Amaryllis aftercare…

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Here is what’s left of this holiday season’s amaryllis crop. I started the cycle with 15 bulbs held over from the last couple of years and 36 fresh bulbs from my favorite grower, Van Engelen, Inc.

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A veritable forest of blooming beauties–this shot taken December 6, 2017. These are the two new varieties I tried in 2017: ‘Rozetta’, a ruffled double, and ‘Blushing Bride’, a paler pink single.

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Amaryllis ‘Rozetta’
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Amaryllis ‘Blushing Bride’

I give away many potted bulbs throughout December, including dropping off small groups at local retirement centers and at businesses I patronize throughout the year. The majestic blooms towering over a few green sword like leaves never fail to elicit a smile from the recipient! For many years I attached a card printed with directions to answer the perennial question “What do I do with it when it is finished blooming?” but lately I have had to field that question less often–probably Alexa and Siri are doing my work for me.

In the first photo you can see I still have several pots with stalks in bud or bloom. For many of these pots you are seeing the 2nd or possibly 3rd bloom stalk. I have had amaryllis continuously in flower since the week after Thanksgiving and expect to enjoy them several more weeks.

Three options exist for your post-holiday amaryllis: thank it for its service and show it the compost bin; plant it in the ground; hold it over to force it again next year. I am going to assume you are not hell bent on the first one or you would have skipped this post!

For either of the remaining paths, start by keeping the potted bulb inside until overnight temperatures reliably exceed 60 degrees F. Give the pot a sunny spot so the plant will continue to produce chlorophyll and healthy green leaves. Many amaryllis will continue to bloom off and on throughout spring and summer if you do not force them into a dormant period. Remember–growing in the ground these plants are naturally spring blooming perennials, waking up due to soil temperature and day length after a long winter’s nap. As each bloom fades you can cut it off but try to leave the stalk intact to die back naturally as it helps to feed the bulb.

If you live in USDA Horticulture Zone 9 or warmer, the bulbs can be planted in the ground. Remember to shelter them inside until your nights have reached the 60 degree mark and then harden them off gradually, introducing them to sun gradually over several days. They need well-drained soil, bright filtered sunlight, a neutral pH soil and will be most reliable if planted in an area getting no supplemental rainfall from mid-summer through fall. One of my Georgia neighbors (shoutout to Shelly T.) has an entire bed filled with amaryllis from Christmases past and it was spectacular in the spring. My success with these bulbs planted in the ground has been miserable. It is challenging for me to find a spot where water can be limited July-October because everything else in my garden must have irrigation to survive those months AND the snails send out their house party invitations as soon as they hear the whisper of the ‘A’ word.

I have had pretty good success keeping the potted bulbs through spring and summer with the goal of forcing them for another season. It never hurts to try!  When your area has reached appropriate night time temps and you have brought your pots out into the sunlight gradually (hardening them off), find a resting spot for them with about 6 hours of sunlight. Warning—Fresno gardeners need to make that filtered sunlight! I keep my pots corralled in the plastic bins (I have a set in which drainage holes have been drilled) you saw in my post Winter’s royalty… making them easier to move as a group if I need to adjust for sun or water. Give them a little shot of diluted houseplant fertilizer every month. The foliage will be floppy and unattractive but do not trim it back. Water regularly until mid-July when it is the time to convince your bulbs it is winter and nudge them into dormancy. Store the pots in a dry, dark location and withhold water. The lack of water and darkness will cause the bulb to go dormant with the foliage dying back as nutrients are reabsorbed by the bulb. If the stars are correctly aligned you will be rewarded by a nicely fattened up bulb when the big reveal is made in late October. A little soil refreshment may be done at that point but keep the same sized pot–amaryllis like to be cozy in their pots.

It took me many years to realize that the neatening up I do on my tablescape plants–cutting off each spent flower stalk close to the base–is detrimental to my success in forcing the bulbs for a second year. In achieving an attractive display I was removing much of my bulb’s future nourishment. It is a hard line to walk for me but at least now when I whack that stalk I am making an informed choice and accept that I may diminish the return of my bulb.

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Still to look forward to–my large pot of 10 Royal Dutch Amaryllis ‘Hercules’. This class of amaryllis takes about 4-6 weeks longer to bloom than the Christmas Flowering group. I should have a mass of blooms by Valentine’s Day.

