Archives For How-To

Learn step-by-step how to take on gardening projects at home. Garden staff often teach classes through the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden on these topics and others.

Demystifying Seed Catalogs

Get seed catalog savvy

Lisa Hilgenberg —  February 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

The arrival of seed catalogs in mailboxes ranks as one of the most hopeful times in a gardener’s year, as it provides us with a welcome link to spring.

February is the perfect time to plan next spring’s vegetable garden. One of the first considerations is deciding what to grow. This can be answered by simply listing the veggies or asking your family to name the veggies they like to eat. There are a few other considerations before placing your order for next year’s garden—such as deciding if you should plant seeds or transplant vegetable starts. Seeds of many vegetables can be sown directly in the garden, including root vegetables like carrots, radish, and beets. Peas, beans, and squash are also best directly sown. Cabbage, tomatoes, and peppers are better given a head start inside first, and then transplanted into the garden as small plants, because they need a long, warm growing season.

Brassica oleracea 'Blue Wind' broccoli

For spring plantings, set broccoli transplants out two to three weeks before the last spring frost date.

PHOTO: Planter potted up with edible greens.

Edible spring planters can be harvested and repotted with next season’s veg.

Timing is important in the vegetable garden, and knowing that our growing season has approximately 170 frost-free days helps guide decisions on which plants to plant and when to plant. Our risk of frost is generally from October 15 through April 27, but can vary two weeks in either direction. Understanding that vegetable varieties have varying tolerances to frost helps you plan your planting calendar. For example, those very hardy plants like collards, kohlrabi, kale, spring onions, pea, spinach, turnip, and cabbage can be planted out four to six weeks before our last frost date. Those called “half hardy” or “frost tolerant”—such as beets, Swiss chard, carrots, cauliflower, and mustard—must be planted a bit later; two to three weeks before the last frost date.

The best seed catalogs will help decipher a gardener’s questions, and help plot, measure, and sort out the seed math needed to get started on a vegetable garden. Most seed is available in organic and non-organic options, with the latter usually the least expensive. Good catalogs provide keys to help decipher the icons (vegetable resistance codes) in plant descriptions. After all, a seed company’s success is based on a gardener’s success with their products.

As our nutritional consciousness rises, the taste and the health benefits of growing your own organic produce is a pursuit worthy of winter afternoons spent planning.  

Here are a few of my favorite seed companies:
(Consider going paperless; all of these catalogs are available online.)

Johnny’s Selected Seed
www.Johnnyseeds.com (877) 564-6697

Johnny’s Selected Seed is a 43-year-old, employee-owned company in Maine, recognizing that “good food is the basis of our well-being.” Widely used by home gardeners and small market farmers, the seed selection includes hundreds of vegetable, flower, and herb varieties in organic and non-organic (options) seeds. The catalog provides grower’s information for the novice to advanced gardener—it’s a virtual garden education. Johnny’s provides well-tested tools for garden tasks from bed prep to trellising, to season extension, and cover cropping. Comparison charts like the one on leaf lettuce help gardeners select seeds based on their specific growing conditions. Charts and photos compare length, width of mature veggies, and harvest windows.

High Mowing seed catalogHigh Mowing Organic Seeds
www.highmowingseeds.com (866) 735-4454

High Mowing Organic Seeds simply provides 100 percent certified organic, non-GMO Project Verified vegetable and flower seed to organic growers. The helpful seed catalog key on page two of the new 2017 catalog includes a tutorial on how to read the individual variety descriptions that follow. Seed definitions of open pollinated (OP), heirloom, and hybrid seeds are aptly explained and marked throughout. Crop types are headed by general cultural information or the “how to” grow beans for example. Then each listing is complete with the days to maturity (based on conditions in Vermont where HMO is located), disease resistance and any special attributes of the plant including breeder credit. Don’t miss the invaluable planting chart on the last page. High Mowing Organic Seeds is an excellent resource for passionate organic growers.

The Cook’s Garden
www.cooksgarden.com (800) 457-9703

Burpee acquired The Cook’s Garden more than ten years ago, and it has helped nurture America’s love affair with healthy, delicious food by offering the best gourmet veggies, greens, and herbs from around the world. The catalog offers seeds and plants for gourmet gardeners, with vegetables and fruits often pictured in recipes alongside culinary tips. Offering well-curated collections of helpful horticultural gadgets, you’ll find ash-handled tools, trellising supplies, rain gauges, and garden hods (flat, wood-handled basket) to make harvesting a snap. The Cook’s Garden catalog offers a wide range of quality products to indulge your inner gardener-chef when produce arrives in the kitchen. They’ve got canning, preserving, and dehydrating supplies covered. If the ultimate luxury is having the right tool for the job, check out the herb snips, the strawberry huller, and my current obsession, the new pickle slicer.

