Master Gardener

Christmas Cactus Care - Right Now

It’s time to start preparing your Christmas Cactus to look its best for the holidays. Schlumbergera (why, Linnaeus, why?) has been eclipsed by the poinsettia as the leading holiday plant, but it is certainly easier to maintain.

The “cactus” part of the name might lead one to believe that they prefer hot, dry air and poor soil. Not true! While it’s necessary to avoid a water-logged soil, plants do best in a free-draining potting soil, moderate temperatures and high humidity. I repot with fresh soil every other year.

When spring night temperatures stay above fifty degrees, I move my Christmas Cactus outdoors to a table in my gazebo, where it receives bright light but no direct sun. In an unglazed terracotta container, I find a watering schedule of every five days is about right, but you will need to adjust your schedule to reflect your container porosity, heat, wind and light exposure. Those “veins” running down the middle of each leaf will become more prominent if your plant is thirsty. If you ignore the first signal, leaves will start to shrivel. I’ve neglected mine to the shrivel point a couple of times and it has survived anyway.

The branches of an older plant can reach five feet or more, which usually places its tip-of-the-branch blooms around ankle level. Some gardeners like this look, and elevate their plants to bring attention to the impressive lengths. This waterfall appearance does not appeal to me. I prefer a fuller plant with shorter branches. One of my Master Gardener cohorts, Elaine, told me that aggressive pruning was the ticket out of droopy-ville. I’ve followed her recommendation with great success. 

Somewhere between May and August, select the longest branches. Look for a fork, leave one segment past the fork intact, and pinch/snip/prune off the longer piece. The plant will regenerate with new growth. Many times the pruning results in multiple branches, meaning the plant looks fuller. I was hesitant during my first year, worried that I might over-prune. Now I snip away with abandon and give the sheared plant a spritz of liquid fertilizer to encourage that new growth. The pieces you removed will take root easily.  Place six to nine in a 4-inch container and by Christmas, you may have nice, full extras to share with your friends.

If you move your plant outdoors for the summer, be sure to bring it back inside before night temperatures drop below 50 degrees. Check for insects to be sure you don’t bring unwelcome visitors into your home. Place it in a bright location without direct sunlight and avoid drafts. Cool season water needs are much less than summer time, but I mist weekly to keep the humidity high. 

Bud-set and blooming are dictated by the amount of light a plant receives. If you are trying to force yours into bloom on a specific timetable, the internet is awash with detailed instructions. I ignore all the engineering and let nature take its course. 

Properly maintained, these succulents will be with you for years or even decades. The accompanying photos illustrate a plant before pruning, immediately after pruning, and eight weeks after pruning. This plant came to New Hope Farm as a gift from my younger stepson to my mother-in-law in 1989. I took ownership in 2005. It still blooms beautifully.

Selfish Plants

Not all plants play nicely with others. Some have their own version of chemical warfare. They release toxins through their bark, roots, leaves and/or fruits that interfere with the growth of surrounding plants. They do this to protect their own resources (water, nutrients) via reduced competition. This plant protectionism is called allelopathy.

Black walnut trees are the prime example of allelopathic behavior. They release the chemical juglone, which is toxic to tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, azalea, hydrangea, lilac, and a host of other plants. The chemical remains in the soil a long time, making the area inhospitable beyond the lifespan of the tree that produced it.

To a lesser degree, these smaller plants also have allelopathic tendencies: English laurel, sumac, elderberry and goldenrod.  Sunflower seed hulls have a toxic affect. This is why nothing much grows under the birdfeeders you keep stocked with black hull sunflower seeds.

There are a few plants that tolerate juglone: forsythia, hawthorne, pachysandra, redbud, most viburnums, heuchera, daffodils, daylilies, zinnias and some hosta.

There is one bright spot in the toxicity of black walnuts. If you spread wood chips or sawdust made from these trees on your walking paths, the number of weeds on the path will be reduced.

A winter sunset, seen through the barren limbs of a black walnut tree

A winter sunset, seen through the barren limbs of a black walnut tree

Oddities in the Garden

It’s an inescapable fact:  Gardeners feel the call of the weird. The longer one has been a gardener, the  more peculiar our taste becomes. One of my favorite not-your-average-shrub specimens is Harry Lauder's Walking Stick (Corylus avellana 'Contorta'), also called a Contorted Filbert. The plant produces drooping catkins in the winter, but no nuts.

This deciduous shrub reaches eight feet in height and width. Mine is a good bit bigger, as a result of accidentally planting it in our septic system drainage field. It’s not exciting to look at in the summer, but the photo below should convince you that you must have one. The birds love it.

The more sun the shrub receives, the curlier the branches are. Some grafted plants are prone to throwing straight suckers from the root stock. This calls for frequent pruning to retain the plant’s intended appearance. Buy an “own root” plant if possible. Cut branches can easily be spray-painted to accent cut flower arrangements.

Another unusual choice is Edgeworthia chrysantha. Its claim to fame is the fragrant blossoms that appear in late winter, when few other shrubs are in bloom. They show well at the tips of leafless branches. Many of us who have tried and failed to keep Winter Daphne alive have changed our allegiance to this less-temperamental plant.

Stamens persist after the petals have fallen, looking like tufts of yellow thread stuck onto the end of each branch. Edgeworthia spreads by suckering but is not invasive. If you want more plants, you can carefully dig out one of the suckers (retain some roots) and move it to the desired new location. They also propagate fairly easily. Site in shade to partial shade (ideal in a woodland garden) and keep them moist for the best bloom display. They reach four to six feet tall, but final size varies with soil fertility and moisture.

Get Along Groups

There seems to be a lot of divisiveness in today’s world. Polite differences of opinion have morphed into open conflicts. There are two groups, I am pleased to report, where I have seen no evidence of this.

First is the Master Gardener program sponsored by US land grant universities. When I enrolled in the (Clemson University) Master Gardener education program in 2002, I had no idea how it would affect my life. Through the classes, the requisite volunteer work and ongoing membership in the local MG Association, I have met people of all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic levels. I would never have encountered them in the course of my normal activities. Somehow a love of gardening and respect for nature levels the playing field and brings us all together. Differences of opinion still exist, of course, but shared goals enable us to work together without conflict.

The second group, which I have discovered only in the last two years, is the world of dog competition. My mixed breed dog and I will never compete in the crème-de-la-crème events of Westminster and the like. But we are having tons of fun on the local levels. Right now we are focusing on Rally events, with a dip of the paw into the Obedience pool. We are meeting owners and trainers from all walks of life. Yes, the events judge one trainer/dog’s performance against others in the same competition category. But everyone encourages their co-competitors. We cheer others’ successes. It makes a happier world.

Jan 2018 AKC competition.jpg