Bulbs Through The Year For Constant Flowers

There is really nothing to growing flowers from bulbs these days because the merchants seem to make things easier and more foolproof all the time. A few years ago, when I was told that I could buy lily bulbs ready potted and that they would flower in about eight weeks with very little attention, I was doubtful, knowing that amateurs tend to have certain difficulties with lilies. But the bulbs lived up to the claim. And they were delightful. These lilies, a new hybrid called Harmony in this case, come already planted in containers together with complete instructions for their cultivation.

They are just one example of what are called ‘prepared’ bulbs. There are many more. Most people know about prepared hyacinths because they have been with us for a long time now. The bulbs are lifted as usual from the fields after they have been ripened and are then stored in special low-temperature chambers where the humidity is also controlled. This is done to accelerate the formation of the embryo flower bud. But where you can keep untreated bulbs waiting a little while until it is convenient to give the time to planting them, these prepared bulbs should be planted immediately they are received.

Most people order prepared hyacinths because they wish to have them in flower for Christmas. If they follow the planting instructions which the merchant sends with the bulbs they are almost certain to get them to bloom at that time.

The Roman hyacinthhyacinth

However, there are other little hyacinths which will bloom early quite naturally. Of these the white Roman hyacinth is perhaps the best known. Their bulbs are very small. The flowers are nothing like the opulent spikes of the other kinds of hyacinths, but on the other hand more than one is produced from each bulb. They are dainty enough to be planted with table decorations in mind. The method of growing them is simplicity itself, because they can even be grown in pebbles and water (I use well-washed shingle) with the water level just below the bases of the bulbs. If they actually sit in water the flower spikes will be stunted when they grow. They can also be planted in bulb fibre or in any of the potting composts.

Like most other spring-flowering bulbs they should be grown in the cool and the dark until the roots are strong and firm, when they can be brought out into the light. As Roman hyacinths are early types this will mean about the beginning of November. Do not be in a hurry to bring any bulbs into heat. They need to mature slowly. A temperature of about 50°F (10°C) will do for the Roman hyacinths. Once the flowers look near to opening you can bring them into a warm room. Do remember that the warmer the atmosphere into which you bring them the shorter their lives will be. Keep them watered, but only moderately.

If you think of Roman hyacinths in terms of flower arrangement, although they are actually growing you can plant them in such a way that you can dispense with some cut flowers while they are in bloom. Prepare for plant arrangements well ahead. When you are filling the bowl lower an empty flower pot into the centre, or even more than one if you are planting a large bowl. Let it stay there while the roots of the bulbs are growing, for they will by-pass it neatly. When you finally bring the bowl out into the open have ready a plant, a variegated ivy or a good specimen of tradescantia, for example. Take out the empty flower pot and replace it with the plant. This will mean that while waiting for the hyacinth blooms to appear your bowl will have interest and colour. Alternatively you can ‘plant’ a container full of water and when the time comes fill this with an early spring mixture, ivy trails and berries, winter flowering jasmine, snippets of early blossom such as viburnum, or perhaps even a separate flowering plant such as a little azalea or a cyclamen.

There are some early varieties of hyacinths which can be grown in exactly the same way as the Romans. These are coloured pink, blue and rose. All are delightfully fragrant. If you like the more delicate types of hyacinths try the Cynthella varieties. There is a really wide range of colours in these. They will flower from the middle of January onwards. And incidentally, a mixture of these planted outdoors will give you some lovely flowers for cutting later in the spring.

Lily of the valley

Like the true lilies referred to earlier, lily of the valley (botanically convallaria and not a lily) can also be bought as a packaged deal. These will flower in three weeks exactly from the time they are despatched by the supplier. These are also ready planted, usually ten ‘crowns’ to a pot. Naturally you can mass several pots in one container for a splendid arrangement. But I suggest that when you take your Roman hyacinths out of the dark you plant a pot of lily of the valley in the centre instead of, or as well as, another kind of plant. This way you will have a really fragrant spring-like group in the darkest days of winter.

