Monday, January 30, 2012

Dear Iris - Christmas Cactus

Dear Iris:  Christmas cactus can last for years
By GERRI LYON, Master Gardener Intern | Jan 26, 2012

Perhaps you are a new caretaker/owner of a Christmas cactus or have been enjoying the easy to care for cactus for many years or even generations.
This splendid flowering houseplant shows up in stores and garden centers around Thanksgiving, usually displayed with seasonal poinsettias and amaryllis. The stems are dark green, flat pads joined in segments with flowers appearing from the areolas at the joints and ends of stems. Flowers have a crab-like shape and can be pink, coral, red, white or scarlet in color. Buds usually appear in late November. My coral flowering cactus was a gift from my mom in 1984. It has a special spot in our dining room, receiving indirect east sunlight. Fresh buds, gradually flowering, are a glowing reminder of my mom and dad, year after year.
The genus Schlumbergera truncata are quite easily cared for. This tropical succulent should be repotted every two to three years or longer. It enjoys being root bound. The soil should be barely moist, but not too dry. Shriveled, limp looking stems are telling you it’s too dry. After flowering, water sparingly until spring when new growth should begin. Fifty percent to 60 percent humidity is ideal. Standing the pot on a tray of wet pebbles can regulate this. When repotting, use equal parts of a potting soil mix and fine grade fir bark. Fertilize every couple of weeks. When blooming has stopped, wait a month before fertilizing again. Use a fertilizer recommended for blooming houseplants that can be purchased at any garden center.
Long-time owners of Christmas cacti have rituals, faithfully used year after year to achieve long-lasting flowering. My mother-in-law moves her hot pink cactus outside in late spring when danger of frost is past. Their new home for the summer is located on the north side of her house between the house and 3- foot yew shrubs. Here it is somewhat protected, watered by Mother Nature and has varying temperatures of night and day in Iowa. The northern exposure provides bright, indirect light.
This unscientific formula has amazing results. When cooler weather arrives and cactus life in the house returns, the plant receives indirect southern light and budding begins. The faithful cactus bursts open again and again with those crab shaped flowers.
I admire her ritual and the results it brings, but I haven’t used it. It is too risky for me, and the fear of the unknown, unwanted creatures at our farm homestead, dismisses any thoughts of taking my gifted cactus outside! It remains safely standing in the dining room, and it, too, loyally bursts forth in bloom. This continues right through our family Christmas dinner, a beautiful reminder of earlier days with my folks.
Pruning will encourage the Christmas cactus to branch out where stems are cut. This will create a fuller plant. Springtime is best for pruning when it is actively growing. While you are performing this task, why not propagate for family, friends, maybe grandchildren?
This is easily accomplished by placing stem segments upright in moist perlite. The results? A blooming, forgiving, easy to care for houseplant! Who knows what special memory or care method might develop when this plant is shared.
As part of our Master Gardening training, we toured the greenhouses at the Iowa State University horticulture buildings. Students had propagations of Christmas cactus in perlite along with many other plant species. They were simply started in moist perlite! How wonderful!

Gerri Lyon is a Master Gardener intern.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Questions are welcome and can be directed to Master Gardner Intern and Ledger photographer Julie Johnston at

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Poinsettia Plants Need Special Care to Bloom Again Next Year

By KARIN QUASS-HAURING, Master Gardener | Jan 19, 2012
The holidays are over. The Christmas tree is set by the curb to be picked up; all the decorations have been put away in boxes to be stored for next year.
All that is left are your poinsettia plants.
I have to warn you, it is a long process. Yes, indeed, I tried it and have come to the conclusion to walk my poinsettias to my compost bin the end of January, and let them rest in peace. After all, the plants did not look that glorious as the new crop of specimens showed up in green houses and stores the next Christmas.
Here are some tips to keep the plants alive and blooming for next season.

