Q: Our family has decided to get a live blue spruce for Christmas. We'll decorate it for the holidays and then plant it somewhere in our garden. Can you offer any advice on how to make this work?
A: When buying trees with root balls that are wrapped in burlap, the most important thing is to keep the entire root ball moist, but not soaked. Once you bring your tree home, let it sit outside as long as possible—exposed to the elements. Once indoors, keep it away from heat sources and use a humidifier.
When selecting a container—large whiskey barrels or aluminum tubs are ideal—the wrapped root ball should fit tightly. No soil is needed, just make sure to check the moisture level of the entire root ball daily.
Plan ahead for its planting by picking a spot outdoors for the tree when the merriment is over. The hole for it should be about twice the size of the root ball in depth and width. Put all clay aside, then mix the clay in with several bags of organic-rich garden soil and one small bag of sand. Now, place a layer of the newly blended soil back into the hole so that the blue spruce's root ball sits comfortably in the center and slightly elevated. The tree's trunk should be level with the top edge of the hole. With the tree in place, continue to fill the hole to the rim with soil, then press down and mulch thickly. Then water thoroughly and let nature do the rest.
Q: One of my friends is hooked on using dried plants from the garden to add to seasonal decorations, such as dried wreaths, flower arrangements, and center pieces. Could you suggest varieties that still look attractive when dried?
A: Your friend has the right idea. One to consider is goldenrod: Unless you are allergic to it, this attractive wildflower keeps its golden color and texture for many months. Another is the hydrangea: Its flowerheads dry into a paperlike texture, but it retains its bluish or pinkish hues. The strawflower works well for this purpose, too: As the name implies, this little flower retains its vivid rainbow colors and lasts for years. Another favorite is rosehips, which, when polished to a high shine and tied together in clusters, serve as a bright focal point in wreath-making.
And don't forget the lowly pinecone: Large or small, they look striking when sprayed in gold or silver.
Q: Toward the end of the year, most of my houseplants are beginning to look sad. What can I do to help improve their health and overall appearance?
A: Whether you have geraniums, palms, or ornamental ivy, always repot your houseplants using clay pots that are larger than the plant. Clay pots are better than plastic pots because they breathe. When repotting, discard the old soil of each plant and replace with new, premium potting soil. Gently shake out each plant's root system to look for disease or potential bugs that may chew on the roots. Plants that have bugs, mites, whiteflies, rust, lacewing, mildew, or mold infestations should be thrown away in sealed plastic bags.
Be sensitive to the plant's placement according to its need for sun or shade. Keep all plants slightly moist but never wet. Overwatering in winter can destroy potted plants because this is their dormant time when little energy is spent on growth and production.
Victoria M. Elder, a professional creator of residential gardens, answers frequently asked questions from Baltimore-area gardeners. You can e-mail her with your gardening questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.