Monday, December 7, 2009

Can My Christmas Cactus be Saved?

I inherited my grandmother's Christmas cactus, which is at least 75 years old. My mother repotted it once in my memory, but now it is beginning to look bad. I'm determined to save it if I can, but I have a black thumb, and certainly no idea how to care for a plant this old. How do I keep it healthy and alive?

These plants are called holiday cactus (Schlumbergera) because their habit is to bloom around the time of one of three holidays - Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. You can determine which holiday cactus you have by looking at its leaves. The Christmas cactus has rounded notches on the margins of the stem segments while the Thanksgiving cactus has pointed tooth-like notches on the margins. The Easter cactus has tooth-like marginal notches with tiny spines or hairs on the stem segments. Most holiday cacti that I have seen are Thanksgiving cactus, even those purchased during the Christmas holiday. This is because many plant growers will force their Thanksgiving cacti into bloom for Christmas. Caring for these plants is simple regardless of which type you have.

Soil. Holiday cactus requires well-drained soil. I suggest that using a potting soil designed for cactus and succulents. The best time to repot holiday cactus is in the spring after active growth resumes, but it can be done at any time if the plant appears to be suffering.

Light. When growing holiday cactus indoors, place it in bright but indirect light. Direct light and excessive heat will scorch the leaves and cause the flower buds to drop. If you move your plants outdoors for the summer keep them in full to partial shade.

Water. In spite of its appearance and common name, your Christmas cactus is not really a cactus. When in bloom these plants should be watered about once a week or when the top half of the soil in the container becomes dry. Lack of water will cause the flower buds to drop. After the flowers fade stop watering the plant for about 6 weeks. This will allow the plant to rest. During the spring and summer keep the plant consistently moist. Root rot from over watering is a common problem with these plants.

Fertilizing. When new growth emerges in the spring, begin a fertilizing with an all-purpose houseplant food mixed at half strength. Continue to do this once a month until October.
Pruning. A plant that can potentially live to be more than 75 years old is sure to need an occasional haircut. The best time to do this is in June. Simply snip off the top 2 or 3 segments of each stem. This will make the plant bushier and promote flower development. You can then root these cuttings to make more plants.

Propagation. Just as you back up data on your computer you can create a back up of your holiday cactus by taking a cutting. This will ensure the continuation of the plant if the original dies. Just cut a stem at a segment, about 2 or 3 from the tip. Stick the cuttings in loose soil or vermiculite and water only lightly for the first couple of weeks so the plant does not rot. Once it establishes some roots, begin watering normally and you'll have lots of plants to give to your friends.

Re-bloom. Holiday cactus needs either cool night temperatures (between 55 and 60 degrees for 6 weeks) or extended periods of darkness to set flower buds. I like to leave my plants outside in the fall until they have been exposed to the cool night temperatures so that they start blooming when I bring them in for the winter. If you cannot meet the temperature requirement simply give the plant 13 hours of total darkness each night for several weeks. This can be done by keeping the plant in a closet or covering it with a dark cloth. During this time stop fertilizing and reduce watering. Once the buds set, return the plant to normal light and resume watering.

Bud Drop. Many people wonder why buds will drop from their plants before the flowers open. This can be caused by excessive heat, too much light, cold drafts, over watering, under watering or a sudden change in light or temperature.

If you follow these guidelines you plant should live a healthy life for many more years.

Questions Anyone?

If you have any gardening questions, please feel free to send me an e-mail. If I don't know the answer I will do some research to find out. This helps keep me current and on my toes. One of the greatest things about plants and gardening is that you never stop learning. You can learn something new every day.

Knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification.
Martin H. Fischer

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Attracting Cardinals to Your Yard

What a gloomy, cold, winter day it is here. My yard has turned to mostly the muted colors of green, brown, black and gold. The cardinals are at the bird feeder and bringing their bright spot of cheerful red color. Mama Cardinal came up to the window this morning to remind me to go out and fill the bird feeder. She seems to be the designated representative of the back yard birds. For the last couple of years she reliably comes to the window to remind me that I have been remiss in my duties. She doesn't seem to care that Joe the Cat is just on the other side.
Here is a picture from last winter of Joe the Cat at the window patrolling from inside.

To add color and interest you can design your landscape to attract cardinals to enjoy their bright red color and activity. The cardinal is probably one of the most recognizable and popular backyard birds because of its brilliant red color and crested head. Cardinals will mate for life and remain together throughout the entire year. That's why you will usually see a male and female together at your bird feeders.

On the days you are home snowed in or it is just too cold to go outside, it is very entertaining to watch the cardinals at the feeders. At the bird feeder, male cardinals will take their part. They often fight other birds for the available birdseed. The male cardinal will even break the seeds out of sunflower shells for his mate, and then feed her.

You can enjoy the beautiful sights and sounds of these magnificent birds year round if you prepare an enticing habitat for them in your garden.

Cardinals in their natural habitat, live in woodland edges, grasslands, meadows, thickets, swamps, farms and urban and suburban parks and gardens. Cardinals do not migrate and don’t usually wander more than a few miles from their nesting areas. If you establish a home landscape that is attractive to these birds, the same cardinal families will live in your yard for many years.

These birds prefer their habitat to have a mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees. They will often nest in shrubs or thickets that face an open lawn. Cardinals, like all birds, are attracted to a water source. A heated bird bath will provide unfrozen water during the winter months and can be used all year long. Cardinal at the birdbath. Photo by wfrieck.

Their nests are small deep cups of twigs, leaves and plant fibers concealed in thickets. Recommended plants for nesting are Viburnum, raspberry, elderberry, hackberry, sour cherry, dogwood, grapes, burning bush and hawthorn.

Seeds form the main part of the cardinal’s diet, although insects are eaten during the breeding season. They will often come to bird feeders in the winter. Cardinals prefer to be fed from feeders that are 4 - 6 feet high. They prefer a steady stationary feeder over a hanging bird feeder. Sunflower seeds are a favorite food for Cardinals. They will usually sift through the entire mixture of seeds to get to every sunflower seed before starting in on the other seeds. They like sunflower seeds the best, but will also eat safflower seeds and white proso millet when sunflower seeds are not available. A mature hackberry tree can produce enough berries to support seven or eight cardinals for a year. The birdseed that my cardinals seem to like the best is the America's Favorite Pro Cardinal Mix which has sunflower and safflower seeds.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The First Day In The Garden

I love to talk about plants and gardens. What better way than to do it with a Blog. I write the Garden Column "In The Garden with Helen Schaal" for the Lebanon Advertiser, Lebanon, IL but that newspaper is not available on-line so I think this is a better way to reach out to people who have a similar passion for growing things. Welcome to my world. It is December 4 and my roses are still blooming.