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Chasing Away the Winter Doldrums

Contributed by Honey Sharp, Master Gardener


With all their delicate lights, flickering candles, majestic trees, and decorations of all shapes and sizes, Christmas and Chanukkah are geared to bring new life to the darkest days of the year. A tree is hauled into the house and suddenly the garden has moved indoors.


As December rolls away though, winter hangs on with a firm grip in good old New England. To continue to enjoy light and color, it’s wise to think and plan ahead. Sure, one can simply go out and buy flowers, and they bring immediate satisfaction. A more gradual enjoyment emerges when, as in planting bulbs in the fall and discovering their magical appearance six months later, one experiments with bulbs indoors.


Nothing chases away the winter doldrums like a colorful, creative, and freshly scented indoor garden. Exotic white and purple speckled orchids, gnarled bromeliads showing off hot pinks, delicately scented jasmine and elegant agapanthus are all splendid additions to the bay window looking out on a snow covered yard. Such an approach might possibly backfire; the longing will grow more intense for that much awaited trip to Costa Rica or South Africa.


For a more local look that might help keep you home, and prove far less costly, consider getting a new lease on life by forcing bulbs. Although “forcing” may sound drastic, it’s as commonplace and as satisfying as feeding the birds. And, unknown to most, the majority of bulbs (excluding narcissus paperwhites) can later be exported to the garden.


Successfully enjoying a bulb in the winter requires tricking it into believing it has experienced a winter cycle and is ready to think spring. One might say, its clock is not all that reliable since it is content to make an appearance earlier on. The crucial ingredient here is the perception and experience of winter. Years ago, I would throw some bulbs into a soil mix and expect display, pronto. Much to my chagrin, few if any appeared.


Darkness and an ideal temperature range of 38 to 50 degrees are what make it all possible. Ideal environments might include that extra refrigerator in the basement, although the basement itself could work if it is cool and dark. If left out in the garage, a leaf bag stuffed with leaves for insulation and also protection from critters can work too. The bulbs should never be allowed to freeze though. Keep them safely above 38 degrees.


Still, according to Master Gardeners, a cold frame adjacent to the house will do just fine. Make sure to elevate the pots so they won’t freeze to the ground. Also ensure that those potted bulbs are protected from rodents targeting them for a winter feast.

Should you simply place them in a bag in the refrigerator for a few months? This can work if you’re not in a hurry to enjoy them. Otherwise, pot them first and, depending on the bulb, they should come out between six and ten weeks.


When potting, use sterile potting soil and clean pots. Place a small crock (stone) at the bottom for proper drainage. Fill them halfway or so with moistened soil. The amount of soil depends on the size of the bulb. A general rule of thumb is to place the bulb in soil 2 to 3 times the size of the bulb. In a pot they don’t require the depth of a garden planting. In your multiple plantings, put them one bulb’s width apart. And make sure to let the tip protrude a little bit over the soil.


After completing this process, place the pot in its cooler home for their winter season. Called “sleeping”, it really isn’t. The bulbs are actively growing their root system and beginning to send shoots upwards. Hey, we also grow while we sleep.


What bulbs to choose? That’s the fun part. Be creative and look for inspiration from some of the fancy catalogues that are coming out now.


No matter which bulbs and color combinations you pick, choose healthy and firm bulbs, just like you would good potatoes. Typical bulbs for forcing include hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips. Since they are larger, they require a longer period of cold storage than smaller bulbs such as crocus, muscari or grape hyacinths, snowdrops, and galanthus. These require only six to eight weeks. Still, you can apparently do both although you may need to compromise a bit; i.e. some will fade before others appear and you may need to clean up the pot a bit.


When the flower spikes or the green shoots are an inch or two high, bring them into your home environment. Also, don’t place them in bright sunlight. You would be giving them a shock they won’t forgive you for! Water them and add a little fertilizer if they are looking pale or weak.


When it comes to combining various sized bulbs in the same pot, I’ll be honest: I am still a bit perplexed. If you’re new at this, go for the easier ones first like narcissus or paperwhites. They have such strong rooting action that they will perform well even in pebbles or water. Fancy catalogues may show wonderful red, white, and blue combinations (well, maybe that was last year) with muscari, narcissus and tulips, but, as usual, the reality is slightly different. So, if you’re just embarking on an indoor bulb garden, stick with similar sized bulbs for each individual pot.


A fun thing to try, especially if you have young children, is to grow a hyacinth in a special water container designed to hold a bulb. Viewing the roots is a delight for all.  Amaryllis is another you can enjoy as a single bulb. The Christmas flowering varieties from South Africa bloom in four to six weeks. The Royal Dutch Hybrids take twice as long.


More exotic bulbs, perhaps those you didn’t get a chance to put in the ground last fall, such as alliums, fritillaria and camassia, can also be forced. Remember, the larger the bulb, the longer it should be tricked into believing it’s experiencing a winter season.


Finally, all kinds of containers can make the simple clay or plastic pot more attractive. Baskets of all sizes and shapes, various clay or wooden containers or trays that will liven up the pots will add extra pizzazz to the whole picture.


As a last word, if you want to preserve your bulbs to plant when the ground thaws in April or May or June, simply let the leaves keep growing while you board that plane for San Jose or Capetown and then plant it when the ground has thawed. Alternatively, you can deadhead it, water it lightly until July, and then put it in the basement till October for another round next year.



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