Living Gifts and Potted Christmas Trees - 27 East

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Living Gifts and Potted Christmas Trees

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It wasn’t long ago that all poinsettias were red. Now there are varieties that are pink, bicolored, white and more. The blue and purple colored ones are infused with a colored dye. No, poinsettias are not poisonous but should be kept away from children and pets. ANDREW MESSINGER

It wasn’t long ago that all poinsettias were red. Now there are varieties that are pink, bicolored, white and more. The blue and purple colored ones are infused with a colored dye. No, poinsettias are not poisonous but should be kept away from children and pets. ANDREW MESSINGER

The Norfolk Island pine is a suitable and small tree that many use as a Christmas tree in apartments and small homes. It can be a problem plant as it will grow quite tall and does not take well to pruning. It is not hardy. ANDREW MESSINGER

The Norfolk Island pine is a suitable and small tree that many use as a Christmas tree in apartments and small homes. It can be a problem plant as it will grow quite tall and does not take well to pruning. It is not hardy. ANDREW MESSINGER

For very small spaces consider the lemon cypress. It will grow to 10 feet tall and if planted outdoors it may over winter most years but it’s not reliably hardy. It does take to pruning and has a mild lemon scent. ANDREW MESSINGER

For very small spaces consider the lemon cypress. It will grow to 10 feet tall and if planted outdoors it may over winter most years but it’s not reliably hardy. It does take to pruning and has a mild lemon scent. ANDREW MESSINGER

Among the more traditional indoor holiday plant are the poinsettias (top), Kalanchoe (bottom left) and Cyclamen (bottom center). ANDREW MESSINGER

Among the more traditional indoor holiday plant are the poinsettias (top), Kalanchoe (bottom left) and Cyclamen (bottom center). ANDREW MESSINGER

This container-grown (not field-dug them potted) blue spruce has a nice shape and at $169 was the same price as a

This container-grown (not field-dug them potted) blue spruce has a nice shape and at $169 was the same price as a "fake" tree. However, this one will last for generations and be a lasting memory. ANDREW MESSINGER

This plastic and metal fake Royal Fir tree from China also costs $169. It will eventually end up in a landfill while a live potted tree continues to adorn you landscape for decades and decades white providing outdoor habitat for birds and seed feeders and converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.  ANDREW MESSINGER

This plastic and metal fake Royal Fir tree from China also costs $169. It will eventually end up in a landfill while a live potted tree continues to adorn you landscape for decades and decades white providing outdoor habitat for birds and seed feeders and converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. ANDREW MESSINGER

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Hampton Gardener®

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: Dec 14, 2023
  • Columnist: Andrew Messinger

This week I’d planned on reviewing some new and some traditional Christmas trees and holiday plants, but before we go there a few thoughts about the holidays, your children, and grandchildren.

Young people can be influenced and tempted by gardening at a very early age. It was the fourth grade that was the time of my awakening. At this time of the year there’s no better way to excite and challenge children than to give them plants and seeds. Seeds make great stocking stuffers. Think packets of sunflowers of different sizes and colors. The seeds are large enough for smaller kids to handle and they can start the seeds in pots in April and May. From germination to bird feeders to fresh snacks, sunflowers can be fun and great teaching moments.

For larger and living gifts, how about an easy houseplant? An aloe requires little care, grows in bright light or sun, and is full of mysteries and surprises that can be a teaching moment for you and great learning moments for months or years for the kids. Better yet, the child who is patient will be rewarded by a flower down the road.

For older kids, a cactus or several small cacti in 2-, 3- or 4-inch pots are great as long as respect for the spines is instilled from the first moment. Kids are amazed when cacti flower, and few ever see a cactus in flower. Best of all, cacti require very little care and thrive in near neglect so long as they get enough light. A wonderful lesson in patience with growing rewards.

For older kids, how about a terrarium? Maybe buy the glass bowl or fish tank, the soil, the moss, then you and the kids can read up on building a terrarium and make it a family project. It can be an indoor jungle that can delight and teach. The danger in all these living gifts is to avoid frustration. Keep it simple and make it successful. That’s how you cultivate young and successful gardeners. Stay away from air plants and Venus flytraps. These are not good for the first steps, and the last thing you want is an early gardener who ends up with a dead plant. Let them all grow.

The Washington Post ran a piece in late November on the movement to potting/container-grown Christmas trees. A few weeks later the Post journalists staged a one-day strike so to fill the space the article was run a second time. As a result there’s been a bit of a run on container-grown Christmas trees.

I drove around to a few retail outlets last week to see what was available in the way of potted Christmas trees. One of the things I found was field-dug trees lopsidedly placed in large nursery containers — pots. These should be avoided if they look the least bit odd because they’ve had their roots pruned to fit the tree into the pots, and this is not a good practice.

On the other hand you can find a number of species of evergreens that have been grown in containers that look great and they make great Christmas trees that don’t end up in the landfill, do get planted in your landscape and are not made of plastic.

