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December Celebrations for All

Our Christmas tree 2017

Our Christmas Tree 2017

December celebrations for all. Today is December 23. The Hanukkah celebration has concluded, Christmas is two days away, and Kwanzaa is three days away. December is a month of celebrations with traditions that lead us through the days. As I prepared for our own family Christmas I suddenly realized that the celebration of each of these holidays involves plants, plants which are essential in one way or another.

Hanukkah is a moveable feast because, like Christian Easter, it depends on the sun to set the celebratory date. This year the eight days of Hanukkah began on December 12. I celebrated a day early when I read a story about Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, to first graders at Four Corners School. The dreidel played a part in the story – and the children taught me how to play dreidel.

The dreidel is a four sided top with four Hebrew symbols for the words nun, shin, gimmel, and hey. A common gelt in this game is chocolate coins and every one starts out with an equal number with a pot of gelt in the center. The player who spins the dreidel and get nun, doesn’t get or lose any gelt; when the shin symbol comes up the player gets  two gelt; gimmel and the player gets all the gelt in the center; and hey makes the player put two gelt in the pot. As he started to play with me, one very serious boy, explained that this is not a game about winning. And I could happily accept the idea that it is about sharing the chocolate gelt.

Playing dreidel was a rousing way to conclude my reading session, but the book made clear that the celebration was a commemoration of the victory of the Maccabees over a greater Greek army in 165 BC. The Holy Temple had been greatly damaged, but when the temple was purified and ready for rededication there was only enough holy oil to keep the seven branched menorah burning for one day. The miracle was that this bit of oil kept the menorah burning for eight days, when more holy oil was ready. The oil was olive oil, and olive trees were an important part of agriculture and cuisine in Israel.

The solemn lighting of menorahs, and the joy of frying up and eating delicious latkes could not happen without olive oil

Christmas has many plant symbols, but the most common might be the Christmas tree. As early as the 12th century Paradise Plays were performed in Germany in December on what some considered the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. Set in the Garden of Eden, where fir trees were arranged and ornamented with fruits, the play told of their sin and banishment, but it ended with the promise of a Savior.

There is another story, not proven, that Martin Luther was walking home through the forest on Christmas night. He was struck by the beauty of the evergreens, with their boughs touched with snow, and the brilliant stars above. When he arrived home he put up a little fir tree and decorated it with candles for his children to celebrate the Christ Child’s birth.

However it began the German Christmas tree custom was carried to England when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria – and thence to other parts of the world including the United States where there is a substantial business in growing Christmas trees..

Kwanzaa is a new December celebration created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Kareng, a professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Originally, Dr. Kareng thought to replace Christmas for the black community and bring them together in their own special celebration, but the meaning shifted over time. Now it is a holiday that the black community can celebrate in ways referring to their own original culture without denying their religious beliefs. The celebration focuses on family, community and their culture, which includes the Swahili language, a lingua franca language used in many parts of Africa allowing the different areas to communicate with each other.

Like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is a week long celebration beginning on December 26 and ending January 1. A kinara, candle holder, on the holiday table with seven candles reflects the Seven Principles including unity, self-determination, cooperation and creativity.

The Kwanzaa celebratory table is set with the colors of black, red and green, the colors signifying the people, the struggle and the future. Corn, Muhindi, is placed on the table, a symbol of the children and the future. Kwanzaa is such a new holiday that the menu is not as specific as that for Christmas and Hanukkah but it might include chicken, hoppin’ john made with black eyed peas, rice and some ham, or sweet potatoes in any form. These are foods that anyone who enjoys Southern soul food would welcome at a Kwanzaa feast.

I hoped to describe a Muslim December celebration but when I spoke to Liza Lozovaya, the Muslim Chaplin at Mt. Holyoke College she explained “there are no Muslim holidays celebrated in December . . . In Islam we follow the lunar calendar so there are no fixed dates for any holiday. Ramadan and both Eids will be celebrated in December with the movement of the dates – but not at this point.”

And so, today as I prepare for my Christmas family celebration, I wish joy to all in their celebrations, in December and every month of the New Year.

