Holiday garden greens and reds
It’s a good idea to remove the foil or plastic sleeve from the pot when displaying a poinsettia. (Submitted photo)

Q: I don’t have much luck with poinsettias; I keep it watered, but the plant seems to wilt, drop its leaves and die even before the holidays are over. What’s wrong?

A: One possibility is you are overwatering your poinsettia. Poinsettias are tropical plants that are sensitive to moisture and temperature extremes, so they do require a bit of extra consideration in placement and care during the holidays.

When purchasing a poinsettia, look for a well-proportioned plant, one that has not been crowded by other plants, with dark green healthy leaves and fully-colored bracts (the leaf-like part that surrounds the true flowers). The actual flowers, small knobs clustered at the center of the bracts, should be red or green with little if any yellow pollen showing.

Don’t purchase plants that are kept on display in plastic sleeves; they tend to deteriorate quickly. But if outdoor temperatures are less than 50 degrees F, or it’s windy, be sure to have your plant covered when you carry it outside.

Display your poinsettia in a bright spot with indirect sunlight, away from cold, heat or drafts. Ideal daytime temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees F, with lower night time temperatures of 55 degrees F, will prolong the life of the colorful bracts. Poinsettias don’t like cold window panes, hot fireplaces, radiators or heat registers, warm appliances, or to be near doors or windows that are opened and closed often.

Do not leave the foil or plastic sleeve on the pot. Check the soil often; if it feels moist, there is no need to water. Water the plant when the top inch of soil feels dry to the touch. Then water thoroughly; let the water drain through into a saucer and then pour off the excess. Keeping the foil on, so the soil becomes saturated, or letting the soil dry out completely, can quickly lead to wilting, leaf drop, root rot and plant death.

Q: I am interested in having a living Christmas tree this year. What do I need to do to make sure it survives when I plant it out?

A: A living Christmas tree planted outdoors after the holidays can enhance your landscape, provide shelter for birds, and create long-lasting holiday memories, but its survival is chancy. With proper care and some luck, it can be done successfully.

Local tree farms carry several varieties of balled and burlapped or potted trees, such as Douglas fir, Concolor fir, blue spruce, Canaan fir and Fraser fir. You might want to visit a tree farm now to select your tree, so that it can be ready for you a few days before Christmas.

If you like to have your Christmas tree on display for a month or more, don’t choose a living tree. It must not be inside for more than three to five days; any longer can cause the tree’s buds to lose dormancy, which means they will be killed when the tree is taken out into the cold again.

And if you are looking for a “nice, big tree,” living trees range only from about 2 feet to a maximum of 5-6 feet in height; the smaller the tree, the better chance it will have for survival when planted outdoors. Also, the rootball and tree can easily weigh 100-200 pounds. Lugging it into the house, up steps, through doorways, and out again in a few days can be a challenge.

If you’re still determined to have a live tree, decide on its future location now and dig the planting hole before the ground freezes. In general, conifers need full sun and well-drained soil. Remember that a 5-6-foot Christmas tree can grow to be 40-80 feet tall in the landscape with a spread of 20-30 feet, so give it a site with room to grow.

Dig a hole that is no deeper than the rootball of the tree will be; check with the tree farm where you’re going to buy the tree to find out the dimensions of the rootball. Set aside the backfill soil in a frost-free place, and fill the hole with straw or mulch.

Keep the tree in a cool but frost-free location until you bring it indoors. The rootball must be kept moist but not be allowed to freeze. After Christmas, put the tree back out in the cool frost-free location so that it can become gradually acclimated to colder temperatures.

On a mild winter day, plant the tree in the prepared hole. Use the soil you set aside to fill in around the rootball, and mulch the root zone heavily with the straw or mulch that was in the hole. Water it well at planting; and during mild winter spells, go out and water it well.

Your planted Christmas tree is extremely vulnerable to winter injury, because its root system is not established and because it continues to lose moisture through its leaves throughout the winter. An anti-desiccant sprayed on the foliage may help to lessen water loss.

Annette MaCoy is the consumer horticulture extension educator and master gardener coordinator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. If you have garden questions, contact Annette at 240-6500 or by e-mail at ahm11@psu.edu.

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