Someone said to me the other day that he guessed it was hard to make the garden inviting this time of the year. The winter garden does not have to be boring; it can be just as beautiful as the summer garden. Camellias, daffodils, mahonias, pansies, berries, bark, and even the form of bare branches can make the winter landscape as wonderful as your summer one. Join me at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County for a program on the winter garden, Tuesday, January 22 at 2 pm in the Ayers Room. The program is free.
Come learn about the glory of winter.
Holiday buying is in high gear as shoppers crowd the stores and malls. Many are carrying out wonderful plants–Christmas cactus, poinsettias, and amaryllis. Lucky recipients or the shoppers themselves will decorate with beautiful living plants. To keep these plants looking their prettiest over the holiday season here is some information about taking care of them.
Growing an amaryllis always reminds me of the Jack and the Beanstalk story – that magical process as they shoot up in days once you begin to water. Amaryllis come in many colors from white to red to striped to pink to salmon. Last year I planted one called Apple Blossom; the huge pink and white striped blossoms were a delight for weeks. Producing a gorgeous plant is super easy– just a few simple rules. Amaryllis prefer a sunny window; water sparingly while it just begins to sprout and grow, increasing the amount of water as the stalk shoots up and blooms appear. Plant the bulb in a small pot up to its neck in good soil with good drainage; be careful of the roots when you plant. Within a few days of potting, watering, and placing it in the sunny window, it will begin to sprout. I turn mine frequently, so it does not lean too much towards the light. The leaves can get about 1 ½ feet long with the flower stem getting even longer. Be prepared to stake or you may find, as I did, that it will topple over as the blooms get so heavy. It usually takes about 7 to 10 weeks for the bloom to show, but part of the fun is watching it grow. After the plant flowers, you can make it flower again but this second flowering is more complicated. Cut off the old flowers, and when the stem begins to droop, cut it off. Put an amaryllis outside, after the danger of frost has passed, and keep it watered and fertilized. When the leaves begin to yellow in the fall, cut the leaves off and store the bulb in a cool place for at least six weeks. That place doesn’t have to be completely dark as, say, for a poinsettia. After six weeks, take out the bulb; plant it again and the cycle starts all over.
Our wonderful, probably most well known, Christmas plant, the familiar red poinsettia has been joined by ones with flowers in a rainbow of colors. I have seen white, yellow, polka dotted, even pink. In a poinsettia the colorful parts are not actually flower petals but bracts, which technically are modified leaves. Care of the poinsettia is a bit more difficult than that of the amaryllis. That care actually begins before you leave the store. Since the poinsettia flower is the small green or yellow bud that is situated in the middle of the bract (the colorful petals), you want to take a close look at that part first. Choose plants that have unopened flower buds, or those where the buds are just beginning to open. If these buds are dry or missing, your flowers won’t last much longer. Choose a plant that is full, with nice green leaves. Check the leaves on the underside for insects . And, here is something really important: wrap your poinsettia in a protective sleeve or a paper bag to carry out to your car as poinsettias hate wind and cold. Poinsettias do not like to sit in a freezing cold car for hours while you shop either. That time in a cold car could cause the leaves to drop early.
Now you have your flowers home. Here the old rule, the right place for the right plant, is again important. That right place may not be your best choice for display. So here’s what to do: keep it in the right place when company is not present, and than move it back to its display place when they are. Poinsettias love bright, not direct, sunlight–near a bright window but not in it. If the light is too low they will drop their leaves.
Okay, now for watering. Poinsettias don’t want to be too wet or too dry. If they get too dry they will drop their leaves; if they remain in standing water they will get root rot and drop their leaves. So it might be a good idea to make a few holes in the wrapping paper and set it in a saucer which is emptied after each watering.
Poinsettias also do not like to get too hot or too cold; they, especially, do not like drafts. All of this leads to the plant’s decline and loss of leaves. Set your plant away from the heat vents and away from outside doors. They would really appreciate the company of other plants or being able to sit in a gravel tray which has water in it–they will enjoy the humidity.
Now the rest of the story–what to do with the poinsettia after the holiday is over. In early April, cut it back to 6 to 8 inches in height and put it outside in the shade after all danger of frost has passed.. Water it and fertilize it when new growth appears. Prune it until September 1. You can repot over the summer but use a mix similar to the one it was already planted in, and bring it in doors before the weather gets cool. It is a challenge but you can get them to rebloom. They will need to spend some time in the dark, and I mean reallydark, from 5 pm to 7 or 8 am. And during the day they must be in bright indirect sunlight. Even if they rebloom, it is never like the first time, so I would just suggest enjoying them over the holiday, tossing them, and getting a new ones when the stores sell them again the next year.
My favorite movie of all time is Cactus Flower with Ingrid Bergman, Walter Matthau, and Goldie Hawn. It is the story of a prickly nurse who begins to bloom, just like the cactus on her desk. The last scene in the movie is a shot of her cactus blooming its heart out on her desk. And that is the story of the Christmas cactus. Last week I saw one that was so small it looked like a dwarf (but in full bloom) and staff told me hers was huge but never bloomed. What made the difference? I suspect the growing conditions, especially the intensity of the light. They love a sunny location indoors; they can summer outside in a shady location. Leaves can be burned by too much direct sunlight. When they come inside, change the light gradually. Cactus must have well-drained soil. There is soil sold especially for succulents but with some research you can mix your own. Refrain from fertilizing while the plant is blooming. The Christmas cactus is not a true cactus so the rules about watering are not the same. It is not quite as drought tolerant. But it is still a succulent and, as such, can store water in its leaves. Water when the top half of the soil in the pot feels try to the touch. How much you water, will vary according to the conditions the plant grows in. During the summer keep the soil evenly moist, but in the winter just to keep it from wilting.
