December Home & Garden HortTips


Gardener's Checklist for DecemberBuilding a Birdhouse
Selecting a Christmas Tree

Gifts for Gardeners
Deicing Salt


Hedge Apples
Keep Your Christmas Tree Fresh Care of a Live Christmas Tree

Getting to Know Yew
Purchasing Poinsettias
Holiday Plants

Norfolk Island Pine
Wood Ashes and Garden Soil

A Gardener's Night Before Christmas
The Christmas Tree Tradition
Holiday Cacti

Growing Orchids

Evergreens for Wreaths

Hawthorns in the Landscape
Ornamental Grasses
Repotting Houseplants

Recycling a Cyclamen
Keeping Your Houseplants Healthy
Disposing of the Christmas Tree

Gardener's Checklist for December
Take time to relax and do some planning for spring. It will be with us before we know it! Here's your checklist for December:

•Select a live or cut Christmas tree while the selection is good. Keep the tree in the garage or an unheated building until it is time to decorate it.
•Keep poinsettias out of cold drafts and away from heat sources. Place them where they will get as much light as possible.
•Popcorn and cranberry garlands are easy to make.
•Cover or move indoors any stone statuary to prevent frost cracks.
•Protect furniture from the sap of fresh, needled evergreen boughs when decorating for the holidays.

•Don't let dried evergreen decorations become a fire hazard.
•Trim an outdoor evergreen tree with treats for wildlife.
•f you're considering the native American holly for your landscape, please be advised that it will grow to 40 - 50 feet in height with a spread of 18 - 40 feet.
•Salt used to melt ice on sidewalks and driveways can damage plants and lawns.
•Begin planning next year's garden as the seed catalogs arrive in the mail. Try a few new plants next year.

•Evaluate your landscape. Plan to fill in gaps with appropriate plants in the spring.
•Gather holiday greens from your landscape but prune carefully. Spray the greens with an antidesiccant to retard water loss.
•After the ground freezes, mulch shrubs and perennials with straw, pine needles, or branches of the discarded Christmas tree to prevent heaving of the plants during periods of freezing and thawing.
•Rake up any leaves remaining on the lawn.
•Avoid walking on the lawn once the ground has frozen.

•Begin bringing in some bulbs potted for forcing. Put them in a cool location with bright light.
•Plant your live Christmas tree as soon as possible after Christmas.
•Feed the birds.
•Rotate houseplants to achieve even growth.
• Keep succulents and cacti on the dry side

•Do not feed houseplants during the winter months and reduce the watering.
•Raise the humidity for your houseplants by grouping them together.
•Water houseplants with warm water.
•Keep your Christmas tree stand filled with water.
• Relax with a good gardening book.

•Plants make nice holiday gifts.
• Have a nice December!

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Building a Birdhouse
Birdhouses help attract more birds to your yard and garden. Building birdhouses is a great winter activity. This teletip provides some tips. The source of this information is the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Here are some basics:
Wood is the best material to use for bird houses. Do not use tin cans, milk cartons or metal nest boxes. Do not use preserved lumber.

Provide a hinged side or roof so you can easily clean the house each spring. Use rust-proof hinges to make the task easier.

Drill at least four 1/4-inch drain holes in the bottom of every house, and two 5/8-inch ventilation holes near the top of each side of the house.

Provide a roof with at least a two-inch overhang on the front to protect the entrance hole from wind-driven rain, and to prevent cats from reaching in from above.

The sides of the house should enclose the floor to keep rain from seeping into the house and nest. Recess the floor 1/4 inch up from the bottom to further prevent rotting caused by moisture.

Don't put perches on any bird house.

Keep entrance holes on songbird houses 1and 3/8 inches or smaller to keep out starlings and house sparrows.

Most houses should be attached to a post, building or tree.

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Selecting a Christmas Tree
Selecting the Christmas tree is a fun holiday tradition in many families.

Since many trees are cut in early fall to meet the Christmas demand, your primary concerns should be to buy a fresh tree and keep it fresh. Here are some pointers.

Before you shop for a tree, decide where you want to display it. Will it be in a corner or by a window? How high are the ceilings in that room? Keep the location in mind when you're looking over the trees. You might be able to buy a less expensive, poorly formed tree, for example, if it's to be in a corner where only part of the tree will be visible.

Shop early. If you wait, you're likely to find only poorly formed, broken or dry trees. Freshly-cut trees grown by local, experienced growers usually will give more satisfaction than trees shipped long distances.

Different tree species have different characteristics. Balsam fir is the least dense; its large, open spaces provide lots of room for ornaments. Frasier fir and the spruces are a bit denser. And pines, especially Scotch pine, are the bushiest. Choose a tree that will hold its needles well. In general, spruces dry and lose needles the quickest, the firs more slowly. Pines keep their needles the longest. Scotch pines are among the least expensive trees. Frasier fir and balsam fir are excellent choices. So are Scotch, red and white pines.