Between the Rows  December 23, 2017

Since my column ran in the Greenfield Recorder on December 23, I got a nice note from Diane Kurinsky. She corrected and added to my description of the dreidel game, and really explained what the game was about. As the little boy told me, it is not about winning.  I did want to let you know that your explanation of what a dreidel is is slightly incorrect.  The four sides of the dreidel have the four Hebrew letters :  nun, gimmel, hay and shin.  These letters stand for the Hebrew sentence:  ness gadol haya sham which means, a great miracle happened there.  It is meant to remind us of the miracle of the lights.  It is said that in ancient times when studying the Torah was forbidden by the Greeks, the dreidel was used to disguise Torah study by allowing players to make it look like they were playing a game instead of discussing scripture.  I am always happy for corrections and additions so I look forward to more of these comments from all my readers.  Happy New Year!

Christmas Trees – Large and Small

Norway spruce

Norway spruce

One of the very first things I liked about our new house, or more specifically our new yard, was the very tall evergreen in the northwestern corner. It is a magnificent tree that might be 30 feet tall with graceful pendulous branches. On our first drive past the house I admired this beautiful tree in the backyard. It is not like any tree we had in view in Heath. There most of the conifers are pines or hemlocks.

I thought this tree was a Norway spruce although I cannot say what depths of my mind or imagination made me think so. With so much else to do I did not go out of my way to try and identify it properly. Now that it has produced some cones in its upper branches I have been able to confirm that it is indeed a Norway spruce.

Our tree doesn’t have any cones near the ground, but a zoom lens on my camera puts them within identifying distance and the long cones do match the photographs I found online.

Norway Spruce cones

Norway spruce cones

The Norway spruce, as you might imagine, is native to Europe and beloved by the Norwegians. It is disease resistant and deer don’t like to eat it. It likes acid soil and is hardy in zone 2 (hardy to -50 degrees) and tolerant of a zone 7 climate where the temperature rarely goes below zero. Any tree welcomes good soil, but this tree is very tolerant of clay or sandy soils with the caveat that it get at least 25 inches of rain a year. According to US Climate Data Greenfield gets an average of 50 inches of rain a year. After seven months working on our new house I have learned that my biggest gardening challenge is the poor drainage of my clay soil. The Norway spruce does not lack for moisture.

It is a fast growing tree, especially in the first 25 years after being planted especially under good conditions. At maturity it can reach a height of 100 feet with a 40 foot spread. It is not a tree for a small garden! Our street was laid out around 1925 so the tree was probably not planted before that, making it nearly 100 years old.

Norway spruce has a deep and wide spreading root system making it very sturdy in heavy wind, hence its frequent use as a windbreak tree.

Learning that the Norway spruce was a good and valuable timber tree, I did not think that it would make a very good Christmas tree. I was wrong. I just learned that Norway sends a majestic Norway spruce every year to London, Edinburgh, New York and Washington, D.C. In London it stands regally in Trafalgar Square; I don’t know where the other cities place their spruces. The trees are a gift in gratitude for the aid given to Norway during World War II.

We’ve had several varieties of Christmas tree over the years. Our first Christmas tree in Greenfield in 1971 was a straggly hemlock that began dropping needles as soon as we brought it into the house. A new friend took me and my three girls into the woods to have a real Christmas experience and cut down our own tree. The experience was not quite what we expected or wished for but it has made one of our favorite family stories.

Our first tree in Heath was a fat Colorado blue spruce that was growing right in front of the windows where we had our dining table to get a view of our beautiful landscape. The tree was not part of the view we wanted to admire. It had to come down. It was not too hard to cut down, but it was so fat and bristly with sharp needles that we all got a bit bloodied while trying to drag it into place. I’ve been told that  while the Colorado blue spruce is a popular Christmas tree, it is often sold as a small living tree in a pot so that it could be planted outdoors later. I certainly can understand that a baby blue spruce is easier to handle than a mature specimen. I hope most people do a better job of siting the tree than our predecessors did.

When we planted our snowbreak in Heath with Conservation District pines, we also planted a number of Balsam firs. We were able to harvest those trees for Christmas over the years, and did at least one additional planting that got us nearly through our tenure there. I do have to say we have had some very odd looking trees over the years. Planting trees intended for Christmas does not necessarily mean you will prune and care for those trees the way a professional tree farmer will.

