Keeping Holiday Plants Happy in the New Year
Many people enjoy the seasonal plants that we associate with Christmas – poinsettia, Christmas cactus and amaryllis – even after the holiday season has passed. With a little attention, these plants can be attractive for several months or even in subsequent seasons.
Some plants keep better from one year to the next than others. Poinsettia rarely look as nice in their second season as they did their first. For most people, it makes more sense to compost poinsettias when they start to look ragged and buy new ones next Christmas. On the other hand, Christmas cactus and amaryllis often get better year after year.
If you want to try to keep your poinsettia going, maintain its light and watering regime until the plant starts to drop its leaves. At this point, move it to a cool dry area where the temperature will remain cool, about 60 degrees. Water the plant only enough to keep the soil slightly damp – don’t let it dry out altogether. In the spring, cut it back to two to three healthy branches, pot it up in a slightly larger pot and move it outside to a protected sunny location after all danger of frost is past. Place the poinsettia in a location where it gets morning sun but protection from the hot afternoon sun. Fertilize every couple of weeks with a balanced plant food. Pinch your poinsettia regularly to keep it from getting leggy and rangy but do not pinch after the middle of August. Bring the poinsettia back inside in late summer or early fall as the temperatures start to drop.
Now comes the fun part! Poinsettias bloom in response to short days of 10 hours or less. In order to make your plant bloom for Christmas, you will need to provide an artificially short day. Starting the first of October put your plant in a totally dark location (like a closet) from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. the following day. Any amount of light during the nighttime can inhibit flower formation. The poinsettia should set flower buds after being exposed to short days for 10 weeks or so. You will need to continue this regime until the first week of December to initiate flowers for Christmas. Remember to place your plant back in its sunny location each morning. Continue regular feedings until the bracts start to show color, at this point you can reduce feedings to 1/2 the normal amount. This poinsettia will not be as full and bushy as the ones in the store but that’s not really the point, is it? And if it looks too pitiful and leggy, toss it out and replace it with a fresh new one. If you don’t keep up with the daylight regulation – poinsettias will rebloom, it will just happen later in the winter – typically around February.
If you want more return with less effort, keep the Christmas cactus and amaryllis instead. When your Christmas cactus finishes blooming, pinch a few segments off the end of each branch to encourage plants to stay full and lush instead of becoming leggy. The pinched segments can be easily rooted by sticking them in potting mix. As temperatures warm, feed your Christmas cactus with a pelleted slow release fertilizer or fertilize twice a month with a liquid fertilizer. Once danger of frost has passed in the spring, you can move the Christmas cactus outdoors to a partially shaded location. Bring your cactus back indoors in October before the first threat of frost. Your cactus will begin to form buds as the day length shortens and should bloom again next Christmas.
Amaryllis are very easy and grow well outside in our area. Keep your spent bulbs indoors until the spring; once the danger of frost has passed, plant bulbs in the landscape. Select a sunny to partially shaded site with well-drained soil. Your bulb probably will not bloom the first season it is in the ground but should return to its normal blooming cycle and flower the following spring after being planted out. When planted outdoors, amaryllis bloom in the spring rather than in the winter. The bulbs are easy to grow, resistant to deer and voles and will gradually increase in size and number over time. So don’t toss your old Christmas plants too soon, with a little care you can enjoy them for many years to come.