Another consideration is sharpness of the needles. If small children will be playing around the tree, you'll want to avoid the sharp-needle spruces.

When you find a tree you like, hold it by the trunk and bounce it on the ground. If needles fall, it is not fresh. Gently pull the needles at the end of a branch. Bend them. The needles of a fresh tree will be firmly attached and pliable. Rub your fingers across the stump; a really fresh tree will be sticky with resin. The tree also should be clean and free of moss, vines or foreign material.

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Getting to Know Yew
Taxus or yew is a diverse genus of evergreen shrubs and trees. Taxus types range in size from the three foot tall native groundcovers and even smaller dwarfs to striking 40-foot tall and higher specimens of Japanese yew. If you are interested in some natural views of yews, you cannot do better than the Secrest Arboretum at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, Ohio. Secrest is home to the world's largest collection of different Taxus species and cultivars.

Come see Taxus cultivars with golden yellow foliage. View the grove of Taxus trees. Admire the muscled, pealing bark of cinnamons, deep reds and browns on a pyramidal 30 foot decades-old Japanese yew. Walk among the broad 20 foot by 20 foot specimens of Anglojap yews. Some are over 40 years old. Then, when planting in your own landscape, bring Taxus to their full potential by providing the necessary good drainage that all Taxus need. And, unless you are a topiary lover, bring out their full character by selective pruning and letting the natural shape develop, rather than practicing the all too common shearing into unnatural shapes.

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Purchasing Poinsettias
Picking out the best poinsettia is more than looking for the biggest, fullest one. Yes, the plant should be full with multiple blossoms. The bracts should be the color you want. And, look for the small green buttons in the center of the colored bracts. These buttons will eventually develop into little yellow flowers. Most of the larger poinsettias are actually 3 to 5 plants in one pot, rather than one multiple-branches plant.

Check your plant carefully. Avoid poinsettias with yellowed lower leaves. Yellowed leaves means that plant has not been watered properly or the root system is not healthy. Select a plant with green leaves down to the soil line. Look at the underside of the leaves for white flies or their eggs. You don't want to bring these plant pests into your home. Quality plants from well-managed greenhouses may not be the cheapest available, but they will be free of pests and are worth the extra money.

Once you purchase a healthy, well-formed poinsettia, transport it home in a plant bag to protect it from the cold. Have your car warmed up before putting a poinsettia in it. Temperatures below 50 degrees F will cause the leaves to fall. Once home, place the plant where there is sufficient bright, natural light to read fine print. Keep the plant out of drafts. Water your plant when the soil surface feels dry to the touch. Apply enough water so that it drains out the bottom of the pot, but don't allow the plant to sit in standing water.

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Holiday Plants
There are many colorful alternatives to poinsettias. White and red forced tulips and amaryllis are great for Christmas. Wrap the pot of white tulips, daffodils or amaryllis with blue foil and you have a perfect Hanukkah centerpiece.

Reiger begonias with their bright red blossoms are popular at Christmas, as are Christmas cactus, Jerusalem cherries and ornamental red peppers. Deep red or pure white cyclamens are perfect for cooler locations in the home. Cyclamen do best where the sun is bright and the temperatures are in the 50s. With the right conditions, they will stay in bloom for 2 or 3 months.

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Clivias are almost too good to be true. Just when everyone is deeply entrenched in wintertime doldrums, clivias can come to the rescue. With their broad, flat foliage neatly stacked on either side of a central growing tip, every leaf in place like a bouffant hairdo, clivias are, as you would imagine, members of the amaryllis family. When mature, clivias stand two to three feet tall, while their gracefully arching leaves spread into an equal width. Although they monopolize a large area on the windowsill, they are extremely attractive whether in bloom or not.

Clivias are close to unkillable. They'll tolerate quite a lot of abuse, but a few hints might help coax forth those stupendous flowers. Seedlings need to be three years old before they settle into the serious business of making blossoms. When they've reached that ripe age, autumn is the time to prepare for their winter display. For a month to six weeks from October to November, water very moderately (let the soil go almost, but not quite, to the parching point), withhold fertilizer completely, and don't repot. Nighttime temperatures should slip down to 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The autumnal resting period is crucial. Meanwhile, the foliage shouldn't show the slightest hint that the plant is resting - not a shrivel or a brown streak anywhere to mar the clivia's immaculate image. In late November you can resume watering. Feed once every three to four weeks when buds appear. Clivias do well in an east window.

It's best to grow clivias in clay pots to provide ballast for the top-heavy foliage, but don't use your favorite antique or decorative pots as their aggressive roots often break their container. These plants blossom best when pot bound and can remain in the same container for years. When repotting, use a heavy, sandy soil. Clivias can be propagated by offsets from the mother plant or by seed.

