Norfolk pine is a charming Christmas tree

branches of Norfolk Island pine trees
Norfolk Island Pine

Uh oh. You need a last-minute gift or a tiny tree to brighten a corner of your holiday home. Here comes a Norfolk pine to the rescue. Whew. That was close.

Looking like miniature Christmas trees, Norfolk pines pop up at garden centers and other stores over the holidays. Bedecked with bows and balls, they’re festive and cute as can be.

With a graceful, pyramidal shape and tiers of gently arched branches, they are loaded with appeal. They look delicate but are actually tough, long-lasting little trees.  

Technically a Norfolk Island pine, this pint-sized evergreen is native to – you guessed it – a place called Norfolk Island, just east of Australia. Captain James Cook discovered this tree on his second expedition to the South Pacific in 1774.

Norfolk pines are subtropical, hardy in zones 9 to 11. So they can’t handle our winters but are happy to summer outside and hang out with us indoors when the mercury drops. 

They are fairly carefree houseplants. Put them in a bright spot with some direct light. Water them when the top inch of soil feels dry. 

Norfolk pines love humidity, so mist them or group them with other plants. Fertilize them every week to two from spring to fall.

Transition them to outdoor living in the summer by putting them in the shade for a few days, then introducing them to bright light. Just remember to keep them watered and bring them in before the first frost hits.

Norfolk pines’ roots resent disturbance, so repot them only every few years. Once they get three feet tall, replace only the top few inches of soil instead of repotting the whole plant. 

They are slow growers. Norfolk pines generally top out at three to six feet indoors, but they take their sweet time getting there. In their native climes, they can top out at 200 feet.

Oh, and did I mention that a Norfolk pine is not a true pine? Technically Araucaria heterophylla, is part of a genus of 19 species of pine-like conifers. 

But let’s not split botanical hairs. 

The Norfolk pine is an appealing tree. For those with small spaces, it’s an ideal Christmas tree. For the rest of us, it is just a tiny charmer, a sweet little elf of a tree.    

Big or small, I hope your holiday tree is the center of a warm and blessed holiday season spent with family and friends.

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.

How do pollinators find plants and flowers?

As we know, pollinators help plants spread their pollen among flowers, and many plants do indeed need them to be able to reproduce and set seeds. We also know that by planting flowers and providing nesting habitats, we can help pollinators’ populations and thus assist with plant pollination. However, how do pollinators find plants? In this post, we will talk about that topic, which can help us become even better at helping pollinators and the plants they pollinate.

The big picture – pollinators need to be in the area

In order for pollinators to find plants, pollinators need to be present in the general region. In fact, although the vast majority of pollinators can move and travel from place to place, all of them have limitations on the distance they are able to travel. For example, hummingbirds can travel for miles (in Maryland, they are migratory), while large bees are able to travel relatively large distances for an insect (~500m-1km), and smaller insects will not be able to travel that far. This means that if, say, we lived in the middle of a very developed area with very few pollinator-friendly resources (few flowers, lots of cement, no green areas, etc.), planting a pollinator garden will attract few pollinators at first. This is due to the fact that it is likely that few pollinators are present in that area, and thus it will take a while for certain groups to arrive and establish in our garden.

It is for this reason that many communities tend to try to establish joint pollinator-friendly actions, and encourage many people in the region to participate (e.g., becoming Bee City USA-certified, creating “pollinator highways or corridors”). By increasing the regional number of pollinator-friendly resources, the whole region becomes more pollinator-diverse, and any supplementary action is more likely to improve pollinator support. As we talked about in a previous post, if you are interested in promoting pollinator-friendly habitat on your property, it may be a great idea to talk to your neighbors or your City, and see if others may also want to participate. In terms of pollinator-friendly activities, the saying “the more, the merrier” is very much true!

pollinator habitat sign in a garden
Pollinator-friendly actions are very effective when they are coordinated across regions. Photo: A. Kokai.

The local picture – different pollinators prefer different plants

As we mentioned in other posts, not all pollinators are made equal, and this is also true in terms of what plants will be found by what pollinators. For example, hummingbirds tend to visit tubular and reddish flowers, while syrphids prefer open flowers, and bees tend to visit flowers that they can access with their mouth parts (see this post to learn more). 

These floral preferences are due to the different pollinators’ abilities to see different colors, the presence of specific attractive floral scents in different plant species, and the ability of different pollinators with different body and mouth part shapes to handle and feed on flowers, and the matching of pollinator presence and flowering time. The practical consequence of this is that if we want to help many different pollinators find their preferred plants, it is necessary to grow different types of plants in our green spaces. By doing this, we would always provide resources that will be preferred to at least one pollinator, and by providing different types of resources, we can make sure that many different types of pollinators are supported by our plants. In order to do this, there are different floral mixes that exist that allow us to plant diverse floral resources appropriate for our region, which lets us build a diverse and welcoming floral bed for many pollinators.

Planting diverse floral resources will attract many different types of pollinators. Photo: C. Celley/USFWS.

The super-local picture – pollinators need to see the plant to access it

This will sound silly, but pollinators need to be able to have access to the plant to find it. For example, if a plant is not clearly displayed or hidden by many other plants or structures, it will be hard for pollinators to find it… even if the pollinator is present in the area and the plant in question is a preferred plant. This means that for us to help pollinators, we need to make sure that our plants are findable by the pollinators. Picking appropriate parts of our green spaces to plant our pollinator-friendly plants is thus key! For example, plants that require full sun to grow should be planted in those conditions and not under the shade of other plants or behind structures.

To know what these specific conditions are, there exist several resources (for example, see this useful and simple resource (PDF) published by the City of College Park, MD). These resources allow us to pick the best growing spot for our plants, making them easily findable by their pollinator friends.

Finally, pollinators are more likely to find plants if there are several of them! This is particularly true for smaller herbs, which may not display many flowers. By increasing the number of plants planted in an area we are also making the plant species more easily findable to the pollinators.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí. Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!

Tips for using garden evergreens for holiday décor

Using evergreen cuttings to decorate the home offers an easy way to incorporate different textures, shapes, and aromas. Evergreens add a touch of simplicity, elegance, and nostalgia to holiday décor. They can be used easily on doors and entryways, as garland, or centerpieces. Cutting materials from your own landscape can provide a thrifty option.   

Here are a few tips for making evergreens a beautiful addition to your holiday décor. 

  1. If cutting from your own landscape, be cautious not to cut too much. Pruning in the early winter is generally not recommended unless it is to remove diseased or damaged material. It won’t hurt a well established plant to trim off a few branches, but try not to cut anything from newly installed plants. Check out this factsheet for additional information on pruning evergreens
  2. Caution! Several critters are overwintering on evergreens so once they get warm in your home, they will become active. These uninvited guests can cause surprise and panic from those not expecting them this time of year. If you find spiders, etc., you can put them outside.
  3. Keeping evergreens cool and hydrated will extend how long they stay fresh and beautiful. Place the ends of cut branches into water.  
  4. Often mixing different types of evergreens is a fun way to add unique smells, shapes, and texture to your home. 
  5. Shorter needled (hemlock/spruce) plants tend to lose their needles faster than longer needled species.
  6. Evergreen boughs are easy to stick into seasonal planters before the soil freezes. Be warned that if the branches freeze in the soil, they will be impossible to remove until it thaws. 
  7. Don’t forget to gather interesting seed pods, ornamental grasses, pine cones, etc. These add additional interest and natural beauty.

Some favorite cuttings include Junipers, Arborvitae, Holly, White Pine, Rhododendron, Boxwood, Lavender, and Rosemary.  If you have a live Christmas tree, be sure to repurpose those trimmings as well.

wreath made with grasses, seed pods, evergreens, and a bow
Here is a wreath base made from dried ornamental grass. Also, ornamental grass seed heads, Monarda seed heads, pine cones, and mixed evergreen cuttings are included. Photo: A. Bodkins
wreath made with Juniper and lamb's ear leaves
This wreath uses cuttings of native Eastern redcedar and leaves of lamb’s ear. Photo: C. Carignan
door swap made with evergreens, pinecones, and a bow
Door swag. Photo: A. Bodkins

