The Unruly Gardener Shares her Experiences
In late December 2019 I wound up with seven ailing poinsettias, four from people who know I am a pushover for ailing plants and three carry-overs from winter 2018-2019. These were gifts from friends who got them free from a farmer’s market and survived the 2019 growing season in my garden.
What did I do? What worked? What didn’t?
Sorry, no hard-bound instructions here, or diary-documentation. Not the style of an unruly gardener. But I will revisit their story, as truly as I can.
On this cold December day in 2020 all our tropicals that had once been lolling in balmy sunshine are now incarcerated in a makeshift prison (our garage) where nighttime temperatures of 45 degrees or lower are common, and where they are ignored until they droop for a drink.
Since temperatures are easily ten degrees below ideal, most of them are too chilled to do much drinking, which is fine with the warden.
Peace lilies are the first to gasp, and I am kind to them because they’ve been reliable allies for more than three decades, blooming nicely in the garden. Boston ferns drop fragmented leaves (pinnules, if you want get technical) with abandon, spider plants shrink, and poinsettias eventually turn to sticks.
None of these plants ever dies outright, so the austere watering regime is probably kinder than lavish doting. It’s a messy but no-work business unless the warden decides she must sweep out the dross.
As days grow longer and daytime prison temperatures rise consistently by ten degrees or more, tiny leaves emerge on viable poinsettia stems. By this time their soil is dry and tired. I trim back the dead and untidy and give them a sip once in a while, not very much.
It would make sense to fertilize them when they put out that first tentative growth, but I do not want to inspire false hope. Besides, if growth is stimulated, I might have to water them more frequently.
In April, when I’ve gotten tired of the mess and sunny days have heaved away frosts, I set them all free. In years past I would repot poinsettias up one size in good potting soil.
After numerous pot-stirrings it became obvious that hunting for a decent pot and mixing ingredients took far longer than scratching out a hole in a non-rooty part of the garden and dropping the plants in with some water and a casual toss of 10-10-10 (Too much? Too little? I never know.).
Aesthetically, poinsettias in pots, sunk in beds or not, do not excite me. They look more like props than partners in the garden. These wild plants, small trees in Mexico, need space, so their roots can roam.
Back to the recently liberated sticks. Shackled all winter, barely awake, they still look like last fall’s castaways, so I camouflage them. I do not want them out in full sun withering as they come to life. I tuck them discreetly into shady bowers where ferns will distract the eye until they get dressed.
Their rich green leaves in summer, so handsome with a subtle red midrib, have always fascinated me. Since they are tropical guests in this temperate garden, insects tend to ignore them and the leaves stay fine all summer. They have their natural defenses, too. Milky sap that exudes from bruised leaves may repel insects and mammals that don’t want their mandibles clogged with nature’s gummy bear.
I grow poinsettias because they are handsome and carefree in mid-summer, when the rest of the perennial garden is ready to call it quits. If I want pzzazz for the holidays, I depend on plants pampered by a nursery.
So I never expect to have bracts form and glow red in my garden beds. Subtle changes begin as daylight wanes and the blooms of sasanqua camellias emerge.
With each tilt toward the winter solstice the entire plant seems to liven and put out modified leaves that slowly enlarge and become more and more vivid. What a bonus!
These autumn nights are not long enough to punch out high color. To get that, I would have to run around putting big nursery pots over plants to give them the 15 hours of complete darkness they need to come into full plumage.
That would mean setting alarms or plastering sticky notes around the house to keep me on track. Not my style, and I’m not sure I would like spikes of untimely bright red poking out among dying hosta (rationalization, again).
Ironically, I wind up running around putting large nursery pots over them anyway (and bath towels with a brick for good measure, don’t ask why). Instead of setting an alarm clock, I check the weather forecast multiple times daily to see if nighttime temperatures will drop into the low 30’s, at which time action must be considered.
I’ve discovered that protected poinsettias can take temperatures that drop to freezing or slightly below, as long as these temps do not linger. The plants emerge perky from pots after rainy nights, too.
This all works pretty well as long as daytime temperatures are benign. Cold 40’s and rain take their toll on these plants.
Then there is that little matter of aesthetics I’ mentioned before.
I’m not sure these plants are particularly fond of pot-on, pot-off manhandling, either, especially in the dark of night when the forgetful gardener has to run out with a battery-dimmed flashlight to do pot-duty.
The smart gardener keeps poinsettias in pots during summer. They don’t shock when they are brought inside and closeted for 15 hours a day to emerge Voila! gorgeous before Christmas. Maybe.
The unruly gardener, on the other hand, would forget to set the alarm or look at the sticky notes and they would languish in the closet until she needed a broom. Ole! Ole! to the nurseries that successfully manage these crops.
Nighttime temperatures of twenty-plus degrees near the end of December prodded me to bring poinsettias and other chilled but still happy tropicals into prison.
Surprise! This year poinsettias popped out with barely a poke or a pull. There were no long wandery woody roots that could fill in for a neighborhood pick-up stickball game. Here is what we found.
The discovery of inadequate roots did not bode well for a winter stint in prison. The plants drooped immediately and have not perked up. One good sign: they stand rock-solid in their pots, so roots might be welcoming the humusy soil-and-perlite mix I used.
Time will tell. I could have left the plants languishing outside for the winter and begun anew with fresh 2020 poinsettias from a garden center. But where is the mystery? For me, I guess, gardening is as much about experience and observation, disappointment and loss, as it is about success with pretty flowers.
But I do enjoy those pretty flowers, especially in winter when sasanqua camellias bloom so freely and reliably.