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Garden Plot: Grubs, greens and Christmas trees

Friday - 11/30/2012, 11:00am  ET

To cut your own or buy pre-cut? (AP)

Keeping a Christmas tree fresh

Mike McGrath, WTOP garden editor


Mike McGrath,

Prune evergreens now - if you're going to use the greens!

Charlie in Howard County writes: "Is it OK to trim my evergreen hedges now or must I wait until spring? They're haven't been trimmed this year, are overgrown, and I normally keep them neatly cropped."

Well, it depends, Charlie. The ideal scenario for the health of the plant is to begin some gentle shaping just as growth resumes in the spring, and continue light pruning until summer heat arrives - that's how you get the nicest looking, longest living shrubs.

But this is the time of year I make exceptions to that rule for folks who want some homemade holiday greenery. So if crafty you want to be, go ahead and remove some shoots to get the makings for a nice swag or wreath. You can do the same with hollies and other berry-bearing shrubs. Just be sure to use a really sharp pair of hand pruners - not those vibrating clippers of death - and wait for a cold stretch so you don't wake the poor plants up.

What to do with an old amaryllis

Rebecca in Silver Spring writes: "Last Christmas a friend gave us an amaryllis that bloomed beautifully. I kept it outside all summer and fall, where it happily grew lots of healthy new leaves. I waited for the leaves to turn yellow, but they did not, and I finally brought it in rather than have it freeze. How do I care for it so that it will bloom again? Obviously there isn't enough time to have to bloom for this Christmas."

No, but it could bloom again, Beckster.

After they finish flowering, amaryllis need to have their leaves soak up sun - which you did - and they should also be fed at this time (which you may or may not have done). At some point afterward, they then need to get a three-month rest in a coolish spot without food, water or light. (This can be in or out of the pot. I put mine down in the basement with a note in my Day-Timer to rescue them three or four months later.)

After that (essential) rest period, gently trim off any old leaves, water the plant well - really saturate the soil - and place it in a warm spot. Then move it into bright light when new growth appears. The "watering to flowering" period after a rest takes about six weeks, so "Christmas amaryllis" should be started early-to-mid November.

To try and keep the same bulb flowering at the same time (holiday season) each year, feed with worm castings or a gentle organic liquid fertilizer right after the flowers fade. Keep the plant in bright light, and take it outside after all chances of frost, but bring it back indoors around mid-July and start that rest period.

Rescue and revive it around the second week of November, and think good thoughts…

"Three Christmas trees walk into a bar…"

Live trees cut fresh at a Christmas tree farm will always keep their needles the longest indoors, and it makes for a great family outing - especially when the sunshine and temperature are ideal for stalking the elusive Tannenbaum (hint, hint). Check out last week's Plot for lists of local tree farms.

If a pre-cut "street corner" tree you must have ("Hey buddy, got a tree for you - my brother-in-law cut it fresh yesterday, swear on my mama…") be sure to cut an extra 2 inches off the bottom of the trunk with a bow saw and sit the tree in water for a full 24 hours before you set it up in its stand. These pre-cut trees will drink up gallons of water, thus greatly delaying and limiting the inevitable needle drop.

If your tree is already up, make sure the stand is always filled with water. If it dries out even for a few hours, the tree may lose its ability to absorb new moisture. If this task is treacherous, install one of those devices that allows you to pour the water up high while a hidden tube carries it down to the stand, like "Santa's Magic Water Spout." (Yes, it's a real thing - look it up. I'm not that clever!)

Get them grubs!

Les in Fairfax writes: "I know I have a grub problem in my cool season lawn, and am distraught to hear your advice that the soil is now too cold to apply milky spore powder to my lawn. What's my next best course of action to deal with these pests?"

Well, this year's grubs are done eating the roots of your turf, Les. They're burrowing down deep for the winter, and they won't feed when they return to the surface in the spring. But they will become adult beetles (Japanese and other scarab family members) and maybe you just truly despise them. So buy beneficial nematodes in the spring and water them into warm soil (nematodes are alive and must be very fresh, and thus are best obtained via mail-order and the Internet. Gardens Alive! is one of many suppliers). These microscopic predators will destroy the grubs, but won't harm earthworms or other good critters.

To avoid grubs next season, never cut your lawn below 3 inches, and when you water, water deeply but infrequently - that's for long periods of time, no more twice a week. (Female beetles seek out scalped, sopping wet lawns in which to lay their eggs.)

Then apply milky spore powder (available at any big garden center) in August, and any new grubs will quickly perish. But note: Although garden centers will happily sell you milky spore powder in the spring, it doesn't work in the spring - only mid-July through September.

Don't leave whole leaves on the hill!

Liz in Stafford writes: "I have a hill that gets covered with leaves from our trees. We suck up the leaves from most of the property, shred them and put the shredded leaves on top of our garden beds and such. But I was wondering if it might be good to leave the hill covered with these fallen leaves until spring. Would the leaf cover provide any benefit, or are they best shredded up now?"

They must be removed if there's wanted plant material underneath, Liz. Whole leaves mat down like a tarp and smother grass and other small plants. It's how trees reduce competition in the wild, just like your use of thick layers of shredded leaves to prevent weed growth in your beds.

You can mow whole leaves into a lawn with a mulching mower (which gives the lawn a nice little feeding) or suck them up and shred them for mulch or compost makings. But you only let them lie if you want any plants underneath to go bye-bye.

For more from Mike McGrath, check out his TEDx talk on composting:

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