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Garden Help Desk: How can I keep my holiday cactus thriving past Christmas?

By USU Extension - | Dec 24, 2022

Courtesy Meredith Seaver

If you're looking for a little Holiday and winter-season color, a Christmas cactus is a fun alternative to a poinsettia.

I bought a nice Christmas cactus right after Thanksgiving but now it looks pale and kind of limp. It’s dropped a lot of flowers. What can I do to perk it up again?

Holiday cactus — Christmas or Thanksgiving cactuses — are popular at this time of year because of their showy, colorful flowers. They’re a fun alternative to a poinsettia if you’re looking for something a little different.

Just like any plant, holiday cacti need the right conditions for healthy growth. If their needs are met, the plants will thrive and provide the blossoms you’re expecting. If their needs aren’t met, they’ll struggle, decline, and may die.

Holiday cacti prefer locations with bright, indirect light and normal indoor temperatures. They also need thorough, but not too frequent, watering.

Here are some things to consider as you try to troubleshoot your Christmas cactus problem.

Do you have your cactus in the right location? Warm or cold drafts, direct sunlight, heat buildup by a west-facing window, or cold nighttime temperatures close to any window can affect the health of a holiday cactus. If you’ve been keeping your Christmas cactus in one of these locations, moving it to a better spot may help.

There are a few common indoor plant pests and one of them might be the problem may be the cause. Inspect your plant carefully for aphids, scale, spider mites and other pests. Applying insecticidal soap may help.

Christmas cacti are true cacti, but they aren’t as drought tolerant as other cacti that you might be familiar with, but just like other cacti, they don’t tolerate frequent watering either. When the pot feels lighter weight, and the upper surface of the soil is dry, you’ll know it’s time to water your cactus. Water deeply enough to soak the soil and see at least some water come from the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot, then wait until the pot is lightweight again and the soil surface is dry to the touch before you water again.

The most common cause of indoor plant problems is over-watering. Have you been watering frequently and keeping the soil moist? Do you let your plant’s pot sit in a tray or saucer with drainage water? Either of these things can suffocate roots or contribute to root rot diseases, causing flower drop and other symptoms that resemble drought stress. Make sure you let the upper soil in your Christmas cactus’ pot dry out between waterings and always remove the water that collects underneath the pot.

If overwatering was the problem, the best thing you can do now is let the soil dry out, then water very infrequently. If the root damage isn’t too extensive, the cactus may recover over time.

It’s seed catalog season! If you’ve ever order seeds online or by mail, you’ve probably already received at least two or three seed catalogs by now. With the weather we’ve had lately, it’s the perfect time to curl up in an easy chair with a cup of cocoa, a stack of catalogs and ambitious dreams for next year’s gardens. Don’t fall for just any pretty veggie or flower, though. There are things to consider before you put that new variety in your cart.

If you are going to try a new variety this year, read the variety description carefully to make sure it will do well in our hot, dry summers but also be ready for harvest before our average fall frost of Oct. 15. The typical garden in Utah County gets about 180 frost-free days, but only 100-120 of those days are warm enough for good growth from tender vegetables and flowers.

You should also pay attention to the mature size of the variety that you choose. Will those big, gorgeous zinnias fit in among the perennials you have in your flower beds? Could that new, upright summer squash cast to much shade on other plants in your box garden? Crowded plants won’t get the sun exposure and air circulation they need to thrive.

If you want to start your own transplants of cool season or slow growing plants, you should order your seeds soon and get them started. If you only grow warm season plants you still have plenty of time to browse, plan and order before you start them in late March or the beginning of April for planting out in the garden in mid-May.

Enjoy those seed catalogs!


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