Bulbs in Pots-Portable Containers for Spring

 

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If you don’t have a yard or outdoor space to plant outdoor bulbs like Tulips, Daffs, Iris, or Hyacinths, don’t despair….Plant them in pots. Easy peasey. So much better to plop your bulbs in nice loose potting medium rather than slaving with a heavy shovel to get your bulbs down to the proper depth in a heavy clay soil.  Frustrating? You bet! But in containers, think of the advantages:

  • You can enjoy your bulbs up close and personal
  • Change the look and appearance of your garden instantly
  • Grow bulbs that require specialized TLC
  • Pop them into containers with other spring flowers
  • Experiment with new varieties. Plus, you can have beautiful pots of spring flowers welcoming friends to your front door or brightening your patio for weeks in the spring when you become starved for color and fragrance
  • You can have tulips without the deer eating them! Place your pots close to the house, like on your porch where the deer won’t venture
Amaryllis are one of the easiest of indoor bulbs to bloom; here they are blooming in the nursery display boxes

Outdoors For Spring Bloom Vs Forcing
Fall-planted bulbs in containers have different needs than bulbs planted directly in the ground. I am not talking about “forcing” bulbs which means to accelerate your bloom period. In that scenario, your bulbs bloom in late winter, earlier than scheduled for their normal bloom period. That method requires pre-chilling to get the required days of cold that each bulb needs. I didn’t want to fool with forcing this year. So, I decided to enjoy my bulbs in containers by my back door without fiddling with burying the pots and/or chilling bulbs that forcing requires. Go to Bringing Spring In-Forcing Bulbs for more information on pre-chilling and forcing if you want winter color indoors.

For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to
For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to Longfield Gardens blog 

 

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Grape Hyacinth ‘Valerie Finnis’ is one of the prettiest minor bulbs
Miniature Iris in a pot
Miniature Iris in a pot is also a favorite; this blue variety is a stunner-‘Katharine Hodgkin’

Another use for your bulbs in containers is to use them in mixed spring containers for an instant pop of color.

Blooming Tulips, Daffs, and Grape Hyacinths add great color to a spring container
Blooming Tulips, Daffs, and Grape Hyacinths add great color to a spring container-by Leigh Barnes

Creating an enclosed environment for your tiny packages of blooms is easy if you remember a few cardinal rules.

  • Potting Medium-Use a high quality potting medium with lots of perlite or vermiculite for porous well draining soil (not garden soil)
  • Pots-Use flexible plastic pots that give with the changes of temperature (terra-cotta can break); You can slip these into decorative pots when they bloom
  • Spacing-Plant bulbs so they’re close but not touching, with their tips just below the soil surface. Here is your chance to stuff them in for a huge color show
  • Depth-Pot bulbs are typically planted a little less shallowly than ground bulbs. But try to stick closely to recommended planting depths for best results. The goal is to leave as much room as possible under them for root growth
  • Layers-For a more abundant lavish look, you can layer your bulbs or stack them on top of each other but it is simpler to stick with one variety per pot for beginners
  • Temperature-In winter, bulbs in above-ground containers will get MUCH colder than those planted in the ground where the surrounding soil insulates. This means you’ll need to store your potted bulbs through the winter in a place that stays colder than 48° F most of the time but that doesn’t get as severely cold as the outside
  • Water-Check your soil all winter to make sure soil is moist but not soggy. Water infrequently when just started, but later when roots have filled in and top growth has started, ramp it up
  • Presentation-Place grit, gravel, or Spanish moss on top to finish it off or plant something shallow rooted on top, like moss
Miniature Iris are my favorite for pots
Miniature Iris are my favorite for pots
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
Tulips are also easy in pots
Tulips are also easy in pots

Storing
I keep my planted pots outside until the weather consistently gets below freezing. For me in the mid-Atlantic region, that could be as late as mid December, depending on the weather. Keeping my pots on my patio where I can easily throw some water on them, is the simplest way to monitor them. Once freezing temps are here to stay, I start bringing the pots in to a more sheltered position.

Since temperature is critical for success, it is important to choose an area that  is buffered from the killing freeze/thaw cycle, but still able to get the needed chilling for successful flowering. Keeping the pots in a cool shaded spot, like an unheated garage, until early spring growth appears is essential. For me it is an unheated mud room attached to my house once winter weather arrives.

