Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells

Did you notice how time became almost irrelevant in 1998, or do we all experience the time continuum very differently? For me, the natural progression of events accelerated and holidays schmooshed together. Here’s Christmas knocking at the door and our holiday cocktail party that was LIGHT YEARS away has been beamed up, Scottie, and is a few DAYS away.

So! How do we handle this? With a deep-freeze. If you invited 40 but maybe 60 will land on your pad, way ahead make nibbles for 60 and freeze them. If a galactic storm vaporizes half the guests, the frozen left overs will be real handy for impromptu holiday fly-bys.

Here are some fun new recipes for a crowd you can make and freeze — guaranteed to leave you and your guests beaming (!) in whatever direction you choose to go. Ahhhhh, relax, smell the Holiday Cheer recipe that follows and let’s party!

Ben Green’s “Holiday Cheer”
Serves 4-5

Ben Green and his wife, Francesca are a pair of playful holiday revelers who really know how to get into the holiday spirit. Ben dons his Santa hat and greets friends at the door with a steaming mug of his easy-as-pie “Holiday Cheer” – spiced-spiked- cider (can YOU say that five times fast?) and fun begins.

1/2 gallon good apple cider
4-5 cinnamon sticks cinnamon sticks
Good – quality dark rum or apple brandy

In a large pot over medium-low heat, simmer the cider and cinnamon sticks for about 20 minutes. Pour one-part rum to five-parts hot spiced cider into a mug. Add one of the cinnamon sticks and serve hot.

Fast Festive Sundried Tomato & Basil Roll-Ups
makes approximately 90-100 pieces

These little numbers require patience for the first one, and the rest are a snap. If the roll-up doesn’t stay together, spread a bit more of the cheese mixture on the edge of the tortilla. The combination of white, green and red are as smashing as the rich earthy flavors.

1 10-count package 8-inch flour tortillas (at room temperature)
1 8-oz package cream cheese (at room temperature)
2 tablespoons fresh goat cheese (without ash)
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, shredded
1 7-ounce jar sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained and minced

In a food processor, puree the cheeses until smooth and well combined – about 1 minute on high. Lay one of the tortillas flat. Spread a thin layer of the cheese mixture on one side all the way to the edges. Sprinkle some of the sun-dried tomatoes and the shredded basil over the cheese. Leave one edge of the tortilla plain–so that just the cheese shows. Gently roll the tortilla into a tight roll, working toward the edge with only cheese on it. The just-cheese edge “glues” it together. If you are using these freshly made, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 2 days. Before serving, remove the plastic and using a very sharp knife, cut the roll into thin 1/8 inch diagonal slices and arrange on a platter. To freeze, seal the plastic covered rolls into freezer bags and freeze. Defrost are room temperature for approximately 2 hours and slice as directed above.

Roast Beef & Spinach Roll-Ups
makes 90-100 pieces

Here’s a variation of the Sundried Tomato & Basil Wrap. This one combines cheese, roast beef and spinach. You can substitute turkey for the beef. These don’t hang around for long!

1 10-count package 8inch flour tortillas (at room temperature)
1 8-oz package cream cheese (at room temperature)
2 tablespoons fresh goat cheese (without ash)
1/2 teaspoon powdered garlic
Salt & pepper to taste
1 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and wrung absolutely dry
1/2 pound paper-thin slices of rare roast beef or turkey

In a food processor, puree the cheeses, garlic salt & pepper until smooth and well combined (about 1 minute on high). Lay one of the tortillas flat. Spread a thin layer of the cheese mixture on one side; be sure to spread it all the way to the edges. Sprinkle some of spinach over the cheese. Place a single layer of roast beef (or turkey) over the spinach. Leave one half of the tortillas’ edge plain–so that just the cheese shows. Proceed as directed above in the Sundried Tomato & Basil Roll-Ups above.

Cheese-Olive Puffs
makes 30-40 pieces

This is a family stand-by that I always keep in my freezer, ready to go for any occasion.

