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

Q. I understand that you recently offered a solution to the problem of paperwhites 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 I refuse someone with a name like 'Holly' at Christmas time?! Here's a lightly edited version of what we've been calling the "Pickled Paperwhites tip", courtesy of my good friend 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 (and family). Back in the earlier days of our show, she alerted me to this discovery with a very clever press release, and the information is still great.

As Sally first pun-ed it: "It turns out that drinking will stunt your growth – if you're a paperwhite narcissus, that is." The research—conducted by Dr. Bill Miller of the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY—was prompted by an inquiry from a journalist. "It seems that a reader had claimed that pouring a little gin onto paperwhites growing in the traditional pebbles and water caused them to stay shorter and not fall over," says Dr. Miller. (Paperwhite narcissi are notorious for growing tall and leggy, often flopping over just as their spicy-scented white blossoms begin to bloom.)

Dr. Miller ran some tests, and found that growing paperwhites in a 4% to 5% solution of alcohol was actually 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." (Liquors come in different strengths, but the 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, I thought I heard you offer some advice for keeping Poinsettias alive. If so, could you repeat it? My plants seldom make it all the way through the Christmas season. Thanks,

---Stewart in Rockville, MD.

A. Soitenly! Here's the details; some of which come from the same fabulous Sally Ferguson mentioned above (and her talented partner David Caras), and some from me:

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. If you leave them in a freezing cold car while you stop to run errands on the way home, they may be DOA when you get 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, temporarily remove any decorative foil from the base and then plop the plant – pot and all –into a sink with a few inches of water in it. Let it sit there for an hour or so, so that the soil can become saturated. Then put it in the dish rack so the excess can run out the bottom of the pot. Once drained, rewrap and place the potted plant back on display. (Warning: watering houseplants from above is almost always a bad idea; especially when their base is wrapped up like poinsettias. Long soakings in a sink when the pot feels light with the decorative wrapping removed = long lived plants.)

Don't feed it; it's almost certainly already been overfed by its original growers. And don't overwater! 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. The best way to avoid either is to simply check the weight of the pot frequently. Don't try and water on a schedule; watering needs vary greatly depending on the 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 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 growing when you got it.)

The blooms will typically last a week to 10 days if the plant is moved to that cool location. But they'll last a little longer if they're cut, rather than left attached to the bulb itself. Writing in the horticultural trade publication "Grower Talks", Gerald Klingaman, a professor of horticulture at the University of Arkansas, reports that amaryllis flowers can last up to two weeks if they're cut, placed in vase of water and kept at room temperature. (For the longest staying power, trim the stem end and change the water every two to three days.)

Making the same bulb bloom again in following years? No one agrees on EXACTLY how to do this. My advice is to allow the greenery to stay in place and fertilize the plant lightly after the blooms are gone, watering very lightly over the rest of the winter. If the greenery turns brown naturally while the plant is still indoors, place the bulb in storage in a cool dry area (in or out of its pot). If the greens are still green when the weather gets nice, take it outside in the Spring, feed it again with a light organic fertilizer (compost, worm castings or a nice fish and/or seaweed mix) and store the bulb as above when the greens finally lose their color.

No matter what, make sure the bulb—naked bulb or potted up, greenery dead or still going—gets a rest for most of the summer. That means no light, no food, no water; just a cool, dark, dry place to go sleepies for a solid three months. (You can leave it rest longer for timing sake 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, with any luck, it'll bloom for the holidays.)

You find lots of different variations on this theme in books and on the Internet. Or do what some bum on the street says for all I care!

Oh, and Merry Christmas!

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