Don’t throw out that Poinsettia

It’s a great all round house and pot plant.

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are ‘THE’ plant for the holiday season. Their bright red, pink or white flowers bring color and cheer to the home. Some Poinsettias can be huge and give a lot of ‘bang for the buck’ The make great centerpieces, table decorations or even placed on the floor. However after the holiday season is over most Poinsettias end up in the garbage bin. This is a very sad end to such a wonderful plant.

To begin with if you buy a good poinsettia from a reliable source then the color in the plant can last all the way through winter. Don’t throw it away if its still adding color and brightness to your home. If cared for Poinsettias can last for years and years as house plants and be placed outside during the summer months. They make wonderful green plants and are very easy to care for.

Choose your source wisely.  Many garden centers have wonderful poinsettias during the holiday season and they are usually well cared for.  Plants offered at supermarkets, big box stores or roadside stands often have poorer quality plants or ones that have not been cared for properly.

Portion of the Poinsettia trials at Rutgers University.
Portion of the Poinsettia trials at Rutgers University.

Poinsettias are semi tropical plants. They grow well outdoors in places like southern Florida and Hawaii. They don’t like the cold. IF a poinsettia gets cold, even for a short time it will suffer and it wont last well. This is why it is extremely important to make sure you buy from a good source. One that has ensured that the plants are well cared for, that they are kept warm and don’t get any sudden cold shocks.
With big box stores plants are often loaded onto rolling carts (we have all seen them) then maybe left on the loading dock or the unheated stockroom for hours before they are brought in and placed on display. These plants can loose their leaves quite fast and will not last during past the holiday season if they last that long.

When purchasing make sure that the plant you choose is not located near a entranceway where it will be subjected to cold breezes when the doors open and close. This can be detrimental to the plant.

If you do want to keep your plant alive and well, picking one that has been dyed blue or covered in glitter is not a good choice. These poor plants are already subjected to a lot of stress. Glitter is going to badly affect the way the plant can make food and energy. It might look good but its not good for the plant.

Once you have your plant get it home quickly. If it’s cold make sure the plant is wrapped in a bag to protect it on its journey to the car. Don’t leave it in an unheated car for any length of time.

Luscious Pink Poinsettia
Luscious Pink Poinsettia. Part of the Rutgers Trials.

For short periods of them during the holiday season Poinsettias can be placed anywhere. However if they are close to outside doors where they will be subjected to drafts they will not survive as well as ones that have a warm location.

After the holidays are over move your plant to a more sunny location away from cold drafts. Keep it moist but not wet at all times. Feed it once a week. That’s it. Most plants will keep their red leaves for quite a long period, usually at least two months. I have had some that did not drop their red leaves until spring.

When summer comes the plants can be placed outside in a sunny location. Keep watered and they will reward you with lush green foliage. They make wonderful deck plants. Poinsettias can be cut back to keep them busy. However don’t cut the plant back all at one time as it can shock the plant too much. When cutting plants make sure you wear gloves, thin plastic ones are suggested. Poinsettias exude a sticky latex that some people find causes skin irritation. Bring the pots back into the house for the winter season.

Don’t eat poinsettias or let pets chew on them, the latex can be poisonous.

Portion of the Poinsettia trial at Rutgers University
Portion of the Poinsettia trial at Rutgers University

The red ‘flowers’ are of course not really flowers but red leaves or ‘bracts’ the flowers are those little insignificant yellow things in the center. Poinsettias need a specific light/dark cycle before they will flower. It s long days and short nights, which of course is not what we get at Christmas. So don’t expect your Poinsettia to flower next Christmas, it wont. Its going to flower in the summer. Most likely not until the second year you had it since it was forced to flower out of season for the first year. If you have ever driven past a greenhouse all lit up at night before Christmas, this is why. They have to extend the daylight hours to get those Poinsettias to flower for Christmas. Its not natural but its what we want. So unless you can sneak your plant into the greenhouse or put a lamp on it before the holiday season enjoy its flowers in the summer and appreciate its lush green leaves in the winter months..

Take care of your trees when putting up Christmas lights.

Don’t put holes in the trees it can cause great harm.

Tree lit for Christmas Season
Beautiful tree lit for Christmas Season

Christmas is here again, and its time to put up all those wonderful Christmas lights that make the season so endearing. Not of course as much fun for the person out in the freezing weather trying to string up the lights.

When putting up your decorations do consider the trees too. Its not that much of a Christmas present for them if you start putting nails, screws or other nasty sharp objects into them. Mostly we don’t think twice about grabbing a nail and thumping it into a tree but it can cause a great deal of damage to some trees. It can even, over time kill the tree.

