Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
December, 2008
Regional Report

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Live plants and flowers combined with natural materials make for a "green" Christmas.

Rituals and Traditions of the Season

There is much comfort to be found in rituals and traditions, especially at this time of year. The continuity of these provides the foundation of our lives. Still, sometimes it's wise to choose to drop some of the old ways and start some new ones. That is the adventure that gives a spark to life. What's important is to take the time and effort to stop and analyze what you're doing now and then. For example, why continue something that's making you miserable?

The big thing this year is to make the holidays "green" or "eco-friendly." Well, of course, most gardeners have been doing that for years. Still, if you want to check yourself to see if there is a different or better way to naturally celebrate the holidays, following are some tips to explore further and consider.

Christmas Trees
How can something as seemingly wholesome and innocent as a Christmas tree be a part of a controversy? Yet it is. Basically, a live cut tree is more eco-friendly than an artificial tree, especially if it is cut from a local tree farm, not shipped in long distances. Even better is using a live Christmas tree that is planted in the garden afterward. You can choose between a larger tree that is balled-and-lapped or a smaller one in a container. Think about how much weight you want to move around before buying.

One important consideration with a living Christmas tree is to prepare the hole in the garden whenever the ground is not frozen. Fill it with leaves and lay some boards over the top so that no one inadvertently walks into the hole. Also cover the removed soil with a tarpaulin or piece of plastic. It's important to remember that a living Christmas tree should not be kept indoors for more than seven to ten days.

For details on how to select and care for a living Christmas tree, visit the web site provided by Sandra Mason, educator for horticulture and the environment with the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, at For lots of information about Christmas tree history, lore, and facts, try Christmas Trees & More, provided by University of Illinois Extension at

Greens in the Home
Closely related to the subject of Christmas trees is that of decorating the home with greenery. Stores are filled with all manner of plastic wreaths, swags, and garlands. Again, a not-very-earth-friendly option. Much better to carefully do some trimming in your own yard, or, with permission, in the yards of family members or friends. You'll find that the effect is so much more satisfying -- and will smell good, too.

Combine needled and broad-leaved evergreens with seed heads from perennials, dried okra pods, holly berries, pine cones, bare branches, or whatever catches your fancy. Be brave, be bold, experiment. If you like a bit of glitz instead of the natural look, gold or silver spray paint will be your best friend.

Have a florist make some bows for you, if you don't feel able, gather together and wire a few pine branches into swags, tie the bow around the top, and you're set for door and lamp post decorations. Add a piece of florist's foam (the kind for fresh, not dried, plant material) that's been soaked in water to a plastic-lined basket and fill with greens, berries, and cones. Voila! A table centerpiece.

The epitome of natural Christmas decoration are those of Colonial Williamsburg. To get ideas and instructions, go to

The Flowers of Christmas
The perfect complement to those natural branches, pods, and berries are the flowers we've come to associate with the holidays. Poinsettias, of course, but paperwhite narcissus, amaryllis, Christmas cactus, kalanchoe, and cyclamen are popular holiday plants, too. And don't forget orchids as well.

The premier poinsettia research and breeding is done at the Paul Ecke Ranch in California. Look to their Poinsettia Care in the Home, Another reliable source of poinsettia care is from Ohio State University at

Another good source of holiday flower care is from the University of Illinois Extension at

For me, the luscious scent of paperwhite narcissus are as much a part of the holidays as that of pine. I usually buy a dozen or so bulbs and start three of them at a time in crystal vases. Planted in a dish, paperwhites also make a lovely but easy gift. Tired of having the stems of paperwhites flop over? Researchers at Cornell University have found that a little alcohol helps keep stems and leaves short but does not harm the flowers. For more information, go to

Planet-Friendly Giving
There are so many ways to give Christmas gifts that are light on the planet, making a trip to the mall seem totally unnecessary. Following are just a few suggestions:
--Give green gifts from locally owned businesses and handmade crafts from local artisans.
--Give homemade gifts, especially ones from the garden, including jams, pickles, preserves, herb vinegars, herb blends, or herb bath salts.
--Give a membership to a local Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.
--Give garden tools, books, or seeds.
--Give a membership to a local botanical garden or to a national group, such as American Horticulture Society, Audubon, Nature Conservancy, or National Wildlife Federation.
--Give suet, black-oil sunflower seed, nyger seed, or a feeder.
--Give a mushroom kit.
--Give an IOU of your time to a child, elderly person, or someone else who could use a little help in the garden or elsewhere around the home.

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