Christmas Houseplants: Practical Gardening Series

Image by author.

Image by author.

During the Christmas season poinsettias, Norfolk pines, Christmas cactus, cyclamen and rosemary are often purchased to decorate our homes or given as gifts.  Knowing how to care for these popular holiday plants can be a challenge. So for those of you with the not-so-green thumb, here are some basic care instructions.

Poinsettia:  This is the most frequently purchased plant for Christmas. It ranges from tones of red to white. The colored leafy bracts, which we think of as flowers, can be smooth, deeply lobed or tightly crinkled as with ‘Winter Rose’.

This plant is touchy to extremes in moisture, temperature and drafts. To keep it looking good takes some skill and many people treat it as disposable much like cut flowers. The poinsettia likes a lot of sun, so if it is next to windows rotate the plant daily to allow light on all leaf surfaces. Keep it in a warm room of 70-75 degrees, away from heat vents and cool drafts. Water when soil is dry. Too much water and a chill cause the leaves and bracts to curl and drop. By late winter this plant wants to take a rest and its leaves will begin to fade. Lay it on its side in a cool dark basement. In May, prune it to about 4”, water well and plant in the garden.

Extensive research, including studies by Ohio State University, has shown that the poinsettia is quite safe and not toxic to children or animals; if consumed it will cause digestive expulsion.

White Christmas cactus in my office.

Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera sp.): First of all, this is not a true cactus and requires regular watering. It is one of my favorite house plants. I have a white one growing next to my desk and, down the hall, a large coral bloomer that enjoys a west window.

When grown in greenhouses they are regulated to bloom for December sales. In my home they bloom twice a year; in early November and, if not pinched back, again in late winter. To set buds these plants like it cool, around 60-65 degrees. Once buds are formed keep them at about 70 degrees and away from heat vents.

Grow in bright indirect sunlight, rotating plant by one quarter each time you water. Keep soil evenly moist but not soggy while blooming. When done flowering, water sparingly and cut back at a leaf node to encourage new branching (and more buds!). When new growth appears in the spring, use fertilizer every other watering.

Norfolk Pine: This plantis often decorated as a living Christmas tree. Easy to care for, it can grow quite large.

It likes it cool, around 62-68 degrees. Grow in bright indirect light, but never in full sun. It does best about 4’ from a bright South facing window. Place closer to windows with sheers or awnings. Rotate by a quarter turn each time you water with a standard fertilizer. Allow soil to dry almost completely between watering but mist the needles with cool water 2-3 times a week if your house has low humidity.

Rosemary: In a previous column I wrote about rosemary being a common household herb during Jesus’ life.  It was used to repel insects and would have been placed in the straw of the manger.

Grow rosemary in a clay pot to allow the soil to dry completely between watering, place in bright full sun with good air movement but away from cold drafts and heat vents. Fertilize once a month with diluted solution.

Cyclamen: This plant is commercially forced to bloom at specific times of the year. Outdoors in mild climates it has a dormant period and then comes to life flowering in late winter to early spring.

Grow your plant in bright indirect sunlight, rotate by a quarter turn each time you water. Water at the side of the pot when soil feels dry to touch, keeping the crown dry. Mist 2-3 times a week or place on gravel in a tray partially filled with water.

Snip off old flowering stalks near crown. Eventually the plant will start to decline, needing a dormant period to rest. Place it in cool dark basement until spring and plant in the garden when soil temperature is above 50 degrees.

Bulbs that usually come as a gift kit are the Amaryllis and Paperwhite Narcissus. Following the packaging instructions will bring beautiful flowers in mid-winter.

Symbolism of Christmas Evergreens

Image from morguefile.com.

Its Christmas time and I love how the fragrance and beauty of evergreens adds to celebrating this holy season. Many of us add Christmas trees, wreaths or garlands to our homes. Collectively, evergreens for early Christians symbolized everlasting life because their boughs stay green all year.

Two weeks ago at CatholicMom.com I wrote about the origin of the most popular decoration, the Christmas tree, aka Paradise Tree. The next most popular decoration is the wreath.

A wreath, being a circle, has no beginning or end and symbolizes the eternity of God, the immortality of the soul, and the everlasting life found in Christ. The wreath, when decorated with evergreens, which are symbolic of life itself, points to God’s gift of life even as the world grows dark and plants die back with the lessening of sunlight hours.

