Home for the holidays? Take the garden inside this year.
The square boxed package of paperwhites arrived a few weeks back. I had ordered the bulbs from Ted, our young neighbor, so long ago that I almost had forgotten about them. I eagerly opened the box. Everything I needed to grow the highly fragrant flowers was at my fingertips -- a 4-inch plastic container with a clear plastic drainage dish, a peat plug and three large paperwhite bulbs.
I followed the simple planting instructions, put the container on the desk in the living room and waited. Within a few days, small green leaf tips emerged from the soil. I was on my way to having a home filled with the aroma of spring bulbs in the middle of winter. And just in time for the holiday season.
Paperwhites, amaryllis, poinsettias and other holiday plants are popular because they are easy to grow and can be forced to flower in the midst of winter. All it takes is a little know-how.
Paperwhites produce small white flowers atop thin green stems. They can be planted in a shallow bowl or decorative pot. Drainage holes are not necessary. Actually, even soil is not required. These bulbs will grow in loose pebbles, gravel, marbles or beads. The top (pointed) half of the bulbs should be exposed and water added to the base of the bulbs. Keep the container in a cool place for several days while the roots are forming. When the green shoots appear, move the plant to a warm, sunny location. Within about three weeks, the heavily scented flowers will bloom. I'm hoping my paperwhites will be blooming when company arrives for the holidays.
Long, tall blooms
Amaryllis plants have substantially larger flowers than paperwhites and their stems are significantly thicker. Yet, they are just as easy to grow. Amaryllis bulbs should be planted in a container that is wider than deep and has drainage holes on the bottom. Add several inches of soil to the container and place the bulbs, pointed side up, on top of the soil. Placing three bulbs in the same container produces a more spectacular display. Use caution when planting them so the bulbs do not touch one other.
Once the bulbs are nestled into the soil, continue to fill the container with more soil until the neck and shoulders of the bulbs are just peeking over the top. Water well and place in a cool sunny spot. Within two weeks sprouts will show and within another month large exotic blooms will open.
To get an amaryllis to bloom after the first year depends on the after bloom care it receives. Donna Coleman, greenhouse manager and grower with Sunrise Garden Center, recommends that when plants are kept from one year to the next, they be allowed a resting period beginning Sept. 15.
"That means cut any green leafs off, quit watering it and let it rest for eight full weeks," she explained. "Then after 8 weeks, begin watering it again."
The container should be moved to a warm sunny place. Sand can be placed over the top of the soil in the container to prevent the bulb from heaving. Coleman says that following these simple steps "should get a bloom at Christmas time" next year.
Hallmark of the season
Fortunately, the work involved in coaxing poinsettias to bloom in time for the holiday season is often done at the garden centers, allowing many of us the luxury of purchasing the plants already in bloom. Coleman took me on a tour of a greenhouse filled with poinsettias. What a treat for a gardener's color-starved eyes -- row after row of the vibrantly colored holiday flower. Most of them are blooming in an almost blinding brilliant red. "The red ones are the most popular," Coleman acknowledged. "But there are people who absolutely do not want red."
She explained that white poinsettias are popular for churches. For the even more nontraditionalist, other colors are available. "They (breeders) come out with new colors," she said.
One variety, aptly named "Freedom Jingle Bell," has speckled leaf of pink and red above its green leaves. Other varieties bloom in various shades of pink, red and white or yellow.
Though the poinsettia plant is easily recognized by the familiar shape, its dark green leaves and spread of red (or other color) bracts, Coleman pointed out the diversity in leaf shapes.
"Some flowers have oak leaf type shape to them," she said. Still others appear more rounded than the typical poinsettia leaf.
One particular plant she showed me was quite intriguing. In fact, Coleman claimed it was the newest thing in poinsettias.
"This came out just this year. It is a single stem called `Winter Rose.' It is a curly leaf and curly bracts," she said. "They have them a lot of blooms on them."
From a distance, the plant might be mistaken for a vigorously blooming deep red rose, peony or hibiscus. I fell in love with it.
Most poinsettias will reach a height of 2 to 3 feet, though Coleman showed me some miniature ones. Sitting on a low slab in the greenhouse were dozens of small red poinsettias growing in 3-inch pots. The height of these poinsettias has been carefully controlled since August. "You really have to know what you're doing," she said of the growth-inhibiting process. When done correctly, as these had been, the result is the perfect plant for a desktop or dinner table.
"They're pretty cute," Coleman said. "Next year, we'll have a bigger variety."
All the poinsettias had arrived in July and August so the process could begin that would culminate in the beauties we see in December. At the time of their arrival, they were between 2 and 4 inches tall and required attention. "When they come in, it is usually very hot and we have to keep them misted a lot," Coleman said. "It is almost constant if we want them to live."
Much ado about something
Coleman said the average gardner easily can keep poinsettias alive year-round.
"If you keep them watered, the color will last," she said.
But getting them to bloom again at the correct time takes a bit of fussing. In late March, the height of the poinsettia plant should be cut in half.
"That way it will grow new growth through the summertime," Coleman said. "Then when it's time to move them in the fall, they'll be nice and bushy for you instead of leggy."
She said flower initiation begins around Sept. 20.
"That's when you need to give them total darkness," she explained.
But poinsettias do not need constant darkness.
"They need 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness through the night for bracts to turn red," Coleman said. "You don't have to put them in the closet unless you have a fish light, a night light, a street light, anything like that will make them not turn red."
Within six to eight weeks, depending on the variety, the poinsettias should be colorful.
Coleman suggested putting poinsettias in a south window, keeping them watered and fertilized. "Typically, poinsettias are from countries that are very, very hot," she said. "They are euphorbias and they are related to cactus."
Avoid overwatering them. She also suggested fertilizing poinsettias purchased now.
"They are pretty heavy feeders and you would be hard-pressed to overfertilize them," she noted.
If you are not a poinsettia fan, consider a Christmas cactus or orchid to decorate your home for the holidays.
I'm still excited about my small container of paperwhites. They have already grown several inches since I planted them. Nonetheless, I might try one of those curly poinsettias for additional beauty.
-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at email@example.com.