Christmas Tree

Our Christmas Tree

This year for the first time in many years we bought a tree on Greenfield’s Main Street. It is a fat Fraser fir, one of the most popular tree varieties. It was well pruned and tended which means it has a lovely regular shape, but it does not have the space between its branches to hang larger ornaments. That was an adjustment for me, the chief tree decorator. When we had our own very irregular Christmas trees there was always empty space for large ornaments.

So this year, we have an imposing Norway spruce in the backyard protecting us from any bitter northwest winds, and a charming Christmas tree in  our new dining room where we will enjoy roast beast and sugar plums, and celebrate all twelve days of Christmas.  On January 6 the tree will be taken down and set out in the garden (such as it is) to hold suet and seeds for the birds.

My wish is that you each celebrate the holidays for at least 12 days, and find many happy days waiting for you in 2016.

Between the Rows   December 26, 2015

My Amaryllis Mystery

boxed amaryllis bulbs

boxed amaryllis bulbs

I suppose my amaryllis mystery began on December 11, 2014 when I rather belatedly bought boxed amaryllis bulbs ready for planting and blooming. I knew they would not bloom in time for Christmas, but glamorous amaryllis flowers  are welcome in January and February as well.

I potted all three bulbs up as directed. I did notice that the Athene white amaryllis seemed to have been pruned back more severely or more  recently than the other two. I kept all three bulbs together in our living space which is the warmest part of the house.

Amaryllis on January 19

Amaryllis on January 19

As time passed the three bulbs showed various rates of growth, most especially Athene. If you look closely you can see that I marked her pot with a little W in expectation of a white flower. That bulb never produced any foliage but did send up two bud shoots, one of which began to open a couple of days ago.  We will let the mis-labelling pass. That has happened often enough in the garden, indoors and out. It is the rates of growth that amaze me.  One bulb has produced two bud shoots with  one blooming; one has produced foliage and two bud shoots, one of which is beginning to open; and the third produced foliage and two bud shoots of very different heights.

Is there a solution to my amaryllis mystery?  Is it just c’est la vie? or is there a reason? All three bulbs had exactly the same care and conditions, although we have to assume kind of difference in the striped bulb now blooming.  Any ideas?

The Last Christmas in Heath?


Last Christmas in Heath

Last Christmas in Heath?

The decision has been made. This is our last Christmas in Heath. Of course, life being what it is, nothing is certain, but we are looking for a house in Greenfield where we will celebrate Christmas 2015.

Decisions like this are not lightly made, but for the past couple of years we have been thinking the time has come to be 45 minutes closer to our children, and where we will not have to hop in the car for every little errand. Henry and I met in Greenfield in 1971 when the children and I lived on Grinnell Street; a romantic aura still clings to the town for me.

It is the nature of days to change. Every year, season and day is different. Weathermen keep records of change and try to predict the next change, but change is the constant. Holding the thought and hope that we will be in a new nest by next Christmas, every moment now here in Heath in the Last. This is the last December 21 in Heath. This is the last view through the window where we look out over our garden and landscape. On December 22 the view will have changed. The light will have shifted, the snow will be melting. It will be different.

There is nothing like knowledge of imminent change to make one pay attention to the moment. Quotidian pleasures like the morning cup of coffee by the woodstove with my book for an hour are more intensely felt because their duration is now limited. Every day errands, to the transfer station, the library or down to Avery’s Store take me over and down the hills, through beautiful snowy woods, and past tumbling streams. I have watched the trees grow, and watched them bend and break in storms. With every change I have come to appreciate and love this landscape more and more every year.

Though I love my domestic landscape, and the landscape of Heath I look forward to the move to Greenfield with happy anticipation. I have lived long enough and in enough different places to know that each holds its pleasures, as well as its particular drawbacks. I was born and lived in New York City for part of my childhood, but part of my childhood was spent on a dairy farm on the shores of Lake Champlain. I have lived in other small towns, and in busy suburbs. With Henry I lived in Maine, then in his ancestral apartment in Manhattan. Together we found our dream home in Heath, but left for brief adventures in Beijing. I have been happy (most of the time) in every one of those apartments and houses.  I have been transplanted before.

I see change not only as inevitable, but as a good thing, especially when we are choosing this change and not waiting for circumstances to force change upon us.

