By Vicki Spencer, Master Gardener
Decorating for the holidays is always something I looked forward to doing. When my kids were young, we would go to the mountains to cut down our Christmas trees. It was a fun family outing and guaranteed plenty of fresh pine boughs for draping over the fireplace mantle, along the staircase and for making wreaths. I savored the fresh forest scent and loved the contrast of bright red bows against the greenery, but our decorations were not complete without poinsettias.
I used to think poinsettias had to be discarded after the holidays when the red bracts dropped. Then I discovered my mother’s poinsettias thriving well into spring. As it turns out, poinsettias are as easy to maintain as any houseplant; it just takes some effort to get them to bloom a second time.
You can keep poinsettias indoors or place them outside in bright, indirect light once night temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. By midsummer, if they grow considerably, prune them down to about half size, repot in potting soil and apply commercial houseplant fertilizer. When nighttime temperatures dip below 50 degrees again, bring the pots indoors.
To encourage new flowers and red bracts, poinsettias need to be kept in total darkness for 15 hours per day from September 21 to the end of October. I placed mine in a basement closet at 5 p.m. and took them out the next day at 8 a.m. This worked for me because no one used the basement. If you don’t have a room that will remain absolutely dark, you can cover the plants with a black cloth. Follow this routine religiously and your poinsettias should begin developing color by early November.
There are many other winter blooming houseplants to fulfill your craving for color after the holidays. Some plants known to bloom consistently are kalanchoe, Christmas cactus, African violets, wax begonias, geraniums and peace lilies.
Kalanchoes come in many varieties and feature waxy leaves and clusters of bright red, orange or yellow florets. I received one as a gift several years ago and keep it blooming from late fall to early spring simply by giving it full sun during the cooler months, fertilizing during active growth and moving it to a cooler location in the summer.
My sister gave me what she thought was a Christmas cactus years ago, but I think it was actually a closely related cousin: the Thanksgiving cactus. It always responds to cooler temperatures and shorter days by blooming in November. The blossoms last much longer when placed in the softer light of an eastern window.
More than 40 years ago, my mother gave me my first African violet as a cutting and I never had to buy another. She placed it in potting soil and all I had to do was water, fertilize monthly and watch it grow. You can prevent African violets from getting too spindly by keeping them away from intense southern exposure.
Need a special holiday gift idea? Try newly potted cuttings, and your loved ones can enjoy flowers all year.
Gardener Vicki Spencer has an eclectic background in conservation, water, natural resources and more.