Let’s start with the basics. What does the phrase “heirloom Tomato” mean? Generally speaking, heirloom Tomatoes are varieties that have had their seeds saved and passed down by gardeners for generations. The number of years various heirlooms have been in passed down may vary, but at White Flower Farm, the majority of our heirlooms have been handed down for at least 50 years.
Heirlooms share other characteristics as well. Their fruits may not be uniform or picture perfect, and their skins may be too thin to ship across country for mass marketing, but the important thing is the flavor. These Tomatoes are cherished because their flavors are some of the very finest.
‘Brandywine Red’ (also known as ‘Brandywine’) is a big, meaty Tomato with a mild, sweet, nonacidic flavor that many people rate as simply the best. And that flavor is what prompted home gardeners to save seeds of it for the past 100 years, even though the fruits occasionally develop some cracking.
The unique fruits of ‘Green Zebra’ have deliciously tangy emerald flesh and ripen in color from light green to golden amber overlaid with deep green stripes. Their flavor is special because they are both sweet and tart at the same time!
Beefsteak Tomatoes with a mild, low acid flavor make this heirloom a winner for summer entertaining. ‘Mr. Stripey’ is named for the red-and-yellow coloration of its fruits. These Tomatoes are bicolored inside as well. Slice them for salads or display them on platters to make the most of the beautiful yellow flesh and pink centers.
The name of this German heirloom translates to “little blond girl.” To us it means a bounty of golden yellow cherry Tomatoes borne in clusters of 20 to 30. Strong yields of this rich and sweet variety would be reason alone to recommend it, but the flavor is the real reason its on our list.
We are delighted to be offering a charming selection of handmade pots from our new friends at Whichford Pottery in England. During a visit to their pottery last year, we became enamored with the beauty and function displayed in their work. Scroll below to get a behind-the-scenes look at this iconic family-owned business and learn about their frost-proof guarantee.
Because of our partnership, White Flower Farm is the only national supplier of Whichford pots in the United States. You’ll find our full line of these hard-to-find pots here.
Watch the video below to see how Whichford pots are made.
Each year I look forward to Valentine’s Day with eagerness and anticipation. It’s not the chocolate and candy hearts I crave but something much more satisfying. That mid-February love-filled holiday marks the start of the Tuberous Begonia growing season here at the farm. And tending these Begonia beauties is what I love!
Each summer, our display of Tuberous Begonias attracts visitors from hundreds of miles. Our collection of the English-bred Blackmore & Langdon Tuberous Begonias showcases more than 70 varieties of this fantastic strain of Begonias. Perhaps it’s a rare sight to see on this side of “the pond” . . . so many B&L varieties all together composing a colorful symphony for the eyes.
I keep the display tubers from year to year. The age of the tubers ranges from 2 to 15 years old. The tubers have been in winter slumber mode for nearly 3 months . . . each tuber wrapped in a paper blanket with its name label tucked inside. They have been carefully nestled into lily crates, the heaviest tubers on the bottom. The guest cottage here has a fabulous dirt cellar where I store the tubers. The temperature hovers around 50 degrees F.
I like to have all the tubers potted up by March 1. In between Amaryllis photo shoots and garden planning sessions at my desk, I scramble about scaring up plastic nursery pots of various sizes, anywhere from 4” to 10” diameters. Barrels of Begonia soil are churned out for me by our potting department. On potting day, I carry my crates of precious cargo up from the basement to my potting station in the headhouse. And then, the fun begins.
Working through a crate at a time, I unwrap each tuber and, after a brief health examination, lay them out on the table being careful to not separate the name label from its owner. I keep a running inventory of the varieties and how many I have of each. Ideally, I like to have at least 3 of a variety because these are living beings and sometimes I do lose a few to rotting in storage or during the growing season. It’s a sad day if I lose a tuber that was my sole representative of a variety.
Recently, I had the table covered with tubers and I was taking my tally. A co-worker happened by and asked, “Cheryl, what are you doing with all of those cow pies?” I had to laugh, and I could see his point. The tubers do look like non-descript, brown lumps to the passerby. To me, they are beautiful. Each is unique in shape and size. Some are quite large, nearly the size of a human brain, while others fit quite comfortably in the palm of my hand. I once had a ‘Tahiti’ tuber that looked like the Starship Enterprise! (When you receive your new tuber in the mail, don’t be alarmed at its smaller size. It’s just a baby. Young, happy tubers are eager to add girth increasing in size each season. Remember that my display tubers started out as tiny tots, too!)
