What does a Gardener do in the Winter?

Phyllis Heuerman
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

With mixed feelings of regret and relief, I have finished putting my garden to bed for the winter. I have cut back and mulched everything that needed such attention, raked leaves and cleaned and oiled my tools.

After all of the Holiday decorations are put away, the house can look drab during the grey winter days. I warm up my home by forcing flowers into bloom. January is a good time to purchase at half-price the Amaryllis and Paperwhite Narcissus bulbs that did not sell over the holidays. You can still grow them and force them into bloom. Amaryllis grow from huge bulbs, nearly as big as a grapefruit. They grow best in tight quarters. The pot should be only one to two inches wider than the bulb and should have a drainage hole in the bottom. Fill the pot about half full; put the bulb in and fill with additional soil. Pack the foil firmly as Amaryllis can be top heavy. The top one-third of the bulb should be exposed. Water the bulb well after planting, but do not allow the soil to remain soggy. Place the pot in a bright window and water only when the soil feels dry. Amaryllis typically bloom 6 to 8 weeks after you plant them.

Paperwhite Narcissus can be forced in soil or in water. They take only about 4 weeks from planting time to full bloom. To plant Narcissus in soil, simply fill a shallow pot with soil, place the bulbs in it close together, and partially cover the bulbs with soil. About one-fourth to one-third of the bulb should be exposed. Water the bulbs and place the pot in a sunny window. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. Once in bloom, the flowers will last longer if you keep the plants in indirect or filtered light. A cool room at night will also prolong bloom.

Narcissus make very interesting displays if you grow them in a clear vase, in water. I use a tall, fairly narrow vase and place the bulbs close to the bottom. That way the vase supports the plants as they grow. To plant Narcissus in water simply place about 3 inches of gravel, pebbles or decorative glass marbles in the bottom of the vase. Place the bulbs close together on top of the gravel and fill vase with water just to the bottom of the bulbs. The bulbs should be just touching the water. Within a couple of days you will see roots begin to develop. You will have to add a little water each day to keep the water just touching the base of the bulb. The roots will form a very interesting display as they entwine themselves among the pebbles.

Another way to bring flowers into your home during the winter is to force branches of flowering trees and shrubs. Usually February is a good time to start doing this. If you cut them in January they may not have had a long enough dormant period (about 6 weeks is needed) to be ready to bloom. All you need to do to force branches into bloom is cut and gather the branches. Put them in a bucket of warm water to which you have added floral preservative. (Floral preservative can be purchased in most craft stores. Or, you can make your own preservative with one tablespoon of Listerine or 1 tablespoon of lemon-lime soda per quart of water.)

Next fill a sink with very warm water. Holding the stems underwater, recut them at a sharp angle an inch or two above the original cut. Then put the branches in a vase of temperate water with preservative in it, and watch the buds slowly swell and spring into bloom. To keep the branches fresh, change the water when it discolors. Also keep the branches away from bright, direct sunlight and away from any direct heat. Good candidates for forcing are ornamental cherry trees, Forsythias, Fothergilla, Bradford Pears, Redbud trees, Lilacs, Quinces, Magnolias and of course, pussywillows.

Aside from keeping my home bright with live flowers, I spend my winter poring over the garden magazines and books I did not have time to read during the summer, and reviewing catalogs to place orders for any new plants I want for the spring.

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