During the holiday season, there is an abundance of plant choices that allow us gardening folks to give the perfect gift that keeps on giving. Paper whites, amaryllis, Christmas cactus, orchids and cyclamen are some of the favorites that burst forth with flowers ranging in sizes from small to large and in colors from red to creamy white. If you have been a recipient of such a gift and are now feeling a bit overwhelmed in attempting to keep it alive, here are some helpful hints to keep your living gifts healthy and thriving throughout the year!
Paper whites bulbs
Heaven forbid you were given just a bag of bulbs! Most paper whites come in very nice containers with instructions on how to get the bulbs to sprout, grow and bloom. My personal step-by-step instructions for success:
• Place the container in a cool place (50-60˚ F) away from direct rays of the sun.
• Add water only when the level drops more than an inch below the stones in the container.
• When the roots develop (in about three weeks), move the container to a sunnier location.
• As the stems grow, the water will be used up more quickly, so be sure to watch the water level.
• Once stems reach 8-10 inches, use bamboo stakes and string to keep the plants upright.
• Once blooming is complete, take the bulbs outdoors and plant to a depth of 2-3 inches in a well-drained sunny spot in the garden. Here in our coastal zone 9b, the foliage will soon turn yellow and die back, but come the following winter, the plants will return to bloom! Just be sure to water the bulbs in the late fall as new shoots appear and fertilize with a water-soluble fertilizer.
• If you love your gift and want to try starting more bulbs on your own, find a nice glass container and fill the bottom with a layer of small stones. Depending on the container size, a depth of 2-4 inches of stone should suffice. Place the bulbs on the stones, root base down, close to one another and add more stones in and around the bulbs to anchor them. Leave the tops exposed and add water to the container until the level reaches just below the base of the bulbs. Then follow the steps above.
These gorgeous bulbs are my favorite. When my mom was alive, my older brother would send her a potted amaryllis bulb in December. Once it bloomed, I was the happy recipient of the bulb in January. I took each one I was given and planted it in a well-drained sunny location by the corner of the front porch of our island home. Each spring, a magnificent display of white, pink, red and striped 6-8 inch flowers in clusters of three appeared! Three home sites and 15 years later, I still have a few of those original bulbs in our current garden because I always dug up a few before the sale of the home. Here are the steps needed to get your potted bulb off to a good start.
• Place the pot in a warm room.
• Water when the top inch of potting mix is dry to the touch. Overwatering will rot the bulb.
• Wait 2 to 8 weeks.
• As soon as a sprout appears, move the plant to a sunny window.
• Rotate the container as the stem grows taller to keep it straight. It will naturally lean toward the light.
• After the bloom is spent, plant outdoors in a well-drained sunny location with the flower stem removed but with the leaves intact. The leaves will disappear as cooler temperatures of fall occur. Next spring, the well-fed bulb will once again send up a flower stalk.
• If you want to start more bulbs, you can plant them in stone in a tall glass vase, as with the paper whites. I prefer to use a nice container and plant the bulb or bulbs in good potting mix (such as Miracle Gro® Potting Mix) that I have first moistened. I place the mix into a plastic bucket then I slowly add warm water (dry potting mix is hard to water). Once the potting mix has absorbed enough water to be good and moist, I put it into the planting container, filling the container only half full. I then put the bulb/bulbs in on top of the mix and fill in with additional potting mix, planting the bulb in firmly and making sure that the bulb is sitting upright with root side down. Only 1/3 of the bulb will be visible when enough soil is added. I lightly water to settle the bulbs in.
My love affair with Christmas cactus goes back 20 years or more. How can one not love the unique plant with its profuse white, pink, purplish pink or red terminal flowers that appear at the end of each stem? These gifts usually arrive with colorful foiled wrap around the container. You can choose to keep the foil on over the holidays but be sure to remove the foil when watering to allow any excess water to drain away. Excessive water will kill a cactus.
• Place in a well lit location but not in direct sunlight.
• The best method is to water weekly from below by putting water into the container tray, allowing the plant to take up the water, rather than pouring it on to the plant from above. Reduce watering frequency in the fall, without allowing soil to dry out completely.
• Mist the foliage when watering.
• Fertilize 2-4 times a year, but stop in the fall around October, about a month before the buds appear.
• How-to info will tell you that in order to get the cactus to rebloom (short day plant), you should place the plant in a cool location in late fall that allows uninterrupted darkness for 12 or more hours each night for 6-8 weeks until buds form.
• Move the blooming plant to a central location to be enjoyed by all.
• FYI-I skip the part about moving the plant to a location that provides 12 or more hours of darkness. I leave my cactus all year on a west facing covered front porch (unless freezing weather threatens). It is currently full of blooms even with a few night interruptions when porch lights are turned on.
Cyclamen grows from a corm (short thickened stem). The corm is very sensitive to overwatering so it is the first point on the care list.
• Be sure to keep the soil moist but not overwatered. The best method is to water from below by putting water into the container tray, allowing the plant to take up the water, rather than pouring it on to the plant from above.
• In your home, choose the coolest spot with temperatures around 60˚ F. This is the time to have a bit of a drafty windowsill.
• Fertilize the plant with a water-soluble fertilizer every two weeks.
• Remove spent flowers and any yellowing leaves.
• Once blooming ends, allow the container and the corm to dry out. Replant the corm in late summer and place it in a warm place to establish new roots. Return the plant to a cool spot (55-60˚ F) to encourage flowering.
Blooming orchids are wonderful gifts. If yours came with a few unopened buds, expect the blooms to continue for several weeks. Finding the perfect spot in your home may choose to be a challenge. My one orchid just bloomed for its second year. It’s under a grow lamp that is on 10 hours a day.
• Provide bright light, but not direct sun.
• Mist the foliage and water once a week; orchids don’t like dry environments. You can just put the container in the sink and let the water gently run over the leaves, through the container and out of the bottom.
• Fertilize every now and then with a water-soluble fertilizer.
• Keep the daytime temperature between 65°- 75°F /18°- 24°C with a nighttime temperature drop of a few degrees.
Hopefully these few bits of info will help you keep your holiday gift alive beyond this holiday season. With great satisfaction, you can share with the gift-giver the joy of watching new blooms bursting forth next winter.