Sunday, November 24, 2013

Getting a Fir for Christmas?

Let's be honest. Holidays, while joyous, are stressful. Is the dog going to cooperate and wear the reindeer antlers for more than 5 seconds this year? Will the kids remember the words to their first speaking parts in the holiday play? Will you have to cable the tree to the wall to keep it from crashing during Christmas Eve dinner? You do remember this, don't you?

For those that love the tradition of a fresh cut tree, the wonderful choices available now may seem overwhelming. Sure, there are a lot of things to consider. How long will the tree be up? How tall? How wide? Do I want a dense tree or a layered one? Do I wrap the branches with lights or just lasso the outside? Can the branches support my big, heavy ornaments? Don't be overwhelmed. Choices abound:

Fraser fir is now the standard all quality varieties are compared against. The green needles with silver undersides impart a Christmas-y evergreen fragrance to holiday festivities. There are many strong branch tips to support lots of beautiful ornaments. Do be sure to check the trunk before you go home. Frasers tend toward very thick trunks (even at smaller sizes)  that may require something other than a "ring stand".  You'll love the great needle retention that allows you to have your Fraser up for a long holiday season.

Canaan fir is a relatively new selection. There is some variability in appearance so they can sometimes be confused with either Balsam, or even Fraser. The needles are soft (read easy to decorate), but branches are stiff enough to support ornaments. Needle retention is very good, and the aroma mimics Balsam, the most familiar Christmas tree-scent.

Another newer introduction to the Midwestern Christmas palette is Nordmann fir. It possesses soft, flattened black-green needles. While the fragrance is light, needle retention is excellent. Incidentally, Nordmanns are quite popular in Europe.

Noble fir is apropos for an elegant tree. The needles are not flattened, but tend to encircle the branches. They're a handsome blue-green and give off a wonderful aroma. The branches are beautifully layered and strong. Big heavy ornaments? Nobles' thick stems handle those easily. Their incredible needle retention is bested only by Concolor firs. You can have them indoors for weeks and weeks, literally. Like Frasers, they have thick trunks that require large diameter, heavy duty stands.

Then there's Concolor fir. If you're the family that puts your tree up in November and takes it down as the Super Bowl nachos are coming out of the kitchen, this is the tree for you. The long, soft silver-blue, silver-green needles are a joy to decorate. And they last! A friend wanted to really test her Concolor's needle longevity. In February she put her Christmas Concolor outside on the deck. In April she took a picture with all the needles still attached. Rusty brown to be sure, but still attached. No shedding, no kidding! No other tree is up to that challenge. Not that you still want your tree up in April, but it's a statement. The other thing is the delightful citrusy fragrance released when the tree is brought into a warm room. You'll swear someone's smuggled an orange tree into your home. The fragrance endures as the days and weeks pass. Incredible.

White pines have a different appearance than the firs. Their long, soft needles shed minimally. They are typically sheared in the nursery so they tend to be densely tufted on the outside without a lot of interior branching. The fragrance is wonderfully predictable- pine forest. The overall impression is "fluffy".

Now, if the tree fits in the stand, looks relatively straight, stays upright and all the lights stay on without blowing a circuit, that's about as stress-free as Christmas gets!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tulips and Cows (Tulpen en Koeien)

Did you know that it is standard practice in Holland to remove tulip flowers as soon as the growers see the color is true? Once the buds have opened the bulb growers bring in the kopmachine to behead the tulips. The beautiful flowers are often fed to cows, who I've read allegedly eat the red ones first. Really?

One way to protect your tulips from the neighbors' cows is to grow them in your window over the winter. Splashy Amaryllis and fragrant paperwhites need no prechilling to bloom in your home. Plant them at room temperature and they're quick to sport their fancy flower finery for you. The other spring bulbs (daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocus, etc.), however, must be prechilled to flower successfully indoors.

The bulbs just need to be hoodwinked into thinking they've already been exposed to 10-12 weeks of 35-40 degrees F., just as if they were in your garden all winter. There are different ways to accomplish the same gorgeous result.

The most commonly accepted way of forcing the "major" bulbs is to pot in a good quality potting soil. Don't fuss over whether to use clay or plastic pots. Just make sure there are drainage holes. The spring flowering bulbs can't stand heavy, wet soils. Select a pot that will hold at least: 5 daffs, 5-7 tulips, 3 or more hyacinths, 5 or more crocus. For forcing, remember you want maximum effect, so the bulbs can be almost touching. The necks of the bulbs should be slightly above the soil surface. Be sure and leave a water space between the soil surface and the rim of the pot. When those little roots start growing they will push the bulb up a bit in the pot!

One trick is to put the flat side (yes, there is one) of each tulip bulb against the outside of the pot. The first leaf will roll out over the side of the pot and frame the flowers perfectly all the way 'round the container. While we're talking tulips, consider using single early, double early, double late or Triumph "classes" as the best for indoor forcing. Once the bulbs are planted, water thoroughly.

Then you have choices to make. You can achieve the required chilling by placing the potted bulbs in the refrigerator bins for the aforementioned 10-12 weeks. Make sure there are no ethylene gas producers in the same bins as the bulbs. Edibles like apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, cantaloupes, honeydews, kiwis, peaches and tomatoes all produce varying amounts of ethylene which can deform the flowers.

If you'd rather not have your Sub-Zero used as a "bulbarium", you can place the bulb pots down in your window wells, an often overlooked horticultural storage unit. This will put the bulbs below the frost line and keep the soil from freezing. Cover with a light layer of straw for insulation. Like the refrigerator, the bulbs will start forming roots and be ready to retrieve and bring to the light-of-day after the chilling time is met.

If the family isn't keen on a refrigerator full of potted bulbs and you don't have window wells, there's a last option that has been EASY and successful for me. I simply put the bags of bulbs (which need to have openings or air holes so there's no condensation on the inside) in the refrigerator bins. When the chilling is complete, pull 'em out and pot 'em. The bulbs don't care whether they were potted or not while they're chilling.

Once chilled and potted, you'll place the pots in a bright window in a cool room, 65 degrees or less, while roots are forming. Water thoroughly so the water goes through the pot, then drain. In particular, it's great if you can keep them cool from rooting to flowering. As long as they're getting enough light the cool temperatures will keep them short and stocky, and the flowers will last longer than in a warm room. If they must move to a warm room try to keep them as cool as possible for the first couple of weeks. Roots have usually started once you see the green stems growing out of the neck of the bulb. Then you can move them to the place where you want to enjoy them.

Once they've finished blooming don't waste your time trying to save and reflower them. Forcing exhausts their food reserves. Like a cut flower bouquet, when it's over, it's over.