By: Elisabeth Ginsburg
The holiday razzle-dazzle is over, and it’s back to real life. Nothing symbolizes the banality of January more than the Holiday Houseplant Hangover, a unique form of misery that comes from dealing with the remains of once-gorgeous amaryllis, paperwhites, Christmas cactus, and poinsettias.
Some people cure the condition with tough love, depositing the declining plants on the compost pile or in the trash, and speeding to the nearest garden center for a few fresh-faced African violets or moth orchids. Then there are those die-hards who consider it a moral failing to discard a desiccated poinsettia. They devote themselves to the fading botanical belles, taking all the pains necessary to ensure eventual rebloom.
If you are one of those two types, you already know what to do, but what if you are a fence-sitter, unable to decide if your flowerless Christmas cactus is worth lifting a weakened, post-holiday finger? The cure for your case of Holiday Houseplant Hangover depends on the type of plant and your level of commitment. Before making your decision, weigh the options below.
For most people, paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta varieties) are one-shot wonders. Many varieties, like the popular ‘Ziva’, are marginally hardy (USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10) outdoors in cold winter climates, though others considerably hardier. If you live where they won’t survive, make a guilt-free trip to the compost bin.
Those basking in environs with warmer winters can plant the paperwhite bulbs outside in the ground in spring, where they may prosper in years to come. Store them in a cool, dark place after they bloom indoors before planting then 6-inches down in the cool spring soil. Forced bulbs often take a year off before reblooming.
Is a poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) that you bought at a big-box store for $4.50 really worth many months of aftercare? If you think it is, it’s possible to keep it going. After the blooms fade, move it to a uniformly brightly lit spot, where the temperature hovers between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Water thoroughly when the top of the soil feels dry, but don’t let water pool in the plant saucer. Apply a soluble houseplant fertilizer once a month, according to manufacturers’ directions.
Lop the old flowering stems back to about 4-6 inches in early March, making sure a few leaves remain on each stem. This is also a good time to repot, if necessary, using a high-quality potting soil mixture, like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix.
In spring, when night temperatures consistently hover above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, place the plant in a lightly shaded outdoor location. Prune the shoots back again in mid to late July to encourage branching. Around Labor Day, bring the poinsettia inside and place in a sunny spot.
To get it to bloom, keep the plant in total darkness from 5:00 pm to 8:00 am every day, before returning it to its lighted position. You can either cover it with an opaque black cloth or place it in a dark room. Reduce water and fertilizer applications during this time. Continue this routine from October 1st to December 1st, by which time you should see the festive colored bracts we all associate with the holidays. The plant should be ready for its second turn in the spotlight.
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum hybrids) often flourish in the long-term, though they may produce fewer blooms the second year, without good care. Clip off dead flowers, but don’t remove stalks until they begin to turn yellow. As the bulb sprouts new leaves, water when the top of the soil feels dry and fertilize every two weeks.
Like poinsettias, amaryllis appreciate a summer vacation outdoors but are happiest in a sunny location. Bring them inside at Labor Day. If well cared-for and allowed to remain evergreen, the plant will eventually rebloom in its own time. To control the timing, stop watering and let the plant languish in the dark for eight to 12 weeks, returning it to a brightly lit place when new growth appears. Resume watering and fertilizing.
Amaryllis like to be cozy in their pots, so only repot every three years, making sure that the new container is no more than two inches wider than the bulb’s diameter. Detach and pot any offshoot bulbs that have sprouted. They will grow on and may eventually flower. (Click here to learn more about growing and caring for amaryllis year after year.)
Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera bridgesii, respectively) often enjoy a healthy afterlife. Thankfully, the plants are relatively unfussy. Post-bloom, keep your cactus in a bright, sunny space for the remainder of the fall and winter.
Like poinsettia, holiday cactus can vacation outdoors in semi-shaded comfort. Pinching back stems in June will result in more flowers later on. When it comes to flowering, these holiday favorites share poinsettia’s proclivity for long, dark spells. To control bloom time, the plants should spend six weeks on a regimen of fourteen hours a day in continuous darkness and ten hours of bright light, at an ideal temperature of about 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
Water holiday cactus when the soil surface is dry, except in the fall, after the plant has set buds, at which time the soil should be kept uniformly moist. Fertilize monthly from late winter through summer’s end with soluble fertilizer diluted to half strength. Every few years, repot in spring, using a mixture of six parts high quality potting mix, like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix.
Whatever option you choose to cure Holiday Houseplant Hangover, don’t add guilt to the mix. Life is too short and houseplants too plentiful to mourn a poinsettia.
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