The Amaryllis Crop

February in a northern garden designer’s life ought to be snoozy. 25 years ago, my landscape design work finished up in mid November, and did not resume until the snow and cold looked to be waning the following March. I can’t remember what I did with those winters now, so it couldn’t have been much. How fun, to not have much to do. Oh to have those quiet winter baby days back. Now there are requests for design year round. Some late 2017 projects are inching slowly towards the drawing board now, as I reserve the right to indulge in a little bit of horsing around. Even though the engine is running, the parking brake is on.

It takes an entire winter to re imagine Detroit Garden Works for the season to come. That process is still in process. If you follow Rob’s instagram page DetroitGarden you know the walls, fixtures and floors in the largest part of the store are swathed in painter’s plastic. Wayne is here spray painting the ceilings, a job that was last done in 1995. Yes, they were due. Moving everything our of those rooms, dusting and scraping the loose paint, and repainting all of the shelves and trim took most of January. Two containers from overseas have arrived. A container from France should be docking in NY shortly, and two more will arrive from Belgium and Vietnam towards the end of the month. The shop is due to reopen March 1. February is a busy time, ready  or not. Most annoyingly, part of my winter has involved some involuntary babysitting. If you read this journal regularly, you know I am not a fan of plants in the house. I love having a plant free season. Like most houses, I have a house which is notable for a lack of natural light in the winter. My house is dark (by plant standards), hot and the air is dry- an environment that plants don’t want. Well I don’t want them either. The bugs and dirt don’t bother me. Nor the fact that tropical plants hardly look like they belong inside a house in Michigan. I could live with those things. The fact that they need regular care and attention leaves me cold. Enough of my time gets absorbed by the needs of the plants for a good portion of the year. I like the time off from that group of living things that have no problem dying on you despite a huge effort to keep them happy and healthy. The phalaenopsis orchids pictured above are a gift scheduled to be delivered the end of the week. That I can live with, as the end of my responsibility for them is near. After having them for one day, a new bud is withering.  I can’t get rid of them fast enough.

The amaryllis are another story. Rob sells scads of them in the shop at the holidays. Invariably, there are a few left over. Some bare root bulbs I gave away to good customers when no one was watching. I knew anything left over would come to me, as my office is warm. Karen potted up and watered them liberally, and moved them to the utility room near my office. Then she went on break. There they sat. I have a little frig for my milk and a spot for cereal, so every morning making breakfast I had to look at them. Not one was making any move to come on. Not one was looking like it was shriveling or dying. They were in a state of suspended animation.

After three weeks of scowling at them every time I walked in that room, I looked up their culture on line.  I did not read anything that I did not already know. Popular lore suggests that after potting and watering, the bulb so be left alone until it puts forth growth, either in the form of flowers or leaves. By mid January these bulbs had been watered only once in the 6 months since they arrived. Another article (which of course I cannot find now) suggested that watering the bulbs normally, but sparingly in advance of any growth was fine.

Tired of looking at their expectant bulb faces, I had a decision to make. I had to either throw them away, or see if I could get them to grow. I knew I would feel guilty, and face ridicule from Rob if I didn’t try to grow them on. So I soaked the pots thoroughly, and moved them to an all plastic Rubbermaid tabouret in my drawing studio. The tabouret has tall sides, so I could slosh the water and dirt around with impunity. The industrial windows are 6 feet tall, and face south. At least if we had no sun, there was still plenty of light. The tabouret also has wheels, so I could move them away from the windows when the temperatures dropped into the single digits.

You see what was happening here? My carefree February became an obsession to get those bulbs to break dormancy, grow and bloom. I  scrutinized them every day. I had to come in on Sunday to be sure they didn’t need anything. I was certain that the bulbs that had been potted in non-draining jardinieres would rot if I wasn’t especially careful with the water. And the one’s planted to larger fiber pots would come blind from having been over potted. None of this happened. One by one, they began to grow. One bulb threw a pair of stalks at once, and is in full bloom on my conference table right now.  I have to admit The big showy white flowers are a welcome contrast to that other kind of white blanketing the entire landscape.

One hapless bulb had been left behind by shoppers as it one bloom stalk withered and rotted from the cold in the greenhouse. So I cut it back, and watched to see if another bloom stalk would emerge. After sulking for a few weeks, I could tell something was afoot. It is February, so I had time to turn the flowering stalks leaning towards the light away from the window.

My amaryllis crop, which I never sought or wanted, had me in its grip. The attention it took had expanded to an alarming amount of time. I was going in there 4 times a day just to look things over.

