When entering a garden center or grocery store this time of year, you may see displays of amazing winter flower bouquets, poinsettias, potted rosemary and Norfolk Island pine plants. Close by are buckets of bright winterberry, fresh greenery, cheerful Christmas cactus, cyclamen, and blooming orchids.
There’s more green, white and red staring you in the face than at an Italian flag factory.
You’re torn over whether to splurge on one or more of these seasonal splendors or hold tight to your budget and continue walking straight to the dairy aisle. You can’t help but dream about guests walking into your aromatic, cinnamon-spiced holiday party oohing and aahing over the house filled with dazzling seasonal floral eye candy. Darn you, Santa!
Lacking self-restraint, you fill your basket with green finery and a quart of milk. Getting it all safely to your house is the next decision. If not well protected from cold on the ride home, your holiday poinsettia will turn into a holiday “poin-dead-ia’”(groan).
Getting live flowers home
Try to choose a shopping day when the outside temperature is well above 32 degrees. Independent garden centers and most stores will gladly wrap temperature-sensitive bouquets and plants using cellophane and paper (ask them to kindly double the paper).
For additional fool-proof plant protection from the cold, bring a large cooler (which also keeps food warm) into the store and let it warm up while shopping. A sturdy box with a plastic or folding cover works, too. Bring along some paper for extra padding around the edges if needed. After checking out, carefully place the plants in the container and secure the top so no cold air gets inside. Greenery bundles and winterberry branches aren’t cold-sensitive and should be fine without extra protection.
Hopefully your plants and greenery include an attached tag that provides care instructions. (Take a photo of the tag just in case it gets misplaced.)
When back home, carefully unpack plants that are wrapped in foil. Cut some holes or slits in the bottom of the foil and then place the plant on top of a tray so water will freely drain. Place fresh greenery and winterberry in a bucket or vase with room temperature water until used for decorating.
Check for flying fungus gnats near or on the soil and if present isolate the plant until they die off. Just let the soil dry out for a couple of days before watering again. Fungus gnat eggs and larvae use damp soil to finish their life cycle, so drying them out works well initially.
With a quick online search, you’ll find other easy home remedies using cinnamon or mild soap to kill off fungus gnats. Use care and avoid overdoing any home treatment.
Another very helpful and safe biological product to have on hand for all your indoor plants will have the active ingredient Bti, used to kill mosquito larvae in outdoor features. This product works well for indoor plants that have fungus gnats. Look for the tan-colored, small round dunks or kibble bits sold at garden centers. Simply crumble a dunk or add the bits on top of the potted plant soil and water. As the Bti bits dissolve over time, they kill off fungus gnat eggs and larvae.
Keep seasonal greenery merry and bright through the holidays
Poinsettias, cyclamen, Norfolk Island pine, orchids and rosemary plants all need around six hours of bright, natural light from south-, east- or west-facing windows. North windows can work if using indoor plant sunlamps with a timer. One exception is Norfolk Island pine, which will do fine with less bright daily sunlight. Plants shouldn’t touch the windows and be kept away from cool drafts and heat vents. Remember to turn plants every week to prevent them from leaning toward windows and sunlight. This group of plants grows well in temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees. Rosemary can take it warmer.
Fertilizer needs for many indoor plants slow down during the winter months. Read the plant tag for specific recommendations.
Grouping house plants together and using small pebble rocks that are slightly submerged in water in a tray under the plants will help increase humidity levels as the water slowly evaporates. Many indoor plants benefit from this technique, especially Norfolk Island pines and orchids.
For poinsettias, water when the surface feels dry to the touch. If the soil is allowed to dry out for too long, leaves will drop and plants will wilt. Too much water leads to root rot, insects and death. Poinsettia plants are not poisonous to people or pets, but the milky sap may irritate the skin.
Cyclamen, Norfolk Island pine, and rosemary plants should be watered when the surface of the soil is dry to the touch. Finessing and mastering the watering needs of individual indoor plants comes with experience and paying attention to the plant. In general, it is better to underwater than overwater.
Garden retailers and many grocery stores sell Christmas trees, wreaths and attractive bundles of assorted greenery for holiday decorating. Christmas tree lots often have a box of trimmed fir branch cuttings that are free for the taking; just ask first. Or consider getting a permit to cut a Christmas tree, then use trimmed branches for additional decorating. Go to fs.usda.gov for permitting and more information.
The key for longer-lasting, fresh-cut greenery is regular moisture from misting and using anti-desiccant sprays (sold at garden centers) to seal the leaves and pores on the bark to hold in moisture.
Wear gloves for trimming and cutting fresh greens and do it over a tarp — they will be sticky and messy. When making garlands, swags or wreaths for decorating, keep the stems in room-temperature water before making the display. Use a hand pruner to make diagonal cuts through the stems, and then gently crush the exposed end — this will help with water uptake. Set the stems back in the water for a few hours before assembly and decorating.
Wishing you a happy, healthy and joyous December holiday season. And after family and friends leave, sit down with a 2024 seed catalog and dream of you know what!
Betty Cahill speaks and writes about gardening in the Rocky Mountain Region. Visit her site at for even more gardening tips.