Order seed, bulb and nursery catalogs to assist in planning your garden for the new year. To help you choose the best plants, take advantage of the Chicago Botanic Garden's online resource, Illinois' Best Plants (find the link on the left-hand side of chicagobaotanic.org/plantinfo). Also, connect with the Garden's Plant Information Service, Lenhardt Library and the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Consider reusing your natural Christmas decorations for garden and perennial beds by recycling Christmas tree branches (cut into 2- to 3-foot sections), swags, wreaths and other evergreen material such as mulch. It is best to remove unnatural items such as tinsel and wire before placing greens in the garden. Lightweight, open evergreens permit moisture to reach the soil, and help insulate the roots and crowns of plants from the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle of Midwest winters. The greens can also be arranged in containers for winter interest. Another use for your holiday tree is to place it in the garden and decorate it with bird seed and suet ornaments for winter birds.
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It is important to protect houseplants from cold temperatures when purchasing them in the winter. Most garden centers will wrap plants to protect them, but if they don't, be sure to ask them to wrap the plants for you. Wrapping the plants also protects them from breaking during transportation. Be sure they are placed in a stable location on the way home. The car should be warm, especially if outdoor temperatures are below freezing. Plants should never be transported in a cold trunk or allowed to sit in a cold car for any length of time. To unwrap the plant at home, it is best to set it on a stable surface and carefully tear or cut the wrapper from the bottom up. Do not attempt to pull the wrapper off the plant as you risk breaking stems, flowers and leaves. Plants should stay within their wrappings for no more than 24 hours. If you cannot remove the entire wrapping right away, open the top to allow the plant to get air.
• Tim Johnson is director of horticulture at Chicago Botanic Garden, chicagobotanic.org.