The second bulb to bloom had red flowers – not my favorite. So I took it in to Dave and Heather so they could enjoy it. Now I have 3 stops to make every day, checking on the amaryllis. And to make matters that much worse, I have made a list of suppliers of unusual amaryllis bulbs and the varieties I like available to Rob, as well as a source of heat mats so we can provide them with the heat they want and need to come on. And finally, the time it took to take pictures and write this post-hours more.

Now you know why I do not like having plants in the house.


Bringing The Garden Indoors: Part 1


I am no fan of plants in the house.  Once the gardening season comes to a close, it is a relief not have to worry about keeping plants alive. Plants inside the house-what could possibly be more unnatural than that?  Would I really subject a perfectly well meaning and decent plant to the dry heat and lack of sun that characterizes an interior space?  Perhaps this is wrong, but I like the separation of my gardening life, and my personal life.  OK, my gardening life is my personal life, but the thought of a winter getaway from the demands of the plants is attractive.

I have a very good friend whose house is loaded with all manner of tropical plants.  Julia does a great job with them, and I marvel at how she is able to keep all of them looking great.  She cannot bear to be without the garden for any longer than a moment; her house/conservatory is proof of that.  I think if she had her choice, she would live in a conservatory situated in the middle of a giant property.    

 I have had friends bring me plants for the windowsill behind my desk.  One Valentine’s day my landscape superintendent gave me a dozen auricula primroses-how I love them. I spent a whole winter doing watercolor paintings of them, such is my enchantment with them.  It took me 3 months to kil them, but kill them I did.  Stationed in the windowsill behind my desk, I could not remember to water them until they were in a state of utter dessication.  After too many water crises, they finally gave up on me.  

 My friend and  grower Marlene Uhlianuk, whose unusual plants and vegetables are a mainstay of my local market, gave me a pot containing the smallest rose in the world.  She insisted it would be easy to take care of.  On my window sill.  It took a few months to prove her wrong, but prove her wrong I did.  I still feel guilty about it. 

Though the thought of trying to keep tropical plants alive, inside over a winter leaves me absolutely cold, I can be seduced.  By amaryllis, that is.  Bringing on amaryllis bulbs indoors late in the gardening year-a means by which even I can bring the garden indoors. 

 The bulbs are enormous.  The bigger the bulb, the more stalks, and flowers.  The blooms are just as enormous-startlingly so.  There are miniature varieties, like the amaryllis “Evergreen” pictured above.  Though it is a miniature, it’s effect is anything but.  Amaryllis is a very small genus of flowering bulbs made up of just two species.  Amaryllis belladonna is a species native to South Africa.  The taxomony aside,  these hefty bulbs can produce flowering stalks from December until April. 

Potted up, a solid two-thirds of the bulb needs to be above the soil line.  This makes sense-big juicy bulbs have no need of too much water.  As for “planting” amaryllis in soil in clay pots, with 2/3’s of the bulb above ground-this leaves me cold.  I don’t have a conservatory or greenhouse, just a house.  My idea of a household is a space unsullied by dirt.  Apart from what the corgis track in, that is.  Forcing bulbs in water is an alternative that sounds good. 


I like to grow amaryllis in water.  Water gardens are perfect for people who cannot remember to water-both inside and out.  A jar, a bulb, and a handful of stones is a simple and easy means of bringing the garden indoors.  The jar, and the stones-entirely up to you.  Rob bought canning jars for our amaryllis this year.  The capped jars from Fisk are so beautiful.   I am dubious of any idea about which might make my winter easier.  But in truth, the process of bringing the amaryllis into bloom indoors-simple and satisfying.

 The amaryllis Baby Doll is white, with the slightest hint of blush pink. If these pictures do not make you long to grow some on your windowsill, then nothing will.  The reward for your effort is considerable.  If you follow a few simple rules, amaryllis can be grown on, and kept for years.

Grumpy about the passing of the gardening season?  Growing amaryllis is guaranteed to help with that.  Set the bulb low in the jar.  The rim of the jar will help hold the heavy flowering stalks aloft.  Add water to just below the basal plate of the bulb-the water is for the roots to reach for.  Soaking the bulb itself in water is asking for rot.  Provide a warm place.  Amaryllis bulbs are ready and waiting to grow and bloom, meaning that even a haphazrd effort will probably produce flowers.  Not interested in hauling in jars and bags of stone?  Rob has all of these amaryllis ready and waiting.