The ultimate guide to caring for Christmas plants

The ultimate guide to caring for Christmas plants

Winter house plants are not just for Christmas! Make poinsettia, amaryllis and other seasonal favourites last, with these tips from our partners, Amateur Gardening.
With the festive season in full swing, gardeners are celebrating by decking the halls with colourful pot plants. They’re a joy to behold when all outdoors is deep in slumber, but they need some tender loving care if they are to survive dry, centrally heated rooms and low indoor light levels. Here's how to keep six popular Christmas-flowering pot plants in the best of health.

Poinsettia

Kept in steady warmth and good light, and away from draughts, this iconic Christmas plant’s colourful red, pink (pictured, centre) or white bracts can last until Easter. Water to keep the compost just moist, and feed fortnightly.

Making poinsettias produce new red bracts the following year is tricky, so most people bin the plants and buy new for Christmas. If you want to have a go at reawakening the display, let the plant rest when coloured bracts fade or drop. Back off watering, stop feeding and prune it to half its height, cutting back to healthy buds.

In summer increase watering, and start feeding again. In the eight weeks leading up to Christmas, put the plant in complete darkness for 14 hours every night, and back into good light for the remaining ten hours. Bracts may not colour up as well in the second year.

Cyclamen

Christmas flowering cyclamen will quickly collapse in hot dry, dull corners. To thrive, these plants need a cool, bright spot. Water the compost occasionally, but not too much, and avoid splashing the leaves. Give a liquid feed once a fortnight while flowers last. 

As the light intensity increases through January, move your plant to a shadier, north- or east-facing window and the plant may keep blooming until Easter. When flowers stop opening, let the pot dry out and lay it on its side in the shed. 

In July-August bring the pot into the light again and start watering. When leaves appear, begin feeding with a liquid houseplant fertiliser once a fortnight. Every two years, re-pot the tuber in late spring while it's dormant.

Orchids

The best (and most popular) orchids for warm rooms are the moth orchids, phalaenopsis. For best results provide good light through winter – positioned close to a bay window, for instance – and keep the plant away from hot radiators. Water only when the compost almost dries out, by plunging the pot into a bowl of water for ten minutes, then letting it drain completely. Feed with a special orchid fertiliser while in bloom, once a fortnight.

When the flowers fade, look for a node (a raised band) on the stem beneath the faded flowers, and cut the stem back to just above this point (pictured). A new flower spike should eventually grow from this point. 

Christmas cactus

The ideal spot for these succulents with the delightful Latin name of Schlumbergera is a cool room where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate a lot every day. Water very sparingly. Wait until the compost looks dry, and feels dry half an inch under the surface. Add a half-strength house plant fertiliser when you water. 

Pick off blooms as they fade. Always handle plants with care as both the succulent sections of stem and the flower buds at their tips are easily knocked off.

When flowering stops, water it even less, perhaps just once a month, and stop feeding. In late summer begin watering more regularly, and add a half-strength feed to stimulate new flowers around Christmas. Pot the plant on every three years in spring or early summer into a larger pot, using John Innes No 2 compost.

Azalea

Forms of the Indian azalea Rhododendron indicum make lavish pot plants. They are happiest well away from radiators and other heat sources. A kitchen windowsill facing north-east is a good spot.

Like all rhododendrons these are acid soil-loving plants and prefer rainwater to tap water, which can be hard and alkaline. Add a liquid fertiliser suitable for acid-loving plants, fortnightly while in flower. Azalea roots can dry out fast, so keep a can of rainwater near the plant as a reminder. 

After flowering, pot your plant on in late spring or summer, using ericaceous (acidic) compost and give it a summer break outdoors in a semi-shaded spot. Bring it back indoors in October before the weather turns harsh.

Hippeastrum (amaryllis)

These monstrous bulbs, sometimes called amaryllis (main image), produce huge trumpet-shaped colourful flowers around Christmas. Plant the bulb in autumn, in a pot just a little larger than the diameter of the bulb. Use John Innes No 2 compost. Set the bulb so the top third is above the compost. Water it thoroughly and put it on a sunny windowsill. Do not water again until the compost is almost dry.

After the flowers fade, cut off the flower head, leaving the stem and leaves on the plant. Continue watering when necessary, and add fertiliser fortnightly. When the foliage fades, dry out the bulb completely, lift it from the pot and store it somewhere cool and dry. Pot up the bulb in early autumn and begin the process again as above.