I assign each tuber to a pot that is just big enough to hold its occupant. This is only round one in the potting process. The plants will be transplanted into larger pots once they’ve rooted into the first. I find that stepping the tubers up in this way decreases the chances of rotting tubers. Putting a small tuber in a large, moist soil mass before the tuber can get growing can sometimes have disastrous results.
Actual potting is easy. I put soil in the pot and place in the tuber making sure its growing eyes are looking up. I add soil, firming in around the tuber as I adjust its potting depth. I like the surface of the tuber to be no more than 1” below the soil surface.
The pots then take up residence shoulder-to-shoulder in our warm and cozy propagation house surrounded by the freshly rooted cuttings of annuals and tomato seedlings. I give everyone a good drink of water and then I wait.
Here in northwestern Connecticut, the fall foliage show is nearing its peak, and in some places, the leaves have begun to fall. They rustle at our feet as we go about our rounds. This is Nature’s way of telling us it’s time to clean the garden.
Clearing out beds and borders means different things to different people. Some gardeners clear every last leaf and past-bloom plant from their gardens while others find reasons to leave everything as is until spring. We fall somewhere in the middle. We believe that maintaining a healthy garden and nutritious, well-structured soil requires different cleanup rituals for different garden spaces. At the farm, here’s how we go about it:
Remove Most Annuals
For starters, we remove most annuals. In general, these plants are easy to spot because after the first hard frost, many of them, including impatiens, begonias, and coleus, have withered and turned brown. If the spent foliage and blossoms on these plants are free of mold and disease, we put them in the compost pile. If we see traces of powdery mildew (zinnias are often afflicted), downy mildew or other diseases, the plants are put into trash that’s hauled off the property. Keep in mind that any mold or disease that’s allowed to stay in the garden will overwinter and reinfect new growth in spring.
Some annuals argue to be removed a bit later in the fall. “If the Cosmos or verbena bonariensis are still green and self-sowing, I will leave them until later,” says nursery manager Barb Pierson. “Plants like Rudbeckia ‘Prairie Sun,’ which can overwinter here, will be left until spring. Kale is pretty late in the season, too.”
Clean Out the Vegetable Garden
In the kitchen garden, Pierson removes all vegetable plants, paying special attention to any varieties, such as tomatoes, that may have fungal leaf spots and mildew. Afflicted plants must be completely removed and put into the garbage (or carted to the dump) or the same afflictions will plague next season’s plants. “Most vegetable plants are best removed unless you are growing fall lettuce or other cold crops here in New England,” Pierson says. “If we plan to plant tulips in the raised beds for a nice spring show, this is the time to do it. If we don’t plant bulbs, we will remove any soil that comes up with the vegetables and add fresh soil in spring. Compost can be added in the fall if it is fresh, but we prefer to do it in the spring because we use fully composted material. Each spring, we replace the top 1/3 of soil – at the least – for best results. Mulching can attract digging rodents so we don’t mulch the beds during the winter months.”
Perennials & Shrubs
In the perennial garden, our methods vary. In the shady beds near the store, our gardeners clean and clear away dead and dying foliage. They cut back ferns, hostas, astilbes, and ligularias. Why? One year, when they let the decaying leaves lie, they discovered that the cushy, warm environment attracted critters who dug around and sometimes nested in the leaf mulch. That would have been all right except the critters didn’t stop at the mulch. They burrowed into the roots of the plants, inadvertently killing a few, and those had to be replaced the following spring.
In areas where critters don’t pose much of a problem, Pierson and many others believe that the decaying leaves of most deciduous trees are beneficial to the garden. For starters, they form a natural leaf mulch that provides insulation for perennials and shrubs. Oak leaves, which are waxy and don’t easily break down, are particularly good for insulation. Mounding them around perennials and shrubs protects the plants from seasonal temperature swings. Pine needles are another fine insulator, and they’re especially good for acid-loving plants including rhododendrons and azaleas. Leaves that break down more readily such as maple, ash and birch leaves add organic nutrients to the soil, and help improve soil structure.
As with annuals and vegetable plants, it’s important to note that any perennials or shrubs that exhibit mold or disease should be cut back, and the spent foliage and blossoms should be carted away to the trash (not the compost pile). Plants like Perovskia (Russian Sage) should not be cut to the ground, Pierson says. “The most important thing to remove is the foliage – not the crown or stems – so I would say remove leaf litter and prune stems as you would for that variety, in general 3-4” above soil level.” Some of the perennials and shrubs most commonly affected by powdery mildew include peonies, monarda (bee balm), phlox, and roses. As with vegetable plants and annuals, if you leave afflicted plants in the garden, the mold and disease will overwinter and reassert itself in spring. The mold won’t interfere with blossom production, but it will detract from the beauty of the foliage.
