Over the course of the past four weeks, I’ve written four Holiday Preparation Toolkits (plus thirty-six words, as of the end of this sentence), and to be honest, it’s been an absolutely massive amount to unpack. I began by talking about the best ways to wrap gifts in advance, then we placed our early orders for holiday technology. Next, we moved on to fire safety for Thanksgiving, before finally getting around to hanging ornaments in the fourth installment.
You should emerge from this toolkit fully armed, ready to tackle the holidays.
In fact, you’re nearly there. Once the lights and decorations are hanging, there’s only one step remaining: buy and arrange your favorite holiday plants (and celebrate, of course). With Christmas trees, garland, wreaths, and live ornamental plants, you can bring the charm (and scent) of a forest to the inside of your home.
Save Your Tree
The Christmas tree is basically the only holiday plant that has anyone pining to bring it home. While all the other shrubs of the season sit unpurchased on palettes, Christmas trees start getting snatched up and brought home by early December. Some people like to intentionally hold off, to keep their tree greener on Christmas Day or New Year, but that’s not the only way to accomplish it. You can do quite a lot to preserve your tree once you get it home.
Obviously, if you use an artificial tree, you’re not going to benefit from this discussion. I’m more concerned about how to keep a tree alive than about how to decorate it. You can handle the composition-and-design side of things.
Choose Your Horse Wisely
To borrow a metaphor from horse-racing, a past-time that I know absolutely nothing about, the best way to hamper your tree’s chances fresh out of the gate is to start with a bum horse.
My first tip is that you should avoid buying a tree if you didn’t watch it get cut down. All Christmas tree varieties are bred to survive a trip cross-country, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to want them in that state. It’s better if you can have the tree attached to its own root system as long as possible before cutting it and bringing it home.
Go to a farm that’s growing Christmas trees, and pick one yourself to be cut down. Find a symmetrical tree of the proper height for your house, check the quality and condition of the needles, be sure that you are happy with the shape (consider which side of the tree will be visible), and then take it home.
Keep in mind: if your tree has been forced into a net, the branches are bunched up. You will have to wait a few days for the branches to settle. If you decorate the tree while it’s still bunched up, your decorations will slip, sag, and fall to the ground.
Back to horse-racing. In the world of domesticated animals and plants, genetics is king. You want to settle on a variety of pine tree that can stand up well to being cut at the trunk, brought home, and displayed.
Christmas Tree Varieties
From what I’ve seen, in my area, the Douglas fir may be the most popular Christmas tree. It has soft bunches of sweet-smelling needles that stay on the tree even after a lot of stress. I specifically avoid this variety, though, because it grows better in southern climates. Up in New Jersey, this means that local Douglas firs are often patchy, scraggly, or yellow-ish. If your tree was shipped in pre-cut, you will see better-looking Douglas firs, since they may well come from afar, where the trees grow better.
My preferred variety is the blue spruce. It has harder, pointier needles, which is certainly a downside, but those needles stay on the tree just as well as a Douglas fir, retaining in the process their bluish shade of green. Some of the nicer examples of blue spruce display a frosty silver hue. In my area, spruce stands up better to cold, grows more symmetrically, and has a superior color to the Douglas fir. I’m told that the needles smell bad, but I don’t mind it — it’s still piney.
The most popular variety in the whole country, however, is the Scotch pine. This variety is known for its ability to retain nearly every needle, even after it’s totally dried out. Why you’d want to utilize that benefit is beyond me, but you can do it. Scotch pines are greener than the blue spruce and Douglas fir, and they keep fresh very consistently through the season.
Overall, you want to consider the climate you live in, how much time you’re willing to spend sweeping needles, how long the tree needs to last, how heavily you’re going to decorate it, and of course, how you’re going to preserve it.
Feed and Water Your Tree
As soon as you get the tree home, get it into a tree stand that can hold at least a gallon of water. I guess you could rig some kind of apparatus to do the same job, but I have no advice for that. I’d just buy one online or at a holiday gift store. Cut any netting off the tree and let the trunk soak for a day or two to allow the branches to settle.
