Rosemary, Amaryllis & Spring Bulbs; Three Sort-of Home-Grown Holiday Gifts
This week, it's a Tip instead of a Question. Three tips, in fact!
Rosemary: A sure sign of the approaching holidays is the appearance of those wonderful Christmas-tree shaped live rosemary plants in garden centers and upscale supermarkets. They make great gifts and table-top Tannenbaums, but have one problem—they are 100% dog-dirty, six-times-sideways root bound; jammed into pots so small there's no room for any soil.
So as soon as you get your little 'tree' home, remove the wrappings and transplant it into a pot at least twice as big. (Be sure to use potting soil, a soil-free mix or compost to fill in the gaps—not your terrible outdoor dirt.) Then take your newly planted tree and sit it in a few inches of water for an hour or so to allow the holes in the bottom of the pot to really saturate the soil and roots. Let it drain and then place it in a bright area, away from heat vents and radiators. Repeat the same watering regimen once a week or whenever the pot feels light. To gift your tree, just rewrap the pot. (But make sure the wrap never holds water inside; rosemary needs to drain well to survive.)
Warning: Do not ignore this repotting advice! Rosemary trees that are moved into bigger pots usually thrive over the holidays, and often survive to go outside next summer. Rosemary trees left trapped in their too-tight pots will quickly look like Jack's little tree in A Nightmare Before Christmas. And once she's brown, she's brown for good.
Amaryllis: Seeking an inexpensive yet distinctive holiday gift that your friends will be sure to appreciate and that will deceive them into thinking you have the ultimate green thumb? Buy a bunch of amaryllis bulbs and pot them up.
You can buy the little kits that come complete with soil and a pot, or just get a bunch of big, solid bulbs, some pots that are only a couple inches wider than the waist of the bulb, and a bag of premium potting soil. Put some soil in the bottom of each pot, position the bulb on the soil so that at least half the bulb will remain above the top of the pot, and then fill the pot with more soil. (Do not bury your amaryllis-to-be; at least half of the bulb must be out in the open air for the plant to thrive!) Sit the pots in a few inches of water for an hour or two, let them drain and then just place them in a warm spot; 75 degrees F. is ideal. They don't need right light yet.
In a few weeks, fresh green flower stalks will appear at the top of the bulb. When they do, move the plants into bright light, water lightly and turn them every couple of days so they get equal light on all sides. The entire process typically takes six weeks from planting to flowers opening, so if you get right on it, your home-grown lovelies should have big buds ready to impress by Christmas day. (And plants with big buds travel much better than ones with open flowers.)
And really, all you have to do is pot them up and provide growing instructions and an approximate flowering date. I know a lot of people who would rather have something in bloom in the dark days of February than one more bright thing at Christmas proper. (To learn how to induce rebloom later on, read this previous Question of the Week.)
Spring bulbs: Every fall, I receive boxes of Spring bulbs from online and catalog suppliers; and this year, one of them invited me to pick my own order instead of receiving some new release or bulbs representative of the latest garden theme. But my landscape is already as full of bulbs—25 years worth—as I am of soup. And I was inspired to try some forcing by my interview earlier this year with Art Wolk about his book, "Bulb Forcing for beginners and the seriously smitten."
…So I ordered an assortment of crocus, tulips, grape hyacinth and daffodils (specifically 'Tete-a-tete', my favorite member of the Narcissus family and a variety that's well-known in forcing circles), got a big bag of the lightest potting soil I could find, lightened it up some more by mixing in a lot of perlite (a natural mined mineral that's popped in big ovens until it looks like little Styrofoam balls) and gathered up some of my nicest pots. (That would be the ones without cracks in them.)
I filled the pots halfway with my soil-free mix, placed the bulbs on top (really crowding them in tight; touching side-to-side from the center to the edges), filled the pots the rest of the way up, sat them in a few inches of water for a couple of hours, let them drain and then took them down to the 'beer fridge' in the basement (which is mostly used for its freezer). That fridge is now set at 45 degrees F. and filled with pots labeled with two important notations—the name of the bulb and the date the pot went into The Big Chill. (Important: There can't be any fruit in your 'forcing fridge.')
Little bulbs, like crocus, can come out after ten weeks of chilling; big bulbs like tulips should chill for 14 weeks. Longer chills are better than shorter (you can keep them in the chill until mid-summer and really confuse your friends!); and after chilling, the pots need to come out into a warm environment and bright light. (If they're blooming in the Spring, they can even go outside.)
Now, at this point in the season, your gifts won't be ready for the holidays, but you can wrap a photo of the pot with a note saying, "your home-grown gift will be delivered in the Spring." And I bet you'll get a great deal on any left-over bulbs you can find….