The bark of the tree is like its skin. If someone stuck you with a sharp object I doubt you would love them for it especially if it was just so they could hang a few decorative lights on you. If your skin is pierced you can get infected. Its why we wash cuts, put Neosporin or some other disinfectant on them and put on a bandage.

Trees don’t have that luxury. They get a hole stuck in them they cant do anything to help themselves. Often the person could be using a nail or a hook that has been hanging around in the garage for goodness knows how long, kicking around in an old box. Heaven knows what’s on the thing but its certainly not clean. Now all the junk is in the tree.
When you nail into a tree you go through its ‘bloodstream’ so any infected particles can be quickly transported to different areas away from the original site.

Tree cracked by having metal screw forced into it.
Tree cracked by having metal screw forced into it. This tree is dying.

Also the bark is now penetrated and other infections can get into the wound. During the summer months most trees can produce more sap (their blood) with their own brand of antibiotics and try and fight off any incoming infections but during the winter months their system is pretty sluggish so they can do much to stifle the wound.
Even if you take the nail or hook out after Christmas – which most people tend not to do – the wound is still there. Come spring when more diseases start waking up there is an open wound to allow them to enter the tree.

Some tree species are stronger than others at dealing with this. In many cases conifer trees can be more susceptible to disease. Maples are less likely to succumb as their sap rises early and contains antibiotics that can help to kill any problems. This is the reason that maple sugaring is able to take place. Although good maple syrup tree tenders do try and keep their trees clean and free of diseases during the summer months and the taps they use are always disinfected to reduce or eliminate infection before they are used.

Tree growing around metal screw
Tree growing around metal screw in an attempt to keep out infections.

Often trees with high saps or gums can cope very well and often will actually grow around the nail or hook if it is left in the tree. This is not only because the tree is growing but because its trying to protect itself and seal the hole that has been created.

In many cases a wounded tree can eventually die. It may take several years but once its compromised then all manner of diseases and insects will turn up to colonize it. In most cases boring insects, ants and other tree attacking insects wont harm a perfectly healthy tree but they will quickly find those that are sick or fighting off some infection and attack. Now suddenly the tree is not just fighting off one little nail hole with a few organisms it dealing with a whole bunch of different things. The tree cant cope with that, it struggles and tries but in the long run it usually looses the battle.

Introducing diseases into trees by making holes has always been a problem, it has never been too serious in many areas. For the most part trees are used to losing a branch now and again or being scraped by animals. They do have some immunity. However in the last decade or so we have seen a great surge in global commerce. Goods are being brought into almost any area from all over the world. Along with those goods come diseases from other countries, either in the wooden packing crates, packing material or just as a dusting on some goods items. These new diseases and insects like their new environment and find trees to their liking that have no immunity to these new invaders. Such diseases can quickly infect wounded trees and in some cases kill very quickly.

So use string, wire clips, anything that does not penetrate the tree bark. If you are hanging something from a branch that will blow in the wind put something around the branch to ensure that the bark does not get rubbed off. Pieces of old hose pipe are often excellent for this job on small branches. Larger ones may need sections of cloth or whatever you have on hand to protect the tree.
If you value your trees don’t put holes in them. Keep them healthy and happy this Christmas season.

Water Your Shrubs Before Winter Sets In.

It will help them survive and be happy in spring.

Its very common to have people call me in the spring because their landscaping shrubs or trees are not doing well. As spring progresses the poor shrub looks sicker and more unhappy. The usual statement is ‘it was fine last year, now this spring its not’.

The most common reason for this problem is because the plant was not given adequate water before the winter set in. This is especially true for evergreen shrubs but can affect any shrub or small tree. It is vitally important for new trees and shrubs that have been planted this year or last year. Let’s look at the problem.

Plants are like people. I tell everyone this all the time. If you think of a plant like a person and treat them the same way then you have a much easier time with plant care. Even though plants are built to like sunlight and use it for food they are just as susceptible to the heat from the sun and the burning rays are we are. Plants however cant just pick up some sunscreen and slather it on like we can, and they most certainly cant get up and move to a better location.

What plants can do is sweat. Yes plants sweat just like we do. It’s the way they keep cool and keep the damaging rays from the sun at bay. To do this they have to have water. They keep some of this water in their roots, stems and leaves but the reserve supply is in the soil. IF the soil dries out the plant cant get enough water to sweat, so it wilts, at least in summer it wilts.

Holly bushes in winter
These Holly bushes are in full sun facing south. They will take a lot of sun during the winter months.

