Sunday, November 27, 2011


Before the ominous countdown to Christmas (“Only 25 more shopping days!”) becomes a drumbeat, consider this happy factoid: there’s still time to plant spring bulbs! Even better, the weather has been extremely kind to those of us who squandered our October weekends having our nails manicured or our backs massaged. The ground is still moist and easy to dig, so there's every reason to get out there and plant. And, if possible, find
a space for something a bit unusual, such as these scillas:

Most bulbs come with plenty of instructions, so let me just say this: don’t waste fertilizer on your newly planted bulbs. Bulbs have already stored the energy they need to bloom this season. After they bloom, but before they go dormant again, feed them with a low-nitrogen fertilizer, but save your money this time around.

If you are a first-timer, you may not know of one of the more unsettling things that happens to most bulb-planters: you briskly sink your spade or trowel into the soil, and bring up…half a daffodil bulb. And it’s usually one of your favorites, too.

There is a way around this mistake, and it isn’t putting little markers in every planting location. Mother Nature has a solution: plant grape hyacinths with your daffodils and crocuses. These minor bulbs, perfectly delightful in their own right, have a wonderful habit of sending up their distinctive foliage in the fall. If you’ve planted grape hyacinths around your daffodils, you will know where NOT to dig this time.

The retail cycle, naturally, isn’t in synch with the weather, so if you don’t have a bag of spring bulbs waiting in your garage, you are probably out of luck. But it isn’t too late to buy the other kind, the so-called forcing bulbs. Most stores offer both amaryllis and paperwhites, which are really narcissi. Both are easy to plant and grow.

Amaryllis come in strong colors – true reds, eye-popping pinks and corals, and the more forgiving stripes and pure whites. Most successful growers recommend watering them very lightly until the bulbs have produced at least two inches of foliage. Then they can be watered normally. There are also tips on the internet about treating the plants with alcohol, especially vodka. Supposedly, this stunts the plant’s growth, but allows normal flower production. This means – if it really works – that you will have shorter stems. For anyone who’s ever had a top-heavy amaryllis fall to its death, this sounds very appealing.

One more amaryllis tip: if you buy the boxed kind that come with a pot and potting medium, pay attention to the name of the color, not to the picture on the box. Most of the time, the photograph will be of a completely different color from the one your bulb produces. A massed grouping of three or five of one color is spectacular, but a hodge-podge of colors could make you lose your appetite.

Paperwhites are even easier – they can be forced in a pot with nothing but decorative stones and some water. There is a catch, however – for some of us, the fragrance of the flowers is downright sickening! Not everyone feels this way, so don’t let me deter you if these flowers are your heart’s desire.

Pretty much any spring bulb can be forced, of course. The difference is that amaryllis and paperwhites are sold ready to break dormancy. If you saved a batch of regular daffodils or crocuses for forcing, those need to be in a refrigerator for at least six weeks before bringing up to a normal temperature. They can be held in the fridge either potted – if you have the room – or in paper bags, to be potted just before forcing.

You should assume about six more weeks till bloom time, so if you act now, you might have indoor blooms by the end of February – just when you really need some color and fragrance.

And one last suggestion: you can buy already sprouted holiday bulbs at the Holiday Bazaar at the Wadsworth Mansion on Saturday, December 3.

The Middletown Garden Club’s booth last year was overflowing with gorgeous holiday plants, wreaths and arrangements.

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