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Question of the Week © 2015 Mike McGrath

Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.


Holiday Plant Care Tips: How to keep Paper whites Tidy and Poinsettias and Amaryllis Alive

Q. You once offered a solution to the problem of paper whites drooping on your show. Could you repeat the info? Thanks so much! I ABSOLUTELY LOVE YOUR SHOW!!!!

---Holly in Laurel Springs, "New Joysey"

A. How could we refuse someone named 'Holly' at Christmas time?! Here's the "Pickled Paper whites tip", courtesy of Sally Ferguson, who has been educating gardeners about Spring bulbs and other plants for many years as (the better) half of the Ferguson/Caras PR team. Back in the early days of our show, she alerted me to the discovery with a very clever press release.

The research—conducted by Dr. Bill Miller of the Department of Horticulture at Cornell—was prompted by an inquiry "that claimed that pouring a little gin onto paper whites growing in the traditional pebbles and water caused them to stay shorter and not fall over." (Paper white narcissi are notorious for growing tall and leggy, often flopping over just as their spicy-scented white blossoms begin to bloom.)

Dr. Miller found that growing paper whites in a 4% to 5% solution of alcohol really was an excellent growth regulation technique. "When grown in 5% alcohol," he explains, "the plants stay about half the height of plants grown in water alone," but the flowers bloom just fine. Most liquors are 40% alcohol, so the correct mixture would be around 1 part booze to 9 parts water. "Gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila and schnapps are all equally effective," he states, "so long as they are used in an amount that achieves the correct alcohol concentration." (Alcohol content is always half that of the labeled "proof", so an "80 proof" alcoholic beverage would contain the described 40% alcohol.)

But don't use beer or wine, warns Dr. Miller; "they kill the bulbs."

Q. Mike, could you repeat your advice for keeping Poinsettias alive? My plants seldom make it all the way through the Christmas season. Thanks,

---Stewart in Rockville, MD.

A. The most important thing to remember about poinsettias is that, although they have come to Symbolize the Season, they HATE the weather that accompanies Christmas almost everywhere outside of Phoenix, San Diego, South Florida and other areas where gardening cowards reside. The plants just can't take any kind of a chill. If you buy them on a cold day, make sure they get wrapped up well, get them into the car fast, and then drive them straight home.

Once safely inside, remove the protective plastic or paper and place the potted plants (whose red "flowers" are actually colorful 'bracts', a type of leaf structure) in bright indirect light but not direct sunlight. (Poinsettias thrive on six hours of bright light a day). And correct watering is essential. The best way to judge the water needs of this (and almost any other potted) plant is to go by the weight of the pot; dry pots are light, wet pots are heavy.

When the pot does feel light, remove any decorative foil and then plop the pot into a sink with a few inches of water in it for an hour so that the soil can become saturated. Then put it in the dish rack so the excess can drain out, rewrap and place the potted plant back on display.

Don't feed it; and don't over water! Plants that get too dry will simply appear to "faint" a bit, and a little water will quickly revive them. Drowned plants will also appear to faint a bit, but will remain dead when you drown them some more. Don't try and water on a schedule; watering needs vary greatly depending on your indoor humidity and the type of soil mix the grower used.

Amaryllis: If you receive a bulb, soil and pot in a 'ready-to-plant' kit, assemble it as directed (make sure that no more than half of the actual bulb is buried), water it really well to begin with (an hour in the sink, as above) and then water very sparingly afterwards until growth begins. Once the stem is up, water regularly to keep the soil moist but never soggy. Place the pot in bright light and turn it frequently while the stalk is growing. Once the blossoms open, move the pot out of direct sunlight and away from sources of heat so that the blooms last longer. Generally, a bare-bulb amaryllis from a kit will begin to bloom about six weeks after its first watering. (Faster if the flower stalk was already up and green when you got it.)

The blooms will typically last a week to 10 days if the plant is moved to that cool location. Making the same bulb bloom again in following years? No one agrees on EXACTLY how to do this. Everyone, however, agrees that you must give the new leaves as much light as possible after the blooms are gone, and water very lightly over the rest of the winter.

Take it outside in the Spring, feed it with a light organic fertilizer (compost, worm castings or a nice fish and/or seaweed mix) and let the leaves recharge in real sun light. If you don't intend to try and force it into bloom for the next Christmas, leave it out all summer. (This gives you the best chance of successful rebloom. See last week's article on amaryllis for more details.)

No matter what, the bulb—naked or still in the pot—must then get a 'rest' for a solid three months. That means no light, no food, no water; just a cool, dark, dry place to go to sleep. (You can leave it rest longer if you like, but not shorter.) When the rest period is over, treat it like a brand new bulb again. (If you start around the first week of November and it somehow got a lot of sun and enough rest, it'll bloom for the holidays. Good luck with that.)

Or do what some bum on the street says for all I care!

Oh, and Merry Christmas!