As you cut down bee balms, phlox and peonies, keep in mind that there are other perennials and shrubs you’ll want to keep. While ornamental grasses can be cut back in fall (leaving 6” of growth to protect the crowns), the argument for leaving them until spring is that they look quite lovely dusted in snow. The seed heads of Echinacea and the berries of Ilex verticillata (winterberry) feed the birds as winter sets in. The pods of Asclepias, the flower clusters of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and Eupatorium, and the seed heads of Echinaceas (Coneflowers) all provide winter interest.
So clean as much or as little as you choose depending on the types of plants you have in your garden. But whatever you decide, it’s time to grab your rake and pruners, and spend a few days in the glorious autumn weather putting your garden to bed.
For gardeners with limited outdoor space or the desire to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables a few steps from the door, container pot gardening is a great way to go. While the options for container pot edible gardening were once limited mainly to salad greens and herbs, there is now a wide variety of plants – from Tomato varieties to Peppers and Eggplants – that thrive in pots and smaller garden spaces.
Growing vegetables in containers can be done in any location that has 6-8 hours of sun per day.
The benefits are obvious: There’s no need to dig and prepare a garden bed. Gardeners enjoy easy access to the pots for watering, fertilizing and harvesting. Containers can be moved to suit the needs of the plants or the gardeners. And, best of all, there’s no weeding.
There are a few obvious drawbacks: Some varieties of vegetables such as large pumpkins cannot be grown in containers. And more water and fertilizer is needed to produce a good harvest in a container. But the extra bit of effort is worth the reward of a delicious harvest.
To start a container garden of edibles, here are 9 steps to get you started:
1. Choose Your Pot
Keep in mind that the pot or pots you select must be large enough to hold soil and the roots of whatever plant or plants you wish to grow. Tomatoes and vining crops produce best in containers that are at least 20–22” in diameter. Peppers can go a little less at 16” diameter. Greens such as Lettuce prefer a broad flat pot such as a large bowl-shaped container.
Drainage is imperative! Make certain that each pot has several holes in the bottom. It is NOT necessary to put stones in the bottom of the pot.
As long as there is drainage, pots made of almost any type of material will work. Fiber pots work well but are not decorative. There are many plastic pots that are decorative, functional, and lightweight. I prefer something that’s easy to move and to empty at the end of the season.
Use a lightweight, high quality potting soil. Never try and use garden soil from your yard. After you have purchased your potting soil, mix it at 2/3 potting soil to 1/3 compost. This mixture allows the plants to retain moisture and nutrients. Types of compost can include: leaf mold compost you have made, dried aged manure, or shrimp and seaweed compost. I create a mix in a wheelbarrow or garden trug. Lightly water the mixture before placing it in your pot so the peat moss in the mix isn’t too dry.
When filling your container, firm in the soil without compacting it too much. Unpot your vegetable plant and place it in the center, if you wish, or spaced with other plants if you’re creating a combination. Add more of your container mix, pressing down gently and adding more soil until the pot is filled to about 2-3” below the lip. Always leave space at the top to create a watering reservoir.
3. Planting Depth
This is key. For Tomatoes, remove the lower leaves and plant the Tomato deep in the soil. Roots will form along the stem. (The only exception is Grafted Tomatoes, which should not be set in soil below the graft line, which is generally marked with a tie or piece of tape.)
For Cucumbers, Squash, Lettuce, Eggplant and most other vegetable starts, plant at soil level.
Tomato cages can be used for smaller Tomato plants, Peppers and Cucumbers. Cone or pyramid-shaped trellises usually work better than flat types. Chicken wire can be bent and used to make a cage. A few stakes can be placed around the perimeter of the pot to form a teepee.
Pot platforms or deck protectors can be used to move your pots around, protect your patio or deck, and allow air to circulate and water to drain from the pots.
Container plants in full sun need to be checked every day. Using organic compost will help reduce the need, but the hot sun will require that you check your plants daily. The best way to see if your plants need water is to stick your finger in the soil. If it’s dry to the touch below the surface ½” or so, it’s time to water. Learning to see signs of wilting is something that will happen as you grow plants every season. Look for the plants to be flagging a bit, or for the soil to begin separating from the sides of the container. Those are signs your plant needs water. But overwatering can also be a problem, in particular for Tomatoes and Peppers, so make sure you observe carefully and do not water during cloudy or rainy weather unless you see that the soil is dry under the surface.