I wrap my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house
I wrap my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house

Wrapping my pots in insulating bubble wrap and placing them next to the wall of the house in the mud room for any ambient warmth is my solution for minimal protection. A cold frame would work also. I have heard of gardeners even storing the pots in old-fashioned galvanized trash cans with some burlap or other filler stuffed around them. Storing them in cans will avoid the great destructor of bulbs-squirrels, mice, voles and other assorted varmints.

Use masking tape to hold the layers of bubble wrap around the pot

Check on your pot while it is being stored. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch. This will only happen every couple of weeks. Towards February, the tips of the bulbs will be pushing through the plants that you have planted on top.

Squirrels are very destructive with bulbs
Squirrels are very destructive with bulbs

If storing in a garage, be careful of ethylene gas emitted from exhaust fumes from warming-up cars. Ethylene gas can cause flower buds to abort and you end up with wonderful pots of foliage only. If you store in an old refrigerator, be aware of ripening nearby fruit for this reason as the ethylene gas of fruit can cause the same problem. Store the pots in impermeable plastic bags to avoid contamination.

This pot was planted in the fall and stored all winter.  I brought it out on the patio when the weather started to warm up; you can see the bulb foliage peeking through

Once top growth starts in the spring – pointy tips pushing through the soil-  gradually move the pots out into the partial sun acclimating them to brighter sunlight necessary for good flower development. Enjoy! I include a step by step guide on how to plant bulbs in containers at the end of this post.

Muscari or Grape Hyacinths are easy in containers
Muscari or Grape Hyacinths are easy in containers, from Longfield Gardens
My bulb delivery in the fall from Colorblends

After Care-3 Ways

Compost the bulbs, leave in the pot/plant in the ground in the fall, or replant in the garden right after flowering and still green are the three ways to handle the spent bulbs. If you replant, be sure to fertilize them with a bulb fertilizer as the bulbs have used all those nutrients up at their first burst of flowering. Most times, the flowers aren’t as spectacular as the first bloom using up all their energy, so I tend to compost them.

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Don’t hesitate to compost your used bulbs-There is no shame in that!

Step By Step for ‘Lasagna’ Pots

All of these bulbs fit into one layered pot

‘Lasagna’ pots just means layering your bulbs so that you have a 6-7 week display from one pot of different types of bulbs.

My Garden Club had a workshop making ‘lasagna’ plantings of bulbs
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First layer covered with potting medium
  • Fill your deep container  (16″ deep)with a high-quality potting mix about 3-4 inches deep
  • Plant your bulbs almost as deeply as you would in the ground; for instance, 6 or 7 inches deep for tulips and daffodils, and 3 or 4 inches deep for little bulbs such as Crocus and Miniature Iris
  • Press the bulbs firmly into the soil, growing tips up. If layering, make sure that you cover one layer completely before placing more bulbs
  • For my layers, I planted the following from deepest to the most shallowly planted;  1st layer- 10 Daffodils, 2nd layer- 10 Hyacinths, 3rd layer-16 Tulips, 4th and last layer- 50 assorted small bulbs (I used 20 Grape Hyacinth, 20 Crocus, and 10 Mini Iris)

 

The first layer of Daffodil bulbs is planted the deepest
  •  Water your bulbs well after planting
  • Plant either pansies, moss,  or fall cabbages to the top for more insulating helpLayer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth
  • Layer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth; Here I used a container 18″ in diameter and 16″ deep for a good root run
Place all your bulbs closed together
Place all your bulbs close together; This is the top layer using minor bulbs like Crocus, Mini Iris, and Grape Hyacinth
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
This pot I finished off with Irish Moss, and creeping Sedum
The ‘lasagna’ pot in bloom
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulips popping up in the spring

The sources of bulbs for this post were ColorBlends, Longfield Gardens, Brent and Becky’s, and Old House Gardens. 

 

 

Dahlias-Divas of the Garden

From July to a killing frost in October, dahlias dominate my garden with their many petaled lushly colored flowers. Except for a true blue, you can find just about every flower color in a dahlia. Sizes can vary from an enormous 12 inch dinner plate to small button pom poms. Bee magnet blooms cover my plants that are excellent for cutting and using in arrangements. 
Bringing armloads of blooms in the summer will decorate your living space for weeks

Originating with the Aztecs, and arriving in European gardens in 1789, by 1927 F. F. Rockwell, author and founder of Home Garden Magazine,  reported that dahlias ranked in “the leading position of all bulbs grown in America.” For fascinating details on this beloved flower, go to Dahlia Archives of Old House Gardens.   Old House Gardens carries a wealth of heirloom varieties of all kinds of bulbs that you can’t find anywhere else.