Alternatively, instead of the packaged deal you can buy specially prepared crowns and pot the lily of the valley yourself. These are perhaps a little more trouble. In this case they have to be planted immediately they are received in peat, leaf mould, a standard potting compost or even in sand. In any case the medium must be kept constantly moist. They must grow in a temperature of 50-55°F (10-13°C) in a moist but dark place. You can grow them under the sink but you would have to keep spraying the air unless you covered the plants in some way. A good method is to put the pot inside a black plastic bag and fasten this at the top. Peep into it from time to time and when the leaves are 3-4 in. high bring the pot out into the full light. Keep it watered of course.

When one considers how simple it is to grow some kinds of bulbs, it really does seem to be making heavy weather of it to go to all the traditional business of potting certain kinds, plunging them out of doors in deep ashes and so on. This is an ideal method for those who need a hobby but there are several easier ways.

Bulbs to grow in water

Take the ‘puddle lovers’ for instance. There are several kinds which, like the Roman hyacinths, will grow in nothing but pebbles and water, with just a little charcoal in among the stones to keep the water sweet. Some of the prettiest of these are the polyanthus or bunch-flowered narcissi. If you so wish you can order specially treated bulbs so that they will flower in time for Christmas, in which case you will have to follow the directions faithfully.

For any kind, prepared or not, use rain water if possible and deep bowls. Put pebbles in these to within about 2 in. of the rims. Place as many bulbs in each bowl as you like, so long as they do not actually touch each other. Wedge them upright ifnecessary with a pebble or two. The water should come just below the bulb bases, not actually touching them. The bowls must then be placed in a cool place, but this time it is not so important that it is completely dark, although the bulbs always seem to grow better when they have been in the dark. An easy way ofproviding darkness is simply to make a kind of cone of dark or thick paper and place this over the bowl. There are other types of narcissi, which include daffodils, which can be grown this way.

They must be kept cool, with temperatures no higher than 45°F (7°C). By the end of November they can come into warmer temperatures, though still cooler than normal living room warmth. Grow them on a window-sill in good light so long as this is not over a radiator. The growing plants should not be coddled.

There are some bulbs easier to grow. Colchicum or meadow saffron for example, sometimes wrongly called autumn crocus. These have so much nourishment packed into their great fat bulbs that they will grow without soil or even without water. All you have to do is stand the bulbs in a low bowl or something of the kind and wait for the flowers. The bulbs are on sale in late summer and the flowers appear in autumn. For a memorable decoration buy several and fill a bowl.

Crocuses and tulips

The spring crocuses generally are a little more tricky to grow indoors. Failure usually lies in bringing them in too soon, they must spend the early part of their sojourn in bowls or pots out of doors. They should not be brought in until the buds are almost ready to open. However, Crocus vernus Vanguard will bloom for Christmas so long as it is potted early. Crocus crysanthus varieties also are good and early for indoor decoration. The large Dutch varieties can be disappointing and in their case white and purple varieties force but yellow ones will not do so well. I have grown the former quite well in pebbles and water.

Not all tulips force well but there are a few which do and generally speaking they need careful cultivation. They should be planted in soil and pots should be plunged out of doors. Timing when they are brought indoors is also important. The double tulips are attractive, a little like full blown roses and some are unexpectedly fragrant. Do not mix varieties in one bowl and this goes for all bulbs. You will get uneven growth if you do.

You can also buy just a few varieties of early tulips which are specially prepared to flower for Christmas. These are mainly reds except for one or two yellows, ideal colours for the season. Once again if you want you can plan ahead for mixed arrangements, introducing empty vessels or pots around which the roots will grow. This is a much better way than lifting flowering bulbs from boxes and making mixed arrangements, for inevitably some root damage is caused this way. It is most important that you do not try to hurry tulips into flower. Let them grow slowly and in a maximum temperature of some 65-70°F (18-21°C) and always in good light once they have been brought out from the dark.