Tomatoes and Peppers need regular watering and feeding while they’re growing, but when the fruit starts to mature, it’s important not to overwater or over-fertilize as this will cause your fruit to be susceptible to disease and reduce the flavor.
After the vegetables have settled into their new pots and new growth can be seen, it’s time to fertilize your plants. If your potting soil has slow-release fertilizer, you should wait at least several weeks before adding more. Use fertilizer at the rates recommended on the label. There are many organic and synthetic fertilizers on the market, and some of them specifically are for vegetables. If you use a fertilizer that is higher in phosphorus than nitrogen and potassium, it will promote more fruit. Read the labels carefully and apply what’s recommended regularly – in particular if you are watering often and the plants are actively growing prior to harvesting, make sure you are feeding. Hot sun and frequent water will leach out valuable nutrients.
7. Staking, Tying and Pinching
Stakes should be inserted into your containers at planting time. As the vegetables grow and produce fruit, tie the large branches so they have support but aren’t girdled.
To fully understand Tomato pruning, visit the Fine Gardening magazine website, www.FineGardening.com, and enter “tomato pruning.” They offer a detailed explanation of the process.
8. Insects and Disease
Prevention is the best organic method of pest control. Proper watering techniques avoid most issues with vegetables and herbs. Fertilization, full sun and air circulation are also imperative. If you do have insects or disease, use organic control measures such as horticultural oil and insecticidal soap.
Each type of vegetable has specific harvesting techniques. For Tomatoes, allow them to ripen to their mature color and feel the fruit to make sure it has soft give to it. Some varieties twist off easily when they are ready to be picked. Know the mature color and age, and resist the urge to pick too early!!
FAVORITE HERBS FOR CONTAINERS
Always plant Mints in pots! It’s very invasive in the garden, but so good for drinks and as a garnish. Plant in large pots with plenty of soil depth. Mint needs quite a bit of water so make sure you check it and add compost to the potting mix for better water retention.
Thyme is pretty and creeping so it cascades nicely over the rim of a pot. Use a shallow container because Thyme has a fine root system and is prone to root rot when given too much soil.
Cut Parsley often to keep it from flowering or “bolting.” (If it does bolt, it tastes terrible.) It’s best planted in a large pot.
It can easily be overwatered so plant it in a container that is medium depth or shallow and has good drainage. To promote drier conditions, don’t add too much compost.
Delicious and aromatic, this is a fairly aggressive grower so use a large pot and treat it like Mint.
This favorite can be quite tricky when it comes to watering. Too much water, and it’s unhappy, not enough and it’s equally unhappy. Take care when combining it in a mixed container and be sure you have good drainage!!
FAVORITE TOMATOES FOR CONTAINER POTS
Note: Many of these are compact varieties. Some are “determinant” plants, which means they do all their fruiting in one flush.
Paths serve many functions in a landscape, both practical and esthetic. A paved one can lead guests, mud-free, to the front door, or allow you to fetch the mail every day. A gravel path might provide access to a storage shed or garage year-round to fetch the lawnmower and snow shovels. A grass or mulch pathway could lead to the vegetable garden, or invite you to explore the far end of the backyard among shrubs and ferns. Paths should be treated as important design elements, allowing you to link different parts of your landscape or simply draw your eye to various focal points. Sometimes it helps to imagine yourself as a designer, not just a gardener!
Here are some ways to meet the challenge of creating successful pathways that are functional as well as pleasing to the eye.
Start with long-blooming perennials and those with handsome foliage. For a long walkway, plan to repeat some of the elements to impart a sense of unity.
Vary foliage texture for the most interesting display. Start with your favorite varieties and then look for contrast — narrow and broad-leaved or feathery and ferny leaves. For a full to partial sun location, consider the scalloped, sage green leaves of Lady’s Mantle and deeply cut foliage of hardy Geraniums. For the shade, Hostas provide handsome leaf coloration with varying shapes and sizes.
Consider compact shrubs for plenty of easy-care color. For partial or full sun, a number of Hydrangea varieties stay relatively short (3-4ft) and provide lush, showy flower heads. For full sun, there’s a whole new generation of Butterfly Bushes that mature 3-5ft tall with long-lasting, fragrant blooms.
