Plant paper-whites for December beauty

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 03:02:32 AM. Easy-to grow flowers will perform quickly in bowls of water or pots of soil

For apartment dwellers or anyone planning a party in December, paper-white narcissus are hard to beat. A pot or bowl of these pretty plants in bloom makes a great centerpiece or table decoration that you can put together yourself.

Paper-white narcissus brings the garden indoors in winter, even if the bulbs never spent a day outside. They are tailor-made for people who have no garden space but have a yen to make something pretty for the holidays.

Most paper-white bulbs produce white flowers, but a few types are yellow, which I do not think of as a color for December.

Paper-whites are bulbs, but unlike tulips, hyacinths and daffodils, they do not require a long stretch in cold soil outdoors. Once planted in soil or just water, they will break dormancy, grow roots, send up leaves and bloom. What could be easier?

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You have two basic choices for planting them: a bowl of water with the roots well anchored by pebbles or in a pot of soil. In water, the bottom of the bulbs must be right at the water level to encourage root development but not allow the bulb to rot. That is one reason a clear bowl is nice for this project. You can see the roots develop and keep the water level just right.

In pots, set the bulbs so they are close but not touching, with the growing tips just above the soil line. Set the potted bulbs in a saucer to catch water that seeps out the bottom of the pot. This avoids wrecking the finish on your table.

Potted plants should be kept well-watered but not left in a soggy state, again to avoid the dreaded rot.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is keeping the plants in a cool environment during the early days and weeks to avoid leaves growing too tall.

What works best is a cool, sunny spot. Well away from burning fireplaces, furnace registers and other sources of heat. Heat brings the flowers and leaves along too quickly, and they tend to flop over without the help of stakes and string to keep them upright.

Fortunately, the Piedmont outdoors is often just right for the development of paper-white narcissus. That means a deck, patio or steps where you can easily grab them and bring indoors if the weather forecast calls for freezing weather.

Some years ago, researchers at Cornell University announced they had found a way to keep the foliage and stems of paper-whites from getting too tall and flopping even when grown in warm temperatures indoors. It involved the addition of certain types of alcohol such as gin or vodka to the water in which they grow. The complete report and instructions are at www.hort.cornell.edu/miller/bulb/Pickling_your_Paperwhites.pdf.

Ask Nancy

Q. Is it too late to plant flower bulbs for spring bloom?

A. No, you can continue to set them out for the next couple of weeks, either in the ground or in pots. They have no future in a paper bag.

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