Boxwood -The Ultimate Green for Christmas

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Ripping out 50 failing English boxwoods on a landscape job this year turned into a decorating opportunity. Rather than taking the old shrubs out and chipping and shredding them, I decided to use the still green parts for some boxwood Christmas trees.

Boxwood tree before decorating
Boxwood tree before decorating

A traditional decoration, boxwood trees are simple to make but time consuming. Boxwood sprigs  inserted into saturated oasis lasts for at least 2 months in a green fresh looking form. After the holidays, you can even keep your tree which will dry nicely, and spray it gold for next year. Boxwood trees are easy to make and inexpensive if you have boxwood on hand. If you have to buy it though, it is expensive. I own several shrubs that need some attention and wait until early December to give them a thinning so I can use all those fresh greens and not throw them away.

'Green Velvet' Boxwood, a gold award winner from the Pennsylvania Hort Society is my 'go to' boxwood
‘Green Velvet’ Boxwood, a gold award winner from the Pennsylvania Hort Society is my ‘go to’ boxwood

When I thin my boxwood, I just grab a bunch of boxwood and snap it off at the woody stem. I call it ‘snapping boxwood’ and savvy gardeners do this to keep all their boxwood healthy. Beautiful boxwood requires periodic thinning to let air circulate throughout. Most people will sheer their shrubs which just stimulates the boxwood to grow in even thicker, blocking air flow.

Boxwood clipping with two-handed shears
Boxwood clipping with two-handed shears (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Snapping off hunks of the foliage, creates spaces within the boxwood which aids in air circulation and leads to a healthier shrub. When I talk ‘boxwood’, I am referring to both English, American, and Korean. Though the English is superior for making wreaths and trees, I use any kind that I can get.

Fastigiate boxwood or upright boxwood produces long straight stems for trees
Fastigiate boxwood or upright boxwood produces long straight stems for trees

Boxwood Tree Directions

  • Soak your cut boxwood in a tub of warm water overnight to hydrate the greens and keep them fresh longer

  • Choose a small plastic container and add a chunk of oasis for the base. Tape in with florist tape and add some picks.

  • Insert your cone on top of the picks

Select a small container and chop off a chunk of oasis to fit in the bottom: tape in with florist tape and add some picks to attach the larger piece
Select a small container and chop off a chunk of oasis to fit in the bottom: tape in with florist tape and add some picks to attach the larger piece
  • At this point I add a few wood picks from the side of the cone into the base to make sure everything is secure

Insert an oasis cone on top of the picks; you can also add a large block of oasis and shave it into a cone shape
Insert an oasis cone on top of the picks;  alternatively you can use a large block of oasis and shave it into a cone shape
  • I pick out a nice looking boxwood piece to form the peak. Once I stick that piece in, it gives me a guide to green up the rest of the tree.

Establish the contours of your tree and add the top pieces first
Establish the contours of your tree and add the top pieces first
  • Starting at the bottom, I break off pieces of boxwood and insert them into the oasis around the edge of the container first and move up. I added another variety of green (thujopsis) to the tree to give more textural interest. But if you are a purist, stick with boxwood

I added some other greens to the mix to make it more interesting; or you can keep it all boxwood
I added some other greens to the mix to make it more interesting; or you can keep it all boxwood
  • Add floral touches, like white pom poms, red roses, and small Christmas balls directly into the oasis; be sure to leave gaps to insert these elements

  • Insert your pieces of boxwood and flowers with care; If you insert them too densely, you could break apart the oasis

Insert your completed boxwood tree into a pretty container; here I used a footed mercury vapor container
Insert your completed boxwood tree into a pretty container; here I used a footed mercury vapor container
  • Spray the tree with an anti-dessicant, like Wilt-Pruf to keep the tree fresh for weeks

  • For care, I will mist it with water maybe once a week, and make sure that the oasis is thoroughly soaked through to keep it green and fresh

Add roses and white pom poms
Add roses and white pom poms

Old Christmas Tree Creates Bottle Tree

Bottle tree in snow
Bottle tree in snow

I see the remnants of Christmas trees on my walk every day, ready for trash pick up. Pieces of tinsel hang off the branches blowing in the wintry wind and I feel sorry for them! Destined to be carted off to the nearest landfill, with most of them ground up into chips that will be sold for mulch in the spring.

