Miss Floribunda: The outs and ins of winter gardening
Dear Miss Floribunda,
I am puzzled that “Nostalgic on Nicholson Street” wrote to you last month about having routinely planted live Christman trees outside during Pennsylvania winters. I considered the possibility that you made up the letter, but am pretty sure that you’d know enough to have chosen a warmer location than Pittsburgh! The other possibility is that there is some secret to planting a live Christmas tree outside in winter.
In short, did you slip up, or is there important planting information you can share?
Incredulous on Crittenden Street
I shared your opinion with “Nostalgic” — a real person, who really does live on Nicholson Street and who did grow up in Pennsylvania. He responded, “We used a pickax, as well as shovel and spade. It could freeze hard in Pittsburgh in those years, but there were always warming spells during the winter season (and snow insulates the ground). I can remember winters when the water ran down the road, under the blackened ice.”
In addition, I notice in his original letter that the live pine trees he described had “burlap-wrapped roots.” That suggests to me that the trees were field grown, rather than grown in a pot in a greenhouse. Such a tree would already be accustomed to the outdoors and probably more likely to survive when replanted outside later.
Then I got back in touch with “Christmas In July,” who a few years ago asked how to have flowers in a backyard shaded by the live Christmas trees she’d planted over many years. She obviously was an expert at tree planting, so I asked for her advice. Her secret? She dug a good hole for her tree before Christmas and before the ground had frozen. She packed the hole with plastic bags of leaves to insulate it and keep it from freezing. She saved the soil she’d dug out and kept it in buckets in her garage.
She emphasized that the tree was never kept indoors for more than two weeks. Otherwise, it might be deceived by the warm environment and decide that spring had come. Also of utmost importance was to place the tree in a container into which water could be added. Not only did the tree need to be kept from drying out, it had to be placed in as cool a location as possible — away from heating vents. After the new year came, the tree was moved to her garage for a couple of days to help it adjust to cooler temperatures.
When the tree was eventually planted in the prepared hole, the soil saved in the garage replaced the bags of leaves. This soil was tamped down well to eliminate pockets of air that could freeze-dry the tree roots. Watering and more tamping followed; the leaves from the plastic bags were added as mulch and then covered with a heavier bark mulch. This thorough mulching prevented heaving during soil temperature fluctuations and kept the soil from drying out.
I’d like to add that bulbs that you haven’t gotten into the ground before the ground has frozen can be planted during a thaw. I learned this firsthand many years ago when I volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House in D.C. A gift of thousands of spring bulbs from a local nursery was delivered there on the last day of the year. The embassy that had ordered the bulbs had closed because of a coup d’état in the home country. Unable to exact payment, the nursery decided to donate the bulbs to a charity for a tax break. Other volunteers and I packed the bulbs in peat moss, placed them in a root cellar, and, at the first good thaw, managed to plant them all in two days. You can plant bulbs as late as mid-February successfully, if they have been stored well.
Of course, not only can you continue planting shrubs and bulbs in winter, you can start planting seeds indoors to get a head start on your spring and summer garden. You can start right away by ordering quality Chas. C. Hart and Southern Exposure seeds from the Hyattsville Horticultural Society (HHS) at competitive prices.
In the past, HHS has sold these at an annual sale open to the public, but it is not yet clear if such a gathering will be possible. If it is possible, the sale will take place on Feb. 11 at the Hyattsville Municipal Building, 4301 Gallatin Street. Please check the HHS website (hyattsvillehorticulture.org) for updated information. If no public sale is possible, you will be able to browse the seed selection, see photos and read growing information, make purchases and arrange for pickup in Hyattsville from the HHS online sale site. If you need assistance, please email the HHS vice president, Julie Wolf, at firstname.lastname@example.org.