Seed Savers Exchange
www.seedsavers.org (563) 382-5990

Seed Savers Exchange helped start the heirloom seed movement by locating and preserving almost 20,000 varieties by growing them and seed banking at Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa. The not-for-profit’s mission is to conserve and protect America’s culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing open pollinated seeds and plants. The catalog contains an anthology of stories and fascinating anecdotes connecting the reader to plant history, and has a comprehensive roster of vegetable seed many of which are certified organic. Be sure to check out the heirloom flower seed, garlic, and seed potatoes. It’s a great resource for seed saving supplies and helpful guides to get started planting and seed saving.

Pinetree Garden Seeds catalogPinetree Garden Seeds and Accessories
www.superseeds.com (207) 926-3400

Pinetree has been a year-round source for the home gardener for more than three decades. Their product lines go well beyond a fairly complete line of gardening gear, including soil kits and amendments, and animal deterrents. Also offered are natural bath and hair products, kitchen gadgets (I want the tortilla press), and bee, bat, and bird products. If you’d like fragrant oils and herbal teas to go along with your vegetable seeds, look no further than Pinetree. There is a comprehensive compendium of some of the best gardening books that I’ve seen.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
www.rareseed.com Fax: (417) 924-8887

Baker Creek offers 1,800 vegetable, flower and herb varieties claimed to be the largest in our country.  A focus on preservation, it not surprising they have one of the largest selections of seeds from the nineteenth century. The fittingly named Rare Seed Catalog is like the Vogue magazine of the vegetable world. It wins the prize for the most beautiful photographs of the most avant-garde produce collection, complete with nutritional factoids and culinary inspiration. Stories from seed collecting expeditions around the world—recently Thailand, Myanmar, and India—are in the Heirloom Gardener, an associated and nationally distributed magazine written as a tool to not only promote and preserve our rich agricultural history but as explanation of why we need to care about it. The Rare Seed Catalog provides a selection of 78 varieties of melon and 20 types of okra. Baker Creek has a limited but diverse availability of live plants to ship. If goji berries, ginger root, and dragon fruit tickle your fancy (and you either live in the subtropics or have a greenhouse available) look no further, they’re in the Rare Seed Catalog. Baker Creek encourages political activism, and the catalog is written with an underlying ripple that we’re reaching the tipping point in the struggle against GMOs.


Specialty catalogs

Vermont Bean Seed Company
www.vermontbean.com
Bush or pole? Round, broad, or flat-podded? Shellers or runners? Golden, purple, filet, or lima—Vermont Bean Seed Company’s catalog for home gardens has them all. 

Filaree Garlic Farm
www.filareefarm.com
Garlic immersion is made possible by paging through the Filaree Garlic Farm catalog. A certified organic garlic grower in Washington State, Filaree encourages placing early orders of favorite rocaboles, porcelains, and purple stripe garlic.

Totally Tomatoes
www.totallytomato.com
Whether you are growing tried-and-true tomato varieties or venturing on to new releases and heirlooms, Totally Tomatoes offers hundreds of tomato varieties to the avid tomato grower. Categorized by size, shape, and color, Totally Tomatoes is a veritable rainbow for the tomato connoisseur. Focusing on Solanaceous crops, dozens of pepper varieties are included, too. 

PHOTO: A basket of garlic, with each bulb labeled with its cultivar name.

Try growing different garlic varieties to find the flavor you like best.


Varieties/cultivars and tips for direct seeding into spring gardens

It’s hard to resist a list of a few of my favorite varieties to directly sow into the spring garden. Knowing how much seed will sow a 10-foot row and the days to maturity (when the harvest can be expected) is the type of garden math that tangles up many a gardener, but quality catalogs will provide vegetable grower’s guides to help to sort out how much seed you’ll need. 

Radish: Direct-sow spring radish as soon as the ground can be worked, or four to six weeks before the last frost. Radish is best grown quickly in cool, damp conditions. It’s easy to grow, and requires only 28 days from planting to harvest. Try these spring radish cultivars: ‘Early Scarlet Globe’, ‘Rudolf’, and ‘Crunchy Royale’.

