December brings family and friends together to celebrate the holidays. Ensure you have a safe season by taking a few precautions before your guests arrive.
For starters, take care with holiday decorations, mainly if your guest list includes young children or pets. Although poinsettias have proven not to be poisonous, they may cause internal upset if ingested. Contact with the sap may result in a skin rash. Other Yuletide plants like holly and mistletoe have toxic properties; however, consumption can lead to mild to acute stomach and intestinal disorders, so place these out of reach.
If you have a Christmas tree, anchor it to something sturdy like the wall or moldings with screw hooks and wire or fishing line to prevent disaster should a frightened cat or curious child attempt to climb it. Use a stand with a flat, broad base for extra stability. Hang favorite ornaments and breakables near the top of the tree, along with dried flowers, pinecones, and wood ornaments that dogs and toddlers might find appealing.
A fresh tree can drink up to a quart of water a day–often more the first few days–so be sure to keep the stand filled to prevent the tree from drying out. Adding a tree preservative to the water will help. Place your tree away from heat sources like fireplaces and radiators, and make sure light cords aren’t cracked or frayed, a safety hazard.
If you ordered a floral centerpiece or received one from a thoughtful guest, add water as soon as it arrives. The florist foam that holds the flowers in place must be kept very wet, or it will draw moisture from the flowers and hasten wilting.
Don’t just feel the foam block. Check the water level in the container, too. If possible, submerge the container and foam block in a sink full of water for an hour or so to get it thoroughly wet, if not already so. Then, check the water level daily and add water as needed.
If you receive cut flowers, use a sharp knife to recut the stems for better water absorption. Place the flowers into a container of 100-degree F water for 30 minutes. This is particularly important for roses, which may not open fully without this warm water treatment. (The water won’t stay at this temperature, of course, but the initial boost of warm water will help the flowers open.)
Arrange the flowers in a vase of cool water with a floral preservative. To extend the life of the flowers, add fresh water to the vase daily as needed and change the water every three days, recutting the stems as before. Place the arrangement in an excellent spot at night.
Outdoors, keep your walkways safe from visitors using kitty litter, sand, or environmentally safe salt to melt ice and early-season snows. Place wooden teepees over shrubs and other foundation plantings to prevent snow from falling off the roof and crushing these plants.
Are you going away for the holidays? If you can’t find a plant sitter, check your local garden center for an auto-watering device to provide water while away. These also are available online and through mail order.
Other activities for December: plant a windowsill herb garden; start a worm farm with your kids to help turn kitchen scraps into compost; sign up for the Vermont Extension Master Gardener training course, which begins in February (802-656-9562 or e-mail: master.gardener@ uvm.edu).
By Dr. Leonard Perry
Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Crops Specialist
University of Vermont