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Keeping Your Christmas Plants

The Christmas holiday season is upon us, and so often we either purchase or receive traditional Christmas plants: poinsettia, Christmas cactus, amaryllis and live trees. After Christmas, these plants are alive, often “in color,” yet they often end up being thrown out like a dead bouquet. May I challenge you to keep your Christmas plant? Whether the reason is to reduce your contribution to the landfill, accept care of a living thing, retain a reminder of the circumstances in receiving the plant or just to have another plant indoors, accept the challenge! It is actually an easy challenge.

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These plants are very easy to care for and can often be easily coaxed into blooming during the holidays for years to come. What you need is knowledge: the how-to. As with any how-to, there are no guarantees.
Choose a poinsettia with small, tightly clustered yellow buds in the center. You want to keep the plant in a stable environment: no drafts, no hot TV perches. Water only when dry and be sure it does not sit in water. In January, fertilize it. It may become long and leggy. Trim it back to about 5 inches tall.

Through the late winter and early spring, continue to remove dead leaves and dried parts of the plant. Keep in a bright location and add more soil as needed. It is typical to repot in late spring, trimming 2–3 inches of the branches to encourage stronger growth and more branches. Move it outdoors to a shady location. Continue to care for it with water and fertilizer. Move it back inside after Labor Day. Starting near the Autumn Equinox (Sept. 21), give the plant 13 hours of darkness (cover with a box, locate in a closet) and 11 hours of bright light. Temperatures should be about 60 degrees at night. After Thanksgiving, locate the plant so it gets 6 hours of sun during the day. The day/night treatment should be stopped and fertilizer can be reduced. Water when dry. The cycle starts again.

Christmas cactus

Christmas cactus

The most important factor in maintaining a Christmas cactus is the moisture of the soil. The plant should never sit in water. It does require frequent and thorough watering through the spring and summer, though, to keep the soil slightly moist. Less water is better than too much water, but you never want the soil to be bone-dry. You can maintain a tray of pebbles with water under the plant for more humidity. Adding a fertilizer regularly during the growth cycle also helps. Ideally, it should be located in a north- or east-facing window. If it goes outside in the summer, it needs a shady location. The plant does like temperatures between 65 to 75 degrees. In the fall, cut back on the watering, fertilizing, light and temperature by mid-October for a Christmas bloom. The plant will set buds when day length is about equal to night length and when the temperature drops to 50 to 60 degrees for several weeks. The plant does require a minimum of 12 hours of darkness. Resume watering lightly in November. Ideally the plant blooms in December. Bud drop is caused by insufficient light and over-watering. Continue light watering until new growth appears in the spring.

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Amaryllis plants do best in a bright window. Water the plant from the top of the container thoroughly whenever the top two inches of the soil are dry to the touch. Drain excess water to avoid root and bulb rot. Fertilize regularly. You can move the plant outdoors when all danger of frost is past. Place it in the shade initially but move it into a garden where it receives about 6 hours of sun a day. Continue to fertilize. Bring the plant back indoors before the first frost. Amaryllis do not require a resting period and will bloom if kept evergreen. However, blooming time can be controlled by allowing the bulb to go through a resting period. After bringing the potted plants indoors, store them in a dark place like a basement or cool closet (above freezing) and do not water. Do not remove the foliage until it has become dry and shriveled. The bulbs can be forced into bloom again after resting for 8 to 12 weeks. Inspect the bulbs periodically and bring them into light if new growth appears. If no new growth appears, they can be forced to bloom by bringing them into bright light and watering the soil thoroughly. Usually one or more flower stalks appear first, but occasionally they are preceded by leaves. Flowers usually develop in about 4–6 weeks from dormant bulbs, so they can be timed to flower at Christmas or for Valentine’s Day. Amaryllis plants bloom best when they are pot-bound, so they will require repotting only every three or four years. The best time to repot them is after they have gone through a dormant period. Return them to the light and the cycle starts again.

If you have a Christmas tree that can be planted outside after the holiday, you need to prepare. First, respect that these trees, for their health, cannot be inside for long: ideally a week at the most. Trees are sold with their roots in a burlap bound ball. You will need to prepare the hole for the planting before the ground freezes and while it is possible to dig. When you bring the tree inside, locate it away from fireplaces and heat sources. The tree does need water so you will need a big bucket for the root ball. Water it thoroughly. Excess water will drain through the root ball. It should not be sitting in water but have several inches of water in the bottom of the bucket. Water, if needed, again when there is very little standing water. Minimize the lights used on the tree. Get the tree out of the house and into the ground as soon as possible after the holiday. Remove anything that will not decompose, including plastic burlap, mesh, wire. Be sure there is nothing at all around the trunk. The rootball should not be completely covered but instead several inches above ground. That should mimic how it was in the ground before purchase. Build a bed around the raised rootball. Do not fertilize until spring. Stake the tree upright to assist in withstanding winter winds.

Enjoy your plants. Best wishes for continued holiday memories as you care for them throughout the year.

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