PHOTO: Beets.Beets: Nothing says spring like tender, freshly harvested baby beets. Sow about two weeks before our last frost date and thin to 3 inches between seedlings. Fertilize with liquid seaweed. Beets have great culinary versatility, so plant a combination of gold and red. ‘Detroit Dark Red’, ‘Bull’s Blood’, and ‘Burpee’s Golden’ are great choices.

Swiss chard: We love ‘Rhubarb’ and ‘Five colored Silverbeet’. These greens can grow through the entire gardening season. By harvesting just the outer leaves with a harvest knife, the plant stays in place and the integrity of your design stays intact.

PHOTO: Carrots.Carrots: The sweetest, juiciest, and most flavorful carrots are the French heirlooms. Sow two weeks before the last frost date. Carrot is slow to germinate, so have patience. Our favorite varieties for Chicago growers: ‘St. Valery’, ‘Paris Market’, and ‘Scarlet Nantes’.

Spinach: One of the earliest-germinating cool season vegetables, spinach can be direct sown in 2-inch bands or rows four to six weeks before the last frost. Plant ‘Corvair’, ‘Tyee’, or ‘Donkey’ for the most reliable spring crops.

Lettuce: We love ‘Tennis Ball’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’, ‘Rouge d ’Hiver’, and ‘Winter Density’. One gram of seed will sow a 15-foot row.

Spring greens: Try mache, arugula, or mizuna; 30 to 50 seeds will seed one foot of row when sown as a cut-and-come-again salad mix.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Seed saving is an art, not to mention fun and empowering. Plus, it’s a valuable contribution on a deeper level: agricultural biodiversity matters, and seed saving in home gardens is mainstream conservation of biodiversity!

PHOTO: John Withee bean collection.

A highlight of our 2013 Seed Swap was the John Withee bean collection. A family tradition of “beanhole” cooking led John Withee to collect and organize 1,267 bean varieties. He donated the collection—and its handcrafted case—to Seed Savers Exchange before he passed away.

Here’s why you, the home gardener, should start a seed collection:

Seed saving promotes self-reliance, and swapping seeds connects and builds community. It connects us to our agricultural roots. Additionally, it helps conserve our agricultural resources. Preservation matters. Once varieties are lost, they cannot be recovered. A century ago, seed houses had hundreds of varieties, and now just a few remain. Think about this vegetable fact: In 1903, 544 varieties of cabbage were listed by seed houses across the United States. By 1983, just 28 of those varieties were represented in our national seed bank at the National Seed Storage Laboratory (now the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation).

Saving seeds encourages adventurous eaters. Growing heirloom varieties holds culinary appeal because it offers the opportunity to grow interesting vegetables that aren’t readily available in grocery stores.

Thrifty seed collectors save money because there is no seed to buy each spring. They maintain a personal seed collection.

Seed savers are lifelong learners, and home gardeners play an important role in helping to preserve our diverse seed histories. Home gardens become living laboratories to learn about plants. Seed saving builds observation skills, and there is a need for more seed growers to evaluate varieties for disease resistance and variety. 

Finally, saving and sharing seed just feels good. 

PHOTO: Broccoli seedlings

Broccoli seedlings

Which seeds should be saved (and are the easiest to save)? 

Deciding which seeds to save requires a working knowledge of several definitions:

Hybrid varieties (F1) produce seeds that, when grown the next year, are unlikely to resemble the original plant. Don’t save seeds from a hybrid vegetable. Seeds should be saved from open-pollinated plants (OP), those stable varieties that can reliably reproduce themselves generation after generation. As long as open-pollinated plants don’t cross pollinate with other varieties of the same species, their offspring will carry the distinguishing characteristics of the variety. Heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated plants that produce seeds passed down from one generation to another, often with historical connections and stories. Heirlooms carry special value and are usually old varieties.

Deciding which seeds to save requires a basic understanding of how plants reproduce:

Very simply, plants either mate with themselves or they mate with other plants. Self-pollinating plants have all the flower parts (anther and stigma) to transfer pollen within their own flowers (achieved by physical contact of male and female parts), or between separate flowers on the same plant (helped by wind or insects). In other words, they mate with themselves. Cross pollination takes place when pollen is transferred from one plant to another plant by insects, birds, or wind. Crossers can’t move pollen without help as the selfers do. Offspring of plants that cross pollinate may have different characteristics than the original variety unless they are isolated from plants of the same species.