The exciting ‘amaryllis’

Probably no other bulbs are so exciting to grow as those called amaryllis by

the bulb merchant and hippeastrum by the true plantsman. (Amaryllis,

strictly, are belladonna lilies which grow outdoors and flower in the autumn.)

Like so many other bulbs these too can be bought prepared to flower by

Christmas day. Otherwise they are not even potted until January or February.

Sometimes specially treated bulbs are on sale in summer for autumn flowering.

There is one point about hippeastrums which differentiates them from most

other bulbs: they respond to bottom heat. This means that they can be grown

on a sunny window-sill over a radiator, so long as watering is not forgotten

and you can provide a little extra humidity near the plant.

When they are potted half the bulb, the ‘nose’, should be above the soil. They must have a well-drained potting compost and it is wise to mix this with a good proportion of clean silver sand if you have any doubts about its porosity. One bulb merchant recommends that you soak the lower part of the new bulb and its roots in tepid water for about five days before potting it. Pots should not be too large, just wide enough to allow about 1 in. of soil all around the bulb. Give it just a little water at first, then water it freely once growth begins. The pot should never stand in water.

Lilies and little orchids

Prepared or treated lily bulbs can be bought which when planted in December

will flower in February or March. Many kinds of untreated lily bulbs will

grow well in pots. Failure lies in keeping them too warm in the early stages. They should be in a cool place at about 50°F (10°C). Here the soil should be kept moist but not wet. Alternatively the pots can be plunged in the garden and covered with 2 in. of peat or bracken. Once the shoots come through and are about 3 in. high the pots can be brought into a frame, a cool greenhouse or a window-sill in a cool part of the house. Not until the buds are really fully formed should the plants be brought into heat. They must be shaded from the sun. You need good pots, 6 in. in diameter and more if you are growing several bulbs to a pot. The tips of the bulbs should be about

in. beneath the soil surface.

There are many plants which will grow the year through from bulbs. Some need not go out into the garden after they have flowered but need to be rested and ripened after flowering, like the hippeastrum. These include nerines, veltheimia, eucomis, haema-nthus, hymenocallis, sprekelia and oxalis. Clivias are handsome plants though large and they do not need to die down in the same way.

If you like fragrant flowers grow Acidanthera murielae. Plant the corms in late March to early May, five corms to a 6 in. pot. Keep them on a windowsill in a warm room or in a greenhouse. Water freely as the corms grow vigorously and just a little at other times. Dry them off when they fade.

In the bulb merchants’ catalogues you will usually find bulbs, corms, tubers, crowns and pseudo-bulbs all grouped and classified as bulbs, purely for the sake of convenience. Not strictly a bulb but sold as such is the charming little window-sill orchid bletilla. These also are treated and often sold packaged. They are charming flowers and so easy to grow. I bought the loose, not packaged ‘bulbs’ and planted six together in one shallow bowl in one of the soil-less composts. I found they needed plenty of water during their peak growing period; planted in March, they flowered in May. The sprays oflitde orchids took a long time to open which was pleasing, for the individual blooms did not last many days. Bletilla can be planted from December onwards. They can be grown outdoors in a sheltered rock garden.

Reviving after a rest: All spring bulbs and lilies including convallaria which have been forced into early bloom can be planted in the garden as soon as the weather permits. They will take two or three years perhaps to make up the vigour they have lost through being forced but they will flower again one day. Hyacinths never produce such large blooms again, but the smaller flowers are delightful and very graceful for arrangements.

A browse through a bulb or seed catalogue can be very rewarding because you can find many lovely plants which can be grown from tubers such as begonias, those with the great rose-like flowers. You have to start the tubers in February or March in peat or leaf mould in a temperature of about 65-70°F (18-21°C). Transfer them to larger pots as necessary. Water moderately at first, freely later. Feed with liquid plant food when the buds begin to form. Shade the plants from sun and after they have flowered give the tubers a resting period.

Gloxinias need much the same treatment except that they are best either watered from below or plunged in moist peat.

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