Ground rules, tools for December

December 2, 2004
Victoria County
Master Gardener

The month of December brings to mind holiday activities, cooler weather, the official beginning of winter, and eventually the ending of the year - and the beginning of a new one. In the outdoor and gardening world, there are numerous "rules and tools" that lend colorful ideas and good gardening tips for holiday plants, bulbs and garden gift ideas, assist in the selection and care of native plants in the cool season, and provide suggestions for recommended freeze protection. Each of these topics will be addressed in this column this month, so make it a household "rule" to keep the Lifestyle section in your Thursday morning reading this holiday season.

Christmas trees immediately come to mind as prominent holiday garden items. To read about selecting the perfect Christmas tree, refer to a previous article in this column of same title, published last Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 2003.

Equally as prominent in many minds, the poinsettia plant in the traditional vibrant reds and the festive shades of pink, white, cream, peach and yellow brighten most any setting of holiday decor. According to the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), there are more than 700 poinsettia growers statewide with plenty choices for the buyer. Due to the size of our state, distance does make a difference in shipment time to a local retailer. When they arrive will determine freshness quality and appearance, abundance, and eventually the life span of the plant. TDA has published tips for choosing a beautiful Texas poinsettia: 1. Look for plants with rich, green foliage near the soil line; avoid older plants with excessive leaf drop. 2. Look for plants with large, thoroughly colored and extended bracts (leaves) of the poinsettia; avoid those with too much green around the bract edges, which could indicate the plant was shipped before it was sufficiently mature. 3. Look for plants that are balanced and full from all angles, using the general rule of about 21/2 times as tall as the diameter of the container, and 4. Choose a plant with small and tight green/yellow button-like flower parts in the center of the bracts.

Caring for poinsettias in our part of the state is not too stringent as the mild weather bodes well for them. Water poinsettias when the soil feels dry to the touch, taking care not to over water, and never letting them sit in standing water. Poinsettias flourish in indirect sunlight for at least six hours a day. Direct sunlight should be diffused by use of a window shade, sheer curtain or screen. Temperatures for poinsettias are best between 68 degrees F and 70 degrees F. They should not be exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees F, and should be protected from cold drafts - as well as excessive heat. One final note is that, according to the Society of American Florists, research has proven that contrary to common misconception, poinsettias are not poisonous. Just on the safe side, however, caution is encouraged for children and pets in consuming the white milky substance of the stems and bracts that, while not toxic, could cause some digestive discomfort.

No doubt these gracious and colorful plants will appear by the truckloads in the next several weeks for your buying pleasure. They will likely be in various sizes and shapes of single and multiple plants as well as those that resemble the groomed poinsettia trees. All are better selected by using the characteristics suggested above in leaf condition and over-all shape. Some may even be combined in planters with other foliage or greenery. As early as two weeks ago, I came upon a poinsettia planter with a vibrant red plant with the warm weather polka dot green and white foliage, or hypoestes, at one of the local larger, up-scale retail stores as illustrated in the accompanying photograph. I could not resist this combination of red and white - to which I will add a splash of blue for my traditional and known red, white and blue holiday decor.

The color green is a vibrant necessity in any healthy winter landscape. Whether it be in perennial foliage that stands out with a light frost on the ground, or ornamental leafy green plants offering color and texture to your beds and containers - and harvested for edible salads, green plantings indicate vitality in the landscape and garden. Equally so, healthy turfgrass free of cool season weeds - and properly fertilized after a soil sample analysis, is indicative of healthy "green" life even though grasses become straw-colored in dormant stage.

For more detailed information on weed control, fertilization and other turf topics, refer to "News/Publications" at the Aggie-turf Web site

Holiday-season gift plants will arrive in various textures and colors. Prolong their life with proper care, including making sure the pot wrap from the florist or garden center has not plugged up the bottom drainage. Care should also be taken to not over-water, and delicate plants should be kept away from drafts near heating vents and open doorways.

Berrying plants such as holly and yaupon may now be pruned with cut materials used inside the house for decorations. This is also the best time to plant - and transplant - trees and shrubs. On the other hand, woody plants should not be pruned until late December through February.

Complete the setting out of cool season bedding plants. Casually referred to as "the big five," those seemingly most popular - and cold tolerant - include pansies, violas, dianthus, snapdragons and ornamental kale and cabbage - all of which were discussed last month inn this column. While a goal is survival, these usually also remain most attractive, at least far enough into the season to put on a good show of color. Until such time that blooms are less prolific, they are removed and replaced by heat-loving species until fall, when they are re-planted for yet another cool season. Such is the cycle in gardens, and also at the Master Gardener Victoria Educational Gardens (VEG) at Victoria Regional Airport.

You most likely have read about VEG in numerous columns or publications. Master Gardeners are planting roots deeper still with community support for major expansion of VEG, which will encompass the entire area around the Officer's Club facility. Old Foster Field maps and limited photographs have been studied to determine the terrain and physical layout of the previous patio, swimming pool and eating facilities. If any of our readers have memories or photographs of war vintage Foster Field facilities around the Officer's Club, please share them with us at or by calling the local extension office at 575-4581.

One more thing - since seasonal changes and dates have been discussed - put the weekend of April 30 and May 1, 2005, on your spring calendar. The Annual Garden Tour co-sponsored by the Master Gardeners is just five months away!

Hope you all survived the deluge of rainfall and storms the past two weeks - and that spirits were not "dampened," but, in fact, appetites "whetted" to enjoy drier and cooler conditions in your gardens for the holidays.