Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
December, 2004
Regional Report

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Each year this Christmas cactus bears hundreds of rosy red flowers just in time for the holidays.

Keeping Gift Plants Alive

Everyone appreciates the festive blooms of poinsettias, amaryllis, azaleas, and Christmas cactus during the holiday season, and many of us keep our gift plants long after the holidays. Providing the right conditions will keep them at peak performance all winter long.

Providing the Proper Environment
Holiday gift plants are often delivered in leak-proof containers or wrapped in foil. Be sure to remove these pot coverings and punch holes in the bottom of the pot to promote good drainage. Place the pot on a saucer to protect furniture from water marks.

Winter home environments are tough on flowering plants. Because the relative humidity indoors tends to be quite low during the heating season, it's important to pay special attention to the watering needs of your gift plants. Large plants in small containers can dry out quickly, as can plants in full flower. Check plants daily, and when the top of the soil is just barely dry, apply enough water to fully saturate the soil, allowing some water to flow out of the bottom of the pot.

Adequate Lighting and Cool Temperatures
Bright light, moist soil, and cool temperatures are the keys to keeping your plants looking good throughout the holidays. Normal household temperatures (68 to 75 degrees F.) are acceptable, but cooler temperatures (60 to 65 degrees) will lengthen the life of flowering plants. Extremely high temperatures (75 to 80 degrees) usually shorten the display life. I move my plants to a cool room at night so they can recover from the day's events.

Supplying adequate light also is important for extending the life of holiday and gift plants. Place your plants near east-, south-, or west-facing windows, where they will get high levels of indirect light.

Keep or Toss?
At some point you will have to determine the fate of your gift plant. Because they're produced under ideal conditions that are difficult to duplicate at home, most of these holiday plants are discarded after they've finished flowering. On the other hand, if you're the kind of gardener who really likes a challenge, you may be able to rehabilitate these show-offs and add them to your permanent collection. Under the right conditions, they can provide years of enjoyment. Here's how:

Christmas Cactus
Christmas cactus is tropical in nature and requires a highly organic soil mixture and lots of moisture. Provide bright light and average household temperatures. Take the plant outdoors during the summer, and fertilize it monthly with a diluted houseplant food. Bring it indoors at the end of September, and condition it to bloom by providing total darkness for 16 hours each day while the plant sets flower buds. The easiest way to accomplish this is to place it in a bright room for 8 hours and then either put a box over it or put it in a closet for 16 hours. It needs total darkness; even a short burst of daylight will retard the formation of flower buds. During this bud-forcing period, keep the temperature between 60 and 70 degrees and don't fertilize the plant. In early December your Christmas cactus can be brought into ordinary light where it should bloom in a few weeks.

These bulbs grow best in bright light at temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees F. Plant so only one-half of the bulb is buried in the soil. The flower stalk will emerge first, followed by two or more leaves. After flowering, cut off the stalk but allow the leaves to remain. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. In the spring, place the pot outdoors in a shady place. In late summer, when the leaves turn yellow and die, stop watering, bring the plant indoors, and allow it to rest in a cool, dry place for about three months. Around the first of December, repot it and bring it into a bright room. Begin watering again, and a new flower stalk and new leaves will emerge from the bulb. When the weather warms in the spring, take it outdoors again to repeat the process.

Greenhouse azaleas like bright light but will be damaged by direct sunshine. Keep the soil moist and the nighttime temperatures cool (45 to 60 degrees). Put the plant outdoors in a shady location when the weather warms in spring. Keep well watered and feed lightly with an acid-based fertilizer. During the summer it will form flower buds that will open at Christmas time. Bring the plant indoors in December, and it should bloom again. Regardless of the good care it receives, greenhouse azaleas will only last a few seasons.

Possibly the most traditional of holiday gift plants, poinsettias require special handling to make them bloom year after year. While in bloom, keep them well watered and in bright light with temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees. After the weather warms in spring, put the plant outdoors in an area that receives morning sun. Prune back the branches to about 6 inches, and continue to pinch during the growing season to keep the plant bushy. Fertilize every two to three weeks with a dilute houseplant fertilizer. About mid-September bring the poinsettia indoors and condition it to bloom by following the directions for Christmas cactus.

As a last resort, if your gift plant gets spindly and fails to thrive after the holidays, cut the stems back and reduce watering to force it into dormancy. Allow it to rest all winter and take it outdoors in the spring. This treatment may allow enough recovery time for your plant to put on a second holiday display.

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