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February 19
Grow Good for your Heart Food

Question:  February is such a curious month for Southerners.  St. Valentine’s Day is smack in the middle of it, when red indicates the color of our poor runny noses instead of our lovely blooming roses.  February is also American heart month, connecting red roses, love, healthy hearts, and long, happy lives.  I’m a gardener, and in addition to growing the deep red “tea” roses my mother grew, want to add vegetables and a few small fruits that are good for me and my family.  Suggestions, please and they don’t have to be red although that would be nice.

Roses are red, hearts beat red, too.
Keep yours healthy and working for you!

vegetable basket.jpgYes, St. Valentine had no idea his death on Feb. 14th in 270 A.D. would be associated with roses, chocolate, and love-ever-after, but the support of individuals (Esther Howland) and companies (Hallmark), have enabled his legacy to live on!

Now, aficionados of valentines, roses, chocolate, and hearts have added a 21st century twist to the story. And, since this is a garden column, suggestions for heart-supportive foods we can grow in our gardens and landscapes is quite appropriate.

These fruits and veggies are nutrient rich, or "nutrient dense," meaning compared to total calories, the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber are the winners.  So in addition to exercise gained, growing your own means controlling the freshness at harvest time, what (if any) chemicals are added, and in many cases, cost savings.

Tomatoes, not just the red varieties, are tasty sources of antioxidants, Vitamin C and fiber.  Interestingly, tomatoes are the most popular food grown in backyards across North America, and Alabama is right there at the top with pounds grown per capita.  While it's a little early to plant them, late February is the perfect time to start seedlings indoors for May planting time.

Berries, including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries contain fiber, antioxidants, Vitamin C, are naturally low in calories, and taste best fresh. Most varieties of strawberry are St. Valentine’s red, some are attractive groundcovers, making them a ‘what’s not to love’ plant for gardens and tables.  Blueberries are also ornamental landscape additions with their bright red, winter buds.

Apples, perhaps more challenging to grow in Alabama, are wonderful additions to tasty, healthy meals or snacks.  I grew up on sliced apples and a thin smear of peanut butter, still one of my favorite mini-meals. Although apples come in colors other than red, many of us associate rosy skinned varieties with healthy children happily munching them.

Swiss chard, grown in vegetable gardens for many years, has moved to the ornamental flower bed by virtue of striking color combinations, leaf shape, and texture. Harvest chard for its load of potassium (proper function of cells) and magnesium (muscle contraction, nerve transmission);enjoy them in salads, steamed and seasoned, or sautéed. This is the perfect time of year to add chard to your garden.

Even though growing cool season veggies broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts are not as popular as warm season tomatoes, peppers, squash and okra, their importance to our hearts, joints, and cells is undeniable. Though a former U.S. president famously dismissed broccoli as ‘that food I won’t eat’, many of us enjoy its taste and texture with dips, in stir-fries, and soup. It’s worth growing a small plot as many who’ve consumed fresh broccoli, sprouts, and kale agree their taste is better fresh from the garden!

Garlic and onions are easy to grow, healthy foods for backyards, raised beds, or containers. Red onions fit the month of February red theme, so try growing a small plot of these cholesterol level reducers.  Whether green scallions, or sweet yellows, all onions are super easy to grow.

If you want to learn more about growing and preparing these and other berries, fruits, and vegetables, check Extension’s calendar of events for gardening workshops near you.

written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

February 09
Is It Time Yet?

​Q. Last fall, I purchased a home with a very beautiful, established landscape.  While I am pretty confident about my abilities to tend to most of these plants, I have two prominent areas that contain a plant whose care is totally foreign to me – roses.  SO, with that said, I could use some help with rose maintenance tips, most specifically, pruning.  Can you tell me the when’s and how’s of proper rose pruning? 

101_3696.JPGA. Caring for roses may seem like a daunting task, but don’t get discouraged.  In my opinion, this plant is definitely worth any additional effort that it may require.

Pruning roses improves the size, quality, and color of blooms, and should be done after the danger of frost is over.  In our area, that is typically in late February or early March.  However, don’t sharpen your pruners just yet.  Before you get started, it is important to know exactly what type of rose you have because the amount of pruning varies with the variety. With that said, however, the first pruning of any rose, no matter the type, should remove dead, damaged, or weak growth. 