I simply could not have Christmas without amaryllis and poinsettias. It is part of human history to associate particular flowers with special seasons or events in our lives and we hold these  associations as dear to our hearts as the memories of the blooms our parents or grandparents nurtured. It is also uniquely human to revel in our ability to control the bloom periods of our favorite bulbs, enjoying them in seasons when they would not naturally bloom. There are many other bulbs that can be easily forced for indoor beauty in winter–narcissus, crocus, hyacinths and lily of the valley to name a few. I have only tried a couple of these but am going to revisit my bulb catalogs in the fall and make some selections for 2018!

 

 

Perfect poinsettias…

I know I am not the only one for whom the arrival of truckloads of bold red poinsettias to every type of business in possession of a cash register signals the coming of Christmas. I recently had the opportunity to spend an hour with Belmont Nursery owner Jon Reelhorn and learn more about the journey all those plants make in the months before they end up on our mantels, holiday tables and front porches. Thank you to my friend and blog follower Ann D. for making the introduction to Jon–I learned so much!

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What we think of as the blooms are actually bracts–a leaf modification. The flower is the tiny yellow center!

Within minutes of shaking hands with Jon and stepping into the first of several covered greenhouses I would see, he disabused me of my clearly outdated understanding that growing poinsettias is a process of precise calculations of  daylight hours and manipulating those daylight hours on a schedule of black-clothing to the ultimate end of bringing the plants into bloom just at the right point for retail sale.

Let’s step away from the poinsettias at Belmont for a brief history lesson which starts with the Ecke family of Southern California. In a 2008 article, the Los Angeles Times characterized the 4 generations this way: “The Ecke family of Southern California is to poinsettias what DeBeers of South Africa is to diamonds.” I’ll try to put the story in a nutshell for you. German immigrant Albert Ecke and his family established a dairy and orchard in northeastern Los Angeles in the early 1900s. The green and red poinsettia shrub native to Mexico and Central America grew wild throughout Southern California and Mr. Ecke started to grow the plants outdoors on farmland in Hollywood, selling them from street corner stands.

Albert Ecke’s son, horticulturalist and businessman Paul Ecke Sr., saw the plant’s commercial potential. Through his closely guarded propagation efforts the somewhat straggly outdoor plant was turned into a sturdy floriferous potted plant and he moved the operation to Encinitas on  the San Diego coast. Paul Ecke Jr. expanded the family business and by the 1960s the plants had been moved indoors to greenhouses. Where the family once shipped thousands of plants by rail all over the US, Paul Jr. saw the benefit in selling the cuttings to other nurserymen to be grown locally. The uniform plants with multiple branches emanating from a single stem are still referred to as the “Ecke style”.

In the early 1990s a university researcher published an article revealing to the horticulture world that the Ecke poinsettia secret was not in the pollination or breeding but in the grafting of two types of poinsettias, thus opening the door to competition. The last poinsettias were grown for sale at the Encinitas ranch in 2006 and the business was sold in 2012. Breeding efforts in the last 2 decades have produced plants of many hues and plants with crinkled or marbled bracts. Most importantly, advances in breeding have lead to plant cultivars which bloom naturally early enough for the Christmas sales period–no more counting the daylight hours and black-clothing. Now, back to Jon and the Belmont Nursery poinsettias.

The poinsettia’s botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima. Indigenous to Mexico the plant derives its common name from Joel Poinsett, the first United States Minister to Mexico, who introduced it to our country in 1825. Today there are over 100 cultivated varieties and they remain one of the most popular holiday flowers.

Most of Jon Reelhorn’s poinsettias are pre-sold for use as holiday fundraisers. A single greenhouse at the retail location houses plants ready for shoppers; to see the breadth of Belmont’s poinsettia crop we hop into Jon’s car, along with a friendly white lab, and head for the nursery’s nearby propagation grounds. Our first stop is Henderson Experimental Gardens on McCall Avenue. Jon’s brief history of this site which has been used for plant production since the 1940s leads me to believe it is worthy of a blog post of its own–I’ll save that for another day.

Wow! The greenhouse door opens (with a small motion from Jon, the lab acknowledges that this is a no dog zone and waits for our return) to this breathtaking site.

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These are ‘Premium Red’–Belmont’s most popular poinsettia. Very sturdy–they are not caged or staked like the ones you can pick up at the big box stores-and fully red; these are the classic Christmas potted plant.

