James Dean and shrubs and trees that bloom in winter.

When I teach my students how to identify and use landscape plants (HORT 3030), I occasionally mention the comedian Rodney Dangerfield. When I introduce them to fall-flowering plants, I tell them that these plants don’t get any respect. This Rodney Dangerfield metaphor epitomizes a collection of plants that are often overlooked in the nursery or garden center bySpring fever-stricken folks. “You’re doomed without blooms” is the credo of plant merchandisers. These delectable fall-bloomers with flowers that may be fragrant and inconspicuous–holly tea olive, Fortune’s osmanthus, fragrant tea olive–or bodacious and aromatic like Japanese fatsia, remain unnoticed in the garden center. They’re upstaged by sumptuous flowers of a multitude of spring-blooming shrubs and trees that include azaleas, dogwoods, and deutzias.

Fall-blooming shrubs and trees don’t get any respect. What about plants that bloom in the winter? Despite the everpresent danger of losing their flowers to freezing temperatures, these stalwart plants bloom with attitude. These James Dean plants (yes, I know I further alienate myself from younger generations) display a devil-may-care attitude with gorgeous—sometimes even fragrant—flowers.

From fall through winter I enjoy the semidouble pink flowers of autumn-flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’).  Expect the largest floral display in early spring before the leaves emerge.

In late January and February I imbibe the spicy sweet-smelling blooms of Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume). This tree was one of the late J .C. Raultson’s favorite trees. Over 300 named cultivars offer single or double flowers in white through shades of pink to red.

The most famous winter-blooming trees are the many cultivars of Japanese camellias. Rightfully they’ve earned the nickname of “winter rose.” While only a few cultivars are endowed with fragrance, we appreciate them for their eye-candy blooms:  beautifully sculpted flowers that defy the imagination.

Chimonanthus praecox

Fragrant wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) in bloom.

A species in bloom right now is wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). Avoid gazing at its gaunt leafless constitution and admire the attractive thimble-sized pale yellow flowers with purple centers. The fragrance has been described as lemony and spicy. To me, the flowers smell like lemon-scented furniture polish.

Witchhazels offer an entertaining floral display in winter:  their spiderlike flowers are comprised of four straplike petals that look like strands of confetti which have exploded from the bud.  Among the best choices for the garden are the hybrids between the Asian species (Hamamaelis  x intermedia).  These produce the showiest flowers and become multistemmed shrubs ranging from 6 to 15 feet high.  My favorites among the two dozen cultivars include ‘Arnold Promise’, ‘Jelena’, ‘Primavera'; and ‘Ruby Glow’.

Finally, I’m looking forward to seeing and smelling the extremely fragrant creamy-yellow flowers of paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha). After it blooms in midwinter, bold, tropical-looking leaves emerge in the Spring from this uncommon deciduous shrub.

I am a big fan of winter-flowering shrubs and trees that can only be appreciated in the dead of winter and on their own terms. They provide me with a brief escape to my happy place away from the short, cold days of winter.

Bob Polomski (c) 2015

Save some “green” this year

Even before the Global Recession, I learned to become a frugal gardener.  Here are a few money-saving tips that will help you garden inexpensively:

Grow your own plants from seeds, divisions or cuttings. Share or trade open-pollinated heirloom plants with friends and acquaintances. Layering is a simple, foolproof way of propagating these “pass-along” plants.

Create seed-starting “pots” from foam coffee cups, paper cups, cottage cheese tubs, yogurt containers, margarine containers, and cut-off milk cartons by poking holes in the bottom for drainage. The clam shells with clear lids at salad bars make ready-to-use mini-greenhouses for seed-starting or rooting cuttings.

When shopping for perennials, look for potted plants that contain several divisions or offsets that can be easily teased apart at planting. For the price of one pot, you can acquire several plants.

Mulch your plantings.  A shallow, 2- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch conserves moisture, suppresses weeds, and supplies nutrients as it decomposes. Covering bare soil with mulch reduces erosion.  Fallen leaves make an attractive fine-textured mulch when they’re shredded with a lawn mower or leaf shredder.

Harvest rainwater to irrigate your landscape and garden this spring and summer. Attractive rain barrels, clay urns with spigots at the bottom, or makeshift pickle barrels make excellent vessels for capturing and using rainwater.

Compost. Recycle organic yard trimmings and kitchen wastes and return them back into the landscape or vegetable garden as a soil conditioner or mulch.

These are just a few economical “green” techniques that will save you some “green” this upcoming gardening season.

Bob Polomski (C) 2015

My New Year’s Resolution: conduct a seed inventory

In January and February I carry out one of my New Year’s resolutions:  I take inventory of my seed collection.  First, I gather up all of the seeds that I’ve squirreled away in a variety of places like the refrigerator crisper, the pockets of jackets and sport coats, and dresser drawers.  Then, over several evenings and weekends, I decide what to save, trade, or toss out.  Strengthening my resolve is the constant flow of seed catalogs into my mail box which boast about vegetable and flower varieties that are “bigger,” “brighter,” and “better.”  I just have to make the room.

To help me decide what stays and what goes into the compost heap, I ask myself several questions:

  • How old is the seed? Seeds remains viable or are capable of germinating over a certain period of time.  Here are the ballpark ages of several vegetable seeds that when stored under cool, dry conditions should be expected to produce a good stand of healthy seedlings:

1 year or less:  Onions, Parsley, Parsnips, and Salsify

2 years:  Corn, Okra, and Peppers

3 years:  Beans, Cowpeas (Southern peas), and Peas

4 years:  Beets, Fennel, Mustard, Pumpkins, Rutabagas, Squash, Swiss chard, Tomatoes, Turnips, and Watermelons

5 years:  Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collards, Eggplant, Muskmelons, Radishes, and Spinach.

