Check the garden

for heaving, when recently planted perennials seem to rise out of the ground. It's a phenomenon of the freeze-thaw cycle, and the saturated ground followed by last week's hard freeze constituted classic conditions. When the ground has thawed, gently press the plant back into position.

Finalize the implementation scheme for a living Christmas tree. Hole: 24 inches deep, covered to keep water out. Soil: stored where it won't freeze. The tree should remain inside as short a time as you can bear, five to seven days maximum. Keep it in a cool garage or porch until the last minute. Two to four strong people will be needed to maneuver it. Place as far from heaters as possible and keep the thermostat low. Don't let root ball dry out.

Do the right thing for flowering gifts. Heating vents and south-facing windows are better for people than plants - aim for strong indirect light and lower nighttime temperatures. Cyclamen prefers high humidity and 60 to 65 degrees during the day.

Remember that poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima, botanically speaking) hate cold, even the short trip from florist to automobile. Give these natives of Mexico abundant indirect light and keep away from radiators or other heat sources. Ideal temperatures are 70 in the day, 64 at night. Keep the soil evenly moist.

Have a friend check on houseplants if you'll be away for a while. (Tell novices not to over-water.) For a long absence, group plants, place a full bucket of water in their midst, and fashion a tent of clear plastic over and around them to raise humidity. If there's enough light in the bathroom, a bathtub is ideal; otherwise be aware that condensation may run down the plastic to the floor.

Put cut holly and other greenery in water promptly and leave for several hours (or overnight) before decorating. Leafless stems of cork-wing euonymus (burning bush) and twisting vines can be used dry.

Make plans to mark the solstice, when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted its farthest from the sun and, according to some traditions, spooky things may take place: Monday, 12:47 p.m. Not exactly a riveting moment, especially if it's inclement. But soon, hallelujah, we'll be able to perceive the lengthening of the days, which augur the return of spring, even if it does take three nippy months to arrive.

- Michael Martin Mills

Next week, answers to gardening questions. Write to Michael Martin Mills, The Inquirer, Box 41705, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101 or gardenqanda@earthlink.net. Please include locale. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.

com/michaelmartinmills.