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The real nightmare before Christmas: Pre-wrapped Christmas trees

Friday - 12/16/2011, 2:23pm  ET

Watch out for mold, pests on Christmas trees

Mike McGrath, Garden Plot

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Want a nightmare before Christmas? Bring home a pre-wrapped Tree

WASHINGTON -- Cecily in Arlington got a bad Christmas surprise.

"I bought a Fraser fir that was already all bundled up and ready to travel. We got it home, unwrapped it and brought it inside the house last night. But when it started to open up, I noticed a grey-green fungus covering the entire trunk of the tree. Will this be toxic for my home? I have never seen anything like this before."

Sounds like the tree was wet when it was wrapped up, Cecily, and that's a real recipe for mold growth. Many molds can be dangerous for humans to inhale, and I wouldn't take any chances here. Get it out of the house right away, and air the place out well. If you have a HEPA air cleaner, run it in that room for awhile.

Return your diseased decoration for a tree that you can examine carefully and then have bundled up for the ride home. If they won't take it back, you can still display it outdoors where you won't be inhaling the mold spores all the time.

Nightmare No. 2: This tree came pre-decorated with pests

Maura in North Potomac had her own nightmare before Christmas.

"This past weekend, my family purchased a Fraser fir from a local home store. But when we unwrapped it in our living room that evening, the trunk was crawling with bugs! There must have been a hundred or more, an entire colony of what I believe were aphids, plus a few spiders and ants for good measure. It felt more like Halloween than Christmas. How common is this problem? And should I avoid buying trees from big-chain home improvement stores in the future?"

Well, you should certainly avoid buying pre-wrapped ones, Maura. At least your problem is a lot easier to remedy than mold. Take the tree outside and spray every inch of it with sharp streams of water. Blast the bugs off and it'll be safe to bring back inside. Don't use pesticides, they're unnecessary and would make the tree dangerous to bring back into the house.

Your plan for a nightmare-free tree

Cecily in Arlington brought home a tree covered with mold. Maura in North Potomac got one that was infested with insects. How could these things happen? Easy. They both bought trees that were already wrapped up tight, making the trip home faster and easier, but preventing the kind of close visual inspection that prevents these kinds of problems.

The freshest, most problem-free trees will always be ones you choose at a local Christmas tree farm.

Here's a link to several lists of Christmas tree farms in our area. Buy local, not moldy.

If you must buy a pre-cut tree, make sure you can see the entire trunk clearly and inspect every branch for suppleness before you buy. Then, you can let them wrap it up for you for the ride home. And when you get it home, be sure to cut a few inches off the bottom of the trunk and let the tree soak up lots of water before you put it in its stand -- or dropped needles might be added to Santa's naughty list.

The strange case of the berry-free plants

Beverly in Herndon has a sad holiday tale.

"I've always had lots of berries on my holly trees and pyracantha (firethorn) bushes. This year there are hardly any. What happened?"

Well, Bev, when established berry-bearers go barren, the reason is often ill-timed pruning, which can remove the buds or flowers that would have gone on to produce berries. Neither of these plants needs to be pruned, and leaving them alone produces the best shows.

In addition, Hollies require a male pollinator nearby. Sometimes these were deliberately planted by the homeowner, who knows their importance. But sometimes they were planted by the previous owner, or are located on a nearby property. And because the male plants aren't showy -- they don't got no berries, just pollen for the ladies -- they're often culled out as unattractive, unnecessary plants. But with no boys around, the girls go fruitless.

Ah, but your pyracantha is self-pollinating, so that leaves bad spring weather as the best suspect. A late spring frost or excessive wetness at pollination time can kill berry production, as can use of pesticides. No bees = no berries.

Woodsman, Spare that Shrub

We're about to save Bruce in Poolesville from getting a record amount of coal in his stocking.

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