One Christmas tradition we established here in Heath is cutting our Christmas tree from our own land. The wild choices were not always beautiful so when we planted our snowbreak we also planted a number of balsams. Over time we refreshed this planting with more balsams, but even these have all been harvested. This Christmas we thought we might have to buy a Christmas tree, but we could not break tradition. If this was our very last Christmas at the End of the Road we needed to find own tree.

So we booted up, gathered the loppers and saw and set out across the field. My husband was quite sure he had seen a suitable tree at the edge of the western woodland.

I doubted his memory. I thought there are only pines in that woodland, not suitable Christmas trees. I kept my thoughts to myself as we tramped across the frozen snow and we did find the tree Henry remembered. It would have been suitable, but it was broken and bowed down by the recent snow and ice storm.

What to do? Then I looked into a nearby pine thicket and thought I saw a balsam. Henry quickly affirmed that it was a balsam, perfectly suitable. In fact, it is one of the best trees we have ever harvested for our Christmas. Some were small, one was very prickery, one had branches only on one side, and some seemed to limp with a bend in the trunk. This tree is perfect for our last Heathan Christmas.

Family traditions are important, but when circumstances change a tradition might have to shift a little bit. Will we decide to visit a tree farm next year and chop down a tree there? Or will we go to the open air market and choose one of those trees? Either way, the tree will be set up where we can admire it every evening, colored lights will be strung and ornaments recounting the history of our years together will be hung.

We put down roots when we moved to Heath in 1979. Our life grew rich and we enjoyed the fruits of many friendships, which will continue. Our life here has reached maturity and we can feel the winds of change blowing seeds of that maturity down to Greenfield, to a new, smaller garden to take root where we can flourish again.

In the meantime, we will virtually join you and the celebration around your Christmas tree, tall or small, and wish you every holiday joy. Merry Christmas.

Between the Rows   December 20, 2014

Gifts for the Gardener – still time to shop

Gifts for the Gardener begin at the garden center

Gifts for the Gardener begin at the garden center

I have never thought it very hard to find gifts for the gardener. After all, what does a gift say? I love you? I understand you? I want you to enjoy your days? I want your dreams to come true? I share your passion and I know just what you need?

No matter what your message there are garden centers and other kinds of shops that have just the gifts to convey these messages to the gardener in your life. I made the rounds of some of these stores and this is what I found. The Shelburne Farm and Garden Center has colorful Dramm long armed five liter watering cans ($30), and equally colorful one gallon Gardman watering cans ($18). A rolling Saucer Caddy ($40) holds more appeal for me as I get older. My potted plants get bigger every year and moving them a bigger chore. These gifts say ‘Lets have some fun in the garden, but let’s not strain ourselves. I want you in one piece at the end of a gardening day.”

SF&G also has a nice array of gloves. I used to pride myself on not using gloves, but after years of dirty nails and dry calluses I decided gloves are a Good Thing. Of course, gloves like Cool MUD gloves ($10) with water repellent nitrile have gotten lighter, more comfortable and breathable. One style of Women’s Work gloves is flowery and has nice long gauntlets ($20). When I got to the Greenfield Farmer’s Cooperative on High Street I found they had a whole aisle of gloves. And a lot more besides. Gloves are a consumable; they wear out and need to be replaced from time. A gift of gloves says “Don’t worry. Dig in. There is always another pair. Better the gloves get ugly than your lovely hands.”

There are fewer flowers in the winter, but SF&G has bags and bags of bird seed and a whole array of bird feeders. Attract the birds and you will be able to enjoy these flowers of the air. I met a neighbor there and she expressed her pleasure at finding that birds love safflower seeds, but squirrels don’t. Good information.

Blue Pots at the Greenfield Farmers Coop

Blue Pots at the Greenfield Farmers Coop

Greenfield Farmer’s Coop has a fabulous array of Burley Clay pots in sizes from about one cup ($7) to large handsome pots that can hold a striking flower arrangement that is a work of art or even a small tree ($60) These pots come in lovely blue, and subtle shades of green or brown. They also have an array of black metal trellises, perfect for supporting ornamental vines in the garden. Prices range from $25-$40. They say “Isn’t it fun to have plants grow up and add a new dimension to the garden?”

