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Keeping those cheery plants alive for months if not years after the holidays


They are meant to bring joy, but the responsibility of providing aftercare for holiday plants can transform them into burdens instead.

Even the luxury of fresh flowers can turn sour on a recipient, who may feel particularly black-thumbed when the heads of roses droop before the flowers open, or a $50 arrangement looks as limp as last week's salad before the big day is out.

With the holiday season here, the do's and don'ts of caring for cut flowers and flowering plants bear repeating.

Christmas cactus: The badly named Christmas cactus (Zygocactus truncatus or Schlumbergera bridgesii), which actually blooms closer to Thanksgiving, is perhaps the least tricky of the popular holiday season plants. As long as the owner has bright light, this sturdy creature is easy to care for, and it will rebloom for years if you follow its water and rest needs carefully.

The trick: don't water it year-round as if it were always growing at full speed. In spring and summer, water it regularly when the soil is dry to the touch and feed occasionally. Once fall comes, let it have some peace and water only enough to keep the foliage from shrinking. Once the flower buds have been set, begin to water regularly again. A more drastic treatment for a difficult-to-bloom plant: Take it out of the bright light for a month or so, starting around mid-September or slightly later, and stop watering completely to encourage the setting of flower buds. An unused room with dim light in the day and none at night would be the ideal place (darkness at night helps trigger bud production). This may seem cruel, but it isn't; the succulent stems will have enough reserve moisture to carry the plant through. At the start of November, bring the cactus back into the light, and water regularly right through the end of the flowering stage.

Poinsettia: Professional gardeners and beginners really differ on the aftercare for this synonym for holiday color. Experts invariably say just pitch the plant once it has served its decorative purpose, as you would cut flowers, and buy another next year. But again and again, novices determined to get the most for their dollar (and terrified of letting anything die in their care) demand the secret to repeat performance.

If you insist on going to the trouble, here is the plan recommended by the Society of American Florists, a trade group headquartered in Virginia:

At New Year's, feed the plant (repeat feeding regularly till Thanksgiving). Remove faded or dry portions of the plant in March, and top up the potting soil in the pot. By Memorial Day, the plant could be 3 feet tall, but cut back every branch about halfway to encourage bushiness, and pot up to a slightly larger container. Move the plant outdoors gradually, first into indirect light, later into the sun.

Re-prune at about the Fourth of July to prompt more side branching, and give it extra food. About Labor Day, bring your 4- to 5-foot plant indoors to a spot where it will get six hours of bright sun.

Here comes the hard part: Starting Sept. 21, the first day of

autumn, give the plant 14 hours of complete, uninterrupted darkness every night (in a tightly closed closet, for instance), and in the daytime, 10 hours of bright light (supplement with artificial plant lighting if this is not possible otherwise). Night temperatures should be cool (about 60). At Thanksgiving, discontinue the overnight treatment and reduce water and fertilizer. The bracts should color up in time for the holidays.

Whether you save the poinsettia or not, most important is getting the most out of the plant this year. Three months of color is possible with careful shopping for a fresh plant and proper treatment at home. Choose a plant with a small, tight cluster of yellow flower buds in the center of all those red bracts. At home, keep the soil moist but not soggy, and keep the plant away from drafts or heat, as from radiators. Choose a bright room -- this is a live plant and needs light to thrive. Cool nights (about 60 degrees) help prolong its attractiveness.

Flowering bulbs: Flowering bulbs are another popular holiday gift, amaryllis and paper-white narcissus being among the most popular. Grow them as you would any houseplant, providing strong light and regular watering (no fertilizer, during preflowering and flowering, though). Taking the plants out of direct sun once the flowers begin to open will prolong the blooms, as will keeping them in a cool room.

When paper-whites have faded, throw them out. When amaryllis flowers wither, cut off the whole flower stalk; leaves should begin appear next. An amaryllis can be carried over by growing it as a foliage plant all winter, spring and summer (plunging the plant, pot and all, in a bright but indirectly lit spot outside works well).

In fall, around the time that nights grow cool, bring the plant indoors, withhold water completely, and place in darkness for at least a month to encourage dormancy. Two months of rest may not be too long -- sometimes, the leaves won't even go yellow. Cut off the old foliage when you bring the plant back into the light around November, replenish old soil as needed, and water thoroughly once.

If no life appears (a flower bud is what you hope will poke through from inside the bulb), let it sit without water for a couple of weeks longer. Then water again, and pray. Amaryllis can be cantankerous, taking a year off from bloom at first, but at $5 to $10 a bulb, it's worth trying to get them to behave.

Greens: As the decorating process begins, a tip: Leave evergreens outdoors in a bucket of water up to their necks as long as possible, and recut and split or crush their stems after you buy them. If they feel less than fresh, try submerging them in a tub of warm water overnight before making them into wreaths, garlands and the like. Afterward, dry them off slightly and spray with an anti-desiccant such at Wilt-Prufe to keep moisture inside the plant tissues longer.

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