Diva dahlia
Dahlia tubers dug up in October ready to be stored over the winter
Easy to grow if given adequate sunlight and rich well-drained soil and plenty of moisture, these shrubby plants grow from tuberous roots, or tubers. Depending on how severe your winters are, they may require digging and storing indoors until planting time next spring. For this reason, many buy new ones every year. 
Getting ready to plant newly arrived tubers from Longfield Gardens
Hundreds of flower forms and colors can confuse people about what varieties to plant but I see this as a great opportunity to try new ones every year and also to go back to my favorites. But remember, the larger the flower, like the dinner plate size (7 inches +), the less flowers it will produce. Juanita, a lovely ruby-red smaller flower (4-5 inches), will produce dozens of flowers compared to a dinner plates’ couple of flowers at a time.  
Pam Howden is a beautiful peach tinged with yellow, seen at Longwood Gardens
Gallery Art Deco, Cafe Au Lait, and Diva are my favorites from Longfield Gardens. There are so many favorites and new ones to pick from! Swan Island from Oregon carries hundreds of varieties and I like how they stamp the name on the tuber so you can even see it when you dig it up for saving. You always have the name even if your tags fade in the sun. Brandon Michael and Hulin’s Carnival were outstanding selections from  Swan Island this year.
Brandon Michael from Swan Island
Sunlight
Select a spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day, preferably more. If you can grow a tomato in a spot, you can grow a dahlia. Tolerating partial shade, dahlias will still bloom but less blooms will be available for cutting. And to produce more blooms, dead head and bring the fresh cuts in to enjoy.
Clown-like bloom, not sure of this variety
Hulin’s Carnival
Juanita dahlia, a prize-winning ruby-red, available from Old House Gardens and Swan Island
Not sure of this one
Cafe au Lait dahlia flowers are in shades of cream, pink, and tan

Soil

Heavy feeders, dahlia tubers should be planted in loose fertile soil. Add compost to the soil before planting. Don’t plant in soggy soil; they need good drainage to be successful. Soil temperature must be over 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring and I check this with my instant read cooking thermometer. Tubers can rot if planted in wet cold soil in the spring.
Thermometer says the soil temperature is 61 degrees
Campos Gibby dahlia seen at Longwood Gardens

Planting

Plant tubers by digging a hole three to six inches deep and laying the tuber in it with the growing tip up. The growing tip or bud is obvious as a fresh emerging shoot coming out of the fleshy brown tuber. Cover with soil but don’t water until well after growth emerges. Plant the tubers about 18 to 24 inches apart because they produce bush-like plants.
Planting a Cafe au Lait dahlia tuber in the spring that has already sprouted
York and Lancaster, an heirloom dahlia from Old House Gardens

Care

Staking can be done with tomato cages or with stakes and twine. Most dahlias need to be staked or you will have a plant with branches that will flop on the ground and have misshapen flowers. Water if you don’t get at least an inch of rain per week and the plants benefit from feeding lightly with a granular or liquid fertilizer of a general use fertilizer, not high in nitrogen. High nitrogen will produce more foliage than flowers. Dahlias like cooler conditions so flourish especially well in the late summer when temperatures start to moderate.
Seen at Longwood Gardens, dahlias are lined out in rows and at the end of the row, stakes are hammered in and tied with twine
A newly planted dahlia tuber with a tomato cage and twisted sprouts that have already started to grow while being stored

Saving/Storing

Frost will hit your plants sometime in October or November and they will go from glorious specimen plants to blackened wilted skeletons overnight. Check your weather report and before a hard frost is forecast, cut off every flower and bring it in to enjoy for another week. Once the plants are frost killed, you can start digging around the root ball carefully to remove the shrunken star fish like tuber that is nestled a few inches under the soil. Wash off any soil with a hard stream from your hose and dry in the sun. If you leave you tubers in the ground, I have found that some even come back if the winter hasn’t been too cold. Some people don’t save them, preferring to buy new ones every year.

