Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Stay in the Red

by Hannah Stephenson

Poinsettias are still among the most popular Christmas plants, but how can we stop them from wilting before the big day? Hannah Stephenson finds out.

The shops are awash with poinsettias at this time of year in shades of red, pink and cream, the colourful bracts having taken an average of eight weeks to turn from green to red.

Garden centres, supermarkets, homeware shops and DIY stores all have them on display, but you need to be careful how you choose your festive poinsettia, says David Mitchell, plant buyer at Wyevale Garden Centres.

"When choosing a poinsettia, look for a strong-looking plant with bright-coloured bracts and deep green leaves all the way to the base of the pot," he advises.

"A UK-grown plant is by far the best. We grow them cooler and allow them more space, making sure they are tougher for the customer. Check if the retailer is displaying them in a warm, draught-free place and never buy a poinsettia which is being sold outside or near to open doors."

Once your plant's back home, don't place it on a porch or in a conservatory, because poinsettias don't like draughts. You're better off putting it in a warmer room like the living room, but not near a radiator.

"The worst place is a draughty windowsill especially if you draw the curtains on them leaving them in the cold space," says Mitchell. "These plants like good light, but are not so demanding for high light as many other house plants. The main point is to keep them warm, between 15 to 20 degrees, and away from draughts, avoiding sudden temperature changes."

Poinsettias should be watered as the compost begins to dry out. Don't over-water them or the leaves will drop off and don't leave them to dry out completely or they may not recover.

After Christmas, allow the poinsettia some time to rest and become almost dormant by reducing watering. When bracts begin to look old and tired in late winter or spring, don't worry if the leaves droop or fall.

In June, prune the plant back to approximately a third of its size. Repot, feed and water at this stage regularly to build a well-shaped plant.

New growth will sprout, so stand it in good but not bright light, water regularly and apply liquid fertiliser every two weeks throughout summer.

From the end of September, ensure the plant has natural day length rather than any artificial light. Poinsettias, which are cultivars of Euphorbia pulcherrima, set bracts and flowers in response to short days. Most will need to have light excluded to ensure 14 hours of darkness out of 24 for eight weeks during the run-up to Christmas.

Once there are more hours of darkness than light, the plant will begin to change colour. If you begin the initiation process at the end of September, you should start to see a subtle colour change by mid-October and the full transformation by the end of November.

Good Enough to Eat

Sprouts

They are the mainstay vegetable associated with Christmas dinner and, in recent years, top chefs have found a huge variety of ways to serve them, cutting them up, picking off the leaves and even shredding them, adding sage crumbs, lardons and other delicious accompaniments.

If you are growing them this year, start picking them as soon as they are large enough to use, from thumbnail size. The harvesting season is long - from September, through to late winter. The latest aren't ready until after Christmas, but will stand until the end of March. If you get a frost, the flavour of your sprouts should improve.

If you don't want to keep going up the garden to pick a few at a time, pull up a whole plant and plunge the roots into a tub of compost in a cool place by the back door, or alternatively cut off the top section of stem and stand the base in a jar with some water in it to keep the sprouts fresh. They should keep in good condition for around a week.

Beat of the Bunch

Holly (Ilex Aquifolium)

Just its name conjures up images of Christmas, the bright red berries and rich green leaves taking pride of place in many festive wreaths and other decorations. But remember when buying a holly bush, if you want berries, check on the variety you are buying because most types of holly carry the male and female flowers on separate plants, so one of each is required for successful fertilisation. If you only have room for one, some varieties are self fertile and will produce berries, such as Ilex Aquifolium 'J.C. van Tol', which produces an abundance of bright red berries. The names of some can be misleading - 'Indian Chief' is female, while 'Silver Queen' is a male variety. They will thrive in virtually any soil in sun or shade.

What to do this week

  • Prepare celery trenches, digging in plenty of compost.
  • Move deciduous trees or shrubs provided the soil is fit to work.
  • Take root cuttings from oriental poppies, Primula denticulata, brunnera, gaillardia and many other plants.
  • Plant some decorative outdoor containers for Christmas, featuring winter-flowering heathers, skimmia and dogwood.
  • Rake up the last of the leaves.
  • Dig up and divide overcrowded clumps of ferns.
  • Protect alpines from excessive rain by covering them with cloches.
  • If frost threatens, wrap sacking or bubble wrap around terracotta and ceramic containers to prevent them from freezing, or move them closer to the house.
  • Mulch the crowns of perennials with chipped bark or compost to protect them from the elements.
  • Place netting over your holly bushes if you want the berries for Christmas decorations, or the birds may eat them all.
  • Check stored tender bulbs and corms to make sure none have gone rotten. If they have, pick them out and dispose of them.

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