Pruning can also regulate the number of flowers produced. Leave longer canes if more flowers are desired. If large show-type blooms are desired, cut back to a few canes and head the remaining ones back to 12 to 14 inches above the ground. 

Now, let’s discuss specific types.  We will start with hybrid teas.  As referenced earlier, any canes killed by canes killed by cold, diseases, and insects should be removed first. Next remove all suckers growing below the graft union. Cut all the remaining canes back to 12 to 15 inches above ground or to a bud 1 inch below any damaged part of the cane. Be aware of any cold damage or disease cankers. Cold damage will appear as a browning of the stem and, most often, a brown pith or center of the cane. Cuts should be ¼ inch above a bud and made at a 45-degree angle. On most varieties, it is best to cut to an outside bud.  This action encourages growth away from the center of the plant, thereby increasing air movement and light penetration within the canopy. 

Floribundas and grandifloras are treated a little differently.  These roses should not be pruned as heavily as hybrid teas. Often these roses grow to a considerable height and produce more blooms. Cut back an inch below any darkened area to remove any dead and diseased wood. The entire branch should be removed if it is badly diseased or dead. Three to five strong, healthy canes should be left.  Next, any canes having weak growth or those growing toward the center of the plant should be removed. Any remaining canes should be cut 18 to 24 inches above the ground, depending upon the plant’s vigor.

What about KnockOut™ Roses?  This type of rose grows vigorously, so you may prune just as vigorously.  In fact, KnockOut™ roses can be pruned by one-third to one-half, and will flourish the following growing season.  Because of this energetic growth habit, it is recommended to prune them back to about two feet below the height that you want them to reach during the next period of growth.  To maintain a more uniform appearance, you can prune these roses for shaping purposes throughout the growing season. 

The last type of rose to be mentioned is the climbing rose.  Many of these roses bloom in early spring and need pruning at the end of flowering. Any new canes that have developed should be left since these will produce flowers the next year. Cut all old canes back to the ground immediately after flowering.  Some varieties of climbers will continue to bloom throughout the growing season. These varieties produce new canes from old canes rather than from the base of the plant. It is best to leave five or six strong healthy canes and o remove the older canes at the ground. Sometimes these remaining canes produce heavy branching. To control growth and encourage flowering, these lateral branches should be kept headed back. Faded flower clusters should be removed too.

Now, there is one more point to mention.  No matter the type of rose or the pruning time, it is imperative to properly disinfect your pruning tools.  Be sure to wipe the cutting surface with rubbing alcohol or a 10% bleach solution.  This is your first line of defense in decreasing spread of disease. 

I hope this information is helpful.  Happy Gardening! 

written by Bethany A. O’Rear of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.  For answers to these and other garden questions, call the Helpline at 877-252-4769 (877-ALA-GROW).

January 30
Plant a Tree!

Back in 1965, the Byrds released a record, written by Pete Seeger entitled, "Turn! Turn!  Turn!" I am sure many of you have already begun singing the song: "To everything, turn, turn, turn. There is a season, turn, turn, turn. And a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap. . ." Today I want to talk to you about planting. January is a time to plant.

As a forester, when I think of the winter months I think of two things: prescribed burning and tree planting. Many people do not realize this, but after a timber harvest, if the landowner chooses to plant pine trees, they will plant approximately 550 longleaf or 730 loblolly pines per acre. That works out to around 22,000 - 29,000 trees on a forty acre block. There's a myth in the community that timber companies "rape and pillage" the land, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The foresters and timber companies I know from my travels across this country are very concerned with the environment. For example in 2014, the Westervelt Company, based in Tuscaloosa, grew over 6.5 million pine seedlings to be planted on its land this winter. On my old truck I have a bumper sticker that says, "To a Forester, Everyday is Earth Day".