As you gather your materials and get ready for crafting, remember that:

  1. Sharp pruners give a clean cut that will help increase the life of your branches and prevent premature needle drop. Guidance on sharpening pruning tools can be found here
  2. Use green floral wire to put cut branches together. It blends in well and is easy to work with. It is widely available at craft stores and low in cost. 
  3. Repurpose metal clothes hangers for inexpensive frames for swags/wreaths/garland. 
  4. Swags are often simpler and easier than a wreath to make and require less material, but provide a nice garnish for your entryway. Think of making a bouquet and then turn it upside down to get an easy door swag.
  5. If you’re placing cut evergreen stems into a container, use clean water and clean containers to prevent fungal and bacterial growth.
  6. Keep arrangements out of direct light and as far away as possible from the heat source.
  7. Misting cut evergreens can help extend their beauty.
  8. Using cut evergreens outside the home will help them last the entire season.
  9. Ribbon with wired edges is easier to work with for beginner bow makers. 

You can create many beautiful decorations by working with nature! Be creative and enjoy the gifts that your garden continues to give all year round. And it’s never too early to start thinking about garden plant additions for 2022! Think about items you could use in future holiday decorations or another season’s decor. 

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland, edited by Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Home & Garden Information Center, University of Maryland Extension. See more posts by Ashley and Christa.

Growing and using blackcurrants

Gardeners adding fruit to their landscapes tend to think first of familiar treats such as raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, which are all great to grow in our region, or fruit trees like apples and peaches, which present some challenges but are possible. But if you’re the typical suburban homeowner, you look at your proposed fruit orchard, and then you look at your yard, and the two don’t match up. Maybe that’s a matter of sheer space available. But often, it’s a matter of sun.

Most fruiting plants really prefer a full-sun location, which is something that those of us with mature trees lack. If your landscape trees are still small–well, someday you’ll get to the point where you have more shade than sun. Trees are wonderful and we should all plant more of them, but then we do end up without much space left for that meadow of sun-loving native perennials, never mind the vegetable garden and the orchard.

But what if I told you that you can plant fruit in the shade?

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An introduction to gardening under lights

This is the first article in a four-part series about the ins and outs of gardening under lights, both for newcomers curious about a different way to grow plants and for more experienced growers who want to build on their understanding of lighting options. Read on for the second, third, and fourth parts of the series.

plants growing under an LED light indoors
A variety of plants growing under an LED light indoors. Photo: Miri Talabac

Why use lights for plants?

It’s sensible to think, “why provide artificial light for indoor plants? Isn’t natural window light enough?” After all, natural light is certainly what the plants get when growing outside. If you’re fortunate and have sun-soaked windows in your home, you may have little need for artificial lighting. Anyone who has insufficient window light or who otherwise can’t utilize their windows for growing plants, though, would benefit from giving their plants brighter conditions.

We’ll address this in more detail in upcoming posts, but light levels play a significant role in keeping plants healthy, vigorous, and looking their best. Plant lights give you more control over this aspect of plant care.

Who benefits from using plant lights?

Anyone who doesn’t have ideal natural-light conditions for their plants would benefit from using plant lights (also called “grow lights”). You don’t have to be a tropical plant aficionado to make use of them, and anyone with an available power outlet can try it. Setups can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. Seed-starting enthusiasts can produce more robust seedlings, and anyone trying to overwinter a lemon tree, some herbs, an aloe, or patio tropicals could have more vigorous plants if their winter slog could be brightened with some extra light.

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Christmas cacti make lovely gifts and décor

Christmas cactus are popping up everywhere. They’re lovely living gifts that enliven holiday décor and add beauty year-round. If you like floral irony, this is your plant. Even though they are fleshy succulents, they originated not in arid regions but in the rainforests of Brazil where they drape themselves over tree branches as epiphytes.  

Arching stems on cactus
Arching stems give Christmas cactus – and this Thanksgiving cactus – handsome structure when not in bloom. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Lauri Ricker

As with many tropical plants, Christmas cactus delivers a double dose of drama. The first is the strong architectural form of arching stems made up of a series of scalloped pads. But it’s their cascading flowers in pink, salmon, red, or white that are the real showstoppers. Stacked layers of swept-back petals with prominent stamens, they are very oh-la-la. They also have a long bloom time, flowering from two weeks to two months.