Wash off your tubers in a crate for easy cleanup

Cut the stems a few inches above the tubers and store them in a container full of peat moss and perlite. I only place two layers of the tubers in a container, as I find that the bottom layers tend to rot more often than the top. If the tubers are too wet, they might rot, so I check them after a couple of weeks of storage to see how they are doing. If they are moldy, I scrape off the mold and add some dry peat moss. You are going to lose some of the tubers, but I have a success rate of about 75% saved tubers.

Storing tubers in peat moss
Using a large rubbermaid container that has a layer of peat moss and perlite

Alternative Method of Planting/Saving

Another method is to plant your tubers in 1 gallon plastic pots early in the spring. When the weather warms up, plant the whole pot in the garden and cover with soil. Leave the tuber in the pot and roots will come out the bottom drainage holes. When frost hits, dig up the entire pot, cutting off roots that are outside of the pot and bring the pot inside and place in a cool dark place for the winter. When shoots come up in the spring, top dress with compost and plant outside for another season of bloom.  I read about this method on Old House Gardens and want to try it next season.

Another method which a friend swears by is to dig up the tubers and shake the loose soil off and place in a large trash bag, leaving all the clinging soil attached to the tubers.  Store the trash bag in an unheated garage that won’t go below freezing. Easy and effective!

Pom Pom Dahlia
Pom Pom form of dahlia
Bees love the single type of dahlias because they can easily get to the nectar and pollen

Arranged in a bowl

 

Amaryllis For Years to Come

'Red Lion' Amaryllis is a common Christmas gift
‘Red Lion’ Amaryllis is a common Christmas gift

 

Red Lion, Apple Blossom, and Minerva- a great trip of Amaryllis from Longfield Gardens
‘Red Lion’, ‘Apple Blossom’, and ‘Minerva’- a great trio of Amaryllis from Longfield Gardens
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Great used as a cut flower, Amaryllis ‘Splash’, from Longfield Gardens

Someone gave you an Amaryllis gift box for Christmas? Or you have an old one that you want to re-bloom? Christmas indoor plants give us a breath of a living, blooming plant that we are missing at this time of year and I always buy several Amaryllis bulbs for starting and try to entice my old ones to burst forth with a flower stalk.

Amaryllis 'Minerva' at Longwood Gardens
Amaryllis ‘Minerva’ at Longwood Gardens

These bulbs are native to warm climates, so they don’t require a cooling period to trigger blooms. Amaryllis and paper white narcissus both belong in this category. For forcing other types of bulbs that require a chilling period such as Hyacinths and Daffodils, go to Bringing Spring In.

An unusual Amaryllis bloom
An unusual Amaryllis bloom

Amaryllis Facts

Of all flowering bulbs, Amaryllis is one of the easiest to force into bloom. Packaged in a single bulb, a flower embryo is waiting –  ready to burst into bloom with a bit of encouragement. The Amaryllis, Hippeastrum, originated in South America’s tropical regions and comes in many beautiful varieties including reds, white, pink, salmon, and orange. There are also many striped and multicolored varieties, usually combining shades of pink or red with white. Doubles, miniatures, and some very exotic ones that look like butterflies are also available.  The large flowers and ease with which bloom, make Amaryllis extremely popular. The blooms brighten a gloomy winter day and are a snap to grow.

Loose Amaryllis bulbs blooming at the nursery
Loose Amaryllis bulbs blooming at a local nursery

Choosing the Best Bulb

Always pick out the largest plumpest bulb that you can find – the jumbo size. Bulbs are storage vessels and the more storage-think larger bulb!- more flowers. If you buy one at a big box store that is already planted in a pot, you usually get a plant with only 1 stem – a 26 to 30 cm bulb. You are paying a premium for the convenience of an already potted bulb, but with smaller and fewer flowers. Choosing larger single bulbs at a good nursery or ordering on-line will get you a better quality and a larger, older bulb. The larger bulbs, 34 cm + are a full year older than the smaller bulbs, so you are paying a bit more. I prefer paying extra to get a loose larger bulb with more flowers that last longer, than for a smaller potted up bulb.

