Keep your cut Christmas tree alive during the holiday season

When it comes to Christmas trees, there’s nothing like the real thing.  In fact about 25 – 30 million Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.  When you bring a live tree into your dwelling during the holiday season-yes, a cut Christmas tree is very much alive despite being severed from its roots-you need to keep its tissues hydrated, which affects it longevity.  Over time water is lost through the needles.  Eastern red cedar and Atlantic white cedar dry out rapidly, while Fraser fir and noble fir lose water much more slowly.

Water can be replaced via the cut end of the trunk.  To facilitate this make a fresh cut an inch from the end of the trunk before you put your tree in a water-filled tree stand.  Experiments with additives such as floral preservatives, sugar, and 7-Up® have shown to provide no benefit over pure water, but the tree stand must never be allowed to dry out.

How long a cut tree survives depends on the freshness of the tree when purchased, and how long it is kept moist. A friend of mine from New Hampshire kept his cut balsam fir in a cool room with ample water long after the holidays.  In fact, it actually put out several inches of fresh needles in early March.  It may seem unusual for my friend to keep a Christmas tree for that length of time, but it makes sense for someone who never takes down his Christmas decorations.

Bob Polomski 2014 (c)

Selecting and caring for live holiday trees

If you’re planning on buying a live tree and expect to plant it outdoors after Christmas, choose the right tree. Arizona cypress, deodar cedar, red cedar, and Leyland cypress are just a few of several double-duty “Christmas” trees that can be enjoyed in our homes over the holidays before being planted outside in the landscape.

When you shop for your tree, choose one with a firm root ball. Store the tree in a protected location before bringing it inside.

Once you bring the tree indoors, keep it inside for as short a time as possible: no more than 10 days but 5 to 7 days would be better. Keep the tree away from heating vents, fireplaces, and other heat sources.

Place the rootball in a large tub and water from the top. Check the rootball daily and water often enough to keep the soil moist.

After the holiday, plant your tree immediately. The root ball will be very heavy so enlist the help of any holiday guests to help you carry it outside.

Plant it in a sunny well-drained location with plenty of room to spread out.

Dig the hole at least twice the diameter of the root ball and as deep. Place the tree in the hole, stand it straight and fill in with soil. Water thoroughly and mulch with 2 to 4 inches of compost, shredded bark, or pine straw. Keep it well-watered during the winter months to help your tree become established. This spring, stand back and watch your investment grow.

Bob Polomski (c) 2014

Houseplants and winter blues

It’s tough being a houseplant during the winter, especially during the holiday season. Besides reduced light levels and low humidity, you have to give up your favorite spot near the window to seasonal plants like poinsettias, Christmas cactus, and amaryllis. If that’s not enough, you’re often faced with a caregiver who’s intent on watering you like a holiday plant: too often and too much.

The result of this treatment often causes houseplants to meet the Fate of most of their holiday kin: the top of the compost heap.

To avoid the Fate of recycling your houseplants, you may have to make a few adjustments to their indoor accommodations. Because the winter sun is lower and farther to the south, plants receive fewer hours of less intense light. So, houseplants that were exposed to low light on the north side of the house can be moved to east-facing windows. Plants near east-facing windows can be exposed to more sunlight by moving them to a south-facing window. Plants that were located on stands away from direct sunlight can be moved closer to a less exposed window to give them more light. In dimly lit rooms, rotate the plants every week or so.

Low moisture levels in the home during the winter can be uncomfortable to us and harmful to some houseplants. Relative humidity levels of 10 or 15 percent indoors can be tolerated by cactuses and succulents like snake plant (Sansevieria), cast-iron plant (Aspidistra), and various dracenas. Most others need a relative humidity of 40 to 60 percent. When exposed to these low moisture levels during the winter months, the leaves of most plants lose water faster than their roots can absorb it. As a result, the leaves curl, their tips turn brown, and flowering plants may drop their flower buds or flowers may wither up prematurely.

Move sensitive plants to cooler locations or to rooms that tend to be more humid than others such as the bathroom, kitchen (away from the oven), or a well-lit basement.

You can boost local humidity levels in the following ways:

  1. Water lost by leaves and potting mix raises moistens the air of its neighbors.
  2. Using a room humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer. Track humidity levels with a digital hygrometer so you can increase levels that will match your comfort, too. The ideal moisture level for people is between 30 percent and 50 percent relative humidity.
  3. Setting pans of water on radiators or wood stoves.
  4. Placing high humidity lovers on a pebble-filled tray of water inside an aquarium tank with an adjustable opening at the top. A small fan will improve air circulation and a heating cable under the tray will speed up evaporation.