Seed packet with description designating F1 seed.

If a package is labeled F1, seeds should not be saved, as they are unlikely to reliably reproduce the same plant as the parent.

A couple of tips on planning a garden for seed saving:

  • Start small and keep it simple.
  • Balance the many factors that comprise the art and practice of seed saving.
  • Begin by choosing a couple of self-pollinating annuals. Peas, beans, tomatoes, and lettuce are easiest to save. Insect- and wind-pollinated annuals may require isolation distances so they don’t cross pollinate.
  • Thoughtfully map out the garden to make efficient use of space. Growing plants for seed may take up more room for a longer period of time. While radish may be harvest-ready after growing 30 days, it may take much longer for your radish crop to produce its seeds.  

Take our classes during the Super Seed Weekend to learn more about planning a garden for seed saving.

Seed savers contribute! Come to learn, swap seeds, and share stories at Super Seed Weekend and experience the satisfaction that comes along with being a seed saver. A broad community of seed savers (new friends) awaits!


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Repotting Cactus

Tom Weaver —  January 10, 2017 — 1 Comment

Repotting a cactus can be intimidating, but a few simple tricks can make the project a lot less painful—and result in beautiful, healthy plants.

When repotting a cactus, there a few essential tools you’ll need:

  • Chopstick or small dowel
  • Cactus soil
  • Container with drainage
  • Gloves
  • Newspaper

Cactus soil is a special blend of potting soil that is formulated for fast drainage. It is usually a blend of peat moss and sand, sometimes including coconut fiber, perlite, or vermiculite. With the increase in popularity of growing cacti and succulents, it has become a garden center staple and can be found at most garden centers and hardware stores.

View video on our YouTube channel

You’ll want to use a container—preferably one that is made from terra cotta—with drainage holes. This allows the water to drain away from the roots rapidly. Cacti are native to dry environments and do not like to have their roots sitting in water. If the drainage hole on your pot is especially large, it can be partially covered with a rock to prevent soil from draining out the bottom when you water. Most cacti are slow growing and should never be planted in a pot that is more than an inch larger in diameter than their previous container. This is to help prevent rot.

Winter is a great time to warm up in the Greenhouses and see our cacti collection.

Weingartia lanata in bloom.

Weingartia lanata in bloom

Repotting your cactus is in many ways very similar to repotting almost any other houseplant.

  1. Begin by filling the new pot ½ to ¾ full with soil.
  2. Remove your plant from its old pot. 
    • Make sure to wear gloves.
    • Roll up a sheet of newspaper to make a strip approximately the same width as a belt. 
    • Wrap your newspaper strip around the plant and use it as a handle to gently lift the plant from the pot.
  3. If the plant is really root bound, gently loosen the soil around it to encourage new growth. (I like to leave some of the soil intact. This provides some weight to help keep the plant anchored. If the soil is poor quality, all of it should be removed.)
  4. Using the newspaper handle, set your plant into its new pot.
  5. Using the chopstick, firm the soil around the base of your plant. Keep adding soil until it reaches the same level as the old soil. (This should be approximately ½-1 inch below the lip of the container.)
  6. Water your plant throughly. 

Your cactus now has much more room to grow, which also means much more soil to stay moist. Make sure to check before watering again—the soil can stay moist for a long time, even if it is a mix made for cacti.


©2017 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Holiday plants and flowers make great gifts for everyone on your shopping lists. They are perfect gifts for family members, the host and hostess of the holiday parties you attend, and of course, are beautiful for decorating your own home. Plus, they can be enjoyed long after the holiday season is over, adding color and life to your home on chilly winter days.

But getting your plants to last longer will require a little special care. Here’s how to take care of the most popular gift plants, both during the holiday season and long after.

Jubilee Red poinsettia

Euphorbia pulcherrima ‘Jubilee Red’

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) appreciate bright light away from heating vents, fireplaces, and drafty windows or doors. Maintain even moisture (but avoid soggy soil); plants will wilt dramatically if allowed to dry out. The plants should never be allowed to stand in water for more than 20 minutes if possible.