Belmont’s poinsettia crop begins with unrooted cuttings from South America. In general, the nurseryman manages the production of each variety based on its genetic flower initiation date and the desired ready for market date. For the varieties Jon favors September 21 is the target date to have his cuttings in production–making them a perfect  crop to fill some of his seasonally empty greenhouses. At Belmont Nursery the cuttings are planted in their finished sized pots (there is no successive ‘potting up’ from small to finished size) and misted only until the bracts emerge. Drip irrigation meets their water needs from then on. The plants get no extra temperature control–they grow with whatever day and night temperatures prevail. The sticky yellow tape running along the rows attracts white flies and other pests and clues Jon in to what is going on in his greenhouse so that he can treat appropriately. A very specific regimen of pinching is the key to a sturdily branched plant meeting the grower’s size desires.

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At yet another growing site–the vast majority of the several thousand plants Belmont produces each year are in 6″ containers but in this greenhouse there are a few 8″ pots being grown of some varieties with fancy Christmas Rose bract shapes. On the right above is the variety ‘Jester’. It has a much more upright bract than ‘Premium Red’, allowing more of the lower green bracts to be visible. The plants in the middle photo are slightly less mature than the ones directly above–they just need a little more time.

Jon’s favorite variety is called ‘Ice Crystal’. This year he ordered 200 cuttings but his suppliers sent him the cream and pink ‘Marble’ by mistake. The one above looking as though it has been dusted with pink sugar is ‘Ice Crystal’.

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‘Ice Crystal’ is exceptionally prized by Jon this year as he has so few!

In response to my query about my preferred bright pink plants, Jon explained that the reds are overwhelming more popular and after many years of running out of red and having the other colors left over,  he sticks to the sure winner–clear medium red like that of ‘Premium Red’.

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He did offer up this petite fuchsia called ‘Princettia’ which had lots of flowers on a small scaled plant. I checked this one out online and found that it is one of a series which includes white, several shades of pink and a red. It is being promoted as a bed and border planting in mild winter areas, blooming right up to first frost.

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The development of a Thanksgiving poinsettia called ‘Gold Rush’ has expanded the plant’s traditional season. There were a few of these left for retail sale on the day I visited. They were truly beautiful and now that I have them in my sights I plan to make them a part of my late fall tablescapes from now on.

Thank you to Jon Reelhorn and Belmont Nursery for expanding my knowledge of and appreciation for what goes into producing these iconic symbols of the Christmas season.

 

 

 

 

 

Winter’s royalty…

I’m going to take a quick detour from the San Jose gardens posts because…it’s Amaryllis Potting Up Day! Yup, that’s in capital letters because at my home it is an actual holiday worthy event. For at least the last twenty years I have potted up quantities of Hippeastrum hybrids, commonly called amaryllis, in the fall. My amaryllis intentions have ranged from growing a few to use as part of Christmas tablescapes all the way to potting several hundred a season to fuel a small home-based business when I lived in Georgia. My Georgia home had a 400 sq. foot sunroom drenched with light from 8 foot high windows on three sides, offering a perfect indoor greenhouse in which to winter force all sorts of bulbs–a serendipitous set up which I know I will never have again. Given the sheer number of these bulbs I have forced over my adult life I was amazed to find I had only a few photographs in my files. I don’t know the cultivar on this one but I can just see the tables full of plants in the background and the year indicates it is from the days when my sunroom ‘greenhouse’ was alive with color in early December.

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The amaryllis we force to bloom at Christmas time are mostly from a broad category called (no hort degree needed here) Christmas Flowering. These varieties are natives to South Africa and their southern hemisphere origin makes them especially eager to pop out of dormancy. Within this category the bulbs are then subcategorized based on their height and flower size as Symphony (largest), Sonata and Sonatini. Singles and doubles, solids and marked varieties exist in all categories. Christmas Flowering amaryllis typically come into bloom 4-6 weeks from planting.