wp street trees - aug 2011 033.JPGWhat timber companies are doing in mass, our cities, towns, and individuals can do too. January is the time to plant. I hear people say, "I don't want trees on my property, they are messy." Sure trees drop their leaves, needles, nuts and cones, but trees provide many benefits too. First, properly planted trees will cut your heating and cooling bills by better than a third. Secondly, trees help to encourage spending and reduce crime by providing a welcoming atmosphere in the community, by encouraging "front porch sitting" and friendly interaction with walkers on the sidewalk. Third, trees also increase the property value of your home. While living in Upstate NY a friend of mine asked me to cut down his three mature black walnut trees for lumber. While he was about to make $20,000 for the sale of those three lumber trees, he was going to lose $100,000 off the real estate value of his house. Needless to say, I did not cut those trees down. Fourthly, trees protect our communities in large storms. A study was done in Mobile following Hurricane Ivan. Because of the large number of trees that fell during the storm, someone asked, "If we had no trees would Mobile have fared better in the storm?" The wind study came back with a resounding no! Without trees, the buildings take a direct blow from hurricane force winds. With the trees, Mobile was spared catastrophic damage. In a storm trees behave like a motorcycle helmet in an accident. Trees take the force of the wind and deflect it from the ground. Some trees break and cause damage, but without them even more buildings would collapse.

January is the time to plant. When planting trees one must consider the size and species of the mature tree. Trees grow into three size classes: large canopy, midstory, and understory trees. Planting large canopy trees next to the power lines or the sidewalk is doomed for failure. These trees will soon out grow their growing space and cause problems. Understory trees should be planted in these locations. As for the issue of species consideration, each tree has its "likes and dislikes" of where to live. Pines can handle droughty locations better than most hardwoods. Pine should be planted at the top of mountain ridges and on south/west facing slopes. Hardwoods should be planted on cool north/east facing slopes and in the bottoms. Every September I receive scores of calls from homeowners who planted a beautiful red or sugar maple in their yard 10-15 years ago only to watch it die. Normally it was planted out in the open, in full sunlight as the tag instructed. But in the South, maple trees are understory trees. They may reach the large canopy size, but only in the creek bottoms. In the North, maples are large canopy trees. Up there, they reach the size of our oaks; however, during my eight years in Upstate NY, we reached 90 degrees in only two of the summers. Ask where your tree was grown and look for those grown in a southeastern nursery.  Also, another fact of maples is that they are shallow rooted. They like living in the bottoms where the water level is high. If a homeowner adds soil around the roots, to ease mowing, they will suffocate the tree. I share this information with you, because none of us like to see our handiwork go to waste.

Yes, January is the time to plant. Make a plan, do your research, and get out the shovel. If you need help, call your County Extension office ( ). Extension agents are more than happy to help you with your dreams to find the right tree.

written by Andrew J. Baril of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

January 26
Hold on to Your Hat - More Winter on the Way

Question:  When temperatures dropped to single digits recently, I worried about several plants in my yard.  A neighbor advised me to cover them with plastic or a sheet, some suggested “mulch heavily and leave them alone.” Other than moving container plants indoors, what should I be doing to protect tender perennials, bulbs I planted this fall, or recently planted shrubs and trees?  And what if temperatures warm up again, then drop down to the teens?  Isn’t that hard on plants?

Answer:  Southern gardeners call this the “yoyo” season, when drastic changes occur across a 24 hour period. And yes, dramatic temperature swings do impact plants as well as people, especially if accompanied by wind and/or precipitation. 

To ward off damage, some turn to the “quilt garden” design, whereby colorful sheets, quilts and blankets adorn their plants for protection.  More about protecting your plants in a minute; first what is a cold wave from a plant’s perspective?

blankets on plants.jpgAccording to the U.S. National Weather Service, a cold wave (same as a “cold spell”) is a “rapid fall within a 24 hr. period, requiring substantially increased protection to agriculture, industry, commerce, and social activities.” Plants that experience weather conditions favorable to normal hardening-off in the fall, are less likely to experience cold stress.  In other words, moving from late fall temperatures above normal to cold fronts bringing temperatures that are well below normal can produce changes that reduce plant hardiness.

Aside from these conditions outside our control, what can we do in our gardens and landscapes to reduce potentially damaging impacts?  Because as surely as spring brings robins, the yo-yo temp's of late winter are here! 

Make sure to water plants before a freeze event if the soil is dry, particularly if strong winds are expected, as wind dries out plants faster than calm conditions.  Doing this activity three to four days prior to a freeze is recommended.

While not the cure-all for every plant problem, mulch helps moderate soil temperatures, and keeps weeds from popping up and competing for water and nutrients. Loose material such as pine needles or seed-free straw covering roots and crowns 4-6” deep helps protect your plants.  If you’re using mulch to completely cover small shrubs (mounding over the top), be sure to remove most of it after temperatures moderate.