Grow Bags are another way to have fun and continue the vegetable garden indoors during the winter. The Farmers Coop has several Grow Bags ($7-$15) that include coconut coir instead of potting soil, but you will need your own seeds (any left from the summer?), a liquid fertilizer and good light. I think these are great for growing herbs and greens like lettuces. You know your beloved just can’t stop wanting really local food.

Christmas platter at Stillwater Porcelain

Christmas platter at Stillwater Porcelain

On the other hand, sometimes you want to stop thinking about tools and chores. Sometimes you just want to surround yourself with the images of flowers and nature while carrying on in your non-gardening life. I stopped in at Stillwater Porcelain in ShelburneFalls where Pat Pyott has a unique way of creating ornamental tiles, with realistic images of Queen Anne’s Lace, autumn leaves, herbs, an evergreen branch. There are functional pieces like a variety of plates to tiles that surround a mirror. Prices range from $15 for lovely tree ornaments to $218 for a platter that will hold the roasted holiday beast. “I know you want to be surrounded by nature in every room,” these gifts say.

J.H. Sherburne embroidered cases

J.H. Sherburne embroidered cases

Just a little further down State Street is J.H. Sherburne’s shop. Jo-Anne has garden ornaments, and lovely botanical jewelry. I could not resist the gold and silver bulb complete with leaf shoots and roots that provided a space for a sprig of leaf or flower. I am not really a jewelry person, but I found this absolutely irresistible. She also has a collection of brightly embroidered Guatemalan cases, from luggage ($187) to a change purse ($7). I don’t have a cellphone (no service in Heath) but if I did I would love a flowered cellphone case ($14). I like the juxtaposition of technology and a flower garden.

Portrait by J.H. Sherburne

Portrait by J.H. Sherburne

Jo-Anne is also a fine artist and just think what a gift a portrait of the beloved would be, set among the colors of the garden. Full information about how that process works is on her website.

Gift certificates carry all sorts of messages. They can say, “I know you, and I love you and your garden, and while I have no idea what you want or need, I want you to have it.” This message is often sent to experienced gardeners who can be very particular and opinionated about tools or plants. A gift certificate is a gift of anticipation, of time for thought and the delight in picking out just the item you have been longing for. There are times when a gift certificate is the perfect gift. What about a gift certificate to OESCO where fine tools are found in Ashfield? The Greenfield Farmers Coop, the Shelburne Farm and GardenCenter, JH Sherburne and Stillwater Porcelain also have perfect gift certificates.

Between  the Rows   December 13, 2014

Good Reading Roundup for 2013 – Part One

This is my first Reading Roundup. Over the year I have ‘reviewed’ a number of books, any of which would make an excellent holiday gift. Good reading is one of my favorites gifts to give, and to receive.  Over the next couple of days I’ll be giving a note about each of them again, with a link to the original post. All but one of the books were sent to me by the publisher and you may note a very positive note in all of them. This is because I only ‘review’ books that I think are useful and engaging, and in most cases beautiful. I have neither the time, nor space, nor inclination to spend time writing about books that I cannot recommend. Not every book is for everyone, but each of these worthy books will have a substantial audience. Click on the link for each to get the full review.

Taste, Memory

I did buy Taste, Memory: Lost Foods, Forgotten Flavors and Why They Matter by David Buchanan after I heard him speak at the Conway School of Landscape Design. David is a graduate of the CSLD, and his book about his growing passion for  heritage apples is a joy. “This book, with its tales of exciting searches for heritage apples, Buchanan’s own inventiveness, and cooperation between various groups of people and organizations, presents a wonderful vision of how our food system can shift. It is possible for us to eat better, for biodiversity to be protected, and for farmers and market gardeners to make a reasonable living.” This idea is also behind the Slow Food movement and The Ark of Taste which catalogs endangered foods

Taste, Memory also introduced me to John Bunker, David’s apple mentor and a great Maine character who has his own book, Not Far From the Tree about the old apples of Maine. You will never look at an apple in quite the same way again

No Mow Yards

Beautiful No Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives byEvelyn Hadden. Evelyn Hadden is a founder of Lawn Reform Coalition which aims to teach people about sustainable, healthier lawns. In Beautiful No-Mow Yards she proposes 50 alternatives to mowed grass lawns, offering solutions to cutting down on grass cutting in ways that are likely to appeal to every kind of gardener: new gardeners who are more interested in flowers or vegetables, experienced gardeners who are looking for new ways to garden, and environmentally concerned gardeners who want to cut down on the use of fossil fuels, herbicides and their own energy.