One final tip regarding winter houseplant care is to avoid overwatering: the biggest cause of plant death during the winter months. Water according to the needs of the plant. Plants that are resting should be watered sparingly. Keep flowering plants moderately moist and watered when the surface of the medium feels dry.

Winter and the holidays can be a challenging time of year for both plants and people alike. However, by offering our houseguests a little attention now will help them realize the destiny we prescribed for them: to brighten our homes with their presence…next Spring.

Bob Polomski (c) 2014

Arbor Day: A Celebration of Giving Trees

Arbor Day 2014 Clemson University

Clemson University celebrated Arbor Day with a “Memorial Tree Plant Dedication” hosted by the Student Government Sustainability Committee. A Cherokee Princess flowering dogwood was planted in memory of the following Clemson University students who passed away this year: Kenneth Davis, Virginia Gilliam, Tucker Hipps, Andrew O’Neill, and Kendall Wernet.

“Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy” is the first sentence in the children’s book: The Giving Tree. This story chronicles the lifelong relationship between a boy and a tree. From boyhood to his golden years, this tree selflessly gives all that it has to the boy: leaves, shade, a place to hide, and so on. I won’t spoil the ending for you. Each time I read this story by Shel Silverstein, I’m reminded of Arbor Day, a day that emphasizes the importance of trees in our lives.

National Arbor Day, founded by J. Sterling Morton in 1872, was April 25 this year, always the last Friday in April. South Carolina has been celebrating Arbor Day since 1934. It falls on the first Friday of December, which is today, Dec. 4. Arbor Day at the national and state level encourages us to plant and care for trees.

I first learned of The Giving Tree many Arbor Days ago when I was 12. Since then, I’ve read the story hundreds of times and celebrated many Arbor Days in many states. Most often these one-day tree-planting ceremonies were accompanied by speeches, poems, and songs acknowledging the importance of trees.

So although Arbor Day may only be celebrated once or twice a year, you don’t have to recognize the benefits of trees just twice a year. Daily I am reminded of the importance of trees in our lives.

Around our homes trees surround us with the seasonal beauty of their leaves and flowers, and their attractive bark and branch architecture. They offer privacy and hide unsightly views. Trees and shrubs provide food, shelter, and nesting for wildlife. Pollen and nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees are additional bonuses. Their roots keep soil in place and increase water movement into soil to reduce surface runoff from storms.

Trees save energy and money. The shade provided by deciduous trees planted on the southeastern and western sides of your home can reduce indoor temperatures by 8 to 10 degrees in the summer and reduce air conditioning costs up to 30 percent. In the winter, their leafless branches allow the sun to warm our homes.

When trees are used as a windbreak on the north side of a home to intercept cold winter winds, they can save from 10 to 50 percent in heating costs.

Trees in our towns and cities enliven our downtown areas. I could not imagine Main Street without its comforting canopies of green. Trees hide harsh scenery and soften the hard outlines of masonry, metal, and glass. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and in return replenish the environment with oxygen. According to the S.C. Forestry Commission, “trees absorb enough carbon dioxide over a year’s time to equal the amount you produce when you drive your car 26,000 miles.”

Like the boy in The Giving Tree, we depend on trees and cannot live without them. If you have existing trees, maintain them properly so your living investments will grow in value with each passing year. Consider planting a tree to give your neighborhood and community a living legacy. This simple, selfless act offers a multitude of benefits to all of us. It also says a lot about you. According to an English proverb: “He who plants a tree loves others besides himself.”

Bob Pololmski  2014 (c)

Jujube: an uncommon fruit

On a visit to central Florida several summers ago, I became acquainted with the jujube or Chinese date (Ziziphus zizyphus). Although it has been cultivated in China for more than 4,000 years, I began cultivating it in my own garden for the past 12 years.

This deciduous tree is completely hardy in our area. In fact, it’s hardy from USDA zones 6 to 10, and fares best in the warmer part of this range.

Jujubes are relatively low maintenance, drought-tolerant trees that prefer a well-drained location in full sun or partial shade. They can become large shrubs or small trees, reaching a height of 15 to 35 feet with a spread of 10 to 30 feet. Zigzagging branches eventually give the tree a spreading, irregular crown. Their shiny green leaves turn yellow in the fall.

Many cultivars are thornless, although suckers arising from the roots often bear menacing spines. Unless these suckers are removed, they can result in a nearly impenetrable thicket.