For all of their majesty, clivias require little care. Except during the autumn chilling period, nighttime temperatures can fall into the forties or rise into the sixties - clivias don't mind. (When they are grown in a very warm environment in the winter, however, they sometimes send out blossoms off-season rather than producing much-needed wintertime flowers.) These plants don't demand high humidity and if the room is exceedingly dry, the leaf edges will brown, but your lips will probably become painfully chapped before the clivia begins to protest.

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Growing Orchids
Most home gardeners shy away from raising orchids, thinking them too challenging even for their "green" thumbs. But given the diversity of plants that are found in the orchid family, there is bound to be at least one member that the average home gardener can tackle.

In fact, according to the American Orchid Society: "If you can grow houseplants, you can grow orchids. Like any other plant, orchids must have the growing conditions they need to survive. But they are amazingly sturdy and resilient."

The first thing to do in choosing an orchid to grow is to become familiar with the four basic types, as that will determine the growing conditions needed to be successful. Most orchids are classified as epiphytes, or air plants, which grow chiefly on trees in nature. Other orchids are lithophytes, which cling to the surfaces of rocks; saprophytes grow in decaying vegetation on the forest floor; and terrestrials, which send their roots into soil or sand. As most orchids are epiphytes, they can be grown in tree bark (fir or redwood), crumbled charcoal, pebbles or on cork planks.

Some of the easier orchids with which to start a collection include Cattleya, Phalaenopsis and Oncidium. The proper temperature, watering and fertilizing schedules vary with the specific type of orchid.

There are many good books available to help guide the novice orchid grower along their path.

In addition, you can find lots of great advice by joining the American Orchid Society.

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Buckeyes come in a wide range of types. Most common in Ohio landscapes are the spreading, shrub-like bottlebrush buckeye, a southeast U.S. native, and two native trees: the Ohio buckeye, our state tree, and the red buckeye. For the native trees, springtime is the season of glory, with the wrinkled new growth of Ohio buckeyes unfurling into parasol-like five-part leaves, accompanied by cream-colored flowers. Red buckeyes can be a spectacular addition to the spring scene with their crisp scarlet-colored flower show.

This early grace of red, Ohio, and most other buckeyes burns but briefly with the onset of leafblotch disease, often starting in early June. Once joined by mid summer heat scorch, this leads to brown leaves far before autumn signals other trees' foliar color changes. This greatly limits the use of buckeyes as street trees, though it is possible to stop the disease, but early and multiple protective fungicide sprays are necessary.

This is where bottlebrush buckeyes come into the picture. This buckeye has excellent resistance to leaf blotch disease, retaining clean foliage until fall, and has tremendous value as an ornamental shrub. Bottlebrush buckeyes have a horizontal, layered look, effectively setting off the lines of buildings and very graceful in naturalized landscape settings, especially on mild slopes and long paths where the walker looks up or down on the plants. Feathery white flowers in mid-summer add greatly to the effect. Look for bottlebrush buckeyes at Chadwick Arboretum in Columbus and Secrest Arboretum in Wooster.

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Evergreens for Wreaths
Junipers, arborvitaes, and yews are common landscape plants whose foliage can be used in homemade wreaths. Selectively prune branches that have strayed beyond the normal growth habit, snipping wisely to avoid gaping holes. Be careful about cutting growth from spruce and pine trees, because these species will not replace their branches. If you wish to use pine and spruce, cut out entire branches.

Draw attention to your wreath by adding materials with interesting berries or colorful twigs. Plants with berries include holly, winterberry, viburnum, hawthorn, and pyracantha. Kerria, willow, and red and yellow-twigged dogwood can possess attractive twig color.

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Gifts for Gardeners
Is there a gardener on your Christmas shopping list? If so, consider one of the many tools that make gardening more enjoyable.

Garden centers and hardware stores stock many of the tools now to take advantage of the season. Plain and functional, fancy and bright, high tech, low budget, or super authentic and old-fashioned, a tool can fit the user as well as the job at hand.

According to the national Gardening Council, every gardener needs five basic tools for a successful crop. These are the five and what they accomplish in the garden:

A long-handled spade is designed for digging. The blade is straight and set at an angle so it cuts easily into the soil. This is not to be confused with a shovel, which is designed like a scoop and is used to move material from one location to another.

A spading fork with flat square tines is used for moving heavy soil. It is invaluable when preparing the soil in the spring and harvesting some vegetables in the fall. A spading fork should not be confused with a pitch fork, which has rounded, slender tines and is used to move straw and compost.

A strong steel rake is used to break up clay, smooth soil after it's been spaded and to rake in fertilizers.

A good hoe is used to make row, cover seeds, move soil, cut out weeds and make holes for setting in plants. Hoes come in all weights and shapes, but most home gardeners do not require large and heavy ones. Many gardeners prefer a light weight dual-purpose hoe, with a triangular cutting head on one side and a cultivation tool with three tines on the other.

A hand trowel or other hand tools such as cultivators and weeders for marking rows, cutting weeds, making furrows and moving small plants.

