I was really looking forward to bulb forcing this winter. I had read Bulb Forcing by Art Wolk, my new bulb-forcing bible (review here), and was inspired to broaden my selection of bulbs to force, plus I had a gift certificate from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs that made broadening my selection painless. So far, however, the results have been disappointing.
I had ordered ‘Winter Sun,’ a variety of paperwhite narcissus reputed to be “fragrant, fast to bloom, a speedy bloomer and very easy to grow”–that’s straight from the catalog copy. I was looking for a paperwhite that had a fragrance similar to the poet’s narcissus (Narcissus poeticus) our family treasures each spring. I had read that ‘Winter Sun’ had a milder fragrance than the typical paperwhite, and I thought that was a good place to start.
The bulbs arrived in October and I potted them up right away, hoping for blooms by Thanksgiving. I did get a few blooms, but most of them were blasted, and the plants didn’t seem as floriferous as I had been expecting. I was so disappointed I didn’t take any pictures, which I now regret, because I want to show you what blasted buds look like. Double poet’s narcissus often has this problem, and I found an old photo that has some blasted buds in it.The buds look brown and papery and they will never open.
Troubleshooting bud blast
I had glossed over the numerous times Art Wolk emphasized how he learned by trial-and-error. Somehow I thought since I was learning from his errors, I would have none of my own. Ha! Mr. Wolk says that bud blast is caused by one of three things: improper chilling time, improper chilling temperature, or inadequate watering when the flower bud is beginning to expand. You’re not supposed to have to chill paperwhites, so that eliminates the first two problems and leaves us with inadequate watering. I had used a self-watering container that was long and narrow (picture here) so I could easily keep it on a window sill. The reservoir indicated it was full, but perhaps the roots hadn’t traveled that far? I had used this container to force bulbs before with reasonable success, so I wasn’t expecting problems. If you want to see well-grown ‘Winter Sun,’ go visit A Garden For The House. You will notice Kevin Lee Jacobs describes them as easy, too. Sigh.
I had also ordered a few ‘Symphony’ Dutch iris. Imagine my surprise to learn they are only hardy to USDA Zone 6. How that slipped by me during the ordering process I don’t know, except that I am a sucker for pale yellow, and they are in the same general area of the catalog as other irises which are hardy here. Back in October I had no clue that we were going to have a Zone 6 winter where the temperature never drops as low as -°10F (so far) and that they might actually survive outdoors, so I figured I might as well try to grow them indoors. I potted them up in soil and brought them down to the basement, putting them in the coldest spot I could find. (Because our heating system is in the basement, many areas there are too warm. However, the garage gets below freezing; that’s too cold.)
I guessed they would need at least eight weeks of chilling, so I was surprised to see shoots emerging a mere three weeks later. What to do? Wolk’s book only discusses forcing Iris reticulata, but he does encourage you to put emerging bulb foliage in full sun and cool temperatures. Since the garage is attached to the south side of the house, there aren’t too many windows that receive southern exposure–the fullest sun you can get in winter. Of the east-facing windows, the only one that isn’t partially shaded by a porch roof is in the warmest room of the house, where the wood stove is. The west facing windows are mostly inaccessible for plants. I compromised on an east-facing window that did look out onto the porch, but was much cooler. This was the result:
Troubleshooting missing flowers
Well, why? It could be that the bulbs weren’t flowering size. I am not that familiar with Dutch iris, but my past experience with Brent and Becky’s tells me they would not send inferior bulbs. Since Wolk only discusses reticulated irises, not Dutch irises, there’s no specific advice from him to guide me. But he does discuss what goes on inside a bulb when it’s chilled (technically called vernalization). One thing that happens is chemical changes take place that enable the flower stalk to elongate when it’s time to bloom.
So those irises may have flowers that are stuck inside the bulb because the stem wasn’t chilled long enough. And it wasn’t chilled long enough because I saw it sprouting. And it was sprouting because my carefully chosen spot was still too warm to persuade those bulbs that it was winter. Wolk says 48°F is the ideal temperature for vernalization. I have a sensor at my carefully chosen basement spot and it’s a bit warmer–on average 51° I’d say. For a plant that thinks -10°F to 0°F is the coldest winter will ever get, 51° probably feels like it’s safe to come out now.
I really don’t know why. It was an experiment I conducted because I thought I had nothing to lose–the bulbs wouldn’t survive outdoors anyway–but if I ever mistakenly order Dutch iris again, I think I’ll take my chances planting them in the great outdoors, in the warmest microclimate I can find.
Part of the fun of gardening is trying new things, but it’s always more fun when the new things work out. I just started forcing the hyacinths I put in the refrigerator October 17th. Good thing I wrote that on the tag, because I thought I had marked the date on my calendar when I could start taking them out, but that would have been December 25- January 2 (10 – 11 weeks). I could have started them two weeks earlier if I had checked the tag instead of the calendar.I bought a little pot of primroses to hold me over until the hyacinths bloom. It cost less than a gourmet chocolate bar and will cheer me up longer. And I have had good luck planting these sweethearts outside in the spring. For that reason I always pick a color I want to have in the garden.
Inspired by the words of Elizabeth Lawrence, “We can have flowers nearly every month of the year,” Carol of May Dreams Gardens started Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. On the 15th of every month, garden bloggers from all over the world publish what is currently blooming in their gardens, and leave a link in Mr. Linky and the comments of May Dreams Gardens.