This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.
As the temperatures continue to drop, along with all those leaves on our deciduous trees, we are pretty much left with just shades of green in our gardens to look at throughout the winter.
There are, of course, quite a few winter-blooming perennials and shrubs that can add some winter interest to our gardens, but as far as bouquets or vases of blooms, the pickins are slim.
For those of us that experience color starvation, here are some ideas to bring the outside into our dining rooms and living spaces. They all involve fooling Mother Nature - which might feel a little devious, but I am sure she will understand.
Spring blooming bulbs - like tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths - can all be tricked into blooming in our houses, with relatively little effort. This trick involves chilling the bulbs for eight to twelve weeks in a cool mud room, basement, or even the fridge, just as long as we don’t let them freeze.
This time spent in cold, solitary confinement simulates what happens out in our gardens during the winter and is necessary in order for the bulbs to wake up and produce a bloom on a nice long stem.
Obviously, the sooner we purchase our bulbs and get them into the fridge, the sooner we will be able to take them out and watch them grow.
Once the cooling period is over, all we need to do is place them into a pot with some good quality potting soil, add some water and let them do their stuff. It will take six weeks or so for them to grow roots, sprout leaves, and eventually produce a bloom.
If you don’t want to mess with dirt, you can actually grow them in a vase of water. Set the bulbs on a bed of gravel and keep the water level just below the bottom of the bulbs.
There are special glass vases that support the bulbs just above the water level while providing an attractive looking container. Once the bulbs are done blooming, just toss them on the compost pile or in the yard waste container - don’t try to save them, it’s not worth it.
If eight to twelve weeks of cooling is just more than your tolerance for delayed gratification will handle, then what you need are Paperwhites. These are a type of narcissus that grow naturally in the region of Israel and do not need cooling in order to bloom. (Where I grew up in southern California where it didn’t get cold enough to get bulbs to bloom, we had Paperwhites established all over our gardens and they came back every year like clockwork).
Paperwhites are incredibly easy to bring into bloom, taking only four to five weeks. If you started now, you might actually get them to bloom by Thanksgiving. Here again, forget the dirt and place them on a bed of gravel in a shallow container with water just up to their bottoms.
If they start to get too leggy, put a few drops of vodka in the water and it will slow them down - don’t overdo it, there is nothing more obnoxious than an inebriated Paperwhite.
Amaryllis is another bulb that does not need any chilling and if started now will be blooming by the holidays. These are large bulbs almost the size of a softball and produce a thick, heavy, supportive stalk to hold their beautiful large flowers.
Plant the bulb in a six-inch pot with two-thirds of the bulb above the soil level, add some water and watch it grow! It’s pretty simple. In fact, it is so simple that I am now finding bulbs in garden centers that have been coated with brightly colored wax, with their own little stands, that are completely self-contained. You don’t even need to add water because the bulbs were soaked before they were waxed. The only downside of this technique is that the bulbs are single-use and will not bloom again.
Finally, any shrub that is normally a winter or very early spring bloomer can be forced to come into bloom early simply by cutting off a few budded twigs and bringing them indoors into a vase. Forsythia and Quince are usually the most commonly used plants for this purpose, and both are readily available in most of our gardens (or our neighbors gardens with permission, or at least forgiveness). Your spirits are sure to soar when these little twigs come into bloom.
There is no need to suffer the next three months without colorful flowers in the house. Buy some bulbs this month and start scouting the neighborhood for some Quince and Forsythia. Better yet, you might even find some at your local garden center reduced for quick clearance to plant in your yard!
Sunnyside will be hosting two classes next weekend “Pruning for Happy Trees Thru Winter” on Saturday, November 9, 2019, at 10:00 am; and again on Sunday, November 10th, at 11:00 am.
Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA and can be reached at email@example.com.
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