Do the right thing

for flowering gifts. Heating vents, radiators and south-facing windows are better for people than plants, which need strong indirect light and lower nighttime temperatures. Cyclamen prefers high humidity and 60 to 65 degrees during the day. Keep poinsettias and amaryllis watered. Not all orchids are alike - some need warm nights. With the precise variety name in hand, consult the local library or the greenhouse that sold the plant.

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.

Treat the birds properly.

If you start feeding them with a fancy new feeder, you must continue all winter or have their emaciation on your conscience.

Enjoy the live indoor Christmas tree

while you can - it should stay inside no more than seven or eight days total. Water it daily. But don't plant immediately - give it several days in a cool garage. Plant when the temperature is above freezing, water well, and mulch. (You have already dug its hole, right?)

Get ready to scavenge

the ideal winter mulch: discarded Christmas trees. Cut the branches off the trunks and wait for a cold snap to mulch. The main purpose is to keep the soil evenly cold, to lessen the freeze-thaw effects of a yo-yo thermometer. Raised beds get priority.

No need to stay up tonight

, but the winter solstice is at 1:08 a.m. tomorrow, when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted its farthest from the sun. Not exactly a riveting moment. 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.