WINTER GARDENING generally refers to houseplants where we
live. There may be a few plants, such as pelargoniums, hibiscus and impatiens,
that we've brought indoors to continue blooming. Some years, I will pot up a
parsley plant, too. Parsley grows big and doesn't like to be disturbed, so it
needs a large pot and careful moving, taking a big root ball. Kept watered in a
cool, bright place, it yields fresh greens all winter while the snow blows
outdoors. Remember that parsley is a biennial. No matter how you pamper it, it
will go to seed come spring.
If you want a hit of colour, try forcing bulbs. It can be a
tricky but rewarding practice. The tricky part concerns temperature, and it
comes down to this: either you have the perfect spot for forcing hardy bulbs,
or you don't. The bulbs require a consistent temperature in the range of just
about freezing to about 9 degrees C, from now until February or March. A
basement that is too warm or a garage that is too cold won't produce blooms.
One option is a refrigerator, if you can devote space in the vegetable crisper
or a shelf in the bar fridge for pots of bulbs. Put them in perforated plastic
bags, and don't let the soil dry out.
Here is the fall drill for forcing tulips, narcissus,
hyacinths, crocus, scilla, muscari and lily of the valley. In moist, sterile
potting soil, plant new, healthy bulbs close together right at the surface,
noses up and visible. If you have a suitably cool space in the home, great.
Otherwise, try the refrigerator. Forcing takes about three months. Bulbs are
ready to come out of cool storage early next spring, when roots appear above
the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.
The next step is to move the pots to a cool place,
preferably 10 to 15 degrees C, where the leaves will develop for a few days.
Then bring the pots into the living room or wherever you want them to be
admired. If you move them back to a cool spot overnight, the flowers will last
Much easier to force, since they don't need a cold period,
are paperwhite or 'Soleil d'Or' narcissus (Narcissus tazetta). Some people like
to set the bulbs into shallow pans of water and marbles or gravel, deep enough
to hold the bulbs upright and keep the bases and growing roots wet. The bulbs
can also be planted in sterilized soil. In either case, the stems grow so tall
they'll flop and need supporting, unless you give them a little apéritif.
Recent research at Cornell University proved that a little
alcohol will slow stem growth enough that the stems won't need staking, even
though the flowers will be as large and fragrant as ever. Try it for yourself.
Plant the bulbs as usual, out of direct sunlight at cool room temperature. In a
week or two, when green shoots have grown about five centimetres (two inches)
above the bulbs, drain off the water and replace it with a four-percent
solution of 40 percent distilled spirits. This means nine parts water to one
part gin, vodka, whiskey, rum or tequila. Don't make the solution too strong,
since alcohol is toxic to plants. Use this solution to water the bulbs from now
on. (Don't substitute wine or beer; it won't work.)
A friend who prefers her paperwhites tall and willowy, not
short and boozy, plants them in deep pots amongst twiggy, upright branches of
redbark dogwood. The branches hold the flowers beautifully upright, and add
colour contrast. If you don't have red willow or dogwood, consider spray
painting any slim branches silver or gold.
After the bulbs bloom, it's best to toss them into the
compost, since they're reluctant to bloom again. Anyway, soon enough we'll have
the regular outdoor bulbs to satisfy us.
Jennifer Bennett welcomes feedback at email@example.com or via