How to choose a real Christmas tree

I love Christmas.  My favorite part is decorating a real tree, bringing all that woodsy freshness and fragrance into my home.  If you like real trees too, listen up for some shopping tips.  

Christmas tree with decorations

First, measure.  If you’ve ever had to lop off the top to make it fit you know that eyes can deceive.  So measure the space and get a tree that fits both the height and width.  Yes, I’ve had to rearrange the furniture. 

Next, visit a local tree farm or lot.  Bundling up and strolling through a Christmas tree farm is old-fashioned fun.  Cutting your own guarantees it’s fresh.  Plus it’s a good excuse for hot cocoa.   

But before you head out to a tree farm, toss some sturdy rope and a blanket or tarp in your car to secure and protect your tree and car.  Most farms have maps, saws and helpful folks.  

Local tree lots are a fine option, too.  Most benefit a local business or nonprofit group so you’re doing good while having a good time.  Raise your hand if you get overwhelmed looking at all those trees. 

Should you get a spruce, fir, pine or cedar? It’s a tough choice, but here are some fast facts to help you.  

The longest-lasting trees are Colorado and Norway spruce and Frasier fir.  Concolor fir also last well and have a handsome blue tinge as do some Colorado spruce.

Balsam fir is the most fragrant.  Pines have long, soft needles. And local tradition points to our native Eastern redcedar, often harvested on farms in days gone by. 

Eastern red cedar with berries
Eastern redcedar
Credit: Mira Talabac

Once you’ve settled on a type of tree, get up close and personal. Stroke a branch from trunk to tip.  Few needles should fall.  Gently bend a few needles.  They should bend, not break.  

If you’re buying a pre-cut tree, give it the gentle drop test.  Lift the tree off the ground a few inches and let it hit the ground softly.  Only a few needles should fall.  

Tree farms and lots will offer to wrap your tree in netting.  Spring for the extra few bucks if there is a charge.  It’s good protection.   If you have a short trip home, ask for a fresh cut on the trunk of a pre-cut tree to help it take up water.  Or cut a half-inch off the base when you get home.  

Your tree will travel best in the cargo area of your car if it’s roomy enough. Put down a tarp or blanket to catch any falling needles. If your tree is traveling in the back of a truck, wrap it and secure it with rope to minimize shifting and damage.  The quaint image of a Christmas tree atop a car is all well and good, but trees should only travel on car roofs with roof racks to avoid damage.

Load your wrapped tree with the base forward and secure it with sturdy rope to avoid the unpleasant “opening umbrella effect” en route.  Yes, trees can fly.

As soon as you get home, plunge the tree into a bucket or stand that holds at least a gallon of water.  Trees are heavy drinkers, so check and top off the water daily.  Check twice the first day.

The right Christmas tree tended well can give you a month or more of enjoyment. Make yours the centerpiece of your family’s holiday celebrations. 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Food waste reduction: It’s everyone’s job!

Our society wastes food at every point in the food chain from farms and gardens to home kitchens, restaurants, supermarkets, food service companies, and large institutions like universities that feed  thousands of people daily. Last December I was astonished to lean about the extent of food waste at the MD Food Recovery Summit organized by the Maryland Department of the Environment. 

Surplus food is the term used to describe unsold and unused food, like crops that don’t go to market because prices are too low, perishable items tossed into supermarket dumpsters, and groceries and restaurant meals bought and not eaten. 

In 2019:

  • 35% of all U.S. food went unsold or unused 
  • 23% of all surplus food is fruits and vegetables 
  • Only 15% of Maryland’s 900K+ tons of food waste was recycled 

Why it’s a problem:

  • Huge economic and environmental costs of producing surplus food
  • 1 in 6 U.S. residents are food insecure. Surplus food can feed hungry people
  • Surplus food is the #1 landfill material (24% of landfill space) 
  • Food waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can trap 28X as much heat/mass unit as CO2
  • The value of wasted food at the consumer level is $161 billion/year
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We are still alive! How to protect pollinators in the slow season

