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Ask the Master Gardener: Finding the right plants for the holiday season

From cacti to unusual plants like Anthurium, there are many plants that will brighten up Christmas.

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A Thanksgiving cactus. Contributed / Jennifer Knutson
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Dear Master Gardener: Is a Christmas cactus really a cactus?

Answer: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter cacti are all in the genus Schlumbergera, but each is a different species. They are popular houseplants and often given as gifts during the holidays due to their beautiful, exotic flowers. Holiday cacti can be very long-lived and are even passed down from generation to generation. Yes, they are true cacti. What sets them apart from other cacti is their need for soil that is kept relatively moist and high humidity because they are native to rainforests.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Brighten the dark of winter with these indoor plants

Dear Master Gardener: I would like to find an unusual plant to have in my home for Christmas other than the typical Christmas cactus, poinsettia, or cyclamen. Is there a houseplant that blooms in a red color that I could use?

Answer: A plant you may want to consider is the Anthurium. It is a tropical plant native to Columbia and Ecuador and grown here as a houseplant. An Anthurium, which is in the arum family, has drooping, dark green waxy, heart-shaped leaves. Its showy, long-lasting blooms have a yellow spadix and large, flat, waxy bright red spathes. In favorable growing conditions, an Anthurium will flower throughout the year. Anthuriums prefer bright, indirect light, high humidity and consistent moisture. You should be able to find these plants at a local garden center or florist.

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Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Aloe plants offer benefits aside from their beauty

Dear Master Gardener: I brought my potted rosemary plant in for the winter. How do I take care of it and how do I trim it?

Answer: According to the University of Illinois Extension, rosemary prefers a cool, even cold, sunny location where humidity is high. It dries out quickly in an indoor growing environment, but that doesn’t mean you should water it more, because that will only lead to root rot and killing the plant. In fact, the soil should be kept on the dry side. To add humidity, place the plant on some pebbles in a saucer filled with water. Keep in mind that during the low light days of winter, rosemary won’t do a lot of growing. The plant can be pruned to encourage a tight compact habit. It can also be sheared or pruned into topiaries. Using a sharp pair of pruners, remove any broken or diseased branches. Cut off one to two inches of the branches along the outside of the plant to make it more compact.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Caring for colorful cyclamen plants

Dear Master Gardener: I bought low-light houseplants about 6-8 months ago because the windows we have are shaded by large trees. They are on the fireplace mantle, end tables, and bookshelves. They don’t seem to be doing very well. Is it lack of light?

Answer: Light is the most essential factor for good houseplant growth as well as the most common limiting factor. Light is needed for photosynthesis, whereby the plant converts light energy to food energy necessary for growth and day to day functioning. It is also required to produce chlorophyll, the green part of the tissue that’s responsible for photosynthesis. The way plants grow and develop, as well as how actively they grow, depends on the amount and quality of the light they receive. Houseplants are often classified according to their light needs as low, medium or high light plants, although there isn’t always agreement on which category a plant lands in. The intensity of light a plant receives indoors depends upon how bright the light source is, as well as how close the plant is to it. Light intensity decreases quickly as you move the plant further from the light source. The direction the windows in your home face will affect the intensity of natural sunlight the plants receive. Southern exposures have the greatest light intensity, eastern and western exposures receive about 60% as much, and northern exposures receive only 20% of the light intensity of south facing windows. Unless the fireplace mantle, end tables, and bookshelves are next to a window and the plants are receiving adequate light, the problem with your plants is most likely due to lack of light.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: The rewards of feeding birds in the winter

Dear Master Gardener: Are there advantages to growing raspberries on a trellis?

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Answer: Yes. Wind damage is minimized. Trellising improves light penetration and air circulation. In addition, it makes harvesting easier.

Dear Master Gardener: I’ve heard that herbs don’t do well growing indoors. Are there any herbs that can be grown indoors over the winter? I took some cuttings of my basil plant.

Answer: Yes, some herbs do well grown indoors. Parsley and chives can be grown on a south facing window sill. Your basil cuttings should also be grown in a south facing window or under artificial lights. This winter I’ll be growing two types of basil, two types of parsley, oregano, and chives in my small hydroponic garden, which has artificial light.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: There are good reasons to not cut down hardy plants for winter

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A master gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at umnmastergardener@gmail.com and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.
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