Garden Variety: The gift that keeps on growing

Amaryllis bulbs are easy to find during the holidays, probably partly because they are easy to package in gift boxes. More importantly, though, they are sold this time of year because they are easy to grow indoors and produce beautiful flowers in late winter to early spring.

The flowers produced by amaryllis bulbs are trumpet-shaped and range from 4 to 10 inches in diameter. Red and white are the most common flower colors, with various shades and variegations of the colors. Pink and peach shades are also available. Look for pictures of the flowers on the packaging to make a selection.

Once the flower color is chosen, look for large, firm bulbs that have yet to sprout. If bulbs that already have leaves are the only option, select bulbs with leaves that are dark green and healthy over leaves that are yellowing or damaged.

Plan to plant bulbs in pots only slightly larger in diameter and a little taller than the bulbs. Use high-quality potting soil.

If waiting to plant or giving bulbs as gifts, store in a cool, dark location as long as possible. The ideal temperature to store amaryllis bulbs is 40 to 50 degrees prior to planting.

Plant each bulb in its own container with the neck of the bulb sticking up out of the soil. Gently tap the container on a hard surface to help soil settle in around the bulb. Add more soil and adjust the bulb in place as needed to nearly fill the pot.

Water the soil around the bulb enough to thoroughly moisten the soil after planting. Remember that potting soil is like a sponge, and it can be hard to wet when completely dry. Apply water more than once if necessary, but allow it to completely drain out the bottom of the pot. When the pot has finished draining, move it to a warm location with direct light.

Water sparingly after the initial planting. The top of the soil may appear dry even when moisture is still present in the pot. When water is needed, water thoroughly (until water runs out the bottom of the pot) with room temperature water.

Most potting soils contain fertilizer, so additional fertilization may be unnecessary. If fertilizer is desired, use something designed for houseplants according to label directions.

The flower stem and leaves should appear in a few days to a week after planting. Expect flowers to open six to eight weeks after planting.

Many people discard bulbs after blooms fade, but they can be kept and encouraged to rebloom the following winter.

To get amaryllis to rebloom, cut the flowers off at the top of the stem once the blooms fade. This prevents seed development. Leave stems in place until they turn yellow and/or droop, then cut them back to the top of the bulb. Move plants outside for the summer.

Water and fertilize amaryllis plants through the rest of the spring and summer to keep foliage healthy. Bring plants back inside well before any danger of frost. When leaves yellow and dry in early fall, cut foliage back near the top of the bulbs.

At this point, there are a couple of options. Bulbs will produce new blooms without a dormant period, but the timing of blooms is controlled by encouraging temporary dormancy. To delay flowering, the bulbs should be held at 40 to 50 degrees for the time desired. Six to eight weeks is a typical chilling period for amaryllis bulbs.

Bulbs may be left in pots for chilling if the soil completely dries out before storage. Bulbs can also be removed from pots and stored in a refrigerator or other location if desired.

After the six-week (or longer) chilling period, remove bulbs and replant as described above or simply move pots back to the warm, sunny location. If you are repotting and the bulbs have produced small bulbs, the smaller ones can be detached and planted individually.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.