If your gardening friend has all these basics, look in specialty catalogs and well-supplied garden centers for extra high-quality tools or designs that fit a particular type of garden activity. Replacement items like hoses, pots, labels, a watering can, fertilizer or a gift certificate for a delivery of leaf humus would all be welcomed by most gardeners. Books, magazines and reference texts are useful all year.

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Deicing Salt
Most people are familiar with the corrosive effects of deicing salt to cars and road surfaces. Salt in also injurious to many plants growing along roadsides and driveways.

Most deicing salt is unrefined rock salt containing about 98.5% sodium chloride. The sodium and chloride ions separate when salt dissolved in water, and are absorbed by plant roots. These ions are carried through the plant to actively growing portions such as leaf margins and shoot tips. Here they can accumulate to toxic levels and result in marginal scorch.

Rock salt readily absorbs moisture in the soil that normally would be available to roots. So, even when there is plenty of soil moisture, the presence of high amounts of salt can result in drought-like conditions for plants.

High amounts of sodium cause soil to lose it ability to aggregate into clumps, thereby becoming easily compacted. Excess sodium also block the availability of important plant nutrients, resulting in nutrient deficiencies even in fertile soil. All of this results in a general decrease in plant health and vigor.

Salt from spray splashed by passing vehicles can also enter the above-ground parts of plants directly. This can cause the buds and small twigs of some plants to lose cold hardiness, resulting in twig dieback.

Calcium chloride is reported to be less damaging to plants, but is extremely expensive and has serious storing and handling problems. In many cases sand, light gravel, or cinders provide enough traction for pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Around the house, consider using sand or kitty litter.

Avoid piling salt and snow around plants or in places where the melting snow will drain into plants. Weather permitting, it can be useful to flush the planting exposed to high levels of salt with fresh water to dilute the salt solution.

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Amaryllis, a tender bulb, can provide a burst of color during dreary winter months. Forced into bloom early winter through spring, flower diameter can reach up to eight inches, and range in color from crimson, scarlet, rose, lavender, white or bicolor combinations.

Plant the bulb so that the enlarged end is in soil. Usually one-half to two-thirds of the bulb is above the soil line in the container. Water the pot thoroughly, and thereafter when it feels dry to the touch. Temperatures ranging between 55-65 degrees and a sunny window are conducive to a sturdy bloom. Weak stems may need to be staked. Flowering should begin six to eight weeks after potting.

After the flower fades, cut the flower stalk off but allow the foliage to remain. Water and fertilize the plant like other houseplants, keeping it near a sunny window. In spring, after the danger of frost has passed, situate the pot in an east or west exposure outdoors and grow it on through the summer. In the early fall, the foliage will gradually yellow, which indicates to cut back on watering until the leaves fade completely. The dormant bulb should be stored in a cool, dry location at about 40 to 50 degrees for about three months. After the resting period, start the process over.

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Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant with small, leathery leaves and small, white berries. Mistletoe plants manufacture their own food, but must obtain water and minerals from the host plant.

American mistletoe can be found growing in deciduous trees from New Jersey and southern Indiana southward to Florida and Texas. It is the state flower of Oklahoma. Mistletoe sold during the holiday season is gathered in the wild. Most mistletoe is harvested in Oklahoma and Texas.

Traditions involving mistletoe date back to ancient times. Druids believed that mistletoe could bestow health and good luck. Welsh farmers associated mistletoe with fertility. A good mistletoe crop foretold a good crop the following season. Mistletoe was also thought to influence human fertility and was prescribed to individuals who had problems bearing children. Mistletoe has also been used in medicine. It has been used as treatment for pleurisy, gout, epilepsy, rabies, and poisoning. Mistletoe also played a role in a superstition concerning marriage. It was believed that kissing under the mistletoe increased the possibility of marriage in the upcoming year.

Mistletoe berries are poisonous. Individuals using mistletoe during the holiday season should keep the sprigs out of the reach of children. For safety reasons, many companies have replaced the berries with artificial, plastic berries.

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Norfolk Island Pine
The small, 1-2 foot-tall Christmas trees sold in stores, potted and already decorated, are sometimes Norfolk Island pines. This plant is native to Norfolk Island, located in the South Pacific near New Zealand. It is not hardy here and cannot be planted outdoors after the holidays. However, it does make a terrific houseplant, so it is a good purchase.

This pyramidal-shaped plant bears its branches in symmetrical tiers making the plant attractive from all viewing angles. It is ideal for a table display when young, becoming a floor specimen when larger. Ideal lighting for the Norfolk Island pine is 2-3 hours of direct sunlight per day in the winter, and bright but indirect light during the summer. An all-purpose potting soil works well for this plant, but it could benefit from the addition of some organic matter such as humus or peat moss. Avoid extremes in soil moisture, as just one severe drying will kill many needles and branches that will not grow back. Water thoroughly when the top inch of soil becomes dry to the touch. The plant will benefit from a year-round feeding program.

