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Don't Trash Those Holiday Plants!

Q. Hey Mike: I hate to see millions of potted poinsettias get trashed this time of year. I suppose they can be composted, but is there any way to 'perennialize' them? And what about cut Christmas trees? It's sad to see them rolling down the street on trash day like festive tumbleweeds.

---Thanks, Ima Fraud; Anytown USA

A. Ok—so this is not a real listener question. Its not my fault if you people don't know what to ask! (My other choices this week were how to grow lupines, what to do with too many eggshells and explaining why somebody's melons turned out to be pumpkins. Its weeks like this that make me wonder if I should have found honest work.


Anyway, there really are millions of poinsettias out there being relegated to the dung heap, and that's a darn shame as these plants are much more interesting than people think; and you will only see how interesting they are if you save and grow them out. Yes, I know that many people have already trashed theirs, but there are plenty of folks out there who put such things off. (For instance, I learned years ago that once you get to September you can claim your Christmas lights are up early instead of admitting that you never took them down.)

The poinsettia rescue plan:

• Take that stupid foil off the pot, sit the pot in a sink with a few inches of water for an hour or two to let it get fully hydrated, drain it in the dish rank and then put it someplace with the best light you can manage that isn't on a windowsill that gets freezing cold at night or near a hot air vent.
• These things come fully fertilized but if you have access to some compost, worm castings or a gentle organic liquid fertilizer, you can give it a light feeding next month. If it likes that, continue feeding once a month. Oh—and do the water thing once or twice a week, depending on the humidity in your home.
• Don't worry if it doesn't grow much if at all; your goal is to just keep it alive until all chance of frost is gone and nighttime temps stay in the 50s—exactly the same as tomato planting time. Do not rush this part; although they have weirdly become a symbol of Christmas, poinsettias are tropical plants native to Mexico. Like tomatoes they have no sense of humor about chilly nights, much less freezing cold ones.
• When conditions are right, take the poinsettia outside and ideally plant it in the ground in well-drained soil that gets good sun. If you have to keep it in a pot, move it up into one twice the original size. Then watch.
• As the summer progresses, the plant will revert to its true form, which is large with multiple branches. The poinsettias sold over the holidays have been heavily pruned and trained to have the distinctive—but false—shape we all know so well.
• Then you can either be done with your fun experiment or bring it in as a houseplant again once the nights start to get cold. You can even make the centers of the now-multiple-headed plant color up by giving it twelve hours of bright light and twelve hours of darkness every day for a month or two. But you can also just keep the darn thing alive again over winter and plant it outside again the following summer. Its well worth the effort—lots of people will be curious about that weird plant in your garden.

Other holiday plants:

• Norfolk pines are not pines of any kind, and they are native to an island near New Zealand—not Norfolk Virginia. They must also be treated as house plants whenever nighttime temps drop below the 50s. As houseplants, they like a VERY light, loose growing medium (most sources specify a mix of one-third compost, one-third potting soil and one-third sharp sand or perlite). Their care requires you follow the always-difficult advice to 'keep the soil mix moist without over-watering and place the plant in bright but indirect light'. Good luck with that.
• Brown tips are common in dry homes over the winter and can be avoided by misting the plant in the morning. Most people keep them inside year-round, but you'll get a fuller tree (they are real trees that grow very tall in the wild, where they look a lot more like Christmas trees than the potted ones) if you put it outside in the summer—but in dappled shade, never direct sun.
• Instead of putting your old cut Christmas tree out by the curb, consider taking it out to the backyard and hanging lots of suet feeders on it. Wild birds love suet in the winter and the tree provides shelter for them—and protection from predators—while they feed.
• Or use loppers or a bow saw to remove all the branches and then layer the cut boughs over top of overwintering pansies or around acid-loving plants that have fragile root systems, like azaleas and rhododendrons. Not sure what to do with the trunk; maybe save it until Spring and claim it's a Maypole.

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