View from the Garden: Now’s the Time for Indoor Paperwhites

Paperwhite narcissus, isolated
Paperwhites can be grown indoors during the winter. Photo credit: Alenmurr/iStock/Thinkstock

Fall foliage colors are a seasonally satisfying transition for me between the floriferous gardening season and the lovely, but very muted, colors of winter. My kousa dogwood is almost orange and the thread leaf maple across the street is wine red. The gingko made a gentle puddle of yellow leaves at its base. While I do like winter and my houseplants comfort me with their greenness, reminding me of the season to come, a blooming bunch of paperwhites offers welcome winter flowers.

Paperwhites are easy to grow and if planted at 2- to 3-week intervals can provide cheer for several months. They can be planted singly or in small to large groups and in any container without holes. I like them singly in slender vases or several in tall glass vases.

Put 3 inches or more of stones, gravel, marbles glass pebbles etc. into your chosen vessel. Deeper is better in my opinion. Soil is not needed. Set the bulbs on the stones and add additional stones up to their shoulders. Do not cover them. Put water into the container only to the bottom of the bulbs. If there is too much water on the bulbs, they will rot. You will need to check the water level every day to keep the bottoms wet.

Set the pot in a cool (65 degrees is ideal) place with indirect light until roots develop, then move the pot to a sunny window. Turn it every day so all of the bulbs get sun. When flowers begin, they will last longer if the pot is placed in a cool spot with indirect light. They will bloom in 4 to 6 weeks.

Paperwhites do present two problems. Their fragrance is peculiar and strong, even off-putting to some. I like it. (I also like the fragrance of boxwood.) And they get tall and leggy and can fall over. I give them support by standing small bamboo stakes among the stones (hence the advantage of a deep stone layer) and tying flower stems with a piece of twine (or ribbon etc.) around the bamboo. For this to work there must be a deep layer of stones.

I read in a report from Cornell about a growing technique that causes the paperwhite’s leaves and stems to be one-third to half as tall as usual with flower production not affected. I will try this: Mix ½ cup of rubbing alcohol with 6 ½ cups water. When the roots have developed and there is 1 to 2 inches of green showing, pour off the water and replace with alcohol-water mixture. Use this mixture until the end of flowering. Who would think—alcohol!—but I trust Cornell. I have also read that vodka, gin, whiskey or rum can be used in the same way, using a mixture of one cup of booze to seven cups of water.

Though paperwhites are members of the daffodil family, they will not grow outside around here and will not re-bloom, so discard them when they have finished.

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Soon the tree leaves will finish falling and I will need to rake them off of the “assorted plant material” that comprises my lawn-like areas. Or, if the layer is not too deep, I might leave them until spring and then mow them. I don’t like lawns at my house and “assorted plant material” is tough. I put the raked leaves on paths between beds and any leaves that fall into beds are left there. I did buy a leaf vacuum and it is good for removing leaves from areas that cannot be reached by a rake.

By now, all gas-powered machines should be put in protected places, the gas having been removed. All hand tools should be stowed and all non-weather-proof pots put away or turned upside down and covered. Fountains should be drained. Small pools should have a pump left in to keep the water disturbed.

Winter is upon us.

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067.


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