Heavy blooms are a hallmark of Christmas cactus and its cousin, this Thanksgiving cactus.    
Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Wilma Holdway.

Also long is their lifespan. They can live for decades, often becoming family heirlooms. I once received cuttings from a plant started by a – ahem – mature friends’ grandfather. This caused a commotion at airport security.  What IS that thing on the x-ray? And yes, the kindly man let me keep my cuttings once I showed them to him and shared their story.

Christmas cactus has beautiful cascading blooms. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Leora Smith

Care is fairly basic. They like bright indirect light, not full sun. Keep the soil slightly moist. Mist regularly or put the pot on a dish of moist gravel to boost humidity.

Christmas cacti need cooler temps and less water to nudge them to bloom again. They need a chill to give you a thrill.

Master Gardener friends report that the natural drop in temperature and day length in fall is enough to encourage buds indoors. Others let their cactus summer outside in light shade, keeping them out until fall temperatures drop to 50 to 55 degrees. Regardless of how you stimulate flowering, resume regular care when buds form. After your cactus finishes blooming, give it a cooler rest period and less water for two months.  

And yes, Christmas cactus has many cousins including Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus, all named for the times they bloom. Mine never consulted calendars and bloomed as they liked. 

How can you tell which cactus you have? Easter and Thanksgiving cactus have pointed edges on their leaves while Christmas cactus leaves have more rounded scalloped edges. 

Thankfully, Christmas cacti are a snap to propagate, so they are easy to share.  Just break off a stem at a joint, slip into well-drained soil and keep the soil moist. It will root in a few weeks. 

I love a good story, and these plants have several. My favorite is a Brazilian legend that tells of a poor boy in the jungle who prays repeatedly for a sign of Christmas. One day he awakes surrounded by colorful flowers on the tips of cactus. And so the cactus became a symbol of answered prayers. 

So Christmas cacti are a symbol of hope. With their long lives, colorful blooms, ease of care, and sharing, they make wonderful gifts for friends, family, and your very own green thumb. 

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

Q&A: What’s causing a line of holes on my tree trunk?

Q: A couple of my mature trees have developed holes in their bark over the years. Interestingly, they’re in a fairly even pattern, running up and down or horizontally across the trunk. Do you know what’s causing it and should I take any action?

A: This sounds like damage from a woodpecker, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The evenness of their drilling pattern is characteristic of this species. They spend the winter in Maryland but breed further north in the summer (and in westernmost MD). Although a tree might eventually succumb to heavy damage, often their pecking causes no serious dieback.

yellow-bellied sap sucker bird on a tree trunk
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Photo: Pixabay

They create small circular pits or larger rectangular patch “wells” in the bark to access the sugary sap flow. Insects attracted to the oozing sap are also eaten. They favor forest-edge habitat, plentiful in suburbia, where there tend to be faster-growing young trees. Hundreds of tree and shrub species can be used, but birds prefer those with high sugar content in the sap or those that are ailing or already wounded from prior pest, disease, lightning, or storm damage (and possibly excessive pruning).

sapsucker holes in a tree trunk
Photo: University of Maryland Extension

You may be surprised to learn who else takes advantage of sapsucker activity. Northbound migrants of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds depend on these sap wells as an early source of nourishment before spring blooms are available. Porcupines (Western MD) and bats also utilize them, plus squirrels and several other bird species. Their chiseling, while perhaps inconvenient to us, is therefore invaluable to forest biodiversity. You can learn more about sapsuckers in Cornell’s All About Birds web database.

If you don’t appreciate their drilling on your garden plants, well…there’s little you can do. As a migratory, nongame bird, they’re protected from harm by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You could exclude them by caging tree trunks that are being targeted, but this will simply force the birds to choose additional hosts in the area. Plus, it would be difficult to mount and secure such a barrier around a section of trunk with multiple branches. Don’t treat the trunk wounds with any sort of sealant, as that may hinder any healing that does occur. If any branches die back, just trim them off.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun. Read additional articles by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.