1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup butter at room temperature
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 15-ounce bottle of small stuffed green olives (30-40 count) drained and wiped dry In a food processor combine the first five ingredients until it forms a ball of dough. Pinch off a small piece of the dough, (about 1 teaspoon) and flatten it in your hand. Place an olive in the center and gently press the side of the dough around it. Roll gently between your hands until it has formed a smooth little ball with no part of the olive showing. Continue until all the olives are covered and seal them into a freezer bag and keep frozen until ready to use. To serve: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.. Place the frozen olive puffs on a non-stick cookie sheet about 1 inch apart. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve hot. (If baking fresh instead of frozen puffs, 15 minutes should be enough)


Why are our favorite plants often the most difficult to grow well? Do we just need the challenge? Or, do we gardeners have some psychological need to always struggle? For whatever reason, I really like gardenias as a houseplant, and of course gardenias are one of the more difficult houseplants to grow properly. Let’s see if we can understand what these attractive and fragrant plants need, and how we can try and provide it.

Sun, Sun, and More Sun
The first requirement in growing and flowering a potted gardenia is sun. These plants really want and need a very sunny, bright growing location. You can’t grow them well when they’re sitting 20 feet from the window. During the cold months of the year they need to sit “in” a sunny window or on a sun porch. During the warm months of the year they greatly benefit from a season outdoors, again in the sun.

Potting Soil, Second Key Ingredient
The potting soil for your gardenia needs to be well drained and acidic. Potting soils bought at the local garden center or plant store rarely meet these requirements. If you want the absolutely based potting soil mix for a gardenia here’s your recipe:

You can buy fine pine bark bagged for use as mulch. Make sure the pieces of bark are small, dime size is best. Perlite and sphagnum peat moss are available from most garden stores. Blend these three ingredients together and you’ll have your well drained, acidic gardenia soil mix.

Water and Feed Often
Once potted in our special potting mix don’t allow your gardenia to dry out or starve. Check the soil weekly and when dry to the touch water thoroughly using a diluted, water-soluble fertilizer. Mix the fertilizer at one quarter the recommended strength and use at every watering. Any of the commercial water-soluble fertilizers are fine.

Keep Cool in Winter
This might be the hardest requirement to meet but gardenias respond best to cool, not freezing, temperatures in the winter. This is the reason plants on sun porches or in unheated rooms do so well. They like their winter night temperatures dropping into the fifties if at all possible. If you can’t provide this, don’t despair, do the best you can with the temperature and see what happens. Give me a call and let me know when the first flowers open.

Live Christmas Trees

Planting a living Christmas tree can be a wonderful family tradition as well as a great way to improve your home landscape. What you don’t want is to spend a lot of money on a living Christmas tree and then have it die soon after planting, or have to cut it down because it has grown too large for its location.

Does Your Landscape Need A Large Evergreen Tree?
Before you buy a live Christmas tree, you should make sure you have space in the landscape for it. Most trees used as Christmas trees eventually get big, often more than 50 feet tall and 20 feet wide. These are not trees to plant 10 feet from the house, or right next to the driveway. If you have a small yard and still would like to have a living Christmas tree, explore the possibility of donating the tree to a local school or church for their landscape.

About a month before the holiday period, visit your local nursery or garden center and inquire as to the types of evergreens available as living Christmas trees. Decide which type of evergreen would be best for your location and your landscape.

Select Location and Dig Hole First
Well before it’s time to plant your living Christmas tree, locate the spot in the yard where it will be planted, and dig the planting hole. If you wait until the day of planting to dig the hole, you may find yourself faced with frozen or wet soil. With a living Christmas tree you can’t afford the luxury of waiting until the weather is better, you have to get the tree out of the house and into the ground quickly.

