Toronto Star column – Published December 8, 2012
People often ask me if I miss the retail business, since I sold Weall and Cullen to Sheridan Nurseries nine years ago. My reply usually is that I miss the Christmas season more than anything. When customers come in to the stores this time of year, they are on a mission: they have carved time out of their busy schedule to find that special something to make the house look better or to pick up a gift for a special someone. Meeting their demands this time of year is very rewarding.
The gardening business offers a unique opportunity for customers to buy fresh air and natural fragrance in the form of green or flowering plants and an enhanced living environment with fresh cut greens. Here is a guide to the myriad of plants and greens that you will find at your local garden retailers at this time of year.
Growing faster in popularity than iPhones, everyone seems to be using fresh cut greens to create a special, customized look at the front of their home, around the fire place, and elsewhere. Here is the rundown:
White Pine. The white pine boughs and wreaths that you find at garden retailers this time of year are an excellent choice for a delicate, evergreen fragrance, and for the softness of the needles. I also like white pine for its ability to hold moisture for long periods of time. A good choice indoors and out.
Balsam and Douglas Fir. Nice fragrance, poor needle retention unless it is very fresh at the time of purchase. The short-needled balsam fir provides a nice fragrance and is not too ‘prickly’ to touch. I prefer the longer needles of the Douglas Fir. Longer foliage retention too.
Cedar. The native white cedar is still the favourite for ‘cedar rope’ and it is inexpensive. Great for framing a front doorway, especially when woven with white pine and narrow red ribbon. The ‘B.C.’ cedar is broader, a deeper green, and softer to the touch, when fresh.
Boxwood. The fresh boxwood that is used for wreaths, door swags and ‘rope’ is grown in B.C. and Washington State. There is nothing wrong with that, but run your hand over it before you buy. If leaves drop off as you move your hand over the foliage, take a pass on it. If it has good leaf retention, give it a try for a look that differs greatly from that of pine or fir.
Magnolia. If you are looking for something outrageous, this is it. The shiny, broad leaves look like something from another place, which they are. They come from Georgia, where they can grow the Southern Magnolia in abundance. A wreath or garland of magnolia will definitely get attention. The price is a bit outrageous too.
Secret: here is my secret to keeping evergreen boughs and rope looking fresh and to minimize the fire hazard. Wilt-Pruf®, an anti desiccant that is invisible and odorless is well worth the investment. It insulates the tender foliage from the drying effects of wind and winter air. Save it for use on your fresh cut Christmas tree before you bring it indoors.
Wilt-Pruf® is expensive at $20 a bottle, but well worth the investment.
The flowers of Christmas are many, but none as popular as the poinsettia. If the idea of having yet another red poinsettia in the house this Christmas sounds pedestrian and boring, try one of the new colours or colour combos. There are some fabulous white, pink, speckled pink/red [otherwise known as ‘ketchup potato chips’] and of all things yellow specimens that will brighten up your home at Christmas.
Keep poinsettias out of drafts from doors and windows, away from heating vents from your furnace, and avoid dark rooms. They really enjoy high light and it is important that you drain off the excess water after applying water to them. They hate having wet feet. At the first sign of yellowing leaves [a sure sign of stress] take the plant out of its water proof sleeve or container and let it drain until the top 2 cm of soil are dry before you water again.
Cyclamen are my favourite this time of year. They bloom forever [up to 6 months, anyway] and the new varieties are widely varied in colour and size. Whatever colour you choose it will be bright and vibrant in such a way that the room that you put it in will light up. The perfect dinner table plant.
Cyclamen like to be cool and as such are more tolerant of drafts than poinsettias are.
The giant, chunky bulb that you can buy in bulk at garden centres and the fancy packaged bulbs that you buy most anywhere have one thing in common: both feature a bulb that will produce enormous, trumpet shaped flowers. The main difference, in most cases, is that the bare naked bulb that you buy from a bin is generally much bigger. The rule of thumb is: the bigger the bulb the more impressive the performance. A 22 to 24 cm bulb [measuring the circumference] produces a nice show. A 28 or 30 cm bulb will blow your mind. The size of the bulb is listed on the side of the package or the hang tag around the bulb itself.
The beauty of amaryllis is that it is fool proof. Grandchildren? Housewarming gift? Stocking stuffer for someone who has everything? Amaryllis is always a great choice. People have so much fun with this that they often send pictures to my website to show me how happy they are with their Mark’s Choice amaryllis kits. I am always impressed.
I don’t talk about paperwhites too much because I think they stink. Personal bias aside, they are the easiest thing in the world to grow and they always bloom. Place the small bulbs in a shallow container that does not have drainage holes, with 4 or 5 cm of gravel or pebbles and fill the container with water. Place the bulbs in the container so that the ‘basal plate’ at the bottom of the bulb makes contact with the water.
Go away and leave them alone for a couple of weeks [but top up the water as needed] and they will astound and amaze you with their sure-fired growth and lily white flowers. The scent will fill a small room. The smell is a bit ‘sickly sweet’ but there are, evidently, people that like that.