Don’t Toss Out Your Poinsettia!
I’ve saved a few poinsettias from the garbage can. Especially if you are in the zone 5 growing regions and colder, it doesn’t take much effort to bring your poinsettia back into color the following year. If you have a variety of houseplants that you keep alive all year, you really shouldn’t shy away from holding onto your poinsettia until next holiday season. I have faith in you!
Your Poinsettia After Christmas
Once the holiday guests have ventured home and the calendar page gets turned over to a new year, it’s time to move your centerpiece from the table and give it some light. Place it alongside your other houseplants in a sunny window and treat it as you would the other houseplants on display.
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I’ve found that too much water is the quickest way to hurt poinsettias. They will show effects sooner than some plants when the soil is too soggy. If the surface of the soil is dry, though, it is a good time to give them more water. Consider that the plant may have been in the same pot for a while and have roots extending all the way to the bottom. This means that if water is still standing in the tray after about thirty to sixty minutes, be sure to drain that water off so those roots aren’t sitting in water.
Too little water and the leaves will wilt and shrivel just like any other plant. Too much water, and the leaves will start to yellow. Poinsettias are notorious for shedding their leaves so a leaf falling here or there at this point in the year is not unusual so don’t panic.
Please remember that poinsettias are not pet friendly so keep their leaves cleaned up to prevent your cats or dogs from eating them. I’m a bit paranoid, so I won’t even feed the leaves to my composting worms.
I know some folks worry about temperature with their houseplants. Most of us work with what we have. Our thermostat is set for 64 degrees in the winter so that is what my plants get. As with all houses, there will be fluctuations in temperature. As with most houseplants that we care for, the 60-75 degree range works just fine. As you know, my motto is that a gardener doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t be too hard on yourself and try to provide optimal growing conditions. It is a rare home gardener who can do that. Strive to check on your plants every day or two and you will be ahead of the game. You should be checking for if the leaves are looking healthy, checking how dry the surface of the soil is, and checking if there are any pests. Regular check-ups help you take action early.
At this first stage, after the holidays, the only care you need to consider, then, is to place your poinsettia in a sunny window and give it the right amount of water. Don’t even worry about fertilizer at this point. It is still in brilliant, colorful bloom, so you should be enjoying it in all its splendor.
Early Spring Poinsettia Care
You’ve made the decision to save your first poinsettia. You’ve made it to the first of March and it’s still looking beautiful, though some leaves may be shedding here and there. Now what?
The reason that the poinsettias you see in the stores at Christmastime are so spectacular is because they have been given the absolute ideal growing conditions. And they can grow quite quickly. And fast growth means they need food.
Since poinsettia blooms are technically bracts and leaves, they will only ever need a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or 20-20-20. Don’t even bother with any fertilizer that talks about producing flowers, because technically, we aren’t talking about “flowers.” It’s just easier for us to say poinsettias “bloom” because it is a familiar term to us. When feeding your plant, follow the instructions for your specific fertilizer and feed your plant twice a month. I’m careful about diluting my fertilizer a bit more than what the manufacturer says, so for my quarter teaspoon per gallon, I’ll use a scant quarter teaspoon to make a slightly weaker solution. I never like to burn my plants with too much love by overfeeding them. I’ve done it before which is why I err on the side of caution.
You also have one more task to consider. I’ve seen some people advise to prune back the poinsettia in early spring, reduce watering, and place the plant in a cool place, such as in a basement. This would give the plant a short period of dormancy. I’m sure you won’t hurt anything by using this method, I just haven’t found it necessary.
What you will likely see in late February or early March, is new growth, usually coming up beside the blooms. And this new growth is going to be green, not the color that it had at purchase. The color probably has not dropped off yet, so I try to extend my enjoyment as long as possible. Yes, pruning will definitely be necessary, I just prefer not to prune off such lovely color if it isn’t absolutely required. In March, pruning is optional.
In early spring, then, fertilizing twice a month is required. Pruning can be delayed if you prefer. Watering when the surface is dry is still the most important thing to be doing.
Pruning and Repotting
As we are getting into late April and early May, a few things are necessary. You’ve been fertilizing every couple of weeks and you’ve been watering properly but you are still going to see some changes.
The leaves may be falling off more frequently and now you can see some bare branches. No, you haven’t killed the plant. Well, you may have but I doubt it. As long as the smaller branches are flexible (the older branches can be naturally brittle), the plant is still alive. So don’t give up now!
Late Spring is the time for pruning and repotting. Here in Zone 4, I do this task in May. If you are in a warmer climate, you should consider it in April. Pruning and repotting are in preparation for the plant to be outdoors so it will depend on your last frost date. I shoot for placing my houseplants outdoors around the first of June which is why May is my month to repot poinsettias.