The planting hole should be at least 24 inches in diameter and approximately 15 inches deep. You may have to make the hole larger if the root system of the tree needs more room. The hole can be covered with a board until the planting day. If the soil is heavy, with lots of clay, mix in a liberal amount of organic matter, such as compost, leafmold, or peat moss. The additive should be mixed with the existing soil in a three to one ratio, three parts original soil and one part additive. If the soil is relatively easy to dig and not compacted, it’s best not to add any additives to the soil.

Buying the Tree
As soon as you get your new living Christmas tree home, check the soil ball and make sure the soil is moist; if it’s not, place the root ball in a tub or large container that has several inches of warm water in the bottom and allow the root ball to soak up water for an hour or two. Until you’re ready to bring the tree into the house, keep it in a cool, shady, windless location.

Using an Anti-transparent
One smart method of preventing the needles of your living Christmas tree from drying out too rapidly is the use of an anti-transparent spray. Ask your local garden center for an anti-transparent product and follow the label directions for spraying your new living Christmas tree. The anti-transparent will retard the evaporation of moisture from the tree’s needles.

Bring the Tree Indoors
The warm, dry air inside a house in winter is not a favorable environment for an evergreen tree. There is a danger that the warmth of the house will stimulate the tree to start growing and make it unable to withstand the cold when it goes outside. Therefore, once you bring the tree inside, don’t place it in a location near a heat source, such as a radiator, fire place or heat duct. Also, limit the time the tree is in the house, no more than 7 days. If the temperature in the house is greater than 70 degrees F., reduced the time the tree is indoors to only 5 days.

During the trees stay indoors, check the condition of the soil in the root ball and make sure it stays moist. If the soil begins to dry out carefully pour several cups of warm water on the top surface of the root ball.

Planting the Tree
As soon as you remove the decorations from the tree, move the tree outside and plant it. -If the weather conditions, such as a heavy rain or snow, do not allow planting, take the tree outside and place it in a shaded location protected from the wind. As soon as possible, place the tree in the prepared planting hole, making sure the top of the root ball is even with, or slightly above, the top of the planting hole. Position the tree in the most favorable orientation and begin filling the planting hole with the prepared soil. When the planting hole is half full, loosen the burlap from around the root ball and fold it down so it is below ground level. Finish filling the planting hole with soil.

If your living Christmas tree is potted, rather than a ball and burlap tree, carefully remove the pot. If the roots are in a tight mass on the outside of the rootball, use a knife and cut or pry some of the roots loose so that they will grow out into the soil rather than continue growing in a pot-Eke configuration. Place the root ball into the planting hole so that the top of the root ball is equal with, or slightly higher than, the top of the hole.

After the planting hole is filled with soil, pack it firmly around the root ball with your feet. Using the remainder of the loose, prepared soil, build a small dike 3 to 4 inches high around the outer edges of the planting hole. This will help in keeping the newly planted tree watered. Add 3 to 5 gallons of water within the dike area and allow it to soak into the soil.

Post Planting Care
Mulch the area under the tree with pine bark, shredded hardwood, or another type of mulching material. During the remainder of winter and into the upcoming spring and summer, check the soil condition beneath the tree weekly and water well if the soil begins to dry out.

If your newly planted, living Christmas tree is located in an open location and subject to drying, winter winds, it is beneficial to erect a temporary windscreen around the tree. Burlap or heavy plastic, supported by a series of stakes, can be placed near the tree to lessen the impact of the wind.

The Best Types of Live Christmas Trees for Your Yard
The best, most adaptable needled evergreens for use as a five Christmas tree and later planting into the home landscape are the pines and the spruces. In general the firs are less successful in our area as landscape trees. Balsam firs in particular have problems with our hot summer weather. Remember, give all of these needled evergreens plenty of landscape space, most mature into LARGE trees.

Cut Christmas Trees

A decorated evergreen tree can be a wonderful addition to the house during the holiday season, but when not properly selected and maintained it can also represent a potential fire hazard. You can have a beautiful and safe holiday tree if you follow a few simple suggestions.