Poinsettia After Christmas Care
January - March: Keep watering the poinsettia whenever the surface is dry.
April: Starting April 1, gradually decrease water, allowing them to get dry between watering. Be careful the stem does not begin to shrivel. This is a sign the plant is too stressed and is dying. In a week or two, when the plant has acclimated to this drying process, move it to a cool spot like the basement or a heated garage. You want to keep it at about 60 degrees F.
May: In mid-May, cut the stems back to about 4 inches and repot in a slightly larger container, with new potting soil. Water it well. Place the newly potted plant back into the brightest window you have and once again keep it at a temperature of 65 to 75 degrees F. Continue watering whenever the surface of the soil feels dry.
June: Move the poinsettia outside, pot and all. Keep it in a partially shaded location and maintain your watering and fertilizing schedule. Watch for new growth. Once new growth appears, begin fertilizing every two weeks with a complete fertilizer. Follow fertilizer label recommendations.
July: In early July, pinch back each stem by about one inch. This is to encourage a stout, well-branched plant. If left unpinched, the poinsettia will grow tall and spindly.
August: By mid-August, the stems should have branched and leafed out. Once again, pinch or cut the new stems, leaving three to four leaves on each shoot. Bring the plant back indoors and back into your brightest window. Continue watering and fertilizing.
September: Continue regular watering and fertilizing. Make sure the temperature stays above 65 degrees F.
October: Poinsettias are short-day plants, meaning the length of daylight affects their bud set. To re-bloom, poinsettias need about 10 weeks with 12 hours or less of sunlight per day. You will have to artificially create these conditions and it’s crucial that you be diligent.
Beginning Oct. 1, keep your plant in complete darkness from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. Any exposure to light will delay blooming. Use an opaque box or material to block out light. Many people place their plants in a closet, but if light gets in through the cracks or if you open and use the closet, it will affect the bud set.
Move the plant back to the sunny window during the daytime and continue watering and fertilizing.
November: Around the last week of November, you can stop the darkness treatment and allow the plant to remain in the window. You should see flower buds at this point
December: Stop fertilizing about Dec. 15. Keep watering and treat your plant the way you did when you first brought it home in bloom. If all has gone well, it should be back in bloom and ready to begin the process all over again.

Karin Quass-Hauring is a long time Fairfield resident, Master Gardener and commissioner of the Fairfield Beautification Commission.

Did You Miss Our January 19 Meeting?

We discussed the garden plans being developed by Julie Johnston at the historic Maasdam Garden site.  Julie is researching historic and period plantings from the late 1800's to early 1900's.  She will soon draw up plans for a variety of sites.

The Dear Iris column seems to be successful.  Perhaps the Fairfield Ledger will be publishing the column bi-weekly.  The first two articles were published on Tuesday and the latest one was published today (Thursday).  It is hoped that the column will run on one particular day and develop a "following!"  A number of Master Gardeners in attendance tonight indicated their willingness to address a variety of topics.  It should be fun!  If YOU were unable to attend the meeting tonight, but would like to address a specific subject in a "Dear Iris" column, please e-mail Julie at this address:  photo at ffledger dot com.  (I have written it in long hand... you can do it properly.)  She will keep track of various subjects addressed, so there won't be duplication.

Encourage your friends and relatives to write to "Dear Iris" % of Julie at the FF Ledger with their gardening questions!

Related to the discussion above, I will copy each post and publish it here.  I would like also to receive any information YOU have that the rest of us would like to know about such as, gardening symposiums and fairs, garden tours within a reasonable driving distance, gardening opportunities, etc.

A Nominating Committee was formed this evening to seek a Chairperson, Vice-Chair and Secretary for our group.

You will find a calendar of upcoming events in both the left and right sidebars.  Check them out.  Make sure that if you wish to attend, you register in Good Time!

Discussion also centered around the Fairfield Beautification Committee and the gardening nodes in the downtown area.  Hard-working, dependable volunteers are being sought to adopt one gardening node, plant and maintain it "in perpetuity" if possible!   Contact Karin Hauring if you are interested.

