Holiday Splash

Add even more to your festive décor with the vibrant colors of these seasonal plants. Gardening expert John Floyd shares his advice for ensuring these blooms stay beautiful and fresh throughout the holidays.

Southern Magnolia

This is the season for traditions. One of my favorites is taking a trip back home to the Black Belt to cut the deciduous holly berries along the fencerows and bring them back to Birmingham. It reminds me of being home for the holidays.

Another fun tradition a neighbor of mine started many years ago was asking to cut magnolia leaves for decoration off of my Little Gem Southern magnolias. The only thing I remind her each time is to cut the branches she needs as high up as she can reach. Why? Because allowing the limbs to grow all the way to the ground means that the lower branches full of foliage will cover up the constant leaf litter that collects at the base. In fact, I often just blow the falling leaves under the branches. The leaves and branches from these trees are perfect decorations because they last a long time if placed in water. They also glisten when the leaves are polished, which adds a beautiful effect to arrangements.

When it comes to cutting hollies with or without berries, always treat the plant as if you are pruning it. Like magnolia branches, hollies will last for weeks when placed in water. Conifers such as pine, junipers, and red cedar are also good for decorating; just make sure you do not make a cut that can be seen, even if you have to cut off more of a branch than you need.

Seasonal flowers are readily available right now at most food stores, big box hardware stores, and many local retailers that sell plants. While I love using poinsettias at Christmas, I prefer plants with fall colors for my Thanksgiving décor. One of my favorites is Kalanchoes. The common orange-colored ones are long-lasting plants that come in a variety of sizes and prices. The good news about this plant is that it’s easy to nurture—as long as you don’t overwater it. I don’t water mine until the soil is almost dry to the touch. Kalanchoes come in a variety of colors, so you are sure to find one that fits your décor.

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If you are looking for a beautiful plant that will last throughout the entire holiday season, select Phalaenopsis orchids. When shopping for orchids, it’s important to look for ones that still have many blooms to open and also have leaves that appear glossy and slick. Once you get the plant home, water it right away and make sure the water drains through the pot. If the pot does not have a hole in it, turn the pot upside down and drain out all of the water. I water mine about every 7-10 days and always make sure they are drained well and not sitting in water. If you choose any of the other exotic orchids on the market, be sure to water them in the same way. And keep in mind that they generally do not last as long as Phalaenopsis.

I can’t talk about holiday plants and trees without mentioning the most important one of all—the Christmas tree. As you are wandering your local tree lot, be aware that price is not always an indication of quality. If the needles feel dry or the tree seems off color, it is probably not a good one to purchase.

The first thing I like to do before I start shopping is figure out how tall of a tree I need. Remember that you will have to cut some of the trunk off at the bottom to get the tree into your holder, so factor that into the height of the tree. You also will want to make some deep crosscuts into the bottom of the trunk before placing it in the holder to ensure that the tree absorbs plenty of water. This trunk-cutting method, combined with keeping the water in the holder full at all times, is the key to helping your tree stay fresh. By doing this, I can usually count on my tree lasting about two weeks indoors with minimal needle drop.

Floyd’s To-Do List: November/December

Mistletoe is a Southern favorite for making kissing balls or simply hanging over a door to promote “kissing under the mistletoe.” Remember that it is on the poison control list, so be sure to kiss the person under it and not the actual plant! When harvesting mistletoe, cut the whole branch if possible since it is a parasitic plant and is not healthy for the tree.

It is still fine to plant new shrubs and trees now. Just make sure that when planting, you make the hole one-and-a-half times the size of the root ball. Also, it is important that the hole drains well. A quick test is to fill the dug hole with water and see how long it takes to drain out. If the water does not drain out in a few minutes, then you need to dig a bigger hole. It especially helps to make it deeper and then add some gravel below the planting depth at the bottom of the hole to help keep the roots from sitting in water. Backfill with a mixture of soil from the hole and good organic matter mixed together, and then water when planted. 

Since leaf fall is heaviest in our area around Thanksgiving, I always suggest that you keep removing leaves off your fine turf on a weekly basis. While raking leaves is a great way to get some upper body exercise, a quicker way is to use a bagging lawn mower. Just be sure the leaves have built up into areas over a couple of inches. While many folks use mulch mowers, leaf debris from mulching mowers should not remain on fine turf. That’s why raking or bagging is the best way for fine turf. Also, if you want to overseed your dormant grass with rye or fescue, remember the seeds germinate faster and better on leaf-free lawns.

Don’t Miss…

Wreath Making with Holly Carlisle. This Birmingham Botanical Gardens webinar will be held Wednesday, December 2, from 6-7 p.m. Floral designer Holly Carlisle will lead the virtual demonstration on how to incorporate foraged greenery and natural materials from your yard into a wreath that complements your décor. The $25 cost includes the demonstration and a 10-inch grapevine wreath to be picked up at the gardens before the session. Register at

John Floyd has been gardening in the Birmingham area for more than 30 years. In addition to his day-to-day experience, John has degrees in horticulture from Auburn and Clemson Universities and was editor-in-chief of Southern Living. For daily tips and more garden information, visit

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