Ask a Master Gardener: Can you keep a Christmas poinsettia all year?

Every year about this time I start thinking I would like to buy a poinsettia and try to keep it alive for the whole year until next Christmas.

I am not sure why this appeals to me, that is, "did" appeal to me until I ran across an article by Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor at the University of Vermont. Here are some highlights. Pay close attention to the second paragraph.

"People have different opinions about the poinsettia. Some consider it a holiday plant to be enjoyed during the month of December, then discarded with the Christmas tree. Others like to nurture and coddle their plants, coaxing them into bloom season after season.

"Me, I subscribe to the former way of thinking. Although it may seem a shame to discard potted holiday plants, such as poinsettias, if you prorate the cost of the plant over the long period you are able to enjoy it, the cost isn't really much. We often spend many times the cost of a potted plant for a dinner or a movie that can be enjoyed only briefly. Besides, I don't have the room to keep this, then get more spring flowering plants, too!

"There's also no guarantee that your poinsettia will bloom again next December, even with year-round care. But if you'd like to try, here are a few tips.

"First, be sure you choose a plant with small, tightly clustered yellow buds in the center. Look for crisp, brightly colored, undamaged bracts (leaves). Avoid plants that are displayed in drafty areas.

"Protect the plant from the elements on its trip from the store to your home. Wrap in layers of newspapers or a double brown paper bag.

"Place the plant in a room with plenty of bright, natural light. Keep out of drafts and away from appliances and refrigerators, and never place it on the television set.

"Water only when dry; discard excess water that runs through the pot's drainage holes. If wrapped in foil, make sure the pot doesn't sit in water inside the decorative wrap.

"A good way to remember when to provide extra attention to your poinsettia is by tying your care schedule to specific holidays. Here's how:

"NEW YEAR'S DAY -- Fertilize with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer at recommended rates. Continue to provide adequate light and water for prolonged bloom for several weeks.

"VALENTINE'S DAY -- Check your plant for signs of insects such as white fly. If your plant has become long and leggy, cut back to about five inches tall.

"ST. PATRICK'S DAY -- Remove faded and dried parts of the plant. Add more soil, preferably a commercially available sterile soil mix. Keep the plant in a very bright interior location.

"MEMORIAL DAY -- Trim off two to three inches of branches to promote side branching. Repot to a larger container using a sterile growing mix.

"FATHER'S DAY -- Move the plant outside for the summer; place in indirect light.

"FOURTH OF JULY -- Trim the plant again. Move it into full sun. Continue to water and fertilize but increase the amount to accelerate growth.

"LABOR DAY -- Move indoors to a spot that gets at least six hours of direct light daily, preferably more. As new growth begins, reduce the amount of fertilizer.

"AUTUMNAL EQUINOX -- Starting on or near Sept. 21, give the plant 13 hours of uninterrupted darkness (put the plant in a closet, basement, or under a box) and 11 hours of bright light each day. Maintain night temperatures in the low 60 degree range. Continue to water and fertilize. Rotate the plant daily to give all sides even light.

"THANKSGIVING -- Discontinue the short day/long night treatment. Put the plant in a sunny area that gets at least six hours of direct light. Reduce water and fertilizer.

"CHRISTMAS -- Enjoy your "new" poinsettia. Start the cycle all over again."

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected].