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Rosemary trees, home-grown gifts and voles

Monday - 11/19/2012, 9:48am  ET

Once she's brown, she's brown for good. (Courtesy

Mike McGrath,

WASHINGTON - A sure sign of the approaching holidays is the appearance of those wonderful Christmas-tree shaped cones of live rosemary in garden centers and upscale supermarkets.

These living rosemary plants make great table-top Christmas trees, and are the perfect gift for the host of your Thanksgiving dinner. But they have one problem, they are 100 percent dog-dirty, six-times-sideways root bound, jammed into pots so small there's no room in there for any soil.

So, as soon as you get your little ‘tree' home, remove the wrappings and transplant it into a pot at least twice as big. Three times the size would be even better. You're doing this so there's some soil to retain moisture when you water. Be sure to use potting soil, a soil-free mix or compost to fill in the gaps, not your terrible outdoor dirt.

Then, take your newly planted tree and sit it in a few inches of water for an hour or so to allow the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot to really saturate the soil and roots. Then let it drain, after which you can re-wrap the pot if you like. Either way, place it in a bright, warm area away from cold air, heat vents and radiators. Repeat the same watering regimen once a week or whenever the pot feels light.

"Warning, warning! Danger, Will Robinson!" Don't ignore this advice. Rosemary trees that are moved into bigger pots usually thrive throughout the holidays—and often survive to go outside next summer. Rosemary trees left trapped in their too- tight pots quickly do a darn good imitation of Jack's little tree in "A Nightmare Before Christmas". And once she's brown, she's brown for good.

Grow your own gifts

Interested in distinctive yet inexpensive holiday gifts that your friends will be sure to appreciate and that will deceive them into thinking you have the ultimate green thumb? Buy a bunch of big amaryllis bulbs and be ready to pot them up next weekend.

You can buy the little kits that come complete with soil and a pot or just get a bunch of big, fat solid bulbs, some pots that are only a couple inches wider than the waist of the bulb, and a bag of premium potting soil.

Put some soil in the bottom of each pot, position the bulb on the soil so that at least half the bulb is above the top of the pot, and then fill in around the base of the bulb with more soil. Note, do not bury them. At least half of the bulb must be out in the open air for the plant to thrive.

Let the pots sit in a sink with a few inches of water for an hour or two, let them drain and then just let them sit out in a warm spot.

In a few weeks, the flower stalks will appear. When they do, place the plants in bright light, water lightly and turn them every couple of days so they get equal light on all sides. The whole process typically takes six weeks from planting to flowers opening, so if you time it right and start next weekend, your home-grown lovelies should have big buds ready to open right around Christmas day. Better to start a few days later than earlier if they'll have to travel. Big buds will take a little cold air better than open flowers.

New resource for picking the perfect tree for your landscape

Many of us are coping with the loss of big trees after the recent severe storms. I personally am still in shock over Sandy's slamming of a massive and stately Norway Spruce that used to sit right outside my office window. And it's natural to feel pressured to pick a replacement tree that's inexpensive and/or fast growing. But it's a bad, bad idea.

Several listeners have warned me about a company that specializes in ‘fast growing trees,' offering supposed free trees to people who recently lost living lumber. But a quick look at their offerings reveals that these ‘free trees' mesh perfectly with lists of trees that homeowners should never plant. All are cheap, brittle, short-lived and/or invasive specimens that are best avoided.

Luckily, the D.C. based non-profit group Casey Trees has just released a much more useful list of the absolute best trees for our region: 24 top shade trees and 16 excellent ornamentals with photos and detailed descriptions of each. Remember, D.C. residents are eligible for rebates on trees planted on residential property inside the District.

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