When purchasing bulbs, don’t grab from bottom of barrel

Q. For many years I bought narcissus bulbs at local nurseries, put them in a bulb vase filled with water and watched them grow. Some years I would do 10 or more as gifts. Now they don’t grow — they just sit there with bottoms touching the water and do nothing. I’ve tried the last three years (and bought bulbs from different nurseries) and now I’m curious as to what has changed. So far nothing, so now I’m really going to give up. — Julie Brock, Virginia Beach

A. I assume you are referring to the paperwhite, Narcissus papyraceus, a species of perennial bulb native to the Mediterranean. It is the easiest bulb to force and is thus popular to grow indoors in winter, particularly during the holidays.

Bulbs often need chilling — “vernalization” — before they are forced, with eight to 15 weeks at 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Paperwhite, however, does not.

As you know, forcing bulbs is normally a fairly straightforward, simple process. No roots, no shoots, no flowers? Has anything changed in your usual forcing routine? Is your timeline the same?

The quality of the bulb you buy, and its potential for flowering, are influenced by the conditions under which it was grown, stored and shipped, then handled at the retailer. All the while, the clock has been ticking. Bulbs are very sensitive to fluctuations in moisture and temperature. Just as with many other things recently, interruptions and delays in the supply could have been in play.

So, the bulbs you buy every year are really of unknown quality. Given your previous successes, I believe that you know what you are doing. While I can’t say precisely what the issue is, I’d be wary of bulbs that are bottom-of-the-barrel or marked down for end of season sale. I would try other sources and next year buy your bulbs sooner than later.

And one more thing

At this writing, 90% of California is under a flood watch, as the West Coast is being pummeled by catastrophic rain and winds. This, after a horrendous and historic drought depleted reservoirs and devastated crops in the region. We have been spared such weather, but we could use some of that rain now, and before the next growing season. Just not a deluge.

From January through May 2022, we had 1.45 inches more rain than normal. But from June through December, we were down 11.2 inches. So for all of 2022, we had a deficit of almost 10 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Therefore, my message from a few months back bears repeating: Though your plants may be out of sight and out of mind during winter, don’t forget their water needs.

Deciduous plants lose their leaves for a reason. Evergreens continue to lose water via their leaves as they are exposed to cold winds. They may be vulnerable to desiccation during our remaining weeks of winter. Keep an eye especially on newly planted trees and shrubs, which have not yet developed extensive root systems. Late-planted perennials, and plants in windy and southwestern exposures, may also require winter watering.

Take the time to size up those situations, monitor and act as needed. Spring is still a bit away; don’t let your guard (or plants) down.

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