I hold over plants (that I have not given away) for forcing in the subsequent year so in any given year I have a combination of previous years’ bulbs and newly purchased bulbs–after New Year’s I’ll add a post on what to do with your spent bulbs. I like to try a couple of new varieties each year. This year I am growing ‘Wedding Dance’ (single white), ‘Rozetta’ (double mottled pale pink), ‘Blushing Bride’ (another pink), ‘Razzle Dazzle’ (striped red and white), ‘Merry Christmas’ (single deep red) and ‘Gervase’ (yet another single pink). I also have a few held over which have become orphaned from their tags so each will be a new surprise. I purchase my bulbs primarily from Van Engelen Inc. which is the bulk quantity pricing arm of John Scheepers. Both are easily found on your internet search engine. A note about those bulbs in boxes at the big box and grocery stores–your results will look successful to you just until you see an amaryllis grown from a top quality bulb grower. Mail order bulbs from reputable growers are typically shipped out to the purchaser within a couple of weeks of their late September harvest. They are full and firm with new roots popping out, not shrunken and dried out looking. There is no telling when the bulbs in the prepackaged units came out of the ground and whether they have been stored at the proper temperature in the interim. Well, actually you know they haven’t as newly dug bulbs that you are not ready to plant should be refrigerated at 50 degrees with good ventilation–not happening at the mass market outlets!

So below you can see that I have retrieved my pots of last year’s bulbs from their dark resting place (artificially induced dormancy) and, keeping each cultivar separate, dumped each pot’s contents into a large plastic bin.

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They have been unwatered and in the dark since mid July. Not every bulb will be viable. Below you can see the contrast between the fat one (happy face–good for another year) and its neighbor (compost bin bound).

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This group is the variety called ‘Wedding Dance’ and some of these bulbs have been forced for several years. After a while they just don’t have much left and need to be replaced.

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My pots have been cleaned and partially filled with fresh, good quality potting mix.

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I clean up any dead root material from the base of the bulb and work the bulb a bit into the partially soil filled pot. Amaryllis like to be in a cozy pot with about 1/4 of the bulb above the final soil level. The bulb nose and shoulder above the soil prevent water from collecting in the sprout and rotting your bulb. Although you can force these bulbs sitting directly on pebbles with their roots submerged, bulbs planted in soil must have good drainage.

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Adding potting mix to the appropriate level.

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Giving this group a good drink and time to properly drain.

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The potting up date I select is based on how I will be using my plants and keeping the 4-6 weeks to bloom time in mind. Gifts for a ladies’ lunch the first week of December demand an earlier potting up date than having a beautiful bloom show for my Christmas Eve table. This year I will do a second mass planting 2-3 weeks from now to accommodate late December needs. I work each variety as a group and label every pot with the cultivar name and the date. In a perfect gardening world I would plant each variety over the course of several weeks so that I would have all my chosen varieties at varying stages of maturity, extending my bloom season. If anything every gets to be perfect in my gardening world you will be the first to know.

The Royal Dutch amaryllis is a second broad category you will find in catalogs and online. These originate in the Netherlands and bloom 8-12 weeks after planting. I have, with difficulty, forced these to bloom by Christmas by giving them ample bottom heat and a much warmer than average environment. Most bulb growers would prefer to make only a single shipment to each customer and thus send both kinds of bulbs out in mid-October, making holiday bloom a challenge. Probably the most well-known amaryllis in the retail market, a mid to pale pink called ‘Appleblossom’ actually falls in the Royal Dutch group–I have to think that its tendency must be more to the 8 weeks than the 12 weeks to bloom time. Two years ago I planted a container with 10 bulbs called ‘Hercules’ after a late bulb shipment (apparently a European harvest issue) the first week in November and I had this wonderful display for Valentine’s Day!

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Each bulb bore multiple 24″ stalks and the blooms measured easily 7-8″ across. It was such a breath of spring to come!

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‘Hercules’ is going to become MY Valentine’s Day amaryllis. It was almost May before the many waves of bloom stalks were finally spent. I lifted the bulbs and potted them up for gardening friends to hold over for the next year. A fresh dozen bulbs will refill my ceramic container and have two to spare for individual pots.

Because this large (20″ X 12″ X 8″ deep) container is actually a bottle cooler it has no drainage. I add a 2 inch layer of pebbles to the bottom and will be very careful with watering.

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A few inches of potting mix to make the bulb a cozy nest, a precise arrangement for fit, filling out the spoil to the bulb shoulders, and voila!

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All my newly planted amaryllis get a temporary home by my south facing dining room window. ‘Hercules’ gets a special spot on a heat mat to help him along. As the weather cools I will move them up to the loft to capture the natural movement of the warm air. About that time my second planting can assume their position in the dining room. As everything is nicely dampened now I will wait until the stems peek up to water again. The bins make it easier to rotate the pots’ positions for more even warmth from the sun.

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As with every year, I can’t wait to see the first bit of green emerge from these lifeless looking globes. Soon there will be a chill in the air and I will once again pay court to winter’s royalty.