Let The Pros

Deck Your Halls

If there is a Santa Claus, he could well be Steve Makrancy. “I sit down on Thanksgiving and look over my list. I make sure that everything is ready for Friday morning,” says the owner of Makrancy Quality Landscaping and Flowers on Kuser Road.

For this Santa, Black Friday, rather than Christmas Day, is the epicenter of the holiday season. On that day, he and scores of his helpers fan out across the greater Princeton area armed with truckloads of wreaths, garlands, trees, and lights. This year they will turn the Witherspoon Grill, Main Street Cafe in Lawrenceville, three Merrill Lynch campuses, Carnegie Center, and a plethora of churches into winter wonderlands.

They will also decorate area homes — inside and out. “I had one customer for 20 years. He wanted something different every year,” says Makrancy. “One year it was Disney, one year it was Victorian, one year it was traditional.” Whatever the theme, it was elaborate, and the house was large. The one constant from year to year was a front-yard Nativity scene — made of concrete. The yearly tab ran to $10,000.

That is the high end of the service Makrancy offers. Homeowners hankering for holiday decorations, but too busy to put them up, can get all the basics — maybe a couple of wreaths, some lights on outdoor trees, poinsettias, and a nice mantle piece — for more like $750. But it’s hard to name an exact price, he says.

It generally costs between $3,000 to $5,000 to thoroughly decorate a really large home inside and out.

Makrancy enjoys — and insists on being involved in — the creative aspects of holiday decorating. “I had a couple of calls yesterday,” he says. “People wanted us to put up the decorations they own.” That, he will not do. “Then we would just be hands, and feet. If you don’t bring ideas, you’re just labor.” The extra value he brings is designing the decorations.

It is interesting to note that most area nurseries will not do any home decorating at all. Kale’s, for one, says that the insurance required is prohibitive.

Speaking of insurance, Makrancy says that the home decoration business has changed through the years. He recalls elaborate jobs in Washington Crossing for executives of Fairless Steel before that company closed. Yes, the company’s demise was an issue, but he says that there is a bigger issue. “With the drinking laws, fewer people are doing holiday entertaining at home,” he says. “They would rather go to halls.”

Still, there is demand. Makrancy talks about decorating the home of a Hamilton woman who owns a bus company. “She likes kissing balls, ribbon, and live wreaths,” he says. So many people do prefer the look — and smell — of real evergreen, but he does use artificial greens, and thinks that they can be a good idea. Holiday decorations can stay up for four weeks or more — especially this year, with Thanksgiving falling so early in November — and fire can become a real hazard as greens dry out.

Nobody likes to think of it now, just at the beginning of the holiday season, but all of those decorations do need to come down. All of those front yard lights do need to be wrestled out of branches. When a professional holiday decorator like Makrancy takes on a job, he also takes on the clean-up. Anyone who thinks that hiring a professional to deck the front hall is just too expensive might pause to remember that, while putting up tree and hanging the wreaths can be fun, taking them down just isn’t.

Keep Holiday Plants Looking Good

Decorating your house all by yourself? Whether you’re going for an all-out winter wonderland or just a touch of holiday spirit, plants are bound to be in the mix.

Marianne Whitehead of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Middlesex County offers advice on choosing Christmas plants, keeping them healthy, and extending their beauty past the holiday season at a workshop on Wednesday, November 29, at 6 p.m. at the Earth Center at 42 Riva Avenue Davidson’s Mill Pond Park in South Brunswick. Cost: $25. 732-398-5262.

“The main thing is to select plants that are healthy,” says Whitehead. Tips-offs to poor health in poinsettias, the most popular Christmas plant, include leaves with black tips, leaves that are curling a bit, and loose stems. “Freshness is everything,” says Whitehead. “If you see a truck unloading plants, run right over.”

As with most purchases, you get what you pay for when you buy holiday plants. The $2.99 poinsettia at the big box store, the drug store, or the supermarket can be just fine if it is only called upon to look good for a

couple of weeks. But check it out first. “The plants are packed in together,“ says Whitehead. “Pull one out and look at it. Make sure it is not flat on one side.” Gently test the stems, too. Often one or more are broken.

For a more gorgeous plant, and one that will still look good on December 26, consider a nursery or florist. They often hand pick their plants, choosing only the best that a grower has on hand, says Whitehead, while a big box store will buy a grower’s entire stock, scooping up the runts along with the stars.

In choosing a Christmas cactus, another holiday favorite, look for plants that have buds, but not blooms, says Whitehead.

When the poinsettias and budding cacti are loaded into the car, it is imperative to drive straight home. “These plants are temperature sensitive,” she says. They should be the last items picked up on a shopping trip, and brought straight into the house. Once there, they should be placed away from radiators, fireplaces, and any other source of hot air. “They like bright, indirect light,” says Whitehead. The ideal placement for holiday plants is near a west-facing window. An east-facing window is good too.

Some people like to rotate plants, but not Whitehead. “If a plant is happy, leave it alone.” She speaks from experience. In addition to working at the Rutgers Cooperative three days a week, she tends to hundreds of indoor corporate plants at her second job, with Professional Plant Services in Highland Park.

Keeping a poinsettia happy, no matter where it is making its home, requires judicious watering. “The surface should feel almost dry,” says Whitehead. The plants do need water, but not too much, and their roots should never sit in water. Therefore, it’s probably a good idea to discard the bright foil wrappers in which the plants often come wrapped. They look festive, but they trap water. An alternative would be to remove the foil just after watering, and replace it once all of the water has been absorbed. For the poinsettias she tends in corporate lobbies once a week, she makes the water last by placing natural sponge, cut in the size of the plants’ pots, underneath each plant to catch water and feed it back up.

And if, by chance, a poinsettia has become host to white flies, the most common pest to home in on these plants, toss it. “It’s not worth treating it with pesticide,” says Whitehead.

During her workshop, Whitehead is going to talk about how to keep holiday plants blooming year after year. But she says that, in her view, it just isn’t worth the trouble with a poinsettia. Getting the plant to bloom a second year involves an exacting regimen. “It needs 14 hours of dark and 10 hours of light every day,” she says. That means hustling the plant into a closet or down to the basement, and then bringing it out again, every single day. “You can’t miss a day,” says Whitehead. “What if you are going to be away?”

People do manage to keep their poinsettias going year after year, she marvels, but she isn’t up for the chore, and she guesses that most holiday decorators aren’t either. “Just buy a new one,” is her advice.

Another holiday favorite, the amaryllis, can be worth the effort, though. “Once the flower is gone, it needs a rest period,” she says. “Put it in a dark place and withhold water for six to eight weeks. Then repot it in the next size pot. Use a clay pot with fresh soil. It can bloom year after year.”

There are any number of strategies to extend the life of an amaryllis, but Whitehead says the effort need not be elaborate. “My friend threw hers outside in the shade, and it bloomed for three or four years,” she says.

After working with plants all day, Whitehead has little desire to nurture a poinsettia grove of her own. “I just get a little tree,” she says. “I like a live tree. Last year I had a blue spruce. After the holidays I planted it here in the gardens.”

Facebook Comments