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    Save the Date: Perennial Plant Society’s 30th Plant Sale is April 4, 2020, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the new Expo 3 Building at The Fairgrounds Nashville. Here’s where you can find the newest varieties of perennials, shrubs, vines and annuals from local growers, along with long-time, never-fail favorites, ready for spring planting. Learn more at the PPS website.

     

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Longer life for poinsettias

Question: How long do poinsettias last? The plant I brought home early in December still looks nice, and I hate to throw it out. Will it keep growing?

poinsettiaThe length of a poinsettia’s life generally depends on how much care you’re willing to give it. Some people bring it home to display for a few days, and without any attention at all it dries out and begins to drop its leaves within a couple of weeks.

If yours is still doing well, you’ve given it at least the minimum amount of TLC: indirect light in a room that’s not too warm, enough water to keep the soil moist but not soggy. If you continue to care for it, the plant should last well beyond the holidays. Continue reading

‘Cactus’ blooms for the holidays

My Christmas cactus always blooms early, sometimes before Thanksgiving. Is this normal? How can I keep it blooming longer?

holiday-cactus-thanksgivingIt’s possible the plant you call Christmas cactus is actually a Thanksgiving cactus – yes, there are two slightly different varieties. Look at the stem segments: if the margins have two to four sharp serrations along each edge, the plant is Schlumbergera truncata, the botanical name for Thanksgiving cactus, which blooms slightly earlier. If the segments are more rounded, the plant is S. bridgesii, Christmas cactus. That’s the one more likely to bloom in December or later.

Both are photoperiodic plants – they respond to the change in proportions of light and dark, and begin to form buds as days shorten and nights begin to get longer. They also thrive in the same conditions: bright light and a moderate amount of water, and a dose of balanced fertilizer every now and then. (In her book The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual, houseplant expert Barbara Pleasant suggests once-a-month feeding in winter.)

Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti are generally easy-care plants. They benefit from being outdoors during the summer, but bring them inside when nighttime temperatures drop to 40 to 50 degrees. Place them out of bright sunlight, then when buds begin to form, bring the plant into the bright light.

One other thing to know: when the plant is full of buds, it sometimes seems to resent being moved, so once it’s placed in a good spot for winter, try to avoid moving it. “Once plants begin blooming, they may drop their blossoms if exposed to any kind of stress,” Barbara Pleasant writes. A stable environment should keep those blooms going longer.

They are easy to share. Schlumbergera propagates easily from stem cuttings, and a plant can live for several years, even a decade or two.

Norfolk Island pine for Christmas

QUESTION: I live in a small apartment and don’t have room for a big Christmas tree, so I’m thinking of hanging ornaments and small lights on a Norfolk Island pine in a pot that is sold as a houseplant. How should I care for the plant when Christmas is over?

norfolk-island-pineIf you treat it carefully, a Norfolk Island pine is a fine small alternative to a big tree – you may even see them sold in some garden centers already bedecked with a few baubles. If you’re decorating your own, use lightweight ornaments – heavier ornaments could break the limbs – and use lights sparingly. A small string of LED bulbs should lend a festive glow. Remove everything shortly after Christmas is over.

As a houseplant, place the tree it in a cool room in a spot that gets bright, indirect light – a south- or west-facing window is good – and give it a quarter-turn once a week to encourage it to grow straight up.

The biggest threats to Norfolk Island pine are dry soil and dry air. Keep the soil consistently moist, but don’t let the pot sit in water. Increase humidity in its environment as much as possible. A daily misting could go a long way toward keeping the plant healthy. If the air remains too dry, the Norfolk Island pine responds by dropping its needles, and once they’re gone, they don’t grow back.

Houseplant specialists suggest using a balanced fertilizer once a month in summer. And be on the lookout for pests, because spider mites and mealybugs are drawn to this plant. A cautionary note about placing it outdoors when the weather warms up: it’s a very tender plant, and will be damaged if the temperature falls below 40 degrees.

With care, a Norfolk Island pine can last for many years. They are native to the South Pacific (Norfolk Island is a small speck of land between Australia and New Zealand), and in their home environment they grow very large. Indoors as a houseplant, the tree usually grows, over time, to about 6 feet.

Keep your Valentine flowers fresh

Happy Valentine’s Day! Did someone give you flowers?

Mixed bouquet

Whether they’re cut flowers or potted flowering plants, from a florist or from the nearest grocery store, here are tips from a variety of sources and experts on keeping the blooms fresh so you can enjoy them as long as possible.

mixed bouquetCut flowers: If someone hands you a bouquet of cut flowers in a cellophane wrapper, try to get them back in water as quickly as you can. Flowers that have been out of water for any length of time have reduced ability to conduct water into the stems, so hold the stems underwater and cut a bit from the bottom and leave them in water until you can arrange them in a vase.

Use a clean vase and cool water with a floral preservative added. When you cut the stems to the desired length, remove the lower leaves. Check the water level of any arrangement of cut flowers every day, and change the water frequently. Keep the flowers away from heat sources and out of cold drafts.