Even when they look dry and “dead,” our green spaces are full of life. When we think about plants, for example, we can see that herbaceous perennials seem dry but they are actually just retreating underground, while annuals continue their life cycle by spending the winter as seeds in the ground. The same is true for other organisms that live in our green spaces: squirrels become less active, snakes retreat to sheltered spaces, and insects may overwinter as adults underground or in crevasses or as juveniles in their nests or chrysalises. Among these insects, there is a particular group that we seem to take a lot of effort to protect in season, but that we may then forget about in the fall and winter: our pollinators. In today’s post, I would like to talk about some specific ways that allow us to take care of our green spaces in the fall, all while continuing to support these organisms we worked so hard to support throughout the growing season.

Where are our pollinators in the winter?

As we mentioned in a previous post, pollinators don’t disappear in the winter. Instead, they either migrate to warmer conditions (like monarchs do; check out this website to know where they are now!) or stick around and overwinter right here in protected spaces such as crevasses, underground nests, and within plant stems. If we have been enjoying supporting them throughout the season, it may be a good idea to continue to do so also throughout the winter. Let’s see some ways to do this.

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Get to know your local mantis

Carolina mantid
Carolina mantis adult female in early autumn. Notice how her wings don’t reach the end of her abdomen, as they would with our other local mantids. Photo: M. Talabac

Q:  I’ve heard that not all of our praying mantis types are native. They’re all good for garden pest control though, right, or are some bad instead?

A:  Maryland is currently home to five species of praying mantis, but only one is native, which is the Carolina mantis. The others are the European, Chinese, Narrow-winged, and Asian jumping mantids, with the latter being the most recent introduction. While non-native, the other mantids have more-or-less been integrated into our ecosystem for some time now, so they don’t necessarily need management or removal. Evidence of this includes the fact that insect-eating birds and other predators will readily consume them, and their eggs can also be parasitized by the tiny wasps that presumably evolved to have a relationship with our native mantis. In the grand scheme of things, other invasive species deserve more attention. Plus, at least they also eat various other non-native insect pests.

If you prefer to support native mantids found in your yard, make sure you’ve identified them correctly. Maryland Biodiversity Project has image galleries for each mantis species and provides a few ID tips for telling the difference between them, at least for adults and egg cases (called ootheca). Put “mantids” in the search box to see the species list.

Comparison of 5 mantis ootheca. The native Carolina mantis has a narrow gray ootheca.
Photo: Pawel Pieluszynski

Mantids are generalist predators, so can consume pest insects and beneficials like pollinators alike. They’re opportunists, nabbing anything they can subdue (including each other), so are neither universally good nor bad. Gardeners generally consider them helpers since they do consume pests, though we don’t know to what extent the non-native species may be depriving the native species of a food source due to competition. (Given how many other non-native insects exist in our area, I imagine this impact isn’t that significant, especially when compared to the greater problem of habitat loss and degradation.)

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun and Washington Gardener Magazine. Read more by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension. Our horticulturists are available to answer your questions online, year-round.

In praise of turnips

Are you a turniphead?

I sure am. And I’d love to turn this from an insult, with connotations of “lumpy, dull, bitter,” to a compliment meaning “smart gardener”! Turnips are a great cool-weather root crop and an excellent addition to spring and fall meals. They’re easy and quick to grow, offer variety and good taste, plus you can eat the entire plant.

To be fair, some varieties of turnip (and its cousin rutabaga) are used for animal feed, and as human food are valued mostly for their storage capacity. Turnips have fed people in the midst of famine and wartime rationing, and while this is a terrific feat for a plant, it doesn’t lead us to think of them as tender, delicate, spicy little treats. But they really are!

Turnips are a subspecies of Brassica rapa, which also includes many of the Asian greens such as Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and tatsoi, and the Italian rapini. Turnips likely originated in northern Europe, probably one of the first domesticated crops there, and later made their way to Asia, where many new cultivars were created. Until recently, most American seed catalogs listed one type of turnip – Purple Top White Globe – or if you were lucky maybe two or three (including Gilfeather which is actually a rutabaga). And listen, PTWG is a perfectly decent turnip, but it’s easy now to find more interesting fare. Many catalogs will at least sell you seed for one kind of round white Asian turnip, probably Hakurei. Grow these, from seed planted directly in the garden in late March or early April, or in September, and you’ll be rewarded about 45-50 days later with a perfectly white ball, mild and crunchy cut up for a salad, or tender and sweet when braised, roasted, or stir-fried.