Poinsettia plants can be a challenge to keep year-round, and most gardeners discard the plant after the holidays. However, those trying to force a rebloom the following season can follow these guidelines:

  • As long as the plant looks healthy, continue to provide it with even moisture and warm temperatures in a bright location, out of direct sun. In six to eight weeks, it will begin to lose its leaves and turn slightly off-color. At that point, cut the entire plant back to 6 inches and repot in a larger pot, adding enough extra soilless mix or potting soil to fill the pot. Water thoroughly and place the plant in a south-facing window.
  • Begin to fertilize the plant twice a month with a dilute 20-20-20 or 10-10-10 mix. New growth should begin. Begin pinching new stems back once a month to encourage bushy growth. Continue this pinching until the end of summer.
  • In mid-May, after all danger of frost has passed, gradually introduce the plant to the outdoors, bringing it back in at night until the nighttime temperature remains above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Then place the pot in a sunny spot where it is protected from strong afternoon summer sun. Water and fertilize regularly.
  • When night temperatures approach 60 degrees, it’s time to bring the poinsettia back inside to a sunny windowsill. By the end of September, the plant must be placed in a completely dark closet or covered with a box every night from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.—with no exceptions. After 7 a.m., it can be placed back in a sunny window but returned to the closet at 5 p.m. This dark treatment is necessary for the plant to set its flower buds. Provide normal water during the day and fertilize monthly.
  • Poinsettia plants thrive in warm rooms with bright light and will suffer if exposed to drafts, sudden temperature changes, or excess dryness from heating vents. Continue this treatment until the middle of December, when the plant should be fully colored up for display again for the holidays.

Cocktail amaryllis

Hippeastrum ‘Cocktail’

Amaryllis (Hippeastrumbulbs should be potted up in wide, squat containers using a soilless mix. Allow the “shoulders” of the bulb to remain above soil level; water well once and then allow soil to dry out before watering again. Keep the pot away from direct sunlight, drafts, and heating vents.

  • Most amaryllis plants will send up stalks and flower first (leaves will emerge after a bloom cycle). As the stalk grows, rotate the pot for even growth. After flowering, allow the stalks to yellow and wither before removing them from the bulb.
  • Continue to water the plant after leaves emerge. After May 15, take the plant outside and place it in a location where it receives morning sunlight. Fertilize regularly with a dilute 10-10-10 or 15-15-15 mix.
  • Around October 15, bring the plant inside for its resting period. If the leaves have yellowed, remove them from the bulb. If they are still green, allow them to yellow before removing them from the bulb. Take the bulb out of its container; shake off the dirt and place it in a cool, dark room (40 to 50 degrees). At that time, cut off any dried roots from the bulb and re-pot. Signs of new green growth can occur from six to 10 weeks later.

Cyclamen 'Salmon with Eye'

Cyclamen ‘Salmon with Eye’

Cyclamen plants prefer quite cool indoor conditions. Water only when the soil dries out, and avoid splashing water on foliage.

  • Water these plants below the foliage, or set them in a shallow saucer to soak up water. Discard any unused water after 20 to 30 minutes. (To prevent root rot, make sure the plants don’t sit in water for long periods of time.)
  • Cyclamen will continue to bloom for a few weeks if they are kept in a north- or east-facing window. Remove the faded flowers and their stems at the base of the plant as soon as possible to keep the plants blooming in a tidy fashion. Most gardeners find it too difficult to force the plant to bloom again the following season.
Azalea 'Big Joe'

Azalea ‘Big Joe’

Azaleas require moist soil, bright light, and occasional misting. They perform best if kept in cool locations. Flowers will remain for months if old blossoms are quickly removed, the plant receives adequate moisture, and it is kept in cool conditions.

  • In May, once all danger of frost has passed, the plant can be taken outside to a shaded or partially shaded spot where it only receives morning light in the garden. At that time, begin to fertilize twice a month with a dilute liquid fertilizer formulated especially for acid-loving plants.
  • Bring the plant back indoors before October 15.

Phalaenopsis orchid

Phalaenopsis orchid

Phalaenopsis or moth orchids prefer warm rooms in bright, but not direct sun. Moth orchids will bloom for months, but sudden temperature changes can cause the plant to drop buds. Remove drying buds to maintain the beauty of the plant. Orchids potted in fir bark generally require once-a-week watering. Those in potting soil can be watered less often.

  • After flowering, allow the stem to yellow before cutting it off at the base of the plant. Begin fertilizing plant twice a month with a dilute orchid fertilizer. This will encourage the growth of a new stem and more flowers the following year.
  • Wash the foliage monthly. It’s not necessary to take this plant outdoors for the summer; but it will tolerate being moved outside if kept in shady location, and not allowed to dry out.
  • Continue normal watering and fertilizing until a new stem appears, approximately 10 to 12 months later. When the plant initiates flower buds, discontinue fertilizing.
  • Continue to provide bright light—but keep out of direct sunlight—in a warm room. During winter, try to provide extra humidity from pebble trays, or by misting daily if possible. 

