The springtime holidays are over, colored eggs found and eaten, lamb, pork and brisket feasted upon, family celebrations enjoyed, and religious services attended. What remains on Earth Day is an abundance of fading Easter lilies and other potted plants received as gifts. So, why not recycle them?
Many people enjoy gift plants indoors until the blossoms fade and then they throw them away like stale Peeps. But why not plant them in the garden?
Gift plants -- those wrapped in colorful foil and cellophane and commonly sold in supermarkets and big-box stores -- are forced to bloom under greenhouse conditions so they'll be in peak form on a specific date. And all that forcing causes them to spend all their bloom energy in one shot. Forced plants -- even those that if left to bloom naturally would have a prolonged bloom time, would bloom at a later date or would have a repeat bloom later in the season -- are pretty much shot for at least a year after their initial couple weeks of impressive display.
Sometimes, they become so stressed after being forced that they never reach their full potential, but I've conducted many experiments with good results. If you have patience and treat them properly, many of your gift plants will return to impress you for years to come. First, some guidelines:
Allow plants to complete their bloom cycle indoors, caring for them as you would any houseplant;
Ensure they get adequate sunlight exposure, and water them as needed;
Remove cellophane wrapping and poke holes in the bottom of foil (if pots are wrapped) to allow excess water to drain;
When blooms dry up, keep watering the plant, but only minimally, until the danger of frost has passed (mid- to late May).
Then follow these plant-specific instructions:
Cut off spent flower heads with scissors, leaving the stems and leaves intact. Remove each plant from its container and plant them 12-18 inches apart outdoors in a sunny spot, retaining the soil depth of the pot, typically around 6 inches. Water well, mulch and apply a slow-release, balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) at planting time and again monthly throughout summer. New shoots may grow, but it's unlikely the plant will bloom again this year.
Whether mophead or lacecap, most gift hydrangeas are of the macrophylla species. Results in the garden can vary, but I've seen these grow up to 4 feet tall after a few years. When the flowers have faded, snip them off and remove the plants from their containers. Plant in the garden at least 18 inches apart, depending on variety, and apply a slow-release, balanced fertilizer (10-10-10). Although most hydrangeas prefer partly shady conditions, an increasing number of new varieties now available as gift plants, such as 'Strawberries & Cream,' perform well in full sun (read the plant tag for details). This year you may notice some growth, but basically what you'll have is a shrubby foliage plant. Expect blooms next year.
Snip off spent flowers and stems but let leaves stay on the plant until they turn yellow or brown. (The leaves are necessary to produce food for energy the bulb will need to bloom next year.) Dig a hole deep enough to accept the plant at the same depth it was in its container. Add a fistful of bone meal to the planting hole and sink the whole plant into the ground, covering with soil. Apply a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) once a week until August, and remove the foliage after it has withered.
Tulips are wonderfully reliable, repeat-blooming perennials -- in Holland. Here, not so much, even under the best conditions. They practice what accountants call "diminishing returns" until one year all you get are stems and leaves and wonder where the party went. Then it's time to plant more. You certainly can plant your gift tulips, but you should know that their unreliability is even more pronounced if they began life as a forced plant. Still, what have you got to lose? Treat as you would hyacinths and hope for the best.
Daffodils are the most reliable repeat bloomers; they even multiply year after year. Plant them in a sunny spot as you would hyacinths and daffodils, after their flowers have faded. Water as needed and fertilize weekly with a 10-10-10 product all summer long.