Holiday season brings its own little activities, just as does each week of the summer.
For example, this is the time of year when "paper whites" can be found. These are pre-chilled bulbs in the daffodil family that can be planted and started now for flowers in a month to six weeks. If you find them for sale, by all means buy as many as you can. The only caveat is that some family members may object to the unbelievably sweet smell of their blooms.
While you can grow these bulbs by sitting their bases in just a bit of water, it's best to just plant them in a shallow container of soil. They don't need much water and you'll want to give them the best light you have. Once they sprout you are good to go as they always flower, at least the first year. Toss them when they are finished. They won't flower again.
Poinsettias, of course, are to be had this time of year. They are offered in almost every venue you can imagine, it seems. Most people just keep them for a few weeks and don't care beyond that. This is as it should be, it seems, as these plants are pumped with hormones and bloom because of special light timing. The trick, then, is to just keep it alive for the holiday season.
This requires, as I've noted in previous columns, bringing the plant home with minimum exposure to cold air. Once home, the plants should not be exposed to drafts from doorways or windows. Day temperatures between 65 and 75 are ideal, and if you can drop that temperature down to 60 at night it would be perfect. Soak entire pots whenever the surface turns dry. Let them drain and keep checking the soil surface for the next dunking. Poinsettias must drain and should never sit in water. If you want to keep the decorative foil that accompanies many plants, poke a hole in it to let water out.
Christmas trees, too, are their own gardening activity. I am referring to the cut trees that have been a tradition since they were introduced by German troops during the revolution. Make sure yours is in plenty of water and pay the strictest attention to safety rules if you decorate it with lights. You know the routine. And yes, ALPAR's recycling program will help you dispose of the tree after the season is over, but it has to be a clean tree, so go easy on the tinsel and wrapping lights.
Amaryllises are also for sale this time of year. The long-time reader knows these are the easiest and showiest bulbs you can buy, and they produce the largest flowers you are likely to ever grow. They are usually sold with pot and soil and all you need to do is plant yours so that a third of the top of the bulb is above the soil line. Kept growing after the season and right through summer when they can be put into dormancy in a cool location. Now is the time to take bulbs out of cold storage and give them some water and light. They should start sprouting quickly. The flower stalk is distinguishable from leaf stalks by the "v" shaped nick on the tip.
Christmas cacti, Schlumbergeras, are another great holiday plant precisely because it will live for dozens and dozens of holiday seasons and bloom each time. Some are passed from one generation to the next, and rotting cuttings is easy so it's not uncommon for a clone of the same plant to be in more than one family member's home. You can find these plants all over, in bloom.
Once home, give your plant bright light. This time of year, when it is in bloom, a Christmas cactus should only be watered when the soil is dry. Apply room temperature water to the top surface, but not too much or the flowers will drop off. The rest of the year, water by soaking the pot. Next fall, set them up against a window where it's cool and they can get natural light and they will bloom again.
If you don't have holiday plants, now is the time to get them.
• Gifts: Your best bet is to wander around a nursery to get ideas.
• Birds: Don't forget to keep your feeders stocked.
• Lights: Outdoor lights can chafe bark off a tree. Make sure yours do not.
Jeff Lowenfels is author of "Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to The Soil Food Web." Contact him at teamingwithmicrobes.com.