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Bulbs Part III: Forcing for the Holidays

Paperwhites and amaryllis are the ubiquitous holiday blooming bulbs. Paperwhite and amaryllis blooms are simple, elegant, and quintessential holiday. They make great gifts, especially for the hostess and friend who has everything, and if taken care of amaryllis can live for decades.

Let's begin the holiday celebrations with bulbs.

How to Grow & Care for Amaryllis (Hippeastrum species)

Amaryllis are wonderful plants. They are special set of houseplants. They have trumpet-like blooms on one to two foot leafless flower scapes. Amaryllis are exotic blooms that add a bit of drama and flare during the winter months. In warmer climates they can be planted outside, but in the Ohio River Valley they will not survive our winters outside. Amaryllis are true bulbs. Check out the blog post "Bulbs Part I" to learn more about the different types of "bulbs". Amaryllis come in a range of colors, the most common being in shades or red, white, & pink. There are orange, green, reddish-purple, double, miniature, bicolor, picotee, and specialty varieties. You can add a new variety every year till you have a rainbow of amaryllis blooms.

Start in late fall to enjoy from Christmas through winter and into early spring. Plant in well-draining soil in a pot roughly 2” wider than the diameter of the bulb. You can use any type of pot, but ones with drainage holes allow for excess water to drain and are less likely to rot. If you have your heart set on a decorative container without drainage then set large pebbles, pot shards, pieces of broken dishes in the bottom of the container to help lift the soil & bulb off the bottom. It is a good idea to ass some horticulture charcoal to your soilless potting mix. You can also plant your bulb in a grower's pot (available at independent garden centers) and then place the pot in a decorative cache pot. When you need to water just remove the pot from the decorative one. Plant the bulb so one-third is in the soil and two-thirds above the soil line. Gently water the soil around the bulb, but not on the bulb itself. Don’t water again until the plant has broken dormancy (started to grow). Place in a sunny and warm location. The warmer it is the quicker the plant will grow.

Once it has broken dormancy, keep the soil lightly moist, but not wet, at all times. Use your finger to test if the top two inches of soil is dry to determine if you need to water. Fertilize regularly with a water soluble fertilizer every two to four weeks. Use a fertilizer with a higher phosphorous content. Phosphorous is the P in the N-P-K on fertilizer packages. 0-10-10 or 5-10-10 fertilizers, sometimes called "bloom boosters" are good options. If your chosen fertilizer has a higher concentration cut the recommended dosage in half for your amaryllis.

After a bud starts opening move the plant out of direct sunlight. This will prolong the life of the flower which can survive for up to a month. If the stalks are becoming weighed down by the blossoms you may need to stake the plant.

Bud to Bloom Progression

Cut withered flowers from the stalk. Once all the flowers from a given scape have withered and the stalk itself is beginning to yellow, use a sharp knife and cut the stalk just above the neck of the bulb. Once the flowering stage is finished the bulb will produce leaves. The secret to keeping an amaryllis thriving for years is taking care of it during this period. After the last chance of frost has passed move the potted amaryllis outdoors to a protected area that will receive indirect, but bright light. You can use a bulb specific fertilizer at this time. We recommend Bulb-Tone, bone meal, or blood meal.

In August or September, definitely before chance of a frost, move the plant indoors. Place in a cool, dark location (basements work well). Do not water the plant during this period. In the coming weeks, the plant’s leaves will begin to turn yellow and brown, this is normal. After roughly four weeks prune away the withered leaves. Don’t water or fertilize. Once another four weeks passes move the potted plant to a warm room with as much sunlight as possible. And the cycle starts all over again. Eventually you will need to repot your amaryllis. The best time to repot is in the fall after the leaves have withered, but before a flower stalk emerges. Amaryllis prefer to be a bit root bound. Keep them in the smallest pot as possible based on the size of the bulb. It is not unusual for a single amaryllis bulb to live for decades if it is properly taken care of.

Forcing Amaryllis in Water

To "plant" your bulb, begin by carefully placing river stones or pebbles to a depth of about four inches in a clear glass planter. Clear containers allow one to view the bulb and are visually pleasing. With scissors, trim off any roots on the bulb that are brown and dried, but let the roots that are whitish and fleshy remain. Place the amaryllis bulb roots down on top of the stones, then put the remaining stones around the bulb, leaving the top third of the bulb exposed. Finally, add water until the level reaches about one inch below the base of the bulb but no higher. If the base of the bulb sits in water, it will rot.

After planting, set the container on a sunny windowsill. The warmer the temperature (70-80°F night and day is ideal), the faster the bulb will sprout and grow. Check the water level daily. Add water as needed to keep the level below the base of the bulb. A shoot will emerge from the top of the bulb in 2-8 weeks; you may (or may not) see thick white roots pushing between the stones before then. Rotate the container frequently to prevent the flower stalks from leaning toward the light.

The University of Minnesota Extension has a great page of information on amaryllis.

How to Force Paperwhites (Narcissus species)

Paperwhites are narcissus. Fragrant and cheerful, these bulbs go a long way in adding cheer to cold winter days. They also make great gifts during the holidays. Paperwhites grow to roughly ten to eighteen inches tall producing clusters of small blooms. Unlike other spring blooming bulbs, paperwhites do not need any vernalization to bloom. They just need sun and water to grow. Depending on how much light they receive and temperatures they can take a month to just a couple of weeks to bloom. Paperwhite bulbs are readily available during the fall and into the holidays at your independent garden center.

Let's start forcing! Paperwhite narcissus bulbs can be forced in shallow bowls, glass containers, and vases (no drainage holes) or pots (with drainage holes).

When forcing paperwhites in bowls, partially fill the container with washed gravel or stones (cranberries can be substituted to create a holiday look). Place the bulbs on the gravel or stones. Optionally, place additional gravel or stones around the bulbs, leaving the tips (noses) of the bulbs exposed. Add water to the container until it touches the bottom of the bulbs. Maintain the water at this level throughout the forcing period.

When forcing paperwhites in pots, partially fill the container with potting soil. Place the bulbs on the soil surface. Then add additional potting soil. When potted, the tips of the bulbs should stick above the soil. Water the pot thoroughly. Keep the potting soil moist throughout the forcing period.

Place the plants where they will receive bright light and warm temperatures. As the plants continue to grow, staking is often necessary as the plants can become floppy. Flowering typically occurs 3 to 6 weeks after potting. When the paperwhites begin to flower, move the plants from direct sunlight to prolong their bloom period.

If you want to discourage them from growing tall and becoming floppy mixing a clear liquor (vodka works well) with your water will help. Once the shoots are roughly one to two inches above the top of the bulb pour out the existing water and add a growth inhibiting cocktail. You can use any 40% liquor (gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila, etc.) just remember that some alcohols are more pungent than others. Many growers suggest using a 4 to 6% alcohol solution at a ratio of 1 part alcohol to 7 parts of water. Whenever you need to add more water make sure you add the growth stunting cocktail instead.

Paperwhite bulbs should be discarded after flowering. Paperwhites cannot be successfully forced again and are not winter hardy outdoors.

This short video from P. Allen Smith (a garden guru) covers the basics of forcing paperwhites.

Don't forget that starting amaryllis bulbs and paperwhites make great gifts. Happy forcing!

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