Miniature rosesMiniature roses: If you want your miniature rose to keep blooming, place the pot where it will get a lot of sunlight. Water the plant thoroughly when the soil feels dry, and groom the plant regularly to remove dead flowers and foliage. Fertilize in spring and summer. Miniature roses can be planted outdoors when the weather warms.

Florist azaleasFlorist azalea: Bloom time will be longer if you keep the azaleas cool at night, though they also do best indoors when they receive good sunlight. Keep the soil moist. If it makes it until spring in good condition, plant it a part-shade spot outdoors.

CyclamenCyclamen: These plants also require sun during the day and cool temperatures at night to develop flower buds. They will quickly droop if they are allowed to get too dry. Most houseplant lovers enjoy these for a few weeks or a couple of months while they are in bloom, and discard them when their time is up.

Rose closeupAnd when the subject is roses, I can’t do better than to give a shout-out to fellow garden blogger Chris VanCleave at Redneck Rosarian. If someone has ceremoniously presented a beautiful bouquet cradled in a sturdy box or wrapped in cellophane, the blooms require (and deserve!) special care. Here’s a link to his excellent advice on preserving your Valentine’s Day roses.

Poinsettia season

I bought a large, beautiful poinsettia for the holiday that I’d like to keep as long as possible. How long will it last? I’d like to keep it growing until spring and plant it outdoors when the weather is warmer.
Poinsettia

To keep a poinsettia looking its best through the holidays, here are the basics: Place it in a spot in the house that gets indirect light in a room that’s not too warm – 68 to 70 degrees is best. Make sure it’s not near heating vents or in a place where there’s a cold draft. Keep the soil moist, but don’t let the pot sit in water. In fact, if there is a foil wrapper around the plastic pot, remove the wrapper when you water to let it drain. When a poinsettia wilts, that may be an indication that it’s staying too wet.
If you take care of it, the poinsettia should last through the holidays and well beyond.

Poinsettia is a tropical plant, native to Mexico, so don’t be in a rush to get it outside. As spring approaches, cut it back to about eight inches tall and fertilize with an all-purpose plant food. After there is no longer any danger of frost, re-pot the poinsettia and set it outdoors, or plant it in the ground where it will grow into a nice, interesting green plant that will last until the first frost.

What we think of as poinsettia flowers are technically bracts, or modified leaves. The yellow flowers are in the center of the bracts. Some gardeners are able to “re-bloom” a poinsettia plant, but it takes patience and impeccable timing to provide the right conditions of light and dark needed to produce the colorful bracts.
Want to know more? The University of Illinois Extension offers a wealth of interesting information about this tradition of the season at its Poinsettia Pages.

Shop the landscape for holiday decor

Gardeners know how easy it is to come up with creative ideas to decorate for the holidays. A stroll around the yard with a pair of pruning shears can provide an armload of evergreens, branches, leaves, berries, pine cones, seed pods, clippings and other natural materials to assemble festive, one-of-a-kind decorations in your home.

Christmas mantel

Greenery from the garden — boxwood, holly leaves, berries and magnolia leaves — help brighten a mantel for the holidays.

Here are guidelines and a few ideas for using your garden’s gifts to deck the halls, hearth, dining table and more:

  • When you cut branches from evergreens, prune responsibly; you don’t want to run the shape of your shrubs!
  • Fresh greenery dries out quickly and is flammable. Harvest the materials as close to the time you’ll use it so it will be as fresh as possible. Keep greenery away from vents, fireplaces, candles and other heat sources; check it every couple of days and replace anything that has dried out or is turning brown.
  • As you cut material to bring indoors, pound the ends of branches with a mallet, then soak them in water overnight so they will absorb as much water as possible. Consider treating greenery with an anti-dessicant spray (available at nurseries or florists), which adds a waxy coat to slow the process of water loss.
  • Place arrangements in water whenever possible, or use florists foam. Mist evergreen and natural arrangements every couple of days to slow the drying process.
  • Many berries are poisonous, so to be safe, don’t use greenery with berries in a household with small children or pets.

Trees and shrubs that are a good source for nature-made decorations include boxwood, magnolia, nandina, holly, aucuba, rosemary, camellia, ivy, pine (needles and cones), cedar (though it dries out more quickly than other evergreens), yew, spruce and other evergreen shrubs.

And here are a few fast and easy ideas for bring festive touches of greenery into your home for the holidays:

  • Place sprigs of greenery around a serving platter or punch bowl.
  • Use branches of evergreens above mirrors, pictures or doors. A suggestion is to arrange two bundles of greenery with stem ends together and secured with wire hidden with more greenery or ribbons.
  • Make an easy centerpiece using leaves and sprigs of greenery arranged with ribbons, ornaments, pine cones or berries.
  • Twine fresh ivy around or through a napkin ring for a touch of greenery at each place setting.
  • Place sprigs of fresh greenery in a hurricane globe or clear vase with pine cones or other small Christmas-y items.