A range of sizes of bulbs will give you various bloom sizes and numbers
A range of sizes of bulbs will give you various bloom sizes and numbers
A jumbo Amaryllis is about
A jumbo Amaryllis is 34 -36 cm per bulb

In addition, look for an emerging flower bud coming out of the bulb. Choosing one an existing flower bud  means that the bulb is ready to go and can bloom within 5-7 weeks.

26/28 cm – 1 stem (occasionally 2) with 3 to 4 flowers

28/30 cm – 2 stems with 3-4 flowers per stem

30/32 cm – 2-3 stems with 3-4 flowers per stem

32/34 cm – 2-3 stems with 4-5 flowers per stem

34/36 cm – 3 stems with 4-5 flowers per stem

Bud full of promise
Bud full of promise
Double-flowered ones are my favorite
Double-flowered ones are my favorite

Quick Planting Tips:

  • Planting Period:                  October  to April

  • Flowering Period:               Late December until the end of May

  • Flowering time:                    7-10 weeks

  • Larger bulbs:                        Produce more flowers

  • Always store:                        Un-planted bulbs in a cool place between 40-50 deg. 

  • Flower Production:             2 to 3 stems per bulb

  • More Impact:                       Try planting 2 or 3 bulbs per pot

    Pre-potted bulbs are usually smaller in size and less flower buds
    Pre-potted bulbs are usually smaller and less flower buds

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    Preparation for Planting

    To get a head start soak the bulbs for an hour in warm water to hydrate the roots
    To get a head start soak the Amaryllis bulbs for an hour in warm water to hydrate the roots

    Place the bulb into lukewarm water for a few hours to jump-start emergence. I received my bulbs from Longfield Gardens with a heat-pack giving off warmth so the bulbs wouldn’t freeze in transit.

    Ordering my Amaryllis bulbs from Longfield Gardens in January means that I receive a heat pack that keeps the bulbs from freezing
    Ordering my Amaryllis bulbs from Longfield Gardens in January means that I receive a heat pack that keeps the bulbs from freezing!

    If you cannot plant the bulbs immediately after receiving them, store them at a cool temperature between 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature keeps them from blooming before you are ready.

    White Nymph Amaryllis from Longfield Gardens
    ‘White Nymph’ Amaryllis from Longfield Gardens

     Planting 101

    • Pick out a container that the bulb will fit into snugly, maybe an inch or two larger than the circumference of the bulb

    • A ceramic container is preferable to a plastic one because the weight of a flower, stalk, and leaves in full flush, will topple over the whole plant

    • Pot the bulb with good quality potting soil, leaving 1/3 of the top of the bulb or the ‘shoulders’ exposed; Water until you see moisture coming out of the bottom of the pot

    • If you want to accelerate the growth of the flower stalk and flower, place the pot on a heating pad

      Bottom heat will accelerate blooming
      Bottom heat will accelerate blooming
    • Keep in a sunny spot and keep moist and you will be surprised how fast the flower will appear

    • Once flowers appear, if you want the flowers to last longer, keep in a cooler spot

    •  Each year that you keep your Amaryllis alive, it will get larger and produce offsets (tiny bulbs that will get larger)

      Leave about 1/3 of the top of the bulb uncovered
      Leave about 1/3 of the top of the bulb uncovered
      Fill in with fresh moss for a finished look
      Fill in with fresh moss for a finished look

      Tying and staking a 'Red Lion' Amaryllis keeps the flower stalk from flopping
      Tying and staking a ‘Red Lion’ Amaryllis keeps the flower stalk from flopping
Amaryllis bulbs can also be planted in mixed containers to make the naked bulb more interesting
Amaryllis bulbs can also be planted in mixed containers to make the growing bulb more interesting  Amaryllis Containers
This container has a very old Amaryllis that keeps on getting larger and larger every year
This container has a very old Amaryllis that keeps on getting larger and larger every year
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Amaryllis used as a cut flower in a vase, from Longfield Gardens

 Waxed Bulbs

Waxed bulbs are a new wrinkle on Amaryllis. Throwaway bulbs is my term for them! Once it blooms, waxed bulbs should be discarded and can’t be saved to re-bloom another year because of the waxed covering. Popular in the Netherlands, I have had trouble with stunted growth from the ones that I started which is due to improper temperature storage of the bulb (before I bought it).

A waxed bulb seen at Lowes
A waxed bulb seen at Lowes
Stunted flowers are blooming right at the neck of a waxed bulb
Stunted flowers are blooming right at the neck of a waxed bulb

From my experience with waxed bulbs, I won’t be buying these again!