•  Is the seed viable?  Perform a simple germination test.  Count out at least 20 seeds and space them out on two or three layers of moistened paper towels.  Roll the towels up carefully to keep the seeds separate and place the roll in a plastic bag.  Check the seeds in 2 or 3 days and every day thereafter for about a week or so to see if any germinated.  If few seeds germinate, you may want to discard the seed and buy fresh seed for the upcoming gardening season.

•  Is the seed the actual variety you wanted to save? If the vegetables are self-pollinated like beans, peas, lettuce, and nonhybrid tomatoes, expect to have true-to-type varieties.  However, expect surprises when planting the seeds from insect- or wind-pollinated varieties.  Cross-pollination will occur between different varieties of insect-pollinated vegetables such as cucumber, melon, squash, or pumpkin.  The same goes for wind-pollinated beets, sweet corn, spinach, and Swiss chard.  You may want to discard these seeds.

•  Was the seed collected from a hybrid?  Hybrid or F1hybrid seed is the offspring of a cross made between two parent varieties.  If you preferred the original hybrid, discard these seeds.  The offspring from an F1 hybrid will be a mixture of plant types, most of which will be inferior to the original parent.

•  Do you have any seeds or varieties that a fellow gardener would be willing to swap for?   In the eyes of some gardeners, a “Mickey Mantle” or “Joe DiMaggio” could take the form of a Sweet Baby Blue corn or a Super Italian Paste tomato.  Perhaps you can save these seeds and trade them for something else.

When I answer these questions, I find that very few seeds ever get composted.  Probably because I always ask myself one final question:  “Are you really sure that you can’t find any room for this little packet of seeds?”  The answer is always, “But of course.”  My wife has eight dresser drawers with plenty of room!

Bob Polomski (c) 2015

Mistletoe: friend or foe?

In last Sunday’s paper the following ad caught my eye: “Real, Fragrant Mistletoe Shipped Direct To You From the Mountains of Oregon.” I looked at the festive sprig of green leaves and pearly white berries secured with a bright red bow and smiled. I’v got plenty of mistletoe right outside my front door, thank you. Now that the oaks have shed their leaves, I can see green azalea-sized clusters of mistletoes (Phoradendron serotinum) nestled comfortably in the bare branches.

It’s interesting how this native parasitic plant comes into its own during the holiday season. For whatever the reasons, it has remained in our culture for centuries.

The modern tradition of using mistletoe around the Christmas holiday season dates back to the Celts of northern Europe. Druids, the holy men of Celtic society, used mistletoe in winter solstice ceremonies. Fearing the cold, short days of winter, the Druids used this green symbol of growth to ensure the return of the sun’s warmth in the spring.

Some cultures associated mistletoe with fertility because of its ability to bear fruit in winter. The Ainu of Japan chopped-up mistletoe leaves and sprinkled them on their fields to ensure a good crop. In Austria, a sprig of mistletoe was placed in a couple’s bed to encourage conception.

Of more modern origin is the act of kissing under the mistletoe on Christmas Eve. It probably drew upon age-old rituals and traditions involving druidism and fertility rites. In any event, it began as a fad in England and Wales in the 18th century and has become a Christmas tradition in many households today.

As a horticulturist, I’m intrigued by this half-parasitic plant. Mistletoe has leaves to produce its own food, but steals water and nutrients from its host. Mistletoe begins its life as a small white berry that is eaten and spread by birds, such as robins, thrushes, and cedar waxwings. The seed germinates within 6 weeks after being deposited by a bird on twigs and small branches. It produces “roots” that tunnel through the bark and tap the inner tissues for water and nutrients. Shortly thereafter, the seedling produces shoots and leaves. It takes about 5 years for mistletoe to flower, which occurs in the fall. Yellowish-green male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. After being pollinated by wind or insects, the female flowers give rise to berries that ripen in the winter to begin the cycle again.

For the past few weeks I’ve answered a flurry of calls from residents wanting to know if those green clumps will harm their trees and how they can be removed.

Mistletoe is a pest that can affect the growth and vigor of its host, and can expose the tree to attacks by diseases and insects. In some instances, mistletoe can cause branches to die back, and heavy, shrubby mistletoes can break entire limbs. In other situations, mistletoe is simply a cosmetic problem, which only affects the appearance of the tree.

The only effective way of ridding your tree of a mistletoe infestation is by pruning. Cut the infected limb one to two feet below the plant because mistletoe “roots” may extend up to a foot on either side of the point of attachment. Breaking off the tops, similar to plucking off the leaves of dandelions or wild garlic in the lawn, only encourages regrowth. Obviously, pruning out mistletoe clumps from the uppermost reaches of trees should be left in the hands of certified arborists. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, please avoid butchering the tree with haphazard cuts.

Since the 1950s, scientists have been searching for cheaper and more effective methods of controlling mistletoe. Herbicides have been evaluated, but they may pose a threat to the host. Growth hormone sprays, such as ethephon (Florel® Brand Fruit Eliminator), interrupt flowering or cause the shoots to fall off, but the mistletoe eventually resprouts and needs to be treated again.

If you decorate your home with store-bought or home-grown mistletoe, hang it up high out of the reach of children and pets. The berries are toxic and the sap may irritate the skin of some people. Watch out…it also can turn Scrooges into smoochers.

Bob Polomski (C) 2014

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