 Lawn Gone: Low Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yardby Pam Penick (Ten Speed Press)

Some of Penick’s chapter titles will tempt you to imagine a new yard of your own. For example: Ponds, pavilions, playspaces and other fun features and Designing and installing your hardscape, immediately set my mind buzzing. Other chapters indicate the sticky issues that gardeners may have to deal with like working with skeptical neighbors or homeowner’s association regulations or city codes.She also explains ways to eradicate lawn, and gives you the names of grass substitutes in the sedge and carex families.


Bringing Nature Home

Bringing Nature Home by Dr. Douglas Tallamy is a book I write about regularly. His argument for the use of native plants in our domestic landscape is ever more important and we think about land development. “Lately I have been talking about the benefits of reducing the size of our lawns. Tallamy said that 92% of landscape-able land is lawn, lawn which is a monoculture that does not support wildlife. He suggested that if we reduced the amount of lawn in theUnited Statesby half we would have 20 million acres that could be put to native trees and other native plants. This would certainly increase the carrying capacity of our neighborhoods and our nation.”


Latin for Gardeners

Latin for Gardeners: Over 3000 Plant Names Explained and Explored  by Lorraine Harrison is a beautifully illustrated book that is great fun to read even if you never took Latin in high school  and never got beyond Shakespeare’s “Et tu, Brute?” in English class. Beyond explaining the Latin words that make up proper botanical names, there are special sections of Plant Profiles, information about Plant Hunters like Sir Joseph Banks and Jane Colden and Marianne North, and Plant Themes like The Qualities of Plants. The book is also generously illustrated with colored botanical drawings of plants and their parts. This is definitely a book for browsing.

I’ll continue the roundup tomorrow. These books make great gifts for any holiday – or birthday.


Christmas Trees Thirty Times Over

Fruit ornaments on Christmas tree

Christmas trees were the hit of the Christmas party held by the Greenfield Garden Club.  We have the best meetings and parties! Our hostess has dozens (I lost track) of themed Christmas trees as well as the big gorgeous fabulously ornamented tree in the living room. I cannot show them all here.

Teddy bear Christmas tree

Christmas shoe tree

A shoe tree!

A quilting Christmas Tree

Our hostess is a mistress of every type of needlework including quilting.

Feather Christmas tree

Admittedly a faux feather tree, but a style all its own.

Christmas bird tree

When I saw a version of this tree many years ago, I was inspired to create my own bird garland.

My bird garland

This garland tops our 8 foot window wall.

View from the bedroom 12-17-13

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow! It’s almost Christmas.

For more (almost) Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.

Christmas Gifts = Christmas Books

Christmas books

As my granddaughter Caitlin always says, “We always know WHAT Granny will give us for Christmas, we just don’t know WHICH.”

The shopping is just about done but I haven’t done much wrapping yet. No one knows who will get the cookbooks, scifi books, business books, garden books, poetry, books about Christmas, novels OR magazine subscriptions. Ladybug!

Do you have a gift specialty? Does your family know WHAT if not WHICH?

Houseplants for Christmas


Christmas cactus

Plants, one way or another, play a big part in our Christmas festivities and gift giving. I can’t think of any other holiday when plants are so important. We decorate our houses with evergreen wreaths, and deck our halls with holly. Or at least with laurel ropes, evergreen boughs and swags, and forced bulbs on the festive table.

We also give plants as gifts, and may also receive a potted plant. The question is how can we choose a gift plant, or care for a plant we never imagined taking up residence on our windowsill? The answer is the same as it is for a plant in the garden. We have to know what the plant needs in terms of light, water and heat, and where in the house those needs will be met most easily.

When choosing a gift houseplant consider the home of the recipient. Is the house or apartment very warm or cool? In my house the downstairs is quite warm in winter because we have a woodstove and solar gain. Cooler at night, of course. The upstairs bedroom is cool during the day and much cooler at night. How bright or sunny is the house? Different plants have different light requirements from tolerant of low light, to bright but not sunny, to long hours of sun.

