Holiday Plant Care Checklist
When choosing a Christmas tree this month, select one with firm needles that don’t drop off when the tree is raised up a few inches and dropped to the ground. The bottom of the stump should be moist with some sap present. Trees that were cut weeks or even months ago will drop their needles shortly after being brought indoors. The trees that retain their needles the longest are the balsam and white firs; red, white and Scots pines; and Douglas fir. Once the tree is at home, cut another 2 inches off the stump and immediately plunge the tree into a bucket of warm water. It’s not necesssary to add preservatives to the water. Make sure the stand is full of water each day. A freshly cut tree can take up as much as one gallon of water in a day. If left in a stand without water, the tree will form a seal across the stump which prevents it from taking up any more water. Dry trees can become serious fire hazards.
Gardeners interested in purchasing live trees and then planting them in their yards are taking a big risk in this area. Those who live in milder climates have much more success than those who live in areas where the ground has frozen by the time the tree is ready to be planted outside. Live balled and burlapped trees or those planted in containers can remain in the house for no more than one week before they break their dormancy. Trees must be acclimated gradually to indoor conditions before they are brought inside for one week and then acclimated gradually to outdoor conditions before they are planted in the ground. In most cases, the large planting hole must be dug earlier in the season before the ground freezes and the extra dirt kept in a garage where it won’t freeze.
Pot up new amaryllis bulbs in wide, squat containers using soilless mix. Allow the “shoulders” of the bulb to remain above soil level; water well once and then allow soil to dry out before watering again. Keep the pot away from direct sun, drafts, and heating vents. As the stalk grows, rotate the pot for even growth. Most amaryllis send up the stalk and flowers first. After flowering, allow the stalk to yellow and wither before removing from the bulb. When leaves emerge, continue to water the plant. After May 15, take the plant outside to receive morning sun and fertilize regularly with a dilute 10-10-10 or 15-15-15 mix. Bring the bulb in before October 15 for its resting period.
Either remove decorative foil from bottom of gift plant pots or punch holes in the foil to allow water to drain properly.
Flowering azaleas require moist soil, bright light, and occasional misting. Flowers will remain for months if old blossoms are quickly removed and the plant receives adequate moisture. Take the plant outdoors after May 15 to a semishaded spot in the garden where it receives morning light. Bring it back indoors before October 15.
Cyclamen plants prefer quite cool indoor conditions. Water them only when the soil dries out, and avoid splashing water on foliage. Remove faded flowers and their stems as soon as possible to keep the plant blooming in a tidy fashion.
Ivy topiary is a popular holiday plant that can last for years if given proper care. Ivy also prefers quite cool conditions in bright light far away from heating vents or fireplaces. Mist the plant regularly or swish upside down in a bucket of tepid water to keep the foliage clean and free of mites. As new growth emerges, train tendrils to desired form. Take the plant outside after May 15.
Poinsettia plants appreciate bright light away from heating vents, fireplaces, and drafty windows or doors. Maintain even moisture (but never soggy); plants will wilt dramatically if allowed to dry out.
Moth orchids prefer warm rooms in bright, but not direct, sun. Sudden temperature changes can cause a plant to drop buds. Orchids potted in fir bark generally require once-a-week watering. Those in potting soil can be watered less often. Moth orchids will bloom for months. Remove drying buds to maintain the beauty of the plant. After flowering, allow the stem to yellow before removing it. Begin fertilizing the plant twice a month with a dilute orchid fertilizer. This will encourage a new stem and more flowers the following year.
Paperwhite narcissus will require a cage or a ring of raffia tied around them to keep them from flopping as they grow. If purchased as bulbs, grow them in a shallow dish filled with pebbles rather than soil. Arrange the bulbs close together and cover them with pebbles, with just their tips exposed. The weight of the pebbles helps to keep them from falling to the side as they grow. Water just enough to encourage root growth, without soaking the bulbs. Discard after flowering, but rinse and keep the pebbles for future forced bulbs.
Amaryllis bulbs that have flowered will now send up leaves. Allow the flower stalk to yellow and wither before removing it from the bulb. Keep bulb and leaves in bright light and continue with normal watering. After May 15, take the potted bulb with long, straplike leaves outside and place it in the garden where it receives morning sun. Fertilize every 10 to 14 days with a liquid 10-10-10 or 15-15-15 mix. The fertilizer is necessary to replenish the bulb for a new season’s flower display. In fall, before the Chicago area’s average frost date of October 15, bring the bulb inside for its resting period. If leaves have yellowed, remove them from the bulb. If they are still green, allow them to yellow before removing them from the bulb. Take the bulb out of its pot, shake off dirt, and place in a cool (40 to 50 degrees), dark room. Signs of new green growth can occur eight to 12 weeks later. At that time, cut off any dried roots from the bulb and repot it in a short, wide pot, using soilless mix. Water well this first time but then let the soil dry a bit before watering again. Place the pot in bright, indirect light and rotate the pot as the flower stalk begins to grow, thus assuring straight growth.
