Snoqualmie Valley Master Gardener Tips: Saving the Poinsettia, Loving the Witch Hazel, Stopping Weeds Early

Save the Poinsettia?

The Christmas tree is put away. The lights have been taken down. The poinsettia has dropped  its leaves and stands on naked skinny stems. Keep it, toss it, what should you do? First realize that poinsettias are Mexican natives that grow as tall as 10 feet in their native state; not at all like the tidy Poinsettiapots of flowers that decorate our holiday homes each year. Poinsettias arrive from nurseries in November: heavily pruned and shaped; packed with hormones to force bushy compact growth; day lengths cycled perfectly by electronic timers to ensure beautiful, even bract formation. The result? – a stunted plant that is suffocating in a tightly wrapped red foil pot. If you are seeking a project, by all means attempt to rescue your poinsettia. Know though that it rarely turns out to be worth it. I recommend you toss it in the compost now. Stop this cycle of abuse.

But if you love a challenge…

By January, what you have is a poinsettia that is begging to be put to sleep. Time to tuck it in. It has shed all its leaves in preparation for a type of plant slumber – dormancy. It needs a season to refuel. So remove any dead flowers or debris from the pot and if you haven’t already removed that red foil pot liner, do it now. Put your poinsettia in a basement or garage, somewhere where the temperature will stay at least 60 degrees. Never let it freeze. You will need to check on it occasionally. It won’t need much water now, but water it when it’s dry. It’s resting now. Keep it tucked in and away from cold drafts. Watch for insects – whiteflies and spider mites.

In spring cut back the skinny leggy branches and any damaged sections. This is also a good time to re-pot it, but wear gloves because the leaking sap can be irritating. (Remember to reuse or recycle your pot – see recycling information below.) Move the flower out of its quiet winter spot and put it where it will receive plenty of light. That should wake it up. But don’t cook it in hot afternoon sun – the new growth will be tender. Your plant may appreciate additional humidity now, so mist it lightly. An application of fertilizer to the soil will push growth further along. You soon will see new leaves start to form. Keep pinching branch ends to encourage bushy growth. Set it outside in summer if the temperatures stay over 60 degrees. Beware! – it will not tolerate any cool nights. If temperatures drop, your poinsettia will die quickly and all will be for naught.

If you’ve made it through summer, on October 1st, timeout; this time in absolute darkness, 13-16 hours every day and at the same time every day. A dark closet will work, but once the plant is in the darkness, no one better open that door. No peeking! Any light, a crack of the door, will disrupt the bloom formation and you will only have a green leafy poinsettia for the holidays. This in-and-out-of-darkness continues every day in October and November. You can add light houseplant fertilizers as you continue to water, but cut back  the diva plant goes into another complete on fertilization in December. If it all goes well and you replicated a long dark night without accidental light you will be rewarded with colorful bracts (flowers). But there are no guarantees. Some poinsettias refuse to cooperate.

[Plastic nursery pots can be recycled at many nurseries and stores in the area. Go to the King County Solid Waste Division website; click on “P” for Plastic.]

Gardening Tips for January

• Shotweed is up! It’s the bright green rosette with little white flowers. Get a jump on spring weeding – you will save hours of work this summer if you remove it now before it develops seeds.

• Put an edge on your grass. While you were merrymaking over the holidays, your grass was sending out rhizomes and crawling into your flowerbeds. The soil is soft, so pulling up errant grass runners is much easier now than it will be come summer.

• Get your mower into the shop for a tune up. Many repair shops have off-season deals running now and have time to do the work. A well-tuned mower makes the task of lawn maintenance so much easier. When the grass starts growing again, you’ll be ready with sharpened blades. Your grass will thank you for it.

Plants We Love: Witch Hazel

Despite its confusing and somewhat foreboding name, witch hazel (Hamamelis) is just what the doctor ordered to perk up the gray days of winter. This vase-shaped shrub blooms in late winter and early spring with fragrant yellow (H. mollis), red (H. x intermedia ‘Diane’) or orange flowers (H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’) resembling bunches of shredded ribbons.

HamamelisWitch hazel is best planted in the fall, but with our mild winter so far, you can plant it now as long as the ground isn’t frozen. It does best in full sun to partial shade; too much shade decreases the number of flowers. It’s not fussy about soil but does best in a site that is well-drained. As with all newly planted shrubs, regular water is needed until it gets established.

Witch hazels are disease resistance and only need a little pruning to maintain their graceful winter shape. After the flowers start to fade, large heart-shaped leaves appear which put on a show in autumn, turning from medium green to shades of yellow and orange. What a wonderful shrub! The only downside is that deer may munch on the flowers and new leaves, altering the branching somewhat.

Local nurseries should have witch hazels in stock now. Great Plant Picks is a good resource for the various cultivars that are ideally suited for the Pacific Northwest.

Additional information on winter gardening can be found on our website at www.svmastergardeners.com.

[Acknowledgements. Tia Jensen (Poinsettia, January Garden Tips) and Ann Acton (Witch Hazel) are master gardeners in the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program. Extension programs and employment are available to all without discrimination. Evidence of noncompliance may be reported through your local Extension office.]

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