Early one Sunday morning, the phone rang.
The caller's name was Pearl. She asked if I was the gentleman who wrote the gardening column and that she had a Christmas cactus as big as a washtub. She would mail me a photograph because people just had to see it.
A week later, I received the photograph. As promised, it was so big that she barely fit it all in.
A Christmas cactus is not the desert variety of cactus; it's a tropical cactus native to South America. In fact, they're epiphytic in nature, growing in the branches of trees like an orchid or Spanish moss.
Around here, they grow in pots with ordinary potting soil. The real value of Christmas cactuses are the bright, fuchsia flowers that bloom at the tips of the arching branches.
I've been told that I make Christmas cactus growing sound much harder than it is. Some readers of this column have sent me photos of washtub-size Christmas cactuses by simply bringing it indoors when nighttime temperatures get into the teens.
Otherwise, it sits outdoors in a carport with part-sun and occasionally gets watered.
Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncate) is a species of holiday cactus. It looks virtually identical to Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) but blooms a month earlier under normal growing conditions, which would be now.
I haven't made much of an effort with either holiday cactus and certainly haven't had results like Pearl. If yours looks like mine, here are some cultural guidelines to make your holidays more fuchsia.
Temperature. Christmas cactuses can be outside during the summer. Bring them indoors in October where they prefer nighttime temperatures between 55 degrees and 65 degrees. Keep the cactus away from locations that cause drafts and rapid changes in temperature, such as doorway or vents. Flower buds set in fall. Continuously high temperatures in the fall (above 90 degrees) can cause the buds to fall off the plant.
Sunlight. Full sunlight works fine in the winter, but indirect sunlight is preferable in the summer to avoid burning the foliage. Indoors, rooms with skylights work great. In September, holiday cactuses prefer long nights of darkness, 13 hours or more. Under normal circumstances, that's not a problem. Just avoid supplemental light during nighttime hours that would interrupt this period. It could reduce flowering.
Humidity. Fifty to 60 percent humidity is ideal. That's not a problem outside. The house can become dry in the winter when the heat runs. Placing the cactus on a saucer full of gravel and water can improve the humidity around your plant.
Water. Succulent potting soil is ideal. They should be watered like normal houseplants. Allow the upper inch to dry before watering. They do not handle drought like a desert cactus, but they do prefer it drier than most houseplants.
Here's a calendar to maximize next year's flowers.
January-March. The cactus is exhausted after flowering. Water very infrequently. Some sources suggest not watering at all until mid- to late February. That's my kind of houseplant.
April-May. Water as needed. Repot at this time if needed. Repotting is recommended every two to three years. Pruning or pinching can be done at this time. Fertilize with all-purpose houseplant fertilizer if desired.
June-August. Place outside on porch or in dappled sunlight. Fertilize with all-purpose houseplant fertilizer if desired.
September-October. Cactus can be brought inside. Some sources suggest not to water at all during October. Find an ideal location to avoid drafts and direct light. Avoid growing conditions that frequently change, such as extreme swings in temperature or light. This could affect growth and flowering. The best location is one that is completely dark at night.
November. Fertilizer with a 0-10-10 ratio is ideal at this time to boost blooms. Avoiding nitrogen will reduce foliage growth. We want flowers.
December. If you're successful, you'll need a washtub. Enjoy.
Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.