You only need to do a few things to help your plants along. Provide a planting bed with loose soil that’s been amended with compost, give your plants plenty of water, and cover them with a floating row cover to keep off insect pests (and also rabbits, if you don’t have a fence. But you have a fence, right?). Turnips grow so fast that it almost doesn’t matter if the leaves get chewed a bit, but since they’re also edible, spicy in a mustardy way and great either cooked alone or mixed with other greens, you don’t want to have to pick off caterpillars. (If you really love turnip greens, you can grow types that produce leaves and not much in the way of edible roots, or add extra nitrogen fertilizer for the same effect. But why not have both greens and roots?)

Perusing catalogs with wider selections, you may find other types of round white turnips. I have no idea what the best one is, so pick what sounds good and experiment. You can also find red-skinned, white-fleshed types, which look really striking, though for some reason I’ve had trouble getting them to produce the few times I’ve tried them.

And then you can branch out into the weird ones, like Hinona Kabu, which I grew for the first time this year.

They are not actually meant to be that twisty and branched (the catalog photo looks like purple and white carrots) but I guess the bed I grew them in still has some issues with compacted soil. But it doesn’t affect the taste. This type of turnip is traditionally pickled, so that’s what I did. This is a fairly spicy turnip and the pickles add a nice potent bite to other foods. I made some squash soup the other night and offered various toppings to add, such as rye bread croutons, green onions, and cubed sausage, and also pickled Hinona Kabu turnips, along with Nadapeño pickles.

The pickling process turned the turnip slices pink – very cute! As with the round white types, there’s no need to peel these, just clean and remove some of the odd side roots.

I’m going to make sure turnips are a regular part of my spring and fall garden from now on. Frankly, there are few easier crops to grow, so why not? Let’s all be turnipheads!

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

Colorful shrubs jazz up the fall garden

Our landscapes are changing into their fall wardrobe which in many cases is brown, brown and more brown.  Add some pizzazz with shrubs with colorful leaves and berries.  As leaves lose their green chlorophyll, the underlying colors shine through in an autumn palette of red, gold, purple and orange.  Many shrubs reveal these vibrant leaf colors.

I’m a sucker for sumac.  Native varieties are already blazing red and orange along roadsides, but are often too big for the average backyard.  A better choice is a shorter cultivar such as the 3-foot ‘Gro-Low’ sumac. It’s a tough drought-resistant shrub that can handle poor soil. Its botanical name – Rhus aromatica – hints at another bonus: scented leaves.  

Fothergilla fall foliage – Image credit Miri Talabac

Also scented is native fothergilla.  Fragrant white bottlebrush blooms cover the plant in spring and in the fall it can wear red, yellow, orange and sometimes all of autumn’s colors combined.

Related to fothergilla is our native witch hazel.  Its leaves turn a sprightly yellow edged with orange in fall.  In winter it flaunts spidery yellow flowers.  Yes, it blooms in winter.

Oakleaf hydrangeas’ distinctive leaves deepen into a rich purple, red and bronze in autumn.  Their whopping blooms – like lilacs on steroids – tinge from white to mauve as they mature.

Love red?  Be kind to the environment and skip invasive burning bush which bullies out native plants.  Opt for a highbush blueberry instead which flashes the same rich red and provides food for both you and wildlife. Berries are berry – um, very – striking additions to the fall landscape.  Here are a few of my favorite berry-producing shrubs:

Viburnums are handsome, tough, pest-resistant shrubs whose praises I love to sing.  There are over 150 species and sizes run the gamut. Flower forms range from snowballs to flat-top clusters and many are fragrant.   Fall leaf colors range from rose to burgundy.  Then their berries take center stage in shades of yellow, orange, pink, red, blue and black.  Some even have two-tone berries.