Start Fresh
You can’t turn a dry tree into a fresh tree, so it’s important to start with a fresh tree. Most cut Christmas trees are harvested several weeks before they’re sold and they can vary a lot in freshness depending on how they have been handled. One way to assure getting a fresh tree is to cut your own at a local tree farm. There are a number of Christmas tree farms in Maryland and with a little driving you can usually buy a tree cut that day.

The Needle Drop Test
If you buy a tree from a local lot check it for freshness. To judge freshness, do the “needle drop test.” Grasp the tree firmly by the trunk midway between the top and the bottom. Lift the tree about a foot off the ground and strike the cut trunk back into the ground. If this results in a shower of needles from the tree, look for another tree. If no, or only a few needles fall off, the tree is fresh.

Getting the Tree Home
If you have to travel a long distance when buying a cut tree, protect it from drying wind by placing it in the trunk of the car, in the back of a station wagon, or in an enclosed truck. If the tree must be tied to the top of a car, first wrap it with cloth or plastic. The wind created by a moving vehicle will cause excessive drying out of the needles.

Keep the Tree Cool, Shaded and Well Watered
Once you get the tree home, cut an inch thick section off the base of the trunk and place the tree in a container of water. This will allow water to be quickly absorbed into the tree. Sometimes cutting an inch off the trunk isn’t easy, but it is very important. A good tree-pruning saw will make this job a lot easier.

Place the tree, with its trunk in a container of water, in a cool, shaded, windless location. A garage or unheated porch is ideal.

Water, Water, Water
The key to keeping a cut Christmas tree fresh and fire safe is water. If an evergreen is full of water, there is very little fire danger. However, as soon as the tree is cut, it begins to dry out, and your job is to get water back into the tree as quickly as possible. Immediately after you get the tree home, cut off a piece of the trunk and place the tree into a container of water. The water in this container should be changed daily. Once you’re ready to bring the tree into the house for decorating, trim off another piece of the trunk and place the tree in a stand that holds water.

Keeping the Water Fresh and Clean
Within a few days, bacteria will grow in the tree stand water and will begin to block the water conducting tissue in the tree trunk. There are two methods of keeping bacteria out of the cut Christmas tree water: (1) changing the water daily, and (2) adding a small amount of disinfectant to the water. Changing the water daily works well during the time between the purchase of the tree and it is brought into the house. Once the tree is placed in its permanent tree stand, it’s usually difficult to change the water. This is where the use of a disinfectant can really help keep the water free of bacteria. The easiest disinfectant to use is household bleach. Two ounces of bleach added to a gallon of water will prevent the buildup of bacteria and allow an uninterrupted flow of water into the tree.

What About Special Water Additives?
Often you’ll find all sorts of strange things recommended to put in the tree water. Anything from soda pop to aspirins. Water is the critical ingredient in terms of keeping the cut Christmas tree fresh and fire safe. The tree stand water reservoir should never be allowed to dry out and the water should be kept free of bacteria by changing it often or the use of a bleach disinfectant. There is really no need for fertilizers, sugars, or other incidental ingredients. Don’t worry about special additives, just keep the tree in water.

Placing and Decorating the Tree
The tree should be located in the house as far as possible from heat sources, such as a radiator, fire place, or kerosene heater. Carefully check wires and connections of all lights placed on the tree. Avoid plugging too many light sets into the same electrical outlet. Keep all gift wrapping and other flammable materials from direct contact with the tree. Never plug in the tree lights unless someone will be home to keep an eye on the tree. Check the water in the tree stand reservoir daily and add more water, plus a little bleach, whenever the level is getting low.- Do not allow the water reservoir to go dry, this will allow air to get into the cut trunk and retard the future uptake of water.

REMEMBER! For a fresh, and SAFE, cut Christmas tree:
Start with a fresh tree. Protect the tree on the drive home. Cut an inch off the trunk. Place the tree in water right away.

Keep the tree in a cool, shaded location until brought inside.
Always keep water in the tree stand.