Q: Is it true that feeding your Christmas tree a sugary substance, such as soda or maple syrup, will help it last longer?
A: As a rule of thumb, add only water to the base of your tree. Sugar, or any decomposable organic material, creates bacteria that will cause the water to smell and your tree to decompose faster.
Instead, follow a few simple rules to keep your tree happy and healthy for the holidays.
• Once you have your tree home, make a fresh cut, straight across the trunk.
• Place the trimmed trunk in water as soon as possible — the longer the trunk is exposed to air, the less water it will be able to absorb.
• When you place your tree in the water, make sure the trunk’s cut edges are clean and that it has not been bruised. If it is bruised, it is best to cut it again.
• Give the tree 1 quart of clean water per inch of trunk diameter.
• Although the temperature of the water is not important, keeping the tree away from direct sources of heat will also help keep your tree from drying out.
Q: Many cookie and dessert recipes call for the use of a stand mixer. Can I get the same results with a hand mixer?
A: Professional cooks, including the food editors in the Martha Stewart Living test kitchens, rely on stand mixers to develop and test recipes. The machines blend ingredients more quickly and evenly than handheld ones.
But a handheld mixer costs less and is easier to store. More important, the appliance does a fine job tackling most mixing tasks, although it may take more time.
You’ll also need to rely on the mixer’s beaters, rather than choosing from the dough hooks, paddles and whisks that come with a standing machine. When blending thick mixtures such as cookie dough, be sure large hunks don’t get caught in the beaters’ bands. Stop the mixer occasionally to push out these pieces with a rubber spatula.
Be aware, too, that the motor of a hand mixer may not have enough horsepower to handle heavy-duty tasks, such as blending stiff dough like gingerbread.
Keeping plants in the basement
Q: My basement has a few high windows. Would there be enough light to keep houseplants there?
A: Three plants that could survive in your basement are the peace lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii), bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii) and cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior).
The cast iron plant and peace lily are tropical understory plants — in nature they grow on the forest floor or in the shade. They, along with bamboo palm, are adaptable to low light in the cellar.
Still, they will be healthiest with some direct sunlight, so place them as close to a window as possible.
Of course, all plants need water, but these three don’t need that much. To determine when it’s time to give the plants a drink, place your finger about half an inch into the potting mix. If it feels dry, water the plant well (in a sink until water seeps out from the bottom of the pot).
Provide proper drainage to help excess water channel through the soil, preventing rot. Use a quality potting mix containing perlite; this volcanic stone holds and slowly releases moisture into the soil. To keep pots and their contents from damaging floors or furniture surfaces, place them in saucers with surface protectors on the bottoms of the plates. Be sure the pots are glazed so they’ll keep moisture off of furniture surfaces.