 


Ivy topiary

Ivy topiary

Ivy topiaries are popular holiday plants that can last for years if given proper care.

  • Like cyclamen and azaleas, ivy also prefers quite cool conditions and bright light far away from heating vents or fireplaces.
  • Mist the plant regularly, or rinse the plants in a sink to keep the foliage clean and free of spider mites. As new growth emerges, train the new growth to the desired form.
  • Take the plants outside after May 15. Maintain growth during the summer by keeping the plants watered often, and fertilize them at least once a month, keeping the plants in a semi-shaded location. Continue training and pruning the plants periodically to keep their desired form.
Paperwhites

Narcissus papyraceus

Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) may require a cage or a ring of raffia tied around them to keep them from flopping as they grow. If purchased as bulbs, grow them in a shallow dish filled with pebbles rather than soil. Arrange the bulbs close together and cover them with pebbles, with just their tips exposed. (The weight of the pebbles helps to keep them from falling to the side as they grow.) Water just enough to encourage root growth, not soaking the bulbs.

Paperwhites can be discarded after blooming, as they are not hardy to be planted outside in your garden.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Christmas tree lots carry a dazzling array of trees ranging from fragrant balsam firs (Abies balsamea) to shimmering Colorado blue spruces (Picea pungens). With so many choices, how does one choose?

The three most commonly encountered groups of Christmas trees are firs, pines, and spruces.

PHOTO: Siberian fir tree (Abies sibirica).

Siberian fir
(Abies sibirica)

Fir (Abies sp.)

The most common firs available are Canaan fir, noble fir, and balsam fir. All make terrific trees with a classic piney fragrance. They feature dark green needles (often with silver undersides) and are known for their rounded needles, which minimize injuries. They’re among the longest-lived Christmas trees and most resistant to needle drop. The main downside is that some varieties can be very expensive.

PHOTO: Colorado blue spruce (Picea pugens 'Procumbens')

Colorado blue spruce
(Picea pungens ‘Procumbens’)

Spruce (Picea sp.)

Spruces come in colors ranging from dark green to icy blue, but they all share one thing in common; incredibly sharp needles. While they make terrific trees for outdoor decorating, they do not hold up very well to the dry air indoors. If you select a spruce, it is critical that it is kept away from any sources of heat that might dry it out. The branches are strong and can support ornaments well, and their color range is quite appealing. When used properly, spruce can be an excellent plant for holiday decorating.

PHOTO: Pinus cembra 'Blue Mound'.

Pinus cembra ‘Blue Mound’ from our Wonderland Express exhibition showcases its long, soft needles.

Pine (Pinus sp.)

Pines are another popular Christmas tree. The most commonly available pines are white pine and Scots pine. Pines feature long needles and tend to have a more clumpy look on the branches so the overall effect is less formal than the firs and spruce. The branches are generally more stiff than other evergreens, which makes them great for hanging ornaments. The biggest downside to pines is that they often turn a duller green for the winter. Many tree lots dye them a darker green to make them more attractive.

As you can see, every type has its pluses and minuses, but a few things hold true no matter which type of tree you select:

  1. Ask to unbag the tree before purchasing it. Many tree lots have the trees in netted bags, which makes it hard to see if the tree has a flat side or a bald spot. If this is a concern, just ask.
  2. Give the tree a good shake. If you find lots of needles falling off, that means the tree is dried out and will not last long.
  3. Look for trees with healthy, firm needles. Dull, brittle needles are a sign of a dried-out tree.
  4. Always give the trunk a fresh cut before placing it in water. If you have the ability to do this at home, that’s best, but your tree will be fine if you have it done at the lot just before bringing it home.
  5. Get your tree into water as soon as possible. Once the cut end scabs over, the tree will have a hard time taking up water and will lose needles rapidly.
  6. Never allow the water dish to dry out. It’s not uncommon to refill the dish every day, especially for the first week.
  7. Christmas tree food (a liquid food similar to the packets of cut flower food you receive in bouquets) helps extend the life of your tree.
  8. Avoid placing your tree near radiators or heating vents. This will cause needles to dry out very rapidly and can quickly become a fire hazard.
  9. At the end of the season, trees can be “planted” in the snow and used as seasonal decor and shelter for birds, or composted.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org