Choose your plants with those conditions in mind. The poinsettia is a tropical plant that requires four hours of sun, with daytime temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees, and nighttime temperatures 10 degrees cooler. This iconic Christmas flower has the advantage of coming in a range of colors and having a long period of bloom. The ‘flowers’ are actually bracts that will easily give a month of color. People do carry poinsettias through their dormant period to bloom another year, but most consider the poinsettia a living bouquet, and toss it without a pang when it begins to shed bracts and foliage.

A glamorous Christmas houseplant is the amaryllis or Hippeastrum. White Flower Farm offers a huge selection of large amaryllis bulbs, but you can buy these at local garden shops. They come in a full range of colors from pale white to rich red, and even candy-striped. They often come potted up ready to wake up and start growing once they are watered and placed in a bright, warm (70-80 degree) room. They need to be watered when the top inch of soil is dry.

After amaryllis bloom, they can be carried over by cutting off the flower stalks and putting the plant in a bright cool 50 degree room. Leave the foliage to gather strength for another bloom period, just as you leave daffodil foliage. When the weather is warm the potted plant can be put outside. In the fall, cut back the foliage and store the bulb, without watering, in a cool dark space like a basement for at least eight weeks. Then the bulb can be repotted and brought into a bright room. When growth begins you water the bulb and carry on as before.

Yes, amaryllis can be carried over, or as with any gift plant, you can chuck it, or make it a gift to a friend who is a patient gardener.

Two plants that need very little care are the Thanksgiving (Schlumbergera truncata) and Christmas cactus (S. bridgesii). These two succulents are very similar, but the stem segments of S. truncata have points rather than the scalloped stem segments of the Christmas cactus. Both are available is shades pale and bright.

Christmas cactus bought now will probably be in bud or bloom that will last for a month or more. It is a cactus but needs bright light, not sun. While it does need to be watered, less harm is done by underwatering, than by overwatering. This is true of most houseplants. Christmas cactus stems will begin to soften or shrivel slightly if the plant has been underwatered, and will recover quickly when watering is resumed.

Once they have bloomed these houseplants can live in a sunny room, and live outside in light shade in the summer. They can be given a little fertilizer for flowering plants. Buds will set in the fall when nighttime temperatures dip to 55 degrees. Christmas cactus is so easy to maintain that it can be handed down from mother to daughter.

One of my favorite holiday plants is the cyclamen. Cyclamen is a cool weather plant so it loves my cool rooms. This is not a plant for an overheated apartment! I bring my cyclamen into the social area for brief celebratory occasions. The blossoms, white or pink, dance like butterflies above the heart shaped foliage. Water carefully around the edges of the pot so the corm does not become waterlogged and rot. Fertilize every two or three weeks with a soluble fertilizer for blooming plants.

The biggest challenge in carrying a cyclamen plant over is keeping it cool enough. When the bloom period is over the plant goes into dormancy. The foliage will dry and fall off. Repot the corm in a slightly larger pot, and put it outside for the summer in a shady spot. Do not overwater. By the end of the summer new growth should have started. Fertilization can resume when buds are set. It is hard to say exactly when a carried over cyclamen will bloom, but if it comes out of dormancy you should be assured of another bloom season. Just remember. Keep it cool.

Of course there are many other houseplants available for gift giving, but any of them will give pleasure throughout the holiday season and beyond if you keep their needs in mind when making a choice.

Between the Rows   December 7, 2013



We Have a Winner! And a Continuing Sale

Seeing Flowers from Timber Press

Betsy Johnson is our winner! Practically a neighbor over there in Williamstown.  Timber Press will send Seeing Flowers directly after I have her address, and I’ll be sending her The Roses at the End of the Road.

Everyone can order their own copy of The Roses at the End of the Road, or a copy to give as a gift to anyone who loves  roses or tales of life in the country by emailing me at or clicking here so you can order through Pay Pal. The December sale price is $12 wtih free shipping. All I will need is a check and an address. The book is also available as a Kindle edition.

Best wishes to all in this holiday season. Happy reading and happy gardening.