Although artificial trees have become quite common, having a fresh-cut tree for the holidays is still quite popular. A question we sometimes get is, "What special solution is best for keeping my Christmas tree green?"

The answer is good old plain water! Research done at North Carolina State University a few years ago compared several homemade solutions to plain water. They looked at water only, water plus household bleach, water with aspirin tablets and water with 7-Up. Nothing was found to work as well as clean, plain water. What does help is to have a plant stand that holds at least one gallon of water. The stand should be cleaned with a half-and-half bleach-water solution before placing the tree in the stand. Make a fresh cut on the base of the tree and immediately place it in the stand. Check the water reservoir every day because trees can absorb a tremendous amount of water, especially fresh-cut trees, especially the first few days.

Keep safety in mind by keeping your tree away from heaters, fireplaces and vents, and turn off lights at night before going to bed.

How about a cut-your-own tree from a local Christmas tree farm? There are 10 farms in the northeast Texas area. Go to www.texas christmastrees.com to find a farm near you and support local growers.

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesi) is a favorite holiday season house plant, but one that needs attention to details if it is to flower again the next winter. It is closely related to Easter cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri) and Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncatus), all with fleshy, flattened, segmented joints and showy flowers ranging in color from white through pink, red and purple.

These cacti are epiphytes, which means they live in the crotches and on the bark of trees in the tropics. This is why they do best when grown in a very porous, organic potting soil mixed with sand to provide excellent drainage.

After flowering, an active growth period will begin. Water carefully, because overwatering is the major cause of failure with Christmas cactus. Soak and then allow the soil to become almost dry before watering again. Try growing it outdoors during the spring through fall in the bright, but indirect light found under tall trees, similar to the conditions where they are found in nature growing on the trunks of trees.

Fertilize with any water-soluble, complete fertilizer while it's actively growing. Slowly reduce water and fertilizer in August in preparation for the beginning of flower bud development, which is regulated by longer fall nights, along with cooler night temperatures. By late October or early November, buds should be visible. Maintain bud set by adequate watering (not too wet or dry), taking care not to expose the plant to cold drafts, unvented heaters, or rough handling. Night temperatures above 70 degrees may inhibit bud development.

Poinsettias: This popular holiday plant also is triggered to bloom by the longer nights of fall. But, you don't need to be concerned with that, since growers have already taken care of that step. Here's a hint to help you pick the freshest plant that will last the longest in your home. What is usually referred as the "flower" of a poinsettia is really a group of brightly colored, modified leaves called "bracts." The true flowers, located in the center of the whorl of bracts, are small, yellow and inconspicuous. When purchasing poinsettias, select plants with the newest blooms so they'll stay fresher for a longer time. Look for plants with the largest number of small, green or bright yellow flowers that are still tightly closed.

Don't let your newly purchased plant catch cold while you run errands after purchasing it. Once you get your poinsettias home, place them where they will receive bright, indirect light. A sunny window would be ideal. Try to avoid sudden temperature shocks, especially cold, which can cause the plants to drop leaves. Also, don't keep them near a fireplace, heater or hot air vent.

Poinsettias like to have their soil kept evenly moist, but not soggy or sopping wet. Let the surface of the soil just barely dry before thoroughly watering the plant. Place a saucer underneath the pot so you can water it regularly, but dump the water after each watering. Punch holes through the bottom of decorative foil to let excess water drain out. Or, remove the foil when watering, and replace it after the water has completely drained. Do not let the pot sit in a tray or saucer full of water.

Kalanchoe is another popular winter blooming plant whose cheerful flowers are triggered by long nights in the fall. They are quite easy to grow when provided bright light during the year, and protection from the cold during late fall through early spring. Because they are succulents, they don't require a lot of water, and they also are very easy to propagate. Kalanchoes used to only be available as red or orange flowers, but now a wide range of colors, and even double-flowered types are available.

 

PROGRAMS AND EVENTS

n A reminder that applications will be accepted until Dec. 12 for participation in the 2015 Smith County Master Gardener training, which begins in early January. The Master Gardener program is a master volunteer program conducted by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, where in exchange for an in-depth training in all aspects of home horticulture, participants pledge to volunteer a certain number of hours, assisting in Extension-sponsored gardening educational programs. For an application, or more information about this program, please contact the Smith County office at 903-590-2980. Applications also are available online at easttexasgardening.tamu.edu in the "Educational Programs" section.

n Texas pesticide applicator license holders who need CEUs to maintain their license should take note of two opportunities this month. The first CEU program is today and the other is Dec. 9. Both are at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Overton. Programs on both days start with registration at 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. Registration for either day is $30 per person, which includes a barbecue brisket lunch. Five CEUs are available (1 Laws & Regulations; 2 IPM & 2 General). For details, see "Events" at overton.tamu.edu.

 

Keith Hansen is Smith County horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. His web page is http://EastTexasGardening.tamu.edu. His blog is http://agri life.org/etg. Find him on Facebook at face book.com/easttexasgardening.

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