Winter is a bit different. While its cold in the winter for a lot of the United States its still sunny. This sunshine might not produce a lot of heat during the winter months but it still produces some and the damaging ultra violet rays are just as strong. If the temperatures are reasonable then the plant can still get water from the soil and most often its fine.

However if the temperatures are very low the ground freezes. There are many many days when we have snow on the ground but bright sunshine. We all know what that’s like, we need sunglasses to keep the glare down. It can even be quite warm during those sunny days but not enough to melt the snow and unfreeze the ground.
Now that poor plant is standing there in the bright sunshine with reflected glare coming off the snow covering and it does not have any sunglasses to put on. It tries to sweat, if it has managed to collect enough water in its ‘body’ (roots stems and leaves) it can do this. If it runs out it will try and suck it out of the ground, but when it sucks on that straw its blocked because the ground and the water in it is frozen so just like you sucking on a straw that blocked it cant get anything. So it suffers.

decidious shrubs in winter
Although these shrubs have lost their leaves the stems will still take a lot of sunshine during the winter months.

If this happens quite a few times during the winter months the plant gets very stressed. Imaging being out in the cold glaring sun getting hot and having nothing to drink, you would not like it much either.
For the most part the plant does not show these signs of stress until the spring comes. Then when new growth should be bursting out of those buds and perhaps flowers forming the poor plant is exhausted. It does not have the strength to make new growth or even recover from the stress it had over the winter. This is when you start to see the problems in the plant. However in many cases its now too late to help. The plant is just too exhausted to go on.

This scenario can be prevented by making sure all your plants get a good amount of water in the late fall and early winter months. Don’t just stop watering them because the weather gets cold. Even if the leaves are falling off the trees if its not raining much then water those shrubs. The need to have a good water reserve to get them through the very cold, frozen months and come through in spring as a happy healthy plant. What you do in the fall and early winter can make a massive difference to how healthy your plants are in the spring.
This is especially important to shrubs that are usually shaded by deciduous plants during the summer months. In the winter all these leaves are gone and the plant is subjected to the full force of the sunlight without any protection. Its going to get a much higher dose of light than it would during the summer. Even if the plant is now just stalks and twigs with no leaves its still has to endure the ravages of the winter sun. Giving it as much help as possible will ensure it’s a happy healthy plant next spring.

So don’t put the hose away if the temperature falls – although you might want to bring in the watering end overnight to stop it freezing. If you have many days of cool but not freezing weather with sunshine and no rain then make sure you water those shrubs and small trees. Large mature trees can usually take care of themselves. Water everything at least once a week and give it a good soak not just a few sprinkles, keep doing that every week until its just too cold or the ground freezes up. Your plants will love you for it.

Its Early December. What’s still flowering?

Some still bloom while most are bedded down for the winter.

The weather is still unpredictable here in New Jersey. One day its 45°F the next its 60°F and raining. Yesterday I took a walk around the fields to see what was still flowering, not a lot its true but there are still a few hangers on.

Tansy flowering in December
Tansy flowering in December

The most obvious is the Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). Its bright yellow flowers are still standing proud on many of the shrubs. Not as many as it could because most of it has been harvested, but there are still some bright yellow spots around the field which can be seen from a considerable distance away. To these cling the few remaining small pollinators that are still tough and courageous – or perhaps desperate – enough to be out flying.

Siberian Motherwort flowers in December
Siberian Motherwort flowers in December

The other big flowerer is the Siberian Motherwort (Leonurus sibiricus). Its tall stems are still festooned with flowers that are attracting pollinators. While its not easy to see the flowers until close to the plant the flowers are there in large numbers. This plant is scattered around the fields and in some places its still producing seedlings that are making buds and trying to flower. It’s a tough plant and does not die down until a strong killing frost. Although a few that were located right in the middle of the open field have wilted quite a bit in the biting winds we have endured over the last week. The ones out of the main wind blasts are doing fine.

December RoseFinally the knockout rose bushes are still blooming. Its hard to find a tougher rose than the knockout and even though its not a true herb its such a beautiful flowering plant and its so tough its hard not to find a corner for at least one bush. We have several in our formal lavender garden and they flower from mid spring right up until killing frosts. Plant one where you can see it from your most used window, it will brighten your day.

Choosing some plants that will flower very late into the year and hold out against the milder frosts can be very important to a garden. It helps and insects that need late nectar and it give you some bright flowering spots in an otherwise gloomy and winter garden. Tansy and Siberian motherwort and tough little cookies and certainly worth a spot in any garden to hold off a little longer the coming of winter.