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What to do with holiday plant leftovers


The heavy rain Boise experienced over the holidays left many gardeners stuck inside looking out. The Christmas tree has been dragged out back and the poinsettia is staring at us from the corner of the dining room. So what do gardeners do with holiday plant leftovers besides pitch them? Let's find out.

Meticulous year-round care makes a poinsettia red for next year's holiday season

I understand that a poinsettia can be made to bloom again. Can you explain how that's done?

—Sharon, Kuna

The poinsettia, a native of Mexico, likes it warm but needs the coolness of fall with short days and long nights to go into its colorful metamorphosis. The spectacular "flowers" that people see flashing bright on top of the poinsettia aren't flowers at all but colored leaves called bracts. There are no petals on a poinsettia. The true flowers are those tiny, inconspicuous yellow-green beady structures at the very center of the bracts. So the idea for most people isn't how to make it flower again but rather how to make those bracts turn red and that's a challenge.

Care for your poinsettia like a houseplant. Give it plenty of light with temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees, as well as regular watering and fertilizing. Avoid over watering by waiting until the top of the soil feels dry to the touch before watering again. Poinsettias do best with warm water.

Despite all your best efforts, this colorful holiday symbol may drop most of its leaves due to low winter light. Around mid-April revive your Southern beauty by repotting. The plant can be placed back into the same pot if you want, just knock most of the old soil off and add fresh potting soil. Leave a reservoir about half an inch between the soil and the top of the pot so water can be applied without running out over the edge. Cut the stems to within 5 inches of the soil line. New shoots will appear.

When danger of frost is past in May, your poinsettia can be moved outdoors to a sunny, protected spot in the garden to make caring for it a little easier. Sink the whole shebang in the ground, pot and all, and continue regular watering and fertilizing. The poinsettia's attractive leaves make it a fine exotic addition to the landscape. In June and again in August, pinch the growing tips back to make the plant bushier.

In September, prior to frost, bring the plant indoors. This phase—playing an indoor version of Mother Nature—begins the challenging part of making a poinsettia bloom again. Under natural conditions down south, as the days get shorter and cooler in the fall, the poinsettia forms its tiny beady flowers and colorful bracts but here up north, with our unpredictable frosts, it is way too cold to allow the poinsettia to stay outdoors to take advantage of the cool short days and long nights.

The number of artificial lights in and around homes makes it a nightly chore to give the poinsettia its required dark period of 14-hours each night. But if you're up for it, this is how it's done. Begin by placing your green garden refugee in a cool (60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit) place. To give the total darkness that poinsettias need, consider putting the plant in a thick, black plastic bag and tie the top shut or put it under an overturned box or plastic garbage can that is taped to the floor (if necessary). Total darkness is extremely important, no streetlights or room lights should interrupt this beauty sleep—even a slight crack of light coming through from under the box can screw up your efforts.

During the day, the plant is given normal lighting. Continue this special treatment daily for eight weeks. Your poinsettia will color up, but it may be taller than what it originally was. That's because poinsettias grown in greenhouses are pinched several times during their lives to reduce size and are usually treated with plant growth regulators to keep them compact. But hey, if you pull off the poinsettia's mysterious color transformation at home, that automatically bumps you into the heady world of the advanced green thumber. That's nothing to sneeze at. Still, you probably won't attempt it more than once and chances are you'll return to the ranks of those who just pitch the red rascals out on the compost pile and buy another next Christmas.

Use fresh cut trees even after the holidays are long gone

I bought a cut Christmas tree this year and hate to see it just tossed out. Do you have any suggestions for getting a little more use out of it?

—Marty, Ontario, OR

Used Christmas trees can be chipped into valuable garden mulch, but before you do that, consider extending the usefulness of O Tannenbaum by turning it into a backyard song bird feeder. Redecorate the branches with orange slices and suet balls, popcorn and cranberry garland, apple slice wreaths and peanut butter-smeared pinecones rolled in birdseed. This is a kid friendly outdoor project that gives the whole family a break from cabin fever. Just remember that those little feathered friends also need water nearby, so put out some H2O in pie tins or other shallow containers. Fir tree foliage is highly fragrant. Potpourri makers like to strip the needles from the branches and snip them into small pieces for adding to sachets and stuffing aromatic pillows. Gardeners living near steep hillsides will find old Christmas trees effective soil erosion barriers. Woodworking enthusiasts will see a multitude of potential in the trunk wood of an evergreen, while economy-minded wood burners can save the wood for next year's cozy fires.