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Caring for Houseplants

Were you gifted a houseplant at Christmas? Wondering what to do with it now? Hippeastrum (amaryllis) are extraordinary plants. Their huge bulbs can develop flowering spikes 60cms tall within six weeks. They are often sold as a kit, complete with flowerpot and compost.

If you’ve been gifted a kit, ensure the bulb is shallow-planted, with the top half sitting above the compost. Pack plenty of compost around the base for anchorage. The flowering spike(s) will need support, so push a cane into the soil at the time of planting to avoid damaging emerging roots. Position in a sunny, warm spot. Keep the compost moist and rotate the pot daily to ensure the stems grow straight. If a plastic pot has been used, sit it inside a ceramic planter to give extra weight to the base, (hippeastrums are notorious for toppling over!)

Schlumbergera is known as the Christmas Cactus because it obligingly flowers in midwinter. The word ‘cactus’ conjures thoughts of arid deserts, but Schlumbergera belongs to an unusual group of plants known as Forest Cacti that grow in the tree canopy of damp, semi-tropical woodlands. In a home setting, Schlumbergera enjoys a temperate, humid environment in light shade – the centre of a room is a good position, away from hot radiators and over-bright windowsills.

Poinsettias are sensitive plants. What usually kills them off is cold air and over watering. They require a draught-free location and a light hand with the watering can – the compost should be barely damp. Their vivid flowers aren’t flowers at all, but are bracts, (modified leaves.) Poinsettias can be persuaded to ‘flower’ the following year, so long as you have the patience of a saint and a pitch black cupboard to artificially mimic the equatorial hours of day/night. It’s complicated.

Potted bulbs can be planted outdoors when they have finished flowering. After experiencing indoor conditions, they may take a year or two to settle into a normal flowering routine, (especially hyacinths) so be patient! Bulbs are tough characters and most will survive the indoor-to-outdoor transition.

Dry, centrally heated air is the greatest enemy of houseplants but you can help provide the moister conditions they enjoy. Plants breathe through leaf pores, (stomata) a process which creates micro-condensation. Grouping several plants together will increase humidity in the immediate vicinity. Sitting pots on gravel-filled saucers also helps. Every few days, dribble water into the saucers to keep the gravel damp. The water will evaporate, creating a moist atmosphere around the plants. As a general rule, houseplants should be fed when in active growth and re-potted in springtime. They will appreciate a summer holiday in a sheltered spot in the garden. Many houseplants can be successfully kept going for years, but when it comes to a poinsettia, throw it away and buy another one next December. Trust me.


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