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Christmas Cactus

A Christmas cactus blooms best when slightly root bound. Stock photo

By Ellen Barcel

With the need to complete outdoor chores and the excitement of a new gardening season, many people may be neglecting the houseplants that served them so well during the winter months. Even though some of these plants may look worse for wear, summer can be the ideal time to bring them back to their full potential. Here are some ideas for rejuvenating your houseplants.

Repotting plants into the next largest pot is always a possibility if the plant has outgrown its home. To check, slip your plant out of its pot, and if all you see are roots — no soil — the plant is definitely root bound. But be careful here, however. Progressively larger pots can easily outgrow the gardener’s ability to move them. Yes, I know from past experience.

Few houseplants are as eager to climb as a heartleaf philodendron, one of the easiest houseplants to grow. Stock photo

Many large plants, like the asparagus fern, can be divided to make a number of smaller ones instead. Sterilize a gardening knife and cut through the plant’s root system to divide it into several smaller plants. Always use a good quality and suitable potting soil for their new homes.

Another way of keeping your beautiful but large houseplant in check is by root pruning. We usually think of root pruning as something that is done to help create bonsai, the miniature ornamental Japanese trees and shrubs, but it can be done to houseplants to keep them from growing too large. Don’t be surprised if it takes a growing season for the plant to really flourish again.

Note that some houseplants do best by being slightly root bound. For example, African violets don’t really like to be transplanted. This is true of a number of plants. Another reason is that some bloom well only under slight stress. Plants that do better slightly root bound include peace lilies, spider plants, and Christmas cactus. Check out each plant in a good plant encyclopedia before tackling it.

If you’re tired of wrapping your indoor vines round and round the pot, they can easily be cut way back. You can then take the cuttings and root some in the same pot, making the plant nice and bushy. Extra cuttings can be rooted in other pots, shared with friends and relatives and even given as hostess gifts.

Plants in this category include philodendron, pothos (looks like philodendron but variegated), Swedish ivy and wandering Jew. They can also be rooted in a vase of water. Prune them back before new growth has emerged in late winter or early spring. The baby “spiders” from a spider plant can also be used to fill out the mother plant or used to start new plants.

Cactus are another popular houseplant. One of the things that easily happens to cacti is that pieces of the plant break off. These can easily be rooted again in the same pot to make a bushier plant or in separate pots. One of my most cherished retirement gifts is a Christmas cactus, rooted from a co-worker’s original plant. It’s rewarded me each year with beautiful flowers, reminding me of her thoughtfulness.

While watering your houseplants is a must over the winter (possibly in a more limited way), don’t start fertilizing until you see new growth.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.