Pruning Your Poinsettia
It will always be easier to prune first and repot second, because you will have a less wieldy plant to manage during repotting. It’s hard to offer a rule of thumb about pruning. The best I can do in that respect is to suggest that you take off less than half of the branches and foliage. I truly believe how you prune is dependent on the size of the plant you start with, and your own preferences, which is why it is difficult to have hard and fast rules.
Let’s talk about why we prune. First, we prune to manage the size of the plant. If you start with a plant that is three feet tall and you don’t want it to exceed that height next year, you will seriously consider removing half of that height or even just a little bit more. Some people are squeamish about removing that much of the plant, but I’m not one of them. I know that poinsettias can be vigorous growers and have little trouble recovering as long as the plant is otherwise healthy. On the other hand, if this is a small plant you want to grow larger, you may want to only take off an inch or two. I would suggest that you at least remove the end of the branches that were blooming. If this were the case, you would prune to just above the next set of green leaves.
Second, we prune for the health of the plant. Removing dead or dying branches is something that we do on a regular basis with many of our plants. I don’t usually see this on poinsettias, but it could happen. I’ve also removed parts of branches that have too many pests on them. Especially true of aphids, I’ll remove the ends of the branches where most of the aphids are and then go on a search and destroy mission on the rest of the plant. Another way it helps the overall health of the plant, is to open it up for better light penetration and air flow, which aids in reducing disease susceptibility.
Third, we prune to encourage a fuller, bushier plant. This third reason is my main reason for pruning. Poinsettias can get tall and leggy quite easily. Pruning branches to within several inches of the main trunk, will help encourage more branching. A fuller plant, with more branches, presents a more pleasing esthetic when it comes into bloom. It’s just more attractive, in my opinion.
How you prune is important also. Be sure to prune just above a leaf or set of leaves. The pruning process encourages the plant to send up new growth which starts from the leaf axils, at the junction where the leaf attaches to the branch. For this reason, you won’t want to eliminate an entire branch back to the main trunk unless the branch is dead. For good branching, then, pruning back to just above the last three to four leaves on the branch should be ideal.
New Soil and Old Pots
The biggest questions when repotting are how big a pot to use and what kind of soil to use. Aren’t these the same questions with any houseplant?
If your poinsettia is in the same pot as when you bought it, I would suggest going up a size or two. When growing in a commercial greenhouse, space is at a premium. This means they are going to use the smallest pot possible. Don’t go too much bigger, though.
If you look at the size of the pruned plant, go to a size where the pruned branches are just outside the edge of the pot once it’s planted. If you think of stability, you won’t want to go too small, or it will be too easy to tip over. Another consideration is that when going too small, the pot will dry out much faster. Do you want to be watering every couple of hours during the hottest days of summer?
Go too big on the size of the pot and you’ll struggle moving it around during the hardening off process. The plant could also look lost in the pot, drawing the eye to the pot instead of the plant. So, it’s a Goldilocks thing, right? For a normal sized poinsettia, I would use a pot from one to three gallons. If you have one or two different sizes at the ready, remove the pruned plant from the original pot and try it out in each one.
If you have to squeeze the root ball into the new pot, it is likely too small. You don’t need but an inch or two of space between the root ball and the walls of the new pot. Does the plant have tons of roots snaking around the outside of the root ball? If so, you may want to gently tease out those roots and trim them before repotting. I have never had to use this technique on a poinsettia but if you do, disturb the root ball as little as possible.
Once you are ready, place a small amount of potting soil in the bottom of the new pot, hold the plant at the level you want it to be, and sprinkle in more potting soil as you gently shake the pot to help settle the soil. More potting soil, more shaking, until the soil is overflowing the top of the pot. Now use your fingers to firm the soil all around the outside of the pot. You probably won’t need to firm the middle nearest the main stem of the plant since you’ve disturbed this area as little as possible. As you firm the soil, add more soil, firm it along the outside again, and keep repeating until the soil remains at a level about an inch or so from the lip of the pot. You won’t want the soil to be hard packed, but you will want it be firm so that no air pockets remain in the pot.
What kind of soil are you using, you ask? I find most bags of soil sold as “potting soil” are too heavy. What I mean by this is that typical bagged potting soil doesn’t have enough perlite or vermiculite in it. I add enough of this so that it looks similar to a light peppering on eggs. This way there are more spaces in the soil to hold air and water which help develop healthy roots.
Now that your poinsettia is both pruned and repotted, let’s look at what happens during the summer months.
