Preserving and protecting your holiday plants

Poinsettia and Norfolk pine are topical plants that must stay indoors over the holidays. They can go outside with your other houseplants in the summer, but not now. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

Mike McGrath,

WASHINGTON – Brrrrr! Just about everyone in the area has been waking up to freezing cold mornings lately — frigid cars and sidewalks that can get slippery with just the slightest bit of wetness. Luckily, the area is not supposed to get rain/sleet/snow until next weekend, making this the perfect time for a review of the basic rules of plant safe ice-melting. It’s the perfect time for you to make sure you have an alternative ice melt product on hand, one that’s gentler on plants and surfaces than mean old rock salt.

You’re looking for magnesium chloride, calcium chloride, potassium chloride or mixtures of those chemicals. Just be sure to read the package carefully as many seeming “alternative” products are mostly plant-killing rock salt with a dusting of something like calcium chloride so they can use the “good name” in big print on the label.

Big clue: If you see the letters NACl (or NaCl) on the package, pass it by. That’s rock salt wearing a dress and high heels.

Lawn-sparing de-icing tactics

Are you prepared to de-ice your walk without killing your lawn and landscape plants?

  • Always shovel or blow away the bulk of any snow before you spread any de- icer. And don’t be afraid to toss clean snow onto lawns and garden beds. It’s actually good for them. “God’s winter mulch.”
  • Then, spread your de-icer on the mostly clean surface to prevent melting snow from freezing back up overnight. Don’t use too much. These alternative de-icers are much more effective than rock salt and at much lower rates. A little dab’ll do ya.
  • Pre-treating is even smarter. If you’re certain it’s going to ice up overnight, trust the word of the Weather Warriors at WTOP, spread a thin coating of calcium, potassium or magnesium chloride on your clean, dry walk before the bad weather starts. That will prevent the walk from freezing up and give you clear sailing in the morning, as opposed to an icy walk literally sending you sailing in the morning.
  • And if local plows push salted snow onto your lawn during a weather event, shovel the worst of it off the grass afterwards, and then flush the area with clean water as soon as weather permits.

Get your amaryllis to re-bloom

Did you have a big amaryllis blooming for the holidays? Well, now is the time to try and get it ready for a second round of flowers.

  • After the blooms are done, clip off the top of the flower stalk but leave the green leaves unmolested.
  • Move the plant into the brightest light you have, and feed it with a gentle non-smelly organic fertilizer, like compost or worm castings.
  • Water lightly. Don’t let any water sit in the protective saucer underneath.
  • Then take it outside for the summer, but wait until the weather is warm enough for tomatoes. Don’t rush the season. Feed it once more and continue watering lightly. And don’t mess with the green leaves. They’re fueling the growth of the next flower.
  • To try and achieve Christmas rebloom, put the bulb in a cool, dark place (in or out of its pot) with no food or water beginning in July. A dark basement-type area is ideal.
  • Let it rest until Nov. 1, then bring it back into warmth and water it well and it should be ready to re-bloom about six weeks later.

Preserve your poinsettias

Yes, poinsettias are perennial if protected from frost. So if you want to play around with this fun tropical plant and try and keep it alive for next Christmas:

  • Give it good indoor light for the rest of the winter, and water by immersing the pot in a sink once a week.
  • Then, take it outside in early June, after nighttime temps stay reliably over 55, (it’s a very tropical plant, and prune it to the shape you want it to have.
  • Then feed it with a gentle organic fertilizer and keep it well watered but not soggy. You can continue some gentle pruning for the next few months. Feed again after about six weeks.
  • Bring it back inside by Oct. 1 and give it bright light during the day, but cover it with a cardboard box for 12 hours every evening. Yes, this sure seems tedious, but after three months of this day/night simulation the center leaves should regain their red color, just in time for Christmas display.

Protect your pansies

If you have pansies in the ground outside, be sure to save cut Christmas tree branches for gentle cover if heavy snow or ice is predicted. Cover the plants with the springy boughs before the weather event and then uncover them when the mess has melted.

Pansies can take the cold, but can be crushed under the weight of heavy ice or show. Bouncy branches are the perfect pansy protection.

But toss your (stinky!) paperwhites!

Did you have pretty paperwhites blooming in your home over the holidays, and wonder what to do with the little bulbs now that those stinky, stinky flowers are gone?

Toss them into your compost pile.

Although they are a form of daffodil, paperwhites are tropical plants that won’t survive our winter weather outdoors. And, if you displayed them for the holidays in the typical pot filled with water and stones, they don’t have any resources left to build new blooms.

It is possible for really talented gardeners to provide the rigid and grueling conditions required for rebloom, but it isn’t easy. And it requires that they be grown in rich soil the first time around.

So do yourself a favor and just toss this Christmas plant after the flowering show is over. Besides, did you really want to experience that stinky smell again?

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(Copyright 2013 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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