Gardening With Mother Evelyn: Try some holiday plants that aren’t poinsettias

It’s December already. How did it come so quickly? We just finished Thanksgiving and now the holidays are almost here.

Of course, it is time to decorate with all those glorious poinsettias. If you haven’t done that yet, there is still time. But there are other blooming holiday plants, too.

Last month, we talked about keeping your poinsettias happy and healthy. You may have forgotten it or maybe you missed that issue. Most important bit of advice: Do not let your poinsettia dry out to the point of all the leaves wilting and drooping and turning yellow. We all get busy and forget to water and suddenly your poinsettia is really dry.

When that happens, the leaves will fall off and you will have a poinsettia without leaves. OK, in the grand scheme of things — world peace, family holiday gatherings, gifts to get — it’s not that big a catastrophe.

However, if you need a little refresher course on all the other good poinsettia advice, including how to make it bloom for you next year, you can go to www.weidners.com and click under the poinsettia picture.

Now, let’s talk about some of the other winter holiday plants that are really easy to grow. One blooming plant goes under various names: Thanksgiving cactus, Christmas cactus, winter cactus or holiday cactus.

Whatever you choose to call it, this is one of the easiest to grow. This winter cactus will live for years and grow larger and more beautiful each year. Your grandmother probably had one; the one you start with this year may be your family heirloom.

This winter plant is really a Schlumbergera. The one that you buy in the spring is a Shipsalidopsis. Now you know why they call them winter and spring — those names are really a mouthful.

They both look similar; both come from the high jungles of Brazil. One blooms in the winter and the other in spring. How do you know which you have? Only by when it blooms.

Do not overwater. Water only when the top inch or so of the soil is dry. Too much water and all of the buds and flowers will drop off.

Make sure that your winter cactus spends the summer outside in light shade — somewhere that is dark at night. It needs those dark nighttime hours to set buds. As soon as you see some buds starting, then you can bring it indoors and it will bloom beautifully. The most common question I get at Weidner’s Gardens: “Why isn’t my Christmas cactus blooming?”

The answer is always because the plant is in the kitchen, and every night we all go into the kitchen for a late-night snack or to feed the cat before we go to bed. The plant is not very good at numbers. It only knows it needs about 12 hours of darkness. When you turn on the lights, even for a few minutes, the plant restarts the 12-hour time clock, and bingo! Your plant thinks it is still summer. It will eventually bloom, but you’ve delayed the process.

Feed your plants lightly during the summer. Keep them dark and cool until the buds start to set. Don’t overwater, repot once a year and you will have a plant that lives for generations.

The spring cactus needs are just the opposite. They start the bud-setting process in late January when the nights are getting shorter and the days begin to get longer.

You feed them starting in February. Give them light shade, don’t overwater, repot once a year and your plants will live for generations. Pests and diseases to look out for? Slugs and snails are No. 1; sometimes mealy bugs or aphids. These are two of the easiest and prettiest plants to grow.

Amaryllis is our next most popular holiday plant.

“Elegant” best describes these flowers. Tall stems with amazing red, red and white or dark pink blooms. Put them inside on any table with some white sparkly rocks to cover the soil and maybe a maidenhair fern nearby for greenery, and you have something really beautiful.

Care is so easy. A little water, that’s all. Watch out that you don’t break that tall stem. It is not flexible and breaks easily. Trust me, I have broken more than one!

After the amaryllis is all through blooming, you can plant it right out into your garden. The best spot is one that doesn’t get too much water. Amaryllis will grow easily, multiply over time and will produce the same amazing flowers in the summer. Whoa, I can hear you now: “Mine bloomed in the winter — what is this summertime stuff?”

Summer is the natural bloom time for amaryllis. This is because bulbs shipped in for our holiday season come from the Southern Hemisphere, South America or Africa — someplace that has the opposite seasons from us.

They come in already set to bloom. Let them bloom next year in their natural bloom time, and just buy a new one each year.

As far as pests go, outside the snail is your big enemy. They love to get into the bloom spike before it is ready to open. If they eat their way in, your flowers will all have holes in them when they open. In the garden or in a pot, use that nontoxic snail bait to be sure.

Hint on Maidenhair ferns indoors: Never let them dry out, even for an hour. I keep mine in a plant saucer that is deep enough that I have an inch or so of water at all times. This fern will be happy sitting in that shallow water, so it won’t dry out.

Have a wonderful holiday season, be it Christmas or Hanukkah. It’s time for celebrating, and flowers always make a celebration a little bit better.

Next month: How to cut back your fuchsias, baskets, trees or in-the-ground fuchsias. How and when to cut back begonias, impatiens and other spring-summer plants. Plus some early bloomers that will give you easy winter/early spring color.

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