If the tree goes twelve hours after being cut without soaking, you should cut a ¼” disc of wood off the bottom of the trunk to expose healthy wood fibers. If you’re not going to display the tree immediately, leave it wrapped and soak it in a dark, cool area.
Some people swear by fertilizers and nutrients. I know my father has an incredibly complicated recipe for a Christmas tree pre-soak that he uses. Don’t quote me on this, but I believe dog urine was briefly included as an ingredient. Let me tell you folks: the Christmas tree didn’t look any better that year, and it’s just not fair to the dog.
If you want to feel a little more confident, maybe a packet of vitamins and minerals will set your mind at ease. Maybe, if your tree is sickly, it will even make a noticeable difference. Somehow, I doubt it.
Soak Your Trunk
To prevent the tree from drying out once you’ve got it propped up in the stand, you’ll mostly just want to keep the water full. In the past, I’ve had the water get gross after a few days of soaking, so we drained it and refilled it. As long as the tree is sitting in clean water, the needles will have a steady supply of moisture.
You can think of the tree like a napkin: if you dip one corner into water, the water wicks upward, wetting the center of the napkin, but it never fully reaches the far corners. The wet corner is the equivalent of your trunk, the place where the water enters. The other three corners are equivalent to the needles at the furthest reaches of the tree’s branches. The water is drawn toward them, but they’re too far from the trunk to drink up as much moisture as they could.
Don’t Let It Dry Out
To try to encourage moisture to enter the needles, and especially to prevent currents of warm air from drying them out, you can use a humidifier in the same room as the tree. As dry air passes over the needles, moisture evaporates out, trying to reach an equilibrium where the dry air becomes as moist as the needles. This is the process of osmosis.
Running moist air over the needles has the opposite effect: the moisture flees into the dry needles, rehydrating them. This reduces the degree to which the needles rely on water from the branches, which helps the tree retain water overall.
Heat and sunlight are the other culprits in the battle to keep your tree from drying out. Heat will encourage moisture to evaporate out of the needles even more than it already would’ve, and sunlight is even worse, wearing down and weakening the branches and needles as they dry. Keep your tree in a cool room, away from sunlight, and consider closing heat vents near the tree.
Deck The Halls
I believe I already mentioned that my father takes some aspects of decoration slightly too seriously. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, when the effort is channeled through the proper avenues.
As an example, the highlight of my dad’s house around the holidays is the half-turn staircase in the foyer. The banister curves up and joins with a railing that separates the upstairs from the foyer, so in early December, the banister is inevitably wrapped in garland and strung with lights. I love it. There used to be all kinds of fake pine cones and crazy berries on the garland, which, through years of co-existing with four boys and a dog, eventually all fell off or were thrown at someone.
That’s not what makes the banister great, to be clear. What makes the banister great is that you can weave enough lights into the garland to light the entire foyer. You get the star-like lightbulbs floating among the pine and holly, and you also get a dancing white light that casts itself on the wall. I recommend lighting your garlands with string lights. I do not recommend picking them apart or letting children play with them.
With Boughs of Holly
You don’t need to restrict your garland use to railings, of course. You can line doors, drape garland from the roof; wrap light posts. Inside and outside, you have many options to customize your garland.
Pine cones are a really nice touch. If you have coniferous pine trees in your area, you can go cut down boughs with attractive cones on them and weave them into your garland, tying them down with wire or ribbon. You can do the same with wild holly, juniper, or hemlock. Be careful, though. Your pets can get sick from eating certain berries, and if used outdoors, birds might pick your garland clean.
You can also mix Christmas tree decorations into the garland, to make it look busier and less wild. I prefer the forested look of wild berries and fresh cut pine branches, but it might fit your design better if you just treat the garland like an extension of the tree. It always comes back to this: think of the big picture and ask yourself what works better.
If I understand genealogy correctly, wreaths are a close cousin of garlands. When you imagine a typical wreath, you might think of that old “holly that will be on your own front door,” but the door is just the beginning. You can use wreaths in many locations and contexts — sometimes without even hanging them.