Many kinds of evergreens are used in the wreaths, swags and garlands that decorate our churches and homes. Each type of evergreen has its own meaning in the language of flowers.

The most commonly used evergreen for wreaths is balsam and it has the symbolic meaning of eager anticipation; a familiar emotion associated with Advent.

Frequently used in garlands as well as wreaths and swags are fir boughs, symbolizing a lifting up, and pine that conveys the meaning of eternal life.

Spruce boughs represent hope in adversity, and isn’t that a lovely sentiment when we think of what Mother Mary faced before the birth of Jesus.

Cedar is one of the more fragrant and longer lasting evergreens and indicates incorruptibility and healing, and so it is associated with eternal life through Christ.

Juniper symbolizes protection, and that they do well!  If you’ve ever had to trim juniper branches you know how prickly and harsh they can be. (A great shrub to plant under windows to ward off intruders!)

Holly carries a few different symbolisms. In the language of flowers it means to foresee as in to understand in such a way as to predict, to prophecy. Holly is also used as a reminder of where Jesus’ birth and life will lead; its prickly leaves are reminiscent of the Crown of Thorns and the red berries of the blood He shed upon the Cross.

There are other non-evergreen plants often used in Christmas decorations. Bay laurel symbolizes a just reward, a victory over death. The delicate white-berry mistletoe is said to represent overcoming difficulties. And the unpresumptuous ivy holds one of the dearest images; that of clinging to God. It also symbolizes protection, joy and fidelity…all consistent with ‘to whom we cling’.

Any cones, nuts, or seedpods used in decorations symbolize new life and resurrection, pointing Christians toward Easter.

So now, when you look at your decorated tree, the wreath on your door, or the lovely evergreen arrangement on your table, you know they say more to you and your guests than Merry Christmas.

@pontifex and Gardens

The New Evangelization, media promoting the Church, bishops and bloggers, Vatican web presence…a Papal Twitter account? My head is spinning and my grandmother is probably twirling in her grave.

I am easily lost on this sea of invisible waves though I am not resistant to getting into the boat, even if I don’t know how to navigate.

All this hurried communication is foreign to my long standing…um, kneeling…tradition of a prayer life. There is a strong aversion to this “advancement” by my sensibilities as a gardener— one trying to be one with the Creator’s creation—that must regularly be tamed.

Often I find prayer requests waiting on-line. Sometimes the petition is added to the prayer board hanging near my home altar. In the recent past it was added to a slip of paper, tucked into the pocket of my jeans and carried into the gardens. But lately I find myself bowing my head at a glowing monitor rather than with a radiant dawn.

My favorite outdoor place to pray is among trees shortly after sunrise. At St. Francis Retreat Center in DeWitt, Michigan, there is a parallel line of aged Norway spruce that runs nearly half the length of the 95 acre site.  I feel cloistered among their cathedral-like limbs that drape and sway and whisper with the slightest breeze. I am grounded by earth and trees and sky. It is there that I feel I am a part of creation, rather than apart from it when surrounded by technology.

Recently I’ve begun to wonder about our Pope and his desire to embrace a new evangelization with @pontifex. I am certain that his media team will filter what millions will tweet, certain that His Holiness will see only selected bleatings from his sheep. And I wonder if, in all this rapid fire movement of the heart with words spewed at the speed of light, he takes time in the Vatican gardens to ground himself with the slower pace of creation.  I wonder if he sits under the trees and talks with God, wonder too where in the garden is his favorite place to pray.

I think I’ll ask him…

Gifts for the Gardener

I know…this is supposed to be about Christmas greens…next week, I promise. I’ve had several friends ask for another column about gifts for gardeners. So, by request…here are a few gift suggestions, products that I’ve found ease gardening tasks:

I’m not sure there is a more practical tool than the bulb planter that attaches to a drill. I remember my first attempt at power-drilling holes for bulbs. I noticed the paint stirrer attached to my grandfather’s hand drill and thought it would work wonderfully in the gardens for making holes. Well, the concept was good even if the paint stirrer didn’t function well as an auger. Several years later the proper tool came to market. Bulb augers can be long enough so you can stand while drilling or shorter and more easily controlled. There is also a device called a Bulb Bopper that is a tube instead of a spiral auger. If you have physical challenges to planting bulbs, or have a lot of bulbs to put in, either tool is essential to simplifying this gardening task.

