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Master Gardener: Landscape Gardening

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Christmas Cactus

The Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesi) is a favorite holiday season house plant, but one which needs careful attention to details if it is to live and flower again the next year. It is closely related to Easter Cactus (Schlumbergera gaertneri) and Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncatus), all with fleshy, flattened, segmented joints and showy flowers ranging in color from white through pink, red and purple. These are cacti which in nature live in the crotches of jungle trees, and benefit from light, porous soil mixed with leafmold and sand.

When the flowering period is finished, an active growth period will commence. Keep the plant in a sheltered place until danger of freezing is over. Water carefully, keeping in mind that overwatering is the major cause of failure with Christmas cactus. Soak the potting medium when watering, then allow the plant to become almost dry before watering again. (When the plant is put outside during warmer weather, it will be easier to keep if placed on the porch, or in a situation where it will not be soaked with rainwater over a period of several days). Fertilize with a water-soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer with trace elements while in an active growth stage. Occasionally, leach out excess fertilizer salts with plain water.

Christmas cactus will thrive in a well-drained, sterile potting medium high in organic material. A little sand may be mixed with the medium to provide weight, important as the cactus increases in size. A pH of 5.5 to 6.2 is considered optimum for growth.

Although a temperature of 70 - 80 degrees F during the growing season is considered ideal, plants will tolerate Texas-type temperatures in the 90 to 100 degrees F range, although growth may be slower. Reduce water and fertilizer in August in preparation for the beginning of bud development, which is regulated by the shortening of fall days, along with cooler night temperatures. By late October and early November buds should be in evidence. Help to maintain bud set by adequate watering, taking care not to expose the plant to cold drafts, unvented heaters, or rough handling. Night temperatures above 70 degrees F may inhibit bud development.

As the cactus becomes larger, shorter tip portions may be broken off and rooted in loose, sandy medium with very little trouble. Mealy bugs, scale and aphids may be rubbed away with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol. Use stronger controls such as houseplant insecticides only if the infestation appears to be gaining the upper hand. With good tending, Christmas cactus may live for many years.

Information for this article provided by Cynthia W. Mueller, Master Gardener.   

What to do in December

  • As soon as the November weather appears to be settled, it is time to select and plant such annuals as pansies, violas and ornamental cabbages and kale.
  • Plan now for your spring flowering season with a mixture of annuals and perennials.
  • Don’t get in a hurry to prune woody plants. Late December through February is usually the best time to prune them.
  • Place orders for seeds this month so you will have them available when you are ready to plant. By ordering early, you will be more certain of getting the varieties you want. In addition to ordering seeds that you are already familiar with, try a few new kinds each year to broaden your garden contents.
  • November through February is a good time to plant trees and shrubs. In the Panhandle, planting is often delayed until February or early March.
  • Bring in late-blooming plants such as decorative kalanchoes or Christmas cactus so they may finish flowering in the warmth of the house.
  • Prepare beds and individual holes for rose planting in January and February. Use composted manure, pine bark, and similar materials mixed with existing soil.
  • Use good pruning practices when selecting Christmas greenery from landscape plants. Don’t destroy the natural form and beauty of the plant.
  • Protect your lawn from excessive winter damage by providing irrigation during dry periods.
  • Plant spring-flowering bulbs if you haven’t already done so. Be sure to refrigerate tulips and hyacinths for 6-8 weeks prior to planting.
  • Prolong the life of holiday-season gift plants by providing proper care. Check to see if the pot wrap has plugged up the bottom drainage. Don’t overwater. Keep out of drafts from heating vents and opening doorways. Fertilizer is seldom needed the first few months.
  • Take advantage of good weather to prepare garden beds for spring planting. Work in any needed organic matter, and have beds ready to plant when needed.
  • Take advantage of bad weather and holiday time to study seed and nursery catalogues as well as good gardening books.

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