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Renovation & Design

Nurture that indoor garden

Holiday gift plants can charm year-round

Carla Hrycyna Photo/Place orchids in bright light. Maintain humidity by placing pots on a waterproof tray filled with gravel and water.
Barb Adams Eichendorf Photo/This Christmas cactus with milky white petals prefers a cool room temperature. It needs 12 hours daily of complete darkness for about six weeks starting in September in order to produce blooms in time for Christmas.
Susan Bouchat Photo/Allow the bird of paradise to become root-bound in its container before repotting. Oversized blooms resemble a bird’s head.
Kalanchoe is a low-maintenance flowering plant that is tolerant of a dry environment.
Colleen Zacharias Photo/The exotic anthurium will tolerate low light and has long-lasting flower-like spathes. Keep soil moist but not wet.
Sharlene Nieisen Photo/A holiday classic, red amaryllis pairs beautifully with poinsettia. Plant them a minimum of eight weeks before you want flowers. Water well at planting time, then sparingly until the leaves begin growing.

Hostess gifts during the holiday season quite often include a beautifully presented plant ranging from the exotic, such as anthurium, orchid, hibiscus or bromeliads, to the more traditional, including amaryllis, Christmas cactus, paper whites and, of course, poinsettia in its many new shades.

African violets, azaleas and cyclamen will have made the rounds this season as well, along with the Norfolk pine, which sometimes does double duty as the family Christmas tree.

Once the decorations have been put away, these plants often languish for a short while until they're guiltily tossed out. But with proper care, they can live on and thrive. Why not maintain them, and even transplant them into the garden for a unique and rare display in the summer months? You can then bring them back inside when the temperatures dip in the fall.

The Christmas cactus, for example, can survive for several decades. Linda Pearn, secretary of the Prairie Garden, is the proud owner of a Christmas cactus that once belonged to her grandmother and is about 100 years old. When the leaves get dusty, she simply places it in the bathtub and sprays it with lukewarm water.

"To start preparing your holiday cactus for blooming next season, prune it after blooming to encourage branching out," says Barbara-Jean Jackson, a master gardener in Brandon. "Just remove one or two segments, which can be rooted to make new plants.

"Above all, do not overwater. More holiday cactus die because of overwatering than anything else. Let the plant dry out between waterings and keep it in bright, indirect light away from drafts or heat vents. It can go outside for the summer, but keep it out of direct sun, which can cause burning."

Your indoor garden may consist of plants scattered throughout your living space, grouped together in a room that receives bright light, or even serve as the main focus in a room specially designed for them, such as a sunroom.

But wherever you place them, keep in mind the primary consideration is to maintain optimum levels of temperature, light and humidity as well as the appropriate watering and fertilizing practices. Most plants thrive in higher humidity, and grouping plants together helps to raise the relative humidity. Check for the effects of low humidity by examining the leaf edges -- if they're dry and brittle, chances are they're reacting to a dry indoor environment.

Some of the more common plants that prefer high humidity include orchids, ficus (creeping fig), the lipstick plant, gloxinia and ferns. Try placing a container filled with water next to your plants and add pebbles to the water surface. This will be more effective than misting, which is strictly a temporary solution.

Kalanchoe will not suffer in a dry environment since it is a succulent, but it does require bright light conditions as do most cacti and plants such as bird of paradise, bougainvillea, aloe, poinsettia, hibiscus and schefflera (umbrella tree).

Anthurium, however, can often be found growing (and blooming) in offices notorious for low light conditions.

Watering is the most important aspect of caring for your houseplant. Carla Hrycyna from St. Mary's Nursery cautions plants can survive short stages of dryness but rarely recover from having wet roots for extended periods. And Chad Labbe from Shelmerdine Garden Centre shared this tip: "Ensure that your holiday plant is not sitting in water trapped in the foil wraps commonly used to decorate the containers."

Another important consideration is a regular fertilizing schedule. Start with a good-quality potting medium that is free of soil-borne pathogens and designed to provide adequate aeration and moisture retention. This will ensure the plant has the right amount of nutrients for at least the first six weeks after potting.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid fertilizing in the low-light conditions that accompany winter or when water is present in minimal quantities, as this will only result in burning of the root tips. Fertilizing is best done when there are signs of active growth. An exception is the phalaenopsis orchid, which only grows in a medium of bark and benefits from a monthly fertilizing schedule, even during winter.

A good friend of mine, Susan Bouchat, recommends Schulz All-Purpose Liquid Plant Food. During winter, Susan fertilizes at half-strength -- about ü tsp for every gallon of water. Since orchids are sensitive to tap water or hard water, she collects rainwater throughout the growing season, storing it in milk jugs for winter use.

The rewards are obvious: Her favourite orchid, Brother Sara Gold Oriental Sunset, is ideally situated in a south exposure and blooms four times a year, producing 30 or 40 flowers at a time with each bloom lasting at least three months. Now there's a gift that keeps on giving!

Also growing in this same sunny spot in her home is a bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae). Susan started it from seed about seven or eight years ago. Today it is five feet tall and produces multiple blooms, 20 centimetres wide and 12 cm long. Blooms last three weeks. Best of all, it does not require a rest period, which is critical for re-blooming in the case of plants such as amaryllis.

Susanne Olver, associate editor of the Prairie Garden, recommends gardeners discard the pot and peat moss included in the amaryllis kits that are so readily available in the weeks before Christmas. Instead, plant them in a bigger pot with good potting soil.

"Keep them in that pot, don't divide them, transplant them every two years, and you will end up with a big pot with lots of blooms -- as many as two dozen," Olver says.

"In the summertime, take your amaryllis outdoors for spectacular blooms in the garden. Sink the pot into the ground in an area of filtered sun, so that the plant doesn't dry out. In September, return the plant to the indoors and store in the basement so that the plant can have at least three or four months rest."

Susanne stresses the importance of not watering at all during this period of rest -- if you water them too early, they will rot.

Nurture your indoor plants just as you would your outdoor plants and you'll create a "garden" that can be in bloom from January to December.

PLAN to attend the Manitoba Horticultural Association Annual Convention, Jan. 26, 27 and 28, Rec Complex, 180 Easton Dr., Selkirk.

Knowledgeable speakers will present on a wide range of gardening topics during this three-day conference for gardening enthusiasts. Great deals on lily bulbs, cannas, seeds, succulents, gardening gear and more.

For program details and registration information, please visit www.icangarden.com/clubs/mha, email m.h.a@shaw.ca or phone 204-256-2745.

Interested in becoming a master gardener? Visit the newly launched website of the Manitoba Master Gardener Association (www.mgmanitoba.com) for full details including course schedules, or contact Mary Petersen at Assiniboine Community College (1-800-862-6307, ext 6716; email petersem@assiniboine.net)

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