Eventually all gardeners have to face the truth; it’s over. The outdoor gardening season that is. Take a look out your window. Is there any colour left, save for the green lawn and the brown leaves? Who wants to garden when the wind gusts to 70 km/h?
Fortunately gardening doesn’t stop when November arrives, it just moves indoors for a few months. It’s time to plant indoor bulbs to have them blooming around Christmas; a fun project that you can do with your children or grandchildren.
Paperwhites are in stock now in the garden centre. Botanically known as Narcissus tazetta they form icy white blooms about five or six weeks after they’ve been planted. Aside from the fact that they’re simple to grow paperwhites have an amazing fragrance that fills an entire top floor of a house when the flowers open.
I must make a confession, however. I still can’t decide, even after twenty plus years in horticulture, whether the fragrance of a paperwhite is sublimely sweet or strongly reminiscent of the paint bay at my uncle’s auto body repair shop! I’m sorry. They do smell wonderful, but when I catch a whiff I’m about eight years old and standing in Uncle Ivan’s body shop with my Dad watching my uncle paint a car.
Paperwhites will grow in a shallow bowl filled with gravel and water, but as they get taller they tend to fall over, so I recommend using soil for better support. Use a bowl about 15 cm. in diameter; you’ll be able to plant five bulbs.
Fill the bowl about 2/3 full with soil and water it down, then plant the bulbs on top and fill the rest of the bowl, leaving the green growing tips uncovered. Leave about ½ inch of space at the top to allow for watering.
Keeping the bowl in a cool location will slow the growth, and result in a better performance. If the temperatures are too warm the stems will shoot up and begin to stretch toward nearest window. Move the bowl to a cool room or heated garage and bring it out to show off in the evening if you can’t keep the temperature cool during the day.
You may have seen the news story about research at Cornell University finding that a 4 to 6% solution of alcohol mixed in water will make the stems of paperwhites up to 50% shorter. Something about the alcohol interfering with the transmission of water up the stems. I don’t know, however, if you want to use the “good stuff” on your paperwhites with the holiday entertaining season coming up and don’t use anything that contains sugar.
The elegant shape of paperwhites and their bright white blooms combine well with most holiday colour themes. Groups of blooming plants look beautiful when combined with candlelight or they can be planted up with smaller poinsettias and tropical houseplants to create a lovely dish garden.
You can also enjoy hyacinths indoors in a few weeks by potting up “pre-chilled” bulbs in a similar fashion. No paint bay smell here thankfully, as hyacinths have a wonderful fragrance that will help take the edge off the rapidly approaching winter, and remind us that spring will eventually arrive.

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