Christmas Star, Carmen, Snow Queen: an amaryllis for everyone
Plant its giant fleshy bulbs now and you should have tall, lily-like blooms for Christmas
Amaryllis: Plant its giant fleshy bulbs into a pot in the next few weeks and you should have its tall, splendid, lily-like blooms in time for Christmas when the plants make an excellent gift. Photograph: Getty
Most good Irish garden centres stock the bulbs Amaryllis bulbs at this time of year. Photograph: Getty
Restock the bird table. Photograph: Richard Johnston
It’s a funny old business, gardening. So much of it involves planning for the future that it sometimes feels as if we gardeners live our lives in two realms, one in the here and now and the other only in our imagination. And yet this is the way it needs to be if we are to squeeze as much joy and colour and delicious produce as we can out of our plots.
In that spirit of forward thinking, this week’s column suggests a simple way to combat the quiet gloom that creeps up on so many of us come the deep winter. It involves a minimum amount of faff, a small amount of effort, the teeniest amount of time, and only a little dirt under the fingernails. In fact, you don’t even need a garden, just a bright windowsill or two.
In other words, it’s the perfect indoor project for a rainy autumn day. The results will add a flash of brilliant, parrot-like beauty to your life (and home) at that time of the year when it’s most needed.
I am, of course, talking of amaryllis, or hippeastrum as this genus of tender, tropical/subtropical houseplants is more properly known. Plant its giant fleshy bulbs into a pot in the next few weeks and you should have its tall, splendid, lily-like blooms in time for Christmas when the plants make an excellent gift.
Hold off planting until November/ December, however and you will have them in bloom in the cold, grey fledgling months of the new year. The choice is yours; just bear in mind that it will take an average of seven to eight weeks for the bulbs to flower once potted up and placed in-situ.
Where to source them? Most good Irish garden centres will stock the bulbs at this time of year, including Mr Middleton (mrmiddleton.com), which carries a range of nine different varieties including “Carmen” (dark red), “Black Pearl” (black-red), “Picotee” (white edges with red), “Magic Green” (green/ivory with crimson markings), “Snow Queen” (white), “Christmas Star” (bright red and white with a green eye), “Red Velvet” ( burgundy-red ) and “Flamingo” (pale pink), at €10 per bulbs.
For the widest choice, bulbs are also available to buy online from UK specialist suppliers such as UK-based Parkers Bulbs (jparkers.co.uk).
Whichever variety of amaryllis/ hippeastrum you choose, the same rules hold true as regards their cultivation. The first is to find a container deep enough to house the plants’ fleshy roots (so about twice the height of the bulbs) but only marginally wider than the bulbs themselves so that it gives a margin of no more than 3cm of compost between the outer edges of the bulb (or bulbs) and its rim.
The pot should also have several drainage holes as these tender plants really hate to sit in wet compost. The growing medium also needs to be a free-draining one so add plenty of grit or perlite to a good quality multipurpose compost. As for the bulbs themselves, they should be the largest grade available, firm, dry and free of obvious bruises, blemishes or signs of decay.
Just before planting, soak the roots for about an hour by balancing that fat bulb on top of a mug filled with barely warm water so that just the roots (but not the bulb itself) are in contact with it. Once that’s done, it’s ready to plant.
Unlike most other flower bulbs, amaryllis should not be buried deeply under several inches of compost. Instead, half to two-thirds of the bulb should stand above the surface of the gently firmed compost after you’ve finished planting. Finish off with a gentle watering and then place the pot somewhere bright and warm but not in direct sunlight (a bright windowsill in a warm room with an ambient temperature of 16-21 is ideal).
Rotate the pot occasionally to encourage even growth and keep it well-watered but avoid overwatering at all costs. You’re aiming for a compost that’s only very slightly damp to the touch. Once the flower spike appears, start giving your amaryllis/hippeastrum plant a weekly liquid tomato feed while if the flower is very large/multiheaded, you’ll need to support it with a slender stake.
Don’t think it’s all over once those splendid, stately bloom have finally faded – these perennial bulbous plant will happily flower year after year with a little TLC. Just cut away the faded/yellowing flower stem to about 5cm above the bulb, continue with the weekly liquid feeds and come summertime, move the pots outdoors to a sunny spot.
In early autumn and before any frosty nights arrive, bring the pot back under cover, place it somewhere dark and cool and leave it to completely dry out for about 8-10 weeks (until November) to encourage dormancy. Then use a sharp knife or secateurs to cut the wilted leaves back down to about 10cm from the neck/top of the bulb and replace the top 5cm of compost with a fresh mix of the same.
After that, it’s simply a matter of retracing your steps (light watering, a bright spot, etc) to ensure a repeat bravura performance.
This Week in the Garden
Collect fallen leaves from paths, steps, driveways and patios where they could cause the surface to become slippery. Then bag them to eventually use as leaf-mould which makes a wonderful soil amendment or addition to a homemade compost mix. Leaves that fall on the lawn can be left in-situ so that the next time it’s cut, the mower blades will chop them up finely. Rather than collecting them in the grass box, leave these finely chopped leaves on the grass as a surface mulch where they’ll quickly break down and improve soil structure and fertility.
Resist the temptation to start vigorously cutting back the faded flowers and seed-heads of summer-flowering perennials as many are an important source of food for birds at this time of year or provide a useful habitat for overwintering beneficial insects. Many plants also benefit from the winter protection that this dead growth provides while the seed-heads of some species – for example, agapanthus, crocosmia, allium, eryngium – are also worth keeping for their ornamental qualities.
Scrub down birdfeeders and birdtables and restock them with a variety of fresh seeds, nuts, fat balls and chopped fruit to support local bird life. For more details on how to attract wild birds into your garden, see the website of Birdwatch Ireland (birdwatchireland.ie) which gives advice on the different kinds of food liked by different species of birds and also offers online instructions on making simple birdfeeders out of recycled milk cartons and plastic bottles.
Dates for Your Diary
Wednesday, October 11th (8.30pm): St Patrick’s Recreation Centre, Church Road, Greystones, Co Wicklow, ‘Wild Flowers of Ireland’, autumn lecture by author and wildflower expert Zoe Devlin on behalf of Delgany and District Horticultural Society, all welcome,
Friday, October 13th (11.30am) and Saturday, October 14th (1.30pm): ‘Tastes of the Orchards’ , a series of tours of the orchards of Irish Seed Savers Headquarters in Scariff, Co Clare, which includes a tasting of the many different heritage varieties and a Q&A session, €12 per person, see irishseedsavers.ie to book online or call 061-921866/ 061-921856.