Re-Blooming & After Bloom Care

  • Cut-Back- After the Amaryllis has stopped flowering, Don’t throw it away (unless you have a waxed bulb)! Possible to force again, you need to follow a few simple directions.  Cut the old flowers from the stem after flowering, and when the leaves start to sag and turn yellow, cut it back to the top of the bulb.

  • Leaf Growth and development Continue to water and fertilize as normal all summer, or at least 5-6 months, allowing the leaves to fully develop and grow.  I simply take all my pots outside and set them in an out-of-the-way place and never look at them all summer.  Let the rain water them.  When the leaves begin to yellow, which normally occurs in the early fall when the days get cooler, cut the leaves back to about 2 inches from the top of the bulb and remove the bulb from the soil.

  • Bulb Storage- Clean the bulb, removing and rinsing off all soil, and place it in a cool (40-50 deg. F), dark place such as the crisper of your refrigerator for at least 6 weeks. Caution: Do not store Amaryllis bulbs  in a refrigerator that contains apples  – this will sterilize the bulbs.  Store the bulbs for a minimum of 6 weeks. I usually place the bulbs in a dark cool corner of my basement as I don’t have room in my refrigerator. Alternatively, you can leave the bulbs in the pots in a cool dark space. After about 6 weeks, you can pot them up.

    Removal from Storage- Once your cooling period is up, replant your bulbs as if it was a newly purchased one. Be sure to fertilize the bulbs with dilute plant food as the original bulb has used up all the food stores. For more impact, I like to pot three bulbs to a container.

    Apple Blossom has been potted up with 3 bulbs to the container for bigger impact, from Longfield Gardens
    Potted up with 3 bulbs, Apple Blossom makes a good show, from Longfield Gardens

    You can safely start Amaryllis until April, so there is no rush for these to bloom!

    Evergreen Amaryllis from Longfield gardens
    Evergreen Amaryllis from Longfield Gardens

     

One thing you have to know is that Amaryllis normally bloom in spring, not in December. The ones that bloom for Christmas are grown in greenhouses to get them to behave that way. For more information on Amaryllis re-blooming tips, go to National Arboretum.

'Rosy Star' Amaryllis from Longfield Gardens
‘Rosy Star’ Amaryllis from Longfield Gardens

 

Furnished by Longfield Gardens, all bulbs were of the best quality and size.

Allium-Bulb of the Year 2016

Allium Schubertii is a stunner
Allium Schubertii is a stunner

Recently announced as the bulb of the year for 2016, the Ornamental Onion or Allium, has finally come into its own. Just ten years ago, these bulbs were rarely seen in gardens, but now I see them everywhere I turn. And the colors, shapes, and sizes that they come in is phenomenal. When the leaves start to fall, start planting these beauties, and if you can’t find them in local nurseries, a whole range of colors and sizes are available online. Native to the mountains of central Asia, where the winters are cold and the soil is thin and porous, Alliums like to be kept on the dry side.  One of the oldest cultivated plants, first as an edible bulb, and then later in the 1800’s as an ornamental and highly coveted by plant hunters.

Allium globemaster bulbs are big like their blooms, from Longfield Gardens
Allium Globemaster bulbs are big like their blooms, from Longfield Gardens

With their plump flower heads held on hollow stems above strappy basal leaves,  hovering like purple clouds, Alliums are one of the highlights of the late spring into summer garden. If you select carefully, you could have Alliums bloom for over 20 weeks in the garden. Starting in May with Allium karataviense (Kazakhsatan onion) to October-blooming Allium thunbergii ‘Ozawa’, Alliums will keep your yard blooming all season long.

Allium Globemaster, from Longfield Gardens
Allium Globemaster, from Longfield Gardens

Alliums are easy care, a snap to grow, and last for weeks in the garden in flower and months in the garden in the form of decorative seed heads. And did I mention, deer, voles, moles, and rabbits, leave them strictly alone?  The one drawback is that the larger ones like Globemaster can set you back an average of $8 a bulb. Large eight to ten inch lilac orbs will reward you in the late spring if you thought far enough ahead and set aside some bucks to bankroll this investment. They last for years and years.

