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In Your Garden
Keep watering! The unseasonably warm weather has been keeping some plants going that would normally be dormant by now. It's also been drying out soil faster than is usual at this time of year. Continue watering at least an inch of water a week until the ground freezes (unless we get the equivalent amount of rain, which hasn't happened all summer or fall).
Use Wilt Pruf on your evergreens to slow down moisture loss through the leaves this winter. Spray when temperatures are likely to stay above 40 degrees for 24 hours and no rain is in the forecast.
If you are buying a live Christmas tree this year follow these tips: Keep it cool for as long as possible - the warmth and dry air inside the average home are not good for trees. Plan on leaving it in the house for no more than a week to lessen the stress on the plant. When you set up the tree, keep it in a cool place with no direct sun. Water carefully. You don't want it to dry out or be soggy. Try placing ice cubes on top of the rootball; they will water the plant slowly as they melt. Prepare your planting hole in advance, in case the weather gets colder and the ground freezes. Dig a hole twice as wide and one and a half times as deep as the root ball of the tree you are planning to get. Mix 1/3 of the original with 1/3 perlite or sand, and 1/3 organic materials such as compost, peat moss, Clay Away, or pine bark fines. We'll give you complete planting instructions when you buy your tree.
Resist the urge to fertilize azaleas or other shrubs now. Spraying them with Miracid is particularly harmful. Fertilization, combined with the unseasonably warm weather we've been having, will encourage the plant to put energy into new growth that will be killed in a cold snap.
If you have hollies, boxwoods or other evergreens, now is a fine time to trim or prune them for holiday decorations. (Don't prune or trim any shrub that flowers in the spring, like azaleas or forsythia, or you'll be trimming away the part that would have flowered in the spring.)
Spread a couple of inches of mulch on your flower beds and shrubs once the ground freezes. The mulch will help prevent your plants from being damaged by the temperature fluctuations that occur in a typical Anytown winter (not that we've had a typical winter in a couple of years...). Plants that are hardy in the area generally withstand freezing temperatures, but can be damaged by repeated cycles of freezing and thawing.
If you see tan felt-like growths about 1 and a half inches long on tree bark, lawn furniture and other outdoor structures, remove them and throw them out - they're gypsy moth egg masses. Also keep an eye out for growths that look like black styrofoam at the ends of cherry tree branches - they're egg masses of eastern tent caterpillars. Clip off the affected branch and throw it in the trash.
Don't worry about shoots coming up from spring bulbs. Cold weather to come shouldn't damage them.
If you're behind on your garden projects (and what gardener isn't?), there's still time to plant spring flowering bulbs. Most still can be planted as long as the ground hasn't frozen, or even during a January thaw if it comes to that. Bulbs planted late may bloom a little later and/or a little more sparsely their first year, but most are none the worse for it.
Another task for late gardeners - dig up and store bulbs from dahlias, cannas, caladiums and tuberous begonias . Normally, you should have done this after the first frost, but nature has given us all a reprieve this year. Let the bulbous roots dry off for a few days, rub or shake off dirt that clings and cover with peat moss or vermiculite to help prevent them from drying out completely. Store in a cool, frost-free place for the winter. (Many experts also recommend digging up gladiolus bulbs, but if you live in a relatively protected area, especially inside the beltway, this may not be necessary.)
In Your Home
To keep your cut Christmas tree fresh for as long as possible: Get your tree into a bucket of hot water within 15 to 20 minutes after a fresh cut is made to the trunk. We will be happy to make a fresh cut for you, but if you can't get it into water quickly, you should saw a thin slice off the bottom of the trunk right before putting it in water. This will help the tree take up water and stay green longer. Add Prolong, a preservative, to the water to help keep your tree fresh.
If you're not going to set up your tree immediately, keep it in a bucket of water outdoors in a protected location. Add water as needed - it should never dry out. When you set up your tree, try to place it away from heat ducts, fireplaces and sunny windows. Check the water level daily to be sure there is always water in the reservoir of the stand.
Check houseplants periodically for signs of damage from such common pests as aphids, mealybug, scale or white flies. If you see any, nip an infestation in the bud by spraying with insecticidal soap or an insecticide labeled for houseplants. As long as the warm weather continues, you can take the plants outside during the day to spray them, but don't leave them out overnight.