Many of you have seen those rosemary plants pruned into perfectly shaped miniature Christmas trees and wondered whether you could keep them alive for long. (Many MORE of you have probably seen them, but didn't realize they were that aromatic herb!)
I've learned to keep my eye out for these things at supermarkets and nurseries around the holidays. Several local garden centers have carried them sporadically, but the "Whole Foods/Fresh Fields" natural supermarket chain has been a reliable source for close to a decade now—and at about ten bucks for a foot high tree, it's quite the deal. (You'd expect to pay a lot more than ten bucks just for this much cut rosemary alone!)
I bought a pair of the 'trees' to put on display a couple of weeks ago, and will probably buy several more to give away as gifts. Whether you give yours away or keep them, you can get triple duty from that little tree:
- A beautiful living decoration,
- Lots of fresh rosemary for cooking or mental stimulation (more on that in a little bit), and then
- A huge plant to plop into your garden.
Now, my first experience with one of these trees was not good. It dried out quickly, no matter how often I watered or misted; and the conflicting 'directions' that came with it were no help at all. But when I pulled out the dead plant to salvage the pot I saw the cause of its demise; the root ball of this thing was enormous! The growers must whittle down huge plants to make these perfectly conical trees, and the pots they're shipped in wind up containing all root and little dirt.
So as soon as you get your little trees home, pull them out of their tiny pots and replant them in containers at least twice as large, with good drainage holes. Arrange the plant so it's the same height it was in its 'puny pot', and fill in underneath and around it with a high-quality potting soil* and a handful of compost or worm castings. (A gardening friend will have these things, and will likely offer to hold your hand through the repotting.) Do NOT use your awful outdoor soil; it is death to potted plants.
Then put a couple inches of water in a sink, and sit your happily repotted herb in the water for an hour. The potting mix will suck that water up right through the drainage holes in the pot and give the plant's roots a thorough soaking. Then let it drain.
Water (ideally the same way) whenever the pot starts to feel light again; this could be once a week or several times a week, depending on your indoor humidity. Don't try to do this on a timetable or by watering when just the surface of the soil is dry. (Rosemary does not like to dry out, but sopping wet feet will kill it.) Go by weight; the pot will feel heavy after a watering and very light when it needs another. You can use a saucer underneath the pot to keep the table clean, but don't let water sit in that saucer! If you like, you can also give it a gentle misting every once in a while, especially if it's in a spot with good air circulation.
If you have cute little ornaments, go ahead and decorate your tree for the holidays if you like. Or just leave it a' natural; they look great that way. If your goal includes after-holiday survival (and it should, if at all possible), give it bright light during the day.
After the holidays, you can plop it into the ground right away if you're South of the Washington, DC area. A true Mediterranean herb, rosemary is reliably hardy in zone 8 and warmer, pretty hardy in zone 7 (especially in a sheltered area), and will die like a dog in zone 6 unless you live in the heat sink of a big city.
I leave my 'trees' out on the dining room table for the holidays and then move them under lights and into sunny windows, harvesting the occasional sprig until I can plant them outdoors in the Spring. You would pay a FORTUNE for a plant this size at a nursery or garden center in the Spring—if you could even find one. So if you get one of these trees for the holidays, I really urge you to try and nurture it thru to May.
I've gotten pretty good at this—the last couple year's trees have all survived and are now safely back indoors in pots under lights; they don't look like Christmas trees any more, but they're huge, and produce lots of the 'herb of remembrance.'
…Which brings us back to mental stimulation. As Dr. Jim Duke, retired USDA researcher and best-selling author ("The Green Pharmacy"; Rodale books), has oft explained on our show, rosemary lives up to its reputation. Inhaling that distinctive aroma has very positive effects on memory and alertness, and may even help stave off dementia. So if all you do is keep it alive for a few weeks and rustle it up and inhale deeply every day, you'll get your money's worth.
And with a little work, luck, and love, maybe lots more than that.
Harvest your Holiday Greens
Every Fall, I yell at you not to prune, because pruning stimulates growth, and you don't want to do that when your plants are trying to go dormant. But once they ARE dormant, you can prune away! Winter is the perfect time, for instance, to open up the canopy of big trees to let in more light and to prune fruit trees for shape and air circulation.
It's also the perfect time to harvest wayward branches of evergreens and hollies for holiday decorations. I do this every December, trimming some of the lowest branches on my biggest evergreens. And this year I have a two-year old blue holly that I can take a few branches from. And hey—a couple of my old rosemary 'trees' are big enough to harvest a nice amount of greens from!
Use thin wire to wrap your prunings around a metal or plastic circle to make a nice wreath. (Or use one of those circular grape vines as a base; heck you could 'harvest' some big invasive vines like wild grape to make your circle and do a good deed!)
If you don't have any circular forms, make a swag instead. Arrange some evergreen branches lengthwise in a fan shape and then place a couple holly branches—or winterberry or Pyracantha (aka "Firethorn") or any other plant with lots of colorful berries—overtop. Secure it all with wire and then top it off with a bow or a couple of extra Christmas tree ornaments.
And if you're short on cash, but have lots of evergreens and plants with colorful winter berries, you can create all the fabulous, wonderfully personal gifts you need in a single afternoon.
And get all your pruning done before Spring!