This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune online Brand Publishing "From House to Home" section, and on Menards.com.
If you are the type that does not want the holidays to end, then you probably want to make sure your Christmas plants last long after the decorations have been put away.
With advances in plant breeding, many plants and flowers sold today are heartier than their predecessors, so it's easier to make them last, says Susan Littlefield of the National Gardening Association.
This is particularly true of that holiday favorite, the poinsettia.
"They are a lot more tolerant to indoor conditions," she says. "If you can give them general houseplant care, you can keep them looking nice on your windowsill for a few months." For a poinsettia, general houseplant care means placing it in the light, but not in direct sun. A windowsill is fine if it is not drafty. Keep it away from a heat source like a radiator, or a cold source like an outside door. One of the quickest ways to kill a poinsettia is by failing to remove the decorative foil wrapping around the pot when watering. "Don't let water sit in the bottom. The roots need oxygen as well as water," Littlefield says.
"The best way to water a poinsettia is to stick your finger into the top inch of the soil. If it feels wet, hold off. If it feels dry, take the plant out of the wrapper and sit it somewhere it can drain while watering thoroughly. Make sure it is done draining before putting it back in the wrapper." You can also cut off just the bottom of the wrapper to make it easier. Fertilize the poinsettia every few weeks with houseplant fertilizer. Littlefield recommends using it at half-strength, to avoid over-fertilizing, which can be bad for roots. When buying a poinsettia that you want to last, be sure to choose a healthy plant. According to the University of Illinois Extension, you should avoid those with rolled up or yellow leaves. The soil should not be too wet or too dry. There should not be green around the edges of the bracts (the red leaves). The plant should be full on all sides, not smashed.
Getting the poinsettia home in the cold is another challenge. They should be wrapped and taken straight home if it is below 50 degrees outside. "Don't leave them in a cold car while you finish your shopping," Littlefield says. While it is possible to keep a poinsettia all year and "force" it to change color and rebloom, it is a tedious process and probably not worth the hassle, Littlefield says. "Given the availability and relatively low cost of poinsettias, it is a lot more practical to just buy another one rather than go through this whole process."
The Christmas cactus is so named because it blooms at Christmastime, and can live for decades as a houseplant. They like care and conditions similar to a poinsettia: a well-lit window away from direct sunlight, light watering when the top inch of the soil is dry, and fertilizer ever few weeks at half strength. Make sure the pot can drain out the bottom. When buying a Christmas cactus, be sure to protect it from the winter cold and don't leave it in a cold car. When winter is over, a Christmas cactus can go outside away from direct sunlight in the spring when there is no danger of frost, Littlefield says. "I live in Vermont, and I leave mine outside until the nights get cool in the fall, but before frost. That way it gets enough cold exposure for the buds to form for next Christmas." Specifically, a Christmas cactus needs at least 12 hours of darkness each night, reduced water, and temperatures of about 50-55 degrees for about six to eight weeks for buds to form. After that time, it can come inside and prepare to bloom.
It is fun to watch an amaryllis bulb come to life in the weeks before the holidays, ending in those stunning large, trumpet-shaped red flowers. The bulbs can be kept from year to year and will re-bloom in the same pot. Littlefield offers the following instructions: After the flowers fade, cut back the stalk but keep the leaves intact. Keep it on the windowsill and continue watering and fertilizing, using the methods described above. It can even be placed outside in the summer. About Oct. 1, the leaves will turn yellow and fade. This is a sign it is going through a dormant period, which will last 8-10 weeks. This is when it should go into the basement or another cool, dark place, and receive very little water and no fertilizer. After that, it should be ready to return to the windowsill and bloom again.
Mistletoe and Holly
Mistletoe and holly should be treated like bouquets, not plants that survive very long when cut, Littlefield says. They should be cut or purchased as close to the time you need them as possible. Keep them moist and cool. If they are part of a centerpiece set in floral foam that can be wetted, they will last longer. "If the greens are fresh and are kept cool before sale, they will last longer for you, too," Littlefield says.