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Piled up Christmas trees at the landfill

 

But I like to keep my tree for a much-needed winter insulating mulch, using the cut up branches under large trees or layered into perennial borders on my property.

Chopping off branches of our Christmas Fraser Fir
Chopping off branches of our Christmas Fraser Fir
Putting cut branches in a large trash can to take outdoors
Putting cut branches in a large trash can to take outdoors

Once we pull off all the decorations, we take pruners and chop off half of the branches until we are left with the naked trunk of the tree with some stubs sticking out. Maybe this part would make a good walking stick or even better – a bottle tree!

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Pruning the branches off to make a bottle tree
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Bottle tree made out of an old Christmas tree

 The evergreen branches are carted outside in a large trash can and laid down as mulch under a large tree that has a lot of pokeweed seedlings come up in the spring. I hope that by laying the flat fans of fraser fir  fans on the ground that I won’t see as many pokeweeds in the spring, and that the thick covering will smother any volunteer seedlings.

Laying the branches as mulch under a large spruce
Laying the branches as mulch under a large spruce

Another environmental idea is sticking the tree trunk into the ground and hanging suet bags and pine cones filled with peanut butter for the birds.

Bottle tree in the snow
Bottle tree in the snow

If you go to http://www.housekeeping.org/blog/9-ways-to-recycle-your-christmas-tree/ you will see nine different ways to recycle your Christmas tree. With so many ways to take care of your tree, none should end up in a landfill!

Pruning 101

Pruning tools
Pruning tools

After the hustle and bustle of the growing season, gardeners have more time to pay attention to pruning and shaping of their trees and shrubs in late fall and winter. Most people are very intimidated by pruning, but there is no reason to shy away from this necessary job for a healthy and groomed landscape.

Pruning the hedges at Ladew Topiary gardens
Pruning the hedges at Ladew Topiary gardens

The biggest thing to consider when pruning your woodies, is the time of year that they bloom. If you have a spring bloomer, like an azalea or lilac, then you want to prune right after it blooms, in the late summer. If you pruned an azalea in the early spring or late winter, you would be trimming off next season’s blooms. You can still shape and trim your spring-flowering shrubs in the winter, which I do all the time, just be aware that you will get less flowers in the spring because you are cutting off flowers buds that have already formed.

An Exbury Azalea in bloom
An Exbury Azalea in bloom

High winds  over the winter can play havoc with plants such as roses and buddleias so I recommend that you cut these stems back by half right now, which will stop them rocking backwards and forwards in high winds. If not done, this constant movement causes a space to develop at ground level which can allow severe frost to damage the plant. The final pruning can be done in March. So, I do a coarse pruning in the early winter, and fine tune in the spring.

Pruning shrubs and trees is not rocket science. You have to understand a bit about the natural form of the plant and shape and trim it judiciously. But when I see wholesale slaughter of plants, I cringe. I consulted with a client on how to maintain her front trees and shrubs, and recommended someone professional that I knew would do a great job. Her shrubs were definitely getting out of hand and needed  pruning a good deal.

My client opted to go with her lawn service people who claimed to perform “pruning” along with their lawn chores. The result was a beautiful “hack” job that will take a while to recover from. Beware of lawn service companies that do pruning on the cheap. If you are hesitant to do it yourself, go with professionals and observe how they do it, so that you can start doing it on your own.

