Even those who say “Bah, humbug!” to gardening most of the year often pick up a poinsettia or some other festive plant during the holidays. For tricks on keeping seasonal flora alive and looking good into the new year, we turned to Melinda Myers, the Milwaukee-based author of more than 20 gardening books including her latest, “Minnesota & Wisconsin Getting Started Garden Guide” (Cool Springs Press, $24.99). Myers filled us in on why foil wrap is not your friend, the gas that poinsettias emit and which kind of booze paperwhites prefer.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake people make with poinsettias?
A: People often ask me why their poinsettias are losing leaves. The first thing you do is lift them out of the foil, and usually there’s an inch of water at the bottom. Take them out of the foil, put them in a container with marbles or pebbles in the bottom, so the plant is elevated above the water. And make sure the foil isn’t covering the bottom leaves so the sun can’t get to them.
Q: How long are poinsettias supposed to last, and what can you do to prolong them?
A: Some of the new cultivars can last through next October. They’re bred for that. If you want to prolong the life of your poinsettias, take them out of the paper sleeve right away. The paper pushes the leaves up, and when the leaves are pushed up, they give off a gas, ethylene, that shortens their lifespan.
If you’re transporting the plant, you definitely want to wrap it to protect it from cold temperatures. And don’t leave them in a cold car. They’re tropical plants, native to Mexico. They may not show damage immediately, but the next day, you’ll have gray-green wilted leaves. Most likely the plant won’t recover.
Q: How often should you water them?
A: That depends on how hot you keep your house. Ideally, you should keep them in a cool — but not cold — bright location. Stick a finger in the dirt. When it feels crumbly but slightly moist, water again. If it dries out and gets hard, water just rolls off the block of dry potting mix.
Q: What are some other holiday plants you like?
A: One of my favorites is cyclamen. They’re great for the holidays — some of the ones with variegated foliage look frosted. The flowers are like a shooting star, in pinks and reds, and they can bloom a good month to two months. You can put some artificial berries in, or little faux flowers on picks, to re-use that foliage. After the holidays, you can set them in the dark and let them go dormant, then trigger them back to growth.
Kalanchoes also are very popular. They’re succulents and tolerate neglect pretty well. Cut off the first flush of flowers, and you get a second bloom. They’re easier than poinsettias. It’s definitely a houseplant, but you can move it outside for summer.
Q: What if you want to try a living Christmas tree that you plant outside after the holidays?
A: That’s a fun way to invest in your landscape and the holidays — add a new plant, and plant that holiday memory. You have to dig a hole before the ground freezes, so if you didn’t do that, it’s probably too late this year.
Q: What about next year?
A: One of the challenges is finding a tree. You should think about what you want for the landscape. One good option is a concolor fir, or white fir. It looks like a Colorado blue spruce, but doesn’t have the disease problems like needle blight. It’s the most urban-tolerant of the firs.
Some Christmas-tree farms and nurseries handle balled and burlapped trees. When you get your tree, put it in a bucket without holes, so you don’t ruin your floor. Keep it away from heat and keep the roots moist but not soggy wet. You can’t leave it indoors for a long time — no more than a week inside. If you want your tree up and decorated from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, a live tree is not a good choice.
Q: What kind of Christmas tree do you have?
A: I usually have a cut tree, then use it for a windbreak for my azaleas, so I don’t feel I’m just wasting it. After Christmas, stick it in a snowbank, and hang it with cranberries and orange slices for the birds. Put it somewhere you can watch. Then, in April, throw it on top of a Jeep. A lot of farms will take them back and mulch them, so you can return them to the garden in a different way.
Q: What’s a good holiday gift for a gardener?
A: Fresh bulbs, like amaryllis, are good gifts for a gardener. Although amaryllis are sometimes frustrating. They can be very challenging — even for gardeners. I bought one from a nearby garden center, and three months later it finally bloomed. I was just about ready to give up.
Q: What about paperwhites — is there any truth to the old wives’ tale about feeding them liquor?
A: A Cornell University researcher found that a 5 percent solution of alcohol helps stunt the plant’s growth, so the leaves don’t flop over — one cup of 80 proof alcohol in seven cups of water. Make sure you use clear alcohol, like gin or vodka.
Q: No Scotch?
A: No Scotch. That’s for the gardener.