The Cranky Gardener

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Beautiful Plants for a Beautiful Season1

Christmas is the holiday that most lends itself to the formation of family traditions. Having been raised by avid gardeners, our family Christmases involved a variety of plants. Our home was filled with the bright reds of Poinsettias and holly berries, the dusky rose of Christmas cactus, the silver of artemisia and a multitude of greens - holly, cedar, mistletoe, blue spruce and Norfolk Pine. We also decorated with acorns and nuts, pine cones, painted gourds, fruits and berries.

With the exception of the poinsettias which we purchased at a local nursery, all of the plants in our home at Christmas were gathered from our garden or from the woods nearby. Christmas didn't come through the mall in those days. Gifts and wrapping paper, greeting cards and Christmas tree decorations were often made by hand. It was definitely a different era. And with that I'm sure you're all wondering just how old I am, anyway. Older than dirt my friends, older than dirt. You don't get as cranky as I am overnight.

We always had a large tree in the living room, and I had a small, table-top one in my bedroom. Searching through the woods for the trees was a highlight of my childhood. My dad would go in advance and scout the area, not wanting to keep me outside in the cold any longer than he had to. By the time my brother, who is twelve years younger than I, was old enough to go tree hunting, my parents had begun buying a balled and burlaped tree for the living room at the feed store. But we continued to hunt the woods for my small tree until the year I was married. By then we were digging and balling them as well rather than cutting them. Weather permitting, the Christmas trees were planted in the garden on New Year's Day. Many of them survive and we can point to them and say that this one was Christmas 1958 or that one was Christmas 1962. It was a lovely tradition, and the survival of the trees anchors me to both my family and to the garden.

Although the use of many traditional Christmas plants stretches back into Pagan antiquity, the Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a relatively recent addition. These beautiful plants are natives of Mexico and Central America. They were introduced to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was the first US ambassador to Mexico in the 1820's. He brought the colourful plants back to his plantation in Greenville, South Carolina where he grew them and presented them to his friends as Christmas gifts. Poinsett died on December 12, 1851, and the anniversary of his death each year is celebrated as Poinsettia Day.

Poinsettias are perennials and will grow to a height of 10 feet in a tropical climate. They were cultivated by the Aztecs who used the plants both to produce a dye and as an herbal remedy for fever. They were first used in religious ceremonies in the Seventeenth century by Franciscan priests in Taxco who selected them for Nativity processions because of their deep colour.

Today, Poinsettias have become so popular as Christmas gifts and decorations that more of them are sold annually in the United States than all other potted plants combined. The most popular varieties are still the reds, but they come in a variety of colours including pink, peach, cream, white, yellow and variegated red and pink, red and cream, striped, spotted and marbled. With all of these choices, you're bound to find one to fall in love with.

When you bring you plants home, try to place them in a room that doesn't get any warmer than 70ºF. They prefer indirect light while blooming, so don't expose them to strong sunlight. Let them dry out between waterings. Poinsettias don't like wet feet. If you have your plant in a decorative container, remove the inside pot before watering and let the water drain completely before you return it to the container. Do not fertilize your plant until it stops blooming, which should be in February or March.

Unfortunately, most Poinsettia plants wind up in the dumpster after Christmas. Shame! It is possible to keep them from year to year, although it does require a certain touch to get them to rebloom. Your plant will probably have stopped blooming around Valentine's Day. At this time give it a meal of a good balanced fertilizer. When the leaves have fallen, cut it back to about 8 inches. Continue to water it and, by late spring, it will be growing strongly and ready to set outside in the garden or to repot for summer.

Make sure you feed your plant at least once a month during the growing season - every three weeks is better. And if it begins to look leggy, prune it back so it will have a beautiful bushy shape when you're ready to take it inside again. Do not prune the plants after September 1st.

Ok, are you ready for the tricky part? If you have planted your Poinsettia directly into the garden, you will need to dig it and pot it. From now until Christmas light control will be the biggest issue. Beginning October 1st, you will need to keep your plant in total darkness for 14 straight hours each night. When I say total darkness, that's what I mean. If you want your Poinsettia to bloom for Christmas, even brief periods of light - such as light entering a room or closet from a hallway or a streetlight shining through a window, or a bedside lamp turned on briefly - will interfere with the reblooming process.