Smaller plants, shrubs, or ornamental grasses can be completely enclosed with cardboard, plastic foam boxes, or ice chests.  Again, be sure to remove them as soon as temperatures normalize, as plants need air and sunshine.  Protect larger plants by building a simple structure for draping blankets. Use 3 stakes a little taller than the shrub, bush, or tree. The cover should go to the ground and be sealed with stones or bricks to completely enclose the foliage and trunk. When temperatures rise and sun reappears, be sure to remove coverings – otherwise damage can occur. Fabric covers are better than plastic.  An important trait of any plant cover is that it shouldn't directly touch the leaves. This gives extra insulation and reduces the chance of burned leaf tips.

Another option involves providing a heat source under the cover.  Wrap the plant with outdoor Christmas lights (you knew there was a reason for leaving them in the garage); the lights provide heat but not enough to burn plants or covers.

NOTE: Freeze damage may take weeks or months to appear on plants, so unless tissue turns slimy, mushy, or develops a bad odor, put off pruning until new growth appears in spring.

Bottom line, do what you can to protect your plants during extreme conditions, understand that plant survival can be hard to predict, and give your gardens and landscape a chance to recover before taking additional action.

written by Sallie M. Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). She is housed at the C. Beaty Hanna Horticultural and Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. 

January 12
Scale on House Plants

Question: I am having a problem with my Meyer lemon trees. I bought the tree last spring and didn’t seem to have any problems all summer long. Shortly after moving the trees in for the winter, I began to notice some soft, white creatures prowling the leaves and stems of the tree. What is this and what can I do about it?

cottony cushion scale, lesley ingram - bugwood.jpgAnswer: 
Growing any kind of citrus in North Central Alabama can prove challenging yet very gratifying once you begin to reap the rewards of your labor.  While the plants are relatively easy to manage and maintain with a splash of water, a little fertilizer and protection from the cold, they can be prone to some disease and insect problems when brought indoors or grown in a greenhouse. From your description, this seems to be one of the common problems that affect citrus trees, a scale insect known as cottony cushion scale.

Cottony cushion scale, Icerya purchasi, can infest a number of woody ornamentals and certain crops but common hosts include citrus, cleyera and Japanese pittosporum . Scale insects decrease the vitality of their host plant by sucking phloem sap from the leaves, twigs, branches, and trunk. Feeding can result in defoliation and dieback of twigs and small branches when infestations are extremely heavy. Heavy populations can severely reduce the yield of citrus trees. The body of the cottony cushion scale is orange-ish in color but the identifying characteristic is the large, white and cottony egg sack that is attached to the body. Each scale can carry up to 800 eggs, making the egg sack much larger than the body of the insect. The eggs hatch within a few days during the summer but can take several weeks in the winter (perhaps why they weren't initially noticed). These new “baby” scale are called crawlers and they tend to settle on soft vulnerable tissue, usually along the leaf veins on the underside of leaves.  As the scale increase in size, they molt and appear red or orange for some time before they begin to produce more cottony secretions.

Aside from the obvious white egg sacks that this scale is named for, other indications of a scale infestation include large population of ants and a black mold known as sooty mold that grows on the excretions of the scales (known as honeydew).  Once seen, it is only a matter of days before the population increases in size, remember that ONE egg sack can contain 800 eggs!

Though not impossible to control, cottony cushion scale can prove to be a challenging problem, especially on indoor plants. When the pest is on plants outside, their numbers are often controlled by several beneficial insects (tiny wasps and mites). When not inhibited by ants, which protect the scale as a source of food, these beneficial insects may keep the pests at a tolerable level. However, once the plant is inside, these beneficial insects cannot gain access to the scale, so the next best option is to remove the scale by hand whenever you see them. The adult scales seem to gather on major stems though they can move around.  When the plants are outside, horticultural oil or insecticidal soaps are effective on the crawler stage of the scale, so timing can be important. After hand-picking the scale, wipe as much of the plant as possible (stems and leaves) with a paper towel soaked in rubbing alchohol.