Add romance by letting some plants grow over the path’s edge. Imagine a tumble of colorful perennial blooms such as Dianthus, Nepeta, or Coreopsis. Or the blade-like foliage of Ornamental Grasses that catch the slightest breeze and provide a sense of movement.
Using the path in the evening? White flowers remain visible for a long time after sunset, and reflect the tiniest bit of light. Hardy perennials such as white Astilbes, Gypsophila, and Leucanthemum will look clean and crisp during the day and glow at twilight.
Consider adding some annuals to a walkway, especially in the shade. Coleus, Begonias, and Impatiens provide long-lasting color and form tucked between perennials along a path.
For a simple, elegant display, a hedge-like planting of fragrant Lavender will transport you to Provence as you stroll along your sunny pathway. Plants are deer-resistant and stay attractive long after the spent blooms have been clipped off.
These ideas are just the starting points for successful pathway plantings.
With Matt Scace, Grower for the White Flower Farm Store
The gardening season is about to get underway in the Northeast, so it’s a great time to clean the garden tools.
Up at the farm, we asked Matt Scace, grower for the White Flower Farm Store, to walk us through the steps. For starters, he points out that there are a lot of different tools that would appreciate attention: axes, edgers, shears, hoes, swoes, shovels, trowels, pick mattocks, forks, and saws. For purposes of this post, we’ll concentrate on one of the most commonly used garden tools: pruners. The same techniques used to clean and sharpen pruners can be applied to lopers and the blades of some other garden tools as well.
To begin, the materials you’ll need to clean and sharpen a pair of pruners are:
dish soap, a nylon scrubby sponge, a whetstone or sharpening stone, a few drops of oil (any kind will do, from canola to WD40), a rag or paper towels, and a bit of elbow grease.
Step #1: Soak or Oil Your Stone
Some whetstones and sharpening stones require that you soak them in water for a period of time before use. Others require a few drops of oil. Follow the instructions that came with your stone. Soaking or oiling “prevents teeny, tiny bits of steel from getting stuck in the stone,” Matt says. “It’s the way oil works in a frying pan.”
Matt uses an all-in-one-tool to disassemble his Felco pruners.
Step #2 (optional): Disassemble Your Pruners
This step is optional because not all pruners or garden tools are designed for easy disassembly. Tools that don’t encourage disassembly should be left intact.
Well-made pruners, including the Swiss-made Felco models preferred by most of our garden staff, are easy to take apart. Disassembling should be done whenever possible because it’s the best way to clean and sharpen the full blade and to clean the interior junction where the blade pivots.
To disassemble: use a screwdriver, all-in-one tool, or, in the case of Felco and some other brands, the mini-wrench or disassembly tool that comes with your pruners. If you’re afraid you might not be able to put your pruners back together again, Matt has great advice: “Take out one screw, and take a picture with your cell phone. Take out another screw, and take another picture with your cell phone,” and so on. That way, you’ll have a visual record of how to put everything back together.
While you disassemble your pruners, take care to set the parts on a clean, uncluttered surface so nothing gets lost. For his demonstration, Matt used the back of a legal pad.
Step #3: Dish Soap & Water
Washing your blade is next. If you’ve disassembled your pruners, carry the blade to the sink. (If you didn’t disassemble, give the whole tool a bath. It won’t hurt anything as long as you dry the pruners thoroughly and coat the metal parts with oil later, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves . . .)
Under warm running water, Matt uses Dawn dish soap and a nylon scrubby sponge to clean the blade. The results are rather remarkable. The blade emerges shiny, and looks almost new. Cleaning the blade not only removes grit, sap and dirt, it also enhances your view of the blade’s beveled edge. Taking care of that is the whole point of sharpening, which comes next.
Matt holds the blade at the angle of the bevel as he rubs it down the sharpening stone.
Step #4: Sharpening the Blade
“The bevel on any blade is the angle at which it is ground at the factory,” Matt says. “If you look straight down on the blade of a food processor, the shiny part is the bevel. The purpose of sharpening is to maintain the existing bevel on a blade. While sharpening, you are essentially grinding along that existing bevel.” It’s important to sharpen while the bevel is easy to find, Matt says. “If you wait until you can’t find the bevel, you’re in a bit of trouble.”
