Holiday Houseplant Care

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Holiday Houseplant
Care Guide

Related Articles

Indoor Gardening

Container Intro

Potting and Repotting

Houseplant Helper

Infamous Plant Problems

Intro to Propagation

Too little light, too high a temperature, too low humidity, and improper watering are the usual causes of failure in caring for gift houseplants. These plants are grown in a greenhouse where the night temperatures are usually cool, there is ample light, and the air is moist. When these plants are brought into a dry home where the light is poor and the temperatures are maintained for human comfort, results are frequently disappointing. Do not expect to hold over every gift plant from year to year. Enjoy them while they are attractive and in season.

Day-length or duration of light received by plants is also important for those house plants which are photosensitive. Poinsettia, kalanchoe, and Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter cactus bud and flower only when day-length is short (11 hours of daylight or less). Most flowering house plants are indifferent to day-length.

Low light intensity can be compensated by increasing the time (duration) the plant is exposed to light, as long as the plant is not sensitive to day-length in its flowering response. Increased hours of lighting allow the plant to make sufficient food to survive and/or grow. However, plants require some period of darkness to develop properly and thus should be illuminated for no more than 16 hours. Excessive light is as harmful as too little light. When a plant gets too much direct light, the leaves become pale, sometimes sunburn, turn brown, and die. Therefore, during the summer months, protect plants from too much direct sunlight.

For information on plants diseases or pests, and general houseplant care tips, see Houseplant Helper.

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Amaryllis is one flowering plant that you can rebloom for many years.  Provide bright light, but minimal direct sun to prolong flowering when in bloom.  After the flowers are spent, cut the flower stalk down to an inch or so above the bulb. Set the plant in a sunny window and water normally while leaves develop.

The secret of growing amaryllis is to keep them actively growing after they finish blooming.  Keep the plants in full sun, with a night temperature above 60F. As soon as danger of frost has passed, set the plants in the garden in a semi-shaded spot. In the fall, before danger of frost, bring them in and store in a cold dark place to rest. They can be forced again about January 1. Bring them into a warm light room and water moderately.

In May when temperatures warm, set (bury) the plant and pot in the flower garden. Choose a protected location where light is filtered. Morning sunshine is satisfactory. Don't be upset if leaves flop over. They soon will become erect.  Continue watering the plant. Feed with a liquid fertilizer every two weeks. Bulb size should be increasing.

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Bi-color Hybrid

In September, bring pot and bulb indoors. Place in a dark location for six to eight weeks. The leaves will wilt and die.  Remove them close to the bulb. Keep the bulb on the cool side, approximately 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. DO NOT WATER.  Bulbs failing to bloom usually have not been allowed to stay dormant long enough. Storage and forcing temperatures may also be too high.

After the rest period, repot the bulb in a fresh soil. If the bulb is too large for the previous pot, move up one size. An ideal soil mixture contains one part houseplant soil, one part peat moss and one part vermiculite or perlite. Set the bulb so that the top half is exposed. Firm the soil around the bulb but don't pack.

Water the soil well and place in a warm sunny location. Let the bulb sit.  Keep the soil moist but not damp. Ideal forcing temperatures are between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Warm temperatures promote long, weak, spindly growth. The flower stalk may flop over.

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Florist's Azalea

With their frothy red, pink, coral, ivory, or white blooms, azaleas add to the festive atmosphere at Christmas. They like their soil moist and will start to drop their leaves in protest if they're allowed to dry out. Azaleas like a bright light and a little direct sunlight when indoors.  A night temperature of 60F will prolong bloom. Keep the soil constantly moist. If the leaves should turn yellow, the soil is not acidic enough. Use an acid fertilizer sold especially for azaleas. Do not use softened water. When repotting, use a mixture high in acid peat moss.

It's best to remove any gift-wrap from around the plant so you can submerge the pot in a pan of water for fifteen minutes or so every second day, then drain. Mist the foliage with a fine spray of water, 3 or 4 times a week will help the flowers to open fully. As soon as the blossoms have finished, carefully nip them off to promote new growth and more buds. If you wait too long to do this, you may inadvertently prune off the new buds.

Most azaleas come with a tag that specifies how to care for them, including the type of fertilizer they like, usually one specially formulated for azaleas and rhododendrons. Cut back on fertilizing when the buds are apparent. In the spring when all danger of frost has passed, the azalea can go outside in a spot with filtered light. Bring it inside in the fall before frost strikes and keep it in a cool room as it forms its buds. When the buds are colouring, put the azalea in a bright spot.