These were beautiful viburnums
These were beautiful viburnums
An art class sketching a beautifully pruned Japanese Maple
An art class sketching a beautifully pruned Japanese Maple

If you want to do it yourself, start small and carefully and do your homework. There are some shrubs that I call “cut-back shrubs” that you can indeed hack down to the ground with impunity. These would include butterfly bushes, caryopteris, vitex, knock out roses, smoke trees, and the like. In fact, if you don’t hack at these, they will take over, see http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2013/05/10/mow-down-those-knock-out-roses/

Ladew Topiary gardens horse and rider
Ladew Topiary gardens horse and rider

Crape Myrtles need a good pruning every few years to look good. Crape Myrtles are notorious for being improperly pruned, thus the term “crape murder”! They are pretty easy to prune, if you think “thin the tree” instead of “chopping the tree”.

Proper pruning techniques
Proper pruning techniques

For a great article on pruning strategies, go to Follow Proper Pruning Techniques at http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkind/landscape/proper-pruning-techniques/, for a tutorial on how to prune beautifully. Now is the time to get a good start on your pruning while the leaves are absent. You can see the structure of the tree or shrub to make your job easier.

An espaliered tree needs expert pruning
An espaliered tree needs expert pruning

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Peony Envy

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Peonies are blooming right now and I am in heaven! I love the flowers for cutting, fragrance, and Wow factor. Plunk some peonies into a vase, and it looks like an arrangement by a master. You don’t need to arrange them – they just sit in a vase and say “look at me!” No one can pass them by without exclaiming, touching, or sniffing. For those who love peonies, you can extend the picking and sniffing season for about 6 weeks with a variety of peonies that bloom at different times.

There are three major types of peonies.

Pink tree peony
Pink tree peony
  • Tree Peonies-

    First off the track in early May are tree peonies which are the upper class of peonies; they seem a little snobby and too perfect and everyone loves them. Tree peonies have woody stems and lose their leaves in the fall and grow very slowly to form a small shrub. They prefer to have a little shade. The ultimate color to get for a tree peony is yellow. I still have to get one of these.  I have been burnt buying them from growers and they turn out to be white or pale pink! So, buy them in bloom if possible!

  • I went to a peony tree farm that was run by a Chinese family and took this picture of their Chinese Shar-Pei in the field
    I went to a peony tree farm that was run by a Chinese family and took this picture of their Chinese Shar-Pei in the field

    When these bloom, it is almost a sensual experience cutting the flower off the shrub.  The blooms are massive, maybe 7 inches across with beautiful centers of frilly contrasting stamens. The foliage is beautiful also and will remain throughout the season.

The coveted yellow tree peony
The coveted yellow tree peony
Paeonia 'Linne'
Paeonia ‘Linne’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Herbaceous-

    The most common and many people know this one the best.  It is the one found in gardens that someone planted 50 years earlier, and they are still going strong. The stems die to the ground in the winter just like any other perennial. I dug lots of peonies up from my mother’s garden that bloomed very sparsely, having been shaded out over the years, transplanted them to my garden in full sun, and they now bloom like gang busters. So, herbaceous ones demand full sun to bloom well.

Herbaceous peonies with nepeta make a good combo
Herbaceous peonies with nepeta make a good combo

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Itoh peony with a nice rounded shrub shape
Itoh peony with a nice rounded shrub shape
  • Itoh or Intersectional Peony- 

    Just a fancy term for a cross between a tree peony and a herbaceous one. The top growth will die down during the winter and the plants have a nice rounded shape. They are usually shorter than herbaceous ones, thus no floppy stems or staking. These like a little shade also and since they are a relatively new species, are expensive.  Prices range from $50 to $150 on line. I just bought one, it set me back $80 and is a beauty! The color is almost a coral pink, one that I have never seen in a peony.

peach-peony-patricia-s

Ants

Everyone has seen ants attracted to peony flowers and that might stop some people from cutting them and bringing them into the house. You can briefly swish the buds and blooms in a pail of water to flush them off if they bother you. Ants are attracted to the nectar secreted from the buds only and will not be on flowers in full bloom. They are not harmful to you or to the flower, so don’t try to spray them with insecticide!

English: Ants, as well as wasps, are attracted...
English: Ants, as well as wasps, are attracted to the nectar of peonies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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