Sharpening techniques vary, and they may depend on the size and shape of your whetstone or sharpening stone. Place the stone and blade in contact, and “feel for the angle,” Matt says. When you’ve found it, move the blade gently against the stone (or the stone against the blade, depending on the type you have) so abrasion begins to sharpen the edge. “Some recommend using a circular motion,” which means moving the blade or stone in small circles along the bevel, Matt says. Others run the blade down the stone in a linear fashion. The key is to maintain the angle of the beveled edge. Check your progress as you go. In the places where you’ve rubbed the blade against the abrasive stone, the blade will appear shinier. Make sure the shine corresponds to the factory-made bevel. You can check the sharpness of your blade by cutting a piece of paper: Hold the paper in one hand and slice at the edge with the blade. The blade should cut into the paper, creating a shred that curls away.
Step #5: Oil
Once you’re done sharpening, it’s time for oil. A drop or two protects steel blades, preventing rust and corrosion, Matt says. It also keeps the pivot mechanism moving smoothly. Any type of oil will do, from canola or vegetable oil to WD40, honing oil, or household 3-in-1. “Use just enough to coat the surface,” Matt says. He rubs oil all over the metal surfaces and wipes off any excess with a cloth. “The oil shouldn’t run or collect.”
Step #6: Always, Always Use the Right Tool for the Job
There will be a future post on this topic, but for now, Matt reminds all of us to use the right tool for the job. “The right tool for the job is going to reduce wear and tear, and that means you sharpen less often,” he says. The Felco #2, which he uses frequently, “is capable of cutting a great many more things than you should cut with it. When you have your nice Swiss-made Felco pruners, and you’re out cutting your Roses, you might see a coated wire tie on a Rose, and you think, ‘Oh, I’ll just cut it with the pruners, and it’ll be OK because I’monly going to do it this once.’ It is not OK.” Tools that are misused are subject to dings, degradation, and breakage. “The relationship between care and use goes together like teeth and gears,” Matt says. Make that extra trip back to the shed for the wire cutters, or whatever tool is designed for a specific purpose. “This might sound like a sales pitch, but in the long term, having the tool that’s made for the job you’re doing is less expensive.”
Ongoing Care & Rubbing Alcohol
Ideally, you should clean, dry and oil your tools after each use. Not many of us are that diligent, but the point is, buy good tools and treat them with the respect they deserve, cleaning them often.
For tools that come in contact with plant material, it’s wise to clean the blades with rubbing alcohol. “It can dramatically reduce insect and disease issues,” Matt says. A good number of plant diseases are plant-specific and won’t spread from one type of plant to another on a pair of pruners, but others can be transmitted that way, and a bit of alcohol can hinder the spread.
Have you ever looked at one of your houseplants and wondered why it wasn’t looking its best? Our team put together a series of videos to help you keep your houseplants thriving. We cover common problems with houseplants, when to water your plant, and also when and how to repot your plant.
Still have questions or haven’t found the answer you were looking for? Visit our website to chat with one of one of our knowledgeable customer service team members, or browse our collection of products for growing plants indoors.
For starters, “forcing” is a misnomer because it sounds too much like work. We’re just tricking the bulbs into thinking winter is over quite a bit sooner than it is. Forcing is an easy sleight of hand that offers the soul-restoring scents and colors of spring at a time of year when spirits sorely need reviving. But you need to plant now, in autumn, to enjoy the results when the snow flies! Although we usually think of forcing Daffodils, Hyacinths, and Tulips, many of the smaller bulbs are also extremely easy and gratifying to force: Crocus, Muscari (Grape Hyacinth), Scilla, Dwarf Irises, and Anemones also will give great results.
Forced bulbs can be divided into two groups: those that require a chilling period and those that don’t. When bulbs do need chilling, what they actually require is many weeks less than typical northern winters. (See the list at the end of this post for details.)
In a nutshell, here’s what you do . . .
Force Bulbs That Need Chilling
Pot the bulbs in any well-draining potting mix, water them, and set them aside in a cool but not freezing dark spot for the required minimum time (see below), then bring them into warmth and light in the house. The bulbs think spring has arrived and quickly sprout and flower. It’s that easy — the bulbs do most of the work.
This is a great project to do with young children, if you want to invite the kids or grandkids to participate. The actual planting is a little messy, so it’s a good idea to spread some newspapers to catch any spilled soil, gather all your pots in one spot, and do all the planting at one time.
Containers and Potting Mix
You can use any pot you like to hold bulbs you want to force, as long as it allows room for root growth — about 3-4” of space below the bulbs. This is a great opportunity to showcase flea market finds and tag sale treasures, or your favorite terra cotta pots. If you choose a pot without a drainage hole in the bottom, you’ll have to water your bulbs carefully, because bulbs that sit in soggy potting mix soon will rot. Consider using a ceramic or terra cotta pot if you’re forcing tall Daffodils or Tulips. These flowers can be top-heavy when in full bloom and may topple if grown in lightweight plastic pots.