 

Making plans for a great year in the garden

QUESTION: What are YOUR garden goals for 2012? Here are mine:

-Grow more flowers. In my yard, that means finding more flowers that thrive in the semi-shade that’s provided by the graceful maples and the giant, beautiful elm tree in our back yard.

-Keep trying for better success with tomatoes. That means figuring out how to outsmart squirrels. (Maybe I should give up on tomatoes in the kitchen garden out back and move tomato production to my garden plot at Farm in the City, the community garden I belong to downtown.)

-Double the produce by doubling the space for growing. I’d like to take on another raised bed at Farm in the City if there’s one available.

-Grow better peppers. I know that the secret is lots of sun and consistent water. There’s a lot of sun at Farm in the City; I need to work on the water part.

-Okra: plant less, pick more often.

-Grow more pole beans. Grow more cucumbers. Try squash again.

-Plant more shade-tolerant herbs. This is a project I started last spring – finding herbs that can grow happily in the shadiest of the eight raised beds in the kitchen garden out back. Success so far with curly parsley and red-veined sorrel. Hope to plant sweet woodruff and more borage, maybe nasturtium. Still trying to find lovage.

-Make peace with the wildlife in the backyard, while at the same time finding a way to keep the rabbits from eating the hostas.

-Plant more big, blooming perennials and annuals in the three little garden beds at Mom’s house.

-Visit as many public gardens as I can manage (especially interested in visiting Eudora Welty’s home and garden in Jackson, Miss. this spring).

-Enjoy every minute I can spend gardening, and writing, talking and teaching about gardening.

What plans do you have for your garden this year?

O, Christmas pine

QUESTION: I’m using a Norfolk Island pine as a small Christmas tree. What do I need to do to keep it looking nice, and how do I care for it when the holidays are over?

Norfolk Island pine provides a nice alternative to the big tree at Christmas, especially if your space is small or your decorating is simple. It’s best not to load it down with large, heavy ornaments that could break the feathery limbs. Use lights sparingly, if at all, and remove them as soon as you can after Christmas is over.

When it’s time to change it from a Christmas tree to a houseplant, place it in a spot (preferably in a cool room) that gets bright, indirect light – a south- or west-facing window is good – and give it a quarter-turn once a week to encourage it to grow straight up.

The biggest threats to Araucaria heterophylla (that’s the tree’s botanical name) are dry soil and dry air. Keep the soil consistently moist, but don’t let the pot sit in water. Increase humidity in its environment as much as possible. A daily misting could go a long way toward keeping the plant healthy. If the air remains too dry, the Norfolk Island pine responds by dropping its needles, and once they’re gone, they don’t grow back.

Houseplant specialists suggest using a balanced fertilizer once a month in summer, and be on the lookout for pests. Spider mites and mealybugs are drawn to this plant. A cautionary note about placing it outdoors: it’s a very tender plant, and will be damaged if the temperature falls below 40 degrees.

With care, a Norfolk Island pine can last for many years. They grow very large in their native South Pacific environment, but in a home, the tree usually grows, over time, to about 6 feet.

Water in winter

Landscapers know this, but we casual gardeners may not remember that even though it’s winter, the garden still needs water. Pay special attention to newly planted trees and shrubs, broadleaf evergreens (which continue to “breathe” even during winter), pansy beds and perennials that you planted in the fall.

Mulch keeps soil from drying out too quickly, but if the weather is cold but very dry, the soil will eventually dry out.

 

Poinsettias in the spotlight

QUESTION: I like to decorate with poinsettias for Christmas. What’s the best way to keep them looking good from now until New Year’s?

Poinsettias are a tropical plant, native to Mexico, so the first thing to remember is to keep them out of the extreme weather. If it’s a cold day when you bring them home (less than 50 degrees), don’t leave them in the car too long, and make sure they are protected on the trip from the car to the house.

Once inside, place them in a spot that gets indirect light. They’ll do well and last longer in a room that is not overly warm – 68 to 70 degrees is just about right. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Most likely the plastic pot will be wrapped in foil; it’s best to take the foil off when you water, to avoid trapping water that will cause the roots to rot. If the leaves become dry and curled, that’s a sign that it needs water. If a poinsettia wilts, that’s an indication that it may be getting too much.

Those are the basics for keeping a poinsettia looking cheerful through the holidays. If it starts to look a little sorry after that, don’t feel bad about tossing it into the compost. However, as often happens, a poinsettia can surprise you by pushing on healthy and strong into the New Year, and it’s a shame to discard something that’s growing so vigorously.

So, let it grow. Keep the soil moist and it should continue to thrive. As spring approaches, cut it back to about 8 inches tall and fertilize with an all-purpose plant food, and after there is no longer any danger of frost, re-pot it and set it outdoors, or plant it in the ground where it can survive as a nice, interesting green plant all summer (and succumb to its inevitable fate at the first sign of frost).

Here’s an interesting tidbit that comes from California poinsettia grower Paul Ecke Ranch: National Poinsettia Day is coming up! Dec. 12 marks the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, who gets credit for introducing the plant to the U.S.