I found a number of good-sized container trees in the area of $160, and while this might seem like a lot, I paid $99 for my cut tree. A “fake” plastic and metal Balsam fir was just a few feet away, and at $169, the same price as the potted tree. The fake tree goes into the attic or basement. The potted tree goes outside where it becomes a habitat for birds, a vacuum for carbon dioxide and a lasting, living memory. But with the potted trees you get the dividend of a tree planted in your landscape that will last for years and in many cases, they will outlast us. There are a few important things to consider though when buying a hardy, potted Christmas tree.

First, keep the tree watered both indoors and out. When you bring the tree home, find a place where it will be planted in early January. Dig the hole now, fill the hole with mulch and put the removed soil in a spot where it will remain unfrozen until you need it for backfill. When the potted tree is indoors keep it away from warm places such as fireplaces and don’t let it dry out. These trees can be indoors for about 10 days. Then they really need to get outside and planted. Once planted, as long as the soil isn’t frozen, keep it watered. Do this every year and you’ll have a wonderful holiday forest of wonderful memories.

For apartment dwellers and smaller homes you may be tempted to buy a Norfolk Island pine. They are tempting but are not hardy and can become troublesome as they grow taller and taller. This is a tropical evergreen from the South Pacific and as it gets taller you will be tempted to prune it. Once pruned it will never grow upright and will make every effort to grow sideways.

Alberta spruces are also available as potted plants and can be found as small as 18 inches tall. This is a fine evergreen that can go indoors for about 10 days but then must be planted outdoors, though it can do well in a large outdoor planter.

Many of you have gone or will go on buying sprees gathering colorful plants to adorn your homes for the holidays or you may receive them as gifts. There are plenty of choices beyond the classic poinsettias. Most must be considered disposable and only last a few months, but there are some that can last for years and become family heirlooms of sorts.

First, the classic, the one plant that most of us associate with Christmas and the holiday season, the poinsettia. Native to Mexico where it grows like a weed, breeders have manipulated this plant far beyond the classic red. There are now bi- and tri-colored points with foliage ranging from reds to pinks and whites. There are speckled varieties, and regrettably, some even have glitter applied to the leaves.

The main thing to remember is that this plant will last longer if it’s kept in a cool spot, in bright light and away from drafts. While it’s generally considered to be a seasonal plant it’s been “forced” to “bloom” right now using shading techniques forcing the foliage to color up. This is great for the holidays but many keep this plant as a houseplant thinking it will color up next year at the same time. It won’t. Not unless you’re willing to give it a light/dark regime that will make the leaves (not the flowers) color up at the same time.

Just beware of this and temper your expectations. It can go outside in the summer and can be brought back inside in September. It may color up again, but not for the holidays, and that’s the challenge. Still, it’s hard to beat the combination of rich to subtle colors.

The Christmas cactus has a similar attribute in that the flower formation is stimulated by the precise number of hours it’s exposed to light and dark. This is all managed in greenhouses with artificial darkness and light which along with precise timing results in these plants blooming for the holidays.

Unlike the poinsettia, the Christmas cactus is fairly easy to keep as a houseplant and is remarkably easy to propagate. This cactus will flower every year and makes a great houseplant. The long flowers can be pink, white or red, and pots with several colors of flowers in them are just different varieties of the same plant potted in the same pot. Next year, the same colors will return but with a caveat.

It’s the light/dark regime that we have to deal with when we make this a permanent houseplant. If you keep the plant in the exact same place it will flower at the same time every year based on the lighting at that location. It needs bright light but can burn in full sunlight for more than a few hours. Even the slightest move, even a few feet left or right, can affect the time of flowering.

If you repot this plant as needed and don’t overwater it, the plant will survive for years. We have one that’s been in the family for three generations and has been in the same location for nearly 25 years, flowering every year in November, December and into late winter. Yes, it does have tiny spines at the edges, but they are barely noticeable and not an issue. Remember though, if you’re tempted to move the plant outdoors in the summer or around the house during the year you’ll upset the flowering schedule.

I’ve also seen potted roses (miniatures) in full bloom, but these are intended as houseplants and may not be hardy. There are Amaryllis with their tall phallic stems and huge trumpet flowers that can be quite striking. Unfortunately, while they can be rebloomed it takes some special care and a dormant period in a dark closet.

We used to be able to get colorful ornamental peppers and a couple of other fruiting plants for the holidays, but due to a number of incidents where children and pets were sickened from eating the nonedible fruits these plants have become a bit less common.

The Kalanchoe is a tropical perennial plant that has flowers in reds, yellow, whites, pinks and a few other hues that is grown in greenhouses for the holidays. They tend to be in 4-to-10-inch pots and are rarely taller than 12 inches, but they do offer the rich green of the holidays along with colorful flowers that can last for weeks.

Being a succulent, this plant has minimal watering needs and prefers a warm indoor site with bright light but no direct midday sun. Both the flowers and foliage can be toxic to cats and dogs.

Of course, there are orchids, and they are hard to beat for color and long stems with often striking flowers. I’ve also seen chrysanthemums in full bloom, but these are not the types of mums you can plant in the garden when it warms up. These mums come in a range of colors, but once the flowers fade, the plants need to be trashed. Keep growing.

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