Because the Norfolk Island pine is a relatively slow-growing plant, it is often more expensive than other houseplants. However, with proper care, this plant maintains its attractive shape for many years. The versatility and beauty of the Norfolk Island pine make it an excellent addition to any decor.

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"If I were forced to select one conifer for my garden it would certainly be the hemlock." That quote comes from Michael Dirr in his "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants", and accurately expresses the opinions of many plant-lovers. Hemlocks, unrelated to Socrates' "poison hemlock" herb in the carrot family, are among the most graceful plants worldwide, and certainly here in Ohio. They are versatile as well: standing alone as pyramidal specimen trees, massed together as screens, and if pruned selectively, the ultimate evergreen hedge.

There are a number of different species of Tsuga worldwide, but most common in Ohio and the U.S. are Canadian or Eastern hemlock and Carolina hemlock. Both thrive in acid, well-drained soils with abundant organic matter. Hemlocks do well in shade and are abundant in cove forests, such as the misnamed "Cedar" Falls State Park in southeastern Ohio. Hemlocks will also grow in full sun, but establish poorly or decline if the site is droughty or wind-swept. Water-conserving mulches are useful until needle fall of older needles provides adequate self-mulching.

Hemlocks can become quite tall with age, with heights up to 100 feet reported for some Canadian hemlocks. However, one of the most elegant hemlocks is the Sargent hemlock, a Canadian hemlock which with age spreads to twice its height of 10-15 feet. It is a magnificent plant. In Ohio, check it out along the pond waters at Dawes Arboretum near Newark and in the Japanese gardens at Stan Hywet Hall in Akron.

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Wood Ashes and Garden Soil
If you use a wood-burning stove, you may have wondered if wood ash could be applied to your garden soil as an amendment. While wood ash does have some fertilizer value (but no nitrogen), it consists primarily of calcium carbonate (about 25%), a common liming material. Since wood ash particles are so fine, they react quickly and completely in the soil.

Increasing the alkalinity of your garden soil does affect plant nutrition. Nutrients are most readily available to most plants when the soil is slightly acidic (below pH 7.0). As soil alkalinity rises, many nutrients become chemically tied to the soil and less available for plant use. Applying small amounts of wood ash to most soils will not adversely affect your garden crops, and the ash will replenish some nutrients. However, adding larger amounts could do more harm than good. Specific recommendations are hard to give, since wood ash composition and soil composition and reaction varies from garden to garden. An application of 20 lbs. per 100 sq. ft. annually, should not harm a slightly acid soil. But if your soil is neutral to alkaline, or your garden consists of acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons or blueberries, find another way to get rid of that wood ash.

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Hawthorns in the Landscape
Hawthorns have several characteristics that make them desirable in the landscape. Washington Hawthorn produces foliage that changes from reddish purple when unfolding to a lustrous dark green at maturity and finally fall colors that vary from orange to scarlet through purplish. The white flowers last for 7-10 days in early June. Fruit is bright glossy red, 1/4 inch in diameter, coloring in September and October and persisting through winter. Washington Hawthorn is quite thorny so should not be placed in high traffic areas. Leaves and fruit can also become heavily infested with rust disease.

The Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association recommends Winter King Hawthorn for Ohio landscapes. This is a selection with a lovely rounded habit, silvery gray bark, glossy foliage and white flowers. The fruits are larger and a good red color, persisting into winter. Winter King is also somewhat less susceptible to rust.

These Hawthorns are appropriate as specimens, for screens, or barriers, keeping in mind the thorns when siting. Hawthorn requires good drainage and full sun, but tolerates many soil types and pH, as well as urban conditions.

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Ornamental Grasses
Many homeowners ask about appropriate fall care of ornamental grasses. Specifically, should ornamental grasses be cut back for the winter? While no harm is caused by cutting them back after they have been frosted, the striking winter effect of the grasses swaying in the snow will be forfeited. The tall grasses also provide shelter to wildlife throughout the winter. Some grasses, such as blue fescue and blue oat grass have evergreen foliage and should never be cut back.

In our area, early April is generally the best time to cut back grasses before new growth starts. Dividing and moving grasses is a garden task that should also be saved for the early days of spring. If you must transplant grasses in the fall, do it as early as possible in the fall season to allow for substantial root development before the ground freezes.

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Perhaps you've been fascinating by roses and are considering trying your hand at rose cultivation. Here is a brief primer on classes of roses taken from Taylor's Guide to Roses, revised edition, and Time-Life Gardener's Guide to Roses:

Classification is based on the ancestry of a rose and, in some cases, how long it's been in cultivation. SPECIES ROSES are the naturally occurring roses found in the wild. Most produce single flowers with only 5 petals. About 200 species roses are known.

OLD GARDEN ROSES have been in cultivation since 1867. Many have been favorite garden roses for, literally, centuries.

