Q: How can I care for my poinsettia to enjoy it after the holidays?

A: Coaxing a tropical poinsettia to rebloom is one of those perennial holiday challenges we embrace along with New Year’s resolutions. And for me, about as successful. Every year I hear the stories, told in hushed tones by friends with a straight face, of poinsettias happily overwintering in warm, sunny windows in the winter homes of others, then bursting into enthusiastic spring growth and returning out of winter darkness like the Ghost of Christmas Past to grace the hearth once again. Each year I buy my beautiful poinsettias with every intention of nurturing them through the year. And the next year I buy their replacements instead. But that’s just me.  

With a little work your poinsettia can last through the following year. So say the experts. They admit our low degree of winter light intensity creates difficulty, but they insist that if you are willing to have a go at it, these are the steps to assure your success:

1. Through winter, place your poinsettia to receive 6 to 8 hours of bright sunlight daily; don’t let it dry out, but also don’t overwater it.    

2. When the bracts (colored leaves or “blooms”) begin to fade and fall, cut the plant back, leaving four to six leaf buds.
 
3. Keep it in a sunny window.  

4. Water and fertilize it regularly as you would any other houseplant. By the end of May, I am told, vigorous new growth appears. The poinsettia will begin to set buds and produce flowers as the nights become longer.  

5. In October, move the plant into complete darkness for at least 14 continuous hours, but give it 6-8 hours of bright sunlight daily.  

6. Continue this cycle for 8-10 weeks to develop a colorful display just in time for the holiday season.
Hope springs eternal.


Q: How do I care for my African violets?

A: Sweet, shy African violets are the perfect houseplant for those cold, gloomy winter days ahead when nothing in the yard calls us out. Arranged in a group and placed in pretty ceramic or silver bowls set out on a table by the window, their velvet leaves and vibrant tones invite us to curl up in a soft chair and share the winter sun with them. And if we choose instead to garden winter vegetables outside, low-maintenance African violets won’t whine about being neglected. The Emily Dickinson of plants, they seem to prefer being left alone to quietly observe life through a window.

Place your African violet within four feet of a south-, east- or west-facing window so it gets plenty of light. Ample sunlight ensures the leaves, stalk and petiole will be healthy and strong. Lack of sunlight is the most common reason African violets fail to thrive and flower.

Watering an African violet is thought to be tricky, but the only requirements are having a well-draining medium and watering without wetting those velvet leaves or the plant crown. The best method is to water from the top using water warmed to room temperature, taking care to avoid wetting the leaves and crown. Cold water can cause the plant to show signs of cold damage.

These are tropicals, remember. Watering from the top also helps flush salts that accumulate in the potting mix.

That’s the “how to,” but the “how much” is just as important. The answer is not too little … and not too much. Underwatering and overwatering are equally harmful. African violets are sometimes victims of fungal disease, root rot and crown rot, and overwatering can contribute, so it’s best to err on the dry side.

You have the best gauge right at your fingertip … stick that fingertip into the potting medium, and when the mix feels dry, water, letting the water drain well for 10 to 20 minutes. Feed with a fertilizer made for African violets according to package directions, and your shy violet will perform for you through the winter and after.