We recommend that you plant bulbs in a soilless potting mix (available at garden centers and hardware stores). A soilless mix holds moisture but allows excess water to drain away readily.
Potting the Bulbs
To pot the bulbs, begin by placing potting mix in a plastic tub or bucket. Slowly add water and stir until the mix is moist but not soggy. This is an ideal job for a very young assistant, if you’d like to invite a child or grandchild to join the fun. Add the moistened mix to the container until the pot is about three-quarters full. Set the bulbs root-side down on top of the mix (or on their sides if you can’t tell which end is up, as with Anemone blanda). Space the bulbs much more closely than you would in the garden – they should almost touch. Then add more mix. Cover small bulbs completely with a ½” layer of mix; cover larger bulbs up to their necks, leaving the tips of the bulbs exposed. Water thoroughly after potting.
Chilling the Bulbs
To force cold-hardy bulbs into bloom, you must first encourage them to produce new roots by keeping them cool and moist for a period of time that varies by type of bulb (see listing below). The ideal rooting temperature also varies, but most bulbs flower best if stored at 40-60°F for the first 3-4 weeks after potting, then at 32-40° for the balance of the cooling period – a shift that mimics the drop in soil temperature outdoors as fall turns to winter.
The easiest way to chill bulbs is to put them outdoors and let nature do the rest. To insulate the bulbs from rapid changes in air temperature and from freezing cold, bury the pots in a pile of dry leaves held in place by a plastic tarp or in a pile of mulch, such as bark or wood chip, and cover the pile to prevent formation of a frozen crust. You also can chill bulbs in a cold frame if you’re lucky enough to have one; a cold basement; or an unheated garage (provided the temperature doesn’t fall below freezing). If you choose to chill bulbs in the refrigerator, be certain there is no fresh fruit stored inside. Fruit releases ethylene gas as a natural part of its natural ripening process, and the ethylene will interfere with flower development. In locations other than a refrigerator, it may be difficult to arrange for the ideal shift in temperature described above. Fortunately, most bulbs haven’t read the manuals, and they will root beautifully if the temperature does not stray too far above or below 40°F during the rooting time. Professional growers fill huge walk-in coolers with potted bulbs and control the temperatures precisely. Using an old refrigerator in a basement can deliver great results without ever touching the temperature controls.
The possible downside to outside storage has four little legs. If mice or other rodents have access to your bulbs, they will devour all but the varieties that are poisonous or distasteful to them (such as Narcissus, more commonly known as Daffodils). Protect potted bulbs with steel mesh, such as hardware cloth.
Please note that moisture is as important as temperature in the successful chilling of bulbs. Check the potting mix in the pots every few weeks and water thoroughly when the surface is dry to the touch.
Toward the end of the recommended rooting time, begin checking the pots for signs that the bulbs have rooted. If you see fleshy white roots poking through the drainage holes in the bottom of the pots, the bulbs are usually ready to bloom. If you don’t see roots, give the bulbs more time in cold storage. Don’t judge readiness by the appearance of shoots from the tops of the bulbs; without roots, the bulbs won’t flower properly.
Once the bulbs have rooted, you don’t have to bring them out of the cold immediately. Most will tolerate extra chilling time, allowing you to orchestrate a succession of winter bloom.
Bringing the Bulbs into Bloom
When the bulbs have rooted, bring the pots out of cold storage and set them in a bright window in a cool room (one where the temperature stays below 65°F). Bright light will help keep the leaves and flower stems compact; in weak light, they tend to flop. You’re likely to find that the bulbs have produced white shoots during cold storage. Sunlight quickly turns them green.
Keep a close eye on the moisture needs of the bulbs as they send up leaves and flower stems. Initially, the bulbs probably won’t need to be watered more frequently than once a week (if that much), but by the time they bloom, you may need to water them every day or two.
Most bulbs will bloom 2-5 weeks after they come out of the cold, heralding spring with their bright colors and sweet fragrances. Duration of bloom varies with the type of bulb and the variety but is generally shorter than you’d expect of bulbs in the garden. Warm temperatures and low humidity indoors speed the decline of the flowers. Shifting the pots out of direct sunlight and moving them to a cool room at night helps prolong bloom.
