Holiday Poinsettias for the Garden

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.

Here’s a mid-November 2020 picture of one of our poinsettias

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.

Adequate light during the day helps make up for overcrowding and low temps

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.

Boston fern being led from its home in the urn. It pops in and out easily, a joy to move, a mess by spring, but handsome and happy once it is back home

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.

About the time this earlyCoral Bells azalea blooms, poinsettias can go outdoors. Bridal wreath spirea pokes from behind

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.

The camera did not capture the stature of this poinsettia in fall, 2019. Its roots were strong, as round as my thumb, and they wandered through the bed making removal of the plant a major chore and  ultimately, sadly, futile

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.

A shady bed in late April where some poinsettias went. I never thought of including them in this picture — they were nothing-plants at the time — and I never came back to record them till they came into color

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.

This 2020 plant near a path remained small but its leaves were still almost perfect in December

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.

 Here, camellia ‘Apple Blossom’ pokes out a single bloom high over a poinsettia below.  They’re a bit of an odd couple: camellias and poinsettias

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!

A December 1 photo of the plant shown in November, above, probably at its best

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.

Poinsettia with Pot with bath towel, one of my more aesthetic efforts in the garden

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.

We had so many cold, windy, and rainy days and nights this year, and so many twigs, branches and limbs down, I thought the sky was falling on our garden

But snug in their pots, poinsettias emerged glistening from water that had apparently seeped through pot and towel

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.

Towels drying on a fence with overturned pots would not be considered House and Garden decor

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.

Final photo of poinsettia pictured in November and early December. Still valiant but beginning to  show signs of wear

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.

After having wrestled with the doomed granddaddy of our garden poinsettias in 2019 (pictured earlier) and losing,  I recruited Bob to do the tough digging

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.

Roots were so limited they could not hold on to a decent ball of soil. Why? We do not know. Note plant on the right with girdling roots. During the summer, flexible slender roots that I failed to spread when planting grew and toughened. This time I pruned and straightened before replanting

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.

Camellia ‘Sho a no saki’ has bloomed since October, still going after three months

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5 Responses to Holiday Poinsettias for the Garden

  1. Linds says:

    An informative and enjoyable read on this last day of 2020. So enjoy your blog! Happy New Year to you and Bob.

  2. Susan says:

    So great to see the pictures. I actually like them better with just a bit of red as opposed to the whole plant being red. I do think ALL red would be a bit much in a garden bed. Great photos and a nice read!

  3. tonytomeo says:

    As you know poinsettias are forced into bloom. Growers do not expect them to survive for long after bloom. Realistically, most don’t. They get discarded after bloom. I would like to put more into the year, but eventually, there re too many.

  4. lisalebduska says:

    These are beautiful photos, especially the one of your Master Laborer. I like the underlying message here that living things need not, should not be instantly thought of as disposable. The towel-on-pot trick will be very useful. I keep meaning to ask you about a technique I saw for wintering over fig trees that involves digging a trench and hinging the tree into it. (We don’t have fig trees. Yet. 🙂

  5. KDKH says:

    Wow! What a lot of work! How fulfilling and exhausting to have a green thumb. I’m that way with my companion animals, but I have little idea about plants. Growing up in a place where all water is piped in from another state because it never rains made gardening a rich person’s sport. It also made me clueless. Enjoy your beautiful home and thriving plants!

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