I am not alone in my fondness for viburnum. Author and plantsman extraordinaire Michael Dirr says, “A garden without viburnum is akin to life without music and art.”   

The native American beautyberry stops traffic in the fall.  Somewhat nondescript much of the year, its cascading branches hold fistfuls of purple berries in autumn.  If you see it, you want it. 

Cotoneaster is another underused cascading shrub, this one dotted with red berries.  Pronounced cah-toe-knee-aster (no, not “cotton Easter,”) it looks especially fine draped over the top of a wall 

Red chokeberry – Image credit Miri Talabac

Native red chokeberry has dangling clusters of red fruits.  The ones in our demonstration garden get rave reviews when they are loaded with fruit or their abundant snowball-like spring flowers.  

Get thee to a nursery.  Enjoy a pleasant stroll while you search for just the right shrubs to enliven your fall landscape.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

What’s digging holes in the lawn?

With the transition into the Fall season, I often find myself feeling a mixture of emotions; relief, that another growing season is coming to an end; sadness, that it went too fast; and excitement for what the next year will bring! I am sure that our animal friends also sense the need to prepare for the changing seasons and as such, over the last few days, I’ve been seeing some damage happening in my yard from an uninvited guest! 

holes and torn up grass in a lawn- skunk damage
Holes were dug in the lawn recently. Photo: A. Bodkins

Can you guess what caused this digging of the grass? This occurred in two different areas of my lawn over the course of a week. I also noticed the exact same digging at my parents’ house in this same time period.

Well, if you guessed a skunk, you are correct! An Eastern Striped Skunk to be exact, which you can learn more about by visiting the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website. These native critters are fairly small with a lot of fluff and a long tail. Their most characteristic marking is their black body with a white stripe down the middle. They are also known for their smell! 

striped skunk lookin up from a lawn
Striped Skunk Photo: © Jen Brumfield, some rights reserved
holes dug in a lawn by a skunk
Holes in the lawn from a skunk digging and searching for food. Photo: A. Bodkins


As you can probably tell from the photos, my yard is not something that I manage too closely, with a  mixture of grass types and broadleaf plants, so I am not upset that the skunk was foraging for protein sources. I am hopeful that he/she is enjoying some insects, and hopefully consuming some pest larvae like Japanese beetle grubs and slugs. 

We often discuss the benefits of creating a landscape that is rich in biodiversity and habitat for all creatures. So what do we do when we find ourselves inviting a stinky guest to dine on insects and other soil-dwelling critters? Well, for me and my family, we will use this as a teachable moment with our children and be sure that we are not leaving anything outside that would be attractive to our new friends.  Things like pumpkins for fall decorating, pet foods (or livestock feed), bird seed/feeders, trash cans, or compost scraps can be unintended foods for skunks, which are in the weasel family. At this point, we do not need to take action as my husband has only seen our guest once and it was early in the morning, which is the normal time that he should be foraging. The skunk sighting was also what helped confirm my suspicion of what was digging in the lawn.  

Remember that the skunk’s main form of defense is to “spray” a very foul-smelling liquid (butyl mercaptan) from special scent glands. Once they release their “perfume” it leaves them vulnerable with no tools for defense for a few days so that is the last thing that they want to do. They will give you a warning sign of stamping or kneading the ground. If you spy a skunk doing a handstand, you best be on the retreat though, as that is the position they use for releasing their spray!  

Mole or vole tunnels may appear to look similar to this damage, as it’s hard to tell from the photo, but this damage was not raised as you see with mole and vole tunnels. Remember, moles eat insects only, but voles will eat plants. 

Be a careful detective and look for signs of problems in the landscape, whether that is a pest, plant disease, or mammal. In our instance, we saw skunk scat and then also the actual visitor to confirm what was causing the damage to the lawn. If you need guidance on the management of a nuisance skunk, please check out the University of Maryland Extension website on skunks and never try to capture, pick up, or relocate a skunk without help from a professional. 

Happy Autumn!

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.