The Gardener’s Christmas Tree
By Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Debbie MacCrea
We’ve all wished each other a very Merry Christmas; if you’re like me, you’ve spent more than you should have on gifts (but enjoyed doing so for all the smiles received); family and friends have gathered and feasted and toasted in a New Year; and now your holiday is winding down.
Before you dispose of your lovely Christmas tree, consider giving it a second life. Aren’t we all striving to recycle and upcycle in more and more facets of our busy lives? Here’s another useful option:
Your perennial flowers can benefit in many ways from the protection your evergreen boughs will offer.
No doubt you’ve read about, and maybe already practice a method of mulching before winter? Why spend yet more money on garden-center mulch when a perfect, and perfectly-timed, option is literally on your doorstep? A commonly made mistake in gardener’s mulching routines is to apply winter’s mulch too early in the season. In order to allow your perennials their natural cold season acclimation process, the surrounding soil must chill down and freeze at a gradual rate- at the season’s natural pace. Applying protective mulch before this has occurred may seem like a good thing- you’re keeping the soil warmer, therefore your plant will be happier- right? Not so. Perennials which are genetically suited to our Southern Tier NY climate (USDA Hardiness Zone 5a) need their winter’s rest as critically as their more “productive” summer season. Adding a soil-warming mulch too early in the fall-to-winter season is like bundling a child in his heaviest winter clothes to go out and play on a brisk October day. What will he do when January’s blizzard comes? (Stay indoors, you say!)
Back to our Christmas tree…before you consider putting your undecorated tree (poor naked thing!) out on the curb for the trash men to collect- try this. Cut off ALL the branches- from the top to the bottom; load them in your wheelbarrow and cruise around your landscape looking for perennials in need of a cozy shelter from winter’s worst.
Ideally, by post-Christmas, the ground will be at least semi-frozen. Plants will have had their season of acclimatizing. You’ve done your autumn garden clean up, so that most perennials have been cut down to their crowns or to 4-6” stem stumps. Laying a bough or 2 of evergreen loosely atop each plant will offer ideal protection for many perennials- both the tough and the tender ones.
For those which are shallow-rooted (Heucheras or “Coralbells” are a classic example) and therefore susceptible to being heaved up out of the soil with the freeze/thaw cycles of winter and spring, this mulching practice moderates those changes, stabilizing the soil, and saving the plant from the desiccating effects of winter’s brutal wind and cold.
For plants that “don’t like wet feet in winter” (iris, lavender, any and all “alpines” or rock garden plants)- an evergreen bough mulch creates an ideal microclimate- suspending excess snow and ice above the plants beneath and allowing melt off to flow away without drowning the plant’s fragile roots.
Any plant that comes with the instruction: “protect from cold drying winter winds” will LOVE you for erecting a protective little wiki-up of evergreen boughs in its defense (think of your youthful camping ventures- when roughing it really meant just that!)
Are you inclined to want to cheat your comfortable USDA Hardiness Zone? Although we’re (most of us) now a strong Zone 5a, merely 5-10 years age, Zone 4 was the best we could hope for. Are we content? No- let’s try a Zone 6 plant…maybe the prickly but stunningly, sculpturally beautiful Acanthus spinosa (poetically known as “Bear’s Breeches”- ouch!) Given a little protection over winter (just what Santa’s worn out old Christmas tree wants to be!) and the right microclimate—MAYBE it’ll thrive and I’ll be the envy of all the prickly plant lovers on the block- right?
So- you get the picture. There are oh-so-many uses for those evergreen boughs. Place them gently, one or two layers deep atop your perennials and know they’ll be comfortable hibernating while you stew through a bad case of cabin fever, awaiting spring’s blossoms.
One last word- don’t be too quick to remove them with the first sunny spell in March or April. Springtime weather being the capricious flirt that she is- we know she’s just being coy- promises, promises! When old man winter returns with a final roar, your poor plants would be shivering with bare shoulders. If you’ve moved the boughs just a little (not a bad thing- give the plant a WEE peek of sunshine), it won’t be hard to tuck them back in against winter’s last blast. Pull away your protective coverings in stages- not unlike the way warm weather arrives. When you gather it up that final time- throw it all on your newest compost pile, where the coarse material will aerate the bottom of a growing pile. Or, if you’re the kind of gardener who turns your compost frequently, it will provide aeration within the entire pile, and will break down more quickly than in the sedentary pile.
Now that Christmas tree sure did its duty in more ways than one…..bringing cheer and festivity with its arrival in your home, protection to your perennial landscape through winter’s fluctuating weather, and now promising re-use as it decomposes into humus for a future healthy garden. Not bad! Oh- and it provided a cash crop for a local farmer at the start of the cycle!