Poinsettias in Summer
I put my poinsettias outside in the Summer along with most of my other houseplants. But where the heck do you put them? Full shade? Partial shade? Full sun? Actually I’ve tried a variety of locations. And what about temperatures? Should I wait until July when the temperatures are typically higher at night?
I always thought that poinsettias hated the sun, that they’d wilt and die before I could even walk away. This isn’t actually true but it will still take a bit of experimentation. The best way to look at it is a hardening off process.
Start off the freshly pruned and repotted poinsettias in a well-protected and mostly shady spot. My south-facing porch is protected by the wind and has a railing and bushes that throw dappled sun against the house most of the day. I have a couple of spots on the porch that rarely get sun so that is where I start. Little by little, I start moving the pots.
I’ll move them each week from where they may get an hour of sun a day to the next spot which gets three to four hours of sun. By the time I’m done, I’ll have them in a spot that gets about ten hours of sun each day. I thought for sure that would be too much, but they’ve all survived and thrived. I believe that one of the reasons is because I protect the poinsettias from the harshest afternoon and evening sun. They only get sun from about five in the morning until three of four in the afternoon. After that they are in shade, but not complete darkness, until the sun goes down sometime after nine o’clock. As you move your pots, be sure to keep a close eye on them for any signs of stress such as wilting or yellowing leaves. If this happens, place them in an environment with less sun each day.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to maintain your fertilizing schedule. Applying a balanced fertilizer every other week will keep the plants growing vigorously. You should be seeing new growth throughout the summer. By the time September arrives, it’s time to think about changing course.
Forcing Poinsettias to Bloom
If you want your poinsettias to have good color for the Christmas holidays, you’ll have to force them. This is when you fool the plants with an artificially created short day along with a longer period of complete darkness every 24 hours. If you are far enough north and have naturally short days, you may not have to force them, but they will not likely be in peak color for Christmas. I have done it both ways so how you handle this part of the reblooming process is up to you.
If you are bringing them into bloom for Christmas, you’ll need to find the best place available to you. I’ve used a box where I can place grow lights in, plugged them into a timer, and then covered the box to minimize any ambient light at night. This also kept the temperature in the 65-70 degree range that works well for this stage of the process. You could also use a room with no windows, such as a utility room, where you can use grow lights with a timer. Wherever you choose, be sure to have a good timer, good grow lights, and as little light at night as possible.
Near the end of September, if you haven’t done so already, bring the poinsettia indoors. Be sure to check for bugs and clean or treat the leaves if needed. Place the plant in your chosen location, set the timer for the grow lights to be on for eight hours and off for sixteen hours. For at least the first week, check that the timer is working properly. Don’t be like me and discover after a month that the timer wasn’t working at all and that the grow lights were never going on. Attention at this point in the process could mean the difference between having blooms when you want them or having no blooms at all.
I’ve always thought that even a slight level of ambient light would ruin the effect and my poinsettias would never show color. Then one year I kept them with my other houseplants and they bloomed anyway, though their color peaked around the middle of January. I have some level of ambient light in my living room (from the neighbors flood light, to our electronic displays, and even the full moon) but it didn’t seem to interfere. This goes back to how a gardener doesn’t have to be perfect and things can still work out. You do need to be consistent, however. So check your lights, be sure the room is as dark as possible after the lights go out, continue to water properly, and cut back to once a month fertilizing.
If you have more than one plant you are trying to force into bloom, this may be the period where you discover that some varieties come into bloom sooner or easier than others. You can see this by the photos in this article. All of the plants shown have had the same treatment and yet one of them will be in peak color for Christmas and the rest will not. There are just some things you can’t predict.
The biggest difference I’ve found between the poinsettias in stores and the ones I force to rebloom? It’s the size of the leaves. This goes back to ideal growing conditions in a commercial greenhouse. As you can see, the leaves on my plants are still growing, but instead of having large colored leaves that block out the green leaves below, mine have colored leaves that are smaller and don’t completely hide the rest of the plant. The color is beautifully vivid once they peak, but they aren’t going to be exactly the same.
There are lots of people who treat poinsettia as a temporary display and throw them away after the Christmas holiday season. There is nothing wrong with that since the plants have served their purpose. If you are one of those people where throwing away a healthy plant makes you cringe, then you may want to consider forcing your poinsettia to bloom. It presents a bit of a challenge in some ways but if it’s too easy, then it isn’t as fun, right?
And when it blooms for you next year, it’s something you can be proud of and brag about to the neighbors. Especially those neighbors who gave their poinsettias since they were going to throw them out anyway!
Please comment below and let me know how your journey to rebloom your poinsettia is going. I’m always interested to hear your experience. Good luck!