The kids' grandma's birthday is in January, and I'm thinking bulbs for a gift. She's getting a little achy for digging in the garden. "The knees don't bend the way they used to," she says. Consequently, her once-proud garden has learned the virtue of humility. I can tell Grandma is a little sad about it. A pot of bulbs ready for planting will bring a little green back to her old green thumb again. My kids are itching to do some planting too. My friend Bernice mentioned something recently about a way of "forcing" bulbs to bloom early. She'd read it in a magazine at the dentist's office. I liked the idea because my kids, and their grandma, would be able to see the fruits of their planting sooner. I called Mission Hills Nursery for more info. "You cannot force tulips or crocuses," replied the saleslady I reached. "You can force hyacinth or the narcissus paperwhites variety. By forcing the bulbs, you are forcing them to bloom faster than they normally would."
What is the process?
"For hyacinths, place the bulb in a little vase that has a small opening at the top so that the bulb just sits there. Then you keep watering it so that the water comes up to just the bottom of the bulb. So that as the roots start to grow, the opening of the vase supports the bulb and the roots just grow down into the water.
"For paperwhites," she continued, "you do them in a dish, anything that holds water. The bowl for paperwhites should be at least five to six inches. Usually, you put gravel or sand in to support the bulbs. And again, you keep the water level right at the bottom of the bulb. Always have water there. The reason for the sand and gravel is because if you just had the bulbs floating in water, the bulbs would just kind of bob around. So paperwhites are planted with sand and gravel."
How many bulbs per dish?
"For hyacinths, use one bulb per vase because they get a little bit bigger. With paperwhites, they like to be crowded, so in a six-inch pot, put seven to eight in a pot, because they help support each other also."
Where should you keep them?
"You could put them in a window, but I wouldn't put them right up against a south-facing window. You don't want to put them in the hot sun."
How long will it take for the flowers to bloom?
"They say it is an average of four to six weeks regular bloom cycle, so by forcing, you are getting sprouts in about three weeks and blooms in about five weeks."
What happens when they bloom?
"You keep them in there until they are done with their bloom cycle. Paperwhites will hold their bloom -- from full bloom on -- for about a week. With hyacinths, they probably hold bloom for a couple of weeks. Once they are done blooming, you have forced everything out of that bulb, so you cannot use it again; it is done, you can't use it next year."
The saleslady said that if you plant unforced bulbs in the yard, they can be in or out of sun, and "you can leave them once they are done in the ground and sometimes they will pop up next year, or every other year. If you want the paperwhites to bloom by Christmas, plant them around Thanksgiving."
Are there certain varieties that are better than others?
"Paperwhites are in the narcissus family, and the varieties that we sell the most of, that we use for forcing, are called Grandiflora, and the other is called Ziva. For hyacinth, almost all varieties of hyacinth work.
"Paperwhites are white with a little yellow dot inside," she continued. "They have a scent and you either like it or you hate it. Hyacinth has no scent, and it comes in a whole bunch of different colors, more of your pastels and purples.
"We try to make sure that we carry the bulbs through the end of the year because people continue to want to give them as gifts. Or, they have got them as gifts and now they decide, 'Oh I want to do that too.'"
The paperwhite forcing bulbs at Mission Hills Nursery are $8.99 a dozen. And the hyacinth bulbs are $.99 each. Target was selling Paperwhite Indoor Blooming kits, four bulbs and a plastic pot, for $4.99 . Another kit that caught my eye was a glass rectangular vase with three hyacinth bulbs and river stones ($17.99).