It's hard to believe that the holidays are right around the corner. I think the relatively mild weather had lulled me into thinking that it's still fall. I was reminded that the season has changed when I saw holiday plants at a retail store. Holiday plants make great gifts for hostesses or that someone who has everything. If you are the lucky recipient of a holiday plant, the following information will help you keep it in top growing condition.

On a recent outing, I saw several beautiful Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera) for sale. There are many related cacti, and they bloom anywhere from October until Easter. Some bloom twice. They all look very similar and their culture is the same. The first rule with a Christmas cactus comes into play when you buy it. Do not allow it to be in a draft or sit in a cold car too long on the way home. All of the flowers and flower buds will drop off and you will have no flowers that year.

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Once you have purchased a Christmas cactus, it is easy to grow for many years. Indoors, Christmas cacti should be grown in direct sunlight. You can place them outside for the summer, but when outdoors protect them from direct sun, which can burn the stems. Average house temperatures and humidity are fine, but avoid drafts and rapid changes in temperature, especially when buds are on the plant.

Christmas cacti should be watered when the soil feels dry to the touch. Drain excess water from the plant; too much water will make Christmas cacti rot. They should be fed with an all-purpose, water-soluble houseplant fertilizer every two to three weeks, from right after flowering until the setting of new flower buds.

The trick in growing Christmas cacti is in getting them to rebloom. Both temperature and length of day will affect flowering. Flower buds will form regardless of length of day if the night temperature is maintained at 50 to 55 degrees. Thirteen hours of uninterrupted darkness per night are needed if the temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees and 15 hours are needed if the temperature is above 70 degrees. One of the above conditions must exist for nine weeks starting in early to mid September. This all sounds very complicated, but you can create the right conditions simply by placing the plant in a corner of a room that has a window but does not receive artificial light. You may also create the right conditions by covering the plant with dark cloth, or putting it in a closet at night. Do not give the plant 24 hours of darkness.

The Norfolk Island pine has grown in popularity as a live indoor Christmas tree. Its lush green twigs of soft needles provide a lovely backdrop for festive holiday ornaments.

The ideal indoor climate for this species is cool and bright, responding well to daytime temperatures ranging from 60 to 70 degrees and slightly cooler at night. Although the Norfolk Island pine will adapt to bright indirect light, the plant will look its best with a couple of hours of direct sunlight daily.

When the plant is actively growing, feed it with a fertilizer formulated for indoor foliage plants. It is not unusual for the plant to be in a period of rest during the winter months, at which time there is no need to fertilize.

Water the plant when the top inch or so of the soil in the pot feels dry. Use enough water to allow a little excess to escape through the bottom drainage holes. Discard remaining drained water after about 15 minutes.

What is most challenging for the typical home gardener is giving this plant the high relative humidity it needs. Norfolk Island pine thrives at 50 percent relative humidity, yet it is not unusual for the average house to drop to 15 percent during the winter heating season, unless steps are taken to increase moisture in the air. Running a humidifier will increase people and plant comfort and is the most effective way to adequately raise the humidity.

It is not unusual for a few needles on the lowest branches to turn brown and drop. If this happens slowly over time, it's likely just normal aging of the branches or possibly from lower light availability. However, if many needles are browning, or if the problem appears more widely distributed among the branches, look to problems of either too much or too little water or too little relative humidity.

With a little care, you can enjoy these plants for years to come.