Growing citrus in Alabama can be challenging and fun. With a little bit of work and patience, you will be drinking fresh lemonade in no time! 

written by Hunter McBrayer of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. (photo credit: Lesley Ingram,

January 09
To Prune, or Not to Prune - That is the Question

It’s January, and still the question posed to me on a regular basis, more frequently than any other I hear, “Can I prune my XXX shrub?”  If I had a dollar for every time …. well you catch my drift. And quite honestly, yes you can prune your whatever plant now.  However, that begs the real issue – is this the best time to prune whatever it is you’re contemplating with loppers and gloves at the ready?  It’s cold outdoors, most of our gardening activities have been done for a while, and we’re itching to Do Something while the sun is shining!

So as 2015 begins, let me offer a few suggestions for shrubs you might want/need to prune.

page 2 - choice 4 - oakleaf hydrangea (aging to pink).JPG
It’s always OK, regardless of the season, to prune out the three D’s: dead, damaged, or diseased parts on the plant. Like human health, wounds (damage) can provide a “door” to an infection; dead tissue may require pruning, and diseased areas on a plant can’t protect the plant as well as healthy growth. Make sure the branch or limb is not merely dormant, which can look dead, by gently scratching your thumb nail on the bark.  If the cambium (layer beneath the bark) is green, that means the branch is alive and can be left on the tree or shrub.

The May rule of pruning suggests that: if the plant blooms before May 1, prune it AFTER the flowers fade.  These plants set flower buds the previous year, so if you're itchy pruning arm goes to work during fall or winter, most or all the flower buds will be pruned off and there won’t be many, if any, flowers in the spring.  The plant won’t die, and the following year should be OK after new growth sets new buds. The other part of this pruning rule of thumb: if the plant blooms May 1st or later, prune in late winter/early spring as these plants bloom on current year’s growth.  This can be frustrating for those who only remember “my XXX plant didn’t bloom this past summer,” but cannot remember when it was supposed to bloom in the first place. 

Hydrangeas are a ‘special’ group and have sent some gardeners into a frenzy of concern over their prized shrub’s failure to provide a flowering spectacle for their neighbors to enjoy. Part of the confusion comes from not being sure which  hydrangea is involved, and believe me it’s easy to be uncertain unless there’s a tag hanging somewhere on the plant, or you’ve kept a record of what was planted. Basically though, hydrangeas with big pink or blue flowers (H. macrophylla) and the oakleaf (H. quercifolia; photo above) both bloom on old wood so should be pruned right after they finish flowering. The other hydrangeas with white conical shaped blooms (H. paniculata) and the ‘Annabelle’ (H. arborescens) bloom on new wood (current year) and will do better if pruned in late winter/early spring. 

Relax. If a mistake is made and the shrub (you realize later) is pruned when it shouldn’t have been, make a note and adjust your timing, or instruct whoever is doing the work for you.  There’s always next year!
Written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

December 18
All Bugs Good and Bad Webinar Series Resumes on February 6

​Please join us for this webinar series for information you can use about good and bad insects.  Topics will include how you can help good insects in your garden and how to control insects we think of as bad, like fire ants, termites, bed bugs, white grubs, and wasps.  Moles, squirrels, and rats aren't insects but they are troublesome, so we will have a webinar about them too.  The series begins with a February 6 webinar presented by Kaci Buhl: "Pesticide Strategy: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Webinars will be on the first Friday of each month at 2 p.m. Eastern time.  For more informatin see All Bugs Good and Bad Webinar Series Resumes Feb. 6.2015 Webinar Schedule.jpg

December 08
So Much to Do With All Those Leaves

As I drive through the neighborhoods in and around Birmingham during late fall, I see piles of leaves that have been raked and bagged and then set out by the road for the utilities to dispose of. In the little North Alabama town that I live in, the smell of smoldering leaves on a Saturday afternoon is the tell-tale of pleasant weather. Being the plant nerd that I am, I can’t help but ask: Why all the trouble? Many of the same folks that are raking and piling leaves now will shortly be taking trips to the big-box stores to buy bags of mulch and compost to add to their annual pots in the spring, products that are largely made of decomposed leaves.

leaf pile at curb - bethany - hunter.jpgWhile I understand that many homeowners like to have spotless yards and even more so that many neighborhood associations demand those spotless yards, there are better things that we can do with the leaves than send them to landfills in plastic sacks. Fortunately, many municipalities are collecting and composting the leaves to give back to their residents.  The easiest method of “disposal” is to simply mow over the leaves with mulching blades. While we like to store our lawn equipment away in October, not wanting to think about it until late April, running over the spent leaves a few times with a mower can reduce leaf litter by over 10%! Begin mowing when the leaves first start falling and continually run over the lawn the next few weeks, don’t try to start mulching when you have 12 inches of leaves piled up or the results will be less than satisfactory. The mower will chop the leaves into tiny pieces that, with time, will settle into the grass and slowly decompose, adding nutrients and organic matter to your lawn.

