Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Deck the Halls -- With Plants

If you're like me, you're decking the halls with plants for the Christmas season. Red and green are the traditional colors of the yuletide and plants from poinsettias to Christmas cactus not only suit the motif but liven up the festivites. Plants are gifts that keep giving. They deserve some TLC. Here are some guidelines to keep them happy beyond the holidays.

Pamper Poinsettias
This holiday classic needs bright light, with a minimum of three to four hours of direct sun every day. Keep it in a room with daytime temperatures ranging from 68 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit; a night temperature of about 55 helps the plant retain its color. Don’t let it dry out, but don’t saturate it either. Water when the soil surface feels dry. By the way, if the pot is wrapped in foil, remove it or punch a hole in the bottom so excess water doesn’t accumulate. Enjoy your poinsettia for as long as you can, then do what most gardeners, myself included, do. Say goodbye to the holiday season and let the plant enrich the compost pile.

However, if you want to take a chance on making your poinsettia merry and bright for next Christmas, here’s what you have to do:

In late spring, when there’s no possibility of frost, move the plant outside. Trim to shape it, then place it in indirect sun until it gets used to being outdoors. After a few weeks, it’s ok to move the poinsettia to a sunny spot. Once a month, feed it an all purpose 20-20-20 fertilizer, mixing a half teaspoon to one gallon of water. Cut back the stems again in early July so the plant stays full and bushy. Bring it inside around Labor Day.
This is when things get tricky. From the first day of fall through Thanksgiving, put the plant in complete darkness for 14 hours every night. And I mean complete darkness. Not in a room with a night light or one where the full moon shines through sheer curtains. Put it in a closet or in a box that doesn’t have cut-out hand holds. But there’s no need to be obsessive and put it in a box in a closet, because every day you’ll have to pull the poinsettia out of the dark on schedule and place it in bright natural light for 10 hours. This regimen is what forces the green brachts – the botanical term for the colorful “petals” that are actually modified leaves – to turn red. The real flowers are the yellow berry-like centers. During this time, water and fertilize as usual.

On Thanksgiving, let the poinsettia out of the closet – just make sure it gets six hours of direct sun every day. Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous to humans or animals. The sap can irritate your skin, however, so wear gloves when you’re pruning.

Enjoy Amaryllis
These easy-to-grow bulbs with their big stunning flowers on tall sturdy stems deserve a place under the tree as gifts and on the table as decorations. And you don’t have to kiss them goodbye when the flowers fade. Amaryllis are happiest with three to four hours of direct sun a day so an east-or-west-facing window is the perfect spot. Like poinsettias, they like temperatures of about 75 degrees in the day and around 55 degrees at night. Make sure the soil dries out between watering – as with most bulbs, an Amaryllis may rot if it sits in too much water. During the winter, feed it a diluted solution of all purpose fertilizer once a month. In spring and summer, fertilize every two weeks or so. And you should move the potted bulbs outside in summer as long as you give it a lightly shaded spot. In late August, curtail watering, then stop altogether until the foliage dies back. Remove the bulb from the soil and store it in a cool, dry place where it can rest until mid to late October. Then repot it in light, well-draining potting soil. Watering is like an alarm clock going off. As soon as you start, the bulb wakes and is on its blooming way.

Coddle Christmas Cactus
If you take care of your Christmas cactus it can live for decades and reward you with countless flowers. Place it in a north-facing or east-facing window away from cold drafts and heat. Water when the soil feels dry and feed it every two weeks with half-strength balanced fertilizer after the flowers fade. But real success depends on how you treat it during the plant’s downtime. A touch of cold helps the plant to flower, so make sure it’s outdoors from early fall to just before frost. It needs to be kept dry, unfertilized and at a temperature of about 55 degrees to set buds. Once buds appear, night temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees and day temperatures of 70 degrees or higher are fine. When the plant is flowering, temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees will keep it going.

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