The FLORIBUNDAS are a modern group of roses. They typically have many blooms per stem. The GRANDIFLORA class only came into being in the mid-1950s. It was established for the cultivar 'Queen Elizabeth', which was seen as the first of a class of large-flowered, abundantly blooming roses.

HYBRID TEA ROSES are the most popular of the modern roses. They are characterized by long stems and flowers ranging in shape from singles to high-centered doubles and very doubles. Teas and hybrid teas get their name from their tea-like fragrance.

SHRUB ROSES is a catch-all class of cultivars that don't belong with either the old garden roses or any of the more modern classes. They are generally tall and hardy.

CLIMBING ROSES are those that can be trained to grow up a trellis, arbor, or building.

MINIATURE ROSES look like their larger relatives in every way except size. Many grow well in containers, and some even do well indoors.

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Repotting Houseplants
For gardeners who are itching to get their green thumbs dirty, repotting houseplants can be a good wintertime activity. But not all plants will need, or even benefit from, repotting. Fortunately, there are several indications to look for to determine if your plant needs new living quarters.

The main reason for repotting is to give the roots more room to grow. Perhaps one of the most obvious signs is when the plant is physically too large for the pot. Overgrown plants in plastic pots seem particularly prone to tipping over as the soil dries. Roots may begin to grow out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. These are rather extreme signals that your plant probably needed repotting several months ago.

A quick check that is a sure-fire method is to turn the pot over, gently pull the plant out of the pot, and check the soil ball. If many roots are visible at the outside of the soil ball, the plant will probably appreciate a larger pot. If roots are not visible, repotting is not needed.

Choose a pot of only the next larger size. The soil in pots that are too large tends to stay excessively moist for too long and can lead to root rot. As you fill the new pot with soil, be sure to leave enough room at the top to allow for watering.

Some plants may already be too large for the existing environment and would only continue to grow larger if given a larger pot. Repotting in this case should only consist of replanting in fresh soil in the same size pot.

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Hedge Apples
Hedge apples are produced by the Osage-orange. Osage-orange is a small- to medium-sized tree. It commonly grows 30 to 40 feet tall, occasionally as tall as 50 to 60 feet. It typically has a short trunk and a rounded or irregular crown. The leaves of the Osage-orange are a shiny medium to dark green. They turn yellow in the fall. The female trees produce 3- to 5- inch-diameter hedge apples which ripen in September or October and fall to the ground. The Osage-orange is a member of the Mulberry Family. Other cultivated members of this family include the mulberry and fig.

The Osage-orange is a tough and durable tree, transplants easily, and tolerates poor soils, extreme heat, and strong winds. It also has no serious insect or disease problems. During the mid-nineteenth century, it was widely planted by midwest farmers as a living fence. When pruned into a hedge, it provided an impenetrable barrier to livestock. The widespread planting of Osage-orange stopped with the introduction of barbed wire. Many of the original hedges have since been destroyed or died. However, some of the original trees can still be found in fence rows.

It is the fruit of the Osage-orange that most individuals find intriguing. The "hedge apples" are not an important source of food for wildlife as most birds and animals find the fruit unpalatable. The use of the hedge apples for insect control is one of the most enduring pest management home remedies. Placement of hedge apples around the foundation or inside the basement is claimed to provide relief from cockroaches, spiders, boxelder bugs, crickets and other pests. The use of hedge apples as a pest solution is communicated as a folk tale complete with testimonials about apparent success. However, there is an absence of scientific research and therefore no valid evidence to confirm the claims of effectiveness.

While the Osage-orange is hardy in our area, it is not a suitable tree for the home landscape because of its large fruit and sharp thorns. The Osage-orange is probably best suited for wildlife plantings in rural areas.

The source for this was Iowa State University Department of Horticulture.

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Keep Your Christmas Tree Fresh
At this time of year, many people's thoughts turn toward family and fun and away from safety. With the unacceptable number of house fires each winter, it's a good idea to review the steps to keeping your Christmas tree fresh and safe.

Keep the Christmast tree away from heat sources, such as fireplaces, wood stoves, radiators and heating vents. These will dry out a tree prematurely. But more importantly, when combined with a dry tree, they become a fire hazard. Be sure your tree stand holds at least two quarts of water. Check the water level each day and refill the stand with hot tap water.

Before going to bed or leaving the house, unplug your Christmas tree lights.

Christmas trees are highly flammable when they dry out. The tree's needles can provide some clues about how dry the tree is. The needles of a dry tree are a dull, grayish green color and feel stiff and brittle. Remove the tree from the home when it becomes dry.

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Care of a Live Christmas Tree
If a living Christmas tree is desired for your holidays, advanced preparation is warranted to ensure the life of the tree after the holidays. Ideally, the hole where the tree will be planted should be dug before the ground freezes. The hole can be tarped to prevent major amounts of water or snow from filling the cavity.

Three to five days is the maximum amount of time to have a tree indoors or the tree may break dormancy. Keep the tree in a cool room away from hot or cold drafts, and water as needed to prevent the roots from drying.

