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When nature decks the halls

A little human help is still essential. Keep your poinsettias and other natural trimmings merry, bright - and alive past the holidays.

By Pam Brown and Carol Suggs, Special to the Times
Published December 1, 2007


Holiday plants will be everywhere this month, so let's start with a primer on how to keep them blooming until well past New Year's.

Remove the foil wrappings from your poinsettia, or at least punch a couple of holes in the bottom so the plant can drain. Keep the soil slightly moist but not soggy, and set the plant in a bright window out of direct sunlight and away from sources of heat such as a television or fireplace.

Poinsettias make excellent cut flowers. Once cut, they need to be treated to coagulate their milky sap and to reduce wilting. Immerse the cut end in hot water for one minute and then place immediately in cold water. Cut the flowers 18 to 24 hours before they are to be used, and store them in a cool place. Wear gloves while you work with poinsettias; the milky sap can be irritating. The plants also can cause gastric distress for small children and pets if they chew them, but they're not poisonous.

There are two varieties of flowering holiday cactus: the Christmas cactus and the Easter cactus. The Christmas cactus, Zygocactus truncates, usually flowers from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and its leaves have pointed lobes. The Easter cactus, Schlumbergera bridgessii, has wider, rounded leaves. It usually flowers from Christmas to Easter.

Allow soil to dry out between watering and keep the plant in bright light while it blooms. These plants can be kept outside in the shade most of the year. They do need to be protected from frost and freezing temperatures.

Kalanchoe (pronounced cal-ann-KO-ee), a winter bloomer, has become popular as a holiday plant in the past few years. The thick, succulent leaves have various shapes; the showy flowers are in terminal clusters and last for several weeks. The blooms are yellow, pink, red and various shades of orange. Because this plant is a succulent, let the soil dry out between watering.

Dwarf azaleas make attractive gifts. These can also be planted around the home after the flowers fade. The small azaleas prefer shaded areas.

If you grow holly, it requires minimal pruning except to train the plants for special purposes, or to remove diseased or dead branches. If you do need to prune, this is a good time to do so, since you can use the clippings as holiday decorations in your home.

Here are a few gift suggestions for the gardeners on your list: pruning shears, watering cans, sprayers, fertilizer spreaders, hand tools, seedling starter kits, seeds, labels, flower-arranging materials, plant lights, potting soil and garden statuary.

Gardening books also make great gifts. Look for Florida-specific books like Month-by-Month Gardening in Florida by Tom MacCubbin and Florida's Best Native Landscape Plants by Gil Nelson and David Chiappini.

Get ready for the chill

With all the attention to the festive days ahead, it's easy to forget that cold weather may be just around the corner. We often get a cold snap in January.

Take some time now to get ready. Even trees and shrubs that are hardy in more temperate climates may put on new growth late in the season here and can be vulnerable to injury from early winter freezes.

Plants that may require protection in home landscapes are copperleaf, banana, papaya, poinsettia, hibiscus, ixora, dwarf schefflera, carissa, philodendron, croton, bougainvillea, allamanda, seagrape, bromeliads and tropical fruit trees, among other tropical or semitropical plants.

Covers offer the most practical cold protection for prized plants. Old sheets, blankets, boxes, newspaper or plastic can be used for covers. If you use plastic, build a frame over the plant so that the plastic does not touch the plant. If it does, it will conduct the cold straight to the plant.

Any covering material should be sealed to the ground. This will keep the interior three to four degrees warmer than the outside air.

Put the cover in place late in the afternoon, before the temperature starts to drop. Plastic covers should be removed the next morning after the temperature is above freezing but before the sun's rays become warm enough to cook your plants in their covering.

Cloth or paper coverings can remain over plants for two or three days if temperatures are expected to drop below freezing each night.

If your plants are deprived of sunshine for a couple of days their leaves may start to yellow. Don't worry. Once they're back in the sun they'll recover quickly.

Find more information about cold-weather protection by accessing the University of Florida/IFAS publication Cold Protection of Ornamental Plants on the Internet at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/MG025.

Cool-weather annuals

Winter and spring annuals are available at garden centers. Pansies, calendulas, petunias, sweet alyssum, snapdragons and pinks are good choices for bedding plants or for baskets and containers. All of these will survive frosts or freezes and keep blooming.

Other annuals that are a bit more sensitive to frost but good to plant now are impatiens, geraniums and begonias.

Five or six weeks after transplanting, begin feeding with a light application of 5-8-8, 6-10-10 or other comparable slow-release fertilizer every two months.

Gerbera daisies can be planted throughout the year, but the best time is fall and early winter. Choose a well-drained area and amend the soil with organic matter to retain nutrients and water. Roots may be slow to establish with the surrounding soil, and plants may need daily watering.

If you loosen the roots without breaking the soil ball, the plants will usually recover rapidly and become established more quickly. Gerbera crowns gradually sink into the soil after time. The crown becomes entirely submerged after a year or two. Excess moisture at this time tends to encourage crown-rot organisms that gradually weaken and eventually kill gerberas. Plants should be dug up after two years and replanted to keep crown rot under control.

Compiled by Pam Brown and Carol Suggs of the Pinellas County Extension Center/Florida Botanical Gardens. Questions? Call them at (727) 582-2100.

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Mark your calendar

All events are at Pinellas County Extension and Florida Botanical Gardens, 12520 Ulmerton Road, Largo.

6-10 p.m. through Jan. 1: Illuminated Garden. Stroll through the Florida Botanical Gardens' free display of more than 425,000 holiday lights. Information: (727) 582-2100.

8 a.m.-1 p.m. today and Dec. 8, 15, 22 and 29: Market in the Park. Farmer's market with local produce, gourmet foods, plants, more. County extension experts and master gardeners give educational seminars on gardening, nutrition and cooking.

10-11 a.m. Dec. 8: "Woodland Creatures."Children and families learn about the things nature provides in the forest. Make a woodland creature. Free, but registration is required. Call (727) 582-2673.