If you feel that the fall season isn’t complete without blisters and shoulder bursitis, rake the leaves up and start a compost pile. By themselves, leaves can take some time to decompose but when mixed with grass clippings, leafy greens from the kitchen scraps or by adding a few handfuls of lawn fertilizer, the leaves will quickly heat up and the detriovores and other micro fauna will quickly transform the leaves from dry duff into rich organic compost. Turning the pile once a week will speed up the process but decomposition will occur even with the most passive composting methods. For more information on composting, contact your local Extension office or refer to ANR-0638. 

Lastly, use your mower’s bagging attachment to mulch and collect the leaves, then dump the leaves in and around flower beds to act as mulch. This layer of natural (and free!) mulch will not only act as fertilizer, but the layer can help smother potential weeds and help maintain moisture just as shredded bark or pine straw does. 

While on the tree, leaves can help shade our homes and add beauty to the landscape in the fall. When they fall to the ground, don’t just throw them out with the trash; let them continue to save you money and add to your landscape.

by Hunter McBrayer of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

December 08

     If you purchased or received a poinsettia, cyclamen, or other flowering potted plant for the holidays, there's no need to throw it out after bloom. With proper care and feeding, these potted plants will continue to flower for many weeks, and may even bloom again next year. Christmas Plants 1.jpg
     The most popular flowering potted plant and one most buys, or receives as a gift, is the poinsettia.  They need good drainage, so if the pot is wrapped in foil, remove the foil or make a hole in the bottom so water can drain out. Put a saucer underneath to protect furniture, but make sure water does remain in the saucer. Then water only when the soil surface is dry. If in doubt, don’t water.  Too much water leads to drooping and falling leaves, and root rots.             
     A common complaint about poinsettias is that they lose their leaves too quickly. This is a sign of poor growing conditions. Poinsettias need at least a half day of sun or bright light for at least 8 hours, a draft-free location, and night temperatures of 65 degrees (F) or above. Given the proper care, you’ll probably get tired of the poinsettias before they begin to lose their color, often as late as mid-summer.          
     If you want to try and get poinsettias to bloom next year, grow them through the season as you would other houseplants.  Then from early October, for at least 10 weeks, you’ll need to move the plant into darkness every night, and bring it out into daylight every day.  Plants need 12 hours or less of daylight for this period, every day, to rebloom.          
     The Christmas cactus responds well to the shorter days of fall, and cool temperatures. It usually will bloom year after year if kept at 50 degrees for several weeks each fall. Starting about mid-September, gradually reduce watering until buds set. Then keep soil constantly moist (but not waterlogged).      
     The amaryllis, with its stalk of colorful blooms, is another favorite holiday plant. After the flowers fade, cut the flower stalk to about two inches above the bulb. Place in a lighted area, water, and fertilize as with other houseplants. Next summer, place it outdoors, and continue to water and feed as needed. When the tops die down, bring it indoors again. For four weeks, keep at 70 degrees and water sparingly. At the end of that time, increase water to encourage new stalks and blooms.           
     The popular kalanchoe (said as cal-AN-cho), found in many bright colors through late fall and winter, is a “succulent” plant or one with thick leaves, and that prefers dry soil.  In addition to not overwatering, this plant grows best in high light.  Keep cool (55 to 65 degrees) at night and warmer (65 to 75 degrees) during day.  Fertilize as with other houseplants while it is blooming and growing.  If you want to try and rebloom these next year, you’ll need to give a similar fall light schedule as with poinsettias.     
     Azaleas are found through the holidays and winter in stores. They will bloom for the longest period if kept cool (68 degrees or less), the soil stays moist (but don't overwater), and with bright light. Feed monthly, using a fertilizer especially formulated for acid-loving plants, or at least houseplant fertilizer, according to label directions. The ones you find in stores are “florist’s azaleas” and can usually be planted outdoors in the south when temperatures begin to warm up in the spring.             
     You can prolong the bloom of your cyclamen by keeping it cool (68 degrees or below is best) and evenly moist. Too high temperatures, too little or too much water, or too low light may cause leaves to yellow and drop. With proper conditions, and if plants begin with lots of buds, you can have flowers for many weeks.  Feed regularly with houseplant food at about half strength.           
     Most discard cyclamen after bloom.  If you want to keep them for possible future blooms, stop watering when leaves turn yellow and wither.  Keep dry, in cool, and out of direct sun.  When you see the first signs of growth in fall, water well.  Water again and treat as above when shoots and leaves appear.           
     There are other potted flowering plants you may find in stores, including mums, gerbera daisies, or ornamental peppers.  As with other such potted plants, generally cool temperatures (60 to 70 degrees) and avoiding too much water will result in the longest bloom period.  You’ll also get the longest bloom if you buy plants with lots of buds rather than all flowers already fully open. Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont was used as a resource for this article.


