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Singing Gardener: How to get Christmas cactus to put on its best bloom display

Plus, reader feedback on problem deer control

Thanks for taking time and coming by to join me with this my final Grainews column for 2018. December is the month when some folks are saying happy holidays but I hold to joining those who stick to established tradition by wishing each person a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Red is such a predominant colour this time of year from amaryllis to poinsettias. After thumbing through my hundreds of photos I’ve selected three that appear on this page.

Don’t want to end this year on a sour note, but when I visit people with issues at home or in hospital, I am reminded that illness doesn’t take a holiday. I wrote a bit about a condition called “broken heart syndrome,” so watch for it further along.

Shall be starting off with an email in connection with my October 16, 2018 article on wild deer control and then some tips to get a Christmas cactus to do you proud every year.

Recently I had no choice but to hold on tight to my hat during extreme wind upon exiting a local store, or it might have tracked over the CPR main line and got hung up somewhere on the bald prairie. Yes — there’s natural salt and pepper hair on my head — in case you’re wondering. The caricature of my Tilley hat stays put to not only cover my head but to acknowledge and bid welcome to all readers. Glad you’re with me.

From: Alvin Troop, Thursday, October 18, 2018
To: [email protected] — Subject: deer deterrent

Hi Ted: Read with interest your article on the problem with deer. I had a very interesting talk with a fellow about this ongoing problem. He has had amazing results by putting up a simple electric fence and then twists aluminum foil so it hangs down 12-18 inches. Then he smears peanut butter on the foil. Deer can’t resist the peanut butter. One shot of electricity and they are gone… usually to never return. — Alvin Troop, Quill Lake, Sask.

After followups to Alvin, he wrote back: 

Hi Ted: You know, I met this fellow in a doctor’s office in Saskatoon a couple of months ago. I am a pilot (airplane owner). He was eavesdropping on a conversation I was having with another friend about my airplane and he struck up a conversation with me when we were done. One thing led to another and he told me of how he solved his problem of deer in his orchard and yes, he did make it very clear that it’s only one strand of wire. Deer when not disturbed are rather relaxed as well as virtually inquisitive as any other animal. But they can’t resist peanut butter. He told me he has watched through binoculars and when the pulse of the electric fence hits them it is hilarious to see them run. They have had enough. I was intrigued with his solution. But for the life of me I can’t remember his name. Now if you give me some time I feel I could probably find out (but not sure). Meantime, have some patience with me. I’ll see what I can do. — Alvin

Broken heart syndrome

Have you ever heard of it? Recently I was listening to Chris the Accordion Guy play “The Broken Heart Waltz” that he’d written after moving from Prince Albert Street in Vancouver. That was followed by another instrumental accordion piece he wrote called “The Prince Albert Waltz” that was simultaneously dedicated to his former street and the great City of Prince Albert, Sask. Fortunately Chris didn’t fall victim to a broken heart and both waltzes are phenomenal to listen and/or dance to and besides accordion would sound great played on fiddle as well.

Specialists who deal with emotional health and wellness tell us that a broken heart is the real thing. There’s even a name for it called: broken heart syndrome — resulting from sudden intense emotion. It could be due to loss of a loved one — perhaps an ended romance or relationship gone sour. Severe stress might even result. All of these can affect the human heart leaving the individual with chest pain or tightness, light-headedness and shortness of breath. Unlike a heart attack, it doesn’t happen because arteries are blocked but medical monitoring might be a good idea to ensure blood pressure remains stable. For others, falling or staying asleep or the opposite of too much shut-eye could linger following broken heart syndrome. Recovery can range between a matter of days to a few weeks or considerably longer. Some people may even require counselling.

When a Christmas cactus refuses to bloom

Do you have such a plant or perhaps it drops buds before they open? Here’s information and some tips. Traditionally, a large or old heirloom Christmas cactus is handed down through a family. One such 30-year-old specimen that was 1.3 metres (four feet across) produced over 800 blooms during 1983-84 between November and up to and including the following May. History dates Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) back to the late 1840s when William Buckley at Rollisson Nurseries in England introduced a hybrid plant. Other hybrids later came along from Europe and elsewhere such as Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncate).

Although geraniums aren’t thought of as Christmas plants, their range of colours fit right in. They’re very much at home whether growing outdoors in season and every bit as comfortable as potted indoor houseplants. During short days of winter they need as much bright natural light as possible without overwatering them. Woodier stems eventually result in fewer flowers. Take young cuttings and start new plants each year for a profusion of blooms.
photo: Ted Meseyton

Conditioning a cactus to flower

It takes more than coaxing to bring on the blooms, according to a Halifax specialist who shares her experience. The best treatment over the years for correctly timed Christmas cactus flowers “is to place the plant outside in dappled sunlight or light shade from after the last frost in spring to before the first frost in fall” (about June 10 to September 15). “Direct sunlight must never reach it although a half-hour at early dawn and/or just before sunset may be OK depending on your location.” She places her many plants around the base of a large maple tree where they get only filtered sunlight from northeast and northwest sides. During outdoor placement she says, “my cacti plants are set upon a deep layer of stones or suspended off the ground by various means to prevent bugs and worms from entering pots. I’ve noticed a significant improvement in their appearance and vigour after only a couple of weeks.” She claims, “this outside treatment completely eliminates the problem of bud drop and triggers the blooming sequence normally.” During the growing period from May to December, she feeds with a 9-9-26 fertilizer formulation at half the recommended strength when watering and says, “I water and feed only when soil becomes nearly or completely dry. If soil is compacted it should be gently worked up. Allow all excess moisture to drain out through the bottom.” The specialist acknowledged that “some potted Christmas plants may be simply too heavy or too awkward to temporarily move outdoors in season. In such cases, carefully give the indoor pot a gentle one-quarter turn daily. This helps distribute flower bud formation on all sides.”

More options to consider

Christmas cactus plants that remain indoors year round can be stimulated to bloom as follows. Fool plants into eventual flowering by adjusting their length of daylight. Starting about mid-September, provide 12 to 15 hours of uninterrupted darkness each day for two months (about eight weeks) plus cool nights with scant watering. This is what induces flowering. That means no light after sundown or before sunrise and temps below 15 C (65 F). As days get shorter it’s easy to provide more natural darkness and less daylight. Cacti are phototropic plants and bloom is dependent upon giving them required stimulation. Some rooms in older homes are naturally cooler, with less natural light — a perfect location to place a Christmas cactus to set flower buds. In a home with lots of windows and natural light a Christmas cactus plant can be fooled into setting buds by covering it daily with a large box between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. for two months at start of September. However, if your plant can be moved, do consider the outdoor summer conditioning treatment instead, come next June.

About the author

Columnist

This is Ted Meseyton the Singing Gardener and Grow-It Poet from Portage la Prairie, Man. I salute all gardeners and farmers who help make our world a little safer and more ecologically balanced, and who toil to provide health-giving produce to others who cannot produce their own. It takes all sorts to make a world. One half of the world doesn’t know how the other half lives. The best physicians are Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet and Dr. Merryman.

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