Azaleas can be planted, pot and all, in a shady spot in the garden during the summer months. Examine them frequently and keep them watered during dry periods. Greenhouse azaleas are not hardy, and need to be brought indoors before freezing weather.

Azaleas need a cool rest treatment before they are forced into bloom. Place the plants in a room with a temperature between 35F to 50F and filtered light. During this rest period, flower buds will develop. Then place in a well-lighted warm (65F) room around January 1 and the plant will bloom. Unless you have the proper growing conditions for the azalea, you should not attempt to carry the plants over.

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Cacti and Kalanchoe


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Festive Kalanchoe

There is some argument over the correct pronunciation of the kalanchoe. Some will argue that it should be ka-LAN-cho while others say kal-an-CO-ee. Either is acceptable, though the first is preferred.

Kalanchoes are succulent, and as such, can tolerate warm, dry conditions commonly found indoors during the winter. Flower colors range from red to orange to yellow. Plants prefer a bright, sunny location. Cool evening conditions during bloom will make flowers last longer. When done blooming, cut the plants back by one-fourth to one-half and repot in a slightly larger pot. Soil should be extremely well-drained.  The addition of sand, vermiculite or perlite in equal parts to a packaged houseplant soil mix is recommended.

In spring after all danger of frost is past, plants can be placed outdoors in partial shade. Allow the soil to dry before watering. Fertilize every two to three weeks. Pinch plants to keep compact.  Like chrysanthemums and poinsettias, kalanchoes are short-day plants and bloom when nights are long. Avoid placing plants under artificial lights during the evening.  Plants seldom do well after their second blooming. Rooted cuttings can be taken to encourage new plant production.

Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving Cacti

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Cactus in bloom

Holiday cacti are distinguished from each other by their leaf margins. Christmas cactus have rounded or scalloped leaf margins. Thanksgiving and Easter cacti have pointed margins. Under normal conditions, the holiday cacti will bloom close to the holiday suggested in their name.

The Christmas cactus has become increasingly popular with the development of several new varieties. At least 3 related species are sold in addition to a number of cultivars. All have similar cultural requirements.

Flowering cacti should be kept in bright, indirect light. Too much light can cause flower color to fade. Day temperature of 70 degrees F. and evening temperatures of 60- 65 degrees F. are considered ideal. Avoid over-watering during flowering. Do not fertilize when plants are flowering.

Once flowers fall, continue to grow the plant as a houseplant. Soil should be loose; a sandy soil will limit over-watering problems. Fertilize monthly between April and October.

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Flower Closeup

The secret of repeat bloom seems to be one of temperature and photoperiod control. They will develop buds and bloom if given bright light, short days (no more than 12 hours of light), and night temperatures between 55F and 65F.  

Reduce light starting about 6-8 weeks before expected bloom time.  Remember, even ambient room light will prevent buds from forming.

Christmas cacti bloom best when somewhat pot bound. Repotting is necessary only about once in 3 years. Full sunlight is beneficial in midwinter, but bright sun during summer months can make plants look pale and yellow. These plants grow naturally shaded by a canopy of leaves.

Cacti require less water from October to March than they do when growth is active from April to September. A rest period is very important if plants are to bloom abundantly. Dormancy should be started about the middle of September and continued for 8 weeks. Care should be taken that soil never becomes water logged during the dark days of winter.

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Pink cyclamen

Cyclamen are traditionally sold during the Christmas season and into the winter as a florist plant. Most will bloom from mid-November until spring, provided conditions are satisfactory.  Their exotic blooms and attractive foliage make them a festive present. They have dark green leaves with silver markings and unusual blooms in red, pinks and snowy whites.

Here are some suggestions to prolong the blooming of this plant. Cyclamen prefer cool temperatures and bright light, but no direct sunlight. It's also important to keep the soil moist as this plant does not like to dry out. However, because they grow from tubers, which prefer not to be wetted directly, it's best to water them from the bottom, or to water them gently around the edge of the pot.

Cyclamen prefer cool temperatures and bright indirect light. Ideal daytime temperatures are 60-65 degrees F with night temperatures around 50 degrees. An east window provides adequate light. High humidity during the winter indoors is also crucial. To maintain humidity, fill a large plate or broad, shallow pan or tray with water. Set the cyclamen on an inverted dish, just out of the water. Pebbles could be placed in the plate, pan or tray with the pot setting on the pebbles.

Plants prefer to be kept moist. Most are planted in a peat moss soil that dries quickly. Plants can wilt quickly. Made sure pots have drainage holes. Repot if drainage holes are not present. Avoid watering the crown or center of the plant.  Bud blasting or aborting as well as yellowing leaves result from hot and dry conditions, lack of water or insufficient light.

