Garden Life

For a splash of spring in winter
Kiran Narain

THE art of creative gardening is not so much growing flowers as cultivating ideas. And no plant is more suited to creative gardening than the flowering bulb.

The bulb is a complete plant at a resting stage of growth, containing the bud as well as food reserves for it. Some varieties of spring flowering bulbs, including crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, irises, narcissi and snow-drops can be coaxed to bloom indoors from early January through spring.

The technique is referred to as ‘forcing’ in gardener’s lingo. The procedure consists of manipulating temperatures and light to simulate the period of cold needed for their rest, then awakening them earlier than the growth period. Ideal for the hills, they can be grown in the northern plains where winters are cold.

For forcing purposes, bulbs should be of excellent quality—heavy, disease-free, with the growing point intact. Crocuses should be ideally four inches in circumference and hyacinths between eight to 10 inches. In case of Darwin Tulips, the outer coat should be intact. Early flowering daffodils and narcissi are better suited than the late flowering varieties, Narcissus Tazetta being the best suited for forcing.

A wide range of containers from the lowly clay pots to porcelain bowls, fancy bulb jars and bulb glasses are used for spring bulbs that can be ‘forced’ to bloom indoors in cold climates from January to April, under controlled conditions. Single bulbs are grown in standard 3 to 4 inch pots whereas groups look best in shallow bowls or pans.

Crocus, hyacinth and some early varieties of Narcissi are, at times, grown in bulb glasses or arranged on pebbles in a saucer of water and later the bulbs discarded. Generally, rainwater is used and crushed charcoal is added to keep it sweet. However, bulbs are generally planted in a specially prepared fibre which contains some ground charcoal, eggshells and sphagnum moss. A little fertiliser may be added if liked.

Bulbs are usually planted from September to early November, for a succession of blooms in colder climates but from Sept-October in plains. The fibre should be rendered sufficiently moist to bind it together without it being sticky. Half fill the pot or bowl with fibre (or potting soil with equal parts of coarse sand, loam and coarse moss—if growing for outdoor use) and place the bulbs in it pressing the fibre around them. The planting depths given for outdoor planting do not apply here. Since bulbs in bowls for forcing are grown mostly under artificial conditions, they should be planted with their tips just reaching the surface of the soil which itself should be ½ inch to 1 inch below the rim of the bowl or pot.

After planting, keep the containers in a cool, dark and airy place for about six to eight weeks to develop roots. This is very important because if the containers are kept in a sunny warm place, they may fail to flower. Under controlled temperatures the ideal temperature at this stage is 7°C. Examine them after about six weeks, and if they are showing about an inch of top light green or white shoot, shift them out of the dark place gradually to a lighter but cool place ranging from temperatures 10°C to 15°C to full indoor light- say near a sunny window. Never stand the bulbs in draught or the leaves will turn yellow. Stunted growth would mean poor root system.

When the buds take on colour and are about to flower, move the plants back to indirect light to make the blossoms last. Snip off the stems when flowers fade but let the leaves grow to maturity if you plan to set the bulbs in a corner of the garden later. However, the bulbs grown in plain water or vermiculite, completely exhaust themselves and have to be discarded.