Steve Bender

 

Photo: Ralph Anderson

Grumpy hopes this is the most wonderful Christmas of all! So instead of loading you down with expensive jewelry, silverware, sports cars, and Napoleon brandy, your family gives you what you really wanted -- blooming holiday plants. Here's what you need to know to avoid killing these cherished gifts by the weekend.

POINSETTIA Before I get into care issues, let Grumpy just quash one stupid myth about poinsettias that keeps some people from enjoying them. They do not spontaneously combust. Never happens. They are also not poisonous. If you want to poison yourself, eat an azalea. But a poinsettia, while not tasty, is not toxic.

What to do now. Poinsettia breeders have greatly improved the plants over the decades, making them much more adaptable to lower light levels indoors. So instead of defoliating to the point of nekkidness a week after Christmas, they can actually look good indoors for a couple of months.

Give your poinsettia bright, indirect light (direct sunlight is not required) and temps around 65-70 degrees. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Good drainage is essential, lest the plant quickly transform into a lump of mush. Remove any foil from around the pot or at least poke drainage holes in it. Never let a poinsettia sit in water that’s accumulated in a saucer. Empty the saucer.

What to do later. If you live in south Florida, extreme south Texas, or other places it doesn’t frost, you can plant your poinsettia outside and it will grow into a small tree that will bloom every year in winter. If you don’t, chuck the plant as soon as it starts looking peaked. Greenhouse poinsettias are the product of very specific growing techniques. In your home, you’ll never be able to get it to look as pretty again as when you bought it.

KALANCHOE First, let’s get the correct pronunciation question out of the way. Some people say, “Kuh-LANK-koe.” Some say, “Kuh-LANCH-oe.” And some say, “Kal-en-KO-ee.” Grumpy doesn’t care how you say it, just that you know what to do with it. Like Christmas cactus, this is a plant you can keep for years and get it to rebloom in winter with no problem.

What to do now. Kalanchoe likes the brightest light it can get indoors, including direct sun. It’s a succulent that doesn’t need much water in winter. Water it once so that water runs out of the pot (again, good drainage is mandatory), then don’t water again until it starts to wilt slightly. Flowering can last for months, extending into the spring.

 

Kalanchoe. Photo by Ferd Birdly.

What to do later. Unless you have a room that gets direct sun, I recommend taking your kalanchoe outdoors soon after your last spring frost. I keep mine on the deck, where it gets dappled sun all day. I water it only when it’s dry, being careful not to overwater. I fertilize it with Miracle-Gro once a month spring through summer. Older stems eventually become woody with sparse, light-green leaves. Clip them off at the base to spur new, healthy growth. Like poinsettia and Christmas cactus, kalanchoe sets flower buds as nights lengthen in fall. However, don’t expose it to artificial light at night or it won’t set buds. Bring it inside for the winter before the onset of freezing weather.

AMARYLLIS Given the phallic shape of this bulb’s flower stalk before the bud opens, it’s only natural that whoever you give this to might question your intentions. But then the flowers open and they’re absolutely gorgeous and people get their minds out of the gutter.

 

Amaryllis. Photo by Van Chaplin.

What to do now. If you’re lucky, you received an amaryllis bulb that’s produced two flower stalks, doubling your pleasure. A succession of opening blooms should keep the plant looking good for a couple of weeks. After the last bloom fades, cut off the stalk, but be careful where you do this, because the cut stalk will gush water.

What to do later. After you cut off the old stalks, thick, straplike leaves will start growing. These will produce food for the bulbs to make next year’s flowers. Place the pot in a bright window and keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Again, provide good drainage. After your last spring frost, you have a couple of options. If you live in the Lower, Coastal, or Tropical South (USDA Zones 8-10), you can plant your bulb in the garden. It will start blooming the next spring (not at Christmas).

In colder climes, take it outside to a sunny spot after the last frost. It can stay in the same pot for years. I water mine when the soil gets dry and fertilize monthly spring through summer with Miracle-Gro. In October, I quit watering altogether to get the plant to enter a dormant phase. The leaves slowly shrivel and yellow and I cut them off. I take the bulb and pot indoors to a cool, dry garage for a couple of months. Then I water it once and wait for new growth to pop out of the top of the bulb. When I see a new flower bud emerge, I move the plant into bright light upstairs, water again, and await the show.

PAPERWHITE NARCISSUS Forcing the bulbs into holiday bloom indoors is one of the better goof-proof, feel-good holiday activities. Even my wife likes to do this. All you have to do is nestle the bulbs into a saucer or shallow container filled with an inch of gravel and then add water up to the bottoms of the bulbs.

 

Paperwhite narcissus. Photo by Ralph Anderson.

What to do now. There isn’t much. However, you’ll find that if you give your paperwhites bright light and temps below 65 degrees, they won’t grow so tall that they come crashing down in the middle of the night. Your paperwhites will last longer and look better if you can keep them outdoors in the cool air for most of the day, as long as it doesn’t freeze.

What to do later. Well, if you live in the Lower, Coastal, and Tropical South (USDA Zones 8-10), you can plant them in the garden after the last frost. They’re not winter-hardy north of there. Elsewhere, chuck ‘em. They’re cheap, so buy new ones next fall.

CHRISTMAS CACTUS Unlike poinsettia, this is a plant you can keep for years and years and have it bloom beautifully every time. Grumpy has had his three plants for 6-7 years now. Two magenta ones actually begin blooming around Thanksgiving, while my salmon-pink one starts a little later.

 

Christmas cactus. Photo by Steve Bender.

What to do now. Give Christmas cactus about the exact same care as poinsettias indoors. Keep the soil evenly moist while it is in bud or blooming, but never let the plant sit in a saucer of water.

What to do later. If you have a room with bright natural light, you can keep your plant growing year-round indoors. Or you can do what Grumpy does. After the last spring frost, I move my Christmas cactus onto my screened porch outside. The bright, indirect light is perfect, as hot, direct summer sun burns Christmas cactus. I water each plant thoroughly once a week, making sure each pot drains well. The soil should go slightly dry between waterings. I fertilize them once a month spring through summer with Miracle-Gro. As fall progresses, the shortening days spur the plants to form flower buds. I bring them inside when nightly lows start dropping into the upper 30′s.

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