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Pleasurable Paperwhites

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So easy to grow, so easy to love!

By Carol Brock

 

If you’re yearning for quick blooms before spring kicks in, look no further than the paperwhite narcissus. These bulbs are easy to force, and their pretty white flowers perfume the air with a sweet fragrance. Paperwhites are a fun project for little ones, too. Here’s a quick guide to growing these scented beauties.

1. Paperwhites aren’t picky

The tiny bulbs grow in any medium, including plain water, pebbles, sand or potting soil. Just tuck them into your medium of choice, with the pointed growing tip facing upward. If your medium is pebbles in a glass container, tuck the bulbs tightly into the pebbles and fill the container with just enough water to touch the bulbs’ bottoms. You don’t want them sitting in water, or they will rot. If forcing the bulbs in water only, make sure they sit upright by packing them close together just above the water level. If using soil or sand, mix water with the medium until it’s moist, but not soggy, then bury bulbs up to their necks, leaving their growing tips exposed. Paperwhites don’t require drainage holes or deep pots; shallow, 3- to 4-inch pots are ideal.

2.  Keep ’em cool

It’s important to give newly planted bulbs consistent moisture and keep them from sunlight in a cool, 65˚ F room. Water when the soil or sand mixture is dry to a depth of 1 inch below the surface, or when the water in a glass container is 1 inch below the bulbs’ base. When the roots set and green shoots appear—about two to three weeks after planting—place the bulbs in bright indirect or diffused light. If you’ve planted bulbs in sand or soil, give the shoots a little tug to see if the roots are set. If you’re met with resistance, the bulbs are ready to transfer to a sunlit location.

3. Toss one back

If the light is too dim and the temperature is too warm, the plants will grow tall and spindly and flop over. If that happens, wrap raffia or twine around the leaves and stems to keep them upright, or place plant stakes around the pot perimeter. You can prevent floppiness by giving the bulbs a shot of alcohol after the roots start to grow. If you’ve grown bulbs in plain water or a pebble-water mixture, pour out the water after the roots appear and replace it with a water-alcohol mixture. If they’re in sand or soil, add the alcohol-water mixture after the roots have set. Alcohol will stunt the shoots’ growth by about half, so they can’t flop. However, the flowers will be just as fragrant and proportional. Clear alcohol, like 80-proof vodka or gin, is best in a ratio of one part alcohol to seven parts water (don’t use wine or beer). The water mustn’t contain more than 5 percent alcohol, or you’ll OD your plants.

4. Enjoy your success

When the flowers open, breathe in the fragrance, feast on the eye candy and congratulate yourself on a garden task well done. After the flowers appear, keep an eye on the water level, as blooming plants dry out fast—usually in a day or two. Toss spent blooms and bulbs in the compost, since the bulbs won’t rebloom.

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