There’s no better holiday décor than classic holiday house plants like poinsettia, cyclamen and Christmas cacti. Not only do they bring a touch of tropical cheer during dreary Georgia winters, they can last for years with a little extra care.
The first step in prolonging the life of holiday plants is to remove their festive foil wrapping. None of these plants like to have their roots standing in water, and the foil keeps excess water from draining away.
Poinsettias can last for years as foliage plants. Their colorful display isn’t actually from flowers. The beautiful red, pink and ivory “petals” are really leaves that have experienced a strict schedule of light and dark periods under greenhouse conditions.
With proper care, they can maintain their color for months. These plants need at least six hours of bright, indirect light every day; frequent watering; and a stable temperature between 65 and 70 degrees. When the colored leaves fade, cut the plant back to around 10 inches and move it to a larger pot. Poinsettias can live outdoors in a sheltered place until temperatures become frosty.
Cyclamen is like a phoenix. It dies occasionally so it will live again in beauty. Its wing-like flowers – which can be white, pink, rose or crimson – hover above heart-shaped leaves on long stems. Cyclamens are water sensitive; they like to be moist, but letting them get dry or too wet injures them. They prefer cool temperatures (50-60 degrees Fahrenheit) and indirect sun, so place them in a north or east facing window that receives filtered light.
When the flowers fade, slowly decrease watering until the leaves die, then don’t water at all for six weeks. This lets the tuberous root rest for the next round of blooms. Leaves will reappear when you resume watering.
Holiday cacti – which bloom around Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter depending on the variety – bloom for around six weeks if they have plenty of bright sunlight and moderate moisture. Sunny, south-facing windows are the best place for these plants.
When blooms fade, pluck them off and give the plant a dose of houseplant fertilizer. In warm weather, holiday cacti can live outdoors in semi-shaded spots.
New uses for other holiday leftovers
Cut greenery like Christmas trees and wreaths can enjoy new life, too. Christmas trees make natural, easy wildlife habitats. Tossed into a woody, secluded area, post-season Christmas trees give homes to a variety of critters, including forest insects, fungi, birds and small mammals. Weighted and sunken, Christmas trees provide fish in ponds and lakes with a place to shelter and spawn. Just be sure to get a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before sinking a tree into navigable waters, like Lake Lanier.
If you don’t care to create a wildlife habitat, Christmas trees and wreath greenery can still contribute to the environment through recycling. Remove all lights and ornaments, first. Wood chips from ground-up greenery are useful for mulching nature trails and walkways. Your local solid waste or waste management department may offer community tree recycling, so it never hurts to call and ask.
Cardboard shipping boxes that were once filled with presents have garden uses, too. When winter winds howl and temperatures drop below freezing, use the boxes to cover outdoor ornamental plants to protect and insulate them. If it’s really cold, boxes can support blankets or mulch for extra warmth.
To prepare for new planting beds, place flattened boxes directly on the ground, weighed down with rocks, mulch, or raised bed structures, to kill grass and weeds prior to digging. Heavy cardboard is also a money-saver for mulched areas. Starting with a layer or two of cardboard means you reach weed-squelching depth (3-5 inches) with less purchased mulch.
(Heather Kolich is an Agricultural and Natural Resources Extension agent with the Forsyth County UGA Extension Office.)