When I was a child, we took down all our Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night, the Christian feast of Epiphany, also known in some cultures as Three Kings Day. The roping would come off the stairway, the Christmas tree would go out the door, and the holly and evergreens would be bundled up and thrown away. We would drink the last of the holiday eggnog, exchange one small gift apiece, and get ready to settle in for the rest of a very long Upstate New York winter. For several weeks the house looked bare and a little sad, stripped of its holiday adornments.
Now, fortunately, the range of holiday plants has grown larger, and it’s no longer necessary to denude your house or apartment just because the festive season has passed. Of course, some things, like the Christmas tree, have to go. There are some municipalities that will put your tree through a chipper-shredder and hand you back a bag of mulch for the garden. If your municipality is not among them, at least recycle the branches by clipping them off and using them as winter mulch on some of your beds. You can accomplish most of the clipping with a big pair of loppers, and it means that less of your tree has to be hauled away and disposed of.
Inside the house, take stock of the various holiday plants and arrangements. If you have holly in pots or vases, it has probably dried out pretty thoroughly and should be ready for the compost pile. On the other hand, evergreen boughs, if you have kept them properly watered, may stay green for several weeks. Buy some inexpensive white mini carnations and arrange them among the evergreens. The effect will be decorative without shouting “Happy Holidays”.
Then there are the poinsettias. If I had a dollar for every person who has ever written a garden advice column wondering how to keep poinsettias going after the holidays and force them to flower the following year, I would be as rich as Bill Gates. Still, unless you bought the poinsettias at the beginning of November, they don’t usually fade until mid-January. Even after the red bracts have departed the scene, you can mass two or three poinsettia plants together as a green accent. By the time they start to look leggy, you will be thoroughly tired of them, so don’t feel guilty when you haul them out to the curb. They have done their best and so have you, your investment in them has been amortized, and the time has come to move on.
You do not have to part with Christmas amaryllis, however. Amaryllis have become so popular, that now at least one of the major garden plant retailers devotes almost an entire holiday catalog to them. It is really a shame to throw them out after they have put on their magnificent show because with only a bit of effort, you can make them bloom again next year. Once the plant has finished flowering (and each one usually produces two separate flower stalks), cut off the tall stalk. Keep watering and fertilizing the plant, and it will send out lots of long strappy green leaves. If you find the leaves unattractive, group your amaryllis in a sunny spot away from public scrutiny.
Remember that the leaves are important, as they are producing nutrients for those big fat bulbs. If you have an appropriate spot, put your amaryllis outside for the summer, where they can absorb warmth and sunshine. Water when the top of the soil is dry, and feed regularly. I have always made a point of bringing my potted bulbs in on Labor Day, cutting off the water, storing them in the cellar, and letting the plants go dormant for 12 weeks. Usually, at the end of that time, the bulbs will have begun a new cycle and will be putting forth the tips of green flower stalks. I repot the bulbs, return them to a sunny windowsill, and let them do their thing all over again.
Some authorities are now saying that the dormancy period is unnecessary, and that amaryllis can be treated like any other houseplant. If you decide to take that route, bring the plant in at summer’s end, repot if necessary, and place on that sunny windowsill. Keep watering, and the bloom cycle should repeat.
Perhaps this year I will do a controlled experiment with two bulbs and see which one fares better. Certainly omitting the dormancy period gives you one less thing to think about, and one less thing to lose in the cellar or garage or other dark recess of your dwelling.
Christmas cactus is another plant that can flourish from year to year, provided it has regular care. There are different schools of thought on the best way to encourage reblooming, but most experts advise putting the Christmas Cactus in a sunny indoor window, watering only when the soil feels dry, then setting it in a semi-shaded outdoor location in the summer. Once fall arrives, bring the cactus indoors, and cease watering it for the month of October. If all goes well this should stimulate blooming.
So take your watering can in hand, and make use of those holiday plants. If you tend to suffer from post-holiday letdown, you already know that in January friends may “hole up” for the winter, and lovers may go into hibernation. If you work it right, though, you can get by with a little help from your plants.