Allium Nigrum And Purpureum

Bees love alliums for their nectar

Odorless unless you step on their leaves or foliage, they will emit a sulfurous bitter-tasting compound, thus the deer repelling effect. In contrast, the flowers produce a sweet nectar that draws bees and other pollinators, a perfect plant!

Dried seed heads in the garden
Dried seed heads in the garden

The strappy foliage is beautiful when the flower is blooming, but will wither and disappear quickly as the flower matures. The seed heads as they dry on the stem make a statement in the garden, and in the fall, they become little tumbleweeds rolling around like lost puppies.

Planting

Plant bulbs at 2½ times their own depth in autumn and space them about 8 inches apart. Make sure the soil is porous and well draining and avoid irrigated gardens as they will just rot. Full sun is best, but partial sun will do. That’s all there is to it and you will have these gems come up year after year.

Allium Drumstick

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Dried seed heads in the garden

Coming in a broad palette of colors, heights, bloom times and flower forms, Alliums are plants with tough constitutions. Excellent flowers for fresh or dried bouquets, even fully planted gardens can accommodate these bulbs which need little room. I find them good companions to grasses, and large leaved plants where the dried seed heads contrast nicely with the foliage.

Allium orb made out of dried seed heads
Allium orb made out of dried seed heads

 Used in flower arrangements and as decorations in the house, the seed heads last several seasons.

alliums

Alium seed heads suspended over a fairy garden
Allium seed heads suspended over a fairy garden

Floral arrangements made with allium seed heads

Alliums multiply naturally and prefer to be left untouched in the same area for years. There are no serious diseases or insect pests that bother them.

Allium bulgaricum
Allium bulgaricum
Drumstick allium, Purple Sensation
Drumstick allium, Purple Sensation

I often wonder why Alliums or Ornamental Onions are not more widely planted, and I think it is a naming problem. Ornamental Onions conjures up a supermarket food and not a beautiful bulb like a tulip or daffodil. Alliums are the best kept secret of the bulb world and once you start planting them, you will add to your collection every year. For more information about varieties and history, go to National Garden Bureau.

Allium schubertii
Allium schubertii

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Allium

Bringing Spring In-Forcing Bulbs

Variety of bulbs for forcing
Variety of bulbs for forcing

Forcing Bulbs

Every gardener in the depths of winter, wants to bring spring in and relieve the monotony of dreary, dull winter days, without flowers.  The garden is lifeless, snow-covered and icy, and you need your drug fix of color and fragrance to help you get through the winter. What is a gardener to do??? An easy solution, short of buying your  own greenhouse of flowers, is to plant bulbs inside that will emerge and bloom in a couple of weeks in the depths of January and February. But to get those quick results, you need to force certain varieties- Paperwhites, Amaryllis, and pre-chilled Hyacinths.

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Forcing bulbs is a technique that has been in use for hundreds of years, popularized in the Victorian era, and the Victorians went to great lengths to force bulbs into bloom.

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The proper definition of forcing bulbs is  defined as “a technique that imitates the environmental conditions that bulbs encounter outdoors, thereby tricking them into flowering earlier”. Different types of bulbs require different chilling periods, generally between 12 and 16 weeks. But for Paperwhites and Amaryllis, they are primed and ready to go without this artificial chilling period, and that is why gardeners depend on them for easy winter color.

Usually you see only one variety of paperwhite, but there are many different ones
Paperwhite display
Paperwhite display

To have Tulips, Crocuses, Iris, and other bulbs  blooming in my house in the winter, I would have had to pot the bulbs up in the late fall, chill them in a refrigerator for weeks and weeks, and then bring them into the house for warmth to bloom. But, I don’t have the time or room for that, so I do the next best thing – force the easy ones quickly without much fuss or mess.

At a local nursery, I also discovered a treasure trove of Hyacinth bulbs that were pre-chilled and I snatched those up to force also.

Paperwhite Narcissus

Paperwhites are the most commonly forced bulb that gardeners love to grow and enjoy for their wonderful fragrance. The scent of a bowl of Paperwhites in full bloom will waft through an entire house! They are incredibly easy and bring a touch of much-needed spring scents into your living space. When choosing your bulbs, select ones that are symmetrical, rather than ones that have off shoots, as these tend to come out lopsided and will fall over easily.