Our regular monthly meetings are planned for each third Thursday at 5:15 P.M. at the Jefferson County Extension building.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Master Gardener Meeting!

 Our next meeting will be 
January 19th at the Extension Office at 7:30 P.M.

There is a Hometown Harvest meeting at 5:30 at the Activity Bldg. which is next to the Extension Office. An organic meal of pasta and soup will be served at 5:30 if any of you are interested. This meeting is about local food and the co-op we are trying to get started.
With regard to the Master Gardener Meeting:
We will be discussing the “Dear Iris” column, Maasdam Barn landscaping, other Master Gardener educational events in surrounding counties and anything else you want to discuss. 
See you there!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Second Article Published by the Fairfield Ledger

It’s Time to Begin Spring Planting!

I’d like to share a VERY easy way to propagate new perennial plants.   Creating no-fuss, mini greenhouses is fun and nearly foolproof!  Please read this entire set of instructions prior to beginning this project.

Many seeds require stratification before they germinate.  Stratification is the process of subjecting seeds to cold temperatures for a period of time, as happens outdoors when seeds fall to the ground and are subjected to our winter weather.  The following plants represent those I’ve grown using this process:  Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Milkweed, Purple Coneflower, Monarda, Joe Pye Weed, and Blackberry Lily.

If you have access to gallon-size plastic milk jugs, a drill with a smallish bit or an awl, a sharp knife or scissors, potting soil, seeds, duct tape, and a label-maker or permanent ink marker, roll up your sleeves!  You’re ready to create your first mini-greenhouse. 

Discard the milk jug cap.  Drill, or carefully poke with your awl, several holes in the bottom of each milk jug.  With your permanent marker, draw a horizontal line from one side of the base of the handle all the way around the jug to the other side of the handle.  The handle area will be the greenhouse “hinge.”  Cut along the line with your sharp knife or scissors. 

Carefully fold back the top of the jug; filling the bottom with potting soil to a depth of approximately three inches.  Poke several ¼ to ½” deep holes with your finger, place a seed or two in each hole. Cover the holes with additional soil.  If the soil is quite dry, dampen it with a spritz or two of water.  I use an old window cleaner bottle filled with plain water.

The best way to identify the type of seed in each jug is to label twice.  One label will remain inside the jar, written in permanent ink or marker, either in the soil or taped inside the jug.  Write the other label on the outside of the jug.  The outer label often fades by Spring.

Re-situate the top of the milk jug, using duct tape to securely fasten the top to the bottom.  You threw away the lid because precipitation, in the form of winter snow and spring rain, must reach the soil in your mini-greenhouse. 

January and/or early February is the perfect time to set mini-greenhouses outdoors.  Locate a somewhat sunny area that’s not sheltered by an overhanging roof and not subject to wind gusts.  I usually put mine on the easterly or southerly side of the house, next to leafless bushes and raised garden beds.   

A third hindrance to success is placing the milk jugs in an area subject to being covered by drifted snow.  Slow melting snow drifts would prevent your green house from receiving sunlight, warmth, and proper amounts of moisture, all of which are necessary for germination and plant growth.

Now, enjoy your mini-greenhouses!  Peek in there periodically, just for fun!  You should see some seedlings in April.  When all danger of frost is gone, remove the duct tape and remove the greenhouse tops.  You’ve placed the jugs in sheltered areas, so let spring breezes toughen the seedlings.   When it’s time to plant, scoop out your seedlings carefully, and set in the ground with a little slow-release fertilizer.

This is a wonderful way to gain new plants for your garden.  You MAY grow more plants than you need, so share them with friends and family members!!    We’d like to know how you do!  Submit your results to “Dear Iris” this Spring!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Brenton Arboretum

The Iowa State University Extension and Outreach 2012 Garden Calendar is entitled "Public Gardens of Iowa."   It is now available locally at our Jefferson County Extension Office.

features The Brenton Arboretum - A Natural World of Trees. 
"Committed to Natural Landscape Management"

You'll discover more than 2,000 trees, all suitable to central Iowa, in a setting of native prairie, wetlands, a lake, pond, and streams.  Become more aware of an aarboretum's ability to teach, calm, and inspire as you learn about a diversity of trees and the natural Iowa landscape.