When ready to plant the tree outdoors, place it in the garage a few days to help it adjust to the extreme temperature change. After planting, water thoroughly and stake or guy the tree in place. Protect the tree from excessive drying from the sun and wind, by providing a burlap screen to the south and west sides.

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A Gardener's Night Before Christmas
Twas the night before Christmas and all through the yard
Not a vegetable was growing, not even Swiss chard.
The hoses were stored in the cellar with care
And I, rest assured, knew they wouldn't freeze there.
The perennials were mulched, all snug in their beds
While visions of springtime danced in their heads.
The new planted shrubs had been soaked by the hose
To settle their roots for the long, winter's doze.
And out on the lawn, the new fallen snow
Protected the roots of the grasses below.
When out in the drive there arose such a clatter,
I ran with my hoe to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a truck full of useful gardening gear.
Saint Nick, the driver, so plump and so jolly
Jumped out of hist truck with a sackful of holly.
"I've brought trimmers and clippers and tubers and seeds
And landscape fabric to eliminate weeds;
Well-aged manure, strained finely for spreading,
Just what you need for your annual flower bedding;
And colorful flagstones for a new garden path;
And for birds and bird watchers, a feeder and bath.
I've an insect pest guide to help you to know
Which of the bugs will cause plants to grow slow;
A new sprayer to fill with safe soap and oil;
A floating row cover -- there are insects to foil!
For gardening with ease, I've a new rototiller,
Pads for your knees and organic bug killer.
For pH detecting, here's a soil-testing kit
For soil preparation that's sure to be a hit;
A new mulching mower for grass blade clipping,
And a long soaker hose that saves water by dripping."
With jolly Saint Nick's gift-giving complete,
He started his truck and took off down the street.
And I heard him exclaim through the motor's loud hum,
"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a green thumb!"

This "organic" version of Gardener's Night Before Christmas is by Extension's Jack Kerrigan and was adapted from the work by Charles and Janice Jensen that was printed in the New York Times in the 1950s.

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The Christmas Tree Tradition
The Christmas tree tradition began in Germany in the seventeenth century. There are several legends concerning the origin of the Christmas tree. Historians do know that primitive cultures of northern Europe believed that evergreen trees possessed godlike powers. The evergreen tree also symbolized immortality. The Germanic peoples would bring evergreen boughs into their homes during winter for use in pagan rites. These rites were performed to insure the protection of the home and the return of life to the snow-covered forests. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, eventually the evergreen tree was transformed into a Christian symbol.

Some believe the Christmas tree evolved from the Paradise Tree of the Middle Ages. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, evergreen trees played an important role in miracle and mystery plays. One such play dramatized the fall of Adam and Eve and was performed on December 24. On stage during the play was a Paradise Tree (an evergreen with red apples hung from its branches).

Others believe that the Christmas tree began in the sixteenth century with Martin Luther. According to the legend, Martin Luther was inspired by the beauty of evergreens one Christmas Eve. He cut down a tree, brought it home, and decorated it with candles to imitate "starry skies of Bethlehem that Holy Night." Under it, Luther put a creche and figures of Joseph, Mary, Jesus and various animals.

The first real record of a Christmas tree was in Strasburg, Germany, in 1604. German immigrants and Hessian soldiers hired by the British to fight the colonists during the American Revolution brought the Christmas tree tradition to the United States. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania gets credit as the first city to have a tree. The earliest trees were small table-top versions decorated with foods, such as cookies and fruits, and were delivered with the gifts by St. Nicholas. During the Victorian era, taller trees covered with ornaments became fashionable. It was not until after World War I, that the tradition was widely adopted across the United States.

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Holiday Cacti
The Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter cacti have striking flowers ranging from white through all shades of red, orange, and pink.

The Christmas cactus has glossy green, flattened joints with rounded tips. The Thanksgiving cactus has prominent teeth or points at the tip of each joint. And, the Easter cactus has large stiff, flat joints with bristles along the edges.

These cacti bloom best when somewhat pot-bound. Repotting is necessary only about once in 3 years. For good growth and blooming place the cacti in bright light. Flower production depends on cool temperatures especially at night during the period of bud formation. Forty to fifty degrees is ideal. Fertilize plants after the bloom period is over, when new growth starts from the tips.

Bud drop is a common problem. Correct watering is important. Too much water and cold air cause the flowers and buds to drop off.

These cacti are easy to propagate. Simply remove a cutting at least 5 or 6 segments long and plant in a small pot containing damp potting soil. Make sure at least two segment joints are under the soil as the roots will emerge from here. Start several in small colorful pots for handy gifts throughout the year.

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Beneficial insects don't just protect vegetable plants. Some protect you from being eaten. The colorful, iridescent and beautiful dragonfly, for instance, is a voracious predator of flies, mosquitoes and midges. One dragonfly can eat its weight in mosquitoes in half an hour.

