At this time of year, when gardens around seem to be entering the deep sleep of winter, it’s wonderful to see spring-flowering bulbs bursting to life on a table in our homes or on a windowsill overlooking a winter landscape.

Paperwhites are narcissus bulbs that do not require a chilling period like most of the family.  These fragrant beauties will sprout and bloom in a matter of weeks and are the ideal indoor flower to cheer you up in those darker days of winter.  Simply put, they bring a bit of spring indoors.

This project is not only fun, it also super easy and does not require a lot of fuss.  You can either plant them in soil as you  would any other plant, or you can go “soilless” which means you can grow them in pebbles, beads or any other soilless media.

For the soilless method you will need a (watertight) vessel or a vessel that will hold water, pebbles, beads, gravel or marbles to form a footing for the growing roots, and a regular supply of water. If you want to keep the flower stems shorter and sturdier, a dash of alcohol, such as vodka or gin (they don’t seem to be fussy) is said to do the trick.  Mix the alcohol with water at a rate of 1:10.  This solution should be added when the sprouts are a couple of inches tall.

Tip:  A taller cylindrical glass vase is ideal as the walls of the vase help prevent the flower stems from falling over. 

I love the look of a line of similar containers on a windowsill, whether it’s a variety of pots in your favourite colour, rustic galvanised mini-pails, or simple glass vases. Fill them about one-third full of pebbles. If you are using clear vases, I suggest pebbles or beads that work well with your décor (bright red beads, for example, if you want to brighten up the room, or shiny black river stones for a more classic look). Add as many bulbs as will fit into the vessel, pushing them down a little to stabilize them. They do not need to be pressed too far in as the roots will soon pull the bulbs firmly into place on their own.  Always keep the water level just below the base of the bulb.

When the stems are a few inches tall, tie them loosely with some raffia, matching ribbons or rustic twine. Within 2 to 3 weeks the blooms will begin to open and if kept in a cool spot, you can enjoy a continuous display for up to 2 weeks.

Planting Paperwhites in Soil

If you prefer to plant your paperwhites in soil, plant your bulbs using a well drained potting soil (GardenWorks Cactus and Succulent Soil is great for this) in a pot that has drainage holes.  You can plant as many bulbs as can fit in the pot and as close as you like.  Not only do they look better en masse, but they support each other from falling over.  Cover only lightly with soil.  I like to keep the bulb’s “shoulders” above soil level as I find that their coppery brown skins are quite decorative.  Press the soil down around the bulbs to prevent them from falling over, and water well.

Place your freshly planted pot in a coolish spot (around 10-15C) and wait for them to sprout, watering sparingly just to prevent the soil from drying out completely.   I say cool because if the room where you start them off is too warm, the tops tend to sprout before the roots have formed, creating a flower stem that may topple over.  Once the roots have established and the bulbs have stabilized (the leaves and buds should be a few inches tall) move it to a warmer spot in your selected location.  Before you know it, you will have a lovely pot of fragrant white blooms. 

For a finishing touch, I like to decorate my potted paperwhites with blueberry or huckleberry stems.  The addition of mini lights creates a little charm.

Written by: Peter Fitzmaurice

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