COMPLEAT HOME GARDENER: Time to get snippy with your trees and shrubs

By Marianne Binetti

The beginning of December is the time to deck your halls with boughs of holly clipped from any overgrown holly shrubs and swing swags of cedar from the porch railings, collected from the cedar branches brought down by wind storms.

Decorating for Christmas by using evergreen plant material is as old as Kris Kringle himself and is the reason we think of red and green as traditional Christmas colors. Way back in the dark ages, December was the month of cold and darkness. Using evergreen plants to spruce up the dreary days was a reminder that summer and sunlight would always return. Red was the color of winter-borne berries and also a Christian symbol of the blood of Christ. So red and green together became the colors of the holiday season and it’s a good thing for local gardeners. Western Washington gardens are full of evergreens, red berries and green and white variegated foliage just right for the plucking.

This is a good week to arm yourself with a basket and pair a pair of pruning shears and then get out side and get snippy with your trees and shrubs. You don’t even have to have a garden to harvest fresh greens for your outdoor decoration. Take a walk along a country road or public park and you’ll find our recent rash of wind storms has deposited boughs of cedar, fir and spruce ready to be collected.

Dirt cheap decorating is right outside the doorway and here are the most-asked questions:

Q. We have been taking family walks to collect fallen greens, pinecones and other bits of nature for Christmas decorations. But it seems to me you once warned about using one particular type of evergreen plant and I don’t know why you gave this warning. Are some evergreens poisonous? Are there some that smell bad? So far we have lots of cedar and Douglas fir greens and hope to use them to make door swags. Are these two OK to use? R.C., Enumclaw

A. Your family walks sound productive indeed and cedar and fir are both trees that provide good material for outdoor decorating. The only warning I remember giving about evergreens was to avoid using hemlock greens as the fine needles drop quickly once the branch is cut and begins to dry. Cedar is one of the best-smelling and longest-lasting evergreens and right now Mother Nature has conveniently placed a windfall of cedar greens right within easy reach. Just be sure to store your collected greens in a large plastic bag left outdoors in a shaded spot. Cut evergreens will last for months when kept cool and moist but for only a day or two when brought indoors.

Q. I have three pots on my front porch that were filled with beautiful summer flowers. Now everything is dead and I want to fill these pots with greens and pinecones. Can I leave the potting soil in the pots? If I poke greens into this potting soil, can I still use the soil next spring when I replant the containers? B., e-mail

A. Leave the old soil in those pots and start the designing with winter greens. Potting soil can be reused year after year as long as you fluff it up by loosening it with a trowel right before planting. To begin your winter design, just cut back the dead plants that are now in the containers and don’t loosen the soil. Potting soil that is firmly packed and full of old roots is perfect for inserting cut branches of holly, fir and cedar. But don’t limit your design to just conifer greens. Look around your garden for other evergreen plants and then take snips of camellia, lecouthoe, viburnum, even bare branches of red twig dogwood or curly tigs from willows can be added to your winter green display. Once spring arrives you can remove the cut greens, loosen up the old potting soil and then add a few inches of fresh potting soil to refill the containers. A sprinkle of slow-release plant food and you’re ready for another season of planting.

Q. What do you think of the bulbs being sold for half price at the big box stores? Is it worth it? B.H., Olympia

A. As long as the bulbs are still firm and free of mold they’ll grow and bloom just fine. You can even pot them up into recycled plastic nursery pots and give them away as dirt cheap gifts. When you pot up bulbs in December be sure to keep them outdoors so they feel the winter chill. Spring-blooming bulbs need at least six weeks of cold weather before they will flower.

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Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and several other books. For book requests or answers to gardening questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply.

For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site,

Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.

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