Originally created 12/15/00

Festive flowers

The poinsettia is arguably the most recognizable and popular plant of the holidays.

With a bit of patience and regular care, you can keep it around for next Christmas. Start by giving the plants proper care now.

Put them away from drafts and in an area with at least 6 hours of indirect light, said Sid Mullis, director for the University of Georgia Extension Service office for Richmond County.

Water only when the soil is dry to the touch. Over-watering can easily kill the plant.

After the holidays, put it in a window. "It needs a lot of indirect light," Mr. Mullis said. "That's the biggest thing people do not do. That's why they start looking so pathetic - they don't get enough light."

Pick leaves off as they fade or wither. The plant may look bare, but the stems should still be healthy.

Prune the plant back to about 6-8 inches of the base in March or April, before the growing season starts. This will promote new growth. Fertilize with a basic house-plant fertilizer such as Peter's or Miracle-Gro every 2 to 4 weeks after blooming has stopped.

Poinsettias are tropical plants native to Mexico, so they can't stand a freeze. The plants can be placed outside for the light, but need to be brought in or protected in a garage or greenhouse if frost threatens.

After the last chance of frost, around March 17; they can be planted outside until fall. The night temperatures should be above 60 degrees.

Poinsettias should be repotted into the next size pot.

Ideal exposure would be morning sun and afternoon shade, Mr. Mullis said. It should be a protected area to survive. They will eventually grow accustomed to the direct sunlight.

An alternative is to bury the pot in the ground. The pot will retain moisture longer by being buried than it would sitting out above ground, Mr. Mullis said.

Through the growing season, new growth may need to be pinched back to keep the plant compact and bushy. If it is in a low-light situation, the stems may stretch toward the light. Be sure not to prune the plant after Sept. 1.

Poinsettias set buds in the autumn as the nights lengthen. Six weeks before you want the plant to bloom, begin giving it 14 hours of continual darkness to simulate a long night. Poinsettias tend to look better before their peak than after, so beginning the routine in the second or third week of October should provide a flowering, healthy plant at Christmas.

The plants also require 8-10 hours of bright light. October may not offer enough natural light, so a fluorescent or incandescent light can be substituted. The light is just as important as the darkness.

"That's where a lot of people fail," Mr. Mullis said. "They give it the darkness amount, but they don't give it enough sunlight."

Reach Valerie Rowell at (706) 823-3351 or valmac007@hotmail.com.


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