Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cure for the Halloween Hangover

It's been a week now since Halloween ended. I've already taken down my decorations and put them away till next year. All of the Halloween candy has been handed out, eaten or given away. My candy "hangover" is almost gone and I'm contemplating the next season of "excess".

The fancy holiday gardening & gift catalogues have already started arriving in my mail. You know the ones I'm talking about, I'm sure. They're full of wonderful images and offer "fresh from Maine" balsam wreaths, table top trees, ivy topiaries, giant amaryllis baskets and Paperwhite narcissi in gorgeous ceramic containers at pretty fancy prices.

I like to look through these catalogues and collect ideas that I can duplicate and use for my own Christmas decorations. This year I'm copying a page from one popular catalogue and planting my paper whites (narcissus papyraceus tazetta) in a tall glass hurricane vase instead of my usual shallow bowl. They should bloom in four to six weeks which nicely coincides with Christmas. When they bloom, I'll cut some winterberry branches (ilex verticillarta) and arrange them in with the clusters of paper white blossoms just like the photograph in the fancy catalogue but at a fraction of the $99.00 price.

Forcing a few paperwhite bulbs every year is one of my favorite holiday traditions. I love the way they look on a windowsill, especially if there's snow on the ground outside. If you haven't grown them before you should give them a try, at least once. Each bulb produces multiple stems with clusters of small snowflake-like flowers that are heavily perfumed and quite intoxicating, though some people find their scent overpowering. The flowers of just a couple of bulbs can scent an entire house!

You can buy paper white bulbs from lots of sources online but you'll get the best price and save shipping if you patronize your local garden center. I paid $1.25 each for five large bulbs at my favorite garden center. Planting them successively every four weeks will make winter seem a lot shorter.

To grow paper whites all you need is a shallow container that can hold water and some pebbles. You don't want a traditional flower pot with a drainage hole because you'll be planting your bulbs in about 2 inches of pebbles and adding water. I planted four good-sized bulbs in a ten-inch tall hurricane vase that I bought for $7.00 at the big box store, but most any container will do, as long as it can hold about 2 inches of water without leaking. Glazed ceramics generally work best. F.Y.I. don't use your best crystal. Minerals from the stones and in the water can permanently damage it. I know. I've done it.

Place the bulbs pointed sides up in your container filled with about 1 1/2 to 2 inches of smooth pebbles and then add water up to the bottom (base) of the bulb (it should just touch the old root hairs). Add additional pebbles to anchor the bulbs till they root and place the pot where they will receive a lot of light (avoid direct sunlight if possible). Turning the pot a quarter turn every couple of days will insure that you have even growth, though one or more bulbs may grow faster. That's OK, don't worry about it.

If you planted them in a clear container you'll see roots growing into the pebbles, followed by a show of green growth emerging from the top of the bulb in a just few days. Continue to check the water level daily and add more as needed. It should come up just to the bottom of the bulbs.
Because paper white bulbs are grown in water they can't be reused from year to year. Water doesn't provide the nutrients that a bulb needs to rebuild its energy stores and rebloom so it's best just to discard them when they fade and buy new bulbs each year. Plant them now and in a few weeks you'll wake up to a house filled with heavenly scent--perfect for this blessed time of year!

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