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, the pickings are slim.
For those of us who experience color starvation, here are some ideas to bring the outdoors in. They all involve fooling Mother Nature — which might feel a little devious, but I am sure she will understand.
Spring-blooming bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and hyacinths can all be tricked into flowering in our homes, with relatively little effort.
This trick involves chilling the bulbs for eight to 12 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 for the bulbs to wake up and produce a bloom on a 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 plant them in a pot using good-quality potting soil, add some water and let them do their thing. 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 keep 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 12 weeks of cooling is more than your tolerance for delayed gratification will handle, then what you need are paperwhites. Paperwhite narcissus grow naturally in the region of Israel and do not need cooling 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 start 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. But 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 stalk to support their large flowers. Plant the bulb in a 6-inch pot with ⅔ of the bulb above the soil level, add some water and watch it grow. It’s pretty simple.
In fact, it’s so simple that you can find bulbs in garden centers that have been coated with brightly colored wax, with their own 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 down side of this technique is that the bulbs are single-use and will not bloom again.
And then there are shrubs. 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, bringing them indoors and putting them in a vase. Forsythia and quince are the most common plants grown 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.
Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Attend one of two free classes on pruning trees for the winter scheduled for 10 a.m. Nov. 9 and 11 a.m. Nov. 10 at Sunnyside Nursery, 3915 Sunnyside Blvd., Marysville. For more information or to sign up, visit www.sunnysidenursery.net.