Flowering azaleas will bloom for months in a bright window when provided with even moisture, occasional misting, and quick removal of spent blossoms. The plant can be taken outside to a partially shaded spot in the garden once all danger of frost has passed in May. At that time, begin to fertilize twice a month with a dilute 10-10-10 solution. Some gardeners prefer to use a liquid fertilizer especially for acid-loving plants. Bring the plant back indoors before fall frost arrives.
Cyclamen plants will continue to bloom for a few weeks if they are kept in a north window in a quite cool room (55 to 60 degrees) and watered enough to keep the soil evenly moist, never soggy. Avoid splashing the crown of the plant or the foliage as this might promote mold. Remove fading flowers and their stems as needed. Most gardeners find it too difficult to force the plant to bloom again the following season. Those willing to take the challenge should follow these suggestions. As foliage and flowers begin to fade, withhold water. Remove all dead foliage from the tuber, clean off the soil, and store the tuber in peat moss or vermiculite in a dark, cool (50 degrees) spot for its dormant period. Later in spring or summer, check the tuber for new growth. As soon as growth begins, repot the tuber with its top half exposed and bottom half buried in fresh soilless mix. Resume normal watering and fertilize with a dilute 10-10-10 or 15-15-15 mix twice a month. Cyclamen benefits from summers spent outside in a protected spot in the garden where it receives morning sun. Bring the plant indoors before autumn frost.
Poinsettia plants can also be a challenge to keep year-round, and most gardeners discard the plant after the holidays. However, those trying to force it to rebloom the following season can follow these guidelines. As long as the plant looks healthy, continue to provide it with even moisture, warm temperatures in a bright location, out of direct sun. In six to eight weeks, it will begin to lose its leaves and turn slightly off-color. At that point, cut the entire plant back to 6 inches and repot in a larger pot, adding enough extra soilless mix or potting soil to fill the pot. Water thoroughly and place in a south-facing window. Begin to fertilize twice a month with a dilute 20-20-20 mix. New growth should begin. Begin pinching new stems back once a month to encourage bushy growth. Continue this pinching until the end of summer. In mid-May, after all danger of frost has passed, gradually introduce the plant to the outdoors, bringing it back in at night until the nighttime temperature remains above 60 degrees. Place the pot in a sunny spot where it is protected from strong, afternoon summer sun. Water and fertilize regularly. When night temperatures approach 60 degrees, it’s time to bring the plant inside to a sunny windowsill. By the end of September, the plant must be placed in a completely dark closet or covered with a plastic bag every night from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. — no exceptions! After 8 a.m., it may be placed back in a sunny window but must be returned to the closet at 5 p.m. This dark treatment is necessary for the plant to set its flower buds. Provide normal water and monthly fertilizer during the day. Poinsettia plants thrive in warm rooms with bright light and suffer if exposed to drafts, sudden temperature changes, or excess dryness from heating vents. Continue this treatment until the middle of December, when the plant should be fully colored up and can remain on display for the holidays.
Moth orchid, or Phalaenopsis, will bloom for months during the winter. Continue to provide bright light and keep it out of direct sun in a warm room. During the winter, try to provide extra humidity from pebble trays or humidifiers, or move the plant into a bright bathroom where humidity is high from daily showers. Flowers and developing buds will drop if the plant is moved to a cold room or exposed to drafts. After flowering, allow the stem to yellow before cutting it off at the base of the plant. Now begin to fertilize the plant twice a month with a dilute orchid fertilizer. Wash the foliage monthly. It’s not necessary to take this plant outdoors for the summer; it actually prefers indoor conditions. Continue normal watering and fertilizing until a new stem appears, approximately 10 to 12 months later. When the plant initiates flower buds, discontinue fertilizing.
Any hardy tulips, daffodils, grape hyacinths, or other hardy bulbs that were planted in soil and displayed over the holidays should be treated in the same manner as they would if they were growing outdoors. After blooming, allow the foliage to yellow and wither before removing it from the bulb. Continue to water the bulbs as the soil dries out and fertilize monthly with a 10-10-10 or 15-15-15 dilute fertilizer. Plant the bulbs outside in April or May in a sunny location with good drainage. As you would with other bulbs, plant them at a depth equal to three times their height. Bulbs will not bloom again until the following spring.