Holiday plant care tips
By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Fri., Dec. 21, 2012
Plants are beautiful and popular as holiday gifts and decorations. Chances are one or more plants have joined your household recently, and you might be wondering how best to care for them.
Poinsettias will retain their colorful bracts for quite a few weeks if kept in bright light, evenly moist, and in a room where the temperature stays about 65 degrees F. Keep poinsettias away from drafts, as this will cause the leaves and bracts (the colored leaves we view as flowers) to drop prematurely. Newer varieties are especially long-lasting, but all will eventually shed their bracts. When this occurs, cut back on watering, keeping the plant just barely moist. Prune plants back if they are getting too large or scraggly.
It really is not difficult to keep your poinsettia going and get it to bloom again next year. Around the beginning of May, new leaf buds will be noticeable. Move your poinsettia up to a slightly larger-sized pot and gradually increase watering. Plants should be fertilized on a monthly basis throughout the growing season. Plants can be moved to a shady spot outdoors during the summer or located in a window that does not receive bright summer sunshine all day long. Pinch growth tips no later than August to promote branching. Keep in mind that typically poinsettias receive applications of growth regulators to cause them to branch and look fuller. Manually pinching the plants will achieve similar fullness.
Plants summering outdoors must be brought in before the first frost. To induce bract coloration, give your poinsettias 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness from Oct. 1 until about Thanksgiving. The bracts should show their color just in time for the 2012 holiday season.
A friend gave me a gorgeous amaryllis this year. The bulb came in a kit along with potting medium, a plastic pot and instructions. Amaryllis are virtually fail-proof and always breathtaking, so they make great gifts. Remember that the bulb is alive. Keep it from temperature extremes and pot it up as soon as possible. The bulb is planted so that the top one-quarter or so sits above the potting mix. Every kit I have seen so far just includes a plastic pot. Because amaryllis tend to be top-heavy, I will plant mine in a heavier clay or ceramic.
The bulb needs moisture to begin growth, but it should not sit in saturated soil. Mix your potting medium with warm water before planting and keep it damp, but not wet, until you see the flower bud and new leaves emerging. Plants can then be watered and fertilized regularly. I plant my amaryllis bulbs in the ground in a shady area for the summer and bring them in before the first hard frost is predicted. Since most amaryllis require a dry dormancy before blooming again, I just leave them in the basement in baskets until they are repotted, usually sometime around the New Year. Do keep them about 50 to 60 degrees F in storage.
Holiday cacti have lovely flowers in vivid to pastel colors. They can tolerate warmer temperatures, but flowers last longest and plants are happiest if kept cool. I have one that my mom gave me in a west window that is just loaded with blooms. Plants do not mind being slightly to moderately pot-bound, but if you see the roots coming out the drainage holes or if the plant dries excessively fast, move it to a slightly larger pot. In general, holiday cactus like to be kept evenly moist during their periods of active growth, which occurs spring through fall, and on the dry side during bloom and through the cooler winter months.
These plants are light feeders. Use a dilute liquid fertilizer high in phosphorus and low in nitrogen about once a month when plants are actively growing. The flat leaves will often take on a reddish tinge when phosphorus is lacking. While the holiday cactus can be brought into bloom by manipulating the hours of darkness it receives, I find it easier to keep it by a not very energy-efficient window. A 10- to 15-degree F drop in temperature each night will trigger bud formation.
Cyclamen are another choice for a cool room. They need to be kept moderately moist, but the corm will rot if sitting in water, so be sure drainage is good. After the plant finishes blooming the leaves begin to yellow. This is perfectly normal, as the plant usually goes through a dormant phase. Newer cyclamen varieties (at least the ones that I’ve received) do not appear to go fully dormant, but growth slows down considerably. I keep mine in a cool, north window at work and keep plants barely moist until new growth appears a month or two later. The corm will grow in size as it ages, but may not need repotting more than once every two years. It should always be set with the top of it above the soil line.
Some holiday plants, like paperwhite narcissus and Persian violets, are meant to be enjoyed while they last and then discarded as they will not re-bloom. Others, if taken care of, will provide you with seasonal beauty for many years to come. For questions about holiday plant care or other horticultural queries, call, toll-free, 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.