In The Garden: Make your festive houseplants last


WHETHER it’s deep red poinsettias, colourful Christmas cacti, fragrant hyacinths, stylish orchids or winter cherries which grace your home this festive season, we’ll show you how to keep them going until well into the New Year.

The festive foliage challenge

IF the deep red leaves of the poinsettia you bought for Christmas are already drooping or the fragrant hyacinths you hoped would last beyond Boxing Day have fallen over, you may think that you simply don’t have the magic touch with houseplants.

Yet you only need to make a few changes to perk up your festive houseplants to ensure they last into the new year.

The fallen hyacinth scenario will be irreversible - once they’ve fallen over and the flowers are starting to turn brown, the best you can hope for is that they will come back if you replant them outside next autumn.

If your poinsettia has wilted and is losing leaves, it’s likely you’ve overwatered it. The surface of the compost must be dry before you water it and never allow the plant to stand in water.

If you’ve underwatered it and the compost around the roots is dry, that can cause the same problem.

If the plant suddenly loses its leaves without wilting, it may be that it’s too cold where the poinsettia has been placed or it has been exposed to hot or freezing draughts or poor light levels.

Ideally, this plant likes a bright spot but not in direct sunlight and a constant temperature of between 18-24C (64-75F).

Among the easiest of festive plants is the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), with its spreading foliage and successive, pendulous flowers. It needs plenty of light in winter in average room temperatures, although plants bought in bloom will last longer in cooler rooms.

Avoid draughts, overwatering, turning the pot, which may lead to bud loss, and temperatures under 13C (55F). Use soft water to help maintain slightly acidic conditions.

The soil should be evenly moist for best growth and I always water mine from below, sitting the plant in a trough of water for a few minutes before draining it and putting it back.

Before attempting to water the plant again, check to see that the top inch of soil has dried thoroughly first.

Many bulbs are forced for Christmas, including narcissi, hyacinth and tulips, and do best in a bright spot in a cool room of around 10C (50F), but avoid direct sunlight and make sure the bulbs are free from draughts and kept well away from a radiator.

Keep the compost moist at all times and turn the bowl occasionally so that growth will be even. Taller varieties will need staking with pea sticks and will benefit from feeding with a liquid fertiliser.

Orchids are also a winner at Christmas and need very little attention over the festive season. Water them once a week from below, sitting the plastic pot in a bowl of water, with the addition of some orchid feed. Once the roots have had a good soaking, lift the pot out and let it stand on the draining board for around half an hour before putting it back.

Orchids like plenty of light but shade them from direct sunlight and temperatures in winter of around 15C (60F). Cool nights are important, so ideally allow a dip of three or four degrees. The leaves also need misting from time to time but avoid spraying the flowers.

Indoor azaleas produce vivid splashes of colour at this time of year and should be planted in ericaceous compost and placed in a cool spot, either on a porch or in an unheated conservatory, as they are virtually hardy. If you keep it cool, the flowers will last longer.

As the plant is lime-hating, it needs soft water and must not be allowed to dry out. Unlike most houseplants, it can be watered daily to keep the rootball moist. Dunk it in a bowl of water for 20 minutes, then tip away the excess water.

If you want to keep it, repot it in ericaceous compost before placing it outdoors for the summer. Regular watering and a feed specifically for lime-haters will be essential to keep it going.

With a little care, you’ll be enjoying your houseplants well into the new year.

Best of the bunch - Cyclamen

These little beauties look stunning in winter containers but also provide a splash of colour indoors, particularly if they are grouped together in a single pot or in a row in individual pots.

Flowers range from scarlet, through pink, to white, some with streaks and others with coloured edges. White cyclamen work particularly well with ferns.

For success indoors, plants should be given maximum winter light, cool conditions and not too much watering. Wait until the leaves just start to wilt and then stand the pot in a deep saucer of water for 10 minutes and then allow it to drain. They should be fed every three weeks with a balanced liquid feed.

Once flowering is over, reduce watering until the leaves turn yellow, then stop watering. In late summer, you can clean off and repot the tuber.

If you want winter blooms outdoors, go for Cyclamen coum, which display their marbled leaves in autumn followed by rounded flowers through winter and early spring. Plant them with snowdrops for a beautiful spring picture.

Good enough to eat - Brussels sprouts

The old image of overcooked sprouts with Christmas dinner has long since been usurped by their healthy eating, cancer-busting properties and delicious flavour when cooked al dente with crispy lardons or chestnuts.

They’re also really easy to grow. Sow the seeds indoors in February or March for early types and in an outdoor seedbed in April for later cropping varieties.

The seedlings need to be transplanted into very firm soil in holes made with a dibber, then firmed in with your heel. Space them 60cm (2ft) apart in small gardens, or slightly further apart on larger plots and water them in well.

Support the plants with stakes, water them in dry spells and feed them with general purpose fertiliser in early August. You can start picking them when they are large enough to use and if you want a big batch over Christmas, pull up a whole plant. Good varieties include ‘Trafalgar’ and ‘Falstaff’.

Three ways to... Prevent wind scorch

1. Plant shrubs on the sheltered side of deciduous hedges, which filter the wind.

2. Place container-grown plants against a sheltered house wall, but try to avoid wind tunnels.

3. Mulch the soil around plants to reduce the drying effect of wind.

What to do this week

A shallow water feature may freeze solid in extreme weather conditions so move it under cover if possible or alternatively empty it.

To prevent soil becoming compacted, use planks to walk over wet ground.

If water is creating puddles on the grass, spike the affected area with a fork.

Roses in pots being forced in the greenhouse should be pruned and the job should be completed by the end of the month.

Aim to keep the conservatory at 7-10C (45-50F) through a combination of insulation, heating and ventilation.

Keep pelargoniums well ventilated over winter.

Protect newly planted rhododendrons with a temporary windbreak of hessian with stout supports on the windy side.

After frost, re-firm the ground around plants which have been lifted.

Continue clearing the ground for new beds, weather permitting.

Check all stakes, ties and other supports are secure before winter winds do their worst.

Continue to tidy plants in winter containers, cutting off yellowing leaves and removing dead flowers, and keep an eye on the compost as it can dry out because of the wind.

Keep heathers clear of fallen leaves, to reduce the risk of fungal diseases.