Containers are popular these days. Moving them for winter storage can be a challenge especially when they are large and heavy. The glazed ceramic containers are really difficult to move because it is hard to get a grip on their slippery surface.  Lifting these pots is a two person job and can be made safer for our backs by using a Potlifter Strap . This simple and ingenious hauling device is an adjustable nylon strap that fits around the circumference of a container and is designed with handles for gripping. It is also useful for lifting cumbersome logs and rocks too big for one person to move.

The group of volunteers I work with, St. Francis Garden Society, was given a gift of several collapsible 40-gallon containers, sometimes called Spring Buckets or Kangaroo Containers. We use them almost daily and have had several people stop and ask where to buy them . The collapsible buckets have a circling spring enclosed in a sleeve sewn to the UV resistant tarpaulin. The hard plastic bottom that has drain holes holds the container in place as it is filled with debris. When collapsed it is only three inches thick and can be hung by the large nylon handles sewn to the sides.

And for the connoisseur of specialty tools reminiscent of those finely crafted pieces of our grandfathers’, go to DeWit Dutch Garden Tools . This company began in 1898 and crafts some of the nicest tools I’ve ever sunk into soil. Two of my favorites are the Dutch Hand Hoe and the Perennial Spork. I find their tools as lovely to look at as they are to use.

If the gardener in your life wants to create a prayer or memorial garden (warning…I am about to shamelessly promote myself) go to Amazon for my book, A Garden of Visible Prayer: Creating a Personal Sacred Space One Step at a Time. Wrap it up, along with a three-ring binder and one of these tools, and your Christmas gift will be appreciated for many seasons to come.

 

Gifts for the Gardener

I know…this is supposed to be about Christmas greens…next week, I promise. I’ve had several friends ask for another column about gifts for gardeners. So, by request…here are a few gift suggestions, products that I’ve found ease gardening tasks:

I’m not sure there is a more practical tool than the bulb planter that attaches to a drill. I remember my first attempt at power-drilling holes for bulbs. I noticed the paint stirrer attached to my grandfather’s hand drill and thought it would work wonderfully in the gardens for making holes. Well, the concept was good even if the paint stirrer didn’t function well as an auger. Several years later the proper tool came to market. Bulb augers can be long enough so you can stand while drilling or shorter and more easily controlled. There is also a device called a Bulb Bopper that is a tube instead of a spiral auger. If you have physical challenges to planting bulbs, or have a lot of bulbs to put in, either tool is essential to simplifying this gardening task.

Containers are popular these days. Moving them for winter storage can be a challenge especially when they are large and heavy. The glazed ceramic containers are really difficult to move because it is hard to get a grip on their slippery surface.  Lifting these pots is a two person job and can be made safer for our backs by using a Potlifter Strap . This simple and ingenious hauling device is an adjustable nylon strap that fits around the circumference of a container and is designed with handles for gripping. It is also useful for lifting cumbersome logs and rocks too big for one person to move.

The group of volunteers I work with, St. Francis Garden Society, was given a gift of several collapsible 40-gallon containers, sometimes called Spring Buckets or Kangaroo Containers. We use them almost daily and have had several people stop and ask where to buy them . The collapsible buckets have a circling spring enclosed in a sleeve sewn to the UV resistant tarpaulin. The hard plastic bottom that has drain holes holds the container in place as it is filled with debris. When collapsed it is only three inches thick and can be hung by the large nylon handles sewn to the sides.

And for the connoisseur of specialty tools reminiscent of those finely crafted pieces of our grandfathers’, go to DeWit Dutch Garden Tools . This company began in 1898 and crafts some of the nicest tools I’ve ever sunk into soil. Two of my favorites are the Dutch Hand Hoe and the Perennial Spork. I find their tools as lovely to look at as they are to use.

If the gardener in your life wants to create a prayer or memorial garden (warning…I am about to shamelessly promote myself) go to Amazon for my book, A Garden of Visible Prayer: Creating a Personal Sacred Space One Step at a Time. Wrap it up, along with a three-ring binder and one of these tools, and your Christmas gift will be appreciated for many seasons to come.