The easiest way to accomplish your light deprivation schedule is to place your plant inside a small box no taller than your pot. Then place the box inside a heavyweight black plastic garbage can liner. Here's what I do. I placed my box containing my poinsettia in front of a South window in a room where I can keep the temperature at 65º F. At 7 am I roll the black plastic down to let the plant enjoy the light from the window. At 5 pm, my husband (I'm still at work at 5pm) pulls the bag up over the plant so it can go to sleep. If you do this faithfully for 8 - 10 weeks, your Poinsettia should rebloom in time for Christmas.

I know that this is a lot of work to go through since the plants are inexpensive to buy and easy to find. But the pleasure of accomplishment outweighs the inconvenience. Besides, this is one way to thumb your nose at our throw-away society.

Getting your Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridesii) to re-flower is a similar process. They also require long hours of darkness in the autumn for them to produce buds. Give them at least 13 hours of darkness a day. And remember that they are not a true cactus and require a rich organic soil and plenty of water. They also will die in bright sunlight during the summer, so keep them in a shady spot between May and September. An east window is the best location for them in the house.

If you still use a live Christmas tree each year, I strongly recommend that you spend the little extra it requires to buy a balled and burlaped tree rather than a cut one. Dig the hole outside where you intend to plant it after Christmas before the ground freezes and keep some composted manure and some Canadian sphagnum peat moss on hand to use when filling around the tree when you plant it. If you use a cut tree, remember to keep it well-watered and to take it to be chipped and turned into mulch when the season is finished.

Another relatively modern invention that makes decorating with cut evergreens simpler is wet floral foam. Cut holly and spruce will last for weeks inside if treated like cut flowers and placed into floral foam. And it prolongs the life of cedar as well, although not as much.

I have one last suggestion for you. Don't forget your feathered friends at Christmas. A lovely tradition is to decorate a tree outside with edible seeds and berries for the birds. You can use a small evergreen tree or even a deciduous one. The birds won't mind which you choose. Or an old artificial tree that has seen better days will work beautifully. Just be sure it is anchored strongly in the ground if you use artificial. I usually use one of my dwarf fruit trees. Use your imagination when it comes to the decorations. You might want to string popcorn or cranberries or Cheerios into garlands. You can add suet balls and birdseed ornaments. The easiest birdseed ornaments are made by coating pinecones with a 50/50 mixture of peanut butter and lard and rolling them in birdseed. Remember to attach the hangers before you coat them.

This week's recipe is definitely for the birds. It is a little more complicated than the pinecone ornaments, but the result is lovely and the birds will love you for them.

Birdseed Ornaments

Materials for 6 ornaments:

  • 6 slices of bread
  • Cookie cutters in assorted Christmas shapes or a doughnut cutter to make a wreath shape
  • Pastry brush
  • 3 egg whites
  • 2 cups of mixed birdseed with sunflower seeds
  • Aluminum foil
  • Cookie sheet
  • Wire cutters
  • Floral wire
  • 6 ribbons at least 12 inches long
  • Hot glue gun and glue sticks


Place a slice of bread on a firm surface and cut a shape out of it with a cookie cutter. Repeat with the other bread slices. Reserve the bread scraps to make bread crumbs or - give it to the birds.

Using the pastry brush, brush the egg whites onto the cutouts and coat them with a thick layer of birdseed, pressing it in gently. Place them onto a foil-covered cookie sheet. Bake them for 10 minutes at 350ºF. Remove from the oven and cool completely.

To make the hangers, cut six pieces of floral wire 7 - 8 inches long. Gently insert the end of the wire through the top of the ornament. Don't get too close to the edge. Form a loop and twist the wire ends together to secure.

Make simple bows with the ribbon and hot-glue them over the twisted wires.

These are very pretty and the kids will love helping you make them. The joy of watching the birds gather around their tree will well reward you for your effort.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Christmas banner by Wotchit

The Cranky Gardener


18.12.03 Front Page

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1Plant names capitalised for clarity.

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