In bloom for the holidays Garden: If you start soon, you can grow your own amaryllis and show it off in time for Christmas.

October 26, 1997|By Nancy Baggett | Nancy Baggett,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If part of your pleasure in the holiday season comes from festively decorating your house or making your own gifts, consider adopting a new custom: growing amaryllis.

These showy, trumpet-shaped flowers herald the season and add holiday cheer in a way none of the more traditional plants can, particularly if you choose vivid red, white or peppermint-striped varieties. Presented in a handsome ceramic pot, a blooming amaryllis bulb also makes a thoughtful (and gorgeous) gift. And it's both easy and fun to raise these bulbs at home.

Remember, though, that amaryllis can't be a last-minute proposition. At least five or six weeks are needed for the transformation from plain brown bulb to towering stalks of blooms.

Also, because bulbs have their own internal timetable, don't count on them being in full bloom on a particular day. (It's possible to slow down or speed up the growing process a bit by moving over-eager plants to a slightly cooler location or by giving laggards a little more warmth and light. See the accompanying box for additional tips.)

It's best to be flexible by planning to display or give the plants over the entire holiday season. Or grow several more bulbs than are needed, and then enjoy it when the late-bloomers appear.

For novice gardeners, the easiest way to get started is simply to buy amaryllis kits containing a bulb, a pot with saucer, and potting medium. These kits generally cost between $9 and $12 and can be found in the same places that sell spring garden bulbs: home and garden centers, large discount stores and, on occasion, supermarket floral departments.

The amaryllis palette

Besides the reds and whites, amaryllis -- Hippeastrum is their Latin name -- come in pale to deep pinks, burgundies, mauves, peaches and corals. Probably the most popular and widely available variety is the brilliant red, 'Red Lion,' but any choice will make a beautiful display.

If you have some 3- or 4-inch castoff pots (with drainage holes) and peat moss or potting soil on hand, another alternative is to buy only bulbs. These are not always cheaper, though, because bulb price is largely determined by size. Economy bulbs ($4 to $6) tend to be smaller and will produce smaller flowers, 5 or 6 inches across instead of 7 or 8 inches. But they are just as willing bloomers as the jumbos, and if two or three are planted together, they can make just as big a splash.

Some kits come with the bulb pre-planted and ready to water. Otherwise, place the bulb narrower end up, with the top and "shoulders" protruding well above the soil surface. It's a good idea to put a few stones, pebbles or clay pot shards in the bottom first, as the blooms are sometimes so tall and large they make the pot top-heavy. (Be sure the stones don't block the drainage holes.) Water well, and set the amaryllis in a warm, bright spot, but not in direct sunlight.

Throughout the next weeks, keep the soil moist but not soggy. When a bud stem appears, turn the pot to keep the stalk extending straight upward. If it grows excessively tall, consider staking it. Soon, your reward will be at least one and sometimes two stalks of three to six lily-like blooms.

After the trumpets open, they will last longer if the yellow stamens in their centers are snipped off. A cool location also helps prolong them.

Although grower's instructions don't normally suggest it, amaryllis bulbs are easy to recycle and enjoy for several years. When the bloom stalk dies back, trim it off. Then maintain the bulb by watering regularly and fertilizing every few weeks with a standard houseplant fertilizer.

After danger of frost is past, either remove the amaryllis from its pot and plant in a semi-sunny area of the garden, or else set out the bulb, still potted, in a partly shaded location. Planted amaryllis require no attention for the summer other than occasional watering. Potted bulbs need to be fertilized at least once a month to promote blooming.

In the fall, planted amaryllis should be dug up. Shake off the dirt and put the bulbs in a cool, dark and dry place, such as a basement or garage. Potted amaryllis can be left as is but should also be put away. To stimulate the bulbs to bloom again, it's essential to let them dry out and rest in the dark for at least six and preferably eight weeks. At that point, they can be brought out and treated the same as newly bought bulbs.

Because the resting and budding periods take a total of 14 to 16 weeks, start in September for December flowering. Or, start several bulbs at different times, and enjoy blooms throughout the winter.

Although serious hobbyists take pride in keeping their amaryllis going for years, most home gardeners find that after several seasons their bulbs diminish in size and stop blooming. This is a sign that it's time to buy new ones. Of course, there's no harm in adopting the custom of adding a few more bulbs to your collection every year.

Amaryllis in a hurry

There's no guarantee amaryllis will bloom on cue, but according to Keith Sanderson, a biology and horticulture teacher at Wootton High School in Rockville, they can be hurried up. Here are tricks he's learned during the 20 years he and his students have been growing amaryllis as a Christmas project.

* Get bulbs off to a quick start with extra warmth. Have the soil warm before planting. Always water with warm (not hot) water.

* Provide bulbs with bottom warmth for the first weeks: Set them on a table or platform above a radiator or heat vent or on a heating pad on lowest setting. (Remember though, that bulbs should be warmed, not cooked.)

* After buds appear, allow plants to get plenty of light during the day, and put in an overheated room at night.

* Don't plant bulbs too deep-- leave the top third uncovered to allow air circulation and discourage rot.

* Be sure pots aren't too big. Bulbs grow best with only a little room (an inch all around) to spare.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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