Guilt free, compost your gift plants



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The holidays, fun as they are, can be guilt-producing. Too much rich food, too much champagne, too many family expectations to be met. And then there are the gift plants. Your boss gives you a poinsettia, your neighbor gives you flowering bulbs, your mother gives you an azalea, covered with festive red blooms.

Only a Scrooge would scoff at such a gift of life — one that keeps on giving, reminding you of the donor’s thoughtfulness. But that’s the problem. As the helpful leaflet accompanying the plant explains, you have been given a project. Your plant’s soil must be kept evenly moist but not soggy. It likes bright light for six hours a day but not direct sun. It needs a specific daytime temperature, nighttime temperature, feeding schedule, misting routine, sponge baths and treatments for any pests that might lie in wait somewhere in your house.

Then there’s the tricky matter of bringing it back into bloom after it quits the “resting period in a cool dark place.” Wouldn’t it just be easier to adopt a puppy?

Gift plants do brighten our lives and I often give them. But I include a “Do Not Resuscitate” order along with the card. Most have been forced into lavish bloom in time for specific occasions, using high-intensity lights and perfect greenhouse environments not available to the average person.

In fact, the typical heated dwelling is poorly suited to many plants because the air there in winter is so dry. And finding that “cool dark place” for a time-out might prove impossible.

If you give a plant, be charitable and explain that it’s a seasonal display to be enjoyed while it is looking decorative, then discarded. Many people will have trouble killing a living thing, especially if it comes from you. Assure them that they will not be killing your love, which is strong enough to survive the demise of a leggy coleus or a gardenia that needs daily watering and will never flower again.

Those who have a garden may feel compelled to save the gift until spring and then plant it outdoors. Occasionally this is worth doing, but usually even plants that look garden-worthy such as azaleas, chrysanthemums and hydrangeas are florist versions, ill-suited to most climates — especially Maine’s.

You can try planting them just to get them out of the house, but don’t get your hopes up. Hardy spring bulbs such as tulips and hyacinths can be planted out, but the process of forcing them for winter bloom will have depleted their reserves, and they may not rebloom for years.

Many gift plants are tropical. You might try them at your Florida condo, but research them a bit first. I once visited a tropical island off Australia where poinsettias had run wild and now posed a serious threat to the ecosystem.

Some houseplants are quite permanent and fairly easy to care for, such as Norfolk Island pine. Its horizontal, frond-like branches are great for holding Christmas ornaments. It is an excellent present for people who think they ought to have a Christmas tree, but don’t really want to bother. In the true spirit of the holidays, you might even relieve someone of guilt.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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