After flowers start fading, gradually withhold water. When the foliage is withered, remove the "bulb" (actually a tuber) from the soil, clean off all soil from it and store it in unmoistened peat moss or vermiculite in a plastic bag at 50 degrees F.  You can also store the tubers, pot and all, in a dark place until they start to shoot again. Then bring them back into the light, and water and fertilize as usual, for another beautiful cyclamen.

Replant in good potting soil in May or June, keeping the upper half of the tuber above the surface. Grow the plant in a cool, bright, protected spot outside, with partial shade during the hottest part of the day, and with the pot sunk in a bed of moist peat moss.

Water adequately and feed about twice a month with a complete liquid fertilizer. Bring indoors before cold weather, and provide full sun and the temperature suggested above.

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Easter and other types of lilies will tolerate extremes that many other plants won't survive. You can enjoy the blossoms longer if you keep the plants out of direct sunlight or warm drafts. It's worthwhile to place the plant on an unheated, but frost-free porch at night.

To keep the plant looking its best, remove the lily flowers as soon as they wither and clip any leaf ends that may brown. After all the flowers have been removed, you can keep the plant in a sunny window for its pleasing foliage or remove it to a basement window until danger from frost is over. Should the plant begin to go into a rest period, the leaves will start to yellow and fall. The plant should then be kept on the dry side to discourage rots.

The lily can be planted in a sunny garden spot as soon as danger from frost is past. Remove the plant from the pot by inverting it and while gently holding the top, tap the edge of the pot on a step or heavy board. Open the root ball by pulling upward and out from the center of the ball. A few torn roots are better than an undisturbed dense root mass that may not be able to establish new roots in the soil. Clumped and matted roots are more likely to die and even injure the bulb.

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Place the bulb a few inches deeper than it was in the pot, open the root as much as possible and work soil through them. Thoroughly water the plant. One-half teaspoon of a 10-10-10 fertilizer per gallon helps promote new top and root growth. Soon after the old tops die, new shoots will start. These will flower later, usually in July or August, if given ordinary garden care. Be sure that trees, weeds, or other plants don't shade the lily.

Although many people report good results, none of the lily varieties from florists are reliably hardy. If the ground is well drained, you can cover plants with a mulch during the cold winter months - just as is done for roses. Mulches of straw, leaves, evergreen boughs, wood chips or ground corn cobs are satisfactory. Most of the lilies are killed by exposure to winter winds and sun. Mulches limit the heaving action of the soil and, thus, prevent bulb exposure.

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Traditional Red

Poinsettias are the most popular of Christmas houseplants. Traditional red bracts are still the most common, but white, pink, burgundy and multi-colors are abundant as well these days. To prolong the bloom and colour, you should keep your poinsettias in filtered sun with constant temperatures.  The poinsettia requires bright light and should be kept away from drafts. A temperature between 65F and 70F is ideal. Avoid temperatures below 60F and above 75F.

Give the pot a quarter turn every 3 days or so to help the plant retain a nice symmetrical shape. Keep the soil evenly moist, but not wet. Only the surface of the soil should be dry to the touch before watering again. After blooming, cut the stems back to two buds, reduce the water and keep them in a cool spot. When all danger of frost is past, poinsettias can be planted outside in a sunny location.

Gardeners frequently ask whether they can carry their poinsettias over to bloom again next year. It is questionable whether the results are worth the effort as the quality of home-grown plants seldom equals that of commercially grown plants. However, for those who wish to try, the following procedure can be followed.

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Monet (top)
and Jinglebells

After the bracts fade or fall, set the plants where they will receive indirect light and temperatures around 55 to 60F. Water sparingly during this time, just enough to keep the stems from shrivelling. Cut the plants back to within about 5 inches from the ground and repot in fresh soil. As soon as new growth begins, place in a well lighted window. After danger of frost, place the pot out of doors in a partially shaded spot. Pinch the new growth back to get a plant with several stems. Do not pinch after September 1. About Labor Day, or as soon as the nights are cool, bring the plant indoors. Continue to grow them in a sunny room with a night temperature of about 65F.

The poinsettia blooms only during short days. To initiate blooms, exclude artificial light, either by covering with a light-proof box each evening or placing in an unlighted room or closet for a minimum of 12 hours of darkness.  A street lamp or night lamp can disrupt the night schedule.  Plants require full light in the daytime, so be sure to return them to a sunny window. Start the short day treatment in about mid-September to have blooms between December 1 and Christmas.

Plants should start turning color by November. Continue with regular practices. Keep humidity levels high. Avoid misting plants as this causes spots on leaves and bracts.

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