of humor about the cold. Make sure the shop wraps it well for its trip to the car, get it indoors fast (don't leave it the car while you do more shopping), keep it away from drafts or excessive heat when you do get it home and keep it well-watered ... these plants tend to dry out quickly.

Rosemary Christmas trees are great holiday plants, but they're always sold severely potbound, so replant it into a bigger pot (twice as big as the original) as soon as you get it home. Then it'll have enough soil around the roots to be able to hold water and stay alive through the holidays.

And the correct way to use mistletoe is to remove and discard a berry after each kiss is stolen under the plant. When all the berries are gone, no more kissing. And if you want a 'mistletoe romance' to last, you must destroy the plant by "Twelfth Night," which is either the evening of Jan. 5 or Jan. 6 (sources and experts disagree on this point). Tradition would have you burn the plant, but I would not recommend that for fake plastic mistletoe.

Gift List for Gardeners

Got a gardener on your gift list this season?

Good gloves always top the garden wish list, but most garden gloves are so bulky that gardeners quickly pull them off so they can feel what they're doing. The answer: Baseball batting gloves. Really ... they come in a huge variety of sizes and are super comfortable, yet they fit so tightly and are so flexible you can feel everything you're doing. They're the gloves that gardeners love to keep on. You should be able to find a nice selection at any sporting goods store.

Any good gardener would love to find a bag of worm castings or premium compost under the tree. You should be able to find either at a good local independent garden center that stocks natural products.

Or even better, get them a nifty compost bin made of recycled black plastic with a locking lid so they can make their own back gold out of shredded fall leaves and kitchen waste outdoors without fear of unwanted animal intervention. Click here for a model that I especially like.

Or if they just want to recycle their kitchen waste alone (and/or have little to no outdoor space) get them a nice worm bin, so that specialized redworms can transform their kitchen waste into castings -- one of the world's finest fertilizers! Click here for the one that I use. The multiple levels make it easy to add new kitchen waste and harvest the finished castings.

Really Live Trees Require Preparation

It's the time of year when many folks decide to get a really live tree for Christmas -- one with its roots all wrapped up in burlap that they hope to plant outdoors after the holidays. If that's your plan, dig the hole on the next nice day so you don't have to deal with frozen soil.

Cover the hole with plywood for safety and store the removed soil somewhere it won't freeze. Make it a wide hole, not a deep one (you want to see the root flare of the tree -- not a 'lollipop' -- after it's planted). Don't put the tree too close to the house (plan for the tree's final size, not the width it is now) and don't plant it where it'll grow underneath power lines. And be sure to remove and discard all the wrappings at planting time. Just the root ball goes into the ground.

Don't plan to keep the tree indoors for any length of time. If it stays inside for more than a few days, it'll break dormancy and could suffer severe shock when it goes into the cold, cold ground. If it must come inside, keep the room it comes into as cold as possible, and get it in and out fast.

Oh, and be sure to have lots of help on hand whenever the tree has to be moved. The rootball on a truly live tree can often weigh a hundred pounds-or more.

Winter Lawns = Hot Topic

I'm still getting lawn care questions.

Andy in Gainesville writes: "I have bald patches in my lawn that are due mostly to shade from deciduous trees. Can I sow a lawn seed designed for shade this late in the year? Or is that a waste of time?"

The soil is too cold for any kind of seed now, Andy. And no grass really grows well in areas where big trees throw deep shade and hog all the food and water. Your best bet to deal with those patches is to wait until Spring and install a shade loving ground cover. Or even better, moss. Moss stays green all year, never needs cutting and plays well with big trees. If you MUST try grass, you'll have to choose a really fine fescue and wait until mid-August to sow the seed. Just be aware that it's always a struggle to keep grass looking good under trees.

Amy in Falls Church writes: "We put grass seed down in early October and it seems to be doing well. We haven't mowed it, and I'm thinking I shouldn't mow it until spring. But should we put a winter fertilizer on it, or just leave that until spring as well?"

There's no such thing as "winter fertilizer," Amy. Plants don't take up any nutrients when the weather turns cold and they go dormant. Just make sure no whole leaves remain on the lawn over winter, and be ready to apply corn gluten meal in early spring -- that'll feed the turf and prevent new weeds from sprouting.

Your mowing question depends on the height. If your new grass is three inches or lower, let it be. But if it's gotten tall, cut it back to three inches high to protect against the possibility of snow mold.

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