Forced Daffs at the Philadelphia Flower Show
Forced Daffs at the Philadelphia Flower Show

How To Force Paperwhites

Step 1

Paperwhite bulbs
Paperwhite bulbs-one lop-sided and one symmetrical

I like to put my Paperwhites in gravel so that they are bottom heavy and won’t flop over from the weight of the tall stems. Simply fill a container with loose gravel or pebbles, or soil.

Step 2

If you pot them in soil, water until moist. If you use gravel, fill up the container with water until the level hits the bottom of the bulb, but they are not submerged.

Paperwhites in container for forcing
Paperwhites in container for forcing

Step 3

Keep your paperwhites in a warm sunny spot and check the rooting container almost every day for formation of roots, adding water as it evaporates.

Step 4

Once the shoots reach 2 inches tall, you need to pour off the old water and add a mixture of 4-6 % alcohol and water. You need to do this to stunt the growth of the stems which can get quite tall. You will end up with drunken Paperwhites! The alcohol mixture will shorten the stems by one-third and not affect the flowers at all. See below for the recipe.

Step 5

Once in bloom, if you move them to a cooler location, the flowers will last longer.

The Science

I thought that adding alcohol was an old wives tale, but scientists have proved the veracity of this claim. Go to, http://blogs.cornell.edu/hort/2009/11/10/pickling-your-paperwhites/ .

Basically, if you add 1 part of gin, vodka, or other alcohol, to 7 parts water, the mixture will interfere with water intake and you end up with shorter and less floppy stems. As anyone who has grown these bulbs knows, a container of fully grown Paperwhites needs support or the whole thing will topple over. The key is to add this mixture after the shoots reach 2 inches tall. Do not use wine or beer!! as that adds too much sugar. Don’t go over this amount of alcohol (4-6%), or you could really damage the plant. If you decide not to add the alcohol, you will need to add some support to the stems.

Varieties of Paperwhites

Ziva Paperwhites planted in mass in the Conservatory at Longwood Gardens
Ziva Paperwhites planted in mass in the Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

I like the old-fashioned variety Ziva for the great fragrance and pure white color. Also, for those who can’t stand the intense fragrance, there is a variety that is only lightly scented called Tazetta inbal. Personally, I love the strong Paperwhite scent and would never plant the lightly scented variety as that is the main reason I grow them. Another variety to try, is a beautiful sunny yellow with an orange center, called Grand soleil d’Or.

Types of Paperwhites
Types of Paperwhites

The Big One-Amaryllis

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Amaryllis are huge bulbs with huge flowers

If you have read this blog at all, you probably have figured out that Amaryllis tops my list of favorite plants. Go to Amaryllis Centerpiece or Amaryllis Primer  to see what you can do with this easy to force bulb.

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Amaryllis Centerpiece

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Amaryllis flowers used at Longwood
Amaryllis flowers used at Longwood

Hyacinths

For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to
For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to Longfield Gardens

I love the fragrance and color of Hyacinths, so am forcing these for the first time. I found some pre-chilled bulbs at the nursery along with some forcing vases and thought I would give it a whirl. The trick here is to set the bulbs directly above the water, but not touching, so that the bulbs don’t rot.

Forcing Hyacinths

Step 1

If you can’t find pre-chilled bulbs, place them in your crisper drawer of your refrigerator for at least five weeks, keeping them away from your produce.

Step 2

Fill the forcing vase to just below the cup where the bulb will rest. The bulb will reach for the water. Some of my bulbs I set on gravel in a mason jar with the water level just below the base of the bulb.

Step 3

Place the hyacinth bulb with the root end down and growing tip up, so that the base is just above the water. Place your vase on a bright windowsill and periodically change the water, and turn the vase to keep it centered. Enjoy the two-week show of beauty and fragrance. I especially enjoy watching the roots form through the glass!

peach-hyacinths
Photo from Longfield Gardens

After Care

Paperwhites and Hyacinths pour all their energy into blooming and are all bloomed-out afterwards. I toss them. Amaryllis are a different story. After blooming, I cut off the stalk and water it just like any other houseplant. In the spring when all danger of frost is gone, I stick the pots outside in a sheltered location, in partial sun. I ignore them all summer long, until the fall, when it gets chillier. Then, I bring the pots in and put them in the dark basement and let the leaves die back. Around Thanksgiving, I start watering the bulbs and bring them into the light. Usually they reward me by sending out buds and begin their cycle again.