December 01
Time for Tinsel and Trees

​Question: Growing up we always had a “real” tree at Christmas, so after several years of artificial trees, we’re going to try a live one this year.  Before we head out to purchase one, what type of tree should I look for, where is the best place to find one, and how long can I expect the tree to last in my house?  I’d like to put it on a closed in porch; would that be OK?

x-mas tree - stock from Microsoft.jpgAnswer:  There’s nothing quite like the aroma of a healthy, freshly cut tree mingling with holiday aromas. On a chilly day, a sniff of cinnamon-scented cider, cookies baking in the oven, and a whiff of tangy pine or spruce make us feel holiday-ish. 

By the way, for some folks Christmas trees are not part of their tradition.  For others, an artificial tree is appropriate.  And that’s OK, but if you want to make a live tree part of your holidays, keep reading.

Most information about live or “real” trees intended for Christmas falls into 3 categories: tree choices, tree maintenance, and tree disposal. Choosing a tree can be an emotional experience for some, for others it’s about supporting a scout troop or philanthropic organization. Regardless of where your tree is purchased, there are a couple of guidelines to improve the likelihood that “live” will be your choice next year as well.

Whether you bring home a cedar, fir, cypress, pine, or spruce there are advantages to each. Some are more fragrant than others; the volatile oil in Eastern Red Cedars is a natural insecticide, the reason for storing wool clothing in cedar chests.  Some have longer needles (leaves) than others, allowing more room to hang ornaments or icicles. As important as type of tree is the health of a tree.  If bumping the tree firmly on the ground results in a shower of brown or green needles, walk away! Your tree should be cut recently enough to last 4-6 weeks indoors with adequate water.... which leads to tree maintenance issues.

The one mantra for keeping Christmas trees healthy is water, water, water.  A fairly good-sized tree can drink a gallon of water a day, and if the water level drops below the base of your tree, needles can start dropping within hours.
Lower indoor temperatures are better for the tree so your porch idea is ideal, though not everyone has this option.  If your home is kept on the warm side, don’t stand the tree near a fireplace or other heat source.  Not only could there be a fire hazard, but the tree will dry out faster.  Remember these trees were growing in cooler temperatures than the average indoor temperature – trees don’t pack up and go to Florida during winter!

Disposing of your Christmas tree in a wood burning indoor fireplace is not recommended.  The intense heat and potential for sparks to create indoor fireworks is not the way to start a new year.  Other options are more environmentally friendly, and if you or a neighbor like to fish, create additional post-holiday cheer. Here’s how: anchor discarded Christmas trees in a good location for fish, which will use trees for cover and places to lay eggs.  Good fish habitat, in other words.  Or, bird watchers might string the trees with orange slices, bread, cranberries, pine cones with peanut butter and other bird-friendly treats.  Set the tree in a sunny location sheltered from wind and you’ll have visitors that won’t spill cider on your sofa! 

Live Christmas trees do have a life after the holidays, so enjoy them, decorate and share them, and then recycle them to enhance the habitats of other living creatures.

written by Sallie Lee of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, C. Beaty Hanna Horticulture & Environmental Center, which is based at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

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