5 holiday horticulture disasters to avoid

By Larry Caplan, Extension Horticulture Educator, Vanderburgh County, Ind.
Published On: Nov 29 2011 01:01:34 AM EST
Updated On: Nov 12 2013 10:41:29 AM EST

iStock/Liliboas

The holidays are a time of joy and family ... and plants. If you think about it, horticulture plays a surprisingly large part of the holiday season.

We use evergreen Christmas trees, holly wreaths, poinsettias and other gift plants, and my favorite, mistletoe (and kissing beneath it!). All of these plants have great historical and symbolic meaning for the Christmas holiday.

Sometimes, though, holiday horticulture can cause some inconveniences. Pine needles need to be swept up; water spilled or splashed while filling the tree stand needs to be mopped up; and soil from potted plants that are knocked over by kids or pets needs to be both swept and mopped.

In some extreme cases, though, our use of plants during the holiday can lead to tragedy. Tree fires are not unheard of, and people and pets have been known to become sick after eating some of the greenery.

Don't allow our glad times to become sad times! A little bit of forethought can "wrap up" these holiday challenges ...

Dried-out Christmas trees

Cut trees are the centerpiece for Christmas decorating. But because of the dry indoor environment and their general lack of a root system, they dry out quickly. A dry tree is a flammable tree! Keeping the tree hydrated is an absolute must to keep your family safe.

When you get your cut tree home, saw off the bottom of the trunk to expose some fresh wood. Immediately place the tree in a bucket of water, or in a tree stand with a full reservoir. A freshly cut tree will absorb a surprisingly large amount of water over the first several days, so be sure to check and replenish the reservoir at least two or three times a day.

The various chemical additives that supposedly decrease the flammability of the tree aren't necessary. Plain old water works as well as anything; in fact, some of the additives may block the tree's ability to take up water; others can cause bacterial growth in the reservoir, or pose a health risk to pets.

And for goodness sake, never use lit candles or frayed light strings on a tree.

The next holiday horticulture disaster can really bug you ...

Christmas tree pests

Cut trees sometimes have their own organic tree ornaments already attached, in the form of egg sacs, cocoons and hibernating insects. After a few days in a nice, warm living room, they tend to hatch out, adding to the excitement of the holiday. Nothing like 100 baby praying mantises swarming the ornaments to liven up the party!

Before bringing the tree indoors, check it for hitchhikers.

Most egg sacs and cocoons will be located inside the body of the tree, hidden by the needles. Checking the tree while it's still lying down in the driveway gives you a better view of the undersides of the lower branches. Cocoons and webbing can be wiped off and removed. If you do find a praying mantis egg sac (they are grayish brown, about the size of a walnut), carefully remove it and tie it to a shrub or tree in your yard.

Do not spray the tree with an insecticide. The chemical may make the tree more flammable, and it's not healthy to breathe in the vapors.

Of course, sometimes it's the plant itself which can cause trouble ...

Toxic plants

A popular myth is that poinsettias are poisonous. This has been proven to be not true.

That being said, I wouldn't recommend adding one to your salad. It's always possible for someone to have an allergy to the plant (just like an allergy to strawberries); some people have been known to develop a skin irritation from the milky sap.

The berries of mistletoe can be toxic in large numbers. This is especially a concern with small pets and very young children, where just a couple of berries can be enough to cause problems. The seeds within the red berries of yews are toxic, and holly berries can cause upset stomach. All parts of the Christmas Rose (one of the hellebores) can be poisonous if eaten.

One of the most common pet poisonings occurs from chocolate. Keep all candy where pets can't get to it.

The best advice is to keep an eye on your decorative plants, as well as your kids and pets. Keep the plants out of reach, and clean up any dropped berries or leaves.

If you do go with plants as Christmas gifts, be sure to pay close attention to our next selection ...

Freezing your holiday gift plants

A popular gift for the holidays are live plants. Poinsettias and Christmas cactus are the most common, but even cut flowers add to the beauty of the season.

One problem with holiday plants is that they are very sensitive to the cold. The other problem is that, depending on where you live, it can get really, really cold during the winter, and your plants can be damaged as you dash through the snow between the store and your car.

To keep your plants from freezing, place a paper bag gently over the plant before you leave the store. This will help trap some of the warmth coming from the potting soil. Move the plant quickly to your heated car, and keep it in the passenger cabin instead of the trunk. Don't leave the plant in an unheated car, which means that it should be the last thing you pick up on your shopping list.

Indoors, keep the plant from touching cold window panes. Six to 12 inches from the window will give enough light, but still protect it from icy windows. Also, keep the plants away from doors and other drafts.

Last up, be sure to not let all that waste ruin your holidays ...

Holiday waste guilt

Got guilty feelings about the mountain of waste generated after Christmas? Wrapping paper, cardboard, and empty bottles of Christmas cheer can be recycled. Greeting cards are sometimes accepted by schools and nursing homes for craft projects. Boxes can be collapsed and saved for future presents, or even for mailing. Contact your local solid waste district to see what is accepted locally.

Christmas trees can also be recycled. Some communities offer free tree-chipping days, and the resulting mulch is given away for free.

The dead trees can also be used as a shelter for birds by propping it up in a sheltered corner. Hang suet or peanut butter feeders to attract birds. If you own a pond, the trees can be sunk to the bottom to provide a shelter for small fish. Gardeners can cut the branches off the trunk and lay them over their perennial beds for a little extra winter protection.

The holidays don't have to be perilous to your family or the environment. With a little bit of preparation and some common sense, you can have a safe and happy holiday season!

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