Yard and Garden: Caring for Holiday Houseplants

Holiday houseplants require special care and attention

December 9, 2020, 11:40 am | Aaron J. Steil, Chris Currey

AMES, Iowa -- The holidays are a great opportunity to bring a festive and fun houseplant into your home for those special moments. In this installment of Yard and Garden, horticulture specialists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offer tips and tricks to keeping your holiday houseplants happy and healthy through the new year.

poinsettia.What should I look for when buying a poinsettia?

Poinsettias are available in a wide range of colors. Red is the most popular color. However, poinsettias are also available in burgundy, pink, salmon, white, cream and gold. There are also bicolored, marbled and speckled poinsettias. The colorful part of the poinsettia, commonly referred to as the plant’s flowers, are actually modified leaves or bracts. The true flowers are yellow to green, button-like objects located in the center of the bracts. 

When selecting a poinsettia, choose a well-shaped plant with dark green foliage and well-colored bracts. The true flowers should be shedding little or no pollen. Avoid poinsettias with wilted foliage, broken stems or few leaves. 

How do I care for a poinsettia?

Place the poinsettia in a plant sleeve or carefully wrap it before transporting the plant home. Exposing the poinsettia to freezing temperatures, even for a few minutes, may cause its bracts and leaves to blacken and drop. As soon as you get home, unwrap the poinsettia and place it near a sunny window or other well-lit location. However, don’t let the plant touch the cold window pane. Also, keep the poinsettia away from cold drafts or heat sources. Poinsettias prefer temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Water needs can be determined with your finger. Check the potting soil daily. When the soil surface becomes dry to the touch, water the plant until water begins to flow out the bottom of the pot. The pots of most poinsettias are placed inside decorative pot covers. When watering a poinsettia, carefully remove the pot covering, water the plant in the sink, then drop the poinsettia back into the pot cover. 

When given good care, a poinsettia should remain attractive for several weeks, well after the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays.

How often should I water my poinsettia?

The key to watering a poinsettia is the moisture content of the potting soil. Check the potting soil daily with your finger. When the soil surface becomes dry to the touch, water the plant until water begins to flow out the bottom of the pot. Discard excess water. The pots of most poinsettias are set inside decorative pot covers. When watering these plants, carefully remove the poinsettia from the pot covering, water the plant in the sink, then drop the poinsettia back into its pot cover. Both over- and under-watering cause problems for poinsettias. Over-watering will cause the lower leaves to turn yellow and drop. Over-watered plants may also develop root rots and die. Dry plants wilt and also drop leaves prematurely.

What should I do with my poinsettia after the holidays?

If given good care in the home, poinsettias should remain attractive for two to three months. Toss the poinsettia when you grow tired of it or it becomes unattractive. 

For those home gardeners who enjoy a challenge, it is possible to get the poinsettia to bloom again next season. Cut the stems back to within 4 to 6 inches of the soil in March. The poinsettia may also be repotted at this time. When new growth appears, place the poinsettia in a sunny window. Continue to water the plant when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch. Fertilize every two weeks with a dilute fertilizer solution. 

In late May, move the poinsettia outdoors. Harden or acclimate the plant to the outdoors by placing it in a shady, protected area for two or three days, then gradually expose it to longer periods of direct sun. The poinsettia should be properly hardened in seven to 10 days. Once hardened, dig a hole in an area that receives six to eight hours of sunlight and set the pot into the ground. To obtain a compact, bushy plant, pinch or cut off the shoot tips once or twice from late June to mid-August. Continue to water and fertilize the plant outdoors. 

The poinsettia should be brought indoors in mid-September. Place the plant in a bright, sunny window. The poinsettia is a short-day plant. Short-day plants grow vegetatively during the long days of summer and produce flowers when days become shorter in fall. To get the poinsettia to flower for Christmas, the plant must receive complete darkness from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily from early October until the bracts develop good color, usually early December. Protect the plant from light by placing it in a closet or by covering with a box. During the remainder of the day, the poinsettia should be in a sunny window. 

How do I care for a Norfolk Island Pine?

The Norfolk Island pine is a popular houseplant. During the holiday season, many people turn their plants into living Christmas trees by decorating them with miniature lights, ribbons and ornaments. The Norfolk Island pine thrives indoors when given good, consistent care. Place the Norfolk Island pine in a brightly lit location near an east, west or south window. Rotate the plant weekly to prevent the plant from growing toward the light and becoming lopsided.

Thoroughly water the Norfolk Island pine when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch. Discard the excess water which drains out the bottom of the pot. From spring to early fall, fertilize the plant with a dilute fertilizer solution every two to four weeks. A temperature of 55 to 70 F is suitable for the Norfolk Island pine. Winter is often a difficult time because of low relative humidity levels in most homes. Raise the humidity level around the Norfolk Island pine with a humidifier or place the plant on a pebble tray. Low relative humidity levels, insufficient light, or excessively dry soil conditions may induce browning of branch tips and lead to the loss of the lower branches.

How do I pot up an amaryllis bulb?

When planting an amaryllis bulb, select a pot which is approximately 1 to 2 inches wider than the diameter of the bulb. The container may be clay, ceramic or plastic, but should have drainage holes in the bottom. Plant the bulb in good, well-drained potting mix. Place a small amount of potting mix in the bottom of the pot. Center the bulb in the middle of the pot. Then add additional potting mix, firming it around the roots and bulb. When finished potting, the upper one-half of the bulb should remain above the soil surface. Also, leave about one inch between the soil surface and the pot’s rim. Then water well and place in a warm (70 to 75 F) location. 

After the initial watering, allow the potting mix to dry somewhat before watering again. Keep the mix moist, but not wet. When growth appears, move the plant to a sunny window and apply a water soluble fertilizer every two to four weeks. During flower stalk elongation, turn the pot each day to keep the flower stalk growing straight. Flower stalks that lean badly will need to be staked. 

Flowering usually occurs about six to eight weeks after potting. When the amaryllis begins to bloom, move the plant to a slightly cooler (65 to 70 F) location that doesn’t receive direct sun to prolong the life of the flowers.


Photo credit: poinsettia by Grafvision/stock.adobe.com

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