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Prolong the growing season with festive indoor plants.

In the darkest months of the gardener's soul, with the bulbs (mostly) planted, the garden cleanup done and the tools put away, we retreat indoors, batten down our emotional hatches and look questioningly at each other. What do gardeners do when we can't garden? Read about gardening. Talk about gardening. Plan next year's gardening projects. And garden indoors, with houseplants.

This is a fun time of year for indoor gardening. Since we're creeping up on the holidays, we can festoon our homes with Christmas plants, fresh garland and trimmings from shrubs and trees, and other greenery to chase away the dreariness.

The first plant people think about when we mention Christmas plants is the poinsettia, followed by Christmas cactus, amaryllis and cyclamen. These are all terrific plants for the season, but there are also the double-duty plants that work well in festive occasions but don't look passé in January when they're relegated to a windowsill.

The rules about selecting a houseplant are the same whether you're choosing one for yourself or for a gift; for best quality and selection, purchase from a reputable nursery, florist or garden centre. Look the plant over carefully. Its foliage should be fresh and green, with no yellowing or brown in the leaves or stems. Roots (if you can see them) should be white or pale yellow and firm, not brown or black and mushy; the latter indicates root rot is setting in and you have a sickly plant that won't thrive.

If in bloom, the flowers should be just starting and not at their peak. (If they're peaking, the bloom may well have passed by the time you want the best display.) Buds should be tight and firm, with no sign of blight or injury, and, of course, there ought not be any insects such as mealybugs, aphids, spider mites or fungus gnats. The plant should be potted appropriately, not adrift in a giant pot or rootbound in a container three sizes too small for it. The soil should look and smell fresh, with no algae, mould or weeds on the soil surface.

Bringing a plant home in the late fall or winter is fraught with challenges: houseplants are grown in hothouses and don't appreciate a wintry blast of cold Atlantic wind. Being outside when it's especially cold and windy for even a few seconds can fatally shock a tender houseplant, so avoid making plant purchases on those days. Wrapping them in paper or plastic sleeves will help protect them, so long as you're quick about moving the plant from store to car. And make sure the car is already warm when you put the plant in.

Most Atlantic Canadian homes are extremely dry in the winter. Houseplants are generally sold potted up in a peat-based soilless mix, which tends to dry out quickly, especially in warm homes. Although many plants slow down their growth in winter and don't need watering as often as when they're growing vigourously, they do still need watering regularly. Some also want to be misted regularly with a spray bottle, to add moisture to their foliage. The jury is mixed on whether setting plant pots on a saucer of moistened pebbles helps add to the humidity around a plant or not, but a regular application of water from a mister does certainly help.

We shouldn't overfeed our houseplants, especially in winter. Most of them are in a rest period during the cold months, and overfertilizing can lead to a buildup of salts in the soil, which leads to fertilizer burn and can even kill some plants. If you feel you must fertilize, do it only once a month and at half the strength of the recommended application. What I do with our jungle of indoor plants is give everything a watering using half-strength liquid seaweed fertilizer once a month from November to March and then gradually feed more as spring unfolds.

A few plants for that festive touch

Azalea: The azaleas wrapped in brilliant foil for sale in stores are related to the rhododendrons and azaleas we enjoy in our gardens. However, they are not hardy outdoors in Atlantic Canada, so don't plant them outside come spring. These need plenty of water and don't like to dry out at all, dropping their leaves if they are stressed for water. For maximum enjoyment of flowers, purchase them with buds just starting to show colour. While flowering, azaleas like a cool room with a few hours of indirect sunlight. Their blossoms will usually last for a few weeks before fading. Azaleas bloom once a year.

Moth Orchid: Orchids can be habit forming and many of them are very precise in their care requirements, but for the beginner or the purple-thumbed gardener, the best choice is a phalaenopsis. It does well in most home conditions and is easily available. One of the most beautiful Christmas centrepieces I've ever seen was a simple arrangement of a white phalaenopsis (moth) orchid with two white candles and several sprigs of holly: simple, stark and elegant.

Caladium: For something a little different in your home holiday décor, try a caladium. These tuberous-rooted tropicals are known for their fantastic elephant-ear-shaped leaves, which, depending on variety, can be spangled or streaked with several different colours - green, silver, red, rose, and white. The most important thing a caladium needs for success in the home is high humidity, which means you should mist it daily. Place your plant where it will get bright light but no direct sun (which can burn its leaves), and away from drafts. You can also use caladium outdoors as annuals to brighten up shady summer gardens, but you'll have to bring them indoors in fall as they aren't hardy enough to endure our winters.

Kalanchoe: You can't go wrong with kalanchoes as an easy-care plant. These relatives of the durable jade tree have fleshy leaves and big clusters of small, star-shaped flowers in yellow, crimson red, white, rose, coral, and other warm shades. Put your kalanchoe in a brightly lit area such as a window, and water only when the soil feels dry to the touch. Being succulents, kalanchoes don't require huge amounts of water and can also happily tolerate dry air, which contributes to their popularity as houseplants.

Ornamental fruit plants: There are three types of fruit-bearing plants often used as decorative houseplants: ornamental peppers, miniature (Calamondin) oranges, and the Jerusalem cherry. Aside from the orange trees, which can be kept flourishing for years, the others are used as annuals and then composted. Ornamental peppers are edible, but are often very hot. Calamondin oranges are very sour but edible, while Jerusalem cherry is toxic and should never be consumed. Each of these plants needs to be kept moist but not overly wet, and should be misted regularly. Spider mites can be a problem, particularly in hot, dry conditions.

Paperwhite Narcissus: When you're buying bulbs in the fall, you'll usually see paperwhites for sale as decorative indoor plants. These bulbs don't need the cold treatment other species require before they'll bloom, so you simply buy the bulbs, plant them in potting mix or set in a dish of moist pebbles, and wait for them to grow and flower. Once flower buds have formed, keeping the bulbs in a cooler spot in the house will ensure that flowers last longer. Forced paperwhites won't rebloom, so once the flowers are spent and foliage starts to yellow, you can add them to your compost heap.

What to do with that poinsettia plant?

Poinsettias are holiday plants that people either love or hate. Count me in the former, though I'm also the type who doesn't try to get mine to go through to a second Christmas season. I buy them from a greenhouse or florist, enjoy them until they get tired looking, then send them to the compost heap. You probably do as well.

The reason so many poinsettias are thus consigned is that they need a long dormant (rest) period before they can be brought to bloom again, and they also need the right combination of light and heat to grow properly and to produce the tiny flowers in the centre of those colourful modified leaves, or bracts, that people mistake for flower petals.

You can keep poinsettias for years and bring them back to bloom if you're disciplined and able to provide their proper growing needs. You need to give a poinsettia a rest period from late winter until mid-spring, give them bright, warm conditions through the summer, and then in autumn begin controlling the amount of light they receive so they'll be triggered to form flowers again. For most of us, the growth requirements are a bit much; we get exasperated around mid-winter when yellow, dropping leaves become annoying and the plant loses its appeal. Don't feel guilty if you decide to compost your plant. There will be new, exciting varieties to buy next year.

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