Feeding Birds and other December Gardening Tips

Proper placement of bird feeders, buying holiday garden gifts, and caring for poinsettias and Christmas cactus are some of the gardening activities for this month.

To encourage birds to visit your garden this winter, set out feeders near evergreen trees or shrubs so birds have cover while they feed. If you have bird-chasing cats, or if raiding squirrels are a problem, hang the feeders higher off the ground and away from trees and structures. It’s best not to hang feeders in the trees, as this can allow birds to become easy prey to cats and other animals. If feeders are on poles, consider adding a cone or “torpedo” baffle to keep squirrels and chipmunks from climbing them.

You can find amaryllis bulbs in “kits” with all the ingredients needed for potting, or buy ones already potted. These you can keep for many years and get to rebloom each winter. You also may see “waxed” amaryllis bulbs, covered with a red, gold or silver wax coating. These don’t need potting, just set bulbs on a stand and watch them grow and bloom in four to six weeks. They are a good example of bulbs having the nutrients and moisture already inside to grow and bloom. Due to this coating, and the fact plants form no roots, they provide a one-time show and can’t be saved or potted for future blooms.

When shopping for poinsettias, look for ones with leaves to the bottom of the plants that are a healthy green. For longest life, choose a plant with the flowers not yet open–these are the rather inconspicuous yellow lumps at the center of the brightly colored bracts (actually these colored parts are modified leaves). Visit a greenhouse to be awed by masses in bloom, and to find some of the latest varieties such as with marbled or spotted bracts, or new colors such as orange, or even those painted colors such as blue and with glitter. Make sure to keep the plant covered and out of cold on the way home, and away from drafts once home, as poinsettias are quite sensitive to cold.

The Christmas cactus is another popular holiday plant that you will find in greenhouses and many stores this time of year. It is very similar to the Thanksgiving and Easter cacti, with flattened green leaf segments rather than thorns as you usually think of with cactus. In fact these originally come from the shady and humid coastal mountains of southeastern Brazil, not from the desert. Flowers come in many colors—white, pink, red, orange and purple—and have an unusual shape. Flowers are rather tubular and elongated, and look like a flower within a flower.

The Christmas cactus responds well to the shorter days of fall, and cool temperatures. It usually will bloom year after year if kept at 50 degrees for several weeks each fall. Starting about mid-September, gradually reduce watering until buds set. Then keep soil constantly moist (but not waterlogged). If in doubt, don’t water. They can tolerate being too dry much better than being too wet. Buy one with many buds not yet opened for the longest bloom time.

Other gardening tips for this month include shopping for gardening gifts for the holidays, making sure foil on pots of holiday plants has holes for drainage into saucers, visiting a Christmas tree farm to cut a tree or just buy greens for decorating, using plant-safe deicing products on walks and drives, and keeping birds fed and heated bird baths cleaned and filled.

12/17
Leonard Perry, UVM Horticulturist
and Charlie Nardozzi, Garden Consultant

Charlie Nardozzi is a nationally known horticulturist, author, gardening consultant, and garden coach (CharlieNardozzi.com). Distribution of this release is made possible by University of Vermont and Green Works—the Vermont Nursery and Landscape Association.