The most common places are, as I mentioned, doors, as well as walls, light posts, trees, windows, and mirrors. To hang a wreath on a wall or door, you might want to install a hanger or use a temporary one. To hang on lamp posts or foliage, you may want to secure the wreath by wrapping a wire or ribbon around. As for mirrors and glass, you’ll need a suction cup hanger, which should be available at hardware stores or online.
SWISCO’s CFO Alex Ranieri recommends using extra wreaths to wrap the pots that hold your holiday plants. Rather than figure out a way to wrap the edge of the pot, you can just lay the wreath on top or tie it down, if you like.
Lighting A Wreath
While garlands are easy to light, because they’re a long rope that’s the same shape as a string of lights, wreaths aren’t so easy. If you do want an even, unbroken ring of lights to illuminate your wreath, battery-powered light strings are ideal. You can choose a length that’s just enough to fill your wreath without dangling out the bottom, and there will be no need to worry about where you’ll plug the wreath in.
Alex also recommends (as we mentioned in part one of the Holiday Preparation Toolkit) that you should abandon pre-made bows in favor of hand-tied ones. You can buy a nice ribbon or other fabric, bring it to a florist, and get bows tied for your wreaths and garlands.
Finally, you do have some options for plants besides evergreens. The poinsettia is a popular choice for its bright red and green color. Despite their reputation, they’re only mildly toxic to animals, so if you supervise your animal, you should be okay. Your furry friend would need to eat quite a lot of poinsettia leaves to get sick.
The tradition of growing poinsettias for Christmas began in Mexico, but it eventually spread throughout the United States. The flowers are large and leafy, and their star-like shape and red hue were said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and the blood of crucifixion, respectively. That’s pretty hardcore.
Another Christmas plant is the Christmas cactus, with the unfortunate scientific name of Schlumbergera truncata. This is another Latin American plant that’s become ubiquitous in the United States. In a somewhat disappointing twist, the plant was actually discovered in Brazil, cultivated by a prolific plant-breeding corporation, and introduced to the market in the 1970s with no Christmas connection to be found but the red and green color.
Care For Your Plants
No matter what your plant is, you should take good care of it. Fertilizer and nutrients are very unnecessary, so just water them regularly and keep them in a well-lit area. I have a bay window where the light scatters very evenly, and plants grow incredibly well indoors there. See if you have a similar spot in your home.
A trick that works for a lot of flowering plants is to taper off their water supply as they start to bloom. The blooms will grow a little faster and bigger. I prefer to hold off watering until just when the leaves begin to stiffen or droop, then water relatively deeply, then hold off again. Be careful not to allow the leaves to dry, and be careful that the flowers have enough water.
I did it. Five articles. Ten thousand, three hundred and ninety-nine words, if you count this phrase. I’ll probably write another two hundred and sixty-four of them or so before I’m through.
I’ve now dispensed more tips and tricks than I ever would have guessed I’d know. I hope you can put some of them to use, because you’d have to go out of your way to follow all my advice in these past blog posts. Take what you need; ignore what you don’t. If you know anyone who might benefit from it, I encourage you to share these posts with them.
To go over it all again: I’ve covered topics like gift-wrapping, high-tech decorations, fire safety, lights and stockings, and now plants. You can mix and match the tips from each post that you find the most helpful.
Finally, I’m going to repeat myself for probably the fifth time.
(An aside: you are correct to observe that I have enough effort to count every word in all five posts, but not enough to count how many times I’ve repeated this.)
Your best bet is to make an overall plan, choose the small parts that you want to put together to achieve your plan, spruce up each one of the smaller parts, and put together your whole holiday decoration set-up with the plan in mind.
It’s hard to go wrong if you’re chasing an overall vision that makes sense. Do you have your vision? Get to it. At this point in the season, all that remains is to finish decorating and bask in the most wonderful time of the year.
I wish you all luck, creativity, and a very happy holiday.