Make your festive houseplants last

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WHETHER it’s deep red poinsettias, colourful Christmas cacti, fragrant hyacinths, stylish orchids or winter cherries which grace your home this festive season, Hannah Stephenson shows you how to keep them going until well into the New Year.

This week’s star plant is the cyclamen, which brightens up winter baskets and adds a touch of cheer to indoor displays. Plus, advice on growing Brussels sprouts, the stalwart veg of Christmas dinners nationwide.

If the deep red leaves of the poinsettia you bought for Christmas are already drooping or the fragrant hyacinths you hoped would last beyond Boxing Day have fallen over, you may think that you simply don’t have the magic touch with houseplants.

Yet you only need to make a few changes to perk up your festive houseplants to ensure they last into the new year.

The fallen hyacinth scenario will be irreversible - once they’ve fallen over and the flowers are starting to turn brown, the best you can hope for is that they will come back if you replant them outside next autumn.

If your poinsettia has wilted and is losing leaves, it’s likely you’ve overwatered it. The surface of the compost must be dry before you water it and never allow the plant to stand in water.

If you’ve underwatered it and the compost around the roots is dry, that can cause the same problem.

If the plant suddenly loses its leaves without wilting, it may be that it’s too cold where the poinsettia has been placed or it has been exposed to hot or freezing draughts or poor light levels.

Ideally, this plant likes a bright spot but not in direct sunlight and a constant temperature of between 18-24C (64-75F).

Among the easiest of festive plants is the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), with its spreading foliage and successive, pendulous flowers. It needs plenty of light in winter in average room temperatures, although plants bought in bloom will last longer in cooler rooms.

Avoid draughts, overwatering, turning the pot, which may lead to bud loss, and temperatures under 13C (55F). Use soft water to help maintain slightly acidic conditions.

The soil should be evenly moist for best growth and I always water mine from below, sitting the plant in a trough of water for a few minutes before draining it and putting it back.

Before attempting to water the plant again, check to see that the top inch of soil has dried thoroughly first.

Many bulbs are forced for Christmas, including narcissi, hyacinth and tulips, and do best in a bright spot in a cool room of around 10C (50F), but avoid direct sunlight and make sure the bulbs are free from draughts and kept well away from a radiator.

Keep the compost moist at all times and turn the bowl occasionally so that growth will be even. Taller varieties will need staking with pea sticks and will benefit from feeding with a liquid fertiliser.

Orchids are also a winner at Christmas and need very little attention over the festive season. Water them once a week from below, sitting the plastic pot in a bowl of water, with the addition of some orchid feed. Once the roots have had a good soaking, lift the pot out and let it stand on the draining board for around half an hour before putting it back.

Orchids like plenty of light but shade them from direct sunlight and temperatures in winter of around 15C (60F). Cool nights are important, so ideally allow a dip of three or four degrees. The leaves also need misting from time to time but avoid spraying the flowers.

Indoor azaleas produce vivid splashes of colour at this time of year and should be planted in ericaceous compost and placed in a cool spot, either on a porch or in an unheated conservatory, as they are virtually hardy. If you keep it cool, the flowers will last longer.

As the plant is lime-hating, it needs soft water and must not be allowed to dry out. Unlike most houseplants, it can be watered daily to keep the rootball moist. Dunk it in a bowl of water for 20 minutes, then tip away the excess water.

If you want to keep it, repot it in ericaceous compost before placing it outdoors for the summer. Regular watering and a feed specifically for lime-haters will be essential to keep it going.

With a little care, you’ll be enjoying your houseplants well into 2012.