Natural Holidays

When planning your holiday décor, don’t miss out on the best source—nature. Gardening expert John Floyd shares his tips for growing the best plants that are sure to spread cheer throughout the season—and beyond.

Japanese Maple

Believe it or not, our fall color peaks around the week before Thanksgiving. And our first killing frost usually waits until some time in November. This makes for great gardening across the metro area this time of year. Cool fall days and cold nights create the perfect atmosphere for planting biennials such as foxgloves, stock, sweet Williams, and Canterbury bells for spring bloom. These are special plants for me, as they grace my garden every spring with an exceptional show of color. You can generally find foxgloves and sweet Williams in our local garden centers, but stock and Canterbury bells will probably have to be ordered from a company such as Bluestone Perennials.

As we rake leaves and plant perennials and pansies, our thoughts start to turn to the holidays. The Thanksgiving table with its beautiful centerpiece is always special at our house. Usually, the material for this arrangement comes from my garden and the surrounding woods or neighbor’s yards (with permission, of course). In our region, the leaves and branches of ginkgo, green Japanese maples, red maples (especially the named selections), sugar maples, and Southern sugar maples are great options. If you plan to cut branches for arranging, be sure to make a clean cut on the limb where you do not leave a nub of stem. And if you want to add any of these trees to your landscape for future enjoyment, now is the perfect time to plant them. 

When planting a ginkgo, keep in mind that it’s a large tree when mature and needs dryer locations. Also be sure you purchase a male one, as the female fruits have a dead fish odor. Green Japanese maples and Southern sugar maples are smaller trees that are easy to grow. However, over time their root system becomes dense, and few things other than ground covers will grow well  under the canopy. Red maples and sugar maples are large trees and good growers. And while they are excellent shade trees, they do have surface roots, which means you may need to eliminate the turf under these trees at some point and replace with mulch. I do have a 20-year-old red maple in my front area that still has turf under it, but I don’t mind having exposed roots combined with the turf.

As we look ahead to December, many of us start to prepare for Christmas. In our house, using natural decorations is a must. Magnolia clusters, holly branches, smilax vines, nandina berries, and juniper sprays are go-to materials when decorating the mantels and doors, as well as when creating arrangements. Since these decorations usually need to last two weeks or longer, we try to arrange them in water or in florist foam so that water can be added. This also allows fresh flowers to be mixed in when we
are entertaining.

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During the holiday season, potted poinsettias, Christmas cactus, hothouse azaleas, amaryllis, and paperwhites are also commonly available. One of the newer plants in the marketplace is the shooting star hydrangea. It’s a lace-cap type whose white flowers look like they are shooting off the bud cluster with a white star-like flower. This hydrangea creates a unique look, and unlike the common white florist hydrangea, you can usually find it at shops across the metro area. In addition, if you can keep the shooting star alive until the danger of frost has passed, it will grow outside in the spring in high filtered shade. However, these hydrangeas are not cheap—they range between 15 and 20 dollars for a 4-inch pot in local shops.

Perhaps the best thing about using natural decorations is that they can be recycled, meaning you can enjoy the materials in other arrangements after the season is over. That’s definitely something to make your holidays even happier.


Floyd’s To-Do List: November/December

Leaves If leaves are still falling, mow the turf with a bagging attachment and then put the leaves in plastic bags. Wet the cut-up leaves well, and seal the bags. Store the filled bags out of sight. Over the winter, they will decompose and will make good compost or mulch for your spring garden.

Vegetable Garden Once you have finished harvesting your vegetable garden, remove all the debris, till the area, and water well. Then cover it with opaque plastic sheeting. This will prevent winter weeds and will control some pests because of the solarizing effect.

Spring Bulbs This time of year, spring bulbs go on sale at many garden centers and mail-order nurseries. Purchase them now and refrigerate them until time to plant. Any time after Thanksgiving through the first of the year is when I plant my spring bulbs for best effect. This especially works well for tulips and daffodils.

Paperwhite and amaryllis bulbs These bulbs are popular to force in water this time of year. However, it’s important to not allow the water to be above the basal plate, which is the area where you see the shriveled dead roots coming out of the base of the bulb. Only allow the water level to come to this point on the bulbs. Remove the dead material from the bulb before placing the bulb in water. Keep the water level touching the basal plate until you see new roots; then allow the water to drop slightly below this level. Grow in a sunny, cool spot for best results.

Poinsettias When purchasing a poinsettia, look for one that has the little flowers in the center of the colorful bracts. These flowers, whether just opening or in bloom, tell you the age of the plant. Look for plants whose flowers are unopened or just opening to get the best quality plants. And remember that lack of water and sunlight are the main causes of poinsettias looking poor through the holidays.

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.

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John Floyd

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