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Gardening: High Wattage

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The holidays have come and gone, and we are entering the depths of winter. This is the time of year I need a little hint of spring to get me through. Forcing bulbs for blooms inside is a fun and simple way to bring life to the cold winter months.

Paperwhites and amaryllis are two common forced bulbs that are popular around the holidays. Easy and readily available, they make great choices for the novice forcer. Last winter I planted many amaryllis bulbs, hoping to have them blooming for Christmas. The bulbs took a tad longer than expected and bloomed like mad in February, which was actually quite nice. I enjoyed them so much more than if they had bloomed in the middle of a hectic holiday season. A few of the deep red, huge amaryllis flowers made a simple yet magnificent party centerpiece that garnered many compliments, and the others were stayed in their pots, bringing spots of color throughout the house for weeks. Amaryllis bulbs can be saved and forced inside year after year with little fuss.

Paperwhites, with their dainty white flowers and distinct fragrance -- a scent loved by some and reviled by others (low-fragrance varieties are available) — are quick bloomers, taking only two to four weeks from planting. Unfortunately, this fast-growing plant tends to topple as it grows. A nifty way to keep paperwhites short and stocky without sacrificing bloom quality is to give them a little nip. A diluted cocktail of vodka, rum, gin or a similar liquor will act as a natural growth suppressor. Shoot for a 10-to-1 ratio, 10 parts water to one part liquor, and water with the mixture once the roots have started growing. Don't try beer or wine for this trick, and for the teetotaler, rubbing alcohol will suffice.

Paperwhites are a one-shot deal and the bulbs are typically composted after blooming. Ever the optimist, I always stick mine in the ground with the hope they'll spring back up one day — and I'm still patiently waiting!

Many spring-blooming bulbs such as crocus, hyacinths and tulips can also be forced inside. However, unlike paperwhites, they require 12 to 14 weeks of pre-chilling to trick them into bloom. You can accomplish this by placing them in your refrigerator or by ordering precooled bulbs from a bulb supplier. We are lucky to have a good local source of precooled bulbs, Brent and Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester (www.brentandbeckys

bulbs.com), and the Grower's Exchange offers bulbs for forcing via

mail order on its Web site, www.the

growers-exchange.com.




Amy Hicks started Amy's Garden, a certified organic farm, in 1995. Along with husband George Ferguson, she sells specialty produce and cut flowers at local farmer's markets. Hicks also teaches classes in organic growing at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

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