Home & Garden

Time to evaluate the Christmas landscape

More people have been asking for outdoor nativity scenes lately at Brady Nursery, Cathy Brady says.

She's been ordering more to meet the demand, and has noticed that the quality of the features on the faces and in the clothing of the pieces has improved over time. The creche figures are made of colorful resin, not the white, weather-taking, glowing plastic figures of old.

While the faces can make or break a good nativity scene _ especially indoors, where they're seen up-close _ I find myself gravitating to nature elements as well: a lighted yellow star, if there is one, and straw, and a good manger. And I always love to see palm trees setting the scene. They blow a fresh breeze through my soul, countering winter.

Those natural elements made me think to ask Cathy about ways to incorporate an outdoor creche into the landscape so it looks at home. She said one customer a couple of years ago came in asking for such help. This lady planned to put a creche in the center of her cul-de-sac, where a tree and some shrubs were planted. The woman had the nursery plant some short mugo pines so that she could nestle the creche in the midst of them.

I like to nestle myself into the vicinity of as many real pine and fir trees as possible this time of year. The fragrance of a balsam fir already pervades my house. Despite my railing against early Christmas, I'm part of the problem this year. Except, as my sister says, Christmas goes by too fast, so why not enjoy it as long as possible? (My argument is that it should extend forward from Dec. 25, not backward to Halloween.)

Balsam firs are supposed to be the most fragrant of the Christmas trees, and I'm trying one this year to find out. I usually get a Charlie-Brown Douglas fir, but I get tired of the willowy branches not being able to hold half my ornaments, and the garland stretching far between tiers of branches.

Fraser fir is still the most popular type of Christmas tree at Brady Nursery, and at most Christmas tree lots I talked to. It's very similar to the balsam, except it's more expensive.

"It holds up real well, and has nice short thick needles," Cathy says.

She says it's funny how the trends swing back and forth between years when people want big trees and years when the demand for them is down. This year she's already had calls for big wreaths — as big as 60 inches.

Another trend that goes back and forth is the living Christmas tree. These are living spruces and pines that stay potted, coming indoors for a few days at Christmas and going back outdoors and into the ground afterward. The living trees come in a variety of sizes, including in 1- and 2-gallon pots that can be used as a centerpiece for an event then given as a gift or planted, Cathy says.

Another real tree that can be used as a Christmas tree or centerpiece and then kept as a houseplant is the Norfolk pine. Potted, they can range in size from 6 to 8 inches tall to 4 1/2 feet tall, Cathy says.

Hillside Nursery is one place that has a different "most popular tree" than the Fraser. Hillside's signature Christmas tree is the concolor fir, hailing from New Mexico. The needles are narrow and light-colored from bluish-green to dull green, and they are notched at the tips. The branches are not closely spaced, so are good for large ornaments. The concolor also has good needle retention.

My Christmas tree-buying experiences have ranged from nostalgic trips to tree lots to shopping fragrant tunnels at garden centers to cutting down a tree in the snow at a Christmas tree farm. The latter is my all-time favorite, but it's not always possible to find the perfectly timed Saturday before Christmas that also has a snowfall. That's OK. The farm is always special, snow or no snow.

One of the many heart-warming stories to come out of Christmas tree farms is the Trees for Troops program that many Kansas farms contribute to. This year, 100 Kansas trees will be loaded on a FedEx truck at 4C Tree Farm, about a half mile south of Pawnee on Greenwich. After a send-off from the Freedom Riders and Santa at 10 a.m. Monday, the truck will head off to make a couple more stops on its way to an Air Force base and donation of the trees to troops and their families.

"It's our way of helping out the troops, and it's been quite successful," 4C owner Willie Goevert told me.

"We've had a good growing year," Willie said, "and the trees are looking good. We're ready to go."

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