Simple steps key to helping holiday greenery survive, thrive

By: Cortney Casey | C&G Newspapers | Published December 5, 2012

 Greenhouse Manager Jim Moylan cares for red poinsettias at Ray Wiegand’s Nursery & Garden Center in Macomb Township.

Greenhouse Manager Jim Moylan cares for red poinsettias at Ray Wiegand’s Nursery & Garden Center in Macomb Township.

Photo by Edward Osinski

If lack of a green thumb is causing a blue — or a brown — Christmas around your house, it might be time to get back to the basics.

When caring for holiday foliage, it’s all about water, light, and proper amounts thereof, say gardening experts.

O Christmas tree

With neglect apt to prompt “A Charlie Brown Christmas”-style scene in the living room, live Christmas trees are on the critical-care list.

“They have to get watered — they have to suck a lot of water up,” said Jim Moylan, greenhouse manager at Ray Wiegand’s Nursery & Garden Center in Macomb Township. “That’s the most important part. As soon as it dries out, it’s pretty much a goner.”

Once needles become bone dry, they won’t rehydrate and “come back to life,” Moylan warned. So check the water reservoir in the tree stand regularly, and when it runs dry, fill it to the brim, watch it go down, and then fill it again, he said.

With proper care, the trees can survive into the new year — or even thrive, in some cases, pushing new growth in January, said Moylan.  

Customers wanting to get a longer lifespan out of their trees should opt for varieties that hold their needles well, such as fraser, concolor, douglas and balsam firs, said Paul Blake of Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill in Armada, which has maintained cut-your-own Christmas-tree fields for nearly 25 years.

Types like blue spruces and white spruces have shorter needles that don’t last as long, so “we don’t recommend putting them up until getting closer to the 10th of December or so,” he said.  

Despite this year’s wildly vacillating weather, which did a number on many Michigan crops, customers are unlikely to see a difference in the quantity or quality of live trees available, added Blake.

Some of his orchards’ younger trees were affected, but “typically, Christmas trees will be in the ground 10 years before they’re ready to be cut,” so most of the larger, older ones were unfazed, he said.

As real garland will dry out rapidly indoors, Moylan doesn’t recommend using live pine boughs inside, unless they’re inserted in the wet foam commonly used in centerpieces and other arranged displays.

Outdoors is another story; Moylan said he’s seen pine boughs contained in porch pots survive into February and beyond. There’s not even a need to water them, he added, as the cold outdoor air keeps them preserved and hydrated.

Christmas cacti

On the more colorful end of the plant spectrum, Lori Ehrhardt, a glasshouse worker at Wiegand’s, said she’s encountered customers whose families have maintained massive Christmas cacti for 80-90 years.

“They’ve been passed down for generations and generations,” she said.

The distinctive plants bear blooms — often hot pink, red or white — as the winter holidays approach. Ehrhardt said they also may burst forth around Easter.

As forest cacti, they require a balanced watering approach. When the soil surface seems dry, and the dirt is only slightly moist when you stick your finger into it, water the plant thoroughly, until water drains out the bottom of the pot. Then remove any excess water in the saucer, said Ehrhardt.

Nidia Levron, a sales clerk at Thrifty Florist in Birmingham, cites overwatering as the No. 1 mistake Christmas-cacti owners make.

“That’s a no-no,” she said. “Sometimes you see the stems. … They get brown, and they shrivel up and they fall off.”

For most of the year, Christmas cacti prefer indirect light, not full sun, said Ehrhardt. They like shady spots outside during the summer, she said, but in cooler months, they should be kept indoors and protected from drafts.

“You don’t want them near the window, where they can get chilled,” she said. “That’s not good for them.”

To encourage blooming, Ehrhardt recommends moving the cacti in mid-September to a cooler place in the house — around 55 degrees — that still gets some light, such as beside a glass block window in a basement.

Allow the soil to get slightly drier than usual, but not bone dry, she said. After about six weeks, buds should start appearing, and the plant can shift back to its normal spot in the house.

If roots begin poking out the bottom of the container, it’s time to repot, said Ehrhardt. She recommended picking a new pot that’s only 2 inches larger in diameter, as too much soil leads to excess water, which encourages bacterial growth in the dirt and can attract fungus gnats.

Partial to poinsettias

No matter how much you dote on them, poinsettias are never going to be the decades-spanning hand-me-downs that Christmas cacti can be, but with proper care, they can last into February, said Moylan.

He recommended checking them every three to four days to evaluate whether they need water. If the soil seems dry, drench the plant with 8-16 ounces of water, depending on its size, he said.

Water should be administered at the base of the plant, not from above, which can cause rotting, he said. Like Christmas cacti, Poinsettias shouldn’t be allowed to linger in saucers of post-watering excess, he added.

Often mistaken for petals, the poinsettia’s colored portions — which are often red, but also can be pink, white, cream, marbled, or even orange or green — are actually special leaves called bracts. The actual flowers, clustered in the center, are less noticeable.

While the traditional holiday plants are indigenous to Mexico and Central America, and reportedly were introduced to the United States in the 1800s, Moylan said Wiegand’s poinsettias are all grown in greenhouse conditions in Michigan.