Many times dragonflies are referred to as "mosquito hawk" which is very appropriate because they catch their prey by curling their spiny legs into the shape of a basket and scooping up these annoying insects in mid-flight. As many as 100 mosquitoes at a time have been found in the basket of a large dragonfly.

Dragonflies spend the early part of their larval life in water as an almost unbelievably large and capable predator that eats lots of mosquito larvae and other prey. Adult dragonflies can fly at speeds of 30 mph or more, have huge, complex eyes and can see virtually in any direction.

You can attract these skeeter-eaters to spend more time in your garden by providing them with perches. They prefer bamboo poles which are 3 to 4 feet high and set 4 to 6 feet apart. On most summer days you will probably see a dragonfly clinging to the tip of these stakes, looking like a bright jewel on the head of a pin.

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Recycling a Cyclamen
Select a healthy, well-grown cyclamen that has plenty of buds hidden among the foliage. Avoid plants with yellow or dead leaves, which are signs of heat or moisture stress, and check for insects.

Make sure your plant receives bright, indirect light during the day. The flowers will last longer if they are not exposed to direct sunlight. Cyclamens also prefer cool daytime temperatures, ideally no more than 65 degrees. They appreciate it even cooler at night, from 40 to 50 degrees, so it may be necessary to move the plant to an unheated room or cool entryway in the evening. Your plant is getting overheated if the leaves turn yellow quickly and the flower buds wither.

While your cyclamen is growing and blooming, keep the soil moist but not soggy, watering as soon as the soil surface feels dry. To prevent the tuber from rotting, water gently along the sides of the pot, or water from below, leaving the plant in a saucer of water for about half an hour until the moisture rises to the top of the soil. Discard excess water from the saucer. Every two or three weeks feed the plant with a liquid houseplant fertilizer such as 5-10-5.

By March or early April your cyclamen will stop blooming and producing new growth, and the leaves will turn yellow. The plant is entering a natural and necessary dormant period that will last most of the summer. Cut back on water, giving it only enough to keep the soil form becoming bone-dry - about every two weeks. Place the pot in a shady, out-of-the-way place for the next month or so and let the foliage gradually die.

In early August remove the dormant tuber from its pot. Cyclamens bloom more profusely when pot-bound, so replant yours in the same size pot for at least one more year, or, if the tuber has filled the pot, select a container that is an inch or two larger. Cut off any roots clinging to the tuber and rub off as much soil as possible. Prepare a mixture of two parts sterile potting soil, one part peat moss, and one part perlite or sharp builder's sand.

Place the tuber with the top half protruding above the soil to protect it from rotting. Firmly pack the soil mix around it.

Water well and place the pot outdoors in the shade. New shoots should appear soon. Water weekly, or more frequently if the weather is hot. Bring the plant indoors well before the first frost and begin fertilizing as before. A glorious display of flowers should appear early in the new year.

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Keeping Your Houseplants Healthy
Tropical and subtropical plants generally live and thrive in environments where the relative humidity is 80% or more. Relative humidity is the percentage of the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold at a given temperature. As air gets warmer, it can hold more water. Therefore, as cool air is heated in the home, it "dries out", in a relative sense, unless more moisture is added. The relative humidity in most homes in the winter is often below 20%.

This low humidity can be stressful for plants. Affected plants may stop producing new leaves or produce smaller than normal leaves. Leaves may become brittle, frequently with brown edges. These negative effects of dry air on plants are intensified if the planting medium dries out between waterings; the plant is exposed to drafts; or unfiltered sunlight comes through the window onto the foliage.

Low relative humidity can be managed by watering properly, reducing air movement over plants, proper placing of plants, and avoiding excessively high temperatures. Misting plant foliage, although often recommended, would have to be done several times an hour to be effective. Grouping plants together can help to raise the humidity around the plants, as well as reduce air movement. Grouped plants can be placed on gravel beds which contain water. Take care, though, not to let water touch the bottom of the pots or seep into the planting medium in the pots.

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Disposing of the Christmas Tree
Be sure to dispose of your Christmas tree in an environmentally-friendly way. Many cities pick up the trees at the curb and take them to a composting facility where they are chipped and aged. The chips are then available to city residents for use as a mulch, or used by the city.

Branches cut from the tree can be used as winter protection for perennials. This extra bit of protection is especially important for plants that are marginally hardy. Evergreen boughs should be placed over the perennial bed after the ground freezes. They will then insulate the soil from freezing and thawing that can heave perennials out of the soil.

Entire trees placed in the yard will provide cover for birds. Hang suet, slices of fruit and balls of seed on the tree to attract birds. When spring arrives, the tree can be chipped or cut up. Or reuse the dead tree as a support for pole beans.

If you have a pond, a submerged tree will improve the habitat for fish. The submerged tree becomes an artificial reef where fish will congregate. In all of these cases, make sure that all of the tinsel and ornaments are removed from the tree.

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