Ask the garden expert

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I have a Christmas cactus that has not bloomed for four years. It used to be my mother's until she passed away. It used to bloom for her every year right on time, but since I've moved it to my home it just hasn't bloomed at all. Do you have any idea why?

Sometimes a home's atmosphere is the perfect place for a species of plant. If we have phenomenally good luck with a plant, we would of course love to take credit. I know I do, but to be honest, it's more than likely I've merely accidentally placed it in a spot, or am doing the right things that meet its unique needs.

There was something about your mother's home this plant liked: the light, the air currents, maybe her management suited it, or some other unnoticed detail kept the plant happy. So what's changed? Well, everything.

The fact that it's been moved? Maybe is it the light, the air movement, the humidity, your care? Who knows what is needed to bring it out of its four-year sulk? It takes a special plant (such as your mother's) to make a lot of experimenting seem worth it.

Christmas cactus is a tropical plant that requires an organic soil mixture and lots of moisture. The plant likes bright light and average household temperatures. You can take it outdoors during the summer and fertilize it monthly with a diluted houseplant food. Then bring it back indoors at the end of September and provide total darkness for 16 hours each day so it can set flower buds. The easiest way to accomplish this is to place it in a bright room for 8 hours and then either put a box over it, or put it in a closet for 16 hours. It needs absolute darkness; even a short burst of daylight will retard the formation of flower buds. During this bud-forcing period, keep the temperature between 60 and 70 degrees, and do not fertilize the plant. In early December, your Christmas cactus can be brought into ordinary light and will bloom in a few weeks. It's a lot to do at home, so we can see why many people buy new plants each year. I hate saying this, but that's what I do -- I'm not going through all this for a $4 plant.

What should I do to help keep my Christmas tree fresh?

The "nervous Nelly" in me is so uneasy about folks' bringing a highly flammable object into the house, and especially when they're keeping the house heated.

Do:

• Install only a very fresh tree or a living tree.

• Wait as late as you can to bring it into the house.

• Make sure it's away from all heat source.

• If it's a cut tree, have a good water source for the trunk.

• Check it daily -- renew water often.

• Keep pets and children away from electrical cords.

• Keep a living tree's root ball damp and cool. Some use ice cubes around the ball.

• Take it out as soon as it drops a needle or two.

• Use only LED tiny lights; never leave them on overnight.

• Always turn lights off when you leave the house.

Don't:

• Let young children string lights unattended.

• Don't use small (inexpensive) extension cords.

• Don't string extension cords across the room (tripping risk).

• Never leave the room with candles burning.

• Never allow candles on the tree without adults there.

• Bypass the sentimental urge to use your family's old lights or old decoration, as they may be flammable.

I think folks should cut a tree from a local Christmas tree farm, so they know it's fresh.

If your family likes the tree up until New Year's Day or later, have a second tree ready to bring in about half-way through that period, I know it's a hassle to re-do the tree, but it's better than burning a house down. Remember: trees are very thirsty. They may drink between 2 pints to a gallon of water a day. Use a water-bearing stand with a capacity of a gallon or more. Check the stand daily and supply fresh water as needed.

I love the look of indoor greenery during Christmas season. We don't have too many evergreen plants like fir trees and other things in our yard. I cut a bunch of beautiful greens from my mom's huge tree and put them in my wreath. All the needles fell off. I was so disappointed. I'm still wondering what I did wrong.

Too bad. I'm wondering if the tree was a hemlock? They are gorgeous trees with lovely looking branches, only thing is -- they are deciduous and the needles shatter when cut.

There are many choices in evergreen material here. I like to use some of my broadleaf plants from my garden in winter decoration. I often use branches from my nandina, aucuba, sarcocca (sweet box), and boxwood. Another might be a few rhododendron leaves; I've even used a few helleborus on occasion. (Look for ones that are not forming buds) Most of the broadleaf plants I've listed hold up beautifully indoors for a week or two.


Celeste Lindsay is a WSU-certified master gardener. Send questions to mslindsay8@gmail.com.

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