In the spring and sporadically thereafter, fragrant, inconspicuous white to greenish-yellow flowers emerge along small branchlets, which can be mistaken for compound leaves. These flowers are self-fertile, not requiring cross-pollination for fruit set to occur. However, yield is sometimes improved by pollination from another variety.

The oval green fruits that follow range in size from a cherry to a small plum. Green at first, they eventually turn whitish and develop mahogany blotches, which indicate ripening. By late summer or early fall, the fruits turn completely dark red and become wrinkled. At this stage they can be harvested by vigorously shaking the tree. Even when picked at the whitish stage, however, they will continue to ripen normally.

The flavor and texture of fresh jujubes is akin to a sweet, somewhat mealy apple. High in vitamin C but low in acidity, the fruits can be stored in refrigerator for two to three months, or dried to resemble dates with a sugar content of 70 to 80 percent.

More than 400 varieties of jujubes are cultivated in China. ‘Li’ and ‘Lang’ are the most popular fruits in the U.S. I am growing ‘Li’ and ‘Sherwood.’ ‘Li’ is an early-ripening cultivar that produces the largest fruits of any jujube. They range from 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. ‘Sherwood’ originated as a seedling from southern Louisiana. Its fruits are smaller than ‘Li,’ but it ripens later in the season.

For more information about jujubes, visit the California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc. web site. If you’d like to know even more about them, purchase a copy of the Jujube Primer & Source Book by Roger Meyer and Robert R. Chambers (CRFG [ISBN 0-9675198-1-0]).

Confederate rose: a fall-flowering chameleon

Like aspiring Hollywood actors, there are some lesser known fall-blooming garden plants that perform brilliantly in our gardens, but are rarely found in the marketplace. These plants have beauty, talent, and the ability to make passersby stop for a longer look.

One of those plants that should receive top billing is Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis). Although it spends most of the growing season looking rather ordinary with large, fuzzy sycamore-like leaves, it’s not until late September and October when she makes her debut. The first one I saw several autumns ago rose more than 10 feet high and had red, pink, and white peonylike flowers-all on the same plant! I was awestruck.

Like a chameleon, Confederate rose flowers open up white and then change to pink and then to red before they begin to fade. Some cultivars of Confederate rose, such as ‘Plena,’ have double-flowers that change from white to pink.’Flore-Plena’ is a common cultivar that has double pink, camellialike flowers.

Confederate rose prefers full sun to partial shade in a well-drained location. In the Piedmont the woody stems die back to the ground when temperatures drop to 15 degrees F. However, new shoots slowly emerge in the spring.

Although Confederate rose may be hard to find in the nursery trade, you should find one growing somewhere in your community. The folks I know who grow “The Rose” have always been generous about passing along a handful of easy-to-root cuttings. Like self-appointed publicity agents, they’re determined to make Confederate rose famous.

“Barney Berries”: a visual autumn treat

I’m very fond of using fruiting ornamental plants in the landscape. Often, they pack a one-two punch of interest: colorful autumn leaves and gorgeous fruits. Sumacs, hollies, cotoneasters, crabapples, and viburnums are eyCallicarpaamericana_fruite-candy for us and a food source for wildlife.

One of my favorite fruiting plants is the beautyberry. I’m particularly fond of our native species, American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). During the growing season this plant looks like any other green leafy shrub with long, slender branches. From June through August it produces attractive lavender-pink flowers along its stems. It’s not until late summer and fall when American beautyberry gets noticed. Clusters of golfball-sized iridescent purple berries occur along the length of each branch. Often the shiny purple berries will persist until December, long after it sheds it yellow leaves.

My daughter used to call these shrubs “Barney Berries,” in honor of that famous purple dinosaur on PBS. The fruit clusters are big, boldly colored, and beautiful. Serious gardeners may ask: “What can you grow alongside your beautyberries that will complement their purple fruits?” Since beautyberries can be grown in full sun to part shade, plant them at the edge of woodlands or in beds with ornamental grasses to serve as a foil to that earthy color scheme. Others have successfully combined its purple berries with asters and goldenrods.

If purple is not your color, then consider the white-fruited ‘Lactea’ or ‘Russell Montgomery’ American beautyberries. Their pearly-white berries will go with anything. But if you want to make folks look twice and ask: “What’s that?”, then you have to go with purple.

Beautyberries are rather easy to grow. In the spring cut them back close to the ground. Since flowers and fruits are produced on current season’s growth, drastically cutting them back will give you a terrific display on a multitude of gracefully arching branches. During very dry summers I water it occasionally.
If you’re also interested in growing edible fruits, such as blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries–the ones with antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins—then feel free to shoehorn them among your beautyberries. After all, anything goes with purple.