When the blooms fade, we usually recommend that you toss the bulbs on the compost pile. If you keep them in a sunny window and continue to water them, forced bulbs can be planted in the garden after the threat of hard frost has passed, but they won’t bloom well again for at least two years. Tulips rarely bloom again, but Daffodils, Crocus, and Grape Hyacinth are more likely to be worth the effort of planting.
Forcing Hyacinths Without Soil
Hyacinths can be forced in pebbles and water, or in glass jars. They still require a cool rooting period if forced this way. Special forcing glasses, in use since Victorian days, are shaped like an hourglass and keep the bottom of the bulb dry—only the bulb’s roots reach down into the water. If you are using pebbles in another type of container, place a 2-3” layer of pebbles, such as pea stone, marble chips, or river rocks, in the bottom of the bowl or pot. Set the bulbs on top of the pebbles then fill with more pebbles, leaving the top 1/3 of the bulbs exposed. Add enough water to create a reservoir for the roots, but be sure the bases of the bulbs stay above water level. If they sit in water, the bulbs will rot. Then place the container in a dark, cool area (40-50°F) for 4-8 weeks. Check the water level occasionally and add more water as necessary, keeping the water level below the bottom of the bulb. When roots have developed and leaves begin to grow, it’s time to move the bulb into a bright window in a cool room (one where the temperatures stay below 65°F). Bulbs forced in water can be planted in the garden after the threat of hard frost has passed, but they won’t bloom well again for at least two years – if ever.
Recommended Cooling Period
Professionals often recommend very lengthy cold periods, but we’ve had good results at home using the minimums listed here. Remember that bulbs can keep chilling for longer than the minimum. Please note that Tulips do require the longest period to flower successfully.
Recommended Rooting Times for Cold-Hardy Bulbs
Anemone (Windflower), 8-10 weeks
Chionodoxa (Glories of the Snow), 10-12 weeks
Crocus (Spring-blooming Crocus), 8-10 weeks
Galanthus (Snowdrops), 10-12 weeks
Hyacinthus (Hyacinth), 12-14 weeks
Dwarf Iris (Iris reticulata and other spring-blooming bulbous species), 10-12 weeks
Leucojum (Summer Snowflake), 8-10 weeks
Muscari (Grape Hyacinth, to keep the leaves shorter, store cool and dry for 6-8 weeks, then give 2 weeks of cool rooting time)
You can read the video transcript for the video “Planting a Native Garden at White Flower Farm” below:
Hi, I’m Cheryl, the head gardener at White Flower Farm. Welcome to the latest addition to our display gardens here at the nursery, the native garden.
The cast of characters for this new garden is selected from the pool of plants that are native to our Connecticut region. The purpose of this garden is to provide a safe and bountiful haven for our local birds, bees, butterflies and insects.
My planning for this garden began last fall. The first step in my design process was lots of research. I came up with a list of native shrubs, perennials and grasses that I thought might work in my space, and using the maps in the plant database on the USDA website, I was able to determine if my chosen plants were native to Connecticut.
After paring down my initial plant idea list, a final list began to take shape. Working my way down that list, more research allowed me to fill in the specifics about each plant, such as its light requirements, mature height and width, flower color and bloom time, and most importantly, what role that plant played in sustaining wildlife. I also made note if the plant had an aesthetic attribute like showy fruit or outstanding fall color. Not only did I want the garden to be useful for wildlife, I also wanted to create a pretty garden.
After collecting all the necessary details about each plant, I started to put the pieces of the garden together. I began with the shrub pieces to my puzzle, which created the structural bones of the garden, which could then be flushed out with perennials and grasses.
The first plants went into the ground in early May, with a few more subsequent waves of planting as the rest of the plants showed up and reported for duty. Much to my surprise my paper garden plan translated pretty well to the earth, as I only had to make a few minor adjustments in spacing as I laid out the plants. It doesn’t always go that smoothly.
I’m pleased with the progress of the new garden this first season. The plants, for the most part, have settled in and have started to flourish. I’ve begun to make a few notes and a “to do” list that I think will improve the garden going forth. It seems I have a little too much Verbena hastata, and I need to replace some Eupatorium perfoliatum that never did quite establish. I still want to find some Coreopsis verticillata. The straight species is hard to source. In the meantime, Monarda punctata, a last-minute addition to the cast, fills in for the Coreopsis and the bees couldn’t be happier.
Why are native plants important? WIldlife and plants that share native habitats have co-evolved over time. Native plants provide food and shelter for your resident birds and insect populations. Consider creating your own native garden, or popping in a few native plants into your existing garden. Your winged and feathered friends will be most grateful.