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Keep Norfolk Island pine after Christmas

Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. Would loropetalum be good to plant right in front or my house? Or is it best as a hedge?

    A. Most kinds of loropetalum, a popular flowering shrub, work best as a loose, informal hedge because they tend to grow vigorously to 5 or 6 feet, and some even taller. This is where the airy look of their foliage shows off to best advantage. If you have a very tall house, a loropetalum could look good on a corner of the building. A few loropetalums, such as Suzanne, grow in a shorter, more compact form, to about 3 or 4 feet tall and wide. If you yearn to put one near the foundation, look for this or another short form. Make sure you have space for it to reach mature size without blocking windows so that you don’t have to constantly trim it and reduce its flowering potential.

Every December, more and more pots of Norfolk Island pine trees show up in grocery stores and garden and home centers. While they are sold all year, their abundance in December tells you something about their role at this time of year.

They make fine indoor Christmas trees, suited for strings of small lights, garlands, bows and lots of glass ornaments. Short ones, 2 to 3 feet tall, sit on tabletops or buffets; the larger ones will take up a corner.

Whether bought to keep or give as a decorated tree, the Norfolk Island pine is not a plant to cast off after Christmas. Indeed, it is a worthy houseplant year-round, even without the sparkle and glitter.

It is possible that some buyers of these pretty plants, with their layers of branches and deep green needles, mistake it for a hardy plant capable of living outdoors in the Piedmont. It is not. The pine is native to a tropical island in the South Pacific named of course, Norfolk Island. There, grown outdoors in a warm climate, it gets very big.

Fortunately for people here who must keep it indoors through the winter, the Norfolk Island pine adapts well.

Do not pitch it like a Fraser fir or white pine once it is time for the decorations to come off. A sunny window and regular watering should keep it in good form.

Many people keep theirs indoors all year; others put them on a shady porch for the warm months. That will give the little tree a lift and even encourage a spurt of growth. But don’t expect it to hit the ceiling any year soon. It grows very slowly in a pot. Down on Norfolk Island and elsewhere in the tropical world, the pine can eventually reach 50 feet or more in those warm, sunny climes. That will never happen in your house. You might get 6 feet someday.

Correct watering is essential. Since they are likely to be sitting on your furniture, care is required to keep water from seeping onto the wood or paint. Use a pot sleeve with a plastic liner to hold the root ball, or place it in a tray that will catch any water that seeps through. Water when the soil dries, judged by sticking a finger into the top inch or so of the dirt. When it feels dry, water, take care not to let the root ball stand in water left in the pot sleeve or saucer.

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