"I'm dreaming of a safe Christmas, just like the ones I've seen before, where the tree tops glisten and people listen to suggestions that keep them in the know."

This is my seasonal way of saying that there are guidelines to keep your home and grounds safe in winter. Let's consider your Christmas evergreens, the trees outside and the paving below your feet.

Christmas Trees

Always select a fresh tree because it's less of a fire hazard. Check the needles for freshness when picking a cut conifer. They should be pliable and soft. Even stiff needles, such as those of spruces, should be flexible on the stem. Cut an inch or more off the bottom of the trunk and keep it watered.

If you find vines in your tree, wear gloves to pull them out. They could be poison ivy, thorny green-brier or other thorny weeds.

Keep the tree away from fireplaces and space heaters. Leave it indoors for as brief a period as possible, and don't block exit routes. Also, having smoke detectors and a fire extinguisher saves lives.

Use electrical decorations that carry a UL-approved tag, and turn them off when you go to bed. Don't put candles on your tree.

"A Christmas tree has the shape of a flame, enormous surface area and needles throughout to make it burn intensely and quickly when its needles are dry," said John Thompson, district chief of the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department. "It's a predictable occurrence every year that a firehouse will get calls for Christmas tree fires."

Spray foliage with Wilt-Pruf Anti-Transpirant to maintain freshness, a commercial anti-drying agent available at garden centers. It coats foliage to hold moisture.

You can also spray the tree with a homemade concoction that, according to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, might act as a fire retardant. Use one cup of ammonium sulphate, one-half cup boric acid, and two tablespoons of Borax mixed into a gallon of water. Saturate the needles top and bottom.

Cyber-mavens can find more information on fire safety at www.kate.net/holidays/christmas/


Shade Trees

Large deciduous trees can do a lot of damage. Just think back on the devastating tree and property loss from last winter's ice storm.

Now is a good time to evaluate your trees and their potential for breakage to try to direct accidents away from you. Without foliage to hide the structure, you can see a tree's branching habit and spot dead wood and other problems.

Wood is dead where the bark is dry and sloughing off. Don't confuse this with healthy peeling exfoliating bark. Peeling bark doesn't die and split and pull away from the heartwood. Prune dead limbs, or they'll fall.

Another sign of dead wood is white or tan-colored fungus growing on the bark. The area under the fungus is dead. Limbs with these mushroom growths are very susceptible to cracking in wind and ice. When this happens on main boughs or the trunk, a professional arborist should be called, especially if the tree threatens your house.

Large branches with sharp angled crotches where they grow out of the tree are susceptible to splitting under a snow or ice load. One side might be able to be pruned when young, or they can be cabled together by a professional when old.

Low-growing branches are a threat, not because they fall, but because they can scratch and poke you, especially in the dark. Pin oaks and crab apples, for example, have low, wide habits with rigid, sharp branches that grow at face level and are dangerous to your eyes. Prune tree limbs above the ground at least eight feet.

When pruning, leave the one-quarter- to one-half-inch flare that you see at the base of the branch. The flare, called the branch collar, is where scar tissue forms and heals the cut.

Do not attempt to do major tree work yourself or to use a chain saw to prune. Prune what you can from the ground with a bow or pruning saw, or a long extendible-handle tree pruner. Use these tools carefully, and hire a professional for the other work.

To find a certified arborist call the National Arborists Association at 603-673-3311 or visit its World Wide Web site at www.natlarb.com

Steep or Icy Walkways

Safety must also be a consideration on your patio and walks. Walking around outside can be dangerous, especially if you have steep slopes and uneven pavements or if it is wet or icy.

Sloping walks with more than a 12 percent grade should have steps and, possibly, railings. Stairs should always be built as two or more. A single one is called a trip step, because people are likely to trip and fall. If you have one, light and mark it.

Icy conditions make surfaces treacherous. To stretch ice-melting salt and make it more effective, add a traction agent. For traction, get coarse sand, tiny crushed gravel ( 1/8 inch) or kitty litter.

You can get ice-melting salts at most hardware, grocery, garden supply and home improvement centers. The ones that are available are sodium, potassium, calcium or magnesium chlorides.

* Sodium chloride works fast and in temperatures down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. It is the most harmful to plants. Apply at a rate of two to four pounds per 100 square feet.

* Potassium chloride, or muriate of potash, won't hurt plants but shouldn't be used where it could be toxic to aquatic life. Spread at three to five pounds per 100 square feet. It works to 25 degrees.

* Calcium chloride is fast, and effective to 5 degrees. It can damage plants but is considered gentler to concrete and mortar than sodium. Apply at a rate of two to four pounds per 100 square feet.

* Magnesium chloride is the latest generation of de-icing salt. Used as recommended, it won't harm plants and is effective to minus 13 degrees. Use only one to two pounds per 100 square feet.

Contact the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service for the free fact sheet "Melting Ice Safely." In Maryland call 1-800-342-2507, from Virginia and Washington call 1-410-531-1757. The Web site is www.agnr.umd.edu/ces.

Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is jml@gardenlerner.com