January 2012 programs:

 Wednesday Wanderers
Wednesday, January 18th
4:00 P.M.

Winter Tree Anatomy and Identification
Saturday, January 28th
10:00 A.M. to Noon
Click the link below to visit their website:

25141 260th Street
Dallas Center, Iowa 50063
(515) 992-4211

Open from 9 a.m. to sunset, closed Mondays, open most holidays.  
Free Admission - may be a small fee for class/workshop nonmember participants.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Amaryllis Angst?

This is an article that was recently published by the Fairfield Ledger, in an up and coming weekly? bi-weekly? feature ... possibly entitled something like, "Gardening - 'Dig It'!"  or simply, "Dear Iris."

Minerva is about to appear!

Amaryllis Angst?

Rest assured that you can enjoy an amaryllis now and again for several years!

A 5 – 7” pot with a drainage hole is a perfect “home” for an amaryllis bulb.  It needs to “feel crowded” to blossom.  Pot according to instructions, leaving the top third of the bulb exposed.  A bamboo stalk or tall plant stake should be put in place at this time.  Amaryllis flowers get very top heavy.  Inserting a stake now will protect growing roots now and keep the plant upright later.  Water well.

Your amaryllis enjoys bright, diffuse light and cool indoor temperatures (in the 60 degree range).  Turn the pot every few days so the plant will receive uniform light and grow straight. 

Keep the soil moist but not wet.  Feed your amaryllis with half-strength, water-soluble fertilizer every two or three weeks.  If you are fortunate to own a large bulb, you may enjoy two or three stalks in bloom over a period of several weeks.

After the last flower has faded, cut off the stalk near the top of the bulb.  Be careful not to injure the leaves or emerging flower stalks.  Prepare to expect a large amount of watery sap to run from the hollow stalk when it is cut.

In late Spring, after all danger of frost is gone, move your amaryllis outdoors to a partly sunny/partly shady spot.  Continue to fertilize through August.  Bring your plants indoors in September or October.  Cut off the dead leaves, and move to a cool, dry spot.  I usually take them to the basement storage room where it is also dimly-lit.  Discontinue watering.   As the remaining leaves turn yellow and wither, I cut them off.

To force the amaryllis into another blooming period, begin the process 6 to 8 weeks prior to when you’d like it to bloom.  Cut off any dead tissue from the bulb’s “neck.”  Remove the top ½ inch of soil from the pot and replace with new soil.  Water the bulb ONCE thoroughly and place in normal temperature and bright light conditions.  Refrain from watering again until the soil is nearly dry.

Once the first flower has opened, move the plant to a location where it will receive somewhat less bright light and cool temperatures.  This will help to preserve the flower as long as possible.

You can repeat this process for many years.  In fact, two summers ago, two of my bulbs created “babies.”  Last year I separated the small bulbs; planting each in its own pot.  I look forward to see the bulbs increase in size and begin their own flowering!

Enjoy your amaryllis!

With regard to the problem of voles in the garden, most recommendations include poison (which must be handled carefully due to children and pets), and mouse (spring-type) traps placed under boxes or inside coffee cans to protect other animals. 

Voles are reputed to enjoy eating tree bark as well as tulip bulbs.  Both voles and chipmunks are rodents.  My experience with chipmunks is that they also enjoy devouring tulip bulbs.  My attempt to separate chipmunks from my tulip bulbs includes two fairly easy methods:  1) After remove the dirt from a planting area, create and bury hardware cloth baskets, place the bulbs inside, fill with soil, add hardware cloth lids, and cover everything with the remaining soil, and 2) Remove the soil from a planting area, set bulbs in place, cover with a hardware cloth “lid” and replace the soil (which would again cover everything, including the hardware cloth).  

submitted by local Master Gardener, Kathy Tollenaere