Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Keeping Christmas (A)Live

Many of the new permanent (not artificial, please) holiday greens are incredibly realistic. Still, there are those of us that cherish live greens and the fragrance they bring to the holidays. With that desire comes the challenge of keeping those greens fresh as long as possible. Some easy tips to achieve that goal:

The tree - How long are you going to have the tree up? Are you the family that puts it up the day after Thanksgiving and takes it down in January? Or, do you have it up for 2 weeks and then you're off to the Caribbean? Buy accordingly. In order of needle retention, shortest to longest: Balsam fir, white pine, Canaan fir, Fraser and Nordman fir, Noble and Concolor fir.

Buying early, but not decorating for a while? Take it home and store it out of the drying effects of wind and sun. An unheated garage meets those criteria. Don't lose height needlessly by cutting before it goes in water. Myth: Placing it in a bucket of water outdoors that quickly grows cold does nothing for keeping it fresh before stand set-up.  

If you're going to set it up right away your garden center may make the fresh cut for you. Making your own cut? It can be as little as 1/4". Like a cut flower, your tree just needs freshly exposed cells for water uptake. Once that cut is made you have up to six hours (1-2 hours is far better) to get the tree in the stand and in warm water.

Literally the "Last Stand" you'll ever need

Get a stand that holds good quantities of water. Love the Bowlin stands- huge reservoirs and are so heavy and stable they can could go through a tornado and remain standing. Well, almost. I've been unable to uncover any research that proves commercial preservatives make any difference in tree freshness. Forget aspirin, bleach and the home remedies. Do consider spraying an anti-transpirant like Wilt-Pruf on the underside of the needles, letting it dry in the garage before bringing it inside for set-up. This should make a difference.

 Helps to keep trees and greens fresher

So, the tree has a fresh cut and is in the stand. Always add warm water. Be vigilant the first few days. Check a few times a day to make sure the stand never goes dry. Generally the tree will become hydrated and slow its uptake. Still, water levels should be checked at least daily throughout your tree's time indoors. By the way, when the holidays are over think about cutting the branches off and using them as mulch over ground cover or perennials- a great way to recycle.

Spray the underside where moisture is lost

Wreaths and roping - Wilt-Pruf can be used on all greens, whether they're to be used indoors or out. Like the tree, try as best you can (and I do know it can be difficult) to spray the underside of leaves where the water loss actually occurs. Regardless of what precautions you take, placing greens near fireplaces, radiators and vents takes a toll. Know that balsam is wonderfully fragrant, but has a thin needle that dries and sheds indoors. White pine roping will eventually discolor, but needle drop is minimal.

Live plants in pots outdoors - Treat boxwood, Alberta spruce, really any tree or shrub in a pot, as an annual. If it's alive next spring, what a great bonus! Generally, the smaller the volume of soil the more apt it is to freeze and damage the roots irreparably. I recommend 24" (all directions) containers as giving best chances for success. Use Wilt-Pruf and water periodically if plants are under an overhang, or we experience a dry winter.

Live Christmas trees keep on giving

Live Christmas trees indoors - This references the sustainable practice of decorating potted trees indoors for planting after the holidays. Three things you should know:

* Predig the hole before the ground freezes. Store the soil where it won't freeze. Mulch the hole with straw to keep it from freezing before you plant the tree.
* Limit your tree's time indoors. I like 1 or 2 days in an intermediate cool area (like a garage or unheated porch), 5 days maximum inside, 1-2 days back in the cool area again, then plant.
* Know that cute 4-5' evergreen in a pot is a lot of weight to be hoisting back and forth, in and out, up and down stairs. But it is very cool see it years later in the garden and say, "That was our Christmas tree in 2015!"

Happy Holidays, all!                

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Bulb Persuasion

By definition, "forcing" something like a delicate little 'Tete-a-Tete' daffodil to bloom out of season sounds mean and heavy-handed. So, rather than "forcing" spring bulbs to bloom in pots indoors ahead of season, let me be kinder, gentler and call it bulb "persuasion". It's actually very easy and rewarding if you know the right procedure.

Bulb varieties that respond well to persuasion

Daffodils, tulips, crocus, hyacinths and the minor bulbs require a prolonged and uninterrupted chilling period of 38-45 degrees F. (called vernalization) for 10-12 weeks to trigger flowering. If you want to successfully capture that same stunning garden effect indoors you need to duplicate this chilling process. If you don't, you'll just have grassy leaves with little or no flower display to show for your efforts.

You should know there's a wealth of ways to achieve a gorgeous result. Some standard methods to persuade bulbs to flower indoors are:  
  1. Pot the bulbs, sink the pot in the ground (to keep from freezing), cover with coarse mulch and pull out late winter to bring in and enjoy. Downside: Pots may be frozen in ground and inaccessible when you want them. Pots may be dirty and hard to clean.
  2. Pot bulbs, put out in your cold frame. Downside: Seriously, how many of your neighbors have a cold frame or are going to build one for four or five pots of bulbs?
  3. Pot, put in the refrigerator. Downside: Pots full of bulbs are space-consuming in the fridge, especially for the 10-12 week minimum needed for chilling. For those folks with a spare Frigidaire loafing in the garage this is a very workable solution.
  4. Pot, put the watered bulb pots down in a window well and mulch lightly, with straw, for example. Upside: I've learned that window wells are a largely untapped garden resource, but you have to have access to them. Whether it's winter storage of evergreen bonsai or the aforementioned bulbs, wells are really useful. You're putting things below the frost line, temperature extremes are buffered, too, by the ambient heat from the house and they get natural precipitation (unless plastic dome-covered). Win-win, love it.
Who doesn't love having bulbs (especially hyacinths) in flower in February and March while the garden is still under siege? I readily admit to trying a number of different bulb persuasion techniques over the years and I have a favorite. It's my favorite because it gives consistent uniformity of flowers and no rotten bulbs. I call it the bag-in-the-fridge method.

Dated bags of bulbs ready for 10-12-week chill in fridge

Put the bulbs for persuading in paper, ventilated plastic or mesh bags so there is adequate air circulation around them. Remove ethylene gas-producing fresh fruit and vegetables from the fridge before putting the bags in the crisper. Ethylene adversely affects flower buds in the bulbs and can cause them to abort. If you're like me it's best to put a date on the bulbs so you know exactly when the chilling started. 8-10 weeks is the minimum, 10-12 is better. So, if you're looking forward to winter blooms get them chillin' as early as possible.

Prechilled hyacinth potted up and ready to please

With the bags-in-the-fridge method pull them out at the end of their chilling period and pot them. A standard houseplant potting mix is fine. Whether you use clay or plastic the pots must have drainage holes. Don't do less that six (more is better) daffodils or tulips per pot. Single, double early and Triumph are the best tulip classes for persuading. Because of their large bulb size the very tip of tulips and daffodils should be above the soil line. With their incredible fragrance 3-5 hyacinths per pot makes a wonderful show.

Water thoroughly and place in a cool (60-65 degree F. would be great), dark place in your home while the plants commence rooting. That will generally take several weeks. When green leaf tips start showing in the pot you can move them to more light and warmth. Strong light, if not direct sun, and cooler rooms will give you strong, stocky plants. When the buds start showing color move away from sun and heat to prolong flowering.

Persuading bulbs this winter? It's in the bag...

Friday, October 23, 2015


If you grow dahlias October's first frost presents a dilemma. Do you want to try and save the tuberous roots or does that seem like too much trouble? For those in the latter camp take heart. Gorgeous dahlias are inexpensive and a great value for the months of flowers they provide. So, don't feel guilty about tossing and buying new in spring from your favorite garden center or through dahlia specialists.

Try rolling your dahlia tubers in plastic this year!
For those that want to store dahlias it can be a challenging process. There are as many ways to store them as there are people growing them. So, I'm going on record that what I'm sharing is how I'm going to do mine this year. The digging and prep are going to be the same as in the past, but the plastic wrap storage method will be new for me.

The morning after a killing frost  (a freeze is more dangerous, making harvest a more urgent task) I like to get out and cut the blackening foliage back leaving only a 5-6" stem above the ground. This gives you a "handle" to use. Assuming daytime temperatures moderate after frost leave the plants in the ground for a week to "cure" before digging. This will put them in a state where eyes (next year's buds on the neck of the tubers) start swelling and (I'm told) the tubers will store better.

Keep big honkin' tuber mass intact when digging up
When you're ready to harvest dig with a spade or a fork starting at least 6-8" away from the stem. The single tuber you planted this spring will now be a big honkin' mass of tubers that you don't want to slice through. Dig all the way around, loosening the soil and lifting the plant gently. Don't pull it out by the stem!

Once you've lifted the root system from the ground many growers recommend gently washing soil off. Truthfully, I'm not crazy about the idea of wetting tubers, so I don't. I try to physically remove as much soil as possible with my hands (yep, it's tedious, but I don't have hundreds to do) without snapping off tubers. Then I turn them upside down on plastic in the garage (out of sun and wind) for a day to let the hollow stems drain. This also allows the tuber surfaces to dry and any remaining soil to be removed before storing. By the way, I personally omit a fungicide treatment, but you may want to do that before storage.

The "How do I physically store them?" part is where the process can go south in a hurry. The problem is keeping tubers from becoming too: wet, dry, hot or cold during the five or more months of winter storage indoors. As Charlie Brown used to say, "Arrrr-ggg-hhhhh." So, Tony is going to use the "plastic wrap method" of dahlia storage that I read about years ago, but never tried.

Separate tubers with "eyes", or buds, for next year

Lay down plastic, roll each tuber once, then add another

How is this going to work (fingers crossed)? Hopefully, I'm going to be able to see the little baby eyes swelling already this fall. I'll cut eye-bearing tubers from the clump. Remember, each tuber has to have an eye to grow next year. I'm going to get a long stretch of plastic wrap and lay it out flat. The first tuber is rolled until it is covered with one thickness of wrap. I'll place a second one in the fold of the first (not touching each other) and roll it over once, too. Then a third and maybe a fourth will be added all in the same stretch of wrap. I'll fold over the ends, secure with tape and write the variety name on the outside. Each variety will be a separate wrap group.

These will be placed in a box and I'll try to find a dark spot where the temps will stay between 40-50 F. Dahlias in storage don't want warmer or colder than that. I like the idea of the plastic wrap treatment since it:

* Takes less storage space
* Eliminates storage media (peat, sand, wood shavings, vermiculite) and whether it's too wet or dry
* You can see at a glance if any of the tubers are problematic in storage and need to be removed

So, dahlia enthusiasts, are you pitching or storing this fall?

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