In October give it no water. You can begin to water again in November but don’t over water. As many other plants do, your cactus would appreciate a bed of gravel kept moist with water. When your cactus finishes blooming, don’t water if for six weeks, and when it starts to grow again, resume watering. When the first growth appears in the spring apply liquid houseplant fertilizer in a weak solution every two to three weeks.
Cactus prefers warm temperatures; cooler temps can be used to get it to set buds. After October it does need cooler nights, so keep it away from heat vents, fireplaces. Repot your cactus when the pots are filled with roots in the same type of soil in which it has been growing. The best time to repot is in the spring but it can be done anytime. When you display it, keep it away from drafts and heat sources.
Many things can cause a cactus to drop its buds: overwatering, cold drafts, being too close to a heat source, or not enough potash in the soil. If bud drops, water sparingly. Although the cactus is easy to grow, getting it to bloom may be different story. For the best reblooming, try a medium light intensity, and a soil high in organic matter, being careful not to allow the soil to dry out and to water when the top begins to feel dry. Cool temps or long nights are essential to get a cactus to bloom ( nights near 55 degrees and days below 65 degrees. Some suggest that cactus plants should be kept in total darkness until flower buds begin (from late September to mid October). Do not fertilize and only water to keep leaves from shriveling. Once the buds form, bring the cactus out of the closet and resume normal care. Here is another example of deciding how important a blooming plant is to you for the holidays; in this instance I might buy a new one and let the old ones just keep it company.
A cautionary note on another favorite type of Christmas greenery – mistletoe. The berries are extremely toxic to humans and pets – so if you choose to use it in your home for decorations do so without the berries.
Enjoy these beautiful holiday plants, along with other offerings found typically this time of the year. A little care will keep them beautiful for weeks of pleasure.
Information used in this blog was obtained from sources on the Internet (web site for Fernlea Flowers), from publications from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, and from "Garden Talk" featured in The Birmingham News.
Winter is approaching; while we still have pretty days to garden, spend them outside. Last week it was 70 degrees, tomorrow morning the weather forecasters say it will be about 30 plus degrees. We finally have had some rain after weeks of dry days. Here are a few chores and fun things to do to "put your garden to bed."
Plant cold weather color such as pansies and snap dragons. Winter is the time to put spring blooming bulbs in the ground. In our climate zone tulips are considered an annual but daffodils can last for many seasons. A little research will help you choose daffodils which are more tolerant of summers heat and humidity. There are so many bulbs in the trade–have fun and plant a few new ones. Quality companies providing nice bulbs also provide wonderful planting instructions. You can check on garden watchdog.com for a company’s reputation.
The leaves and the pine straw are falling as fast as we can clean them up making now the perfect time to start a compost pile. There is an art to building a great compost pile with a certain mix of ingredients. The Extension Service at ACES.EDU has informative publications on how to have successful compost.
Since we have an abundance of materials, now is a great time to mulch your gardens and flower beds. Since I don’t get enough straw, I often rake up what others are throwing away for mulch for my garden. Mulch will help improve your soil, protect your plants from the cold, and provide a pleasing look to your garden. Leaves chopped up with a lawnmower make an excellent mulch; be careful using fresh grass clippings, which may have been sprayed with herbicides and fertilizers, directly on the garden. Better to add them to the compost heap and let them decompose for next year.
Take a look at your trees as the leaves are falling off and remove any dead or diseased limbs. Now is not the time to remove living, healthy limbs with a major pruning. Pruning healthy limbs now on trees or plants will encourage them to sprout. This tender foliage can be bitten off when the cold does arrive.
Clean up your perennial and annual gardens. It is nice to leave the heads on your coneflowers for the birds to eat the seed. Speaking of birds, make sure your bird feeders are clean and stocked with fresh seed; keep your bird baths supplied with clean water so the birds have a drink.
Hoses can be drained and stored; irrigation systems turned off, and faucets wrapped for the winter. Make sure lawn tools are drained of gasoline if you don’t intend to use them over the winter.
And the most important thing about this change of seasons is that we are entering the best time of the year to plant in our area. Your new additions can spend the winter months developing a strong root system without worrying about flowers and new growth. Mother Nature will help keep them watered. (However, if we have extended dry spells you may need to provide a little extra moisture to brand new plantings.)
"Putting the garden" to bed is a great exercise; it will be neat and ready to face the harsh days of winter. The garden and you will have a whole new attitude.
Hayes Jackson is presenting a workshop, "Camellias for the Winter Landscape," at Cane Creek Community Gardens from 10 until 3 on November 8th at Cane Creek Community Gardens. Lunch is provided. The cost is $15. You must pre-register with the Extension office (256-237-1621) by November 5 so they know how much food to prepare.